The Women of Zeus

Greek mythology predominantly served to rationalize the origins, losses, and relationships of Mediterranean civilizations, while showcasing cultural values through extraordinary narrative describing the individual trials of a set cast of gods and demi-gods as they interacted with humanity and the world.  The Greek Pantheon is comprised of twelve anthropomorphic divinities, most of whom contributed to the countless numbers of half mortal half divine heroes that wandered the Earth through the ages.  No god however, came close to matching the brood of Zeus (Jupiter); a seducer and sire of many, as few resisted the lust of the king of the Olympians.  But who were the women that bore the offspring of the thunder god?  How did they come to know the husband of a jealous wife?  Though the exploits of Zeus and the labours of his children are well known, the women who bridged the gap between Olympian and hero are less so.  As such, this exhibition explores the forgotten tales of love, lust, and abduction that fostered second-generation mythology.

In his animal representation as a great eagle, Zeus abducted the nymph Aegina and carried her to an island that came to bear her name. Their consummation conceived the future king of the island, Aeacus, born after Zeus forced back Aegina’s enraged father whom had pursued them. In retaliation Hera sent a plague to the island to kill all the men, but by transforming ants into men, Zeus was able to undo the damage and give life to the fierce Myrmidon warriors of the Trojan War.
The daughter of the King of Mycenae, Alcmena was prized for her chastity, virtue, and wisdom. While her betrothed laboured abroad in atonement, Zeus disguised himself as the returned champion and bed the princess. When Amphitryon truly returned the following night, in the resultant confusion and upset, he attempted to burn Alcmena for her infidelity. Zeus sent clouds to extinguish the flames and, after receiving an explanation, the couple came together. Alcmena eventually had twin sons, the first, Heracles, was the son of the god, while the second, Iphicles, was the son of the man. Despite his mother’s attempt to honour the goddess in his name, the wife of Zeus tormented Heracles throughout his life.
Antiope was the beautiful niece of the King of Thebes. In his lust, Zeus transformed into a satyr and took her by force. Once determined to be pregnant, Antiope was forced to flee her father’s wrath and was abducted by Epopeus, the hero of Sicyon, whom held her until her uncle demanded her return. When she finally gave birth to twins they were abandoned in the wilderness; Amphion the son of the god and Zethus the son of the man. Saved by a shepherd, the boys would eventually exact vengeance on their great-uncle for the imprisonment of their mother and become the rulers of Thebes.
Callisto, a nymph, was the daughter of the King of Arcadia and a follower of Artemis (Diana), to whom she swore a vow of virginity. To gain access to Callisto and to hide from his wife, Hera, Zeus appeared to the maiden as Artemis, embracing her and only revealing his identity as he forced himself on her. Upon Artemis’ discovery of her pregnancy, Callisto was expelled from the group, and after giving birth to a son, Arcas, Hera transformed her into a bear in her jealousy. Years later, while hunting, Arcas nearly killed his mother, but both were saved by Zeus, who transformed them into the Ursa Major and Minor constellations.
The sole child of King Acrisius of Argos, Danae was locked in a bronze tomb beneath her father’s palace to avoid the fulfillment of a prophecy that doomed Acrisius at the hands of his grandson. Despite the king’s efforts, Zeus loved Danae and entered the maiden’s cell as a shower of golden rain penetrating her womb. When Danae bore Zeus’ son Perseus, Acrisius set mother and child to drift at sea in a chest. Rescued in Seriphos, Danae and Perseus were guests of the royal court for many years before Perseus began his adventures. Prophecy was eventually fulfilled during athletic games in a neighbouring kingdom, when a discus thrown by Perseus accidentally struck and killed Acrisius.
The abduction of Europa is the first known example in which an Asiatic figure made her way to the Greek world. Zeus became enamoured with Europa, a highborn lady of Phoenicia, and transforming into a beautiful white bull he mixed with her father’s herd. While gathering flowers Europa noticed the bull and, surprised by its gentle nature, she fed and sat upon it. Zeus took the opportunity to run away with her, swimming across the sea to Crete where he revealed himself to her and she became the first Queen of Crete. Europa bore Zeus three sons including Minos the future king, before settling with a mortal man. Zeus would later recreate the shape of the bull as the constellation Taurus.
Io was a priestess of the goddess Hera, and when noticed and lusted after by Zeus she denied his advances and fled. To prevent her escape, Zeus filled the sky with dark clouds, under which he seduced and loved Io in secret from his jealous wife. Hera was not deceived, and in retaliation she turned Io into a white cow placing her under guard by the many-eyed creature, Argus. On the command of Zeus, Hermes freed Io, who could still not escape Hera’s jealousy, as she was chased around the world by a stinging gadfly. When she reached Egypt she finally found peace, as Zeus restored her to human form and she gave birth to his son Epaphus and daughter Keroessa.
A child of titans, Leto’s (Latona) beauty accidentally drew the attention of Zeus, with whom she conceived the Olympian twins Apollo and Artemis (Diana). In her wrath, Hera demanded all the lands shun Leto and sent a great python to chase her. With the help of Zeus, Leto found a floating island upon which she could give birth, but in her second act of jealousy Hera prevented the goddess of childbirth to assist, making for an agonizing nine days and nine nights of labour. Finally, Leto was forced to wander the world with her babies, and only when they reached adulthood did she withdraw to a peaceful and discrete position on Olympus.
Leda was the wife of the King of Sparta who knew Zeus as a swan that dove into her arms for sanctuary from an eagle that sought it as prey. On the same night as their consummation Leda also lay with her husband, resulting in two eggs being born of the queen. From the eggs hatched two mortal and two divine children; Clytemnestra and Castor of the first, and Polydeuces and Helen of the second. Zeus commemorated the birth of Helen by giving the shape of the swan to the constellation Cygnus, while Castor and Polydeuces were commemorated as great heroes in the constellation Gemini.
A priestess of Zeus, Semele was noticed by the king of gods as she sacrificed a bull on his altar. Zeus fell in love with Semele and, transforming into a man, they began their affair. When Semele became pregnant Hera sought revenge by convincing the mistress to ask her lover to appear in the full magnificence of his divinity. After first persuading Zeus to swear to grant her anything Semele made her request, though Zeus was unwilling he obliged, instantly burning her to ash. Their divine child Dionysus was rescued by Zeus and sewn into his thigh until birth. Dionysus eventually rescued Semele from Hades and she became a goddess on Olympus.
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