Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family

5 Zeus

Zeus fighting a giant. Red-figure lekane, Apulian production, ca. 350 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Madrid)


Zeus stands with a bull subdued under one foot and holding a lion over his head. On either side are winged figures playing drums.
Bronze drum depicting Zeus found at Mt. Ida, Crete, 8th century BCE (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion).

Zeus is the last child of Cronus and Rhea. Like his father Uranus before him, the Titan Cronus feared a prophesy that his son would overthrow him. To thwart the oracle, as his wife Rhea delivered each of his children, he would immediately snatch the infant and swallow it. After Cronus had done this five times, Rhea, desperate to save her sixth child, appealed to her mother Gaia for help. Together they conspired for Rhea to deliver the baby Zeus in secret. Instead of his newborn son, Rhea presented to Cronus a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes.

The hidden Zeus was able to grow in secret, raised and nurtured by nymphs. When he came of age, he and Rhea again conspired to overthrow Cronus and restore his five siblings. Rhea gave Cronus a poisoned drink that caused him to vomit up Hera, Hades, Demeter, Poseidon, and Hestia.  Together, the six children drove off their father and established a new seat for themselves on Mount Olympus.

Diodorus Siculus Histories 5.70.1-6 (trans. by C. H. Oldfather, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek geography, 1st century BCE

The following passage comes from the historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in Greek in the 1st century BCE. He takes what is called a euhemerizing approach to mythology. That is, he attempts to explain the origins of a myth using actual or probable events. This approach to myth is named after an ancient Greek man named Euhemerus, who was apparently the first to try to rationalize the fantastical Greek myths.


[5.70.1] There is no agreement regarding the birth of Zeus and the manner in which he came to be king. Some say that he succeeded to the throne after Cronus died and passed from the company of men into the company of the gods, not by conquering his father with violence, but justly and in the customary manner. That is, he was judged to be worthy of the honour. But others tell the following myth: Cronus received an oracle regarding the birth of Zeus, which stated that his son would take the kingship from him by force.

[5.70.2] Consequently, over and over again Cronus killed the children that he begot; but Rhea, upset, though without the power to change her husband’s mind, after she had given birth to Zeus, concealed him in Idê, as it is called. Without Cronus’ knowledge she entrusted him to the care of the Curetes who lived in the neighbourhood of Mount Idê. The Curetes carried him off to a certain cave where they handed him over to the Nymphs, with the command that they should see to his every need.

[5.70.3] And the Nymphs raised the child on a mixture of honey and milk and fed him right at the udder of a goat named Amaltheia. Much evidence of the birth and upbringing of this god remain even today on the island.

[5.70.4] For instance, they say that when he was being carried away by the Curetes while still an infant, his umbilical cord (omphalos) fell off near the river known as Triton, and that this spot has been made sacred and has been called Omphalus after that incident. Similarly, the plain around it is known as Omphaleium. And on Mount Idê, where the god was nurtured, the cave in which he spent his days was declared sacred to him, and the meadows around it, which lie upon the ridges of the mountain,  were likewise consecrated to him.

[5.70.5] But the most astonishing part of the myth has to do with the bees, and we won’t neglect to mention it: They say that the gods, wishing to preserve a reminder of his close association with the bees for all time, changed their colour, making it like copper with the gleam of gold. And since the region lay at a very high altitude, where fierce winds blew around it and heavy snows fell, he made the bees impervious and unaffected by such things, since they must forage over the most wintry stretches.

[5.70.6] Zeus also gave certain honours to the goat (aeg-) which suckled him, and specifically, he took a nickname from it: Aegiochus.33 And when he had reached manhood he founded a city in Dicta, where indeed the myth states that he was born; in later times this city was abandoned, but some of the stone blocks of its foundations are still preserved.



