There is a wild beauty to the imagining of Greek Gods – Zeus, the God of thunder who rules the sky; Poseidon, the God of storms who rules the oceans; and Hades, the God of death who rules the Underworld. These are manifestations of pagan culture and are echoed through most civilisations – Indian mythology has Indra and Varuna, Norse mythology has Thor, and Roman mythology has Jupiter. However, Greek Gods are the subjects of unprecedented popularity and glamour. The term ‘Greek God/Goddess’ has become synonymous with beauty.
India, despite its rich tapestry of mythological stories, has absorbed the popularity of Greek mythology. Percy Jackson is one of the most beloved young adult novels, and has ignited the love of fantasy in several young minds. Greek mythology populates literature courses in most colleges. Of all Greek Gods and Goddesses, there is probably no God better known, adored, or respected than Zeus – the King of the Gods. However, this influence that is wielded over young minds comes with a dark and heinous reality of the mythology of Zeus.
In several cultures, Gods are larger than life and role models for us to emulate. However, in Greek mythology, it appears Gods are the most human of sentient beings. They are the personification of the dichotomy of human nature – vile and noble in equal measure. This is very problematic, as these characters inhabit a space of awe within the imagination of the collective, and are therefore likely to inspire both nobility and vileness in consumers of the mythology. Greek mythology is a reflection of a society steeped to its bones in patriarchy, and Zeus is its king, at the forefront of misogyny. He was a Harvey Weinstein-esque philandering, incestuous, raping, torturing, and murdering master manipulator; except, it made no difference whether he was caught or not.
Zeus’ sexual crimes are legendary, if you can forgive the pun. Greek mythology is littered with stories that make it abundantly clear that consent, as a concept, did not exist in Zeus’ sphere of awareness. You may know of the Trojan War which was triggered by love for the beautiful Helen of Troy. What is lesser known is the fact that Zeus was Helen’s father. He saw Helen’s mother, Leda, for the first time, while she was bathing. Like a shopper making an impulse purchase, he decided to have her by promptly transforming into a swan and raping her. His transformation into animals to commit sexual crimes is a peculiar theme that recurs. He transformed into a bull and abducted Europa, consoling her later by declaring his love for her. Zeus also took the form of Artemis, the Goddess of the hunt (and in some versions, the form of Apollo, the God of the Sun) to seduce his great-granddaughter, a nymph named Callisto, resulting in her pregnancy and expulsion from Artemis' group. Zeus' wife, Hera, in a classic instance of victim shaming, transformed Callisto into a bear. There are accounts of Zeus’ rape of his daughter Persephone, who was the product of the union between Zeus and his sister, Demeter, the Goddess of Harvest.
Zeus, however, is not the only illustrious member of his family. His brother, Poseidon, is said to have raped his sister, Demeter, and Medusa, the monstrous Gorgon. Zeus’ daughter Persephone was kidnapped by her uncle, Hades, when she was gathering flowers. He later tricked her into eating pomegranate seeds, thereby binding her to the underworld for four months a year. Zeus also tricked his first wife, Metis, into having sex with him in order to avoid a prophecy leading to his death. He then killed her, and married Hera, after which he cheated on her – by modern moral standards – throughout their marriage.
Zeus' crimes were not restricted to women. He condemned humans to a life without fire for failing to provide him with meat. When Prometheus, the God of Fire, returned fire to humans, Zeus punished him with eternal torture. He chained Prometheus to a rock, and cursed him to an eternal life of an eagle pecking at his continuously regenerating liver. There is no going around it – Zeus was cruel and monstrous.
All these elements are reflective of a larger structural issue with Greek mythology. It is inherently patriarchal - the three most powerful Gods are male, the women are portrayed as jealous and petty, there is no concept of consent, and in a horribly apt parallel to modern day society, there are no repercussions whatsoever. Although, there is definitely some feminism to take away – sexual agency of women displayed by Aphrodite and Persephone, and strength, without any undertones of being sexualised, in the form of Artemis and Athena. But, by and large, these are not the flag bearers of Greek mythology. The air of the ‘alpha male’ exuded by Zeus is far more captivating. Zeus is a strong, cruel philanderer with no regard for consent, and these traits appeal to readers far more than virtuous ones. The character inspires readers to emulate, which is incredibly dangerous both in the overt way of mimicry it might elicit, and in the covert reinforcement of patriarchy.
(Edited by Varsha Roysam)