Zeus was the most important deity of ancient Greece, the leader of the gods and the all-powerful overseer of earthly events and human destiny. His role in mythology was complex and filled with contradictions. Zeus was the god of law and social order, yet he came to power through violent revolution. A patron god of marriage and the household, he was repeatedly unfaithful to his own wife, Hera*, and fathered children by a variety of women.
As a mythological figure, Zeus changed over the centuries. Originally a sky god, he was believed to bring clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning. His cults were associated with mountain peaks where clouds gathered. As Greek mythology developed, the figure of Zeus grew larger until he became the dominant force in the Greek pantheon. Later, as Jupiter, he was the chief god of Rome.
The Father of Gods and Men. Some of the earliest accounts of Zeus appear in the writings of Homer* and Hesiod*. Homer called Zeus "the father of gods and men," but the term fatber referred more to Zeus's position of authority than to actual parenthood. Zeus did father some of the gods, but many others were his brothers and sisters, nephews, or nieces. Although he ruled many aspects of earthly affairs and human life, Zeus was not a creator god. Other mythological powers brought the earth and human beings into existence. Zeus enforced the cosmic laws that governed them.
deity god or goddess
destiny future or fate of an individual or thing
patron special guardian, protector, or supporter
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
pantheon all the gods of a particular culture
cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe
In a myth that some modern scholars believe reflects the triumph of the Greek gods over more ancient deities, Hesiod told how Zeus became the supreme god. Before the gods existed, the
When he grew up, Zeus was ready to overthrow his cruel father and avenge the siblings that Cronus had swallowed. He befriended Metis, who was either a Titaness or an ocean nymph. Metis devised a potion to make Cronus vomit up his children, and either she or Zeus gave it to Cronus to drink. Cronus spat forth Zeus's sisters Hestia, Demeter*, and Hera and his brothers Hades* and Poseidon*. Last of all, Cronus vomited up the stone he had swallowed in place of Zeus. Tradition says that the stone was later set in a place of honor at Delphi*. It was called the omphalos, the navel of the world.
Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus
nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful
Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon battled the Titans in a conflict that lasted ten years. Zeus also had the help of 300 armed giants and of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants imprisoned in Tartarus, a deep pit
* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.
of the underworld. Released by Zeus, the Cyclopes forged a thunderbolt for him to use as a weapon. In the end, the Titans were overthrown, and Zeus sent all those who had opposed him to Tartarus. Only Atlas*, a Titan who had not fought against Zeus, was spared.
Zeus and his brothers divided the world. Zeus controlled the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea—although Zeus had ultimate control over his brothers. The gods and their sisters took up residence on Mount Olympus*, which is why they and their offspring are called the Olympian deities.
The Loves of Zeus. Zeus fathered children with a series of partners—nymphs, Titanesses, goddesses, and mortal women. The offspring of these unions included deities, demigods, and heroes.
Accounts of Zeus's loves and children vary somewhat, but Metis is usually listed as his first partner or wife. When she became pregnant, Zeus learned that her child would be a powerful god who would one day replace him. Like his father Cronus before him, Zeus was determined to preserve his power, but he did not wait to swallow the infant—he swallowed Metis. Their child, Athena*, emerged full-grown from Zeus's head.
Next, Zeus turned to the Titaness Themis, who bore him two sets of daughters known as the Fates and the Hours. The ocean nymph Eurynome also had daughters by Zeus, including the Graces. His next wife or partner was his sister, the goddess Demeter. (Marriages between brother and sister deities occur in the mythologies of many ancient cultures.) Their child, Persephone, later became the wife of Hades.
Zeus's union with the Titaness Mnemosyne (memory) produced the nine goddesses known as the Muses. Leto bore Zeus's twins Apollo* and Artemis*. Maia, the daughter of Atlas, bore him Hermes*. Eventually, Zeus married Hera, his last wife and the mother of three more Olympian deities: Ares*, Hebe, and Hephaestus* (Vulcan).
Yet Zeus continued to have love affairs, many of them with mortal women. He sometimes mated with them in disguise or in animal form. After he visited the princess Danaë as a shower of gold, she bore Perseus*. To Europa, another princess, he appeared as a white bull. He came to Leda in the form of a swan. The children of their union were Helen of Troy, her sister Clytemnestra, and the brothers Castor and Pollux. His most famous half-human son was Hercules*, born to Alcmena, to whom he came disguised as her own husband.
Zeus's relations with other women infuriated Hera, and she despised all the children he fathered by these women. Hera particularly hated Hercules and frequently tried to harm him. Once, when she had gone too far, Zeus hanged her in the heavens with a heavy block pulling her feet down, and he threw Hephaestus out of Olympus for trying to help her.
Ancient artists generally depicted Zeus as a dignified, bearded man of middle age. Often, he was shown holding, or preparing to hurl, a thunderbolt, which took the form of a winged spear or a cylinder with pointed ends. One of the most remarkable ¡mages ever created of Zeus was a statue that stood in his temple at Olympia in Greece. The statue was lost long ago, but a description of it survives. The 40-foot-tall statue showed the god seated, with golden lions at his side. The head and upper body were made of precious ivory, and the lower body was draped in gold—truly a glorious and awe-inspiring representation of "the greatest god of all."
underworld land of the dead
demigod one who is part human and part god
Surviving Hera's attacks, Hercules aided Zeus and the other Olympians in a battle for survival. They were challenged by a race of giants, which Gaia, the earth, had produced to bring an end to their rule. Zeus defeated the giants as well as various other threats to his supremacy, including a conspiracy among Hera, Athena, and Poseidon.
The Roman Jupiter. The Romans, who adopted many elements of Greek culture and mythology, came to identify their own sky god, Jupiter, with Zeus. Associated with weather and agriculture in early Roman myths, Jupiter was the patron god of storms, thunder, lightning, the sowing of seeds, and the harvesting of grapes. As Roman civilization developed, Jupiter became known as Optimus Maximus, which means "best and greatest." He was viewed as the supreme god and the protector of the Roman state. As Rome became a military power, Jupiter took on such titles as "supreme commander," "unconquerable," and "triumphant."
Although Jupiter acquired many of the characteristics and myths associated with Zeus, his marriage to the goddess Juno was more harmonious than that of Zeus and Hera. Moreover, Jupiter shared some of his power with Juno and the goddess Minerva (the Roman version of Athena). The three deities were believed to preside jointly over both divine and earthly affairs.