In The Odyssey, Zeus happily allows Poseidon to turn a ship into stone, killing everyone aboard. I think it's safe to say most people alive today would consider this immoral.

What are some other examples of Zeus intentionally inflicting direct harm on humans for no reason justifiable by modern ethics (i.e. something that would get him uncontroversially convicted in a western judicial system like first degree murder, rape, armed robbery, and extortion). If that's too Eurocentric for all you moral relativists, I'll define "immoral" from a utilitarian standpoint: an action, behaviour, thought, or mindset that -- regardless of its significance -- moves the world into a state of increased net suffering and decreased net prosperity.

I'm writing about Zeus in general, so examples from any text will work. But if that's too broad, The Odyssey and The Illiad will more than suffice.

  • What kind of justification would be permissible? Greek gods had sex with women which were unwilling to that, heavily punished offenses from humans... Plus, The Odyssey is contemporary to the Trojan War, in which the gods themselves were divided on which party to support, leading to loads of deaths. With the prelude of the war being three goddesses fighting for a golden apple... – Ángel Oct 8 '20 at 23:27
  • Hi and welcome to Literature Stack Exchange. Could you please explain what you mean by "from any text"? If this refers to texts other than Homer's, the focus will be rather broad. – Tsundoku Oct 9 '20 at 11:45
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    I’m voting to close this question because I personally believe that Mythology SE could better aid in this then Literature SE. The original post asks for any evidence, and narrowing the scope down to better fit community guidelines may hamper the goal of the OP on finding evidence. – North Læraðr Oct 10 '20 at 20:06
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    "But if that's too broad, The Odyssey and The Illiad will more than suffice." Since you asked the question, you should define the scope instead of leaving that to the answerers. – Tsundoku Oct 10 '20 at 20:40
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    You can't judge ancient Greeks by today's standards. I'm pretty sure that many of the things you do on a daily basis will be considered illegal and immoral in an hundred years. – Valorum Oct 11 '20 at 10:54

Considering Zeus’s actions in the Odyssey from the point of view of the modern law of England and Wales, I find that five criminal offences are reported by Homer.

  1. Zeus caused two eagles to fight:

    So spake Telemachus, and in answer to his prayer did Zeus, of the far borne voice, send forth two eagles in flight, from on high, from the mountain-crest. Awhile they flew as fleet as the blasts of the wind, side by side, with straining of their pinions. But when they had now reached the mid assembly, the place of many voices, there they wheeled about and flapped their strong wings, and looked down upon the heads of all, and destruction was in their gaze. Then tore they with their talons each the other’s cheeks and neck on every side, and so sped to the right across the dwellings and the city of the people.

    Homer. The Odyssey II. Translated by S. H. Butcher and Andrew Lang (1879). Project Gutenberg.

    This is an offence under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 §8(1):

    A person commits an offence if he—

    (a) causes an animal fight to take place, or attempts to do so

  2. Zeus incited strife among the Achaeans:

    And when we came to Tenedos, we did sacrifice to the gods, being eager for the homeward way; but Zeus did not yet purpose our returning, nay, hard was he, that roused once more an evil strife among us.

    The Odyssey III.

    Depending on what Homer means by “evil strife” then Zeus’ encouragement of it may be an offence under the Serious Crime Act 2007 §44(1):

    A person commits an offence if—

    (a) he does an act capable of encouraging or assisting the commission of an offence; and

    (b) he intends to encourage or assist its commission.

  3. Zeus called up a storm that wrecked Menelaus’ ships:

    But when he [Menelaus] in his turn, faring over the wine-dark sea in hollow ships, reached in swift course the steep mount of Malea, then it was that Zeus of the far-borne voice devised a hateful path, and shed upon them the breath of the shrill winds, and great swelling waves arose like unto mountains. There sundered he the fleet in twain, and part thereof he brought nigh to Crete, where the Cydonians dwelt about the streams of Iardanus. Now there is a certain cliff, smooth and sheer towards the sea, on the border of Gortyn, in the misty deep, where the South-West Wind drives a great wave against the left headland, towards Phaestus, and a little rock keeps back the mighty water. Thither came one part of the fleet, and the men scarce escaped destruction, but the ships were broken by the waves against the rock; while those other five dark-prowed ships the wind and the water bare and brought nigh to Egypt.

    The Odyssey III.

