Zeus grows up on Crete
In those difficult years, when the reign of Cronus had loosed all manner of evils upon the world, the birth of Zeus seemed like the birth of hope, and his survival like the beginning of a struggle for a better world.
All the deities of Crete hastened to the support of this baby which had first seen the light of day in the cave on Mount Dicte. It was as if something told them that his would be the hands that would free the world from its bonds.
The nymphs and dryads of the woods nurtured the new-born god with particular tenderness. They placed the babe in a golden cradle and rocked it gently to sleep with lullabies. And when it woke, they leaned over the cradle and sang it beautiful songs.
There was but one fear: that Cronus might hear the infant’s wails; and so, whenever it began to cry, some warriors, the Curetes, clashed their swords against their shields and made so much noise that they drowned the baby’s cries and prevented heartless Cronus from hearing.
The creatures of the forest loved the little god too and helped him in countless ways. Even the bees showed their love for tiny Zeus by bringing him fresh honey every day.
But the animal which rendered the most useful service of all to the young god was the sacred goat, Amaltheia. She loved little Zeus like her own kid, gave him her milk and enveloped him with tender, motherly care, watching over him while he played and never straying from his side.
How Zeus loved Amaltheia! He was never happier than when playing with her and scrambling upon her back, and she, patient and tender-hearted animal that she was, bore patiently with all his games.
One day, however, young Zeus caught hold of one of her horns in play, and such was his strength that the horn came off in his hands. Poor Amaltheia was heart-broken and she gazed at him in reproach. Overcome with remorse at his carelessness, the young god begged her not to grieve and promised her that the horn he had broken off would become the Horn of Plenty and that from it would pour every gift the heart could desire. And that was indeed what happened; every time Amaltheia upturned the horn, piles of luscious fruits would come tumbling from its mouth: figs, grapes, apples and whatever else her appetite fancied.
All the animals of the forest played with Zeus, and the nymphs and dryads offered him beautiful gifts. The nymph Adrasteia gave him a wonderful ball woven from golden rings, and when the young god threw it, it left a shining trail like a shooting star. Little Zeus would go wild with delight playing with this lovely gift.
Zeus takes the great decision
There was also a wise eagle which loved the little god dearly. It would bring him nectar to drink from lands far beyond the ocean and often held him spellbound with tales of the distant places it had visited. Young Zeus listened wide-eyed to the eagle and in the end learned so many things that the nymphs and dryads marvelled at his knowledge.
Zeus grew up handsome, strong and brave. There was none to match him for bravery and knowledge. Then, one day, the eagle spoke to him of Cronus. “You are the son of Cronus,” it told him, “and your father swallowed your brothers for fear that they would take his throne from him.”
When fearless Zeus learned of these dreadful deeds, and of how evil and lawlessness still reigned in his father’s kingdom, he took a momentous decision: to cast down Cronus from the throne of the gods.
Zeus left Crete immediately, knowing that he must find some course of action. Near a river, he met Oceanus the Titan. The moment the latter set eyes upon the young god, he realized who stood before him and what it was he wanted. “I will help you,” he told him, “but first of all you must release your brothers, who are still prisoners inside your father’s stomach.”
Then he called his daughter Metis, a wise Oceanid who knew every plant which grew upon the earth. He told her that he wanted a potion which would make Cronus disgorge the children he had swallowed. It did not take Metis long to find a suitable herb and to mix the draught that was needed.
Zeus poured the potion into a golden cup and, without revealing who he was, managed to present it to Cronus as choice wine. A single mouthful was enough.
Cronus was immediately seized by violent pains. He could no longer keep down the children in his stomach and began to vomit them up. First came the stone that he had swallowed last, and then, one by one, his five lovely children. As soon as they emerged, the young gods ran to embrace the brother who had given them their freedom. By the time Cronus realised that he had been tricked, it was too late. Yet matters were not destined to come to such a speedy end, nor such an easy one.
The Battle of the Titans
Seeing the threat which faced him, Cronus called to his aid his mighty brothers, the Titans. Zeus, on the other hand, realised that he could not act until his own brothers were fully grown.
