Zeus’ Lovers

“Most people would have given up at that point, but not Zeus, who is known for his ‘never say die’ attitude.”

There are many stories of Zeus’ infidelity, far too many to cover in one blog (and I will look at some of the more notable ones separately), but here are a few to whet your appetite.

  • Leda was a princess of Pleuron. She was, by all accounts, beautiful and she quickly attracted the attention of Zeus who liked to spy on her from Mount Olympus using his telescope (Hera had bought it for him for his Birthday to study the stars, but he had found far more interesting uses for it). Unable to resist her, but knowing that she could not see him in his true form without exploding, Zeus transformed into a swan and swooped down, pretending to be attacked by an eagle. Seeing the swan’s plight, Leda tried to protect it. One thing led to another and she became impregnated. She then jumped into bed with her husband, which might call into question Zeus’ ability to satisfy his women, and became impregnated again. Nine months later, four offspring were born: Helen, Clytemnestra, Castor, and Pollux. Which two were fathered by Zeus, and which two were fathered by Castor (the husband) is not known, but Helen is perhaps the most famous of the offspring; she meets someone called Paris and they start a little war. Castor and Pollux are also worth mentioning: when they died they were immortalised in the sky as the constellation Gemini.
  • Callisto was a follower of Artemis who had taken a vow to remain a virgin. Not to be deterred, Zeus disguised himself as Artemis and went to see his ‘devotee’. Callisto was delighted and more than willing (albeit slightly surprised) to return Artemis’ enthusiastic embrace. 

“Oh, but Artemis, what strong muscles you have.”

“All the better to hug you, my dear.”

“Oh, but Artemis, what a prominent jawline you have.”

“All the better to talk to you, my dear.”

“Oh, but Artemis, what a strange protrusion you have.”

“All the better to…” well you get the idea, and you can guess what happened next.  

Poor Callisto, not only did she have to suffer Zeus’ advances, but she was also thrown out of Artemis’ group and then a furious Hera came a-calling and turned Callisto into a bear. In later years her son, Arcas, would unknowingly hunt his bear-mother and try to pierce her with his spear but, in an act of compassion, Zeus placed Callisto and Arcas in the sky as Ursa Major and Minor before the tragedy could unfold.

  • The story of Aegina involves Zeus once again transforming into a bird to get his way; a tried and tested method. This time it was an eagle. Aegina gave birth to Aeacus who became a great king. Zeus was particularly pleased with this conquest; it was one of the few he thought he had managed to get away with, but Hera eventually found out and in her rage killed every man in Aeacus’ kingdom, other than Aeacus. By way of an apology for his wife’s actions, Zeus transformed the ants who were infesting an oak tree into humans to repopulate the kingdom.  The ant-humans were called the myrmidons and they were fierce warriors who would eventually join up with Achilles to fight in the Trojan war.
  • Zeus also used his eagle form to abduct a Trojan prince called Ganymede, who he had become obsessed with. Ganymede was known for his beauty and became Zeus’ cupbearer on Mount Olympus (replacing Hebe).        
  • For Antiope (not to be confused with the Amazonian of the same name), Zeus took the form of a satyr, which is a man with a horse’s ears and a tail, and forced himself upon the beautiful princess. She fell pregnant and, frightened of the wrath of her father, King Nycteus, she ran away to Sicyon where she married Epopeus without her father’s permission. King Nycteus was furious and declared war on Epopeus, but he couldn’t succeed in his purpose before he died. Nycteus’ brother, Lycus, carried on the war and defeated and killed Epopeus. Lycus then brought Antiope back to Thebes as a prisoner. On her way back to Thebes, Antiope gave birth to twin boys, Amphion (son of Zeus) and Zethus (son of Epopeus), who were left behind to be subsequently saved and brought up by herdsmen. For many years Antiope was held captive by Lycus and made to suffer the utmost cruelty by his wife, Dirce. One day she managed to escape and fortuitously found safety in the house of her sons who had grown to be strong men. Amphion and Zethus listened to their mother’s stories and, filled with rage, killed Lycus and bound Dirce to a wild bull by her hair, which dragged her around until she died. With Lycus out of the way, Amphion became the king of Thebes. Hurrah!        
  • With Europa, Zeus took the form of a tame white bull. According to the legend, Europa was collecting spring buds near Sidon where her father Agenor was King when a horny Zeus spotted her and instantly lusted after her. Europa had never seen such a beautiful white bull and she went over to stroke it. The bull then kneeled so that Europa could climb on its back, which she dutifully did, and then it ran off to Crete with Europa clinging on for dear life. Zeus then revealed his true identity to the windswept and confused Europa (who went on to become the Queen of Crete) and had his way. Zeus was so proud of his cunning that he immortalised the bull by replicating its shape in the sky; it is now known as the constellation, Taurus.   
  • Io was a priestess of Hera (this time Zeus was sailing close to the wind) and she was very beautiful. Zeus, who was fond of a challenge, decided that he had to have her. His initial strategy was to transform Io into a cow so that Hera wouldn’t be suspicious, but Hera wasn’t deceived; she knew his tricks well. Hera fastened Io (in cow form) to an olive tree and left her to be guarded by Argus-Panoptes who had 100 eyes and only ever closed 2 of them when sleeping. Most people would have given up at that point, but not Zeus, who is known for his ‘never say die’ attitude. He called in a favour from Hermes, who played his magic lyre to make Argus-Panoptes close all of his eyes…and then Hermes slew him (legend has it that Hera placed his eyes on the tail of a peacock in lasting memorial of her gratitude). Hermes then released Io who, whilst pleased not to be tethered to a tree, was somewhat perplexed why she was still wandering around chewing cud. To make matters worse, Hera then sent a gadfly to torment poor Io and she wandered the earth desperate to escape her tormentor. Hera eventually grew tired of playing with Io (who had managed to reach Egypt) and Zeus turned her back into her normal form. Io then gave birth to Zeus’ son Epaphus, and his daughter, Keroessa.  
  • Semele was a princess of Thebes and daughter to the hero Cadmus. Zeus became obsessed with her when he watched her slaughter a bull for him and after a few dalliances, she was pregnant. Her pregnancy didn’t go unnoticed by the ever-watchful Hera, who came up with a cunning plan. Disguised as an old hag, Hera befriended Semele, who confessed to her affair with Zeus. Hera planted doubts in Semele’s mind about Zeus’ identity which ate away at her until she asked Zeus to grant her a boon. Zeus, keen to impress his lover, agreed, and so Semele asked Zeus to show himself in his true form. Zeus begged her not to ask that of him, but she insisted and Zeus was bound by his oath. When Semele set her eyes on Zeus in his god-like form she burst into flames. Zeus did, however, manage to save his unborn child before Semele turned to dust by sewing him to his thigh. That child was Dionysus, and he is the only Greek god that has a mortal mother.

Most of the myths involving Zeus and his lovers involve Hera exacting her revenge on the lover, but on one occasion Hera did make Zeus suffer, and we will hear about Hera’s revenge in the next instalment…

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