Zeus in Greek Literature
Greek literature contains themes that are transcendent of time and any limitations of theme. Zeus is one of the most prolific characters of Greek Mythology and he is used in many plays, oracles and mythological stories from Ancient Greece. Have the writers at Paper Masters help you discern the themes in Greek Literature that incorporate Zeus and his legend.
Hesiod’s Theogony, which, with Homer, serves as the fountainhead of Greek mythology, contains some of the stories concerning Zeus in Greek Literature. It is clear from these stories that he could be cruel and arbitrary. Zeus chained Prometheus, the friend of mankind who taught humans the use of fire, to a rock and condemned him to have his liver eternally eaten because of a minor deception. Interestingly, in Aeschylus’ play, Prometheus Bound, we get some idea of the limitations of Zeus’ power. He is omnipotent in time present, but he is not all-knowing. He can be deceived (as Hera does in seducing him in the Iliad [XIV]). Moreover, he is not completely omnipotent in the way in which Christians believed their God to be. The Leader of the chorus in Aeschylus’ play asks Prometheus, “Who then holds the helm of necessity?” The answer is not Zeus, but the Fates and Furies. The leader then asks, “And Zeus, is he less in power than these?” To which Prometheus answers, “He may not avoid what is destined”.
Zeus, in Greek Literature, has a very important function, the maintenance of order and justice, in the world. This can be seen in the two Homeric poems:
- The Odyssey
- The Iliad
Zeus mediates between those gods who want the Trojans destroyed and those who do not. He is generally fair. Though he loves Hector he abandons him to his fate - death at Achilles hands—when the action of a scale mandates it. The lesser gods of Olympus tend to divide into rabid factions in the Iliad, but Zeus maintains a certain aloof and judicious quality, a quality of cleaving to the mean, that the Greeks would have very much liked. In the Odyssey he agrees at the beginning of the poem that Odysseus should be allowed to return home and it is he that sends Hermes to Calypso with the news that she must let Odysseus leave her island and return to Ithaca. This is a just act.
It is the battle of the Titans that brings out the wrath of Zeus. In lines 687-712 Zeus hurls lightning to earth, burning the ground and the Titans along with it. In this respect Zeus is both a mighty leader who protects his flock and a wrathful god who crushes the Titans and banishes them to "a dank place where are the ends of the huge earth". But the Titans are not merely banished. They are sent to a place that is "awful even to the deathless gods".
The battle of the Titans and the response of Zeus illustrates a leader that is powerful and vengeful. This model of leadership relies on its strength to control the worlds of both mortal men and immortal gods. It is a model of leadership that requires an escalation of cruelty at any cost. For example, when Zeus burns the heads of the monster and Typhoeus is hurled to the earth, the results were tragic for mortals: "the earth melted in the glow of the blazing fire. And in the bitterness of his anger Zeus cast him into wide Tartarus". In this instance Hesiod presents the reader with a leader who responds from anger and allows bitterness to dictate his actions.
Zeus married Metis, described as "the wisest among gods and mortal men", and deceived her when she was about to bring forth goddess Athene. He put her in his own belly, as the Earth and Heaven had advised, because "no other should hold sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus". This act of eating one's own wife is symbolic, but it is far from the requirements of an ideal leader.
Hesiod writes that "Zeus himself gave birth from his own head to the bright-eyed Tritogeneia, the awful, the strife-stirring, the host-leader, the unwearying, the queen, who delights in tumults and wars and battles". Again, the reader is confronted with a leader who is capable of great terror and, in many ways, responsible for the horrors that haunts mortal men.
As the above analysis of Hesiod's Theogony indicates, Zeus was far from the ideal leader. Nevertheless, it is this contradictory nature of Zeus that helped the Greeks make sense of a world that was cruel and benevolent, deadly and life giving, wise and angry. For them, leadership required a certain might that was capable of punishing its subjects with such fury that both mortal men and gods would think twice before going against him. At the same time, Zeus is a leader who is a great protector capable of kindness and forgiveness. The poem presents us with a leader that reflects the harshness and irrationality of a world that was life giving and filled with mysterious power that caused suffering. In Zeus, Hesiod provides a model of leadership that combines the best and worst of both gods and men.