Zeus in Action

Zeus’ main function in this early party of the cosmogony is to establish the cosmos, the order of the universe and everything in it. According to some versions of the myth, Zeus apportions to each of his siblings their particular time (pronounced tee-may), or realm of influence in the world: Poseidon rules over the seas and is responsible for hurricanes and earthquakes; Hades has dominion over the dead in the realm named after him; Hestia is responsible for tending the sacred hearth on Mount Olympus and was worshipped as a domestic goddess within the homes of ancient Greece; Hera is the goddess of marriage and motherhood; and Demeter was responsible for the growth and cultivation of crops. Zeus himself was the ruler of the heavens and the air, wielder of the thunderbolt and creator of rain and storms.

Hesiod’s Theogony tells of the early struggles of Zeus and the other Olympians to establish and cement their rule: the Titanomachy (the battle fought against Cronus and the other Titans), the Gigantomachy (the battle between the Olympians and Gaia’s monstrous children, the Cyclops, Giants, and the Hundred-Handers), and the final battle with Typhon, Gaia’s last attempt to challenge Zeus’ control of the earth.

Zeus has sexual relations and reproduces abundantly with many gods and mortals. These include Themis, Metis (the mother of Athena), Hera (the mother of Ares, Eileithyia (the midwife of the gods), and Hebe (goddess of youth)), Demeter (the mother of Persephone), Mnemosyne (the mother of the nine Muses), Dione (the mother of Aphrodite in some accounts), Leto (the mother of Artemis and Apollo), and many others.

Additionally, he sexually assaults and generates offspring with several mortal women. These children make up the gods, demi-gods, and heroes that fill out the ancient Greek pantheon and the mythic world: Dionysus, Heracles, Helen, and many others. Zeus’ rapes of mortal women, often in strange guises (swan, bull, shower of gold), are the subject of much artwork from the ancient Greco-Roman world.

Zeus Defeats Typhon

Zeus, wielding a many-pronged lightning weapon, lunges at Typhon, a winged figure with two snakes for legs.
Zeus fights Typhon, reproduced from a black-figure hydria ca. 430 BCE.

The fight with the half man/ half snake monster, Typhon, is Zeus’ last major battle before he assumes control of Mount Olympus and becomes the ruler of gods and men.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, 1.6.3 (trans. by K. Aldrich, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

In his collection of myths, written in Greek in the 1st or 2nd century CE, Pseudo-Apollodorus, describes the appearance of Typhon and his battle with Zeus and the other Olympians. During the fight Zeus is temporarily bested by the monster, but ultimately prevails.

[1.6.3] The defeat of the Gigantes (Giants) by the gods angered Gaia even more, so she had intercourse with Tartaros and gave birth to Typhon in Cilicia. He was a mixture of man and beast, the largest and strongest of all Gaia‘s children. From the thighs up he had the form of a human. He was so large that he extended beyond all the mountains and his head often touched the stars. One hand reached to the west, the other to the east, and attached to these were the heads of one hundred serpents. From the thighs down he had great vipers, which coiled around and extended up to the top of his head, hissing mightily. He had wings, and the hair that flowed  from his head and cheeks in the wind was matted and dirty. Fire flashed in his eyes. This was the size and appearance of Typhon as he hurled red-hot rocks at the sky itself, and attacked it with mixed hisses and shouts, as a great storm of fire boiled out from his mouth.

When the gods saw him rushing toward the sky, they headed for Egypt to escape him, and as he pursued them they changed themselves into animal shapes. Zeus hurled thunderbolts at Typhon from a distance, and when he drew closer, Zeus tried to strike him down with an adamantine sickle. Typhon took flight, but Zeus pursued him right up to Mount Casium, which lies in Syria. Seeing that he was badly wounded, Zeus fell on him with his hands. But Typhon entwined the god and held him fast in his coils, and grabbing the sickle he cut out the sinews from Zeus’ hands and feet. Then, placing Zeus up on his shoulders, he carried him across the sea to Cilicia, where he deposited him in the Corycian cave. He also hid away the sinews there in the skin of a bear, and posted as guard over them the Dracaena Delphyne, a girl who was half animal.