    This is an offence under the Criminal Damage Act 1971 §1(1):

    A person who without lawful excuse destroys or damages any property belonging to another intending to destroy or damage any such property or being reckless as to whether any such property would be destroyed or damaged shall be guilty of an offence.

  4. Zeus murdered Iasion:

    So too when fair-tressed Demeter yielded to her love, and lay with Iasion in the thrice-ploughed fallow-field, Zeus was not long without tidings thereof, and cast at him with his white bolt and slew him.

    The Odyssey V.

    Murder is a common law offence in England and Wales.

  5. As noted in the question, Zeus encouraged Poseidon to turn the Phaeacian ship to stone:

    And Zeus the gatherer of the clouds, answered him, saying: “Friend, learn now what seems best in my sight. At an hour when the folk are all looking forth from the city at the ship upon her way, smite her into a stone hard by the land; a stone in the likeness of a swift ship, that all mankind may marvel, and do thou overshadow their city with a great mountain.”

    The Odyssey XIII.

    It is not clear from the text whether any Phaeacians were injured or killed as a result, but at the very least Poseidon is guilty of criminal damage, and so Zeus’ encouragement of him is also a crime as noted above.

  • You can't judge ancient Greeks by today's standards. I'm pretty sure that many of the things you do on a daily basis will be considered illegal and immoral in an hundred years. – Valorum Oct 11 '20 at 10:52
  • @Valorum: What do you mean "You can't"? I can and just did!! – Gareth Rees Oct 11 '20 at 10:53
  • Do "modern ethics" necessarily mean English Law circa 2020? Note that if we're using that as the benchmark then all of these acts were committed in Greece and hence none of them would be illegal in the UK. – Valorum Oct 11 '20 at 10:55
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    I chose the law of England and Wales as an objective proxy for modern ethics, to avoid having to depend on my own subjective opinion. Also, the idea of having to indict Zeus in an English court of law amuses me. Sorry the joke didn't land for you. – Gareth Rees Oct 11 '20 at 11:01
  • It would work better if you tried to indict him under Greek law. But then he'd be able to claim immunity because he's not technically a person. – Valorum Oct 11 '20 at 11:08

Although it seems that this question has initially received a negative vote, I will give an answer (according to my readings, my analysis and my understanding or interpretation of ancient texts) in an attempt to provide plausible explanations or clarifications about ancient mythology, ancient stories, the stories of the gods and the actions of Zeus.

As an example of a related or relevant ancient text, I will start with an excerpt from the beginning of The Works and Days by the ancient poet Hesiod, where he shows that Zeus judges everyone fairly, defends the weak, elevates the humble and denounces the arrogant, and gives everyone what he or she deserves:

Muses of Pieria who give glory through song, come hither, tell of Zeus your father and chant his praise. Through him mortal men are famed or un-famed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills. For easily he makes strong, and easily he brings the strong man low; easily he humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily he straightens the crooked and blasts the proud […]

The gods of Greece and Rome were related to, identified with, and frequently represented another version of other gods or deities in the Near East or in the Mediterranean region.

Zeus or Jupiter was called Amun-Ra by the Egyptians, and was called Baal by the Canaanites , Phoenicians and Carthaginians. When Alexander the Great came to Egypt, he was declared the son of Zeus-Ammon or Jupiter-Ammon, which indicates that Amun-Ra and Zeus Ammon were the same deity. Some writers identify Ahura Mazda, the supreme god of the ancient Persians and of Zoroastrianism, with Zeus or Jupiter. The Hindu god Indra has many characteristics with Zeus. Each region might have had its own specific or local deities, some syncretisms were elaborated, but the principal supreme gods and the main deities were the same.

One has to take into account that the ancient mythological stories were related to ancient religions and to beliefs and practices that people followed in their lives.

The stories of the gods may have been embellished and somewhat modified with the passing of time and centuries, with metaphorical, mystical or exaggerated elements added to them, but beneath the myths there was realistically a historical basis.

According to the doctrine of Euhemerism, the ancient gods and goddesses were great men and women of the past who made great accomplishments and were deified after their death.

Zeus was described and viewed by the majority of writers, poets and authors in antiquity as just, fair, and all powerful. As an example, the ancient stoic philosopher Cleanthes and the poet Callimachus wrote hymns praising Zeus, and depicted him as the universal embodiment of law, order and justice.