When at last that time had come, they gathered to unite their forces in aid of the brother who had freed them. They were not alone in the daunting struggle that awaited. Other gods joined them, foremost the mighty Oceanus with his descendants Cratus, Zelus and Nike who stood for order, work and peace. These were joined by Prometheus, son of Iapetus the Titan, a god who loved men deeply. Zeus was also aided by the one-eyed giants, the Cyclopes, who gave him thunderbolts to hurl at his enemies. Zeus’ final protection was the cloak he wore over his shoulders, made from the skin of the sacred goat which had suckled him on Mount Dicte. This magic pelt –the aegis– gave protection to whoever wore it; and thus, thanks to Amaltheia, Zeus could not be harmed.
When Cronus saw the preparations made by Zeus, he assembled all the other Titans on Othrys, a mountain strewn with huge rocks which not only gave protection to its defenders, but which they could pluck up with their mighty strength and hurl down on their enemies.
But Zeus and his gods made camp on lofty Olympus. From now on, this was to be their fortress, and later they would build their golden palaces there.
Before the battle started, the gods of Olympus gathered around an altar built by the Cyclopes and swore to fight for a better and a juster world. To achieve that aim, they would willingly give every droplet of their blood and every ounce of their strength until victory was won. Then they brandished their spears, and uttering a mighty battle cry that made Olympus shake, they charged down upon the Titans. And so began the fearful Battle with the Titans, which was destined to last for ten long years and wreak terrible havoc upon the whole world.
Soon, heavy black clouds had blotted out the sun, the day grew dark and the wind increased to hurricane force, howling like a thousand devils. The clouds scudded across the sky and buffeted against one another as if they, too, were at war. Suddenly, the earth was shaken by Zeus’ awesome thunderclaps, and blinding flashes of lightning split the sky asunder. Thunderbolts fell like rain upon the Titans’ camp. Then the Titans seized huge rocks and hurled them down with horrifying force on their enemies. Undeterred, the Olympian gods advanced towards Mount Othrys and fell upon the Titans with swords and spears, with flailing arms and gnashing teeth. Like maddened beasts they fought. Such was the hatred between them that no pity was shown on either side in this savage war. The earth was shaken, the forests burst into flame, the sea boiled and the scorching air swirled with black smoke.
The din of battle was terrifying. The boom of thunderclaps came hard upon the hiss of lightning bolts and the clash of weapons mingled with threatening rumbles from underground, whilst the savage cries of the warriors pierced the wild howling of the wind, so loud that they drowned even the most shattering of Zeus’ thunderclaps.
As the struggle raged, the opposing forces found themselves now on Mount Othrys, now down by the coast, now stretched out across the plain of Thessaly. At one point in the battle, the Titans loosed a cloud of stifling steam upon their enemies and succeeded in driving them back to Mount Olympus. But not for long. Regrouping their forces, the Olympian gods swept down from their mountain again. And so the battle raged to and fro, and earth, sea and sky became one huge hell. Yet neither side could gain the advantage.
At one stage in the battle, Zeus succeeded in freeing the Hundred-handed giants from the depths of the earth where Cronus had left them lying because he feared their mighty power. Now these mountain-high giants threw themselves into the struggle. The Titans fought back with savage intensity and the earth was so shaken that time and again it split open, revealing the very depths of Tartarus. The destruction reached its climax, however, when Titans, Giants and the Olympian gods fought hand to hand. A terrible earthquake tossed everything into confusion. The mountains toppled down into the sea, the sea surged up on the land, the thunderbolts of Zeus split great mountains asunder and the fires burned so high that tongues of flames licked at the sun itself. The battle was so terrible that it seemed that earth was tumbling into Tartarus and the heavens were plunging from on high.
For nine whole years this terrible war raged between the Titans and the gods of Olympus. By the tenth year, however, the Titans’ power had begun to flag, and then a fearful hunting-down began, on land and over seas. Exhausted and undone, the Titans ran to save themselves from the swelling wrath of their enemies. From the furthest limits of the ocean to every far-flung corner of the earth the gods pursued them, bringing the destruction of war even upon what had as yet remained unharmed.
Finally, the fleeing Titans found themselves once more in Greece. It was from here they had set out, and it was here they were to meet their end. In a final mighty surge, the gods of Olympus threw themselves upon the Titans like an all-destroying hurricane. The Titans fought back like wild beasts at bay. Earth and sky mingled, fire and water locked in struggle, and day and night could no longer be told apart.
And as if this chaos and destruction were not enough, the Hundred-handed giants picked up three hundred rocks as huge as mountains and hurled them in a single volley at the Titans’ camp. The world had never known a bombardment such as this. And afterwards, when the trembling of the earth had stopped, a strange silence spread over everything.
