The Sons of Zeus
Many of the gods of Greece were known for their prolific parenting. It was not unusual for a god to have dozens of children.
Zeus was not the most virile of all the ancient deities. His uncle Oceanus, for example, was said to have fathered one thousand nymphs alone.
Zeus was, however, known for the prominence of his children. The sons of Zeus in particular stand out as some of the most celebrated figures in Greek mythology.
The ancient Greeks, particularly members of the ruling classes, put a great deal of stock in their ancestry. The fact that so many of them could trace their family tree back to the king of the gods was more than a source of pride – it was a possible source of power.
Zeus was the father of gods, heroes, and kings. While his wife may have done everything in her power to stop him from fathering so many children with other goddesses and mortal women, the king of the gods was known as much for his varied offspring as his kingship.
From great gods to forgotten kings, the sons of Zeus left their mark on the Greek world.
Officially, Zeus was married to his sister Hera. While a few of his children, such as Hera, were born before their union, many more were born after Hera became his wife.
The marriage was not always a happy one. Hera initially refused his advances, although she eventually entered into the marriage willingly.
Her husband, however, was a known philanderer. The king of the gods had dozens of affairs, mistresses, and illegitimate children through the ages.
Each affair, and the birth of each child, incited jealousy and hatred in Hera. The sons of Zeus in particular earned her ire.
While the children born to the god’s affairs were blameless in their own births, Hera saw each as a threat to her own son, Ares.
Hera had two sons. Hephaestus was generally said to have been born parthenogenically, that is without the involvement of a father, making Ares the only son born within the marriage of Zeus and Hera.
Despite this position, however, Ares was far from being his father’s favorite son.
The god of war was, by nature, quarrelsome. He existed to stir up conflict and delighted in the chaos and bloodshed of a heated battle.
While Zeus himself was known for his temper, the warlike nature of Ares often ran counter to Zeus’s role as the patron of justice and social order.
The king of the gods showed little affection for his only son by Hera. Every son born outside their marriage was, to Hera, another threat to Ares’s position within the hierarchy of Mount Olympus.
Hera had good reason to believe her husband would favor other sons over Ares, and her jealousy was often born from experience. Some of Zeus’s favorite sons were not even born as gods at all.
Many of the women Zeus had affairs with were mortal. Their sons were often born with enough of their father’s qualities to make them true heroes.
Probably the most famous of Zeus’s heroic mortal sons was Heracles. He also had the distinction of being made immortal and welcomed into the pantheon of Olympus as a god.
During his time on earth, Hera endeavoured to make her stepson’s life as difficult as possible. She even sent a pair of serpents to kill him when he was still a baby in his cradle.
When Heracles had grown to adulthood, Hera inflicted him with a madness that made him murder his own wife and children. His famous twelve labors were taken on to atone for this terrible crime.
Heracles had many more adventures after his period of atonement was complete. When he eventually died due to a terrible accident, he was taken to Olympus to sit beside his father as a god.
Remarkably, Hera seemed more accepting of the divine Heracles than she had been of the mortal hero. He married her daughter, Hebe, and enjoyed a peaceful domestic life among the gods.
Heracles was not the first member of his family to call Zeus his father. In fact, the hero came from a long line of semi-divine sons of Zeus.
His mother, Alcmene, was the granddaughter of Perseus. The most famous hero of his age was also one of Zeus’s celebrated mortal sons.
The son of Zeus and Danae is most remembered for killing Medusa, the deadly Gorgon. He also founded both the Mycenean and Perseid dynasties.
Of all the mortal sons of Zeus, Perseus and Heracles were arguably the most famous and accomplished. Heracles may have surpassed his great-grandfather’s fame largely because he could count Zeus as both his father and great-great-grandfather, giving him a slightly higher percentage of divine lineage.
The heroic mortal sons of Zeus had his favor, but no sons were as loved by Zeus as the Olympians.
While Ares was often ignored or even disparaged by his father, Apollo, Dionysus, and Hermes were often regarded as his favorite sons. He showed them a great deal of favor by elevating them to high positions within the hierarchy of the gods.
