He is the very embodiment of the Hellenic spirit. Everything that marks off the Greek outlook from that of other peoples, and in particular from the barbarians who surrounded them—beauty of every sort, whether of art, music, poetry or youth, sanity and moderation—are all summed up in Apollo. W.K. Guthrie, The Greeks and Their Gods
Zeus from a Vase, Gela Italy
Zeus is the continuation of Dyeus, the supreme god in Indo-European religion, also continued as Vedic Dyaus Pitar (cf. Jupiter), and as Tyr (Ziu, Tiw, Tiwaz) in Germanic and Norse mythology. Tyr was however supplanted by Odin as the supreme god among the Germanic tribes and they did not identify Zeus/Jupiter with either Tyr or Odin, but with Thor.
In addition to his Indo-European inheritance, the classical Zeus also derives certain iconographic traits from the cultures of the ancient Near East, such as the scepter.
Zeus in Cult
Role and Titles
Zeus played a huge role in the Greek Olympic pantheon. He fathered many of the heroes and heroines (see list at bottom of article) and was featured in many of their stories. Though he was the god of the sky and thunder, he was also the most supreme cultural artifact; in some senses, he was the embodiment of Greek religious beliefs and the archetypal Greek deity.
The various titles applied to Zeus emphasized different aspects of his wide-ranging authority:
Olympios emphasized Zeus's kingship over both the gods and the Panhellenic festival at Olympia.
A related title was Panhellenios, ('Zeus of all the Hellenes') to whom Aeacus' famous temple on Aegina was dedicated.
As Xenios, Zeus was the patron of hospitality and guests, ready to avenge any wrong done to a stranger.
As Horkios, he was the keeper of oaths. Liars who were exposed were made to dedicate a statue to Zeus, often at the sanctuary of Olympia.
As Agoraios, Zeus watched over business at the agora, and punished dishonest traders
Anax , King of the Gods
Panhellenic Cults of Zeus
The major center at which all Greeks converged to pay honor to their chief god was Olympia. The quadrennial festival there featured the famous Games. There was also an altar to Zeus made not of stone, but of ash - from the accumulated remains of many centuries' worth of animal victims immolated there.
Outside of the major inter-polis sanctuaries, there were certain modes of worshipping Zeus that were shared across the Greek world. Most of the above titles, for instance, could be found at any number of Greek temples from Asia Minor to Sicily. Certain modes of ritual were held in common as well: sacrificing a white animal over a raised altar, for instance.
On the other hand, certain cities had Zeus-cults that operated in markedly different ways.
Zeus from Ambracia
Some Local Zeus-Cults
In addition to the Panhellenic titles and conceptions listed above, local cults maintained their own idiosyncratic ideas about the king of gods and men. A few examples are listed below.
- Cretan Zeus
On Crete, Zeus was worshipped at a number of caves at Knossos, Ida and Palaikastro. The stories of Minos and Epimenides suggest that these caves were once used for incubatory divination by kings and priests. The dramatic setting of Plato's Laws is along the pilgrimage-route to one such site, emphasizing Cretan knowledge. On Crete, Zeus was represented in art as a long-haired youth rather than a mature adult, and hymned as ho megas kouros "the great youth". With the Kouretes, a band of ecstatic armed dancers, he presided over the rigorous military-athletic training and secret rites of the Cretan paideia.
- Zeus Lykaios in Arcadia
The title Lykaios is morphologically connected to lyke "brightness", and yet it looks a lot like lykos "wolf". This semantic ambiguity is reflected in the strange cult of Zeus Lykaios in the backwoods of Arcadia, where the god takes on both lucent and lupine features. On the one hand, he presides over Mt Lykaion ("the bright mountain") the tallest peak in Arcadia, and home to a precinct in which, allegedly, no shadows were ever cast (Pausanias 8.38). On the other hand, he is connected with Lycaon ("the wolf-man") whose ancient cannibalism was commemorated with bizarre, recurring rites. According to Plato (Republic 565d-e), a particular clan would gather on the mountain to make a sacrifice every eight years to Zeus Lykaios, and a single morsel of human entrails would be intermingled with the animal's. Whoever ate the human flesh was said to turn into a wolf, and could only regain human form if he did not eat again of human flesh until the next eight-year cycle had ended.