The fighting was over. The enemy was beaten.
Such was the Battle with the Titans, the greatest war the world has ever known. And although it may sound like pure fantasy, it seems to point to some fearful catastrophe which really occurred. If, on your travels in Greece, you should come across mountains split asunder and others tumbled down into the sea, remember that legendary battle. Perhaps the destruction we now know to have been wrought by earthquakes and natural subsidence was the same that inspired the story-tellers of old to create the myth of the Battle of the Titans.
But our story does not end here.
Binding the Titans with heavy chains forged by the Cyclopes, the gods of Olympus cast them into the murky depths of Tartarus. They sealed this horrible prison with massive iron doors, and before them huge giants kept vigil.
And there, for countless ages, the Titans have lain, longing for the light of day.
The victors made their way back to the sunny slopes of Olympus. They were proud of their great victory, but their eyes clouded over when they gazed down upon the earth. It was unrecognisable. Nothing had been left standing in the appalling struggle. The gods would have a hard task to restore the world to its original beauty.
Zeus’ struggle against Typhoon
Yet the Olympians had no time to enjoy their victory before they found themselves facing another fearful enemy.
Mother Earth was enraged at Zeus and the other gods for having been so harsh to her children the Titans. And so she coupled with Tartarus and gave birth to a dreadful monster, Typhoon, a huge dragon taller than the loftiest mountain. It had a hundred heads with black-tongued mouths and fire flashed from its eyes. Its wild roars echoed through the mountain gorges like a raging tempest, sometimes sounding like a lion, sometimes like an infuriated bull. Storms, whirlwinds and all-destroying hurricanes followed in its path.
When the gods of Olympus saw this frightful monster bearing down upon them, many of them fled in terror to Egypt. Zeus, however, threw himself undaunted upon the monster and struck at it remorselessly with a diamond-bladed sickle. Howling with pain, Typhoon took to flight. But Zeus pursued it, and the thunderbolts of the lord of the world once more shook the earth.
Wherever Typhoon passed, it left destruction in its wake. The whirlwinds and the hurricanes left nothing standing. Whole forests were uprooted, rocks tumbled from the heights and the sea waves rose mountain-high and swept away all before their path.
Eventually, Zeus and Typhoon reached Syria. There, the monster turned at bay and a fierce struggle began. During the fight, Typhoon managed to seize Zeus, and entwined him in its snaky coils. Snatching up the diamond sickle, the monster severed the sinews of Zeus’ hands and feet and drew them from his body. Powerless now, the mighty god sank to the ground. Straight away, the monster carried him off to a cave in Cilicia and then ran to find a boulder to block the mouth of the cavern. However, while Typhoon was searching for a large enough stone, Zeus’ cunning son Hermes came to the aid of his immortal father. He managed to steal back Zeus’ sinews, and with great skill and patience threaded them back into his hands and feet. By the time Typhoon realised what had happened, it was too late. Zeus launched a pitiless rain of searing thunderbolts upon the monster which fled howling, leaving a path of destruction in its wake as it dragged itself to safety. On reaching the mountains of Thrace, it turned once more in desperation and the peaks were dyed scarlet with the blood of its wounds. And ever since, that mountain range has been called “Haemos” or “the Bloody Mountains”.
Finally, the hunted monster reached Sicily, where Zeus hurled a hundred thunderbolts upon it and burned up all its heads in a single stroke. The monster sank to the ground, its snaky coils wrapped in flames. To make sure of his enemy, Zeus heaved a whole mountain down upon Typhoon, but the fire which consumed the monster broke through to the mountain’s peak and formed a volcano. Etna is its name, and it has burned to this very day. Even from where he lies buried, Typhoon can still spread terror and destruction.
Zeus returned to Olympus victorious once more. Now, the enemies of the gods were all defeated and the Olympians could rule the world in peace. But first the shattered earth had to be made fruitful once more, and the smile of peace brought back to the lips of men. And so the gods divided the world among them, to restore order with all possible speed. Zeus, the mightiest of them all, assumed the lordship of the skies. Poseidon became ruler of the seas, and Hades or Pluto, as he was also called, inherited the Kingdom of the Underworld, where the souls of the dead are taken. The earth, with all its fruits, became the realm of Demeter, while Hera was both queen of the sky and protector of marriage and giver of children to men. Many other gods also lived on Olympus, but over them all was Zeus, ruler of gods and men.