But Hermes and Aegipan stole back the sinews and succeeded in replanting them in Zeus without being seen. So Zeus, again having his strength, suddenly appeared from the sky in a chariot drawn by winged horses, and with thunderbolts chased Typhon to the mountain called Nysa. There the Moirai deceived the pursued creature, for he ate some of the ephemeral fruit on Nysa [i.e. the intoxicating grape of Dionysus] after they had persuaded him that he would gain strength from it.

Again pursued, Typhon made his way to Thrace, where, while fighting round Haimos he threw whole mountains at Zeus. But when these were pushed back upon him by the thunderbolt, a great quantity of his blood streamed out on the mountain, which allegedly is why the mountain is called Haimos[1]. Then, as Typhon started to flee again through the Sicilian Sea, Zeus brought down Sicily's Mount Aitna on him , a great mountain which they say still erupts fire from the thunderbolts thrown by Zeus.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Gigante/Typhoeus.html

Zeus Deliberates Whether to Defy Fate

Two winged figures carry the body of Sarpedon down towards Europe, sitting on a throne surrounded by attendants.
Europa watching Sleep and Death carry Sarpedon's body to her, red-figure krater, ca. 400 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

During the Trojan War, Zeus famously refuses to take sides, instead recognizing that Fate– stronger than all the gods, even himself– decrees that Troy is destined to fall. At different points in the conflict, he helps one side or the other to gain the advantage in the fighting. When Achilles withdraws from battle at the beginning of the Iliad because of his quarrel with Agamemnon, Zeus acquiesces to the request of Achilles' mother, the divine sea-nymph Thetis, that the Achaeans (the Greeks) should start to lose the war, driven back to the beaches and ships by the Trojans.

In Book 16 of the Iliad, Achilles' cousin and companion Patroclus, disguises himself in Achilles' armor. Under his command the Achaeans are starting to regain some ground. At the climax of the book, Patroclus faces off with one of the Trojan heroes, Sarpedon, son of Zeus and king of the Lycians (a city on the southern coast of modern-day Turkey).

During the battle, Zeus debates whether to rescue his beloved son from his certain death. Hera councils him to be careful how he chooses to defy fate. What he wants for his son, surely all the other Olympians will want for their children as well, many of whom are destined to die on the battlefield at Troy.

For further discussion of Sarpedon and the Trojan War, see chapter 27.


Homer, Iliad, Book 16 (trans. by A.T. Murray 1924; adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek epic, ca. 8th century BCE

This passage has been used to show the limits of Zeus' power. Even he is subject to the will of Fate (or the Fates, if we consider them in their tripartite form as three old women who spin, measure, and cut the thread of each mortal life and each event on heaven and earth). It also shows a rare, emotional side of Zeus, as he weeps tears of blood, anticipating the death of Sarpedon.


[394-507] But when Sarpedon saw his comrades, who wear their tunics loose, [420] being flattened beneath the hands of Patroclus, son of Menoetius, he called aloud, scolding his godlike Lycians warriors: “Shame on you, Lycians, where do you flee? Stand fast in the fight; for I myself will meet this man, so that that I may know who he is that is so strong here, and who has caused so much mischief for the Trojans, [425] since he has loosed the knees of many good men.”

He spoke, and leapt in his armour from his chariot to the ground. And Patroclus, towering over him, when he beheld him, sprang from his chariot. And as vultures with crooked talon and curved beaks fight with loud cries upon a high rock, [430] so with cries they rushed against one another. And the son of crooked-counselling Cronus took pity when he saw them, and spoke to Hera, his sister and his wife: “Ah, woe is me, for it is fated that Sarpedon, dearest of men to me, be slain by Patroclus, son of Menoetius! [435] And my heart is divided along two paths as I consider whether to snatch him up while he is still living and set him far from the tearful war in the rich land of Lycia, or whether I shall slay him now beneath the hands of the son of Menoetius.”

