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Zeus

Zeus

Number One in the pantheon of Greek gods,  Zeus was originally god of the sky and of the elements, of the winds, clouds, rain and thunder. Later mythmakers gave to him the attributes of divinity and with this power he ordered the world’s affairs according to the law of fate and his own will. He did not always get his way, and because of this he is perhaps one of the most likeable – certainly the most human – of all deities from any tradition included in this book. He certainly gets up to much that one thinks a lusty god should get up to, troublesome for himself or others though it might be.

First there was Chaos, or empty space, then came Gaea

 the earth mother, and Eros. This was not the Eros of later times but a symbol of the attraction of forces, of magnetism itself. Eros presided over the formation of things and beings, while from Chaos came the night and the day. Gaea, meanwhile, gave birth to Uranus, that is the sky and the stars, giving him equality with her, that he might cover her entirely. Then she brought forth the lifeless sea, Pontus, with its rhythmic waves.

From the mating of Gaea and Uranus came the first race. These, the Titans, were twelve in number, six males and six females. The Cyclops also sprang from the union of Gaea and Uranus, as did the many-headed and many-handed monsters called Hecatoncheires or Centimanes. 

Alas

 poor Uranus was terrified by such progeny, and shut them up in the earth, even the rather comely Titans, not to mention the three with one eye in the centre of their foreheads and the three who seemed mere conglomerations of limbs and craniums. This situation, however, was not to last.

Gaea was grief stricken at first, but then the desire for restitution and an awful revenge swelled within her bosom. So it was that from this same bosom she drew a sliver of steel, which she had created there, forming it into a sharp sickle. She went to her children and told them of her grisly plans. All save the youngest of the Titans, Cronus, baulked at assisting her.

When Uranus came to Gaea again, as usual in the evening, and with the Night lay down beside her to sleep, the scheme to punish him was in place. Cronus, waiting nearby, armed with the sickle, crept out of hiding and cut off his father’s testicles. These he threw into the sea but the blood dripping from them and the horrible wound was soaked up by the earth and brought forth new life in the form of giants, monsters and nymphs. The severed parts floating on the waves became a white foam which turned into a young goddess, Aphrodite.

The impotent Uranus fades from our story, leaving Cronus to free his Titan brethren but not Uranus’ other prisoners. Together this new coalition continued creating the world, from the dawn to the rainbow, along with gods and demi-gods to watch over them. Furies, Harpies and humans also appeared around this time, as did the offspring of the Titans, who bred with each other or with nymphs. Cronus, too, fathered six children, mating with his sister Rhea.

These births were not regarded as happy events by Cronus. It is not clear whether he was aware of a prophecy which declared he would be deposed by his own progeny, or whether he had simply inherited his father’s dislike of children. Either way, as his daughters Hesetia, Demeter and Hera, and his sons Hades and Poseidon entered the world, he swallowed them whole.

Rhea was overwhelmed with sorrow each time this happened, and by the time she was carrying her sixth child, Zeus, she had had enough and went to her parents, Gaea and Uranus, for help. Taking their advice, she journeyed to Crete, where, deep in a cavern in the thick forests around Mount Aegeum, she gave birth. Gaea took the baby away to bring up, and Rhea wrapped a large stone in swaddling cloths and gave it to Cronus, who swallowed it without hesitation, noticing nothing unusual.

Zeus was placed with the nymphs Adrasteia and Ida, who were the daughters of Melisseus, King of Crete. They lavished care and attention on the little god, and gave him a golden cradle. Adrasteia made him a present of a ball made from hoops of gold.

So, hidden from the evil eye of his father, Zeus spent his childhood in the forests around Mount Ida. Some believe his wet nurse was a nanny goat named Amaltheia, a magical animal whose appearance frightened even the gods. Zeus is said to have rewarded her later by giving her a place among the constellations. Her hide, which could not be penetrated by arrows, became his invaluable aegis. He gave his nymph foster-mothers one of her horns, the cornucopia, or horn of
plenty, which could never be emptied of food or drink.