- Subterranean Zeus
Although etymology indicates that Zeus was originally a sky god, many Greek cities honored Zeuses who lived underground. Athenians and Sicilians honored Zeus Meilichios ("kindly" or "honeyed") while other cities had Zeus Chthonios ("earthy"), Katachthonios ("under-the-earth) and Plousios ("wealth-bringing"). These deities might be represented indifferently as snakes or men in visual art. They also received offerings of black animal victims sacrificed into sunken pits, as did chthonic deities like Persephone and Demeter, and also the heroes at their tombs. Olympian gods, by contrast, usually received white victims sacrificed upon raised altars.
In some cases, cities were not entirely sure whether the daimon to whom they sacrificed was a hero or an underground Zeus. Thus the shrine at Lebadaea in Boeotia might belong to the hero Trophonius or to Zeus Trephonius ("the nurturing"), depending on whether you believe Pausanias or Strabo. The hero Amphiaraus was honored as Zeus Amphiaraus at Oropus outside of Thebes, and the Spartans even had a shrine to Zeus Agamemnon.
Oracles of Zeus
Although most oracle sites were usually dedicated to Apollo, the heroes, or various or goddesses like Themis, a few oracular sites were dedicated to Zeus.
The Oracle at Dodona
The cult of Zeus at Dodona in Epirus, where there is evidence of religious activity from the 2nd millennium BC onward, centered around a sacred oak. When the Odyssey was composed (circa 750 BC), divination was done there by barefoot priests called Selloi, who lay on the ground and observed the rustling of the leaves and branches (Od. 14.326-7). By the time Herodotus wrote about Dodona, female priestesses called peleiades ("doves") had replaced the male priests.
Zeus' wife at Dodona was not Hera, but the goddess Dione — whose name is a feminine form of "Zeus". Her status as a titaness suggests to some that she may have been a more powerful pre-Hellenic deity, and perhaps the original occupant of the oracle.
The Oracle at Siwa
The oracle of Ammon at the oasis of Siwa in Libya did not lie within the bounds of the Greek world before Alexander's day, but it already loomed large in the Greek mind during the archaic era: Herodotus mentions consultations with Zeus Ammon in his account of the Persian War. Zeus Ammon was especially favored at Sparta, where a temple to him existed by the time of the Peloponnesian War (Pausanias 3.18).
Other Oracles of Zeus
The chthonic Zeuses (or heroes) Trophonius and Amphiaraus were both said to give oracles at their cult-sites.
Zeus and Foreign Gods
Zeus was equivalent to the Roman god Jupiter (from Jovis Pater or "Father Jove") and associated in the syncretic classical imagination with various other deities, such as the Egyptian Ammon and the Etruscan Tinia. He (along with Dionysus) absorbed the role of the chief Phrygian god Sabazios in the syncretic deity known in Rome as Sabazius.
Zeus in Myth
Rhea gives to Cronus a rock wrapped in clothes.
Cronus sired several children by Rhea: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, Poseidon, but swallowed them all as soon as they were born, since he had learned from Gaia and Uranus that he was destined to be overcome by his own son as he had overthrown his own father. But when Zeus was about to be born, Rhea sought Uranus and Gaia to devise a plan to save him, so that Cronus would get his retribution for his acts against Uranus and his own children. Rhea gave birth to Zeus in Crete, handing Cronus a rock wrapped in swaddling clothes, which he promptly swallowed.
Rhea hid Zeus in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete. According to varying versions of the story:
He was then raised by Gaia.
He was raised by a goat named Amalthea, while a company of Kouretes, soldiers, or smaller gods danced, shouted and clapped their hands to make noise so that Cronus would not hear the baby's cry. (See cornucopia.)
He was raised by a nymph named Adamanthea. Since Cronus ruled over the Earth, the heavens and the sea, she hid him by dangling him on a rope from a tree so he was suspended between earth, sea and sky and thus, invisible to his father.