Then ox-eyed queenly Hera answered him: [440] “Most dread son of Cronus, what a statement! Are you really inclined to rescue from mournful death a man that is mortal, doomed long since by fate? Do as you will; but know that the rest of us gods do not all agree. And I'll tell you another thing and do take it to heart: [445] if you send Sarpedon living to his house, consider that afterwards some other god may also want to send his own dear son away from the fierce conflict; for there are many fighting around the great city of Priam that are sons of the immortals, and you will instill dread wrath among the gods. [450] But if he is dear to you, and your heart grieves for him, allow him to be slain in the fierce conflict beneath the hands of Patroclus, son of Menoetius; but when his soul and life have left him, then send Death and sweet Sleep to bear him away [455] until they come to the land of wide Lycia; and there his brethren and his kinsfolk will give him burial with mound and pillar; for this is what is owed to the dead.”

So she spoke, and the father of gods and men listened; but he wept tears of blood that fell to the earth, [460] honouring his dear son—his own son whom Patroclus was about to slay in the rich-soiled land of Troy, far from his native land.

Now when when they had advanced close to one another, Patroclus struck glorious Thrasymelus, the valiant squire of the prince Sarpedon; [465] him he hit on the lower belly, and loosed his limbs. Then Sarpedon, making his throw, missed him with his bright spear, but struck the horse Pedasus on the right shoulder; and the horse shrieked aloud as he gasped forth his life, and down he fell in the dust with a moan, as his spirit flew from him. [470]

But the other two horses reared this way and that, and the yoke creaked, and above them the reins were entangled, when the outside horse lay low in the dust. At this, Automedon [Patroclus' charioteer], famed for his spear, saw what to do; drawing his long sword from beside his big thigh, he sprang forth and without hesitating, cut loose the outside horse,[475] and the other two were righted, and strained at the reins; and the two warriors came together again in soul-devouring strife.

Then again Sarpedon missed with his bright spear, as it flew over the left shoulder of Patroclus and did not strike him. [480] But Patroclus in turn threw his bronze spear, and not in vain did the shaft speed from his hand, but struck his foe where the throbbing heart is enclosed in the muscles of the chest. And he fell as an oak falls, or a poplar, or a tall pine, that carpenters chop down among the mountains with their sharpened axes to be a ship's timber; [485] so he lay there outstretched in front of his horses and chariot, moaning aloud and clutching at the bloody dust.

And as a lion comes into the midst of a herd to slay a bull, pale brown and brave amid the slow footed cattle, and with a groan he dies beneath the jaws of the lion; [490] so beneath Patroclus did the leader of the Lycian shield-men struggle in death; and he called to his beloved comrade by name: “Dear Glaucus, warrior of warriors, now you must be a spearman and bold fighter; now, if you are brave, let dread war consume your heart. [495] First, go up and down everywhere, and urge on the leaders of the Lycians to fight for Sarpedon, and then you yourself fight with the bronze in my defence. For I will be a source of shame for you for all your days, [500] if the Achaeans rob me of my armour, here where I fell beside the gathered ships. But hold your ground valiantly, and urge on all our men.”

Even as he spoke these words, the end of death enfolded him, covering his eyes and his nostrils; and Patroclus, setting his foot upon his chest, drew the spear from the flesh, and his chest came with it; [505] so that at the same time he drew forth the spear-point and the soul of Sarpedon. And the Myrmidons held the snorting horses, trying to flee now that they had left their lord's chariot.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0134%3Abook%3D16%3Acard%3D394

Zeus Carries off Ganymede

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]
A circular depiction of bearded Zeus grabbing the arm of youthful Ganymede. Both are nude, with only a cloth draped over their arms, and a bird of prey is perched in Ganymede's arm.
Zeus and Ganymede, red-figure pottery, ca. 470 BCE (Ferrara Archaeological Museum).

