Zeus Swallowed His Wife Whole, Plus 6 Other Tasty Zeus Tidbits

The statue of Zeus at Versailles, France. Alexander Ipfelkofer/Getty Images


Even if you're a Greek mythology newbie and you've never acquainted yourself with the likes of Athena, Aphrodite, or Hercules, you've likely heard of at least one major player on Mount Olympus: Zeus.

"Zeus is raw power — he can blast any human or monster with his lightning bolt and incinerate them," says Richard P. Martin, Antony and Isabelle Raubitschek professor in classics at Stanford University, in an email interview. "He can see everything from his commanding position in the sky. And he has all intelligence literally within him, having swallowed one of his first wives, the goddess Metis."

Um, come again? For more information on that little tidbit and more, read on for seven fascinating facts about Zeus, the king of the Greek gods.

1. He's the Father of the Gods

Zeus is, in short, a pretty big deal. He's known as the king of the gods and a ruler of mankind, and he had the power to intervene in just about any decision made by the other gods (but he couldn't control the fates — that was beyond even his abilities).

2. His Origin Story Is a Little Icky

Zeus was born to the brother and sister duo (yup) of Titans Kronos and Rhea. Like his father, Uranus, Kronos had heard a prophecy that one of his sons would dethrone him. Rather than take a risk of being bested, Kronos did what any logical father would do every time his wife gave birth: He took the newborn and swallowed it whole. Yikes.

Thanks to that unsettling strategy, the couple's first kids, Hera, Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, and Demeter all spent their first years in the belly of Kronos. Rhea (unsurprisingly) wasn't super-stoked about the situation, so when she gave birth to their sixth child, Zeus, she smuggled him to Crete and swapped in a blanket-wrapped stone to fool Kronos. Kronos swallowed the stone and Zeus went on to be raised by nymphs on the island of Crete. Eventually, Zeus and Rhea got Kronos to vomit up the other kids (and the stone!), and Zeus led his siblings in a revolt to overthrow Kronos and the Titans. When they won, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon divvied up the world amongst themselves: The underworld went to Hades, Poseidon scored the seas and oceans, and Zeus got the skies, putting him above all other gods — literally.

3. He Swallowed His Wife

Wow, history really does repeat itself, doesn't it? Metis, named for the Greek phrase for "cunning intelligence," was Zeus's first wife. As her name suggests, she had a reputation for being rather wise and prophetic. Unfortunately, she made the mistake of telling her husband one of her prophecies: She and Zeus would have a son who would become more powerful than his father. Zeus wasn't down for a demotion, so his solution was to swallow the evidence of the prediction — literally. He swallowed Metis (possibly when she was in the form of a fly, which kind of makes it less horrific, but not really). "As an unstoppable force that shapes the world and has put all previous gods to flight, Zeus continues to affect mortals and immortals by coupling with women and nymphs to produce heroes and heroines (as well as taking a boy lover on the side)," Martin says.

4. He's Usually Given a Flattering Portrayal in Art

"He is powerfully built, of middle age, bearded and grasps the thunderbolt," Martin says. "He is of course also seen in animal form (a bull when he abducts Europa; a swan when he seduces Leda, for example). In poetry — which is the main form of literature until the fifth century B.C. E. — he is the object of continual praise, as in the Theogony by Hesiod, but also is depicted as quarrelling with his divine wife, Hera, and even being tricked and bested by her." That's the same Hera, by the way, that you know as Zeus's older sister. Awkward.

5. His Family Life Was Rough

Understanding Zeus in a domestic context is, for lack of a better word, messy. "It's complicated," Martin says. "His wife Hera is also his sister; by her he had the war god Ares; the childbirth goddess Eileithyia; and the goddess of eternal youth Hebe. Another goddess with whom Zeus once mated is also his sister — Demeter. Their daughter is Persephone. His brothers, with whom he divided the universe, are Poseidon, god of the sea and Hades, god of the underworld. Then he has a bunch of children by other women and goddesses: Athena by Metis, Artemis and Apollo by Leto, Dionysos by Semele. He is endlessly fecund. Let's not get into his twisted family history when it comes to father, Kronos, and grandfather, Ouranos."

6. His Roman Counterpart Is Similar but Unique

"Jupiter is just a Latin word that is directly related to the Greek 'Zeu -pater,' which meant 'Zeus the father,' Martin says. "'Ju-piter' is actually a compound word, like 'Zeus-father.' In most ways, the myths of Jupiter that one reads in Roman literature are derived from Greek — so there is not much difference. In actual religious worship and rituals, however, Jupiter was much more central to the Roman state than Zeus was to, say, Athens, where he was a bit marginalized by Athena, patron goddess of the city."

7. His Biggest Downfall May Have Been His Libido

"His tendency to chase and mate with females, indiscriminately, got him into trouble a number of times," Martin says. "It's a flaw from the mortal point of view, but gods being gods just do whatever they want and usually don't suffer. Greeks were clever enough to see that, if you transposed the habits of gods onto a human plane, they looked monstrous or comical or both. They never hesitated while making drama or other poems to make fun even of Zeus."