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ZEUS , the son of Kronos and Rhea, is the main divinity of the Greek pantheon. Besides Hestia, he is the only god in the Greek pantheon with an undisputed Indo-European provenance, to judge from his name: it derives from the root *diéu - (day; Latin dies, meaning "[clear] sky") and has close parallels in the Latin Iu-piter or the Ancient Indian (gveda ) Dyaus (pitar ). The Homeric and later epithet pater (father) closely corresponds to the Latin or early Indian way his name is expanded: his mythical and religious role as father must be already Indo-European. Despite the frequent Homeric formula "Zeus, father of men and gods," however, Zeus is father not in a theogonical sense, but, as the Homeric variant Zeus ánax (Lord Zeus) shows, in the sense of having the power of a father in a strict patriarchal system. This explains why all the Olympian gods are either his siblings (Poseidon, Hera, Demeter) or his children by different mothers (Athena, Apollo, Artemis, Hermes, Dionysos, Aphrodite, Ares, Hephaistos). This rolewhich implies unrestricted power over all members of the family, but also its check through father-like benignitycontinues as the fundamental role of Zeus throughout antiquity and finds its expression in the standard iconography of Zeus as a bearded and powerful middle-aged man.

Main Functions

In Greece, however, the Indo-European role of Zeus as the god of the bright sky is transformed into the role of Zeus as the weather god, whose paramount place of worship is a mountaintop; cult worship in such a peak sanctuary is specific to him. Among the many mountains connected with Zeus, many are reflected only in an epithet that does not necessarily imply the existence of a peak sanctuary, since few such sanctuaries are excavated. Those attested in literature are mainly connected with rain rituals (Zeus Hyetios or Ombrios), although the sanctuary on the Arcadian Mount Lykaion had a much wider function: it preserves traces of earlier initiatory rituals, and it turned into the federal sanctuary of all Arcadians, just as the sanctuary of Jupiter Latiaris on the top of the Mons Sacer, the "Sacred Mountain," was the federal sanctuary of the cities of archaic Latium. As Zeus "the Gatherer of Clouds" (nephelêgeretas, a common Homeric epithet), he was generally believed to cause rain, both in serious expressions ("Zeus rains") and in the comic parody of Aristophanes (Clouds 373). With the god of clouds comes the god of thunder (hupsibremétês, or "He Who Thunders High Up") and of lightning (terpsikéraunos, or "He Who Enjoys Lightning"). A spot struck by lightning and thus touched by the god is inaccessible for humans (ábaton ) and often sacred to Zeus Kataibates ("He Who Comes Down"). As the Master of Lightning, Zeus has the Cyclopes at his command, the divine blacksmiths who fabricate for him the lightning as his main weapon. As the Master of Tempest, he also is supposed to give signs to mortals through thunder and lightning, and to strike evildoers, as he struck the giants and the monstrous Typhon at the beginning of his reign.

This entire complex finds expression in the myth that Zeus has his (palatial) home on Mount Olympus, together with all the gods of his household. Olympus had been transformed from a real mountain into a mythical place even before Homeric poetry. Homer described it as a place that "neither winds assail nor rains drench nor snow covers, but cloudless clarity and brilliant light surround it" (Odyssey 6.43). The myth, in turn, generated cult on one of the several peaks of the mountain (Hagios Antonios) that is archaeologically attested for the Classical period.

But for the early archaic Greeks, and conceivably for the Mycenaeans, Zeus was a much more fundamental divinity. According to the succession myth in the Hesiodeic Theogony, Zeus deposed his father Kronoswho in turn had deposed and castrated his father Uranus, and who had swallowed all his children to prevent them from deposing him. Baby Zeus escaped only because his mother Rhea fed Kronos a swaddled stone in place of the infant. After his accession to power, Zeus fought the giants and the monster Typhon who attacked his reign, and he disposed the actual order of things by attributing to each divinity his or her respective sphere: to his brothers Poseidon and Hades/Plouton, he allotted two-thirds of the cosmosto Poseidon the sea, and to Hades the netherworld; to his sisters Hera (who was also his wife) and Demeter and to his many divine children he gave their respective domains in the world of the humans (mankind had been preexistent to Zeus's reign). The main outline of this myth is known also in the Homeric poems that either precede or follow Hesiod's Theogony closely; thus, early Greek narrative poetry, and through it, early Greek society, shared this fundamental myth. It makes Zeus the ruler ("king": anax or, after Homer, basileus ) over both the other gods (whom he overrules by sheer force, if necessary) and the world of man: the order of things as they are now is the order of Zeus.

