Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology
The Beginnings — Loves of Zeus
After deposing Cronus, Zeus and his brothers drew lots to see which portion of the world would be ruled by each. Zeus thus gained the mastery of the sky, Poseidon of the seas, and Hades of the underworld. It was also decreed that earth, and Olympus in particular, would be common to all three. In addition to having the most power, Zeus gained another advantage from his position as, a sky god, since it allowed him free access to any beauty that took his fancy. Indeed, as a sky god it was expected of him to fecundate the earth; and neither goddess, nymph, nor mortal was able to resist his advances, for the most part.
Zeus had had other wives before Hera. The first was Metis (Wisdom), whom Zeus swallowed just before she gave birth to Athena because he knew that her second child would dethrone him. Yet in order to allow Athena to live, as Metis' firstborn, Zeus (in some Greek sources) had Hephaestus take an axe and cleave his forehead open, and from Zeus's head sprang Athena, fully armed. By swallowing Metis, however, Zeus had gained wisdom as part of his intrinsic nature.
His second wife, Themis (Divine Justice), gave birth to the Seasons, to Wise Laws, to Human Justice, to Peace, and to the Fates. His third wife was Eurynome, an ocean nymph, and she bore the three Graces. Zeus then was attracted by his sister Demeter, who resisted him. But he violated her in the form of a bull, and from their union came Persephone. His next wife was the Titaness Mnemosyne (Memory), who produced the Nine Muses. Leto was said to be one of Zeus's consorts. She gave birth to Artemis and Apollo after a good deal of persecution at Hera's hands.
Zeus finally became enamored of the goddess who was to become his permanent wife — Hera. After courting her unsuccessfully he changed himself into a disheveled cuckoo. When Hera took pity on the bird and held it to her breast, Zeus resumed his true form and ravished her. Hera then decided to marry him to cover her shame, and the two had a resplendent wedding worthy of the gods. It took no great foresight to see that their marriage was bound to be quarrelsome and unhappy, given Zeus's lust and Hera's jealousy.
Their union brought forth four children: Hebe, the cupbearer to the gods; Ares, the god of war; Ilithyia, a goddess of childbearing; and Hephaestus, the craftsman of the gods. Perhaps in retaliation for Zeus's giving birth to Athena. Hera claimed that Hephaestus was virgin-born. Zeus never cared much for his two legitimate sons, Ares and Hephaestus. And his two legitimate daughters were almost nonentities. One time Hephaestus interfered in a quarrel between Zeus and Hera, siding with his mother. In a rage Zeus hurled his ugly son down from Olympus to the isle of Lemnos, crippling him forever.
The arguments between Zeus and Hera were fairly frequent As Zeus continued to have one affair after another, Hera could not punish him because he was much stronger than she was. But she could avenge herself on the females with whom Zeus dallied, and she often took full advantage of this.
A number of Zeus's affairs resulted in new gods and godesses. His liaison with Metis, of course, produced the warrior goddess of wisdom and courage, Athena. One night as Hera slumbered, Zeus made love to one of the Pleiades, Maia, who gave birth to the tricky messenger of the gods, Hermes. By some accounts Zeus begat the goddess of love, Aphrodite, on the Titaness Dione. And when he took Leto as his consort he must have been married to Hera, for Hera persecuted Leto by condemning her to bear her children in a land of complete darkness. After traveling throughout Greece, Leto finally gave birth painlessly to Artemis, the virgin huntress, on the isle of Ortygia. Nine days later she gave birth to Apollo, the god of light and inspiration, on the island of Delos. Each of these new gods and goddesses were full-fledged Olympians, having had two divine parents.
One important god, however, had Zeus as a father and a mortal woman as a mother. This was Dionysus, the vine god of ecstasy, who was never granted Olympian status. His mother was the Theban princess, Semele. Zeus visited her one night in the darkness, and she knew a divine being was present and she slept with him. When it turned out that Semele was pregnant she boasted that Zeus was the father. Hera learned of this and came to Semele disguised as her nurse. Hera asked how she knew the father was Zeus, and Semele had no proof. So Hera suggested that Semele ask to see this god in his full glory. The next time Zeus visited the girl he was so delighted with her that he promised her anything she wanted. She wanted to see Zeus fully revealed. Since Zeus never broke his word, he sadly showed himself forth in his true essence, a burst of glory that utterly destroyed Semele, burning her up. Yet Zeus spared her unborn infant, sewing it up inside his thigh until it was able to emerge as the god Dionysus. His birth from Zeus's thigh alone conferred immortality on him.
Among Zeus's offspring were great heroes such as Perseus, Castor and Polydeuces, the great Heracles. Some were founders of cities or countries, like Epaphus, who founded Memphis; Arcas, who became king of Arcadia; Lacedaemon, the king of Lacedaemon and founder of Sparta. One was the wisest law-giver of his age, the first Minos. Another was a fabulous beauty, the famous Helen of Troy. And one was a monster of depravity: Tantalus, who served up his son Pelops as food to the gods. As a general rule Zeus's mortal children were distinguished for one reason or another.
