Who is that Zeus guy anyway?

I’m the kind of person that, when someone asks something about a Greek god, answers with their name, attributes, parentage and maybe a myth or two. But what do you know about Greek mythology? If I’m going to be writing about it, it might be a good idea to start with a little introduction to the subject. Just so we’re all clear on the answers to questions like: who are the Greek gods? Why is Zeus the one in power? Are they really all related?

One big, divine family

The family tree of the Greek gods is very big and complicated, with a lot of branches twisting and interconnecting in places where you thought they shouldn’t be, so that most people just cut out a few of them. It can be difficult to remember who’s related to who (pro tip: everyone is related to everyone), so let’s start from the beginning. Not the very beginning – there are several creation myths with different variations, so if I do talk about that it will be in a separate post. This is only an introduction to Greek mythology and you’re probably most interested in the big twelve known as the Olympian gods. So I’m going to tell you who their parents were.

Wrath of the Titans Olympians

Before the famous Olympians ruled the earth, there was a generation of Titans in their place. Just like there were twelve Olympian gods, there were twelve important Titans. Most people only remember the names of two or three of them (most people except Rick Riordan). I’m just going to talk about two for now – Kronos and Rhea, the parents of six of the most important gods (unfortunately I can’t use the adjective ‘Olympian’ here since one of them is usually not counted as one of the twelve – more on that later). Now Kronos was the leader of the Titans and, by default, the world. He was afraid his children, if he got any, would grow up to be stronger than him and take over power. It was a reasonable thing to fear, I guess, since that’s what he did to his own father, and it is what his children ended up doing to him. His solution to this unfortunate problem was to eat all his children right after they were born. Fool proof, right?

Obviously not.

After having had five children gobbled up by her husband, Rhea was unsurprisingly starting to feel a little frustrated. So when she gave birth to a sixth child, she quietly switched it for a rock in a swaddling cloth. Kronos swallowed it whole, not suspecting a thing. Rhea had hidden the child on the island of Crete, where he was raised by either nymphs, goats, or the earth itself, depending on what version of the story you like best. Once he was all grown up, he returned to his parents, made Kronos vomit up the rock and all the other children (who were also fully grown by now), and started a war against the Titans.

The world is divided

After Zeus and his siblings had won the war, it was time to divide the spoils. It was decided that Zeus and his two brothers Hades and Poseidon would divide the rule of the world. One of them would be master of the Underworld, one of them would rule the Ocean, and one of them would be king of Heaven and all the gods. This was an important decision to make, so obviously, they drew lots. In this way Hades got the Underworld and became the god of plenty (because all good things come from below the earth); Poseidon got the sea and earthquakes (there is a logical explanation for this I might tell you about later); and Zeus got the sky, weather and justice (justice being part of his job as ruler of the gods; as far as I know it doesn’t have anything to do with precipitation).

What happened to the other three siblings, you might ask? Well, I don’t know how exactly they got their jobs – maybe they just played into their natural talents. They were the women of the group: Hestia, goddess of the hearth (meaning home, and also furnaces); Demeter, goddess of vegetation; and Hera, goddess of marriage. Hera married Zeus, Demeter had sex with Zeus at least once, and Hestia took a vow of virginity. You see, incest is okay if you’re divine, by which I mean ‘a god’, and not ‘very good-looking’. Don’t try it at home. Seriously.

The Twelve Olympians (and Hades)

After this a bunch of other stuff happened and a bunch of other gods showed up to get the number of Olympian gods to twelve. Hades isn’t one of them, since he lives in the Underworld and doesn’t really have anything to do with the rest of the world while they’re still alive. This means we need seven more. They are:

  • Athena, daughter of Zeus and goddess of wisdom, strategy and the tasks women had in a Greek home, such as weaving;
  • Artemis, daughter of Zeus and goddess of the hunt, wilderness and childbirth;
  • Apollo, son of Zeus, twin of Artemis, and god of so many things. I mean seriously. Music, poetry (but they were basically the same thing back then), prophecy, doctors, archery (together with his sister Artemis), light and learning and later even the sun;
  • Hermes, son of Zeus and god of even more freaking things – thieves, travelers, merchants, traveling doctors, messengers, to sum it up: roads and everyone that uses them;
  • Hephaestus, son of Zeus and Hera and god of craftsmanship (including smithing, sculpture, architecture, and probably painting);
  • Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus in some traditions, daughter of sea foam and Kronos’ dad’s sperm in others and goddess of love;
  • Ares, son of Zeus and Hera and god of war;
  • Dionysus, son of Zeus and god of wine, theatre, ecstasy and dolphins for some reason.

If you’re observant, you’ve probably noticed that they are literally all children of Zeus, and that I listed one god too many. That’s because Dionysus isn’t always counted as one of the Olympians. He’s a relatively young god and the only one with a mortal mother. There are stories that Hestia gave up her place among the Twelve for him. That doesn’t mean she stopped being a god – there are many, many more gods and half gods and deities and what have you outside of the Olympus and as I said, Hades isn’t even one of them -, it just means she doesn’t come to all the meetings any more.

To be continued…?

Greek mythology is so rich I could never do it justice in one post. I’ve only talked about the very basics so far and from all the remarks between brackets you can see I have so much more to say. However, I’d like you to actually enjoy spending time on my blog, so I am open to suggestions. Is there anything in this post you’d like me to talk about in greater detail? Should I do profiles on the gods? Are there any myths you’d like me to discuss or retell? Let me know in the comments!

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10 thoughts on “Who is that Zeus guy anyway?

  1. Pingback: Chaos | putting wings on words

  2. Hi, fellow philhellenic person! I know right, Greek myths are the weirdest things in the world :). Rick Riordan was the one who sparked my interest in Greek mythology through his amazing series of books and I owe all my knowledge on the subject to him. How did you get started on it? It’s always interesting knowing how people become engaged in a passion they once never even thought of.

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    • Hi! I got interested in Greek mythology when I read two books about it by Dutch writer Imme Dros. One containing a lot of different myths, and one retelling the Iliad and Odyssey. After that I just wanted to learn more! So I read more children’s books and later ancient Greek and Roman sources on the topic 🙂 I only read all of the Percy Jackson books about a year ago!

      Liked by 1 person

        • They are some of my favourite books! I definitely recommend them, though the language might take some getting used to. I recommend getting a good poetic translation and if you find it hard to get into, try reading it out loud. That way you’ll notice the rythm! They’re exciting, touching and funny. Definitely my favourite ancient Greek works!

          Liked by 1 person

  3. So they’re old English? Well, to be honest, old English is not my cup of tea. Anyway, I’m sure I might be able to understand it minorly with my little knowledge of old English and majorly with SparkNotes 😀
    I’m looking forward to trying them if you recommend them so highly. By the way, how long are they?

    Liked by 1 person

    • No, they’re ancient Greek! I don’t know much about English translations, but there must be a few modern ones that are easier to read. They’re about 400-500 pages each (though that varies per edition of course).

      Liked by 1 person

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