A few stories were given for the birth of Zeus, but by far the most common story was set on the island of Crete.
According to legend, Rhea hid her infant son in one of the caves beneath Mount Ida. There, he was able to grow strong enough to eventually challenge his father and take his place as the king of the gods.
Mount Ida is a good setting for this story. As Crete’s tallest peak it is prominent, but it’s also far enough removed from the center of Greek culture to be a plausible hiding place for the birth of a godling.
The reason Zeus was said to have been born and raised beneath Mount Ida, however, is probably not just the practicality of the location. It is due to the fact that Zeus’s childhood home was borrowed from the legends of a god who predated his arrival in Greece.
When Rhea, the wife of Cronus, became pregnant with Zeus she had already had five children taken from her.
Cronus had been told that one of his children would grow up to overthrow him. The make sure that this never came to pass, he took each of Rhea’s children at birth and swallowed it.
Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, and Hades had all been swallowed in this way. When Rhea learned that she was to have a fifth child, she was desperate to not have it stolen from her as well.
The Titaness went to her own mother, Gaia, to ask how she could keep her sixth child.
Gaia was sympathetic to the plight of a mother whose children were unjustly imprisoned. Six of her own children, the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchieres, had been shut away by their father as well.
The mother goddess agreed to help her daughter hide the child when the time came. Together, they devised a plan to save the infant Zeus.
When Rhea went into labor, Gaia took her to the island of Crete. She gave birth to her final child there, hidden from her husband’s sight.
Zeus remained on Crete when his mother returned to the palace of Cronus. Gaia created a cave in Mount Ida to hide his whereabouts.
Rhea and Gaia set the Corybants and Dactyls to watch over him. Not only did these warrior races protect the child from harm, but the noise they made disguised the newborn’s cries so Cronus would not hear him.
According to some versions of the story, Rhea also gave her son an unusual wetnurse. A giant goat, which was in turn guarded by an enormous dog, provided the newborn with milk as he grew.
Zeus was hidden, but Rhea could not disguise the fact that she had given birth. Rather than give up her child, she and Gaia devised a plan to trick Cronus into thinking he had been given the baby.
They selected a rock of the right size and weight and wrapped it in blankets. As they had expected, the greedy Cronus did not inspect the buddle but instead quickly swallowed what he thought to be his new son.
Rhea had succeeded in granting her son’s freedom. Zeus grew to adulthood beneath Mount Ida, unbeknownst to his father. When he was grown, he fulfilled the prophecy by freeing his siblings and usurping his father’s throne.
The mountain on Crete that sheltered him was considered one of the ancient world’s most holy sites. While Mount Ida was not the site of his largest temples, it remained a place of reverence for the shelter it provided to the newborn king of the gods.
Mount Ida is a real location on the island of Crete. Just as it attracted worshippers of Zeus in the ancient world, its scenic beauty and historical significance continue to draw tourists in the modern world.
It does seem unusual, however, for the king of the Greek pantheon to have been born on the island of Crete. In many myths, Crete is treated with ambivalence so it seems to be an unusual site for such a major scene in mythology.
The fact that Zeus’s birth did not take place on the mainland is seen by many as an indication that the story did not originate there, either.
The earliest Greek-speaking people to migrate into the Peloponnesian Pennisula are thought to have brought Zeus with them. This does not mean, however, that the god was not influenced by other sources.
One of the primary cultures that would have been encountered by the Greeks was that of the Minoans, the ancient inhabitants of Crete. During the Bronze Age they were a dominant power not only on their own island, but on the mainland as well.
Much of the Minoan religion remains a mystery because its earliest writing system has yet to be decoded. From later texts and artistic relics, however, we can tell that one of their chief gods was named Velchanos.
Velchanos does not appear to have been a sky god such as Zeus, but he was a principal deity in the Minoan pantheon. Many myths that probably involved Velchanos in ancient Crete, such as the abduction of Europa, were recast with Zeus by the Greeks.
Zeus also took on some of the Minoan god’s iconography. Symbols such as eagles and bulls that were part of Minoan religion became standard in depictions of Zeus.
Velchanos was the consort of the nature goddess, who may have been the supreme deity of the Minoan pantheon. Together, they lived at Mount Ida.
When the Greek Zeus adopted aspects of Velchanian mythology, the Minoan god’s home was included. The Greek gods already had a home on Mount Olympus, however, so Mount Ida was re-imagined as his birthplace.
An earlier story may have had a less prominent setting or have been left ambiguous. The adopted of the mythology of Velchanos, however, provided a hiding place for the infant god that was both appropriately prominent and practically removed from the more visible world of Greece.
Most of the mythology adopted from Crete appears to have been kept in that setting. The abduction of Europa, the legends of King Minos, and the Cretan Bull all have probable origins in the stories of Velchanos and the Minoan pantheon.
The birth of Zeus at Mount Ida is a link to Velchanos that was important far beyond Crete, however. The mountain on the island of King Minos provided the foundation for the rise of the Olympian pantheon.
According to most legends, Zeus was born beneath Mount Ida on the island of Crete.
His mother, Rhea, gave birth to him in secret so that he would not be swallowed by his father as his older siblings had been. Zeus remained hidden there while Rhea tricked her husband into swallowing a rock instead.
Rhea and Gaia took measures to ensure that the infant god would remain safe and hidden in a cave beneath the mountain. When he had grown to adulthood, he was able to fulfill his destiny and overthrow his tyrannical father and the Titans.
While Mount Ida is a prominent mountain, its location on Crete makes it an unusual setting for such an important event. Most Greek myths set on Crete are contained to the island’s setting, and often show ambivalence toward the area.
Like many other myths set on Crete, Zeus’s birthplace is probably borrowed from the Minoan god Velchanos. While the two gods had different domains, the position of Velchanos as a chief god of the Minoan pantheon led the Greek people to associate him with their own king of the gods.
The home of Velchanos and the nature goddess was reinterpreted as the place where a mother goddess brought forth the king of the gods. The birth and hiding of Zeus were not only important in the origin story of the Olympians, but also in the history of how Greek religion developed over time.