On occasion their mothers were notable for something besides merely attracting Zeus with their beauty. Leda, for example, after being visited by Zeus in the form of a swan, gave birth to an egg from which came Helen and Clytemnestra, and Castor and Polydeuces. But since Leda's husband Tyndarus also made love to her shortly after Zeus, the exact paternity of these quadruplets was subject to question.
Poor Io was famous for her long persecution at the hands of Hera. Zeus fell in love with Io and seduced her under a thick blanket of cloud to keep Hera from learning of it. But Hera was no fool; she flew down from Olympus, dispersed the cloud, and found Zeus standing by a white heifer, who of course was Io. Hera calmly asked Zeus if she could have this animal, and Zeus gave it to her, reluctant to go into an explanation. But Hera knew it was Io, so she put her under guard. The watchman Argus with a hundred eyes was put in charge. Eventually Zeus sent his son Hermes to deliver lo from Argus, which was very difficult because Argus never slept. In disguise Hermes managed to put Argus to sleep with stories and flute-playing, and then Hermes killed him. As a memorial to Argus, Hera set his eyes in the tail of her pet bird, the peacock. But Hera was furious and sent a gadfly to chase Io over the earth. Still in the form of a heifer, Io ran madly from country to country, tormented by the stinging insect. At one point she came across Prometheus chained to his rock in the Caucasus, and the two victims of divine injustice discussed her plight. Prometheus pointed out that her sufferings were far from over, but that after long journeying she would reach the Nile, be changed back into human shape, give birth to Epaphus, the son of Zeus, and receive many honors. And from her descendants would come Heracles, the man who would set Prometheus free.
If Hera was diligent about punishing lo, Europa escaped her wrath scotfree. One morning this lovely daughter of the king of Sidon had a dream in which two continents in female form laid claim to her. Europa belonged to Asia by birth, but the other continent, which was nameless, said that Zeus would give Europa to her. Later, while Europa and her girl companions were frolicking by the sea, Zeus was smitten with the princess and changed himself into a marvelous bull of great handsomeness. He approached the girls so gently that they ran to play with him. Zeus knelt down and Europa climbed on his back. Then the bull charged into the sea, and on the sea journey Europa and Zeus were accompanied by strange sea creatures: Nereids, Tritons, and Poseidon himself. Europa then realized that the bull was a god in disguise and she begged Zeus not to desert her. Zeus replied that he was taking her to Crete, his original home, and that her sons from this union would be grand kings who would rule all men. In time Europa gave birth to Minos and Rhadamanthus, wise rulers who became judges in the netherworld after death. And Europa gave her name to a continent.
Despite his conquests Zeus was not always successful in his amorous pursuits. The nymph Asteria managed to resist him only by the most desperate means — changing herself into a quail, flinging herself into the sea, and becoming the floating island of Ortygia. On one occasion Zeus himself renounced the nymph Thetis when he learned that she would give birth to a son greater than its father. Further, Zeus's infatuations were not limited to women, for when he fell in love with the youthful Ganymede he had the boy abducted by his eagle and brought up to Olympus to serve as cupbearer.
In previous sections we have seen Zeus's power as king of the gods and a dispenser of justice to men, but here we see him as a procreator. As H. J. Rose has pointed out, the Greeks had a choice of making Zeus either polygamous or promiscuous because the role of All-Father was indispensable to him. Zeus had acquired wives as his worship spread from locality to locality and he had to marry each provincial earth goddess. However, polygamy was foreign to the Greeks and unacceptable, so they had to make him promiscuous. The same majestic god who fathered seven of the great Olympians also fathered a number of human beings, and many ruling or powerful families traced their lineage to Zeus. So if his battles with Hera and his deceptions lessened his dignity, that was the price the Greeks paid for their illustrious family trees.
The myths about Zeus are primarily concerned with establishing his mastery over gods and men. His predominance in the Olympian pantheon is largely asserted by the fact that he fathered seven of the major gods. Once again we see the humanization of the gods. Zeus and Hera have distinct personalities and a realistic family situation. Everything they do has an understandable motive. Thus, when Zeus changes himself into bestial forms he does so to satisfy his lust. The Greeks had a driving passion for order. They continually rationalized their myths, tried to explain obscurities, and attempted to make the fantastic elements more believable. However, in making their gods humanly comprehensible they tended to trivialize them as well, depriving them of some of their original power and mystery. One could fill several gossip columns with spicy anecdotes about the Greek gods, as though they were immortal versions of the International Set. The following myths about the gods show human qualities projected onto divinities, and many of those qualities are not of a very high moral level. Pride, greed, lust, trickery are prominent features of the Greek gods.