Zeus Greek God of Thunder and King of the Gods
If you’ve read Greek myths, you’ve heard about Zeus. The king of the gods, he ruled from his throne on Mount Olympus.
Whether you know him as the Greek Zeus or as the Roman Jupiter or Jove, the image of a white-bearded god hurling his thunderbolt is familiar.
But Zeus wasn’t always a great and glorious king. He was as famous for his many affairs and horrible temper as he was for his wisdom and justice.
The Greeks saw their gods as having human traits, and these stories show that even the king of their gods had some very human flaws!
Despite being the ruler of the gods, Zeus wasn’t the oldest among them. He wasn’t even from the first generation.
Before Zeus and the Olympians took power, the universe was ruled by the Titans. Uranus, the heavens, and Gaia, the earth, had given birth to this older generation of gods before anything else existed.
Chronos, one of the Titans, eventually rebelled against Uranus at his mother’s urging. Gaia gave Chronos a sickle made of adamantine and he attacked his father.
Chronus became the new king of the Titans after he defeated his father. He soon became a tyrant who was obsessed with keeping hold of power.
Chronus believed that one of his children would someday grow powerful enough to overthrow him. To prevent this, he swallowed each of his wife Rhea’s babies as soon as they were born.
With her sixth pregnancy, Rhea fled to the island of Crete in secret. There she gave birth to a son, Zeus.
Zeus was hidden there and nursed by a great she-goat, Amalthea. The constellation Capricorn was created to honor her.
Two great warriors, the Curites, guarded the child and taught him to fight as he grew older. When Zeus cried as a baby, they banged their shields to drown out the noise.
The Titaness tricked her husband into swallowing a stone instead by wrapping it in swaddling blankets. Chronos believed it was her new baby.
Zeus grew into adulthood and returned to challenge his father.
Zeus disguised himself as a cupbearer. Metis, one of the daughters of Oceanus, offered to help him.
The two tricked Cronus into swallowing a magical drink that would force him to vomit. When he threw up the children he had swallowed, they joined with their brother to fight against him.
Zeus also freed the Hecatonchieres and the Cyclopes, monstrous children of Gaia who had been locked away through the age of the Titans. They fought for Zeus and, as thanks for his freedom, gave him powerful thunderbolts to use as a weapon.
The thunderbolts would forever be one of Zeus’s greatest attributes. His brothers received gifts as well – a helmet for Pluto and a trident for Poseidon.
As the war began, Zeus saw an eagle fly overhead. He took this as a favorable omen and adopted the eagle as his symbol and the emblem of victory.
By some accounts the Titanomachy, the great war between the gods, lasted for ten years. In the end, Zeus and his allies prevailed.
The Titans, except for the few who had taken Zeus’s side, were banished to the deepest region of the underworld. The Hecatonchieres were set to guard them.
The old gods had officially been defeated, and Zeus’s new gods had come to power. They established their home on Mount Olympus and began the task of ruling the universe.
The Olympians were not done fighting for their throne.
Although Gaia had advised them on how to defeat the Titans, she was angry that her children were imprisoned. She raised the Gigantes to challenge the new gods.
Who, or what, the Gigantes were is open to debate. Some stories show them as a savage race much like humans. Others portray them as true Giants, often with the tails of serpents in place of legs.
The resulting war was known as the Gigantomachy. It was fought on the Plains of Phlegra, although no one could agree where the plains were located.
The strength of the gods against their opponents was detailed by Greek writers and artists, with each god facing off and defeating a particular foe.
One of the first giants to fall was Porphyrion. Seeing the giant attacking Hera and tearing her clothes off, Zeus smote him with a bolt of thunder at the same time as Heracles fired an arrow.
Among the last giants left standing was their leader, Olympos. He was struck down by Zeus.
The few remaining giants fled. Those who had fallen were buried by the gods.
It was said that their writhing attempts to break free were the cause of volcanic eruptions at sites like Mount Vesuvius.
One of the many legends of the creation of humans was that the first men had been born from the drops of giant blood that soaked the earth after the conflict.
When the fighting was done, the gods divided the world and its powers between them. They drew lots – Poseidon received the sea, Pluto got the underworld, and Zeus became king over all of them.
But Gaia was not done trying to punish them for imprisoning the Titans.
Mother Earth gave birth to one more child, a horrible monster fathered by Tartarus itself. Typhoeus would be her greatest attempt at revenge.
Typhoeus was the strongest of all Gaia’s children. A mixture of man and beast, he was a terrible giant.
His great wings were so massive that they brushed the sky. He had a hundred serpent’s heads for fingers and a hundred heads, each of a different animal or monster.
Fire spewed from his mouth and he had the power to create massive, deadly storms.
