Classical Mythology: Master of the Universe

Master of the Universe

Some storytellers depicted Zeus, the Supreme Ruler of the universe, as the all-knowing and all-powerful ruler of all things. But with his power also came many responsibilities:

  • Zeus handed down the laws that governed the behavior of mortals and immortals alike and made sure they were obeyed.
  • In addition to upholding the laws, Zeus enforced any oaths sworn—by either mortals or immortals—upon the gods.
  • Zeus pronounced certain oracles, for, like many of the gods, Zeus often knew what the future held.
  • As ruler of the heavens, Zeus imposed order on the universe. He placed all the planets and the stars in the sky.
  • He also commanded meteorological phenomena. It was he who sent the rains that fertilized the earth and made it productive. He also commanded the thunderstorm, wielding thunder and lightning as his most potent weapons.

King of Gods, God of Kings

Despite the initial agreement that no single god would rule Olympus, Zeus—as Lord of the Heavens—in effect ruled Olympus as well. But he did not lord over the other gods with an iron fist. Zeus maintained his power not through force alone, but through wisdom and justice.

If not exactly a benevolent ruler, Zeus was, for the most part, sensible, shrewd, and fair. In mediating conflicts among the gods, Zeus demonstrated both impartiality and good judgment. Many of these arguments involved border disputes—such as when Poseidon and Athena both wanted to serve as the patron of Athens. Zeus chose to remain neutral, putting the question before a tribunal of other gods. In a similar dispute between the same two Olympians over Troezen, Zeus ruled that Poseidon and Athena should share that city equally—a solution that satisfied neither of them.

Zeus often found compromise the quickest route to justice. When Demeter demanded the return of her daughter Persephone from Hades, Zeus ruled that the girl should spend part of the year with her mother and part of it with her new husband (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld). Similarly, when both Persephone and Aphrodite claimed the right to rear Adonis, Zeus found a solution that demanded mutual compromise (see The A Team: Olympians All).

As for his relations with mortals, Zeus was never overly impressed with humankind. He would have withheld fire from the human race had not Prometheus stolen it from Olympus and presented it to man. Later, Zeus—grossly offended by the mortal Lycaon, who had served the god human flesh to eat—intended to wipe out the entire race with a great flood. Once again, however, Prometheus saved the day.

What a Life!

King Lycaon, who had 50 sons, ruled Arcadia when Zeus came down from Olympus to investigate human wickedness. Lycaon (or perhaps his sons) rashly tried to test the nature of their divine visitor. So they mixed human flesh in with the stew that they served Zeus. Enraged by this impiety, Zeus turned Lycaon into a wolf, destroyed all but one of the king's sons, and created the great flood.

Deucalion, a son of Prometheus, married Pyrrha, a daughter of Epimetheus and Pandora. When Prometheus learned of the flood Zeus had planned, he warned Deucalion and Pyrrha, who swiftly built a boat and stocked it with food. The flood lasted for nine days and nights, but the couple then landed safely on Mount Parnassus. Zeus, showing some mercy, then helped them repopulate the earth by having them throw stones. Those that Pyrrha threw became women, while Deucalion's stones became men.

In the affairs of mortals, the justice of Zeus often involved chastening or punishing mortals for overreaching. Those mortals who dared to assume divine rights, privileges, or powers soon regretted having aroused the wrath of Zeus.

In addition to guarding the rights of the gods, Zeus sometimes protected mortal kings from overreachers (usurpers of the throne). Zeus also harshly punished those who violated the laws of hospitality toward guests and suppliants (those who humbly asked their hosts for some favor).

Trouble in Paradise

As ruler of Olympus by acclamation, Zeus experienced few threats to his power. The gods tried to challenge his rule just once. Hera, Poseidon, and young Apollo—soon joined by all the other Olympians, except Hestia—rose against Zeus.

What a Life!

Zeus also forced Poseidon and Apollo to atone for their part in the failed rebellion. He sent the chastened Olympians to Phrygia to serve King Laomedon of Troy humbly for one year. The gods built the impenetrable walls around Troy that would later keep Greek attackers from taking the city for 10 years (see All's Not Fair in Love and War: The Fall of Troy).

