Z is for Zeus

Published April 30, 2015 by Iphis of Scyros

Well, of course it is!  I mean, there are other Z-names, like Zephyros and Zagreus, but it’s Thursday, and there aren’t really any good myths to tell for Zephyros, and Zagreus is…um…weird.  He’s part of a (very) alternate version of a few myths, a version that sprang up in the Orphic cults.  But since it’s myth re-telling day, and my head cannot wrap around Zagreus enough to re-tell that tale, it had to be Zeus.

And since I did Ouranos earlier, today I’m telling the next part of the tale, with Zeus vs. Kronos.  (Um…eventually…)

Though Gaia was pleased to see her sons released from her womb, she did not remain so pleased for long.  Kronos was no more fond of the ugly appearance of his brothers the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handed Giants than his father had been.  He found the place beneath Gaia’s surface where the terrible Tartaros existed, and flung them deep within it, locking them in with one of the Cyclopes’ own creations.  Then Kronos declared himself ruler of all things, and commanded that all beings lesser than Titans must bow down before him.

Gaia begged him to release his brothers, but Kronos wouldn’t listen to her.  She begged the other Titans to speak to their brother on behalf of the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handers, but they would not; most agreed with him, and the few who did not agree feared his wrath.

Kronos decided that it was time for him to have a wife, and he chose his sister Rheia, thinking her the prettiest and wisest, sure to give him the best children.  Most of his brother Titans also married their sisters, and they were all quite productive.

But when Rheia was bearing their first child, Ouranos looked down on the happy couple and laughed.  “You will meet your fate the same way I did, boy,” he proclaimed.  “You will be toppled by one of your children, just as I was.”

Kronos laughed at his father’s words at the time.  But the longer he thought on them, the more they worried him.  What if it was true?  What if his child was going to turn on him?  What would be the point of ruling over all the lesser beings if his rule was going to be so short?  No, that would not do!

Rheia went to speak to her mother about her father’s prognostication.  “I”m certain it’s true,” Gaia replied.  “And given the way he’s behaving, I shan’t be sorry to see it happen, either!”

While Rheia was not entirely sure she disagreed with her mother, that did nothing to ease her worries.  She had seen the wild look in Kronos’ eyes as he looked at her, and she feared what he might do to her or to their child.

But fear or no fear, she soon gave birth to a baby girl.  Seeing what a pretty thing she was, Rheia was sure that Kronos would be just as filled with love for her as Rheia herself was.  So she felt no further fear as she took the baby to her husband.  “Isn’t she lovely?” Rheia cooed.  “I thought we could call her Hera.”

Kronos took the child in his enormous hands, and felt a twinge pass through his body.  This child had strength.  Power.  This child, he was sure, could destroy him, if it grew to adulthood!  He couldn’t allow that to happen.  So he opened his mouth and swallowed the baby whole, making his wife cry out in grief.  But he silenced her with a glare, and went about his business of ruling all that was.

Rheia wept many tears after that, but her tears did not stop her from conceiving again, and soon she was full with another child.  This time, she was even more fearful as she gave birth, and her fears were magnified as she saw that she had produced a son.  If Kronos felt threatened by a daughter, how much more would he fear a son?!

As she heard her husband approaching, Rheia dug a hole in the earth, and hid the baby inside it, then wrapped the dirt she had removed in the swaddling clothes she had prepared for the baby, clutching the bundle to her chest to hide it.  She held on tight and didn’t move as her husband came to a stop in front of her.

“Well?” Kronos asked.  “Is that the child?”

“Yes.  I thought I’d call him Hades,” Rheia told him.

“Let me see him,” Kronos said, reaching for the bundle.  Rheia tried to pull away, but too slow!  Kronos grabbed the swaddling clothes, and the dirt spilled out everywhere.  “Where is the child?!” he bellowed.  In the pit behind his mother, the infant Hades began to wail.  Kronos grabbed the baby out and swallowed him whole, then stalked off again, leaving his wife weeping.

After that, Rheia feared to lie with her husband again, but she also feared to refuse.  And she still hoped that maybe someday he would repent of his cruelty, and let one of their children live.  And so she was soon with child once more.

This time, the child was another daughter.  Rheia had just decided to name her Hestia when she heard her husband approaching.  Hiding the child as best she could, Rheia looked about for something to show Kronos as a substitute.  But the only thing about was a flaming brand in the hearth.  She had just plucked it up and was looking around for a way to extinguish the flames when Kronos arrived.  His arrival set the baby to crying, as if she knew what her father had in store for her, and soon Hestia, too, had been devoured.