Zeus was regarded as the protector of the social order by ancient Greeks, and Jupiter was viewed as the protector of the Roman republic and the Roman empire by the ancient Romans. People in Antiquity clearly did not view Zeus as "moving the world into a state of increased net suffering and decreased net prosperity".

In the Odyssey as well as in the Iliad, Zeus is constantly praised and described as the greatest and the most powerful of the gods, and as someone who was always fair and just. It is not mentioned in book 13 of the Odyssey that Zeus "happily" allowed Poseidon to turn a ship into stone. If one looks at what happened earlier, it is found that Poseidon was angry at Odysseus because he had blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus (Poseidon's son) by hardening a wooden stake in the fire and driving it into Polyphemus' eye.

Poseidon is angered after seeing that the Phaeacians helped Odysseus and gave him treasure, so he complains to Zeus. Zeus considers Poseidon's complaint somewhat trivial, but nevertheless allows his brother to soothe his anger and turn the ship into stone, so that the Phaeacians might honor and respect the god of the sea. It is said in the Odyssey that the ship was turned into stone and sank, but it is not mentioned whether the people on the ship died or not.

Zeus was depicted as neutral, just and unbiased in the Iliad. Unlike some of the other gods, Zeus didn’t take sides with those involved in the war, and strived to act and to judge everyone impartially.

The word “rape” has an older meaning referring to “abduction” or “seizing away”, sometimes by using force. An example would be the “rape of Europa”, referring to the story of the abduction of the Phoenician princess Europa by Zeus. The word “rape” could also be synonymous with “rough sex”. In Antiquity one was regarded as a hero when he was always able to seduce and win or get the girl. Women generally liked having a powerful and handsome hero who could protect and support them. The ruler of the gods exemplified these traits and was supposed to be very fertile and sexually active.

During Antiquity people had somewhat different, more positive and accepting views of sexuality in its various forms, including incest and incestuous relationships. For example, the “Hieros Gamos” or the sacred marriage and the wedding between Zeus and his sister-wife Hera was publicly celebrated by ancient Greeks, indicating that people in Antiquity were not inconvenienced by incest. From a historical point of view, in ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, ancient Persia and in several other places, kings and rulers married their siblings or their direct relatives. For example, the laws of Lycurgus of Sparta and the laws of Solon in Athens allowed marriage between brother and sister. It is known from ancient documents that brother-sister marriage was permitted in ancient Egypt until the end of the third century CE.

I want to mention one more remark related to the story of Prometheus. For many centuries during Antiquity and beyond, poets and authors depicted Prometheus as a trickster who didn't help or benefit anyone by his theft of fire and who was rightfully held accountable and punished. Then when the time was right Prometheus was released and saved by Herakles under the instructions of his father Zeus. In the Theogony, Hesiod depicted Prometheus as a jealous or lowly contender to the omnipotence of Zeus. The ancient playwright Aeschylus praised Zeus in all his plays. The play Prometheus Bound was misinterpreted, since Aeschylus was using irony, and as he made Prometheus talk in the play he intended to show him as conceited and delusional. It was only in the last two centuries that romantic writers decided to change the narrative without justification, and made a hero or benefactor out of Prometheus. If one reads and analyses ancient texts and authors without adding a contemporary, christian interpretation or bias or preconceived opinion, it will be noticed that Prometheus deserved to be punished, just as mush as other similar characters such as Tantalus or Sisyphus deserved to be punished. By the way early Christian writers such as Tertullian described Prometheus as an impostor and warned against comparing him to Jesus or anything of that sort.

Moreover, as a supreme deity and ruler who had control and influence over practically everything in the Universe, the stories written about Zeus contained allegorical, "embroidered" elements that could be interpreted in more than one way or could have more than one meaning, sometimes in relation to earlier context. So it would not be useful or accurate to apply modern particular laws or current standards (which may change in the future) to the actions of Zeus.

The actions of Zeus as narrated in ancient poems and stories also reflect the ideas, mentalities, beliefs, standards, opinions, and possibly prejudices of the authors or poets who created or wrote those poems and stories at a particular period of time in ancient history. And nowadays those who judge or try to evaluate the actions of Zeus are influenced by their own intellectual, cultural, and/or religious background(s) .

Note that parts of this answer are taken or inspired from answers I wrote on Quora.

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    Poseidon could turn ships into stone, but giving Polyphemus a good eye was beyond his powers? – user14111 Oct 11 '20 at 9:44
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    But how does this answer the question? – North Læraðr Oct 11 '20 at 20:00

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