High on the peaks of towering Olympus stood the shining courts of the gods, the vanquishers of the Titans. Their palaces were of solid gold, such as the world had never seen, majestic as the majesty of the gods themselves, radiant with light and splendour. At their gates stood three lovely goddesses, the Hours, who kept the clouds away so that blue skies always stretched above their roofs. The sun always shed its golden light upon them and they were never shadowed by any cloud. There, in those light-bathed palaces, it never rained and no wind ever blew. It was neither cold nor hot, but always temperate and calm.
Only when the gods were away did the Hours cast a veil of clouds around the palaces to hide them. Whenever the immortal ones returned, the three goddesses would scatter the clouds and then the bright palaces of the gods would gleam once more in golden splendour.
Far below, clouds covered the earth. There, spring and summer were followed by autumn and harsh winter. There, after joy came sadness. The gods, too, knew moments of bitter sorrow, but among the gods sorrow is short-lived and happiness never slow to return.
It was a beautiful life on Olympus. At their gatherings, the gods ate ambrosia and drank nectar and rejoiced in their eternal youth – for the gods never grow old. The lovely Graces and the Muses entertained them with dances and with songs. Linking hands, they would dance and sing so delightfully that the gods would sit spellbound, enthralled by their light-footed harmony. And whenever the Muses and the Graces finished dancing, they would always address a hymn of praise to the mightiest god of all, the all-powerful Zeus, father of gods and men.
Indeed all the gods looked upon Zeus as their father, for he was the greatest of the gods, and it was he who had led them in their resounding victory over Cronus and the Titans, in the victory over lawlessness and evil.
Zeus sat in glory on his lofty throne. His wife was the lovely Hera, queen of the sky. Sumptuously dressed, and radiant with beauty and majesty she took her seat on a golden throne at his right hand, and all the gods accorded her the respect which she was due. To Zeus’ left stood two other goddesses: Eirene, who hated war, and Nike, the winged goddess of victory, who was always at his side in the struggle against evil.
Zeus reigns over the world
From the kingdom of the sky, Zeus looked down upon earth and ruled over all things. He struck at evil, and established order. Pity the fool who dared break the laws laid down by Zeus, for if he once lowered his brows, black clouds would immediately shroud the skies. When anger seized him, his face would become terrible to behold and blinding sparks would flash from his eyes. He had only to lift his hand and claps of thunder and lightning-bolts would split the heavens apart and shake the whole world. Thus Zeus showed his power, punishing those who disturbed the peace and reminding man of the laws of the gods.
But as long as men were law-abiding and worshipped him, Zeus rewarded them with life-giving sunshine and rain to swell the seed, and men enjoyed the fruits of his generosity.
To ensure that the laws were observed and order maintained, all the other gods supported Zeus and hastened to his command.
Themis, the goddess of law, was always to be found at Zeus’ side. She received his commands and conveyed them immediately to mortal men. Thus the laws laid down by the ruler of the world were established upon earth. Another goddess, Justice, defended the right and hated falsehood. Whenever she saw an injustice, she would report it immediately to Zeus and he would deliver his verdict. Woe betide the law-breaker on whom immortal Zeus passed sentence, for no harsher punishment could ever have been imposed.
But if an offender repented before it was too late, and begged forgiveness, then Zeus in his mercy would always pardon him, and the cruel Furies would cease to torment him.
Zeus also sent man joys and sorrows. Two great clay jars stood at the entrance to the courts of Olympus. One contained all that was good, the other, all the evils of the world. From them, Zeus drew out both good and evil and sent them to every man on earth. Alas for the mortal to whom great Zeus sent gifts only from the jar filled with evils. He was doomed to misfortune and there was no way he could save himself, for such was the will of the ruler of the gods. Whoever received gifts only from the jar of good fortune was a happy man indeed. But such cases were so rare as to be almost unheard of. Whoever received both good and evil equally had reason to be satisfied, for the lot of man is a hard one.
“It is the destiny of man to suffer,” declared Almighty Zeus, “since even the immortal gods know both joy and bitter sorrow.”
