Greek mythology is filled with countless deities and other divine creatures. Among all the gods the Greeks worshipped, Zeus stood out. He is widely recognized for many things, one of which would be his might. Zeus was a god of extreme strength and power; he led a revolt against his father to become the supreme leader of the gods. Another thing which made Zeus interesting was his reputation with women. Despite being married to Hera, he had countless affairs which allowed him to father many children, divine and mortal alike.
Zeus had many roles as a deity, and these roles are shown in the epics of Homer. He was so significant in Greek culture in general that he was included in other texts as well. This essay seeks to discuss the origin of Zeus, his life and the roles he played as god.
To be able to discuss the origins of Zeus, one must delve into the beginning of things as established in Greek mythology.
Before the existence of things, there was Chaos (Rose 14). Chaos was the starting point of creation, as it was that from which all others were derived. Those which came from Chaos were Earth, Eros, Erebus, Tartaros and Night. Night and Erebos eventually produced Sky (which was also known as Aither) and Day. Meanwhile, Earth created Heaven, the sea and the mountains without assistance from the others (Rose 15).
Legend revealed that Earth (Gaia) united with Heaven (Uranos) and created other beings (Rose 15). This union resulted in the creation of several beings; these were Okeanos (Ocean), Koios, Krios, Hyperion, Iapetos, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoibe, Tethys and Cronus.
These creatures were popularly known as the Titans, or the Elder Gods (Hamilton 24). Among all of the children of Heaven and Earth, Cronus was the most frightening, as he had harbored ill feelings against his father. Among the Titans, there was a distinguished group of six which consisted of three couples: Cronus and Rhea, Ocean and Thetis, Iapetos and Themis (Rose 16). Among all these couples, Cronus and Rhea were considered the most prominent and the most important, as they were the parents of Zeus. Eventually, a conflict had erupted amongst the primeval family. Uranos had become jealous of his own children (Rose 17). This jealousy prompted him to force all of his offspring into Gaia’s body. Gaia suffered due to the immense stress and she appealed to her children to avenge her against their father. Only Cronus was brave enough to heed his mother’s advice (Hamilton 67). Cronus waited for his father as he held a sickle, then he severed his father’s member as Uranos made his way to Gaia (Rose 17).
After he had castrated his sire, Cronus became the leader of universe alongside his wife Rhea (Hamilton 67-68). According to legend, the leadership of Cronus led to a prosperous and peaceful era. At that time, laws were not needed to govern men in their lives. In contrast, the “Theogeny” of Hesoid revealed a darker side of Cronus (Leadbetter). The actions of Cronus resulted in an uprising against him led by Zeus. It was said that Uranos and Gaia had given Cronus the warning that one of his sons would overthrow him (Rose 35). Cronus was alarmed by this warning, as he himself had deposed Uranos (Leadbetter). In an attempt to escape fate, Cronus swallowed his children the moment they were born. Those he swallowed were Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon. When the youngest child Zeus was born, Rhea took a stone and wrapped it like a newborn child. Cronus was convinced that it was his child, so he swallowed it (Leadbetter).
When Zeus grew up, he challenged his father (Leadbetter). Some accounts differ on how Zeus was able to free his siblings. In one account, Zeus enlisted the help of Gaia to force Cronus to vomit the children he swallowed; in another account, it was said that Zeus had the assistance of Metis, who provided Cronus a potion which made Cronus regurgitate his children. Afterwards, Zeus began to revolt against his father and the Titans. Zeus went to Tartaros, which was the lowest area in world, and freed the monsters that were imprisoned there (Leadbetter; Rose 35). Those who were freed included the Cyclops, which gave Zeus thunder and lightning as tokens of gratitude (Rose 34-35). The monsters which were freed became the allies of Zeus in his battle against Cronus. Even Prometheus, who was the son of the Titan Iapetos, fought alongside Zeus (Hamilton 68). The war between Zeus and Cronus was said to have lasted for a decade; Zeus and his companions fought from Mount Olympus while Cronus and the Titans attacked from Mount Orthrys (Rose 36). The Titans were eventually defeated; the vanquished were imprisoned in Tartaros, under the watchful eyes of the Hekatoncheires. After the victory over the Titans, Zeus became the supreme ruler among the gods. However, he was not immediately the undisputed king of men and immortals. Typhon and the Giants tried to overthrow Zeus, but they failed (Hamilton 69). It was only then that Zeus remained unchallenged as the ruler of both divine beings and mortals (Hamilton 70).
