“Nothing can be surprising any more or impossible or miraculous, now that Zeus, father of the Olympians has made night out of noonday, hiding the bright sunlight, and... fear has come upon mankind. After this, men can believe anything, expect anything.”—James Turrell, Eclipse
Who is Zeus? It depends. It ought to be more straightforward, but with classical mythology, nothing is ever simple. Is he not the Ancient Greek (and sometimes Roman) god of lighting? Was he not also the king of the earth, the skies, and all other gods? But wait, should we even be calling him Zeus? Who's this Jupiter I've heard all about?
Even the Ancient Greeks had differing ideas on who he was, and what exactly he ruled. For example, Zeus may rule the clouds, but does that include the rain? What of the cults who believed Zeus lives underground? That’s not even getting into his sex life. As it turns out, there’s more to Zeus than muscle, weird sex, and stormy rage. It all depends on who’s telling his story. Get your trusty thunderbolts ready and read on for these 44 godly facts about Zeus, the King of Olympus and the greatest of the Greek gods.
44. Four for the Price of One (Egg)
One of Zeus’s most famous capers might be called the "swan incident." He came to the human Leda as the white bird, which resulted in him laying an egg. Out came Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Polydeuces. Of course, since Leda laid with her husband not long after her encounter with Zeus, the matter of who is the father of who remains an egg-citing mystery.
43. Bright One
Zeus’s name has its roots in the Greek word “Di̯ēus,” which also refers to the Proto-Indo-European god of daytime skies. More simply, it’s also believed his name has Ancient Greek derivatives from their word for “bright.” Either way you cut it, it’s high skies for his etymology.
42. First is Truly the Worst
Zeus is somehow both the youngest and oldest of his parents’ children, and as with most Greek mythology, the reason is gross and confusing. His father, the titan Cronos, who was the then-ruler of the world, had a vision of being overthrown by one of his kids. Naturally, he then decided to swallow every single one of his offspring as soon as they were born—save for Zeus, whom his wife Rhea saved by wrapping a stone in a blanket and serving it Cronos (AKA Saturn) as opposed to her actual youngest. The stone caused Cronos to become ill, and he threw up the rest of Zeus’s siblings, “rebirthing” them. This expulsion made Zeus the new “firstborn.”
41. Dope on a Rope
Before he was god of the gods, Zeus was a baby dangling by a thread. In one version of his infant years, his mother Rhea hid the baby Zeus from his father by suspending him from a rope on a tree, where he swayed between earth, sea and the skies. That might not seem like a discrete place to hide a baby, until you remember that Cronos was only the ruler of the heavens, the sea, and the Earth—since baby Zeus was between these three realms, this he was left invisible to his daddy.
40. Beauty or “Baaa”?
In most versions of Zeus’s childhood story, he was raised by someone named Amalthea. Sometimes, she is a nymph. Other times, she is a goat. That sounds like an important distinction to me, but hey, I'm no Ancient Greek myth maker.
39. Noise in the Nursery
Sometimes, Zeus is described as being raised inside the “Psychro Cave.” It’s not an ideal place to bring up a baby, especially when you learn soldiers shouted, clashed, and partied all day long so that Zeus’s paranoid dad would not hear the god baby’s wails.
38. Demolition Man
Despite Zeus being the king of gods, human politics and nature were not kind to the original Temple of Zeus. First, the Roman Emperor Theodosius II had the temple set on fire in a Christian crusade against pagan beliefs. Then, two separate earthquakes in 551 and 552 AD destroyed the rest of this legendary building.
37. First Wives’ Club
Before there was Hera, there was Metis—Zeus’s first “great” wife. She’s partly why he has his throne. In this version of the story, it was Metis’s idea that Zeus should disguise himself as cupbearer and trick his father into drinking poisoned wine. On his wife’s wisdom, Zeus enacted the plan and made his dad vomit out his vengeful siblings—a coup that led to him becoming the new King of Olympus. That's the nice thing with Greek mythology—if there's a story you don't like, there's bound to be a completely different version of events that you prefer.
36. Picking a Fight with Dad
In some retellings, the thunder god splits open his father’s stomach using a toothpick. That’s one way to free your siblings from dad’s belly and wrath.
35. God of Molemen?
Don’t just look to the skies. There was a cult of devotees in Ancient Greece who worshiped a Zeus who lived underground. This version was variously called Zeus Meilichios ("kindly" or "honeyed"), Zeus Chthonios ("earthy"), Zeus Katachthonios ("under-the-earth") and Zeus Plousios ("wealth-bringing").
34. Arial Kidnapping
Struck by the beauty of a young boy named Ganymede, Zeus reportedly ordered his eagle to snatch the boy up and bring him to Olympus, where he served as a cupbearer. A frightening way to move on up.