But if Zeus dealt out joy and suffering, it was his three daughters, the remorseless Fates, who decided on men’s final end. Zeus never intervened in their work, for no one has the right to change the laws which govern life. The Fates thus wielded awesome power and were deaf to all entreaty, all prayers and all sacrifices. Whatever the Fates decided, both gods and mortals had to bow to. The first of them, Clotho, spun the thread of every human life and determined how long each would live. When the thread was cut, then that life, too, was ended. The second, Lachesis, drew with closed eyes the lot which was to befall each mortal. Good or bad, that would be his fate.
Nobody could change the fortune chosen for him by the Fates, for the third of these sisters, Atropos, wrote down on a long scroll, in indelible and unchangeable letters, whatever had been decided by the other two. And what was written, not even the Fates themselves could erase.
Such were the Fates: cruel, stern and majestic.
However, apart from the implacable Fates there lived on Olympus a kind and generous goddess who sent men only good gifts. She was the goddess of happiness and plenty, and her name was Fortune. In her hands she held the Horn of Amaltheia – that same horn Zeus had accidentally pulled from the head of the sacred goat while playing with her in his childhood. Now this light-footed goddess roamed the world and showered upon men the rich gifts which poured from the magic horn. But the eyes of Fortune were always bound and so her gifts fell at random, sometimes favouring the just and sometimes the unjust, sometimes the hard-working and sometimes the lazy. Whoever crossed the path of the goddess was a lucky man, for immediately she would upturn the “horn of plenty” and gifts would pour from it in profusion. Yet the lucky are few in number, for it is rare indeed to cross the path of Fortune – and the truly lucky fewer still; for wealth alone is not enough to bring man happiness.
Zeus himself also helped man in many ways. At Dodona he had a sacred oak tree which bore sweet and succulent acorns. Indeed, it is said that these acorns were the first fruit that men ever ate. Whoever sought the advice of Zeus would come to the holy oak; and after they had sacrificed to the god and humbly made their request, a breeze would spring up and a rustling be heard from among the oak tree’s leaves. Then the priests would explain the rustling and deliver the oracle of Zeus. Whatever the oracle’s advice, it was respected. No man was ever known to seek the counsel of Zeus at Dodona and then reject it.
But of all the places where Zeus was honoured, the most renowned was Olympia. Here stood the most imposing of all the temples to Olympian Zeus.
Every four years all of Greece, although it was divided into many city-states, would meet in friendship at Olympia to render homage to the god and to take part in the famous Olympic games. Sacred heralds would announce the event with trumpets in every corner of the land. Even if a war was in progress it would stop, and the thoughts of all would turn to victories of another kind in the Olympic stadium. There, lithe youths would compete in running, jumping, discus throwing, wrestling and other events. Their only reward would be a wreath of olive leaves and their only wish, to win, through fair play, glory both for themselves and for the cities which could boast such fine young men as these.
The twelve gods of Olympus
Many gods lived on Olympus, but the greatest of them were twelve in number. Supreme among them all, of course, was bolt-bearing Zeus who wielded the thunder and the lightning, ruled over the heavens and was father of gods and men. Then came majestic Hera, wife of Zeus, a golden diadem upon her brow. She, too, reigned over the skies and was protector of marriage and women. Then followed the other deities: blue-eyed Athena, with her spear and helmet, goddess of wisdom and the fine arts and of just wars; golden-haired Apollo, with his lyre, god of light and music; earth-shaking Poseidon, with his trident, god of the sea; stern Artemis, with her bow, goddess of moonlit nights, of forests and the hunt; fair Aphrodite, with her winged son Eros, goddess of beauty and of love; the lame Hephaestus with his stick, god of fire and of the crafts; sad Demeter, her brows wreathed with golden corn, goddess of agriculture; fleet-footed Hermes, with his winged sandals, god of commerce and messenger of Zeus; bloodthirsty Ares, armed for battle, the fearsome god of war; and humble Hestia, goddess of the home and of its ever-burning hearth.
With all these deities, and many others, Zeus reigned from Olympus and maintained peace and order throughout the world.
The wonderful myths which tell of the lives and deeds of the twelve gods of Olympus will be the subject of succeeding chapters.
We have spoken of Zeus, but there is yet more to tell. For since he is the mightiest god of all, Zeus is mentioned very frequently in mythology. For that reason, in the myths which are to follow we shall always have something to say about the life and deeds of the ruler of gods and men.
Excerpted from The gods of Olympus by Menelaos Stephanides
Copyright © by Dimitris Stefanidis. All rights reserved.
No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.