The Unshakeable Power of Zeus, Prime Mover of Ancient Greek Deities

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Then Zeus no longer held back his might; but straight his heart was filled with fury and he showed forth all his strength. From Heaven and from Olympus he came forthwith, hurling his lightning: the bold flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame.” (The Theogony of Hesiod, ll. 687-712)

The Birth of Zeus

A version of the story of Zeus’ birth can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony. In this ancient Greek poem, Zeus is said to be the youngest child of Cronus and Rhea. His five older siblings (Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon) were swallowed by their father as soon as they were born, as Cronus was aware that one of his children was destined to overthrow him, and to take his place as the king of the gods. Zeus, however, escaped the fate of his siblings through deception. Instead of handing the infant over to her husband, Rhea decided to give Cronus a stone wrapped in cloth, and hid her son in a cave (either on Mount Ida or Mount Dikteon), on the island of Crete.

‘The infancy of Zeus’ (1648) by Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem.

‘The infancy of Zeus’ (1648) by Nicolaes Pieterszoon Berchem. ( Public Domain )

Zeus was raised in secret by a foster-mother. In several versions, Zeus’ foster-mother is said to be a goat named Amalthea. Other versions claim that Zeus was raised by Gaia, or by one of the nymphs. In any event, Zeus grew up without the knowledge of his father, and returned to challenge Cronus. He forced Cronus to regurgitate the stone and his siblings, fought and defeated his father and the other Titans, and became the new king of the gods. After the battle, Zeus divided the world between himself and his older brothers, Hades and Poseidon, by drawing lots. Zeus became the ruler of the sky, whilst Hades and Poseidon became the rulers of the underworld and the seas respectively.

’The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans’ (1600) by Joachim Wtewael.

’The Battle Between the Gods and the Titans’ (1600) by Joachim Wtewael. ( Public Domain )

Zeus’ Children

According to one myth, Zeus’ first wife was Metis, an Oceanid who would later become equated with wisdom and cunning. It was prophesized that the son produced by Zeus and Metis would one day overthrow his father. Therefore, the king of the gods devised a plan to avoid the fate that had befallen Cronus. When Metis was pregnant, Zeus tricked her and swallowed her. Because of this, the goddess Athena grew up in Zeus’ belly, and subsequently emerged fully-armed from his head.

The birth of Athena depicted on an amphora from 550-525 BC.

The birth of Athena depicted on an amphora from 550-525 BC. ( Public Domain )

Apart from Metis, Zeus had children with numerous other goddesses and mortal women. With his next wife, Hera, for instance, Zeus sired Ares, Hebe, and Eileithyia. Zeus is also regarded as the father of Artemis and Apollo (whose mother, Leto, was Zeus’ cousin). Zeus had many affairs with mortal women as well, thus producing a myriad of demi-gods - the most famous of whom include the heroes Heracles and Perseus, Minos (the first king of Crete), and Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world according to Greek mythology.

Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait, detail with Zeus and Hera.

Rubens, The Presentation of the Portrait, detail with Zeus and Hera. (Steven Zucker/ CC BY NC SA 2.0 )

As the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon, many temples were built in honor of Zeus. The most important of these was the Temple of Zeus at Olympia. This was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and was renowned for its colossal gold and ivory statue of the god made by the famed sculptor Pheidias. Other well-known sites sacred to Zeus include Dodona, where the god had an oracle, Mount Lykaion, and several caves on Crete.

Ruins at the west end of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece.

Ruins at the west end of the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, Greece. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

Top image: Zeus. Source: CC BY SA 4.0

By: Wu Mingren


Atsma, A. J., 2017. Zeus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Zeus.html

Cartwright, M., 2013. Zeus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/zeus/

Greek Gods & Goddesses, 2014. Zeus. [Online]
Available at: https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/gods/zeus/

Hesiod, Theogony
[West, M. L. (trans.), 1988. Hesiod’s Theogony and Works and Days , Oxford: Oxford University Press.]


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