Rheia decided that she had to come up with something better.  She had to plan ahead.  Kronos would never leave off lying with her and fathering more children upon her any more than he would leave off swallowing the children as soon as they were born.  She went to see her brother Oceanos, and asked if he would help her save her next child.

“I hate to see him slaughtering his own children like that, but what can I do?” Oceanos replied.  “I don’t want him to come after my children next!  Besides, I live beneath the waves of our uncle Pontos.  I have nothing but water to give you.”

“Won’t you at least hide the next one?” Rheia asked, weeping in despair.  “If Kronos realizes the baby’s gone, I could say it wandered off and fell into the water when I wasn’t looking.”

“All right, if you can fool Kronos long enough to get the baby to me, I’ll hide it for you,” Oceanos promised.

So Rheia felt much less worried when she once again conceived a child, but she was taken with her birthing pains unexpectedly, and had nothing to show to her husband as a substitute child but the vase full of water that she had planned to use to smuggle her new son, Poseidon, to his uncle.

Kronos swallowed the new son even more hastily than he had the last one, and began to cast suspicious eyes at his brother Oceanos, recognizing where that water had come from.  From that day forth, Oceanos feared to set foot out of the water, lest he earn Kronos’ wrath.

And Rheia had no one else to turn to when she once again became pregnant, but this time she had at least come up with a duplicate she was sure would fool her husband.  When she knew she would give birth in a few days’ time, she went into the fields and began cutting sheaves of wheat, until she had enough that she could wrap them in a blanket and have a bundle just the size and shape of a new-born child.  She tied the wheat together tightly, so it wouldn’t fall apart the way the dirt had, so Rheia was sure that this time it would work.

But she had been so busy planning how to fool her husband that she hadn’t thought of a way to hide the baby.

This baby was another daughter, and as Rheia laid her side by side with the wheat bundle, she was delighted to see that her new little girl was precisely the same size as the bundle of wheat.  This time, surely, her child would live!

Rheia set the baby in the wheat field, just out of sight, then carefully wrapped the wheat bundle in the baby’s clothes.  She only just finished that task when Kronos approached her and asked to see the baby.  “I’ve named her Demeter,” Rheia told him, handing him the wrapped-up wheat.

“Very light, isn’t she?” Kronos asked suspiciously.

“Little girls are always light,” Rheia assured him.  If only he would believe it…!

“Hmm…”  Kronos looked at the bundle with increasing skepticism.

Then the worst thing happened.  Demeter began to cry.  Kronos flung aside the wheat, grabbed up his baby daughter, and swallowed her whole, just as he had all four of her elder siblings.

Weeping, Rheia went to see her mother.  “Mother, please, help me!  All my children have been devoured!”

“I’ll see if I can come up with a solution,” Gaia told her gently.  “Come back and see me when you are once again with child.”

Rheia’s return was not far in the future, and soon she stood, full-bellied, before her mother once more.  Gaia presented her with a stone that had been carefully carved to look like a baby boy.  It was made of a very light marble that felt no heavier than a real child, and had a color very like that of all Rheia’s children.  “Your brothers the Cyclopes made that for us,” Gaia told her.  “Use it to fool your husband.  But find a place to hide the child, first!  You must be nowhere near him when you hand over the stone!”

Obediently, Rheia travelled far from her husband’s usual haunts before she gave birth.  She was on the island later known as Crete when she finally birthed her sixth child, a healthy son with an all too healthy set of lungs.  His wild tears would surely alert his father to his presence all too soon!

Leaving the baby in a cave, Rheia set out with the stone duplicate.  She had not gone far when she met a woman with a goat.  “What are you doing here?” the woman asked.  “Why do you carry a stone child when I can hear a real one up in that cave?”

Tearfully, Rheia explained all she had been put through by the tyrannies of Kronos.  “And now I fear my husband will hear my son’s cries and come to devour him!”

“I’ll help you,” the woman offered, smiling at Rheia.  “I could never allow a man like that to get away with such cruelties.  My sisters know a war dance that beats sword against shield and makes a terrible din.  They’ll drown out his tears.  And my goat produces the finest milk.  He’ll be raised up well on her milk, I promise you that.”

Rheia thanked the woman, and told her to look after her little son.  The woman, Amalthea, promised that Kronos would never know his son was on Crete, no matter what.

Feeling hopeful at last, Rheia hurried to see her husband, carrying the stone disguised in the baby’s swaddling clothes.  Kronos glared at her.  “About time,” he said.  “What took you so long to bring me my child?”

