Meet Jupiter, That Is, Zeus

Mar 4, 2016

Although referenced as Jupiter in Handel’s Semele, the character should properly be called Zeus, the Greek god affiliated with Roman Jupiter due to the adoptive nature of pantheism. In fact, the entire plot of Handel’s opera is based on that of Greek myth. Here is a quick introduction to Zeus, or Jupiter, to aid your understanding of the character in Handel’s Semele.

In ancient Greek religion, Zeus was regarded as a sky and weather god, as well as the chief deity of the Greek pantheon. As mentioned, he is often associated with the Roman sky god, Jupiter, and occasionally the Hindu sky god Dyaus. The thunderbolt with which Zeus is often depicted is symbolic of his role as the sender of thunder and lightning. Symbolic as his status as chief of the gods, the eagle is also included in a great deal of Zeus’ imagery. It was thought that Zeus used his position as king of the gods, and his position atop Mount Olympus, to omnisciently watch over the affairs of men and to reward or punish mortal conduct. In this respect, Zeus was also a god of justice, as well as a protector of cities, homes and humankind.

With his sister and divine consort Hera (Roman Juno), Zeus was believed to have fathered the gods Ares, Hebe and Hephaestus. Through his affair with the goddess Leto, the gods Artemis and Apollo were born, and a union with his sister Demeter resulted in the birth of the goddess Persephone. But by no means should we believe that Zeus’ amorous escapades stopped there!


The nymph Callisto was a member of the goddess Artemis’ retinue and openly refused to be with anyone besides her beloved goddess. Knowing this, Zeus disguised himself as Artemis in order to seduce Callisto. When news of the affair reached Hera, she became extremely jealous and in her rage transformed Callisto into a bear. The constellations of Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (the big- and little-dipper) are thought to be Callisto and her son.


A mortal priestess of the goddess Hera, Io initially rejected Zeus’ lustful advances until her father threw her out of his house due to the advice of oracles. In an attempt to hide his new lover from Hera, Zeus transformed Io into a heifer. When the deception failed, Hera sent a gadfly to continuously bit Io in her cow-form causing the woman to continuously wander the world. Once Zeus had restored her to human form, she gave birth to both a son and a daughter before marrying an Egyptian king.


When Zeus became enamored with the mortal woman Europa, he transformed himself into a white bull and mingled with the herds of the girl’s father. Europa noticed the bull while gathering flowers with her companions. She stroked his flanks and eventually climbed onto his back, whereupon Zeus ran into the sea and swam to the island of Crete, carrying Europa with him. In this way Europa became the first Queen of Crete.


Wife of the Spartan king Tyndareus, the myth surrounding Leda and Zeus is responsible for creating the popular motif of ‘Leda and the Swan’ that appears frequently in Renaissance and later art. Disguising himself as a swan, Zeus fell into Leda’s arms feigning the need for protection from an eagle. The consummation of their affair, on the same night that Leda would lie with her rightful husband, produced two eggs from which hatched the famous Helen, queen Clytemnestra, and twins Castor and Pollux.


In the form of an eagle, Zeus abducted the young Ganymede while the boy was tending to his father’s sheep. On Olympus Zeus made Ganymede the official cupbearer to the gods, and granted him eternal youth and immortality. While the other gods were thrilled to have Ganymede residing with them, Hera jealously regarded the boy as a rival for Zeus’ affections. Unusually, the queen of the gods did not revenge herself on Zeus’ newest lover.

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