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Who Is Zeus? 6 Key Myths About the King of the Greek Gods

Posted by Ashley Robinson | Aug 21, 2019 2:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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Zeus: Greek god of thunder, king of all men, hurler of lightning bolts. You know this guy, right? Kind of? Or maybe not? 

Zeus is the king of the Greek gods, which makes him one of the most important members of the Greek Pantheon. Not only is he the god of thunder and the sky, he’s also the subject of many famous Greek myths. So if you want to understand Greek mythology, you should start by getting to know Zeus. 

So let’s dive in and learn all that there is to know about Zeus, Greek god of all Greek gods.

 

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While we can't know what Mount Olympus really looked like...we're pretty confident it wasn't a theme park in Wisconsin!

 

The Greek Pantheon

First, let’s discuss what is meant by the Greek Pantheon. Simply put, the pantheon is made up of the twelve gods who lived on Mount Olympus, who are known as the Olympians

These twelve gods ruled over everything on earth and directly intervened in the affairs of mortals. They were constantly bickering with one another, seemingly incapable of getting along. Their efforts to sabotage one another was the Greeks’ explanation for the natural phenomena of the world and the complexity of human affairs

After all, how could humans possibly live free of strife and conflict if the very gods who pulled the puppet strings were themselves constantly fighting?

Zeus, the king of the gods and the god of thunder, ruled over the Olympians. But eleven other gods lived on Olympus, too. They were:

  • Hera: goddess of women, marriage, and family (and Zeus’ wife) 
  • Poseidon: god of the sea
  • Demeter: goddess of the harvest and farming
  • Athena: goddess of wisdom
  • Apollo: god of many things, including the sun, archery, and poetry
  • Artemis: goddess of hunting and the moon
  • Ares: god of war
  • Aphrodite: goddess of love, beauty, and sexuality 
  • Hephaestus: god of blacksmiths and metalworking 
  • Hermes: messenger of the gods and the god of travel

You’ve probably noticed that we’re missing one god on our list. (There are twelve Olympians, after all.) That’s because the last seat on Olympus is a bit of a revolving chair. Some sources list Hades, the god of the dead and the underworld, as the god that occupies the final seat. But other sources give that seat to Hestia, goddess of the hearth, or Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. 

So what’s up with the discrepancy? Our knowledge of Greek myths is pieced together from ancient documents that can be incomplete or even tell competing stories. It’s up to historians to try and make sense of it all...and sometimes that means acknowledging the differences. 

 

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A sculpture of Zeus called the "Zeus of Otricoli," which is a Roman copy of the original Greek statue. This one was carved in the 4th Century...so it's still really, really old.

 

Who Is Zeus, and What Is Zeus the God Of?

Zeus is the father of all men, and king of all the Olympian gods. He is the god that governs the skies, including things that come from the sky like thunder and lightning. Zeus is well-known for having a quick temper, too. When he’s upset, he’s known to hurl thunderbolts from his home on Mount Olympus down onto humanity as punishment for its actions. 

In addition, Zeus is the god of hospitality and fair treatment of guests. Whenever a stranger was treated badly in ancient Greece, their host could soon expect a nasty visit from Zeus. Likewise, if a guest overstayed their welcome or became a burden on their host, Zeus had something to say to them as well. Zeus and his trusted messenger Hermes were sometimes said to travel in human disguise to test the hospitality of mortals. 

Finally, Zeus is also the god of oath keeping. People who broke their vows, lied, or traded dishonestly in the marketplace got a taste of his retribution as well. The only way for liars or cheats to get back in good graces with Zeus was to commission and dedicate a statue to him in a sanctuary. Now you know why there are so many Greek statues of Zeus!

While these are the universal traits assigned to Zeus, certain city states believed that Zeus had additional responsibilities. For example, in Athens, Zeus was also the god of farming and the harvest...and in Crete, Zeus was god of the sun! 

 

What Does the Name "Zeus" Mean?

Zeus name seems to date all the way back to Indo-European roots (the ancient language family from which most Western languages descend). Zeus’ name translates to a very simple word: “shining,” which references his role as god of the sky! 

The word “Zeus” later got passed on into the Latin language as Deus, which survives in English in words like “deity” and “divinity.” Romance languages, which are the languages that grew out of Latin, still use forms of Zeus’s name for the word for god. Here are some examples:

  • Spanish: Dios
  • French: Dieu
  • Italian: Dio
  • Portugese: Deus

It’s easy to think of Zeus as an old god that doesn’t have much of an impact on our lives today. But as you can see, he’s still hanging around!

