This painting, by the Austrian artist Johann Michael Rottmayr (c. 1654-1730), was inspired by myths about the ancient Greco-Roman gods. Jove is an alternative name of the Roman god, Jupiter, who—for all intents and purposes—was a Latinized copy of the Greek god, Zeus. Therefore, the myth that inspired this scene with ‘Jove’ and his thunderbolts came not from Rome, but from ancient Greece. For the story depicted in the painting, we must go back in the mythological timeline to the so-called Titanomachy (the war in which Zeus and the Olympian gods overthrew the Titans). During that war, the primordial earth goddess, Gaia, forsook her Titan children and became an ally (or at least an advisor) to Zeus. Although Gaia apparently did not mind the authority of her children being usurped by her grandchildren, she did evidently feel anger at the decision made by Zeus to imprison certain Titans in Tartarus. As the story goes, Gaia let this rage fester for a long time, and she only decided to act after the hero, Heracles, had been born. Nevertheless, when she decided to act, Gaia brought about the scene featured above in the painting. Hoping to punish Zeus and his followers, Gaia looked to another race of her offspring—the giants—and incited a war between them and the Olympians.
Zeus and the Olympians learned of the approaching army of giants in advance. Having prior knowledge was vital, for this particular army of giants had somehow been fortified by Gaia against the skills of the Olympian gods. Zeus and his comrades would only be able to maim these creatures, not kill them completely. Yet, there was a chink in the armor of these giants—they could be killed by mortal humans. Armed with this knowledge, Zeus and the Olympians made sure they had the still-mortal Heracles among their ranks before they fought the army of giants. A scholar known as the Pseudo-Apollodorus (c. 1st-2nd century) described the mythological battle that ensued, naming several giants and the particular gods that they challenged:
“Zeus struck the Giant [Porphyrion] with his thunderbolt, and Heracles killed him with a shot from his bow. As for the others, Apollo shot Ephialtes in the left eye with one of his arrows, while Heracles shot him in the right. Eurytos was killed by Dionysos with a blow from this thyrsos, Clytios by Hecate with her torches, and Mimas by Hephaistos with missiles of red-hot iron. Athene hurled the island of Sicily on Encelados as he fled; and she flayed Pallas and used his skin to protect her own body during the fight. Polybotes was pursued through the sea by Poseidon and made his way to Cos, where Poseidon broke off the part of the island called Nisyron and threw it down on him. Hermes, who was wearing the cap of Hades, killed Hippolytos in the battle, and Artemis killed Gration, and the Fates, fighting with bronze cudgels, killed Agrios and Thoon. The others were destroyed by Zeus, who struck them with thunderbolts; and all of them, in their death throes, were shot with arrows by Heracles” (Apollodorus, Library, 1.6).
This chaotic battle between the gods and the giants is what inspired Johann Michael Rottmayr’s painting. He focused on Zeus’ actions during the mayhem, but as can be seen from the quote above, it was a group effort involving all of the Olympians and their allies. Most important of all was Heracles, whose role of finishing off the incapacitated giants was pivotal to the victory of the gods.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Apollodorus, The Library of Greek Mythology, translated by Robin Hard. New York, Oxford University Press, 1997.