Zeus is a wonderful man a forgiving god, a caring father, and of course, a deeply loyal husband. Now, some of you may argue that none of those statements is true, and I’d argue if they were Greek mythology would be a far more boring place and this article wouldn’t exist.
Today, we are taking a look at Zeus’s known and lesser-known lovers and affairs—at least the more interesting ones. I’m assuming that most of us know who Zeus is by now. For those who might still be unfamiliar, he was the king of gods in Greek mythology, who overthrew his father.
The 7 Wives of Zeus in Greek Mythology
Despite being married to Hera, the goddess of marriage, Zeus still part hook in the occasional affair or two-hundred-thousand. With such an extensive list, it seems we should start at the very beginning.
According to Hesiod, Zeus had seven wives and the first of these was not Hera, it was metis. Metis was the one who supplied a young Zeus with the special potion that caused Cronus to throw up and release all of Zeus’s siblings who had been swallowed, and how did Zeus repay metis for this favor?
Well, he swallowed her whole. Gaia and Uranus had prophesied the son of Zeus and Metis would one day dethrone Zeus, and so having seen the same plan fail for his father Cronus, he decided to do the same thing.
Zeus and metis did however have one child whom I’m sure you’re familiar with. Athena was born from Zeus’s forehead as a regular birth wasn’t possible, given Zeus had eaten her mother.
His second wife was Themis, the titan goddess of law and justice. From this union came the Horai and the Morai — also known as the seasons and the Fates.
Wife number three was Eurynome, another Oceanid who bore the Charities, three goddesses also known as the Graces.
The fourth wife was Demeter who bore Zeus a daughter we know as Persephone.
The fifth wife was Mnemosyne, the titan goddess of memory. From this union came the nine muses.
Wife number six was Leto, who had to flee to the island of Delos to give birth to Artemis and Apollo.
The last of the seven wives according to Hesiod was Hera, the queen of the gods.
The Stories of the Many Affairs and Lovers of Zeus
With the wives out of the way, we can move on to the many affairs and mistresses. Now, I am going to warn you these stories are weird—very weird. let’s begin with the story of Danae.
Danae is the mother of Perseus. Danae was the daughter of King Acrisius, the ruler of Argos. The king was extremely frustrated by his lack of a male heir and so, he decided to seek out the oracle of Delphi to inquire whether he would have a change in fortune.
The answer was a resounding NO, but she did tell him that his daughter Danae would have a son. She also told him this son would one day kill him. Returning home, king Acrisius took his daughter and lopped her up in a subterranean bronze chamber. He decided his daughter would remain childless if he buried her alive in a tomb under his palace.
This chamber was sealed shut. There were no doors or windows. The only source of light and air comes from a tiny skylight.
Luckily for Danae, Zeus had taken a liking to her, and a pesky impenetrable underground bunker wasn’t going to get in his way. Zeus took the form of golden rain and showered dana through the skylight, impregnating her.
So, it’s fair to say that Perseus was born from a golden shower, just not the type you may be thinking of.
The king now just couldn’t murder his daughter and grandchild, and so he had them placed in a barrel and cast out at sea. The prophecy still came true, albeit much later when Perseus accidentally struck him in the head with a javelin.
Miscellaneous forms of Zeus
When Zeus tried to seduce Hera, he transformed himself into a bird, and this weird process of taking the form of animals, other people, and various miscellaneous forms when interacting with his potential lovers was common practice.
When he came across Europa picking flowers in a field, he appeared as a bull that smelled of fresh flowers. Naturally, Europa’s attention was drawn, and when she hopped on his back, Zeus jumped into the sea and swam to the island of Crete. Zeus then revealed himself and made Europa the first queen of Crete.
Two of their sons Rhadamanthus and Minos became kings of Crete
The story of nemesis is one of the more notoriously strange stories. Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution, and thus not someone you’d wish to anger unless you were Zeus. Nemesis rejected Zeus’s advances and took several different forms in an attempt to escape him.
One form she took was a goose, and this prompted Zeus to chase her down disguised as a swan. This time, he was successful in his chase and Nemesis would lay an egg. That egg was then given to Leda, the queen of Sparta. From this egg would hatch Helen of Troy.
Some stories like to switch the position of Nemesis and Leda here. Zeus still in the form of a swan ran into Leda’s arms pretending he was being pursued by an eagle, which was just Aphrodite in disguise.
More Weird Transformations of Zeus
Some other transformations of note include a phoenix, when appearing to Cassiopeia; an eagle when he abducted Ganymede, a Satyr, a vulture, an ant, and a serpent.