Closely related succession myths are attested from Hittite Anatolia and from Mesopotamia. In Hittite mythology, the succession passed through Anu (Sky), who was deposed and castrated by Kumarbi, finally to Teshub, the storm god, who corresponds to Zeus; other myths tell of the attacks of Kumarbi and his followers on Teshub's reign, which corresponds to the Greek myths of how young Zeus had to defend his rule against Typhon and the Titans. Myths from Mesopotamia present a similar, though more varied structure; the Babylonian Enuma elish moves from a primeval pair, Apsu and Tiamat, to the reign of Marduk, the city god of Babylon and in many respects a Zeus-like figure. A later version of the Typhoeus myth (preserved in Apollodorus's Bibliotheke 1.6.3) locates part of it on Syrian Mount Kasion (Phoen., Sapon), the seat of a peak cult of Baal Saphon, who the Greeks named Zeus Kasios; Baal shares traits also with Marduk. The Greek concept of Zeus the kingly ruler of the present world is as unthinkable without Oriental influence as is the figure of Zeus the Master of Storms.

In many instances, human affairs follow the plan of Zeus (for example, the Trojan War, or the return of Odysseus in Homeric poetry), despite apparent setbacks. He might help to bring things to perfection, if asked in a prayer to do so (Zeus Teleios, "He Who Perfects"), and he might signal his will, either asked for or not, in dreams, augural signs, or thunder and lightning, but also but by provoking ominous human utterances (pheme ). In cult, this function is expressed in rare epithets such as Phanter (He Who Signals), Terastios (He of the Omina), and Phemios or Kledonios (He Who Gives Oracular Sayings).


Zeus has few major polis festivals, and only a few month names attest an important early festival of Zeus: the Bronze Age month Diwos (attested in Knossos on Crete) to which the Macedonian, Aetolian, and Thessalian month name Dios corresponds; the Attic month Maimakterion which derives from the minor festival of a rather shadowy Zeus Maimaktes (presumably a storm god); the Cretan month [V]elchanios which belongs to a typically Cretan (Zeus) Velchanos who perhaps originally was an independent storm god. Of some interest among city festivals are also the sacrifice of a bull of Zeus Polieus in Kos and the festival of Zeus Sosipolis in Magnesia on the Maeander, both attested by sacrificial prescriptions preserved by Hellenistic inscriptions; these texts show the pomp with which Hellenistic cities celebrated the god whose cult expressed their identity and their hopes for the future. In both cases, the texts emphasize the choice and importance of the sacrificial animal as the center of Zeus's cult.

The Diasia, "the greatest Athenian festival of Zeus" (Thucydides 1.126.6), had a much less auspicious character. The festival was celebrated in honor of Zeus Meilichios, who took the form of a huge bearded snake. The cult place was outside the town, and the cult contained either animal sacrifices or bloodless cakes; sacrificial animals were entirely burnt. This meant that the festival did not culminate in a common banquet that released the tension of the sacrifice. Instead, there is evidence of common meals in small family circles and of presents given to the childrenin this phase of the ritual, the community has disintegrated and nuclear families have become highly visible. Such a mood fits the date of the festival, Anthesterion 23 (February/March); the main event of the month had been the Anthesteria, which had a similar, but even more marked character of uncanny disintegration: on its first day, every participant was drinking, and ghosts were roaming the city. Phenomenologically, both festivals belong to a New Year-like transition at the turn from winter to spring.

Thus, although Zeus's polis festivals were not very widespread, he was from early times prominent as a Panhellenic deity who transcends the single polis (as he is the only Olympic divinity who, in the Homeric poems, sides with neither side in the war). The Iliad mentions the oracular sanctuary of Dodona in northwestern Greece that was dedicated to Zeus Naios, and its strange, barefoot priests who slept on the ground (Iliad 16.2335, Odyssey 19.296301); later, priestesses derived the oracles from the sound of a holy oak, the flight of doves, and the sound of a bronze basin. Questions from and answers to the many private worshipers were written on lead tablets that are preserved in considerable number. But Zeus's main Greek sanctuary was in Olympia, in the southwestern Peloponnese, with its games that were held every four years. The games began with an impressive sacrifice to Zeus Olympios on an ash altar whose growing height made it an impressive sight; a Panhellenic contest followed whose main events were a foot race and a chariot race. Their foundation (in the year 776 bce, according to tradition) marked the end of the isolation of the Dark Age communities; the common festival took place at a spot well-removed from a single polis and was under the protection of a superior god. The analysis of the sacrifices points to an origin in initiation rituals of young warriors. The sanctuary contained an archaic temple of Hera and a large temple of Zeus, built in the 460s bce; its cult state, an enthroned Zeus, was a major work of the Athenian sculptor Phidias and evoked wonder and admiration throughout antiquity.