“I wanted to wait for him to stop crying and fall asleep before meeting his father,” Rheia said quietly, holding out the stone towards her husband.  “His name is Zeus.  But do be quiet, or you might wake him.”

Kronos laughed, then grabbed up the stone and swallowed it in a single gulp, as he had with all his previous children.  As the stone slid down his gullet, Rheia thought she heard a voice rising up in complaint from within Kronos’ stomach, but it was so faint that she couldn’t be sure.

Pretending to be in the most dire misery over the devouring of her sixth child, Rheia went back to her home and from that day forward refused her husband’s bed.  But meanwhile, Zeus was being raised up by Amalthea, fed on the milk of her goat.  He grew quickly, and soon he was not content with goat’s milk, but Amalthea had nothing else to offer him.  Annoyed, Zeus grabbed the goat’s horn, and wrenched it off, causing the poor goat terrible pain.

From the broken end of the horn, something dribbled out onto Zeus’ foot.  It wasn’t blood, though.  Looking at it, he found it had a sweet smell.  He tasted it curiously, then laughed.  It tasted so sweet!  Amalthea had never seen such a substance before, and neither had any of her sisters.  Zeus decided to call it ambrosia, and began to drink it instead of the goat’s milk.  But he refused to share it with Amalthea and her sisters, saying that it was for the gods alone.  But Amalthea and her sisters had no idea what a god was.  Neither, in truth, did Zeus, but he liked the sound of it, and decided to keep using it from then on.

Fed on a diet of ambrosia, it wasn’t long before Zeus had grown to adulthood.  Amalthea’s sisters taught him how to use weapons, Amalthea explained to him all that his mother had told her about his father.  Zeus determined that he would go and fight his father to avenge his brothers and sisters.  He borrowed a sword and shield from one of Amalthea’s sisters, but Amalthea didn’t want him to go into battle against his regal father naked, and he had long since outgrown his swaddling clothes!

While she and her sisters were trying to decide how best to clothe him, the poor goat finally died.  Amalthea decided that this was a sign from Gaia, and she and her sisters skinned the goat and made from it a great, tasseled garment that Zeus could wear to hide his body and shield it a bit from any weapons his father might wield against him.  In the center of the chest, Amalthea hung the goat’s head, but she frowned at its look as she did so.

“It’s hardly an image of terror, is it?” she sighed.  “A one-horned goat isn’t going to frighten anyone.  If only there was some terrible monster you had defeated, you could hang its head there instead.”

“I can worry about that later,” Zeus replied.  “I want to stop my father before he makes and eats any more babies.”

“You should hurry, then,” one of Amalthea’s sisters replied.  “He snuck up on Phillyra in the form of a horse, and got her with child.  She’ll be giving birth soon.  If you want to save that baby, you’d best deal with Kronos quick-like!”

Zeus agreed, and hurried off to confront his father.  When he finally found Kronos, at first he didn’t know what to say, and could only stare in hatred.

“Who are you?” Kronos asked, staring at the youth before him, unrecognizing.  “Don’t you know that I am the king of all?  Show some respect!”

“I am Zeus, and I am here to avenge my brothers and sisters!” Zeus shouted, swinging his sword at his father.  Kronos dodged the first strike, but the second one caught him in the belly, tearing it open, and letting all his earlier children tumble out.  None were as fully grown as Zeus–they had not had any ambrosia to drink in their father’s stomach!–but they were all alive and relatively unharmed.  They all grabbed Kronos by his limbs, and Zeus prepared to drive the sword through his father’s heart when he heard a voice reproach him.

“Do not kill your own father, boy,” a hideous crone said from behind him.

Two more hideous creatures appeared to either side of him.  “We don’t let boys get away with killing their fathers, no matter what their fathers have done to them,” one of the others said.

“Who are you?” Zeus asked, eyeing the trio suspiciously.

“We are the Furies,” the third informed him.  “Do not think that you are above our justice.  Our father was Ouranos; and we are immune to anything you could do to us.  But you are not immune to what we will do to you.”

Zeus hesitated, looking to his siblings.  None looked any more certain than he was, but the three Furies looked intimidating.  And they were older than he was, and Amalthea and her sisters had taught Zeus to respect his elders–unless they gave him reason not to, as Kronos had–so Zeus lowered the sword, and he and his sisters bound their father tightly.

While they were tying Kronos up so that he couldn’t escape–and, just for good measure, Zeus hit him over the head with the stone baby, knocking him unconscious–Rheia heard their voices, and ran up to embrace her six children in turn, crying tears of joy over her restored family.  It was Rheia who suggested that Kronos could be imprisoned in Tartaros, where he had locked up his own brothers just for being ugly.