One of Zeus' rapes in particular demonstrates the broad sexuality of men in the ancient Greek world. Gazing down from Mount Olympus one day, Zeus spies a beautiful young Trojan man named Ganymede. Disguising himself as an eagle, he swoops down and abducts the young man, bringing him to Olympus to serve as his personal cup-bearer and boy lover.

Ancient Greek men were not expected to be sexually faithful to their wives. Nor were they expected to have sexual relationships only with women. The categories of heterosexual and homosexual would have been unintelligible to the ancient Greeks. Rather, ancient Greek men were expected to take on an active, penetrative role in sexual relationships with people of various sexes and genders. They had nearly full sexual impunity– rape was an act of legal hubris, or "insult" against another man, rather than a violation of a woman's sexual and bodily autonomy. If a man raped a married woman, then he was liable to that woman's husband; if he raped an unmarried woman, then he might owe a penalty to that woman's father, depending on how wealthy the father was and how much his daughter's virginity was worth to him. The rape of an enslaved man, woman, or child, who was understood to be legally the property of their owner, was viewed as damage done to that property and the rapist might be liable for those damages. All of these power relations would have impacted how the ancient Greeks viewed Zeus and his sexual behavior towards young women and men.


Seated Zeus holding a scepter with an eagle perched atop it. Nude young Ganymede waits on him.
Zeus and Ganymede, red-figure krater, ca. 490 BCE Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).


Homeric Hymn 5, "To Aphrodite," 203-217 (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White, adapted by T. Mulder)

Greek hymn, ca. 7th - 4th century BCE

This passage from Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite, written in Greek sometime in the 7th-4th centuries BCE, describes Zeus' abduction of Ganymede. The second part of the passage shows the sort of transactional penalty that the rapist would have had to pay to the father of the victimized woman or man.


[203] Indeed wise Zeus carried off golden-haired Ganymede because of his beauty, to be among the Deathless Ones and pour drink for the gods in the house of Zeus– a wonder to see–, honoured by all the immortals as he draws the red nectar from the golden bowl. But grief that could not be soothed filled the heart of Tros; for he did not know where the heaven-sent whirlwind had taken his dear son, so that he mourned him always, unceasingly, until Zeus pitied him and gave him prancing horses such as carry the immortals, as recompense for his son. These he gave him as a gift. And at the command of Zeus, the guide, Argeiphontes, told him all, and how his son would be deathless and unageing, just like the gods. So when Tros heard this news from Zeus, he no longer kept mourning but rejoiced in his heart and rode joyfully with his storm-footed horses.

Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=HH%205.

For full hymn and context, see chapter 4.


Theognis, Fragment 1. 1345 (trans. D. Gerber)

Greek elegy, 6th century BCE

This passage, which may be contemporaneous with Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite, shows the connection between the story of Ganymede and the sexual practices of men in the ancient Greek world. Theognis was an ancient Greek lyric poet from Megara (a city 40 km west of Athens), who was writing in the 6th century BCE.

There is some pleasure in loving a youth, since once in fact even [Zeus] the son of Cronus king of the immortals, fell in love with Ganymede, seized him, carried him off to Olympus, and made him divine, keeping the lovely bloom of boyhood.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Ganymede.html


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Book 3 (trans. K. Aldrich)

Greek mythography, 2nd century CE

Writing in the 2nd century CE, the Greek mythographer known as Pseudo-Apllodorus, informs us that it was in the form of an eagle that Zeus carried off Ganymede, a detail that is evident much earlier in artistic depictions of the abduction.

[3.12.2] Tros married Scamander's daughter Callirhoe, had a daughter Cleopatra, and sons Ilus, Assaracus, and Ganymede. Because of his beauty, Zeus kidnapped Ganymede by means of an eagle, and made him cupbearer in the sky.

Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Ganymede.html


Young nude Ganymede is seated holding a bowl of food, and a large eagle is eating from the bowl.
Ganymede feeding the eagle, Roman relief, 1st century CE St. Petersburg State Hermitage Museum).

Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 10 (trans. A.D. Melville, adapted by T. Mulder)

Roman epic, ca. 1st century BCE-1st century CE

The figure of Ganymede was also important to the Romans. Here in Book 10 of the Metamorphoses, Ovid shows us Juno (Hera)'s reaction to Jupiter (Zeus) bring Ganymede to Mt. Olympus and making him the divine cupbearer to the gods.

[152] But now I need a lighter tune, to sing of boys beloved by gods and girls bewitched by lawless passions who paid the price of lust. The King of Heaven (Rex Superum) once was fired with love of Ganymede Phrygius (the Phrygian), and Zeus devised a trick to be something that he was not. But he wanted to be no bird other than one that had the power to bear his thunderbolts. At once his spurious pinions beat the breeze and off he swept Iliades [ Ganymede ]; who now, mixing the nectar, waits in heaven above, though Juno frowns, and hands the cup to Jove.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Ouranios/Ganymede.html

Zeus Punishes Tantalus

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Part of Zeus' time was his adjudication of right and wrong among gods and mortals. One story of his role as adjudicator involved his own son, Tantalus, the king of Lydia. Being his son, Tantalus was beloved by Zeus, but he wanted to test the real power of his divine father and the other Olympians. Tantalus invited the gods to a feast and served them a stew made from the flesh his own son, Pelops. The gods knew immediately that the meat they were served was human flesh (except for Demeter who was grieving for her missing daughter, Persephone, and had eaten a bit of Pelops’ shoulder). The gods grew very angry at Tantalus’ sacrilege. They put Pelops together again (giving him an ivory shoulder to replace the one that had been eaten) and Tantalus was punished in the Underworld by having to stand up to his neck in a lake that would recede any time he moved to take a drink and overhead was a tree with delicious, ripe fruit that would move away from him when he tried to reach up and grab one. This myth is the origin of the word "tantalize".


Pindar, Odes, "Olympian 1" (trans. D. A. Svarlien, adapted by P. Rogak)

Greek lyrical poem, 476 BCE

The ancient Greek poet, Pindar, wrote celebratory odes for victorious athletes. He often included mythological themes in these poems. Here, in his "Olympian Ode 1," written for Hieron of Syracuse's victory in single horse racing in the Olympic games of 476 BCE, Pindar recounts the myth of Tantalus.


His [Hieron of Syracuse's] glory shines in the settlement of fine men founded by Lydian Pelops, [25] with whom the mighty holder of the earth Poseidon fell in love, when Clotho took him out of the pure cauldron, furnished with a gleaming ivory shoulder. Yes, there are many marvels, and yet I suppose the speech of mortals beyond the true account can be deceptive, stories adorned with embroidered lies; [30] and Grace, who fashions all gentle things for men, confers esteem and often contrives to make believable the unbelievable. But the days to come are the wisest witnesses. [35] It is proper for a man to speak well of the gods; for the blame is less that way. Son of Tantalus, I will speak of you, contrary to earlier stories. When your father invited the gods to a very well-ordered banquet at his own dear Sipylus, in return for the meals he had enjoyed, [40] then it was that the god of the splendid trident [ Poseidon ] seized you, his mind overcome with desire, and carried you away on his team of golden horses to the highest home of widely-honoured Zeus, to which at a later time Ganymede came also, [45] to perform the same service for Zeus. But when you disappeared, and people did not bring you back to your mother, for all their searching, right away some envious neighbor whispered that they cut you limb from limb with a knife into the water's rolling boil over the fire, [50] and among the tables at the last course they divided and ate your flesh. For me it is impossible to call one of the blessed gods a glutton. I stand back from it. Often the lot of evil-speakers is profitlessness. If indeed the watchers of Olympus ever honoured a mortal man, [55] that man was Tantalus. But he was not able to digest his great prosperity, and for his greed he gained overpowering ruin, which the Father [Zeus] hung over him: a mighty stone. Always longing to cast it away from his head, he wanders far from the joy of festivity. He has this helpless life of never-ending labor, [60] a fourth toil after three others, because he stole from the gods nectar and ambrosia,[2] with which they had made him immortal, and gave them to his drinking companions. If any man expects that what he does escapes the notice of a god, he is wrong. [65] Because of that the immortals sent the son of Tantalus back again to the swift-doomed race of men.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0162%3Abook%3DO.