33. I Don’t Think She Likes You
One of the few women to escape Zeus’s lust was a nymph named Asteria. She managed to escape only by transforming into a quail, flinging herself into an ocean, and thereby becoming the island of Ortygia.
32. Take My Wife, Please
Zeus was sometimes known for punishing men by forcing them to be with women. Shh... nobody tell him, just let him think that's a brutal punishment.
31. A Little Help From My Friends
Force and Violence weren’t just feelings associated with Zeus—they were also the names of two of his servants. Sounds like a duo that gets stuff done.
30. It’s Raining Men
On top of his many domains, Zeus was also often believed to be a rain god. So, the skies are completely his domain; he’s not just a thunder and lightning bro.
29. From Bastard to Buff
Zeus’s most famous illegitimate son was the product of deception. The King of Olympus disguised himself as Amphitryon so he could lay with the man’s wife, Alcmene. Thus, Hercules was fathered to star in inaccurate Disney movies the world over.
28. Take Two
Hera was only Zeus’s third wife. Before her, his second wife was the Titaness of Justice, Themis, and then there was his first, Metis.
27. Bottled Lightning
Surprising few, the god of thunder had a serious temper. It’s said his anger would bring forth violent thunderstorms, which took out his rage on the poor Earth.
26. Flipping the Bird on Him
Don’t mess with the King of Olympus’s stuff. When the titan Prometheus literally robbed Zeus of his fire and gifted it to us pathetic humans, Zeus had no room on his cloud for mercy. The god chained Prometheus up and ordered an eagle to peck out and eat Prometheus’s liver every day into eternity. But how can the eagle eat the titan's liver every single day you ask? Well, Prometheus's liver would grow back every single night so that he would never be spared from the torment.
25. Taking Fashion Notes From Dad
As Zeus’s favorite child, Athena was allowed to share her father’s aesthetic. She shares the same thunderbolt and shield symbols as big daddy.
24. Pay it Forward
The two Euro coin and UK Visa ID cards still hold the image of Zeus as a bull. This has been criticized by some, for this is the form Zeus took during his rape of Europa.
23. Next to the Real Thing
In honor of Zeus, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes commissioned the Zeus Olympios statue. It was erected in the Judean Temple in Jerusalem; Hellenized Jews would call this statute the “Ba’al Shaman,” meaning “Lord in Heaven.” This was not the most impressive Zeus statue in history though, not by a long shot, but more on that later.
22. A God By Any Other Name
It should come as no surprise that Zeus has gone by many different names over the years. The Romans called him Jupiter, but he also has associations with other classical deities from the Egyptian Ammon to the Etruscan Tinia.
21. The Game of Gods
The original Olympic Games in Ancient Greece were created as an occasion to pay homage to Zeus. What better way to respect your super-buff thunder god than to hold a super-jock fest?
20. Honest Jupiter
In a stroke of irony for the serial adulterer, Zeus upheld the values of truth and keeping one’s promises in the highest regard. Many of his punishments were brought on by lies or deception in business by us pesky humans.
19. Big Bird
A golden eagle called Aetos Dios served as Zeus’s favorite pet. The bird was at his side 24/7, acting as a symbol of justice, courage, and strength. Naturally, the Romans adopted it themselves as their standard.
18. God of Tourist Traps
To this day you can still visit many major Greek temples once dedicated to Zeus. The peak of Mount Olympus was, of course, a popular site of worship, as well as the most accessible to modern-day tourists. There’s also the Roman Temple of Zeus Hypsistos in Syria, which was known in its heyday as “The Most High” temple.
17. Could You Imagine the Selfies Opportunities?
Olympia once featured a 43 ft. tall statue of gold and ivory which featured Zeus on his throne. Built by the Ancient Greek sculptor Phidias, it was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, along with the Great Pyramid of Giza, The Temple of Artemis, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Colossus of Rhodes, the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus and the Lighthouse of Alexandria. Of these wonders, only the Great Pyramid still exists today, which is notable considering it also happens to be the oldest by nearly 2,000 years.
16. This is Why You Always Use Sun Protection
Zeus once impregnated a woman using a beam of sunlight. Or, because there's multiple versions of every Zeus story, it might have been a shower of gold. In either case, the woman’s name was Danae and her photosynthetic conception gave birth to the Greek hero, Perseus, who battled and killed many monsters, most famously the grotesque Medusa.
15. Giving Birth to Law and Order
In some retellings, our human governments owe much to the children of Zeus and his second wife, Themis. With Zeus, Themis give birth to the Seasons, Human Justice, Wise Laws, Pace, and even the three Fates.
