How did Zeus become king of the gods in Greek mythology?

Statue of Zeus

The gods in Greek mythology are very different from many modern ideas about religion. They were seen as great powers and not as spiritual or benign figures, as in the Monotheistic religion. Zeus became King of the Olympian gods, not because he was morally good or a creator god. Instead, he came to power in a cosmic war. He became the absolute ruler of the universe after overthrowing his father and by battling the Titans. Zeus became King the way that many other monarchs seized power, with brute force and cunning.

There are many myths regarding how Zeus became the ruler of the world, and they are known as 'Succession Myths.' This article relates how he became ruler of Olympus and King of the gods and goddesses. There is no one version of how the ruler of Olympus became King of the Gods.

Background to the rise of Zeus

The first ruler of the gods was Uranus, the personification of the sky. He was married to Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Uranus had twelve children with Gaia. The original ruler of the world hid his children inside their mother (earth), after a prophecy that his children would overthrow him. Gaia hated him for this. The children of the sky and the earth were known in the ancient sources as the Titans. The youngest of these Titans was Cronus. He conspired with his mother to depose his father. Only he, among all the Titans, was brave enough to move against his father.[1]

Gaia crafted a sickle for Cronus, and he sneaked upon his father and castrated him. Uranus was weakened, and Cronus was able to imprison his father in Tartarus, which is often mistakenly referred to as hell. Cronus imprisoned several monsters, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes with his father under the earth. He was regarded as the personification of time in the Classical sources. He, along with his sister Rhea, became the monarchs of the gods. His reign was considered to be a Golden Age when men did not require laws and where everything was shared equally.

A seventeenth-century painting of the Titans and the Olympians in battle

However, Cronus heard a prophecy that was made by his father Uranus and his mother Gaia He was told that he too would be deposed by his son. This prophecy naturally threatened Cronus, and he decided to remove all his children so that they could not threaten him. Now the King of the gods had six children with his queen, who was also his half-sister. Rhea bore him three daughters Demeter, Hestia and Hera, and three sons Hades, Zeus, and Poseidon. Zeus, the future King of Olympus, was the youngest of the children.

Mindful of the prophecy Cronus came up with a strategy to make sure that his children could never threaten or depose him. When they were born, he swallowed them all whole. When Rhea was pregnant with Zeus, he also intended to swallow him, so he would not be a threat.[2]

The birth of Zeus

Mount Olympus

Naturally, Rhea was enraged by Cronus' plan to murder her child, so she came up with a plan. She sought the help of Gaia, who told her what to do. When she was about to give birth to Zeus, she secretly went to the island of Crete. Here she delivered the future King of the Olympians in a cave in Mount Ida. This was a well-known pilgrimage site in Ancient Greece and can still be visited this day.

Now Cronus was aware that Zeus was born, and he demanded that the infant be handed over to him. Rhea and Gaia had devised a clever strategy. She found a huge stone and wrapped it in swaddling clothes and they present this to the Cronus and told him that this was the infant. Cronus swallowed the stone and was satisfied that Zeus was no longer a threat.

In reality, he grew up in Crete, according to a popular version of the myth by the 7th century BC poet Hesiod.[3] There is no agreement in the sources as to who raised the young God. In some sources, it was a nymph, and in others, it was his grandmother Gaia. Zeus grew up to be a mighty god in Crete.

Cronus and the Olympians

Zeus was desperate to overthrow his father, and he was guided by his grandmother Gaia. Cronus did not know that his youngest sone with Rhea was still alive. In some myths, Zeus became the cupbearer of his father. His mother gave him a powerful potion, and Zeus was able to give it to his father, secretly. Well, the potion acted as an enema, and Cronus threw up his five children whom he had swallowed. Immediately they rallied to the cause of their younger brother.

From this time on, there was a war for control of the world.[4] On one side was Cronus and his brother and sisters, and they were known as the Titans. Zeus and his brothers and sister were known as the Olympians and opposed the Titans. The Olympians were at a disadvantage because the Titans outnumbered them.

However, Zeus was ever-resourceful and had the secret support of his mother and grandmother. Then he freed some of the monsters and the Cyclopes that had been imprisoned by Cronus many years before. The Cyclopes were grateful and, in return, forge thunderbolts for Zeus. They also made a trident for Poseidon and a helmet for Hades. The future King of Olympus also released the Hecatonchires.[5] Soon, the Olympians were ready to take on the Titans, and this resulted in a war between the gods known as the Titanomachy. The best sources that we have for this myth are Hesiod, sadly several epics that were composed of the events were lost.

Battle of the Gods

Zeus began the war with his father, who was portrayed as increasingly old and feeble. The future ruler of Olympus was able to persuade two of the Titans, Prometheus, and his mother to join him and his sisters and brothers. Zeus had a definite battle plan.[6]

He ordered the Hecatonchires, who had a hundred hands each to bombard the Titans with stones. Zeus then used his mighty bolts to strike the Titans. The Titans fought back fiercely under the leadership of Atlas. The war lasted for some ten years, and the Olympians emerged triumphantly. Zeus and his family took control of the cosmos. Zeus then imprisoned all the Titans and Cronus in Tartarus.