As Zeus lay sleeping, they bound him to his couch with thongs of rawhide, tying 100 knots to hold him fast. Though Zeus could scarcely move a muscle, he boldly threatened the rebellious gods with instantaneous destruction. They only laughed and mocked him, knowing that his intimidating thunderbolts were far out of reach.

The debate over who would best succeed Zeus as ruler of the gods grew heated, however. The argument might have led to civil war, but the Nereid Thetis—ancient goddess of the sea—saved the Olympians from war. Thetis summoned Briareus, one of the Giants. Using all of his hands at once, Briareus swiftly untied the 100 knots, freeing the god who had freed him from Tartarus.

To punish Hera for leading the rebellion, Zeus affixed golden bracelets to her wrists and hung her from the sky. To each of her ankles he attached an iron anvil. Zeus freed her only after her fellow Olympians, tortured by Hera's anguished cries, vowed never again to rebel against him.

The First Sex Addict?

If Zeus had one flaw (and most Olympians had at least one), it would have to be his insatiable lust. His mother Rhea recognized her son's enormous appetite for sexual intercourse and foresaw that it would create problems for both him and any wife he chose. So she forbade Zeus to marry.

Furious at his mother's interference, Zeus threatened to violate her. Upon hearing this threat, Rhea transformed herself into a vicious serpent. But Zeus did the same, tangled himself in a knot with his mother that could not be untied, and did indeed violate her—making her the first in a long line of victims of the god's lust.

Metis, the beautiful Oceanid who had advised him on how to free his brothers and sisters (see Tales of the Titanic), became his first lover. A shape-shifter, Metis transformed herself many times in order to escape the lust of Zeus, but Zeus finally caught her. The couple conceived the goddess Athena. But during the pregnancy, Gaia prophesied that a second child by Metis would be a son who would overthrow his father and rule heaven in his stead. Zeus knew this story well: After all, he had deposed his father, Cronus, who had done the same to Zeus's grandfather, Uranus.

Rather than risk the fulfillment of Gaia's prophecy, Zeus emulated his father—but went even further. Instead of just swallowing the children, as Cronus had done, he swallowed Metis even before she could give birth to Athena. (See The A Team: Olympians All to find out just how Athena was born.) Thereafter, Zeus claimed that Metis—who was considered wiser than even the gods—continued to provide him with advice and counsel from within his belly.

After Metis, Zeus mated with his beautiful aunt Themis, a Titaness. Themis and Zeus conceived several children—and this time Zeus allowed their birth. Themis gave birth to:

  • The three Horae (Seasons): Eunomia (Law and Order), Dike (Justice), and Eirene (Peace)
  • The three Moirai (Fates): the sisters Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos, who mete out every mortal's life span and his or her share of good and evil. (The Moirai were, according to Hesiod, not the daughters of Zeus and Themis, but of Nyx and Erebus.)

With the birth of these six daughters, Zeus—the father of all laws—completed the job of creation: bringing order to chaos.


Aglaia means “beauty” or “splendor.” Euphrosyne means “the quality of having a good heart.” And Thalia means “flourishing” or “thriving abundance.”

Zeus chose as his third mistress a sister of Metis, an Oceanid named Eurynome. She gave birth to the three Graces—Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia—who personified the qualities of beauty, grace, and charm.

Zeus next slept with his sister Demeter. Their daughter Persephone, against her mother's wishes, would become Queen of the Underworld (see What the Hell? Adventures in the Underworld).

Zeus next lay with another aunt, the Titaness Mnemosyne. For nine nights, this divine couple made love, thereby conceiving the nine Muses. Though not all storytellers agreed on the specific functions of individual Muses, they are usually identified as follows:

  • Clio, the Muse of history
  • Euterpe, the Muse of music and lyric poetry
  • Thalia, the Muse of comedy (not to be confused with Thalia, one of the three Graces)
  • Melpomene, the Muse of tragedy
  • Terpsichore, the Muse of dance
  • Erato, the Muse of love poetry and marriage songs
  • Polyhymnia, the Muse of sacred song and oratory
  • Urania, the Muse of astronomy
  • Calliope, the Muse of epic or heroic poetry

The sixth lover of Zeus was his cousin Leto, the daughter of the Titans Phoebe and Coeus. Leto gave birth to the most beautiful of all the Olympians: Artemis and Apollo (see The A Team: Olympians All).

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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