In early versions of the fight against Typhoeus, the great giant was unable to take Zeus by surprise. Just in time, the king brought down a massive thunderbolt that knocked the creature to the ground.
Typhoeus fled, his great heat melting the earth and creating metals. Zeus prevailed and cast the monster into Tartarus.
Later writers told a more elaborate version of the story.
In these myths, the gods were forced to flee Olympus when Typhoeus attacked. They fled toward Egypt as the monster hurled balls of fire after them.
Zeus stayed to fight, throwing lightning. Finally he attacked with the same adamantine sickle once used by Chronus.
The two fought, and Typhoeus grabbed the sickle out of Zeus’s hands. Holding the king in the coils of his snake tail, Typhoeus cut through the sinews of Zeus’s hands and legs.
Unable to fight or flee, the disabled Zeus was carried across the sea.
Hermes and Aegipan were able to steal the sinews back, restoring Zeus to full strength.
Zeus reappeared in his grand chariot and pursued Typhoeus. The chase continued throughout the Mediterranean.
Typhoeus turned to throw a mountain down on Zeus. The god’s thunderbolts crashed into it, pushing it back against Typhoeus and breaking his body.
The fires of Mount Etna were said to be remains of the lightning and fire from that battle.
Typhoeus was imprisoned, with the rest of Gaia’s children, in Tartarus. Even from there, he was able to send horrible storms blowing across the world.
Before he fell, Typhoeus had fathered children with the rotting she-dragon Echidna. Their monstrous children, including the Sphynx, Cerberus, and Scylla, would be the foes of gods and heroes throughout the ages.
With the great wars for power concluded, the gods turned their attention to ruling. For the first time, Zeus had to pay attention to the world of mortals.
The king of the gods had taken little notice of the affairs of mankind. This was the Golden Age, a time of simplicity and peace when men lived for hundreds of years.
Zeus only started to pay attention to humans when he realized what great things they produced. Specifically, the animals they raised for food.
As a king, Zeus as his fellow gods were entitled to a share of what men grew. But the immortals and the humans could not agree on how to divide the sacrifice.
Zeus asked Prometheus, one of the only Titans who had sided with him in the wars, to help settle the matter.
Prometheus sacrificed a bull and divided the carcass into two containers.
The first had all the best cuts of meat, but was covered by rough hides and unappetising scraps. The second had a few rich pieces of fatty meat on top, but concealed underneath were nothing but bones.
Zeus chose the most attractive looking portion, not realising that it concealed bones. Humans kept the best meat for themselves, and Zeus was made to look foolish.
As angry as he was to get nothing but scrap and bone from the humans, he was just as furious at being outsmarted.
His first act of revenge was to take fire away from the humans so they could not cook the meat they’d won. Prometheus, seeing that the humans would freeze without fire, stole it back from Zeus’s hearth.
Zeus was enraged. He decided to give mankind a punishment it couldn’t escape from so easily.
He ordered Hephaestus to craft a beautiful woman. He sent her to Epimetheus, the careless brother of Prometheus.
The woman was named Pandora, and with her she carried her infamous jar.
She opened the jar almost immediately after marrying Epimetheus. Out of it flew all the curses Zeus and the gods had stuffed inside – old age, disease, and all types of suffering.
When Pandora was through, only hope remained in the jar.
Zeus had gotten his revenge on humanity in a way that Prometheus could not undo. But he still wanted revenge on the Titan who had tricked him and defied his will.
Prometheus was captured and bound by unbreakable chains to a great rock in the mountains. Every day a giant eagle came to claw at him and tear out his liver.
Being immortal, this would not kill Prometheus. Every morning his liver regrew itself, so the bird could return.
The Titan’s torture lasted thousands of years.
The Golden Age had ended. Then men of the Silver Age lived short lives, and because of that they found piety to be a waste of time.
Zeus destroyed them for insulting the gods.
He gave mortals one more chance. He made the first men of the Bronze Age from ash trees.
The Bronze Age proved to be worse than the Silver. The people were cruel and violent.
In this age, the king of Arcadia sacrificed a young boy in the name of the gods. This act of cruelty was so repulsive that Zeus felt no choice but to destroy mankind yet again.
Zeus flooded the earth. With the help of other deities, Poseidon in particular, he caused water to engulf all but a few mountaintops.
The plashing rain of Zeus laid waste with Deluge all the earth. And their towers were hurled to the ground, and the people set themselves to swim, seeing their final doom before their eyes. And on oat and acorn and the sweet grape browsed the whales and the dolphins and the seals that are fain of the beds of mortal men.
-Lycophron, Alexandra 72 ff (trans. Mair)
A few humans escaped the flood. Among them were Deucalion, who Prometheus had managed to warn, and his wife Pyrrah.
