It is difficult to distinguish the exact nature of participation by the recipients of the lustful attention of the ruler of the ancient Greek gods. The myths were recorded by a patriarchal society in a male nuanced worldview. Accordingly, the Greek god Zeus’s affairs were with willing participants – regardless of his trickery and disguise to seduce them. The male-dominated art world interpreted Zeus’s promiscuity as part of fulfilling his duty to populate the newly formed world. They never allowed it to detract from his dignity. This article will therefore not attempt to categorize the nature of Zeus’s dalliances. It is rather an attempt to point out his dominant boldness displayed toward powerless women in the ancient Greek world.
The Place of Women in the World of the Greek God Zeus
Thucydides gave us a glimpse of the male-dominated world view when he recorded the following words addressed to the women of Athens about “female excellence” from Pericles’ Funerary Oration:
“Great will be your glory in not falling short of
your natural character; and greatest will be hers who is least
talked about among men whether for good or bad.”
The ancient Greek writers, with few exceptions, portrayed women as weaker humans than men. They were docile creatures tending to feminine pursuits and waiting for or serving their men. A woman who did not fit into the mold would be seen as losing her femininity and trying to be a man. There was no middle ground.
Greek god Zeus, as the leader of the ancient Greek gods, could therefore impose his will on them without breaking any taboos. The women whom he bedded had no recourse and accepted their fates willingly, even the inevitable later punishment meted out by Hera.
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Sappho, the poet called the “tenth muse” by Plato, lived her life outside the box, but unfortunately mentions the Greek god Zeus only in passing. There is thus no extant ancient text from another point of view except, to an extent, some later Roman poets retelling Greek myths.
The Affairs of Zeus
1. Alcmene: Deceived by Zeus
Alcmene, the beautiful human daughter of the king of Mycenae, was trapped into sleeping with Zeus masquerading as her husband (betrothed in some sources), who was away at the time. The dark-haired, dark-eyed beauty was irresistible to the lustful Zeus, who had been watching her for some time.
She was wise and virtuous, but cunning Zeus successfully displayed himself as her husband by telling her about his wars and showing her souvenirs from his battles.
Soon afterward, her real husband returned, learned of what had happened, forgave her infidelity, and made love to her. She gave birth to twins: one, the son of Zeus, and the other, the son of her husband. Her son by Zeus, was the famous demigod, Hercules. For most of his life he was cruelly plagued by the jealous Hera, Zeus’s long-suffering wife. He was one of the few demigods who received full god status after his earthly death.
2. Antiope: Did Zeus Force Her?
There are a few different versions of this beautiful woman’s story, as with most of the other myths of the ancient Greek gods. Antiope was either a princess of Thebes or one of the queens of the Amazons. Zeus shapeshifted into a satyr to have his way with her. In some versions, she was raped by the satyr. Much later in her life, Zeus rescued her when she was enslaved by her uncle’s wife, which may indicate that he cared for her. When Antiope discovered her pregnancy, she either fled to the kingdom of Sicyon to escape her father’s wrath or was abducted by the king of Sicyon. Her uncle eventually brought her back to Thebes.
Similar to her treatment of Zeus’s other conquests, Hera employed the assistance of others to make her life difficult. Antiope’s uncle forced her to abandon her babies to die in the wilderness, but a shepherd saved and raised them. Zeus sent the messenger god Hermes to teach and train them.
Antiope’s troubles were not over yet. Dionysus, another Greek god, caused her to go mad after her twin sons killed one of his ardent followers. She wandered the lands in madness until a kind king, named Phocus, cured and married her. At last, she could live peacefully and grow old gracefully. Antiope and her husband are said to be buried together in the same tomb on Mount Parnassus.
3. Callisto: Fooled into Breaking Her Vow of Chastity!
This nymph or Naiad of flowing freshwater sources was a follower of Artemis, to whom she had sworn an oath of chastity. She was often on Mount Olympus as part of Artemis’s retinue. The Naiads were known to be sparkling, gay, beautiful, and caring. The Greek god Zeus soon seduced her by shapeshifting into Artemis. Artemis expelled her from her group of virgin followers when she saw Callisto bathing and realized that Callisto was no longer a virgin but pregnant.
Callisto gave birth to a son, Arcas, while alone in the forest. Hera’s revenge was to change her into a brown bear. Again, Zeus intervened by sending Hermes to take Callisto’s son to his own mother, Maia, to be raised in safety. Eventually, bear mother and human son met when Arcas nearly killed his mother in bear form. Zeus intervened once more and set them up in the sky as the constellations Ursa Major (Callisto) and Ursa Minor.
4. Danae: Protected in a Bronze Prison
Danae was the beautiful only child of the king of Argos. The king learned from an oracle that his grandson would kill him one day. To prevent his beautiful daughter from ever producing a child, the king locked her up in a bronze tower, or, according to another version of the myth, in a bronze tomb beneath his palace. The Greek god Zeus changed himself into a cloud and entered Danae’s prison as a shower of golden rain to impregnate her.
The king realized that the father of Danae’s child could only have been an ancient Greek god, as no human could penetrate the bronze prison. He sent his daughter and infant grandson off into the wild blue yonder of the sea in a chest. Zeus intervened with the help of his brother Poseidon. Danae and her child drifted ashore at the Greek island of Serifos, in the Aegean, where a fisherman took them in. Danae later married the king of the island.
