Amaltheia, Nurse to Zeus

The following tale was adapted and embellished for younger readers.

Cronus was the ruler of the Universe. Once he learned that one of his children would take over. Cronus tried to stop this. He ordered his wife Rhea to give him each child that was born to her. Cronus thought if he ate the child he would be safe. She did what her husband demanded but Rhea was sad. She did not want her children to be eaten. So this time when she was about to give birth she went to the cave of the Kouretes on Mt. Ida in Crete. Two shepherd girls who were tending their flocks helped her to deliver the baby. She left the baby with the girls and found a large rock that she wrapped in swaddling cloths. Then she took this wrapped stone to Cronus who quickly popped it into his mouth and swalowed it in one gulp. He was only too happy to get rid of another child who would challenge him.

Before she left Rhea had explained her situation to the two girls. These two girls, Ida and Adrastia were the daughters of King Melisseus who lived in the neighborhood. Now King Melisseus was not a rich King. He did not have a big palace. All he had was a small house with three rooms. There was a room for he and his wife Amaltheia. His two daughters stayed in another room. The third room was where they dined and received guests. As a king he could afford a three room house. Most of his neighbors lived in a one room house. He did not have many guests because he lived very far from any town. His subjects did visit almost every day but they did not come into the dining room. That is because they were all goats. They came to be milked by the daughters. He took care of the vines and the garden while his wife, Amaltheia, wove cloth and fixed food for the family. Because of his isolation Rhea thought his family would be good for the baby Zeus.

The daughters were very surprised when Rhea arrived at the cave because they did not know how a pregnant woman could have traveled so far. Rhea had to explain who she was and what had happened. Rhea also explained that they would have to carefully hide the baby from all of the senses of Cronus. The daughters wanted to know who the baby was that needed this protection and Rhea called him Zeus. Then they understood the reason for their trouble because the name ‘Zeus’ means shine like the heavens. They knew the sky god would be the most important because most of their survival resulted from what came from the sky.

From a tree branch they hung a cradle and placed the baby inside. The cradle was then rocked by the wind. Zeus was also perfectly hidden between heaven and earth. But what would these sisters do to feed the baby? Their sister Aega had married and had moved to her husband’s village some distance away. If Aega had recently had a baby and was nursing it she could nurse Zeus too. One of the sisters went to visit Aega to find out her situation. Though she was pregnant she was not ready to nurse. So the sisters had to think of something else. Then one of the goats stepped forward. She was the leader of the flock and the goat that produced the most milk. And she had been named after their mother Amaltheia. They did not know if a goat could nurse a human baby let alone a god. But they had to try. So they encouraged Amaltheia to lay down so they could lay the baby with her. They lay the baby down and he began to nurse. Amaltheia was a good mother and very patient. She kept herself very clean and Zeus seemed comfortable laying with her fur. Amatheia was always ready to be nursed when the need was there because she produced a lot o milk. So the nanny goat and the baby Zeus got along very well.

Since everything was going well the sisters decided to celebrate. In those days Crete was governed by a group who loved to celebrate. They were called the Kouretes. They dressed like soldiers but they liked to dance. These male dancers in armour, kept time to a drum and the rhythmic stamping of their feet. The Greeks thought dance was one of the civilizing activities, like wine-making or music. They would also dance to music that was played by banging their armour. They were quite a spectacle and were popular performers. People would come from miles around to see them. They would perform at religious festivals, weddings, and birth celebrations. They danced especially when a young man became a warrior. The sisters hoped they would come to celebrate the birth of the baby Zeus. And they hoped the wise rulers would know what else to do in this situation. So one of the sisters left for the capital not far away.

The Kouretes were delighted to hear what had happened because they thought it was a good omen. But they decided that it would not be good to spread the news around. Not even king Melisseus and his wife Amaltheia were told anything. They rushed to the cave as soon as they could. While this was happening Zeus finished nursing and began to sleep. When the Kouretes arrived they made a banging noise that startled the baby Zeus and he started to cry. But the Kouretes started dancing and singing and Cronus heard nothing. So the sisters realized some of the Kouretes needed to stay to make noise if Zeus ever cried again. So the Kouretes stayed and danced and banged their armour for Zeus any time he cried. And he continued to be nursed by the mother goat Amaltheia.

Goats were often taken to festivals in ancient Greece, but only rarely were they the honored guests. Usually they provided the meat that was eaten by the participants and the fat that was burned for the gods. But there is indication they provided activities as well because the image of Pan and satyrs is quite common. Perhaps the goats danced with the people. But at Zeus’s birthday party Amaltheia did not dance. Some of her kids could have. And there were many other goats as well that probably participated.

With the care of the sisters, the goat, Amaltheia and the Kouretes, Zeus grew to manhood quickly. Zeus did not forget about his care-givers. To the Kouretes he gave a place at his religious ceremonies. The goat Amaltheia he made a star. He made her Capra, the star Capella on the arm of the constellation Auriga (the Charioteer). When she became a star she no longer need her coat or her horns. Her coat he gave magical powers. He needed this goatskin for protection from the Titans. In the center of the goatskin he placed the head of Medusa and this became his Aegis. From her crown of horns he made the Conucopia which would provide plenty to whover possessed it. As a reward for the service of the sisters, Zeus placed the pair in the heavens as the Constellations Ursa Major and Minor (the two Bears).

Finally, Zeus did not forget his brothers and sisters that Cronus had swallowed. He gave Cronus a mighty emetic and Cronus threw them all up. Fortunately, they developed while they were inside his body and they came up full grown. Once outside his body they could take on their roles as gods and goddeses. The stone even came up and was identified in classical times. The Omphalos at Delphi came to be identified as the stone which Rhea wrapped in swaddling clothes, pretending it was Zeus. The cave of the Kouretes on Mt. Ida is still celebrated as the birthplace of Zeus. In the zodiac Capricorn the Goat is the tenth sign of the zodiac; the sun is in this sign from about December 22 to January 19. This sign celebrates Amaltheia.

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