The God of Stoics

Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus (trans. R. Johnson)

Stoic Hymn, 3rd century BCE

Cleanthes was an Ancient Greek Stoic philosopher.  Stoics believed that pleasure and the passions (love, anger, fear, grief) were at odds with what was good and worthwhile, namely the rational life. A well-known Stoic maxim was that the goal of life is to "live consistently with nature." That is, to approach the vicissitudes of life with consistency and cheerful submission. Because the universe is ordered according to reason, they argued, humans should be content to follow that order.

This Hymn to Zeus is the largest piece of Cleanthes' writing that survives. It was preserved a 5th century CE anthology that contained extracts from earlier Greek writers. The Hymn is composed in dactylic hexameters, just like the Homeric Hymns.

Here Zeus is imagined as the principle of Reason which orders everything on earth and in the universe.


Most honoured of the immortals, of many names, all-powerful forever,
Zeus, Prime Mover of the universe, guiding everything according to law,
Hail! For it is right for mortals to address you.
For we are born from you, who alone have obtained the image of God,*
All of us mortal things who live and creep upon the earth:
For this I shall hymn you greatly and I shall forever sing of your power.
This whole universe revolving around the earth
Obeys you wherever you should lead it and is willingly mastered by you:
Such is the servant you hold in your unconquerable hands,
The two-edged, blazing, everlasting thunderbolt!
For every work of the universe is accomplished under threat of its strike
With it you guide the universal Reason, which travels
Through everything, mixing with the great and small lights.
[ . . . ]
In such a way you have become the supreme king for all time.
No deed comes upon the earth apart from you, God,
Neither in the divine vault of high heaven nor in the sea,
Except whatever deeds evil men do in their ignorance.
But you even know how to make the odd even,
And to order the disordered, and that which is not dear dear to you.
For so you have harmonized all the good with the bad into one
So that there is for all a single divine purpose (logos) which exists forever,
Those who flee it would be those among mortals who are wicked,
Ill-fated ones who are always coveting the gains of good men
Neither look to the universal law of God nor pay it heed,
In obeying it they would have a good life with sense:
But these men rush straightaway without sense, each to his own way,
Some make haste to unholy strife for the sake of honour,
Others turning to gains in no way decent,
Still others to indulgence and the pleasures of the body:
But they have their share of misfortunes, some at one time, others at another,
Though they altogether wish the opposite to come to pass.
But, O Zeus Giver of All, Wrapped in Dark Clouds, Lord of Lightning,
Deliver mankind from their destructive ignorance!
Disperse it, Father, from our soul, and grant that we
Obtain discernment, on which you are reliant as you steer everything with justice,
In order that when honoured we repay you with honour,
Hymning your deeds continuously, as is proper
For one who is mortal, since no other gift is greater for mortals
Or for gods than to hymn the everlasting universal law in justice.


*God in this text should be understood as Zeus in his capacity as the superseding intelligence of the universe, not as the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.


Art and Symbolism

In Greek art, Zeus was generally represented as a mature, bearded man.


Head of Zeus, bearded and wearing a crown of laurels.
Head of Zeus, gold coin, ca. 350 BCE (Cabinet des Medailles, Paris)

In vase painting, sculpture, and coins, Zeus was commonly represented clothed. He can often be seen sitting on a throne, sometimes holding a sceptre and wearing a laurel or olive crown, although his sacred tree was the oak.


Zeus and Hera seated on a throne. Zeus holds a scepter topped with an eagle. The winged goddess Iris is serving them.
Zeus, Hera, and Iris, red-figure amphora, ca. 500 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Berlin).