The details of the birth of Zeus are uncertain, as there are two versions of the story available. According to one account, he was not born in Crete but he was taken there and placed in a cave located at Lyktos (Rose 39). In another account, he was said to have been born in Crete in a cave on either Mount Dikte or Mount Ide. The goat Amaltheia was known to have taken care of Zeus as an infant; he was the divine creature who supplied the god with food. In addition, the Cretan story stated that the cries of the infant Zeus were masked by the noise created by the war dance of the Kuretes (Rose 39).
In Greek mythology, Zeus is presented with many attributes (Leadbetter). Two of the most significant are the aegis and the thunderbolt (Rose 39). In origin, the aegis is simply a cloak made out of goat’s hide. It was created for purposes of defense, both from extreme weather conditions as well as enemy assault. However, as worn by Zeus, the aegis is not merely a garment made out of animal skin. The aegis possessed Zeus’ “mana,” or his “divine force” (Rose 39). The aegis had magical powers; whenever it was waved at an enemy, it caused the foe to be frightened. It was said that the goat skin from which the aegis was made belonged to Amaltheia (Leadbetter). Meanwhile, the thunderbolt of Zeus was often depicted in Greek art with wings (Rose 39). This was probably associated with the god since the Cyclops gave him thunder and lightning in his battle against the Titans. He also used it to defeat Typhon (Hamilton 69). The eagle and the oak tree are also attributes of Zeus (Hamilton 27). The eagle was the preferred bird of the god, while the oak was his favorite tree. Zeus was worshipped in places such as Arkadia and Dodona, but the latter is home to his most recognized oracle (Leadbetter; Rose 38). Dodona is known to have numerous oak trees (Hamilton 28). Zeus usually conveyed his will through the rustling of the leaves on the oak tree, which were left to be interpreted by the priests.
After Zeus had unseated Cronus from power, he divided the universe he had acquired between him and his brothers, Poseidon and Hades (Rose 39). The sisters of Zeus were excluded from the distribution of territory as indicated in the rules established by ancient Greek law. The three brothers agreed upon the following arrangement: Hades would possess the underworld, Poseidon would lay claim to the sea while Zeus would own the heavens. Both Mount Olympus and the earth were neutral grounds (Rose 39).
Zeus is famous for his multiple romantic relationships with both goddesses and mortals. He is often depicted in Greek mythology as a notorious lover. Zeus was known to either take these women by force or use trickery to seduce them (Leadbetter). His countless liaisons resulted in many children, both divine and human alike. Some accounts suggest that Metis was the first goddess that Zeus ever loved. She was known as the goddess of prudence, and she initially did not reciprocate Zeus’ feelings. Eventually, she gave in to his advances and their union produced Athena. Just like Cronus, Zeus also received a warning from Gaia; she said that Metis would conceive a daughter whose son would depose him. Upon hearing the warning, Zeus swallowed Metis so that he would be the one to carry the child and give birth to the child by himself (Leadbetter).
Metis may be the first love, but Hera is recognized as the wife of Zeus. Homer upheld the fact that Hera was the first choice of Zeus to be his consort (Rose 41). Their relationship flourished before Cronus was unseated from power. Hesoid stated that Zeus and Hera had three children: Hebe, Ares and Eileithyia (Rose 42). Ares is known as the God of War (Hamilton 34). This divine union was depicted as unstable, as Zeus proved to be unfaithful. When Hera discovered Zeus’ relationship with Metis, she was overwhelmed with anger and jealousy (Leadbetter). She also became envious of Zeus’ capacity to give birth. In an effort to offend Zeus, Hera bore Hephaestus alone. Coincidentally, it was Hephaestus who opened the head of Zeus, from where Athena emanated (Leadbetter). Hephaestus is known as the God of Fire (Hamilton 35).