 

body-zeus-in-olympia-quatremere-de-quincy-1815This 1815 sketch by French archaeologist Quatèmere de Quincy depicts what the Statue of Zeus at Olympia may have looked like. Spoiler alert: it was gigantic. 

 

What Does Zeus Look Like?

Because so many statues of Zeus have survived, we know quite accurately what the ancient Greeks thought he looked like: very tall and muscular, with long curly hair and big, bushy beard. His face looks older, but his body looks like The Rock’s

Typically, statues of Zeus show him carrying a large scepter topped by an eagle or a lightning bolt (sometimes both). In literature more than in art, he wields a huge shield named Aegis. Sometimes the Aegis is described as more of an armored breastplate, but either way it’s often said to be decorated with the head of a gorgon.

The most famous depiction of Zeus is the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. This was one of the most popular sites in the ancient world and was among the “Seven Wonders” visited by Greek tourists. Although the statue was destroyed between 300 and 400 AD, we know what it looked like from several contemporary descriptions. Zeus is depicted holding a figure of the Nike (Victory) in his right hand and his scepter in his left, and he is seated on a massive throne. 

 

 

Zeus: The Origin Story

Where did Zeus come from? Well, his parents were both Titans, who ruled the earth prior to the Olympian pantheon. His father was Cronus (the Titan god of time), and his mother was Rhea (the Titan goddess of female fertility). With a pedigree like that, you know he was born for power

Before Zeus was born, it was prophesied that he would be the most powerful of all gods. Cronus got wind of this prophecy, but he was unsure of which of his children would overtake him. Just to be safe, he decided he would eat--yes, eat--all of his children. 

Rhea was pretty sick of Cronus eating all her children, so when Zeus was born, she wrapped up a stone in baby clothes and fed that to Cronus instead of little Zeus. 

Zeus grew up in exile to protect him from his own father. When he got old enough, Zeus confronted Cronus and fed him a potion given to him by his grandmother Gaia (the Titan goddess of the Earth). That potion made Cronus vomit up all his children! (Gross, but true.)

Zeus and his now-regurgitated siblings then waged war on Cronus and eventually overthrew the Titans and imprisoned them for eternity in Tartarus, a place of eternal suffering and torment. Zeus’s siblings (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon) became the first gods of the Greek Pantheon. 

 

Zeus Versus Women

If there’s one thing you need to know about Zeus it’s that he had serious issues when it came to controlling his libido. (Actually...this is probably an understatement.) As you’ll see in the myths below, Zeus pursued every woman he found attractive—even though he was married!—and often ruined their lives in the process. In fact, Zeus was unfaithful to an extreme, which became a major theme in his mythological stories. 

Zeus’ infidelity helps us understand more about the Ancient Greeks’ perspective on male power and women’s rights. Part of what makes Zeus king of the gods is his willingness to take whatever he wants—or whoever he wants—whenever he wants. That’s obviously not okay by modern standards, but it does tell us that masculine power and sexual power were connected for the ancient Greeks. By exerting his sexual strength over women, Zeus reinforces his physical power...and his right to rule the gods. 

Additionally, Zeus’ relationships with women (or lack thereof) help modern readers understand that misogyny and the mistreatment of women aren’t new problems. Women in Zeus’ stories lack autonomy, which is a fancy way of saying that they don’t have the ability to decide or control what happens to them. They’re stuck  Zeus’ myths show us how these issues have pervaded society for centuries.  

 

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This is a relief of Zeus, carved between the 1st Century and 2nd Century. It's on display at the Burdur Museum in Turkey. (Carole Raddato/Flickr)

 

Top 6 Zeus Myths

Because Zeus is king of the Greek gods, he features heavily in ancient Greek myths. 

Myths like those below are interesting to read because we see earlier peoples’ attempts to explain the world, and while they may not make much literal sense, they give us a sense of the ways the ancient Greeks understood the world. And, they are a lot of fun!

There’s a chance that the myths we’ve included below don’t sound exactly like the version you’ve heard. That’s because, just like with which gods sat at Olympus, the details can change from source to source. Remember, historians are piecing these stories together from evidence that’s thousands of years old!

Now, without further ado, here are six more mythological stories about Zeus. 

 

Zeus Myth #1: The Creation of Athena

Just as Cronus caught wind that his son was going to overthrow him, Zeus likewise received a similar prophecy that one of his children would usurp him. Upon hearing this prophecy, Zeus ate his pregnant lover Metis (Titan goddess of wisdom) to prevent it. 

