Zeus was born into a prophecy; his father Cronus had been terrified to hear that one day one of his children would overthrow him and usurp his power, just as he had done to his father beforehand. Zeus was not the first of his children; Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon had all already been born and Cronus had swiftly dispatched them, swallowing them whole as quickly as they had come into the world. By the time Zeus was born, his mother Rhea had grown tired of her husband devouring her babies, so she took off to Crete to give birth in a cave on Mount Dicte, and on her return duped her husband with a rock wrapped in swaddling which he duly swallowed.
Rhea had left the real child in the cave, to be attended by Nymphs. She also left a company of her Curetes, ecstatic male dancers dedicated to Rhea who would bang their spears against their shields as they performed, and who would drown out any cries of the infant child that threatened to escape from the cave. Most importantly of all she left Amalthea, the she-goat who produced a never-ending supply of milk and always gave birth to twins, and who would suckle the baby Zeus and fill him with divine strength.
Amalthea was no ordinary goat, and she has a mythology all of her own. It is said that one day while playing one of her horns snapped off (depending upon who you ask it was either banged against a tree, or accidentally torn from her head by a baby Zeus who was playing with her and did not yet know his own strength). The horn was picked up by the Nymphs and ringed with herbs and filled with fruit and became what is known these days as the Cornucopia or Horn of Plenty; a non-stop bounty of sustenance that never runs out.
Amalthea’s role in the raising of Zeus was not just to provide nourishment, but protection as well. A pattern that was repeated in later life when Zeus was grown and ready to go to war with the Titans. As was common, Zeus consulted the oracle for advice before setting out, and was told that if he wanted to win, he needed two objects to help him; the head of a gorgon, and an Aigos, or protective covering made from goatskin.
So where did the magical goatskin come from… You guessed it, Amalthea. Thankfully she was already dead by this time, and so Zeus took her hide, and had it turned into an Aigos which he took with him to fight the Titans. As for Amalthea, to thank her for all she had done for him, Zeus had the bones once again covered in flesh and sent Amalthea off to be immortalized in the skies. She resides there as the constellation Capella (Latin: little goat) and beside her and the twin kids who happily shared their mother’s milk with little Zeus.
Capella and her Kids
Main image: The Education of Jupiter on Mount Ida in Crete by Hermann Steinfurth