Apollo was the son to the Titaness Leto and the twin brother of Artemis. Before his birth, Hera was warned by a prophecy that Leto’s son would be favored by his father over her own.
Although she tried to prevent Leto from giving birth in every way she could, even holding the goddess of childbirth hostage to withhold her aid, Hera was not able to stop Apollo and Artemis from coming into the world.
From the moment they were born, it was clear that the twins would be powerful and well-loved deities.
The goddess Artemis was sometimes depicted as being doted on by her father, especially in her youth. But Apollo rose to great heights in the pantheon, becoming seen as an almost national god of the Greek people as a whole.
One hymn to Apollo described the joy with which he was received on Mount Olympus:
As he [Apollon] goes through the house of Zeus, the gods tremble before him, and all spring up from their seats when he draws near, as he bends his bright bow. But Leto alone stays by the side of Zeus who delights in thunder; and then she unstrings his bow, and closes his quiver, and takes his archery from his strong shoulders in her hands and hangs them on a golden peg against a pollar of his father’s house. Then she leads him to a seat and makes him sit: and the Father gives him nektar in a golden cup welcoming his dear son, while other gods make him sit down there, and queenly Leto rejoices because she bare a mighty son and an archer. Rejoice, blessed Leto, for you bare glorious children…
-Homeric Hymn 3 to Delian Apollon 2 – 148 (trans. Evelyn-White)
Apollo was revered as a great god from the moment he was born, but his younger half-brother Hermes won Zeus’s affection through wit.
Hermes, the son of the nymph Maia, was born in secret. Zeus had managed to keep his visits to Maia a secret from both his wife and the court of gods so no one knew when she gave birth to his son.
Hermes was a born trickster. On the first night of his life he crept from his crib while his mother slept and stole the prized cattle of Apollo on a whim.
The older son of Zeus was only able to track the thief because of his prophetic gifts, and even Maia could not believe that her newborn child was capable of such mischief.
Apollo took the baby to Olympus to be judged by their father, but the proceedings did not go as he might have planned. Instead of being angry at the infant god’s misdeeds, Zeus was enamoured with his new son’s quick wit and humor.
Despite his knack for making trouble, Hermes was welcomed by the Olympians as one of their own. He became Zeus’s messenger and herald, giving him the authority to speak on his father’s behalf.
And in spite of their rocky start, Hermes and Apollo became friends as well. The gift of the newly-invented lyre smoothed over any anger Apollo felt over the theft of his cattle and established the elder brother as the god of music and poetry.
While Maia kept her pregnancy a secret from Hera, Semele was not so lucky. Hera tricked the human girl into seeing Zeus in all his divine glory, resulting in her immediate death.
Hera could not prevent the birth of Semele’s son, though. Zeus sewed the unborn child into his own leg, cutting Dionysus out when it was time for his birth.
Despite his mother’s mortal nature, Zeus welcomed Dionysus to Mount Olympus as a god. He was the god of wine, feasting, and merriment.
Hera tried again to destroy him, cursing him with madness as she had done to Heracles. Dionysus roamed the world, spreading his gift of wine to all the people he encountered.
Dionysus was eventually cured of his temporary insanity, although madness was forever part of his infamous revels. Zeus’s wife was forced to accept that yet another of her husband’s sons had been welcomed into the company of the Olympians and was more well-loved than her own son, Ares.
Not all of Zeus’s sons were heroes or gods. Among the mortals and semi-divine sons of Zeus, however, several still left their mark on the Greek world.
Dozens of Zeus’s supposed sons became kings and the ancestors of entire nations. Sometimes this lineage was a matter of local legend, but often it was an established and widely-held belief throughout the region.
An incomplete list of the royal sons of Zeus is still an impressive overview of Greece and the Mediterranean. Virtually every land in the region could trace its ruling heritage back to the king of the gods.
- Arcas – The son of the nymph Callisto became the founding king of Arcadia.
- Dardanus – Electra’s son founded the city that bore his name.
