If you want to learn about Greek mythology, there is no better place to start than with Zeus, king of the gods. With his many affairs and hijinks, he is a brilliant example of how interesting Greek myth can be.
Here, we will look at some of the myths associated with this high god and his importance in Greek and Roman society.
Zeus was almost eaten by his father Kronos
Zeus wasn’t born king of the gods. His father, Kronos, the previous king, had received a prophecy that his own son would overthrow him and so ate all of his children.
Unluckily for Kronos, when Zeus was born, this time his wife Rhea swapped her baby for a stone and hid him on the island of Crete. There, bodyguards known as the Curetes kept his existence a secret, drowning out the sound of the god’s crying by clashing their swords and shields together over his cot.
A grown-up Zeus returned home and made his father Kronos vomit up his brothers and sisters, who became the older generation of the Olympians (named after the mountain, Mt Olympus, where they lived). He castrated Kronos and imprisoned him in Tartarus, the ancient hell.
Now king of the gods, he and his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, divided up the sky, underworld and sea between them. Zeus for the sky, while Hades took the underworld and Poseidon the sea.
Zeus had many affairs
His marriage to Hera, the goddess of women, didn’t stop him from seducing and abusing other women, both mortal and immortal.
One of his “strategies” to pick up mortal women was to turn into an animal. For example, to seduce Europa, he turned into a bull and swam off with her when she got on his back for a ride.
Zeus didn’t limit himself to women: he once disguised himself as an eagle (his favourite animal) to kidnap a handsome young man named Ganymede, which has been a popular subject in western art from the Renaissance.
From his many liaisons, he fathered the Olympians Hermes, Dionysus, Apollo and the mortal heroes Heracles, Perseus and Helen of Troy, among others. In fact, he had so many children that “Zeus” appears over and over in the family trees of Greek gods and heroes.
Zeus did not have a very happy marriage
His wife Hera was not happy about these affairs. Since she couldn’t directly punish Zeus as the king of the gods, she made life short and miserable for his lovers and offspring.
She tricked Semele, human mother of the god Dionysus, into asking to see Zeus in his true form. Unfortunately, his true form was a bolt of lightning which killed Semele.
Io, another lover, was slightly more fortunate. Zeus turned her into a cow to hide her from his wife. He failed: Hera tortured cow Io by sending a gadfly to bite her. But plucky Io swam across the Ionian Sea, afterwards named for her, to Egypt where Zeus restored her to human form.
Hera particularly hated Heracles, the most accomplished of her husband’s demigod children. She constantly interfered with his life, once making him go mad so that he murdered his own sons in a temple. As a punishment for these murders, Heracles was ordered to perform his famous Twelve Labours.
Zeus’ rule was somewhat arbitrary
As ruler of the gods, Zeus was in charge of justice. The personification of justice, Dike, was his daughter.
As seen in various works of ancient literature, Zeus was often busy arbitrating the gods’ constant disputes. Far more exciting was his job punishing those, whether mortal or gods, who annoyed him or broke divine law. He dispensed justice with the thunderbolt, his great power and symbol of his authority, as well as by other, more creative methods.
For example, Zeus had the Titan Prometheus, a fellow immortal, chained to a rock where every day an eagle ate his liver and every night his liver regenerated. Fortunately, he later forgave him and sent Heracles to kill the eagle and free Prometheus.
However, mortal offenders were far worse off. Among the many victims of the god’s thunderbolt was Capaneus. This unfortunate hero had successfully scaled the walls of Thebes during a siege, when he couldn’t help but boast that not even Zeus could stop him. Zeus stopped him— with a thunderbolt.
Two of the most famous inmates of Tartarus were there because they had angered Zeus. Tantalus tried to feed the Olympians his own son to test their divine power and was condemned to eternal torture with a feast that always stayed just out of his reach (hence our word ‘tantalise’).
Ixion, King of the Lapiths, was just as thoughtless. Zeus invited him over to dinner, but Ixion fell in love with his wife Hera. When the god found out, he made a copy of Hera out of a cloud which Ixion seduced. Ixion very quickly ended up in Tartarus, where he was nailed to a continually revolving wheel for all eternity.
Zeus had the best temple
The god’s main cult site was Olympia in the Peloponnese. It was here that the Olympic Games were held, for over a millennium, from 776 B.C. to 393 A.D, but the site was also well-known for its famous temple of Zeus.
This temple was among the largest in Greece and contained a colossal statue of Zeus, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which was made of ivory and gold by the famous sculptor Phidias. The statue, unfortunately, did not survive antiquity, nor did the temple, but you can still see its massive base and a single reconstructed pillar at Olympia today. The base alone is twenty metres by seventeen metres wide and the temple was said to be over twenty metres high.
We don’t have many statues of Zeus
Statues and vase paintings show the king of the gods as a mature bearded man, wearing a toga-like garment called a himation, and holding a thunderbolt. In addition, some statues show him with an eagle. Perhaps the most famous surviving statue of the god is the “Artemision Bronze”, a brilliant early Classical bronze-work. But this statue could be one of Poseidon as we don’t know what it was holding in its right arm—Zeus’ thunderbolt or Poseidon’s trident?
Jupiter, the Roman Zeus, was a little bit different
Jupiter played a proportionally larger role in Roman religion than Zeus did in the Greek. He was the most important god in Roman state religion, so important that the Romans consulted him on political decisions through augury, a form of state prophecy, as well as placing his eagle on their standards.
The Capitoline Hill, the very centre of Rome, was home to Jupiter’s greatest temples, where he was worshipped alone by the title Iupiter Optimus Maximus (“Jupiter Best and Greatest”) and, with Juno (the Roman Hera) and Minerva (the Roman Athena), as part of the Capitoline Triad.
In Roman literature like the Aeneid, Jupiter is a more responsible, august figure than the skirt-chasing Zeus, reflecting his different role in Roman culture and religion.
Do you want to learn more about Zeus?
Any good book on Greco-Roman mythology will tell you all you need to know about Zeus. But why not try reading the originals? Zeus features prominently in Homer’s epics (the Iliad and the Odyssey) as well as the Aeneid. While he does not appear on stage in Greek tragedy (in fact, there may have been some rule forbidding this), he is an important off-stage character in Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound.
Whether you choose to seek Zeus or not, you will undoubtably find him, as he appears regularly in our books and movies, from Percy Jackson to Clash of the Titans.