The six children agreed with their mother’s suggestion, and dragged their unconscious father to Tartaros, tossing him inside and freeing the Cyclopes and Hundred-Handers he had locked up in its depths.  The Cyclopes set to work making weapons and armor for their nieces and nephews, while the Hundred-Handed Giants started guarding the entrance to Tartaros, so that Kronos couldn’t escape.

Zeus took his brothers and sisters to Crete, and the cave on Mt. Ida where he had been raised.  There, he shared the ambrosia with them, helping them to grow to adulthood like his own.  As they were staying in that cave, Zeus told them about the word he had invented, “gods,” and suggested that they should call themselves that, since their father and his siblings were calling themselves Titans.  Everyone agreed that was a good idea indeed.

“Father’s brothers are sure to wonder where he’s disappeared to,” Hades pointed out.

“And then they’ll want to free him, or to take over themselves,” Poseidon added.

“That’s why the Cyclopes are making us weapons and armor,” Zeus replied.  “We’ll have to fight to protect ourselves.”

“We can’t fight our own blood relatives, surely!” Hestia objected.

“We have to defend ourselves, but we shouldn’t fight anyone who doesn’t make themselves our enemy first,” Demeter insisted.

“But if they cross us, we should destroy them!” Hera insisted.

Zeus smiled widely at having one of his sisters understand him so well, and he went to sit beside her as they continued talking and planning for the war to come.

I feel very conflicted about writing Zeus like a teenager.

Uh, other than that, I seem to have managed, once again, to have made the title character not have much of a role.  But I wanted to give Rheia more of a role than just “womb,” which was her traditional role.  Hence her providing substitutes for each child relating to what would eventually become their sphere of influence.  I thought that had a naturalistic, folklore kind of a feel to it.  And I totally mucked about with the order of births, but Hera was the only one who didn’t have a naturalistic “replacement” (since her powers, in myth, have no easy physical side) so she had to be first.  Of course, Zeus isn’t actually always last; in the Iliad he’s described as being the oldest.  (Some later authors tried to make the Homeric and Hesiodic versions work together by saying that Zeus became the eldest because his siblings were re-born as they were regurgitated by Kronos.)

About the goat.  The goat’s horn being the horn of plenty is out of the myths, but making it full of ambrosia instead of more typical food is my own innovation.  I’m not sure if it’s better or worse for a goat’s horn to magically be full of ambrosia (which is, after all, something that defies proper definition) instead of regular food.  As to the bit with the goat’s skin, I read that in one version the goat’s skin was made into the aegis, complete with already having a gorgon face on it.  Well, it didn’t make much sense for there already to be a gorgon’s head on it, but I thought I’d go with the rest of that version as best I could.  (The goat’s name in that version was something that contributed to the name aegis, of course.)

What struck me most as I was preparing to write this, though, is how little we actually know about how Zeus defeated Kronos, and about the ensuing (concurrent?) Titanomachy.  Hesiod is the only major source, and his account is somewhat minimal, particularly regarding the original defeat of Kronos and “re-birth” of the other gods.  Of course, in some versions (perhaps most?), Kronos never swallowed his children in the first place, Hades having been thrown into the underworld, Poseidon into the sea, and the daughters, uh, presumably having been ignored for being daughters.  (But where would Attack on Titan be without the inspiration of Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Children?)

I’ll get to the Titanomachy eventually.  Like the rest of the Theban cycle, I feel badly about leaving it hanging like this, but…well, we’ll see what happens next Thursday.  Both are long and complex (to do it justice, the rest of the Theban cycle will have to require at least two tales, one for the Seven and one for the Epigoni, and probably more than that) and to cap it all, we don’t have as much information on the Titanomachy.  Though that might actually make it easier to write, come to think of it…

Anyway, this concludes the April A-to-Z Blogging Challenge.  Starting tomorrow, I will have no idea what to post about.

That’s more than a little depressing.

2 comments on “Z is for Zeus

  • Congratulations on completing the challenge! Your blog was one of my favorites this year 🙂 I’ll be back to read the posts I missed out on. And looking forward to your reflections on Monday!

    @TarkabarkaHolgy from
    Multicolored Diary – Epics from A to Z
    MopDog – 26 Ways to Die in Medieval Hungary


    • Thanks so much! I’ve been loving Multicolored Diary, too. (So many new books added to my to-read list!) I’m looking forward to reading more. 🙂


  • Comments are closed.

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