His two most recognizable attributes are the eagle and the thunderbolt. The latter is shaped like a sort of three-pointed spearhead, and it is sometimes showed being employed as a weapon during battles.


Zeus lunging forward wielding a thunderbolt in one hand.
Bronze statuette of Zeus, ca. 490 BCE (National Archaeological Museum of Greece, Athens)

When the artistic depictions portrayed certain myths, Zeus could also be represented in animal form. For instance, he is often shown as a white bull when the scene being depicted is the abduction of princess Europa, and as a swan during the rape of Leda.


Europa, a young woman, sitting on the back of a running bull.
Krater depicting Zeus in the form of a bull carrying off Europa (National Archaeological Museum, Paestum)


Europa, nude from the waist up, is seated on a golden bull. Three women watch, while one pets the bull.
Zeus as a bull and Europa, Pompei fresco, ca. 1st century CE (National Archaeological Museum, Naples)

After the Macedonian conquest of Egypt, local artists would sometimes add ram horns to the depiction of Zeus in order to stress the correspondence between the Greek god and his Egyptian counterpart, Amun.


The head of a statue of Zeus Ammon, a bearded man with culred ram's horns.
Zeus Ammon, Roman copy of a Greek statue from ca. 5th century BCE (Antikensammlung Munchen)

One of the most famous sculptures of Zeus was created by Pheidias around 435 BCE for the temple of the god in Olympia. The statue, made of gold and ivory over a wooden frame, depicted Zeus enthroned. He wore a crown, and held a Nike on his right hand and a sceptre in his left. His sandals rested on a footstool decorated with a relief representing the mythical fight between the Greeks and the Amazons. This artwork was reportedly 12.4 metres (41 ft) tall, and was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Although the original is lost, its appearance has been reconstructed on the basis of literary accounts and depictions on other media, such as coins and later copies.


Zeus seated in a temple holding a statue of Nike in his hand.
Ringstone impression of throned Zeus, Roman period.


Two sides of a coin. One side shows the head of Zeus, and the other shows Zeus seated holding a statue of Nike.
Drachma depicting Zeus' head (left) and Zeus Olympios, ca. 4th to 1st century BCE (right).


Jupiter on a throne holding a tall scepter in one hand and a golden bolt in the other. An eagle is sitting at his feet.
Jupiter with a scepter and eagle, Pompei fresco (Naples National Archaeological Museum).

Most of Jupiter's attributes in art were the same as his Greek counterpart, Zeus: the eagle, the sceptre, the thunderbolt, and the oak-tree. Jupiter was almost exclusively represented as a mature, bearded man, or as an animal if the myth being depicted told the story of one of his many transformations.

In Roman art, Jupiter could also be depicted as part of the so-called "Capitoline Triad" a group of three important deities consisting of Jupiter, his wife Juno, and his daughter Minerva, the goddess of war.


Seated robed figures of Minerva, Jupiter, and Juno. Each has a symbolic bird at their feet: Athena an owl, Jupiter and eagle, and Juno a peacock.
The capitoline triad of Minerva, Jupiter, and Juno, Roman statue, ca. 170 CE (Civic Archaeological Museum, Milan)


During the first century AD, some Roman Emperors were depicted in the guise of Jupiter in order to showcase their power and legitimacy.


Claudius standing holding a bowl in one hand and a scepter in the other. He is draped and wearing a laurel crown, and an eagle is at his feet.
Emperor Claudius as Jupiter, Roman statue, ca. 54 CE (Vatican Museums, Rome)
Nude torso of Tiberius wearing a laurel crown and drapings.
Emperor Tiberius as Jupiter, Roman statue, 1st century CE (Vatican Museums, Rome)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. Haimos signifies "blood" in Greek
  2. Drink and food of the gods


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Mythoi Koinoi Copyright © 2021 by Tara Mulder is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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