What You Need to Know About the Greek God Zeus

Sky and Thunder God

Marble head of Asclepius or Zeus
DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/ De Agostini Picture Library/ Getty Images

The Greek god Zeus is the top Olympian god in the Greek pantheon. He was the son of Kronos and his sister Rhea, the eldest of six: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus. Knowing that he was to be overpowered by his own son, Kronos swallowed each of them at birth. Zeus was the last, and when he was born, his mother sent him to Gaia in Crete, replacing Zeus with a large stone wrapped in swaddling clothes. Zeus grew up quickly and forced his father to vomit up each of his siblings.

Zeus and his siblings confronted his father and the Titans in the greatest battle ever fought: the Tianomachy. The battled raged for 10 years, but finally Zeus and his siblings won out. credit for rescuing his brothers and sisters from their father and titan Cronus, Zeus became king of heaven and gave his brothers, Poseidon and Hades, the sea and the underworld, respectively, for their domains.

Zeus was the husband of Hera, but he had many affairs with other goddesses, mortal women, and female animals. Zeus mated with, among others, Aegina, Alcmena, Calliope, Cassiopea, Demeter, Dione, Europa, Io, Leda, Leto, Mnemosyne, Niobe, and Semele.

In the Roman pantheon, Zeus is known as Jupiter.

Family

Zeus is father of gods and men. A sky god, he controls lightning, which he uses as a weapon, and thunder. He is king on Mount Olympus, the home of the Greek gods. He is also credited as the father of Greek heroes and the ancestor of many other Greeks. Zeus mated with many mortals and goddesses but is married to his sister Hera (Juno).

Zeus is the son of the ​​Titans Cronus and Rhea. He is the brother of his wife Hera, his other sisters Demeter and Hestia, and his brothers Hades and Poseidon.

Roman Equivalent

The Roman name for Zeus is Jupiter and sometimes Jove. Jupiter is thought to be made up of a Proto-Indoeuropean word for god, *deiw-os, combined with the word for father, pater, like Zeus + Pater.

Attributes

Zeus is shown with a beard and long hair. He is often associated with an oak tree, and in illustrations he is always a stately figure in the prime of life, bearing a scepter or thunderbolt, and accompanied by an eagle. His is also associated with a ram or a lion and wears an aegis (a piece of armor or shield), and carries a cornucopia. The cornucopia or (goat) horn of plenty comes from the story of his Zeus' infancy when he was nursed by Amalthea.​

Powers of Zeus

Zeus is a sky god with control over weather, especially of rain and lightning. He is King of the gods and a god of oracles—especially in the sacred oak at Dodona. In the story of the Trojan War, Zeus, as a judge, listens to the claims of other gods in support of their side. He then renders decisions on acceptable behavior. He remains neutral most of the time, allowing his son Sarpedon to die and glorifying his favorite, Hector.

Etymology of Zeus and Jupiter

The root of both "Zeus" and "Jupiter" is in a proto-Indo-European word for the often personified concepts of "day/light/sky".

Zeus Abducts Mortals

There are many myths about Zeus. Some involve demanding acceptable conduct of others, whether human or divine. Zeus was enraged with the behavior of Prometheus. The titan had tricked Zeus into taking the non-meat portion of the original sacrifice so that mankind could enjoy the food. In response, the king of the gods deprived mankind of the use of fire so they wouldn't be able to enjoy the boon they'd been granted, but Prometheus found a way around this, and stole some of the gods' fire by hiding it in a stalk of fennel and then giving it to mankind. Zeus punished Prometheus with having his liver pecked out every day.

But Zeus himself misbehaves—at least according to human standards. It is tempting to say that his primary occupation is that of seducer. In order to seduce, he sometimes changed his shape into that of an animal or bird.

  • When he impregnated Leda, he appeared as a swan;
  • When he abducted Ganymede, he appeared as an eagle in order to take Ganymede to the home of the gods where he would replace Hebe as cupbearer; and
  • when Zeus carried off Europa, he appeared as a tempting white bull—although why the Mediterranean women were so enamored of bulls is beyond the imaginative capacities of this urban-dweller—setting in motion the quest of Cadmus and the settling of Thebes. The hunt for Europa provides one mythological version of the introduction of letters to Greece.

The Olympic Games were initially held to honor Zeus.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Hard, Robin. "The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology." London: Routledge, 2003. 
  • Leeming, David. "The Oxford Companion to World Mythology." Oxford UK: Oxford University Press, 2005. 
  • Smith, William, and G.E. Marindon, eds. "A Classical Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography, Mythology, and Geography." London: John Murray, 1904.