- Aeacus – He ruled the island of Aegina, named for his nymph mother. He became one of the three kings assigned to rule over the fate of souls sent to the underworld.
- Amphion – The king of Thebes built the city along with his brother, Zethus. He is often remembered as the husband of Niobe, the queen whose disparaging words about Leto lead to the deaths of her fourteen children.
- Epaphus – Io’s son was one of the few survivors of the great flood that killed most of humanity in the Bronze Age. He became the king of Egypt, the father of Queen Libya, and a distant ancestor of Perseus and Heracles.
- Minos – The first king of Crete and namesake of the Minoan culture was the son of Zeus and Europa.
- Samon – The unifier of the many people of Samothrace was the son of Zeus and a nymph.
- Hellen – The ancestor of all Greek-speaking people gave his name to Hellenic culture.
- Tantalus – The king of Phrygia is most remembered for the punishment he was doomed to endure in Tartarus.
- Lacedaemon – He was the eponymous founder of the city-state more commonly known as Sparta.
- Iarbus – The son of an unnamed nymph from Africa became the first ruler of Numidia.
- Endymion – Sometimes called the king of Elis, the lover of the moon goddess Selene may have also been Zeus’s son.
- Pirithous – The friend of Theseus was also the king of the Lapith people of Larissa.
- Arcesius – The early king of Ithaca was the grandfather of Odysseus.
- Argus – The founder of Argos was another of Zeus’s mortal sons.
- Graecus – The son of Zeus and Pandora was said to be the ancestor of all Greek people.
- Latinus – Graecus’s brother was similarly the legendary ancestor of Latin speakers.
- Dorus – The founder of the Dorian nation was the son of Protogeneia.
- Aegyptus – He was the legendary founder of Egypt and the ancestor to its kings.
- Magnes – His name was given to the land of Magnesia.
- Makednos – The brother of Magnes founded Macedonia.
- Corinthos – In local tradition, the founder of Corinth was a son of Zeus.
The list of Zeus’s sons that became kings or established new cities is long. Added grandsons and further generations would tie virtually every city-state and foreign land known to the Greeks back to the king of Olympus.
There was a good reason so many cities and nations claimed to have been founded by sons and grandsons of Zeus. Beyond the belief that sons of a god were destined by birth to be leaders, such a lineage also gave legitimacy to a ruling family’s claim to power.
Zeus was the king of the gods, the highest authority in the cosmos. Descent from Zeus meant that a king’s claim to power was based on divine heritage, not weaker mortal laws.
When a king claimed his family tree went back not just to a god, but to the king of Olympus, it strengthened his claim to power. The divine blood running through him, even if watered down after many generations, gave him a greater right to rule than someone from a purely mortal background.
The same held true for entire cities and countries. The claim that a place was established by a god’s child or grandchild implied that the god himself favored the inhabitants and rulers of that city as his descendants.
Of course, in many cases it is obvious that supposed descent from Zeus was an invention of later eras and not a long-held belief. Newer colonies, for example, would sometimes claim ancient divine origins in an attempt at establishing greater authority and legitimacy.
One of the most famous examples of this was the Roman hero Aeneas. In an effort to establish their ancient origins and link to the Greek past, the early Romans borrowed the figure of Aeneas from the Iliad and created a mythology in which the son of Venus (Aphrodite) traveled west to found Rome.
Aeneas married Lavinia, the daughter of Zeus’s son Latinus. His first wife, Creusa was the daughter of King Priam of Troy and the goddess Hecuba.
The creation of the myth of Aeneas gave the Romans a claim to a heritage that included three major deities in the Greco-Roman pantheon and the legendary king of Troy. The claims continued as early kings of other European lands, like Britain, claimed their own ancestry from Aeneas’s sons.
The idea of claiming a god, particularly Zeus, as the ancestor of kings helped to establish monarchies based on divine authority as well as mortal lineage.
Of course, not all of those said to be Zeus’s sons were always agreed upon.
The surviving Greek sources often provide incomplete or contradictory information about many aspects of Greek mythology, including the parentage of many figures.