When Zeus appeared to Heracles‘ mother Alcmene, he did so disguised as her very own husband — although this didn’t necessarily cause her too many issues with Hera, it did however doom Heracles to a lifetime of hatred.
The titan goddess Asteria flew across the heavens disguised as a quail to try and escape Zeus. In the end, she dove into the sea and transformed into the island of Delos.
Fans of Hades and Persephone will be disappointed to know that Zeus seduced Persephone on two separate occasions. The first time before her marriage to Hades was in the form of a serpent, where Persephone gave birth to a god known as Zagreus. The second time was during her reign as queen of the underworld. However, this time he appeared as his brother Hades.
I did tell you these stories would be weird.
Zeus’s next lover/victim was Io, a priestess of Hera, nonetheless. Zeus lusted for Io immediately upon seeing her, however, Hera at this point kept a close eye on Zeus. To avoid being caught, Zeus transformed the Io into a cow.
Hera couldn’t prove that this cow was one of Zeus’s lovers, but she was well aware of her husband’s trickery. She demanded that Zeus gave her this cow as a gift. To which Zeus had no real option but to agree.
Hera then had the giant Argus Panoptes guard the cow—Argus had over a hundred eyes, making it almost impossible for Zeus to sneak past and transform Io back into a woman. The ever-reliable Hermes was sent to deal with the giant, tricking him into a deep slumber and killing him.
Zeus then transformed io back into a woman and set her free. In some versions of the story, she remained a cow which still wasn’t enough of a punishment for Hera. She also had a gadfly follow Io around and continually sting her. Io would eventually come across a chained-up Prometheus who told her that one day she would return to her human form.
We’ve had some of the weirder stories but many of these encounters ended in tragedy. The story of Callisto falls into the tragic category.
The daughter of King Lycaon and a follower of Artemis, remaining a virgin was fairly important to Callisto as she wished to remain in the cult of Artemis. That didn’t last long as Zeus came across Callisto in the forest. His advances at first were rejected and so he planned to return but in the form of Artemis.
Surely, Callisto would be unable to reject the advances of her patron goddess. This time he was successful and shortly after, Callisto fell pregnant with his child. The next time Callisto came across Artemis, she was invited to bathe with her and her followers in a river. Reluctantly, Callisto undressed revealing her belly.
Artemis, furious that her vow had been broken, transformed Callisto into a bear so she could never be with her son. The next time they saw each other, her son did not recognize Callisto and so they killed each other.
Not wanting to anger Hera anymore Zeus did not intervene when Callisto begged and pleaded to transform her back into a woman. After her death, Zeus placed both Callisto and her son in the sky as constellations, Ursa major and minor.
In alternate versions, most Greek poets claim that Callisto was just slain by Artemis at a later time. Either way, there is no happy ending for Callisto.
Remaining on the topic of tragedy, there are a few more lovers we can look at Lamia was a queen in Libya, and many would travel thousands of miles just to admire her beauty. Zeus had given Lamia two children.
When Hera learned of the affair, she took those children away. Some stories say that Hera killed those children and others that she tricked Lamia into killing her children. This droves Lamia insane.
Hera then transformed her into a monster and cursed her with insomnia, her eyes could never close. Lamia became a monster who snatched away children and devoured them — a story that parents would tell children to ensure they stayed inside.
Zeus eventually found Lamia and gave her the ability to remove her eyes, allowing her to finally rest.
Semele was a priestess of Zeus, he was observed sacrificing a bull at his altar. As these stories go, he fell in love, and before not too long she was carrying his child. Hera once again observing this affair came up with a new way to punish this lover.
She took the form of an elderly woman, appearing to Semele and befriending her. Semele excited to finally tell someone, told the elderly woman that the father of her child was indeed Zeus. Hera pretended to not believe her; how could she possibly know Zeus was the father of her child if she had never seen his true form?
The doubts planted by Hera began to bother Semele until she asked Zeus for one favour. She had Zeus swear an oath on the river Styx to grant her whatever she requested. Semele then told Zeus she wanted to see him in all his glory.
Zeus begged and pleaded for her to reconsider, but he was unsuccessful in changing her mind and so he did as he promised, revealing his divinity—no mortal was able to look upon the true form of a god and Semele was no exception—she burst into flames and died.
Zeus was able to rescue the child by sewing him into his thigh. A child that would be born later and one that we know as Dionysus.
Now, the stories we’ve heard today are by no means every lover and affair that took place. They are the ones that were named and have a story. There are countless nymphs and mortal women who only appear by name and even more who are nameless.
Image Credits: Markus Stadlober