Danae’s son, Perseus, grew up to be one of the most famous heroes of Greek mythology. He did end up killing his grandfather, albeit by accident, during a sporting event in a neighboring state when the king was hit by a discus hurled by Perseus.
5. Europa: The Victim Who Became a Mother of Kings
Europa was a princess from the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre. Like the other women who caught the ancient Greek god’s eye, she was beautiful and an ideal personification of ancient Greek womanhood. One day, Europa and her friends were picking flowers and wandered onto the beach.
The Greek god Zeus shapeshifted into a beautiful white bull among the herd of cattle nearby. The girls soon noticed him and, spurred on by his docile behavior, they petted him. Eventually, Europa climbed on his back. As soon as she was on his back Zeus made for the ocean. Startled, Europa could do nothing but hold on in fear. The bull swam with her on his back all the way to Crete. Here the ancient Greek god had his way with her, and she became pregnant.
Unlike the other conquests or flings of Zeus, Europa’s story has a happy conclusion. She received special gifts from him, and her three sons by Zeus became successful kings of their own kingdoms. Minos of Knossos, the magnificent palace on Crete, was one of them. It seems that for once, a victim of Zeus’s lust escaped Hera’s watchful eye, and in the aftermath, a continent was named after her.
6. Lamia: When Beauty Turned to Beast
One of the most tragic victims of Hera’s wrath after an episode of Zeus’s infidelity was Lamia, a Libyan Queen seduced by Zeus. According to Pausanias, she was the daughter of Poseidon. Lamia had several children by Zeus, and a livid Hera killed every child she bore. In other accounts, Hera made her eat her own children. Nevertheless, some of her children must have lived because she is sometimes mentioned as the mother of Scylla, the sea monster.
Lamia’s grief drove her mad. She lived in a cave from whence she would emerge at night to hunt for children to devour. Some speculate that she became the source of succubus and vampire myths. Her beauty disappeared over time, and she became a hideous creature; a cannibalistic monster with which mothers scared their children into good behavior. Zeus gave her removable eyes because she could not close her eyes to fall asleep.
7. Leto: Mother of Artemis and Apollo
Leto was a goddess, a descendant of the Titans, the generation of ancient Greek gods that preceded the Olympians. She caught the eye of the Greek god Zeus, and the two started a relationship. When she became pregnant, Hera chased her from Olympus and cursed her to wander the earth. Hera set the Python, a monster son of Gaia, to watch her, and people were too afraid to give her shelter because it would provoke retribution from Hera.
Zeus led her to shelter on a newly formed floating island, Delos, where she could deliver her twins. In return for sheltering her, Leto changed Delos into a permanent and lush island. Here she could, at last, deliver her children, but the spiteful Hera tried to prevent the births by keeping the goddess of childbirth away from her through a cloud cover.
Leto gave birth to Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and after nine agonizing days to Apollo, god of light, god of prophecy, and god of many other functions and subjects. The children helped protect Leto from Hera. They were both adept at shooting with bow and arrow, and Apollo killed the Python. Leto could eventually return quietly to live on Mount Olympus.
8. Leda: Zeus Shapeshifted into a Swan
For this encounter, the Greek god Zeus shapeshifted into a beautiful, graceful swan, seeking protection from a raptor. Leda was the lovely mortal wife of Tyndareus, the king of Sparta. The different versions of Leda’s story do not agree on her parentage, but all at least agree that she was married to Tyndareus.
After Zeus seduced her, she also slept with her husband. The result was two sets of twins born from either one or two eggs, depending on which version one reads. Leda, and her children, inexplicably escaped Hera’s wrath.
Leda is mentioned in many of the ancient authors’ texts, Greek as well as Roman, mainly because of her famous offspring. The theme of Leda and the swan was resurrected during the Renaissance and became the subject of famous artworks by some of the great masters. Her daughter from the twins fathered by the Greek god Zeus was Helen of Troy – the woman who is still famous for her legendary beauty today. Leda’s story is the subject of the poem “Leda and The Swan” by the 1923 Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, W. B. Yeats.
Greek God Zeus’ Affairs
We know much less about the reign of the Greek god Zeus over his domain of the earth and sky from his seat at Olympus than what we know about his carnal pursuits. One almost has to wonder when he found time for his other duties! The ancient Greek god was prone to falling in lust with mortals and gods alike, and frequent consummation of these relationships resulted in a sprawling family tree.
After generations of oral transmission, his adventurous love life was recorded for posterity by the ancient Greek writers, poets, and philosophers. Their extant texts give us a fair glimpse of ancient Greek life and the worldview on which their ancient Greek gods and myths were based. Hesiod, considered by some to be the father of history instead of Herodotus or Thucydides, unraveled the family tree and myths of Zeus and the other ancient Greek gods in his Theogony, ca 8th century BCE.
His tremendous admiration for the Greek god Zeus is obvious in this work and never marred by criticism or disappointment over Zeus’s promiscuity and questionable way with women. This once again points to the bold display of male dominance and docile acceptance by females of their fates in the example set by the ancient Greek gods.