As the legend of Zeus’ birth goes, long, long before the time of men, before even the time of gods, Titans ruled the world, and their leader and the most powerful of all was Cronus, or Kronos, as it’s alternatively spelled these days. With Rhea, his sister-wife, Cronus had six children – Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon and Zeus, but wasn’t very fond of keeping any of them, since he knew, based on his own experience, that children in the world of gods and Titans can be more trouble than they’re worth.
Cronus himself reached the top position by overthrowing his father, Uranus, only to find of a prophecy telling that his own son will do the same. So, he decided it’s better to be safe than sorry, and ate all his children, as soon as they were born, sons and daughters alike. This produced some very powerful images in art and painting later on, with major artists from all over the world, such as Goya or Peter Paul Rubens, to name just a couple, drawing inspiration to depict terrifying scenes of Cronus eating his children. However, given the continuation of the story, it’s probably safer to imagine that he was just swallowing them whole, a little trick which presented no problem for a Titan.
After the first five children, Rhea decided she had enough and wanted to protect her offspring against her husband, so she sought the help of Gaia, the mother earth and one of the primordial divinities in the Greek mythology. Gaia was a one-time ally of Cronus against Uranus, but Cronus had double-crossed her since, so she was looking for revenge as well. Or, if you prefer a more elaborate explanation, Gaia, as goddess of earth, represents cycles and change, so she will always take the side of the son against the father, to help eliminate old generations and bring in the new ones.
Gaia and Rhea – two deities that would be later on associated with each other so much they would almost blend into one – came up with a plan to save the sixth child. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in secret, on the island of Crete, and then presented her husband with a rock covered in baby clothes. Cronus didn’t bother to check and swallowed the rock, thinking it was his newborn.
When it comes to determining the place where Zeus was born, almost all ancient sources agree it was the island of Crete. Some say he also grew up there, in a cave on Mount Ida, though other places, such as Achaia or Beotia, also claimed the honor of having witnessed the childhood of the ruler of all gods and mortals. In the most common form of the myth, Zeus was nursed by a goat by the name of Amalthea. One day, playing around and unaware of his own strength, Zeus broke off one of Amalthea’s horns. He was upset and ashamed, so he gave her back the horn, after filling it with all the goods of the earth, and enchanting it so it would never be empty, no matter how much anyone would take from it. Known as the cornucopia, the horn became one of the most powerful symbols in Greek mythology, associated with many major goddesses, and is still in use today.
Besides the goat Amalthea, Zeus was guarded by a group of soldiers called Kouretes, whose job was to make noise by banging their shields and weapons together, so as to cover the baby’s cries and help conceal him from his father, Cronus.
When Zeus grew up he enlisted the help of Metis, a Titan and the original goddess of wisdom. She gave Cronus a potion that made him vomit all the children – including the stone that he swallowed thinking it was Zeus, which, under the name of omphalos stone, would become a center piece in one of the best known cult sites in ancient Greece – Delphi.
And so, with the help of his grateful brothers and sisters, unharmed by all the time spent in their father’s stomach, of course, Zeus overthrew Cronus and fulfilled the prophecy. He married Metis, only to repeat the cycle once more by swallowing her whole, due to another prophecy, that the son resulting from this union would become the ruler of the world. This prophecy was averted because their child was a daughter – you can read more about this in How Was Athena Born?