Metis and Hera were not the only deities who were involved with Zeus. Zeus also had a relationship with Themis, one of the Titans (Rose 41). Their union produced the Seasons and the Moirai. After his affair with Themis, Zeus had a relationship with Eurynome; she was identified as the daughter of Ocean and Thetis. Zeus and Eurynome had children, which were known to be the Graces. The Graces were Aglaia, Euphrosyne and Thalia (Hamilton 37). These deities were also called Splendor, Mirth and Good Cheer respectively. In most tales, the Graces were not perceived as separate individuals; they were always seen as a group. Zeus was also involved with Demeter (Rose 41). This union resulted in Persephone, who would become the wife of Zeus’ brother Hades. Afterwards, Zeus had an affair with another one of the Titans, Mnemosyne. The union between Zeus and Mnemosyne produced the nine Muses. According to legend, Zeus mated with Mnemosyne for nine nights, which is the reason behind the nine Muses (Leadbetter). Like the Graces, the Muses were initially known as a single entity instead of nine different personalities (Hamilton 37). Soon, the Muses were set apart from each other due to their fields. The Muses were Euterpe (lyric poetry), Erato (love poetry), Calliope (epic poetry), Polyhymnia (songs of the gods), Clio (history), Urania (astronomy), Thalia (comedy) and Melpomene (tragedy) (Hamilton 38). Also, Zeus was involved with Leto (Leadbetter). This affair resulted in the birth of Apollo and Artemis. Due to extreme jealousy, Hera refused to provide Leto with shelter both in land or at sea. Leto was forced to wander the earth for a place to deliver her children. She was able to settle and give birth in the island of Delos, for it was considered a floating isle (Leadbetter).
The affairs of Zeus were not limited to goddesses. He also fell in love with mortals, which is the reason why he also had mortals as children (Leadbetter). In his affairs with mortal maidens, the god resorted to beguilement to succeed in seducing them. For instance, Zeus had an affair with Leda, a queen from Sparta. He was only able to seduce her when he assumed the form of a lovely swan. The result of the union between Zeus and Leda was two pairs of twins: Castor and Polydeuces, Helen and Clytemnestra. Zeus was also captivated with Danae, and he coupled with her in the form of a gold shower. The offspring of this union was Perseus, a Greek hero. Zeus also became a lover of Europa, a princess of Phoenicia. While in the shape of a bull, he kidnapped her and brought her to Crete. In the island, Europa gave birth to three children: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. As an eagle, Zeus seduced Semele; their coupling resulted in the birth of Dionysus. Unfortunately, she was killed when the god showed himself as thunder and lightning (Leadbetter).
Zeus was called many names, as these names indicated his different roles in Greek mythology. Zeus was called “Kosmetas,” for he was known to bring and maintain peace and order (Leadbetter). Homer referred to him as the “father of gods and men” (qtd. in Leadbetter). Hesoid called Zeus as “the lord of justice” (qtd. in Leadbetter). He was also a “Soter,” or savior. The authority of Zeus in the polis or city was also recognized, which is why he was called “Polieos.” Lastly, he was known as “Eleutherios,” or that who assures the political freedom of individuals. As the “Eleutherios,” Zeus had the task of upholding laws, looking after petitioners, convening festivals and providing prophecies (Leadbetter). The names attributed to Zeus carried numerous responsibilities. However, Zeus played all of his roles well. These roles were best exhibited in both “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” by Homer.
