The Nurturer of Zeus, Amalthea

Amalthea is known primarily as the nurturing figure associated with the upbringing of Zeus, the king of the gods. Her role in mythology is tied to the story of Zeus’s birth and his early years, during which she provided him with sustenance and care. There are different versions of the myth concerning Amalthea, reflecting variations in ancient storytelling traditions.

amaltheaAmalthea was the daughter of Helios, whose appearance alone caused terror even to the Titans, so much so that they asked the Earth to hide the animal in a cave in Crete.

When Zeus was old enough to fight his father and the other Titans, being unarmed, he made from the skin of the goat that had nourished him a suit of armor which was called the aegis after his goat, invulnerable and fearsome, the more so because in the center of it he placed a mermaid, i.e. the face of a Mermaid who had instead of snake hair, thick tusks in her mouth, sparkling eyes and a gaze so piercing that whoever was drawn by it and looked at her was transformed into stone – petrified by his fear. Then Zeus covered the bones of his goat with another skin, gave it life again and made it immortal by placing it, in honor, in heaven.

It was said that Zeus, playing one day with the goat, inadvertently broke one of its horns and gave it to Amalthea, telling her that all the fruits of the earth that the Nymph would ask for would miraculously come out of it. This was the horn of Amalthea or Aphthonia.

According to other traditions, Amalthea was the name of the goat that fed little Zeus with her milk.

Palaifatos (3rd century BC) narrates that Amalthea was a beautiful innkeeper in Thespies with whom Herakles spent a lot of time and together with Iolaus they ate her profits which she put in a horn.

Eratosthenes conveys the information of Musaeus that this goat is one of the food items to which Themis gave the little Zeus; Rhea had entrusted him to her, to save the child from the bulimic tendencies of his father Kronos. The nurse’s name was Amalthea, Nymph, who together with her sisters Ida and Adrasthea raised little Zeus with honey and goat’s milk.

In order to protect the little Zeus, the Nymph Amalthea hung him on a tree, so that his father would not find him either on earth, in the sky, or in the sea. Around him he gathered the Curites, so that with their songs, dances, and the beating of their shields they would cover the crying or the cries of the child. And she nourished the child with the milk of a goat named Aix.

The Horn of Plenty

Amalthea is also associated with the cornucopia, or the horn of plenty. One version of the myth tells that Zeus accidentally broke one of Amalthea’s horns, and from that horn flowed an endless supply of food and drink. This horn, symbolizing abundance and nourishment, became known as the cornucopia and is often depicted in art and literature as a symbol of plenty and prosperity.

Amalthea as a Nymph

In some variations of the myth, Amalthea is described not as a goat but as a nymph who cared for Zeus. This version suggests that Amalthea might have been one of the daughters of Melisseus, the king of Crete, and she fed the young god with goat’s milk and honey. Whether depicted as a goat or a nurturing nymph, Amalthea’s role remains consistent as the caregiver of Zeus during his vulnerable early years.