Who is Zeus?
As per ancient Greek religion, Zeus is the thunder and sky god who rules as the king of gods of Mount Olympus. The first element of Jupiter, his Roman equivalent, is cognate with his name. His powers and mythology, although not identical, are similar to those of Thor, Dyaus, Indra, Perun, Perkūnas, Jupiter, and other such Indo-European deities. As the ruler of heaven, Zeus led the gods in winning against the Giants, offspring of Tartarus and Gaea. Zeus also went on to successfully crush numerous revolts by his fellow gods against him.
As per Homer, the Greek poet, heaven was situated at the summit of Greece’s highest mountain, Olympus. It was considered to be the logical house of the weather god. Along with Zeus, the other members of their pantheon also lived there and were subject to Zeus’ will. Zeus was regarded as an omniscient observer of the affairs of humans, seeing everything from the exalted position at the top of Mount Olympus. He governed all, rewarded good conduct while punishing evil. Apart from dispensing justice, he shared a strong bond with Dike (Justice), his daughter. Zeus was seen as the protector of the home, cities, supplicants, property, guests, as well as strangers.
Looking at Zeus’ History
Zeus is considered to be the child of Rhea and Cronus. He was the youngest among all his siblings; however, at times, regarded as the eldest since the other offsprings needed disgorging from Cronus’ stomach. As per a Cretan myth that the Greeks adopted later, the Titans, Cronus, swallowed his offsprings right after they were born. He did so when he learned that one of his offsprings was fated to dethrone him.
Little Zeus, however, was saved by Rhea as she wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes and substituted it while hiding Zeus inside a cave over Crete. Cronus mistook the stone to be Zeus and swallowed it. Amalthea, a nymph or female goat, nursed Zeus in the cave while the young warriors, Curetes, guarded him. They clashed their weapons for disguising the cries of the infant. On reaching manhood, Zeus successfully dethroned Cronus after leading a revolt against the Titans. Perhaps, he did so with the help of his brothers Poseidon and Hades, and later, the three brothers divided dominion on the world.
Zeus and His Affairs
As per most traditions, Hera is married to Zeus, and their offsprings are Hephaestus, Hebe, and Ares. In the Oracle of Dodona, it was said that his consort was Dione, and from her, he fathered Aphrodite. This is what the Iliad states. The thunder god was quite infamous due to his erotic escapades. His affairs led to many heroic and divine offsprings. Zeus’ amorousness was a constant source of perpetual discourse with Hera, his wife. He had numerous love affairs with both immortal and mortal women. For achieving his amorous desires, he often transformed into animal forms.
For example, to ravish Hera, he took the form of a cuckoo. He also transformed into a swan and a bull for ravishing Leda and carrying off Europa, respectively. Among his children, the notable ones are Eileithyia, Hebe, Hephaestus and Ares by Hera, his wife; Dionysus, by Semele, the goddess, Persephone by Demeter, the goddess; the twins Artemis and Apollo, by Leto, the Titaness; Dioscuri and Helen by the Leda of Sparta; Athena born out of his head after Zeus swallowed the Titaness Metis; and many others.
How Many Children Did He Really Have?
As per numerous sources, it is impossible to answer the question for certain as some myths are not only confusing but are often conflicting with one another. While some say the number is more than 100, others suggest that Zeus actually had 54 children, out of which 31 were born by Divine unions. This would include the Three Graces: Thalia, Euphrosyne, and Aglaea; the Nine Muses: Urania, Terpsichore, Melpomene, Calliope, Erato, Clio, Polyhymnia, Thalia, and Euterpe; The Horae: First Generation- Thallo, Carpo, and Auxo, and the Second Generation- Eunomia, Eirene, and Dike; the Morai: Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos; as well as 23 by mortal (human) unions.
The Depiction of Zeus
Zeus was respected as the father of all the gods. He was regarded as the chief of the gods and the one to assign them roles. He was addressed as a father even by the gods, who were not his biological offsprings. Every god rises in his presence. Equations were made between him and numerous foreign gods, and this led Pausanias to state that “Zeus is king in heaven is a saying common to all men”. Oak, bull, eagle, and thunderbolt are the symbols of Zeus.
Apart from his Indo-European inheritance, this classical ‘cloud gatherer also draws some iconographic characteristics from cultures across the ancient Near-East, like the scepter. Greek artists have frequently depicted Zeus in one of the two poses: seated in majesty or striding and standing forward while thunderbolt levels within his raised right hand. He was also depicted as a mature, dignified, and bearded man with a stalwart build in numerous artworks. The thunderbolt and the eagle came out to be the most prominent symbols associated with him.
Contesting with Powerful Deities
Even though Greek religionists across the globe have regarded Zeus as omnipotent and the head of the pantheon, his very universality began reducing his importance compared to the mighty local divinities such as Hera and Athena. Even though the altars of Hospitable (Zeus Xenios) and statues of the Guardian of the House (Zeus Herkeios) were present in the houses’ forecourts, Zeus’ mountain-top shrines were flocked by pilgrims; the thunder god had no temple at Athens before the late sixth century BCE. Moreover, his temple at Olympia was built after the temple of Hera was constructed. (See also Why is Christianity popular in Europe? – Greek Mythology)