When the floodwater receded, the first thing Deucalion and Pyrrah did was offer prayers to Zeus for sparing them. They then went from temple to temple, asking all the gods for advice on how just one couple could repopulate the world.
Zeus had wanted mankind dead, but the piety of Deucalion and Pyrrah moved him. He allowed them to follow an oracle’s advice and plant stones to grow into new men and women.
These men and women spread throughout the earth and, along with other scattered survivors, remade mankind. Deucalion and Pyrrah’s son Hellen became the ancestor of all Greeks.
The Age of Heroes had begun, and Zeus would never again try to destroy the entire human race. However, he still brought down harsh punishments on men who angered him.
When Tantalos stole ambrosia, he was sent to Tartarus with a fitting punishment. He would spend eternity standing in a pool of water he could not drink, tormented by hunger at the sight of grapes he could never reach.
The torturous feeling of not being able to get ahold of the grapes that would satisfy his hunger gave us the word “tantalizing.”
Lycaon is one of the names given for the king who sacrificed a baby in Zeus’s name. Zeus destroyed all his sons and turned the wicked man into a wolf.
Ixion was an infamously wicked king who, despite having murdered his own father-in-law to avoid paying a dowry, was invited to dine with the gods at Olympus. While there, he made obvious attempts to seduce Hera.
Zeus couldn’t believe that a mortal guest would behave so badly, so he made a copy of his wife from a cloud. Ixion not only forced himself on this false Hera, but later bragged about having slept with the wife of Zeus.
Ixion was tied to a giant wheel of fire and sent spinning around the heavens for all eternity.
Phaethon was a son of Helios who convinced his father to let him drive the chariot of the sun. Zeus was forced to strike him down when he lost control, burning Africa and freezing the north.
Salmoneus was an arrogant ruler who demanded his people worship him as the incarnation of mighty Zeus. He too, was struck by lightning.
Sisyphus angered Zeus many times. As king he made his city rich, but he violated Zeus’s laws of hospitality by murdering visitors to prove his might.
Zeus had him sent to Hades, but the human king tricked Thanatos into freeing him. Death could not function and the world was thrown into chaos.
Before being sent back to the underworld, Sisyphus convinced his wife to throw his body into the agora. The dead king then convinced Persephone to send him back to earth to avenge this supposed dishonor.
Zeus and the gods were furious, especially when Sisyphus bragged that he was more cunning than Zeus himself. In the end, Hermes was dispatched to drag the man back to Tartarus.
The punishment of Sisyphus became synonymous with an impossible task. He was made to push a giant boulder up a hill, but as soon as it reached the top it would roll back down and he would have to start all over again.
One of Zeus’s roles was to oversee oaths and vows, and to administer justice to those who broke them. But when it came to his own vows, Zeus was less than careful about keeping them.
After the Titanomachy, Zeus married Metis. She was expecting her first child when Zeus heard a disturbing prophesy that Metis would bear a son with the power to overthrow his father.
To protect himself, Zeus turned the Titaness into a fly and swallowed her whole. Months later, Zeus began to suffer from horrific headaches.
In despiration, he ordered Hephaestus to smash his skull with a hammer so that he might discover the cause of his pain. Athena was born fully-formed and clothed in armor from the wound in his head.
In the meanwhile, Zeus had married his sister, Hera. She had attempted to avoid him for a while, but he had turned himself into a cuckoo to get close to her.
For three hundred years, the couple was happy together. They had several children, most notably the war god Ares, and lived peaceably.
But a few centuries of happiness isn’t long for immortals, and Zeus quickly gained a reputation for lechery.
Zeus’s many lovers and children are almost too numerous to name.
Some of his children, like Athena, grew to be great gods in their own right.
Other children of Zeus became great heroes, boasting power beyond that of normal men. Often, these heroes were later accepted as gods themselves.
Zeus was not above using tricks in seduction. When he was attracted to the beautiful Alcmene, for example, he disguised himself as the woman’s husband so she would sleep with him.
Another famous son of Zeus was Perseus. His mother, Danae, had been impregnated by Zeus in the form of a shower of gold.
Other famous affairs and offspring of Zeus include:
- Leda – Seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan, she laid four eggs. The children hatched from them were Clytemnestra, Helen of Troy, and the twins Castor and Pollux.
- Europa – She was carried off to create by Zeus when he transformed into a white bull. She gave birth to three sons, one of whom was King Minos.
- Mnemosyne – The goddess of memory, she gave birth to the Muses.
- Themis – The Titaness was the mother of the three Fates and the Horae, minor goddesses of time and the seasons.
- Callisto – The nymph was once a priestess of the virgin goddess Artemis, but Zeus disguised himself as Artemis to get close to her. Hera turned her into a bear, which became the constellation Ursa Major.