Since ancient antiquity, Homer was most noted as the author of “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey,” two epics that proved to be a significant in terms of Greek mythology. In both texts, the decisions and behaviors of the gods and goddesses were explored. Zeus was no exception, and it is through these works that one can fully understand the extent of his roles in relation to both divine beings and mortals. For instance, Zeus is recognized as the most powerful among all gods and goddesses (Hamilton 27). This is the reason why he is the leader of all divine beings. In “The Iliad,” Homer demonstrated how Zeus asserted his power. Zeus said: “So far am I above all others either of gods or men” (“Iliad”). It was this power which he manifested to maintain order. The gods and goddesses were deeply interested in the war between the Trojans and Greeks, and had expressed their desire to intervene with the conflict. As the supreme God, Zeus resolved to initially prevent the deities from meddling with the affairs of the mortals. He warned: “If I see anyone acting apart and helping either Trojans or Danaans, he shall be beaten inordinately ere he come back again to Olympus” (“Iliad”). Zeus had kept order in Mount Olympus by warning the gods against intervening in the war.
Zeus is revered as the ruler of mortals and gods. His authority on both men and deities was also illustrated in “The Iliad.” After preventing the gods and goddesses from taking part in the war, Zeus changed his mind. In Book XX, he said: “I take thought for them even in their destruction…do you others go about among Trojans and Achaeans, and help either side as you may be severally disposed” (“Iliad”). Zeus manifested his authority on the mortals by watching the war from his seat in Mount Olympus, as he was still concerned for their well-being. Meanwhile, he once again used his authority on the gods and goddesses by finally allowing them to take sides in the conflict.
As the ruler of the mortals, Zeus was also in control of the fate of men. In both of Homer’s texts, it can be seen that Zeus had the power to manipulate the lives of the mortals. In Book XVI of “The Iliad,” Achilles prayed to Zeus about his friend Patroclus. Achilles asked for two things: that Patroclus may be victorious in battle and emerge unharmed afterwards. Zeus did hear his plea. However, as Homer wrote, “Part of it he did indeed vouchsafe him- but not the whole” (“Iliad”). While Zeus allowed Patroclus to be successful in battle, he did not spare him from death. In case of Odysseus, Zeus had dictated his fate many times in his journey. In Book IX, Zeus changed the course of the journey by blowing winds on Odysseus’ ship. Odysseus noted: “I should have got home at that time unharmed had not the North wind and the currents been against me as I was doubling Cape Malea, and set me off course hard by the island of Cythera” (“Odyssey”). In Book XII, Zeus sunk the Odysseus’ ship as punishment for killing his animals. Odysseus has warned his companions not to harm the sheep and cattle for they were owned by the supreme god. His companions did not listen, and they slaughtered the animals out of hunger. Zeus was furious with what occurred. He said, “I will shiver the ship into little pieces with a bolt of white lightning as soon as they get out to sea” (“Odyssey”).
It is important to point out that Zeus determined the fate of mortals with the use of scales. In the war between the Achaeans and the Trojans, he used the scales to decide the fate of the parties involved. In Book VIII of the “The Iliad,” Homer wrote: “The sire of all balanced his golden scales, and put two fates of death within them, one for the Trojans and the other for the Achaeans” (“Iliad”). When Zeus held the scale in the middle, the scale of the Achaeans dropped while that of the Trojans rose. This meant that the Achaeans would be in danger.
Zeus was called a god of justice for a reason. Whenever he found an action or decision as unjust, he sought to stop or overturn it. He is also known as a savior, because he listened to the prayers of the mortals and saved them from their troubles. In Book I of “The Iliad,” Thetis came to Zeus as a favor for her son. Agamemnon had taken the prize of Achilles, and the latter wanted Zeus to grant the Trojans victory as revenge. Thetis pleaded to Zeus: “Honor him then yourself, Olympian lord of counsel, and grant victory to the Trojans, till the Achaeans give my son his due and load him with riches in requital” (“Iliad”). Zeus granted Thetis’ plea. In another instance, Zeus and the gods were not pleased when Achilles had killed Hector and continued to drag his body in anger. Zeus acted immediately; he instructed Thetis to speak to her son. In Book XXIV, Zeus demanded: “Say that the gods are angry with him, and that I am myself more angry than them all…he may thus fear me and let the body go” (“Iliad”).