He was raised by a nymph named Cynosura. In gratitude, Zeus placed her among the stars after her death.
He was raised by Melissa, who nursed him with goat-milk
Zeus becomes king of the gods
After reaching manhood, Zeus forced Cronus to disgorge the other children in reverse order of swallowing: first the stone, which was set down at Pytho under the glens of Parnassus to be a sign to mortal men, then the rest. In some versions, Metis gave Cronus an emetic to force him to disgorge the babies, or Zeus cut Cronus' stomach open. Then Zeus released the brothers of Cronus, the Gigantes, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, from their dungeon in Tartarus; he killed their guard, Campe. As gratitude, the Cyclopes gave him thunder and the thunderbolt, or lightning, which had previously been hidden by Gaia. Together, Zeus and his brothers and sisters, along with the Gigantes, Hecatonchires and Cyclopes overthrew Cronus and the other Titans. The Titans were then cast into a shadowy underworld region known as Tartarus.
After the battle with the Titans, Zeus shared the world with his elder brothers, Poseidon and Hades, by drawing lots: Zeus got the land, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the world of the shadows (the dead). (See also: Penthus)
Gaia was upset at the way Zeus had treated the Titans, because they were her children. Soon after taking the throne as king of the gods, Zeus had to fight some of Gaia's other children, the monsters Typhon and Echidna. He vanquished Typhon and trapped him under a mountain, but left Echidna and her children alive as challenges for future heroes.
Zeus as an old man with a ladder visiting in the night one of his many loves (probably Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon). Hermes with a lamp helps Zeus. Museo Gregoriano Etrusco, Inv. no. 17106, Aestas painter, Southern Italy. A scene of a Phlyax play with typical ironical descriptions of the adventures of heroes and gods, c. 350-325 BC
The Joys of Married Life
Zeus was brother and husband of Hera. Their children were Hephaistos, Eileithyia, Hebe and Ares. Zeus is famous for his many extramarital affairs with various goddesses — notably Demeter, Latona, Dione and Maia — and mortal women — notably Semele, Io, Europa and Leda (for more details, see "Affairs" below), as well as many nymphs. His wife, Hera, was very jealous and consistently tried to harm Zeus' mistresses and their children by him. For a time, a nymph named Echo had the job of distracting Hera from his affairs by incessantly talking. When Hera discovered the deception, she cursed Echo to only speak the words of others (hence our modern word "echo").
Consorts and Children
Eos (Ersa )
Eris (Ate, Litae )
Aegina (mythology) (Aeacus)
Eurynome (Charites: Aglaea, Euphrosyne , Thalia)
Iodame (Thebe )
Lamia ( ???)
Niobe (Argos, Pelasgus)
Pyrrha (Hellen )
Male lovers (non-Homeric)
A Zeus Miscellany
Greek 2 Euro Coin, Zeus and Europa
Though Zeus could be petty and malicious, he also had a righteous streak, perhaps best exemplified in his aid on behalf of Atreus and his murder of Capaneus for unbridled arrogance. He was also the protector of strangers and travelers against those who might seek to victimize them.
Zeus turned Pandareus to stone for stealing a bronze dog from one of his temples on Crete.
Zeus killed Salmoneus with a thunderbolt for attempting to equal him, riding around on a bronze chariot and loudly imitating thunder.
As a child, Zeus had had a friend named Celmis. Many years later, Rhea became offended by the antics of Celmis and asked Zeus to turn him into a lump of steel or diamond. Zeus obliged.
Zeus turned Periphas into an eagle after his death, as a reward for being righteous and just.
At the marriage of Zeus and Hera, a nymph named Chelone was disrespectful (or refused to attend). Zeus condemned her to eternal silence.
When Memnon died, Zeus felt pity for his mother, Eos, the dawn-goddess, and granted her immortality.
Zeus made the decision to marry Aphrodite off to Hephaestus in order to prevent violence over her between the many gods who lusted after the goddess of beauty.
Zeus, with Hera, turned King Haemus and Queen Rhodope into mountains (Balkan and Despoto, respectively) for their vanity.