14. Too Close to Be Cool With It
Persephone is another famous child of Zeus. When her mother, Demeter, resisted Zeus, the god turned into a bull and violated her, and Persephone was concieved. Did we also mention Demeter was one of Zeus’s sisters? That’s a lot of horror in one fact…
13. You Will Remember Me For Centuries
In some stories, Hera was actually Zeus' fourth wife. In this instance, his third wife was the Titaness Mnemosyne, aka “Memory.”
12. Musings from a Randy God
In theory, artists should thank Zeus for his third marriage to Mnemosyne. From that union, the seven muses were born.
11. Do You Think She’s Still Mad?
Zeus also conceived the famous twins Apollo and Artemis through his affair with Leto. Of course, their affair triggered the rage of Hera, who sentenced her husband’s fling to be shunned from all human lands. Hey, save some ire for your wandering hubby, Hera.
10. A Bad End and a Worse Start
From the start, it’s said Hera and Zeus’s marriage was doomed to unhappiness. Initially, she resisted her brother’s advances (Remember? They were siblings!). In a last-ditch effort to court Hera, Zeus turned himself into an unkempt-looking cuckoo bird (as men are wont to do). Hera brought the bird to her breast, at which point Zeus changed into his true form and violated her. Hera married him to conceal her shame. Nevertheless, her jealousy (and Zeus’s infidelity) would be a constant theme in their marriage for all time.
9. One, Big, Unhappy Family
With Hera, Zeus had four children of impressive pedigree: Hebe; the cupbearer to gods; Ares, the god of war; Ilithyia, the goddess of childbearing; and finally, Hephaestus, the craftsman to the gods.
8. You’ll Get Another “Message” in Nine Months
Did Zeus invent the world of communications by having an affair with one of the Seven Sisters (the Pleiades) named Maia, thereby conceiving Hermes, the famed messenger god? We can’t say. But for the record, he totally slept with Maia and fathered Hermes, you guys.
7. The Love Machine
With the Titaness Dione, the eternally randy Zeus fathered Aphrodite, the goddess of love. How fitting.
6. Too Hot for This World
Zeus was once so hot to behold, it literally killed a lady. Let us explain: one night, the Theban princess Semele was visited by Zeus. She couldn’t see his godly form in the darkness, but she did sense that a divine being was present. Naturally, they slept together. When Zeus’s wife Hera heard Semele boast about carrying Zeus’s baby, the goddess disguised herself as a human nurse and asked how she knew. When Semele told Hera she didn't have any proof, Hera “helpfully” suggested she ask to see this god for herself. The next time Zeus came to Semele, he was delighted with her pregnancy and promised her anything she wanted. But the one thing that she wanted was to see him with her own eyes. Well, Zeus would never break a promise (just his marriage vows), so he revealed himself in his true form. The glorious sight was so powerful, Semele burned to death.
5. Blue to the Sky, Baby to the Thigh
Zeus acted as surrogate mother to his illegitimate son, Dionysus. You see, the Theban Princess Semele was pregnant with Dionysus when Zeus’s amazing light burned her to crisp. However, he was able to save her baby by stitching him up into his thigh, where the infant was later expelled as the god Dionysus. Thanks to his godly incubation, Dionysus was immortal, despite his human mother.
4. Cheaper Than Divorce Court
Cronos and Rhea were not the only powerful man and wife to go from allies to enemies: in some versions, Zeus got wind of a prophecy that foretold his overthrowing if he ever had a son by Metis. Acting completely rational, Zeus turned his first wife into a fly and ate her. The apple sure doesn't fall far from the tree.
3. Daddy’s Little Headache
Even the most casual mythology fans know Athena’s backstory: this daughter of Zeus was, supposedly, born fully-formed out of her dad’s forehead. But how did she get there? Remember the first wife whom Zeus turned into a fly and ate? It turns out that Metis was already pregnant when he changed her into a bug and swallowed her. At some point, Zeus suffered a blow to the noggin, but instead of getting a concussion, he got his first daughter, Athena, who came out in full dress and flesh from his head.
2. Battle of the Wombs
At one point, Hera claimed that her son Hephaestus was a virgin birth and therefore not Zeus’s kid. Others say Hera was simply jealous that her husband have birth to Athena by himself. I guess she wanted to one-up him in a game of miraculous conception?
1. You’re Watching Cops: Olympus Edition
When Hephaestus sided with his mom, Hera, during his parents’ violent quarrel, Zeus totally understood and respected his son for standing his ground. Just kidding: he threw Hephaestus down Mount Olympus and into the Isle of Lemnos, an act which permanently maimed his own kin.