Zeus grew up happily enough in this situation. Besides the goat, he was also wet nursed by the wife of the King of Crete, while the nymphs gave him ambrosia and nectar. It may well be that the ministrations of these charming creatures affected his erotic inclinations, for goddesses would not be the only objects of his considerable passion later in life.

As he came to adulthood Zeus knew that there must be a reckoning with his father, and that Cronus must be punished for his wickedness.With the help of another immortal, he managed to get Cronus to consume a drink that made him violently ill. Retching copiously, Cronus vomited up not only the stone he had gulped down, thinking it his last born, but all the other gods he had swallowed as well.

Deposed and under the power of Zeus now, it is unclear what became of Cronus. He may have been thrown into the belly of the universe and confined there in darkness, sentenced to an enchantment of perpetual sleep in faraway Thule, or merely superannuated to live happily enough on the other side of creation.

To commemorate his triumph, Zeus laid the stone thrown up from the gut of Cronus in Pythos, at the foot of Parnassus. This later found its way to the tomb of Neoptolemus at Delphi, where it could be seen for many years.

The Titans came to resent the usurpation of the new gods, who made Olympus their home, and they rebelled. Only Oceanus, whose daughter Metis had helped him against Cronus, sided with Zeus. From their stronghold on Mount Othrys, the Titans mounted savage assaults on the Olympians.

For a decade the battle see-sawed back and forth with neither side quite strong enough to overcome the other. Then, in an act of wisdom, courage and belated justice, Zeus went into the bowels of the earth, to where the Cyclops and the Hecatoncheires had been imprisoned long before by Uranus. Unlike the Titans, they had not been liberated when Cronus defeated his father and it is easy to understand their feelings towards their brothers and sisters who had abandoned them. As allies against the Titans, they were invaluable to Zeus.

Again, battle was joined, a battle not royal but divine. Earth and sea echoed with the horrible roar, heaven itself shook and moaned, Great Olympus was made to tremble at its foundations by the combat of the immortals. They used their deadly weapons and clashed repeatedly, shouting at each other so loudly and vehemently that the noise reached up to the stars themselves. At last Zeus gained the advantage and grew ever greater in strength. His might showed forth, as straight from Heaven and Olympus he rushed at his enemies, hurling lightning bolts together with flashing thunder. The earth and all upon it burned, the sea
boiled and the heat blasted the divine ether. It was as if heaven and earth had crashed together at blinding speed.

Even the Titans could no longer withstand the onslaught, as the Hecatoncheires, Cottus, Briareus and Gyes, the so-called Hundred-Armed giants, lusting for battle and foremost among Zeus’s host, each hurled one hundred stones in rapid succession. This cloud of missiles overwhelmed the Titans, and drove them back down into the bowels of the earth. Here they were bound in chains and guarded by the brothers they had abandoned. All that is, save Atlas, who was forced to hold the
world upon his shoulders.

No sooner had Zeus seen off the threat of the Titans than other enemies arose to challenge his power. The giants and other creatures given birth by the dripping blood of Uranus’ testicles making contact with the earth now forced a new struggle on Zeus and his fellow Olympians.

Some of these formidable creatures were mainly of human shape but with feet like the tails of snakes. They had sprung from Gaea and commanded the islands, rivers and the plains around Olympus. Wearing gleaming armour and bearing enormous spears, they could lift whole mountains and fling them as weapons, or take the snows from icy regions and crush an enemy under them.

Using the surrounding hills, they built a ramp for an assault on Olympus. Zeus and the other gods stood firm and together they killed many giants but, as the oracle foretold, gods alone could not defeat the sons of Gaea. It was Hercules, son of Zeus and his last mortal concubine, Alcmena, who turned the tide in this battle.

A useful piece of intelligence won the day for him in his desperate struggle with the champion giant Alcyoneus, who had killed all the adversaries sent against him. Before the battle Athene had told Hercules that the earth of his home territory and the connection to his mother was the source of the giant’s invincibility. In the ensuing battle Hercules discovered for himself the wisdom of Athene’s words. He threw the giant to the ground, only to find that he was stronger when he regained his feet. Hercules changed his tactics and, hoisting him aloft, carried him away from his homeland to slay him beyond its protection.

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