Zeus exchanged a caduceus for the first flute with Hermes.
Zeus turned Atalanta and Hippomenes (or Melanion) into lions because they had sex in one of his temples.
Zeus blinded Tiresias but also gave him the gift of prophecy (though according to some versions of the story, it was actually Hera who did the blinding).
Today the phrase "by Jove" is still sometimes used in the United Kingdom. The commedian Ken Dodd uses the phrase "By Jove, missus".
Atabyrios, a surname of Zeus derived from mount Atabyris or Atabyrion in the island of Rhodes, where the Cretan Althaemenes was said to have built a temple to him. (Apollod. iii. 2. 1; Appian, Mithrid. 26.) Upon this mountain there were, it is said, brazen bulls which roared when anything extraordinary was going to happen. (Schol. ad Pind. Ol. vii. 159.)
Cataebates ( gr Kataibates), a surname of Zeus who is described by it as the god who descends in thunder and lightning. Under this name he had an altar at Olympia. (Paus. v. 14. 8; Lycophr. 1370.) Places which had been struck by lightning, i. e. on which Zeus Cataebates had descended, were sacred to him. (Pollux, ix. 41; Suid. and Hesych. s. v.)
Evanemus (gr. Euanemos), the giver of favourable wind, was a surname of Zeus, under which the god had a sanctuary at Sparta. (Paus. iii. 13. § 5; comp. Theocrit. xxviii. 5.)
Labradeus (Λαβραδεύς). A surname of Zeus at Labranda near Mylassa in Caria. The name was derived, according to Plutarch, from λάβρυς, the Lydian term for a hatchet, which the statue of Zeus held in its hand, and which had been offered up by Arselis of Mylassa from the spoils of Candaules, king of Lydia .
Nemeius (gr. Nemeios), tile Nemeian, a surname of Zeus, under which he had a sanctuary at Argos, with a bronze statue, the work of Lysippus, and where games were celebrated in his honour. (Paus. ii. 20.3, 24.2.)
Polieus (gr. Πολιεύς), "the protector of the city;" a surname of Zeus, under which he had an altar on the acropolis at Athens. Upon this altar barley and wheat were strewed, which were consumed by the bull about to be sacrificed to the god. The priest who killed the victim, threw away the axe as soon as he had struck the fatal blow, and the axe was then brought before a court of justice. (Paus. i. 24. § 4, 28. § 11.)
Zeus Hypsistos or Zeus Baal Shamayin, name of Zeus in Syria, introduced by Antiochus IV, Hellenstic/Roman Period Zeus Temple also in Dion dedicated to Zeus Hypsistos
Zeus-Amon-Re version of Zeus in Egypt
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer, Odyssey, 11.567 (7th c. BC); Pindar, Olympian Odes, 1 (476 BC); Euripides, Orestes, 12-16 (408 BC); Apollodorus, Epitomes 2: 1-9 (140 BC); Ovid, Metamorphoses, VI: 213, 458 (AD 8); Hyginus, Fables, 82: Tantalus; 83: Pelops (1st c. AD); Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.22.3 (AD 160 - 176)
Bibliography of reconstruction: Homer, Iliad 5.265ff; 20.215-235 (700 BC); Anonymous, Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite 202ff. (7th c. BC); Sophocles, The Colchian Women (after Athenaeus, 602) (b. 495 - d. 406 BC); Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis (410 BC); Apollodorus, Library and Epitome iii.12.2 (140 BC); Diodorus Siculus, Histories 4.75.3 (1st c. BC); Virgil, Aeneid 5. 252 - 260 (19 BC); Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.155ff. (AD 1 - 8); Hyginus, Poetica Astronomica II.16 Eagle; II.29 Aquarius (2nd c. AD); Lucian, Dialogues of the Gods (AD 170); First Vatican Mythographer, 184 Ganymede; Second Vatican Mythographer 198 Ganymede
- Cook, A.B. Zeus: A Study in Ancient Religion (3 volumes). New York, Bibilo & Tannen: 1964.
|Zeus and Hera|
Zeus throwing a thunderbolt, detail from Fall of Phaeton, Sebastiano Ricci
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