My original plan was to do some posts about Greek mythology, with my first two posts being “Gods” and “The Trojan War”. The problem was that when I had finished writing them up, I realised they were really long and a little boring. So instead what I’ve decided to do a weekly write up about various characters in myth. In other words every post will be dedicated to a single figure, such as Achilles or Zeus. My hope is that by focussing on one at a time, I’ll be able to do these wonderful creations justice while also keeping the articles short and making them as enjoyable as possible for you, the reader. One thing to note is that the Greek pantheon and Roman pantheon are pretty much the same, although their names differ (when it comes to the Olympians only Apollo retains his name in Roman mythology). Now, that’s enough waffle from me. Onto our first mythological figure.
There’s no better place to start than the head honcho, the King of the Olympians, the chief god, Zeus. Let’s start off with a little character file:
Greek spelling: Ζευς (yes, I know…very similar)
Roman counterpart: Jupiter
Parents: Cronus and Rhea
Children: Too many to name but some big ones are Athena, Artemis, Apollo, Heracles and Helen of Troy.
Functions: God of the sky and justice
Symbols: Most commonly depicted with the thunderbolt. Another common image is the eagle.
Zeus is the big man when it comes to the gods. Sure others have tried to overthrow him, such as the giants (this war is known as the Gigantomachy) and Typhon, but in the end they all failed.
Interestingly, the gods in Ancient Greek culture aren’t portrayed as being perfect or all powerful as we tend to see in modern religion. There are questions as to whether Zeus can do what he likes when he likes or if even he has to bend to the will of the Fates. In terms of imperfections, the gods are attributed with the same shortcomings as human society. They bicker, fight, are unjust and have extra-marital relations to name a few. Zeus himself has sired a great many children, most not with his wife Hera, and his adultery constantly leads to conflict between the two.
Zeus and Cronus
He’s also been involved in some pretty cool myths. The story of his birth, for one, stands out as a fine example. His father, the Titan Cronus, swallowed his children when they were born so that they wouldn’t be able to threaten his reign. When his wife Rhea started growing tired of this she hatched a plan and after giving birth to Zeus, she wrapped a rock in blankets and gave it to her husband. Cronus swallowed it unaware of the plan and when Zeus grew up he challenged Cronus and defeated him, first forcing him into disgorging Zeus’ siblings. When he had successfully rescued them, he locked Cronus along with his fellow Titans into the depths of Tartarus.
This done, Zeus split the world between himself and his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades. Poseidon got the sea, Hades claimed the Underworld while Zeus’ realm is the sky.
Zeus and Semele
Another interesting myth featuring Zeus is the one about his affair with a Theban princess named Semele. Zeus fell in love with her and impregnanted her and after learning of their adulterous and illicit affair, Hera grew jealous and angry. She tricked Semele into asking Zeus to grant her a wish. Semele then went to Zeus, made him swear on the River Styx and asked him to reveal himself to her in her true godly form. The problem with this is that mortals are not supposed to gaze on gods in their true form without bursting into flames which is pretty much what happened to Semele.
This sounds like a pretty devestating myth but it’s not over yet because Zeus managed to save the unborn child and sewed it into his thigh! The child then grew up and was born and became Dionysus, the god of wine and harvests.
The Temple at Olympia
The Greeks were big into their temples and the most important one in honour of Zeus was the Temple at Olympia. It was built somewhere between 470-456 BC (naturally enough we can’t be perfectly accurate with dates when it comes to researching so long ago. For instance, Homer’s Iliad is dated to c.750BC and Homer’s Odyssey is dated to c.700BC).
The designer of the temple was Libon of Elis and it contained a gold and ivory statue of Zeus which was considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
FUN FACT: In the animated Disney version of Hercules, Rip Torn voiced the character of Zeus. Torn has also featured in such films as Dodgeball as Patches O’Houlihan and in Men in Black 1 and 2 as Zed. In the movie adaptation of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, Sean Bean portrayed Zeus. Sean is best known for starring in The Lord of the Rings as Boromir and in Game of Thrones as Ned Stark.
Thanks must go to Dr. Martin Brady and Professor Michael Lloyd as I have borrowed from their lectures on mythology and Homer. Also I’m grateful to Dr. Conor Trainor for providing me with the information regarding the Temple at Olympia.
I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did writing it. Next up I’ll be dealing with the father/son combination of Daedalus and Icarus. Hopefully their names ring a few bells!!! If you would like to follow me on Facebook you can do so by clicking here or if you’re on Twitter you can follow me by clicking here.