In “The Odyssey,” Zeus also exhibited his sense of justice when Odysseus was kept in an unfortunate situation. Odysseus (also known as Ulysses) had arrived at the island where the nymph Calypso lived. Calypso had been mesmerized by Odysseus, so she kept him in her island for several years. The gods agreed that it was time for Odysseus to find his way back home. As a result, Zeus sent Hermes to convey a message to Calypso. In Book V, Zeus told his son: “You are our messenger, go therefore and tell Calypso we have decreed that poor Ulysses is to return home” (“Odyssey”).
As a god, Zeus had the power for prophecies. In one instance in “The Odyssey,” the god sent a sign for the Trojans. Homer described the omen as such: “a soaring eagle that flew skirting the left wing of their host, with a monstrous blood-red snake in its talons still alive and struggling to escape” (“Odyssey”). This was meant to be a bad omen, but Hector disregarded it. The failure to acknowledge the sign of Zeus proved to be the downfall of the Trojans.
The Greek God Zeus proved to be a very significant figure. His prominence is not limited to Homer’s two epics, as there are other texts which mention and depict him. In these texts, the role of Zeus as the god of men and justice is asserted once more. One of these texts is the tragedy by Aeschylus entitled “Agamemnon” (Dowden 93). According to the Chorus, Zeus had given both Menelaus and Agamemnon their powers; it was also indicated that it was Zeus who made the two men responsible for the punishment of Paris. The old men in “Agamemnon” struggle to comprehend how the mind of Zeus works, for they sought to understand the justice in his actions. Nonetheless, they did know that justice did exist (Dowden 94).
Zeus was featured in “Persians,” also by Aeschylus (Dowden 94). In this text, Zeus again showed the mortals that he was god, for he punished them for their wrongdoings. The spirit of King Darius acknowledged the fact that their vicious assault on Greece had caused massive destruction that would have tragic consequences. Indeed, Zeus unleashed his wrath as a result of the unfortunate circumstance. Aeschylus included Zeus in yet another of his tragedies: “Prometheus Bound.” In this text, Zeus was depicted in a way that echoed Hesoid’s representation of him. The play featured three gods, namely Hephaestus, Might and Violence. The last two were merely representations of Zeus’ capabilities, because Zeus is the most powerful god who is capable of violence when crossed (Dowden 94).
Aeschylus was not the only author who included Zeus in his works. The philosopher Plato also featured the Greek god in his texts. In “The Republic,” Plato expressed his dislike for mythology (Dowden 96). Nevertheless, he had revealed interest in the myths of Zeus because these are the closest in traditional mythology to support his notion of a “fundamental divine force” (Dowden 96). Plato believed in the goodness of this god; he believed that Achilles was right in his assumption that Zeus cannot be capable of evil from the heavens. Plato also upheld that notion that the god is good because he does not modify his physical appearance; therefore, gods do not roam the earth in false appearances. In “Timaeus,” Plato discussed the creation of the Universe but he did not give credit to Zeus and the other gods. Zeus was mentioned in the text, but only as an offspring of Cronus and Rhea. While Plato maintained the Zeus was the father of both divinities and mortals, he believed in a Demiurge who would be the creator of Zeus and the others (Dowden 96). Hence, the role of Zeus in these Platonic texts was the god of mortals and fellow gods.
Zeus is the most prominent and most significant among all the gods and goddesses in Greek mythology. He is the most crucial figure among all divine beings. To begin with, he proved to be the mightiest of them all with his victory against Cronus. He even avoided being toppled by other creatures after he defeated his father. It is also necessary to point out that even his numerous relationships with women had relevance; he had fathered most of the other remarkable deities worshipped in Greek culture. Zeus was given many names due to his many roles as god. One of his roles was that of an authority figure to both gods and mortals. His responsibility to both mankind and deities were best described in Greek literature, specifically in Homer’s “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” Nonetheless, the influence of Zeus goes beyond the works of Homer. Aeschylus also wrote about Zeus in his tragedies, while the philosopher Plato mentioned him as well. This is a testament to the greatness of Zeus and the vital role he played in Greece. He may be a god from the myths, but his legacy transcends the stories.