Metis, however, was not deterred. Still inside Zeus’s stomach, she furiously made armor and weapons for her unborn child. Needless to say, it was uncomfortable having a full-grown goddess forging armor and weapons inside his gut...so Zeus asked Hephaestus to bash his head open with an axe.

When a hole was cut in Zeus’s forehead, the goddess Athena sprung out, fully grown and armed to the teeth. Athena inherited traits from everyone involved: wisdom from Metis, power from Zeus, and craftsmanship from Hephaestus, making her a very formidable goddess. 

So how did Zeus’ wife, Hera, feel about all this? Well, in some stories she was so jealous that she gave birth to Hephaestus (who apparently had no father) as revenge. How did she give birth to the person who was responsible for the birth of the person who inspired her to give birth, you ask? An excellent question! 

 

Zeus Myth #2: Hera’s Rebellion

It’s hard not to feel sympathetic to Zeus’ wife, Hera. She really did have a terrible husband who fathered children with every maiden, goddess, and nymph that crossed his path. And to make matters worse, Hera’s marriage to Zeus was not entirely by choice.

Hera, daughter of Cronus and Rhea, is Zeus’s full sister. Growing up, Zeus fell in love with her and tried to make her return his love. However, she refused his advances. Zeus, always undeterred in such matters, exploited her compassion by turning himself into a lost little cuckoo bird. 

Hera took the little bird in because she was afraid that it would freeze to death. She cradled it against her chest, where it turned back into Zeus and he attacked her. Hera was so ashamed that she married Zeus rather than admit that she had been raped. 

She resented this forever afterwards, and when she overheard the other gods talking about how fed up they were with Zeus’s arrogance, she convinced them to try to overthrow Zeus. To do this, she drugged his wine. While he slept, the gods tied him to a chair with a hundred knots and took his lightning bolt from him. 

Unfortunately for them, Zeus’s loyal friend Briareus (a Titan who Zeus had feed from Tartarus), rescued Zeus easily. You see, Briareus had one hundred hands, so he could untie all the knots at the same time. 

Zeus was so furious with Hera over her deception that he hung her from the sky with golden chains, and her cries shook the Earth. Everyone was too afraid to cross Zeus again, so instead of helping her, they left her to suffer. Zeus took mercy on her, so long as she swore never again to rebel against him.

 

body-zeus-meme100% accurate depiction of Zeus' marriage

 

Zeus Myth #3: Leda and the Swan

Zeus was always looking down on Earth from Olympus, searching for beautiful women. One day he glanced upon Leda, the daughter of the king Thestios. She was already married to the king of Sparta, but Zeus was never one to let a little marriage deter him from getting what he wanted.

Similarly to how he tricked Hera, Zeus transformed himself into a swan that was being pursued by an eagle. Leda took pity on and rescued the swan, which then turned into Zeus, who raped her.

The attack left Leda pregnant. She then laid two eggs, from which four children were born. Helen and Pollux were Zeus’s children, and Clytemnestra and Castor were the Spartan king’s. (Myths are weird.) 

The two girls would grow up to have important roles during the Trojan War, whereas Castor and Pollux—twins despite having different fathers and hatching from separate eggs—would be leaders of the Spartan army in the war against Athens.

 

Zeus Myth #4: The Abduction of Europa

Zeus had one foolproof means of seduction: transform into an animal and use that to convince a woman to let down her defenses.

Europa was a Princess of Sidon, whose beauty Zeus had spied from Mount Olympus...so he decided to seduce her. He disguised himself as the most beautiful bull anyone had ever seen. Europa was taken by the bull’s beauty and decorated it with flowers and perfumes. The bull was so gentle and lovely that she decided to ride it. 

The second she climbed on its back, though, it jumped into the ocean and took her far away, where it transformed back into Zeus, who seduced Europa. She then bore him three children, one of whom was Minos, the king of Crete whose labyrinth was inhabited by another offspring of a bull, the minotaur.

 

(Randall Munroe/XKCD.com)

 

Zeus Myth #5: Deucalion and the Flood

Zeus was always in conflict with Prometheus, the last of the Titans, because he created humanity with the help of Athena. Humans were greedy and disloyal to the gods, and Zeus got so sick of them that he decided to just wipe them all out with a massive flood. 

So he sent a rain that lasted nine days and nights, which killed everyone except for two people: Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha. Prometheus, who happened to be Deucalion’s father, had convinced him to build and ark and ride out the storm. 

