10 Most Famous Myths Featuring The Greek God Zeus

Zeus is the ancient Greek god of the sky, lightning and thunder. He was regarded as the king of all other gods and hence he is the chief figure in Greek mythology. There are numerous myths associated with Zeus. He overthrew his father Cronus and consequently ruled the world along with his wife Hera. Zeus was infamous for his numerous sexual escapades and there are several myths regarding them including Leda And The Swan; The Abduction of Europa; and Zeus And Semele. With regard to humans there are two prominent myths featuring Zeus: The Theft of Fire by Prometheus; and The Deucalion Myth. Know more through the 10 most famous myths featuring the Greek God Zeus.

#1 Zeus And His Father Cronus

According to Greek mythology, Cronus overthrew his father Uranus and ruled over the world along with his wife Rhea. However he was told that one of his children would go on to overthrow him like he had overthrown his father. Cronus had several children with Rhea but swallowed them all at birth. However, when her sixth child Zeus was born, Rhea hid him in a cave and instead gave Cronus a stone wrapped in his clothes which he swallowed. When Zeus came of age, he disguised himself as an Olympian cup-bearer; poisoned his father’s wine with a potion; and tricked him to drink it. This led to Cronus disgorging Zeus’ siblings: his sisters Hestia, Demeter and Hera; and his brothers Hades and Poseidon. Along with his siblings, the Hecatonchires, and the Cyclopes; Zeus then fought against Cronus and the other Titans. He emerged victories and overthrew Cronus. Zeus and his brothers then shared the world by drawing lots. Zeus took control of the sky and air; Poseidon got the waters; and Hades got the underworld.

Chronus disgorging his children
Depiction of Chronus disgorging his children

#2 The Birth of Athena

Metis, the goddess of wisdom, was the first wife of Zeus. But in order to marry Helen, Zeus wanted to get rid of her. Eventually, he tricked her, turned her into a fly and ate her. However, Metis was already pregnant by the time and the child grew inside Zeus. Then, one day Zeus experienced an enormous headache and ordered his head to be open with the labrys, the double-headed Minoan axe. This led to the birth of Athena, who emerged fully grown and armed from her father’s forehead. Athena went on the become the favorite daughter of Zeus and one of the most important goddesses. She was the patron and protector of various cities across Greece including Athens, from which she takes her name.

Athena and Zeus
Statue of birth of Athena from the head of Zeus

#3 Zeus And Hera

Hera was one of the sisters of Zeus. Zeus fell in love with her but she refused his advances. Zeus knew that Hera had great love for animals and other beings. He transformed himself in a cuckoo, flew outside her window and pretended to be in distress due to the cold. Hera felt pity for the bird, took it inside and held it to her breast to warm it. Zeus then transformed back into himself and raped her. Hera, ashamed of being exploited, agreed to marriage with Zeus. By most accounts, Hera gave Zeus four children: Ares, the god of war; Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth; Hebe, the goddess of eternal youth; and Hephaestus, the god of fire.

Statue of Zeus And Hera
Statue of Zeus And Hera

#4 Hera’s Rebellion Against Zeus

Though Hera remained faithful to Zeus, Zeus often betrayed her by sleeping with others. Also, she never forgot how Zeus had tricked her to marry him. So, when Zeus was harsh on the other gods, Hera talked them into a revolt against Zeus. Hera drugged Zeus and the other gods bound him on his bed and stole his thunderbolt. However, Briareus, who had been freed by Zeus from the prison Tartarus, overheard their conversation and realized that Zeus was tied. He sneaked in and untied the king of the gods. Zeus woke up and was furious. He hung Hera from the heavens with golden shackles. Hera cried all night but no one dared to help her. The next day Zeus showed her mercy and released her but only after he made her swear that she would never again plot and rebel against him.

#5 Zeus And Semele

Semele was a priestess of Zeus. Once, while flying in the form of an eagle, Zeus fell in love with her. They became lovers and soon Semele became pregnant with his child. As Semele started boasting that Zeus was her lover, Hera, the wife of Zeus, discovered his affair. She disguised herself as a human nurse and befriended Semele. When Semele confided in her that her lover was actually Zeus, she pretended not to believe and asked her to demand Zeus to reveal himself in all his glory. When Zeus visited Semele the next time, she asked him for a boom which he granted out of love. She then begged him to show her his true godly form. Unable to break a promise, Zeus revealed himself to Semele. She could not handle the glorious sight and was consequently burned to death. Zeus was however able to save her child by sewing the fetal into his thigh. This led to the birth of Dionysus a few months later.