- Io – The priestess of Hera was transformed into a white cow by her jealous mistress and spent years wandering the world to avoid both Hera and Zeus.
- Lamia – After Hera destroyed her children, Lamia became a child-eating monster.
Zeus was the father of dozens of nymphs, many minor gods and goddesses, and the founders of many ancient cities.
Like many of the Greek gods, Zeus also took a particular liking to a handsome young man. Ganymede was so beautiful that Zeus transformed into an eagle to take him to Mount Olympus, making him the immortal cupbearer of the gods.
Hera features in many of the stories of Zeus’s affairs and children. Jealous of her husband’s many mistresses, she often caused great problems for them and their children.
While he was, as the king, called the father of all the gods and men the myths made this title very often literal.
For the modern world, one of the greatest legacies of Zeus is the Olympic Games.
Celebrated every four years at his temple at Olympia, the games brought men together from every part of Greece in a national celebration.
In the ancient world, the Olympics were about more than sports. They were an opportunity to share culture, even in times of war, in the worship of their greatest god.
The earliest legend of the games said that the four Dactyls raced one another to entertain the infant Zeus. He crowned the winner with an olive wreath, which became a lasting symbol of peace.
For the Greeks, feats of athleticism were a form of worship. The strongest and fastest among them would pray for victory and credit the gods for giving them their skills.
For the duration of the games, peace was declared throughout Greece. The various city-states were constantly fighting amongst each other, but all hostilities ended for the duration of the Olympiad.
The Greeks hosted four such events, the Panhellenic Games, on a rotating schedule. But none of the other festivities ever compared to the size and importance of Zeus’s games.
The games were so important that they could form lasting alliances between cities. For example, the colony of Cyrene succeeded in part because Sparta agreed to loan them a three-time champion to appeal to would-be colonists.
The games served as a venue for asserting strength and forming alliances, even if formal activities of war were on hold.
While the games began as a running contest, they eventually consisted of over twenty events including chariot races, wrestling, and the pentathlon.
At the center of the Olympiad was the great temple of Zeus. Its alter was made entirely of the ashes piled up after centuries of sacrifices.
In the middle of the celebration, one hundred oxen would be sacrificed to Zeus and added to the great ashen altar.
Towering over all was the great statue of Zeus. Standing 13 meters tall, the massive ivory and gold statue was counted as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
As king of the gods, Zeus certainly held an important place in Greek religion. But being all-powerful might have actually made Zeus seem less important to most people.
The Olympic games were one of the major events on the calendar, but most people would only hear second-hand stories about them. Few Greeks would visit the great temple or see the massive statue.
While Greeks all largely believed in the same gods, particular attention was given to local deities.
The Athenians were devoted to Athena. Apollo was a patron of Sparta and had cults at Delphi and Delos. Far-flung colonies relied on Tyche for good fortune.
While the people of any of these cities worshipped Zeus, in times of need they were more likely to appeal to the local god they believed was most invested in the fortunes of their city.
Temples and altars to Zeus were common, and his image was seen throughout the Greek world. But many times he was pictured in association with a god or goddess that more directly impacted people’s daily lives.
Minor gods were more personal. Virtually every home had a household altar to the deity that matched the owner’s profession, need, and location.
Zeus was a king and oversaw the lofty ideals of law and justice. For the working people of Greece, it made sense to pray more often to a god that specialized in your profession.
With hundreds of gods being worshipped, even the king of them was just one of many. Most people had little reason to appeal to him directly in their daily lives.
In that, he was very like human kings. Citizens might go to local courts or lesser nobles, but it was rare that a commoner would directly ask the king for help or advice.
Even at Mount Olympus, the temple to his wife Hera predates his own.
Zeus was a god of great ideals, terrible power, and enormous strength. Most Greeks had more practical concerns, however, and common worship of Zeus was often less than it was for the lesser gods he ruled over.
Zeus isn’t just a Greek god, in some ways he’s the most Greek god. A strong king who ruled over justice, Zeus embodies classical ideals.
But the Greeks didn’t invent Zeus.
Zeus belongs to a wide family of sky gods. This archetype is so widespread that his name can be clearly traced to Proto-Indo-European language – the root *dyeu is found in the Sanskrit Dyaus, Latin Iovis (Jove), and Norse Tyr.
Zeus has a lot in common with gods like the Norse Odin, Slavic Perun, and Vedic Indra. Strong kings who ruled with wisdom and thunder, they’re even depicted with the same imagery.
In some ways, though, Zeus really is uniquely Greek.
Unlike many cultures, the Greek gods had some of the same flaws and shortcomings as humans. They could be petty, jealous, and short-sighted.
The Greek gods could make mistakes.
In that way, Zeus isn’t just another sky god. He’s a distinctly Greek king.