However, some of the Titans were allowed to escape this fate. Zeus was now the undisputed ruler of the world, and he ruled with the support of his brothers and sisters. In some accounts, it is recorded that he felt so secure in his power that he allowed the release of all the Titans.

However, he was far from secure, and he still struggled for control. These struggles took before humans lived on earth, according to poets such as Homer and Hesiod. It should be noted that the Titan Prometheus made humans and not Zeus, who was not a creator god.[7]

The Titans revenge

However, Zeus, like many other rulers, had made many enemies. In particular, he offended his wife, the fiery, and unforgiven Hera. The King of Olympus was a philanderer, and he had many affairs and children with his mistresses. Naturally, this enraged Hera, who was not a pleasant character in Greek mythology.[8] She was greatly angered when Zeus made one of his illegitimate children, the ruler of Egypt. Hera was enraged, and, in her fury, she made a pact with the defeated Titans. She plotted with them to drive Zeus out of Olympus and to restore Cronus as ruler of the divine. The Titans, once again under the leadership of Atlas, decided to assassinate the rule of Olympus as he was out hunting.

However, Zeus, who was known for his prophetic capabilities, saw that he was the danger and retreated to Olympus. The Titans were emboldened by the support of Hera and they decided to attack Zeus and his family on Olympus. The Olympians were once again badly outnumbered and rallied to their fortress, Olympus.

The Titans attempted to climb Mount Olympus but Athena, Apollo, and Artemis helped Zeus. The King of the Gods hurled thunderbolts at the old gods and eventually, he and the other Olympians cast the Titans down the mountain.[9] Then they forced them into Tartarus where they remain to this day. It seemed that the King of the Olympians hated Atlas, in particular, and this is why according to legend, he was punished by being forced to hold up the sky (at least in some accounts).

This was, at least in some of the myths as the final victory of Zeus. He and his two brothers divided the world between them. Zeus was made the Lord of the earth and the sky. Poseidon was bestowed with control of the seas and all the waters. Hades was given the underworld and the realm of the dead. All the other gods were given particular powers following their nature. The earth was not the preserve of any one god and it was a common or neutral ground. However, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades reserved the right to intervene on earth if they were summoned. It was also at this time that Zeus made Olympus the home of the gods.[10]

Zeus and Typhoon

In some myths, the final defeat of the Titans was the end of Zeus ascent to the position of absolute ruler of the world. However, he was to face one more challenge in the form of a huge monster. Typhoon was the son of Hades and Gaia, the goddess of the earth. She was deeply angered by Zeus and his treatment of the Titans, who were her children, after all. She decided to turn her monstrous son Typhoon against him, according to the didactic poet Hesiod in his Theogony.[11]

He is often seen as the personification of the volcanic forces in Greek mythology. Typhoon who was a serpent-like monster, who had countless heads which could spit poison challenged Zeus for the rule of the world. Hesiod describes the world and the heavens being shaken by the battle between the two. Zeus is portrayed as throwing his thunder and lightning bolts at the huge serpent and Typhoon spat poison and shot flames at the ruler of Olympus.

In one account the other gods were so afraid of Typhoon that they transformed themselves into animals to hide from his wrath. However, all the myths agree that Zeus overcame the creature known as the enemy of the gods. In most of the sources, the King of the Gods cast the huge serpentine monster into Tartarus with his other enemies. However, other stories state that Zeus entombed him under Mount Vesuvius and that the flames that occasionally shot from the volcano are from Typhoon.[12]

Conclusion

Zeus became King of the Gods and the absolute ruler of the world by brute force and strategy. He was very cunning and used his ability to see what the future held to become the foremost Olympian. The Succession Myths demonstrate that Zeus was the monarch of the heavens and the earth because he was the most powerful. The Greeks like other peoples, such as the Babylonians conceived of their gods as powerful entities and not spiritual beings. They respected them because of their power and goodness. Zeus in the series of 'Succession Myths' was ruthless when it came to the seize of power. However, he arguably did not have any choice. He rose to power, by waging a war against the older gods, the Titans and defending it against them and the monster Typhoon. These myths are similar to other myths around the world, which focus on the rise to supremacy of a ruler-god.

Further Reading

Felson, Nancy. "Children of Zeus in the Homeric hymns: Generational succession." The Homeric hymns: Interpretative essays (2011): 254-279.

Gladhill, Bill. "Kronos, Zeus and cheating polysemy in the succession myth in Hesiod's Theogony." Electra 4 (2018): 35-50.

Davidson, John. "Zeus and the stone substitute." Hermes 123, no. H. 3 (1995): 363-369.

References

  1. Hesiod, Theogony, 113.
  2. Hesiod, Theogony, 480
  3. Hesiod, Theogony, 480
  4. Hesiod, Theogony, 480-494
  5. Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths (Hamondsworth, Penguin Books, 1960), p 136
  6. Homer, Odyssey. 3.374
  7. Burkert, Walter Greek Religion, (Harvard, Harvard University Press, 2000, section III)
  8. Hansen, Randall, and William F. Hansen. Handbook of classical mythology (London, Abc-clio, 2004), p. 167
  9. Graves, p 115
  10. Hesiod, Theogony, 480
  11. Hesiod, Theogony, 490
  12. Graves, p. 113