Death of Semele
Death of Semele – Painting by Peter Paul Rubens

#6 Leda And The Swan

Leda was the daughter of the Aetolian king Thestius. When she came of age, she married King Tyndareus of Sparta. Leda has been described as a very beautiful woman and her beauty attracted the attention of Zeus who spied on her from his throne on Mount Olympus. Then one day, Zeus disguised himself in the form of a magnificent swan and fell into the arms of Leda for protection from a pursuing eagle. He then had intercourse with her and impregnated her. On the same night, Leda also slept with her husband Tyndareus. This led to four children being borne by her: Helen (the famous Helen of Troy) and Polydeuces, children of Zeus; and Castor and Clytemnestra, children of Tyndareus. The subject of Leda And The Swan became a popular motif in Renaissance and later art.

Leda and the Swan
Leda and the Swan – Copy of a lost painting by Michelangelo

#7 The Abduction of Europa

According to Greek mythology, Europa was the epitome of feminine beauty on earth. When Zeus saw her, he was enamored by her beauty and decided to seduce her. He transformed himself into a white bull and mixed in with her father’s herds. With its snow-white body and gem-like horns, the bull attracted the attention of Europa. She caressed his flanks and eventually got onto his back. As soon as she did so, Zeus ran to the sea with her on his back. He then swam with her to the island of Crete. There he revealed his true identity and mated with her under an evergreen tree. The story of the abduction of Europa is very popular and has been depicted in art numerous times. Moreover, the continent of Europe gets its name from Europa.

The Abduction of Europa
The Abduction of Europa – Painting by Jean Francois de Troy

#8 The Abduction of Ganymede

Ganymede has been described by Homer as the most beautiful of mortals. He caught the eye of Zeus and Zeus fell in love with him. Zeus took the form of an eagle and abducted Ganymede from Mount Ida and transported him to Mount Olympus, the place from where Zeus ruled as the king of the gods. Zeus compensated Ganymede’s father, King Tros, the founder of Troy, by giving him immortal horses. At Olympus, Zeus granted Ganymede eternal youth and immortality and the office of cup-bearer to the gods. Later Ganymede was put in the sky by Zeus as the constellation Aquarius (the “water-carrier” or “cup-carrier”). Interestingly, a moon of Jupiter was named Ganymede by the German astronomer Simon Marius in the 17th century.

The Abduction of Ganymede
The Abduction of Ganymede – Painting by Eustache Le Sueur

#9 Prometheus And The Theft of Fire

Known for his intelligence, Prometheus was one of the Titans, a race of deities. Zeus was once angry with the mortals for offering him animal bones wrapped in fat instead of meat. To punish them, Zeus withheld fire from them. Prometheus defied this order of Zeus and gave fire back to the humans by hiding it in a giant fennel-stalk. He thus enabled human progress and civilization. However, Zeus turned furious when he learned about this theft. He chained Prometheus to a rock and cursed him with a punishment where an eagle, the emblem of Zeus, was sent to peck at his liver every day. His liver would then regenerate every night to be eaten again the next day, trapping him in an eternal and painful loop.

Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind
Prometheus Brings Fire to Mankind – Painting by Heinrich Fuger

#10 The Deucalion Myth

Zeus disliked humans as he saw them indulge in extreme forms of decadence. Outraged, he flooded earth with the help of his brother Poseidon to wipe out humankind. Deucalion; the son of Prometheus and the Greek equivalent of Noah; constructed an ark and, along with his wife Pyrrha, survived the flood and landed on Mount Parnassus. The couple then offered sacrifice to Zeus and inquired from an oracle about how to repopulate the earth. They were told to “cover your head and throw the bones of your mother behind your shoulder”. Deucalion and Pyrrha correctly understood that mother was the earth goddess Gaia and the bones were rocks. They thus threw rocks behind their shoulders: the ones thrown by Deucalion became men and the ones thrown by Pyrrha became women.

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