Deucalion and Pyrrha landed at the top of a mountain and begged Zeus to repopulate the Earth. After many sacrifices, Zeus relented and told them, through the goddess Themis (goddess of justice) to throw “the bones of their mothers” over their shoulders. So they threw stones over their shoulders and each stone turned into a person, a man if thrown by Deucalion and a woman if thrown by Pyrrha. 

 

Zeus Myth #6: Prometheus the Firebringer

After Prometheus and Athena crafted humanity out of clay, they were forbidden by the gods from teaching them the benefit of fire, which would make them powerful enough to challenge the gods. Prometheus defied the gods’ orders and stole fire to give to humankind. This enabled the development of technology and civilization. 

Consequently, Zeus punished Prometheus by sentencing him to Tartarus, where he was chained to a boulder and his liver was eternally eaten by an eagle (the symbol of Zeus). Because he was divine, Prometheus' liver would regenerate...which meant the eagle continuously ate and ate it, torturing him for all eternity.

However, the deed was done. Humanity developed technology and grew in power until all Zeus could do was to intervene in human affairs. 

 

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Want to Learn More about Zeus and the Greek Pantheon?

These retellings are just a taste of all the many, many myths of Zeus! If you would like to read more, here are five recommended books:

 

Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire, D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths

For over fifty years, this book has introduced generations of children to the world of the Greek gods. It was written and illustrated by a husband-and-wife duo, who bring the Olympian world alive in a vibrant and exciting way that is a perfect starting place for all ages. If you’re not familiar with Greek gods at all, this is the perfect place to start your mythological journey into the world of Olympus. 

 

Edith Hamilton, Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes

Looking for something just as accessible as D’Aulaire’s book but a little more grown up? Edith Hamilton’s 1942 classic retelling of the major Greek myths is the one for you! For many, these versions are the quintessential Greek myths full of the same action, intrigue, and weirdness as the stories we talked about above. 

If you like these versions of the myths and want to learn more about the ancient Greeks themselves, Hamilton also published a book titled The Greek Way that will give you a sense of what the people who created these myths were like.

 

Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable

Basically, this 1855 collection of Greek mythology is the book that Hamilton’s book replaced. Before 1942, this was the collection that every school child read. It’s more thorough than Hamilton’s and the D’Aulaires’s versions, but the prose is a lot more old-fashioned and somewhat difficult for a modern reader to follow. 

What is really great about this version, though, is that for every myth, Bulfinch includes famous poetry that is inspired by it. So if you want to sound like a literary expert when someone asks you a question about mythology and you just break out a few lines by Tennyson or Lord Byron, this is the book for you!

 

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Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Okay, so maybe you’ve read all three of these and you don’t want just a greatest hits of Greek mythology. You want the whole shebang. Well, then this 700-page 1955 tome is the book for you. 

This isn’t much of a starting place, but it is the most exhaustive (and exhausting) overview of all the myths for a general audience, as well as containing Graves’s commentaries about each one. Robert Graves was a well-respected poet and writer, so the myths are beautifully told. However, he wasn’t known as a scholar, so his commentaries have had a...mixed reception. That’s why we recommend this book for people who are already familiar with the myths.

 

Madeline Miller, Circe

Maybe you want something more modern? Then this is the book for you. 

This 2018 novel retells the myth of Circe. Circe was a sorceress who was the daughter of Helios (the Sun) and Hecate (the goddess of witchcraft). Because Zeus found her threatening, he banished her to the island of Aeaea. 

In Greek mythology, Circe usually enters the scene because Odysseus shipwrecked on Aeaea, where Circe turned his men into pigs (which may not have been a huge transformation for many of them). Miller explores the Circe myth from a feminist perspective and has a very twenty-first century take on Zeus’s problematic relationships with women.

 

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What’s Next? 

There are many, many more Greek gods and goddesses than the ones we covered in this post. To learn more about all of them and their mythological backgrounds, check out this expert overview

Of course, mythological stories are a way for people to better understand the world around them—and themselves. But how can modern readers figure out what myths are about? That’s where knowing how to find and understand literary elements comes in. Learn more about the nine literary elements that you’ll find in every story (and the 31 most useful literary devices of all time). 

If you’re just looking for more amazing stories to read, you’ll love our post on the 127 best books to read before you take the AP English Literature exam. 





These recommendations are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links, PrepScholar may receive a commission.

 

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Ashley Robinson
About the Author

Ashley Sufflé Robinson has a Ph.D. in 19th Century English Literature. As a content writer for PrepScholar, Ashley is passionate about giving college-bound students the in-depth information they need to get into the school of their dreams.



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