The Greek myths were written down over a period of nearly a thousand years, with oral traditions dating back long before even the earliest written records. In addition, local variations of the legends led to further discrepancies between the stories that were handed down.
As a result, there is no complete or definitive list of the children of any of the Greek gods, including Zeus. Many of the figures that were regarded as his children by one writer were given a different father in another source.
Some of Zeus’s sons are only mentioned once in the surviving texts, making it even more unclear whether they were widely regarded as mythological figures or sprang from the imagination of a single writer.
With the exception of the most well-known gods and heroes, nearly every minor deity and mortal ruler that was called a son of Zeus in one source was given a contradictory background in another.
One of the best illustrations of the murky parentage of some of Zeus’s offspring can be seen in the story of Leda and her four children.
Leda was a human woman who was married to King Tyndareus. In the most common version of her myth, Zeus came to her in the form of a swan.
Leda laid several eggs from which her children were born. Having both a mortal husband and a divine lover, it was assumed that half her children belonged to Tyndareus and half to Zeus.
There is no agreement among the sources as to which children were fathered by each, however. In fact, there is not even agreement over how many children Leda had in this way or what their names were!
Most versions of the story settled on four children being hatched from Leda’s eggs, two boys and two girls.
The boys, Castor and Pollux (Polydeuces) were often linked as twins. Her daughters Clytemnestra and Helen became famous queens.
But almost every ancient writer divided the parentage of the four children differently. Helen, whose elopement with Paris sparked the Trojan War, was said by some writers to have been fully mortal while others had her eventually brought to Mount Olympus as a fully-recognized goddess!
The four children of Leda provide just one example of how difficult it can be to determine which characters in Greek mythology can be properly described as children of Zeus. All four featured prominently in the myths of the Trojan War and the twins went on to play a role in the founding mythology of Rome, but even among such well-known figures it is impossible to say for sure which had divine lineage.
Of course, Zeus did not just father sons.
As numerous as his male children were, he had even more daughters.
Many were grouped in sisterhoods. The Moirai and Horai, the Fates and the Seasons, were all said to be his daughters, as were the nine Muses.
As prominent as his divine sons were, the goddesses he fathered were just as revered. In addition to Artemis, Athena and Persephone played major roles in the mythology of Greece.
While his human sons often became kings, many of his daughters were queens. Some later married other gods, further tying them to the intricate family tree of Olympus.
One thing that remained consistent, however, was that the children he had with Hera were never as beloved as his favorites among his mistresses’ children. Hera’s daughters, from the vicious Eris to the loving Hebe, never achieved the fame of Athena or Helen of Troy.
Zeus was married to Hera but was infamous for his many extramarital affairs. As a result of his many infidelities he was the father to dozens, if not hundreds, of children.
Hera often made her jealousy known by sabotaging Zeus’s mistresses, their sons, or both. Much of her jealousy was fuelled by the preference Zeus seemed to show for his other sons over Hera’s own child, Ares.
Two of Greece’s greatest heroes were famous sons of Zeus. Both Perseus and his great-grandson Heracles were the offspring of the king of the gods and a mortal princess.
Three of his favorite sons were accepted as gods of Olympus at birth, even if their mothers were of a lower station. Apollo, Hermes, and Dionysus were all sons of Zeus who became central figures in the pantheon of Mouth Olympus.
In addition to his most well-known sons, dozens of kings were said to be sons and grandsons of the king of the gods. Human rulers claimed their dynasties or cities were founded by sons of Zeus to give greater legitimacy and divine authority to their claims of power.
It is impossible to say with certainty, however, how many children Zeus had or which mortal men were truly considered his sons. Sparse and contradictory accounts make the lineages of many mythological figures hazy even in stories as famous as the birth of Leda’s children from swan eggs.
What is consistent in the myths of the sons of Zeus, however, was that the king of the gods fathered many sons and showed little preference for the children of his lawful wife. While Ares and his sisters were often ignored or disparaged, other children of Zeus rose to great acclaim among both humans and gods.