Inside the polis, Zeus has his own specific province and cares for the smaller units whose lawful unification forms the polis. His own domain is the agora: as Zeus Agoraios, he presides over the just political dealings of the community; in this function, he can be counted among the main divinities of a city, including Hestia Prytaneia and Athena Poliouchos, or Polias. On the level of smaller units, he is one of the patrons of phratries (Zeus Phratrios or Zeus Patr[o]ios), sometimes together with Athena Phratria or Patr[o]ia (see Plato, Euthydemus 302d); or of clans (Zeus Patr[o]ios). In this function, he also protects the single households. As Zeus Herkeios (He in the Yard), he receives sacrifices on an altar in the courtyard, which had to be in every Athenian family home (Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 55); as Zeus Ephestios (He on the Hearth), sacrifices were offered on the hearth of a house.

There are functions of Zeus on the level of the family that easily are extended both to individuals and to the polis. Since property is indispensable for the constitution of a household, Zeus is also Zeus Ktesios, the protector of property. As such, he receives cults from families, from cities, and from individuals. In many places, Zeus Ktesios has the appearance of a snakeproperty is bound to the ground, at least in the still-agrarian conception of ancient Greece, and its protectors belong to the earth (see Ploutos ["Riches"], whose mother is Demeter, and Plouton ["The Rich One"] one of the many names of the god of the netherworld). The same holds true for Zeus Meilichios (The Gentle One). On the level of the individual, Xenophon attests Zeus Meilichios's efficiency in providing funds (Anabasis 7.8.1), and in many communities, Zeus Melichios protects families or clans. In Athens he receives the polis festival of the Diasia; there and elsewhere, he also has the form of a snake. And finally, one might add Zeus Philios, protector of friendship between individuals (as among an entire polis).

The Zeus cults of Crete fit only partially into this picture. Myth places both his birth and his grave in Crete: according to Hesiod, in order to save him from Kronos, Rhea gave birth to Zeus, then entrusted the baby to Gaia, who hid it in a cave near Lyktos, on Mount Aigaion (Hesiod, Theogony 468ff.). Later authors replaced Gaia by the Kouretesarmed demons, whose noisy dance kept Kronos awayand name other mountains, usually Mount Ida or Mount Dikte. This complex of myths reflects cult in caves that partly go back to Minoan times, and armed dances by young Cretan warriors, like those attested in the famous hymn for Zeus from Palaikastro (sanctuary of Zeus Diktaios), which belong in the context of initiatory rituals of young warriors; in the actual oaths of Cretan ephebes, Zeus plays an important role. In this function, Zeus exceptionally can be young: the Palaikastro hymn calls him koûros (young man); the statue in the sanctuary of Zeus Diktaios was beardless, and coins from Knossos show a beardless (Zeus) Welchanos. There certainly are Minoan (and presumably Mycenaean) elements present in the complex, but it would be wrong to separate Cretan Zeus too radically from the rest of the Greek evidence; both the cults of Mount Lykaios and of Olympia contain initiatory features.

Theological Reflections

In Homer's epics (much more than in actual cult), Zeus had reached a nearly overpowering position. During the Classical and Hellenistic ages, religious thinkers developed this into a sort of "Zeus monotheism." By the time of Aeschylus (525456 bce), Zeus had begun to move away from simple human knowledge ("Zeus, whoever you are ," Agamemnon 160) to a nearly universal function ("Zeus is ether, Zeus is earth, Zeus is sky, Zeus is everything and more than that," Fragment 105); and Sophocles (c. 496406 bce) sees Zeus's hand in all human affairs ("Nothing of this which would not be Zeus," Women of Trachis 1278). The main document of this monotheism is the hymn to Zeus by the Stoic philosopher Kleanthes (d. 232/231 bce), where Zeus, mythical image of the Stoic logos, becomes the commander over the entire cosmos ("no deed is done on earth without your office, nor in the divine ethereal vault of heaven, nor at sea") and its "universal law," while at the same time he is the guarantor of goodness and benign protector of man ("protect mankind from its pitiful incompetence"). This marks the high point of a developmentother gods, though briefly mentioned, become insignificant beside universal Zeus.

See Also

Greek Religion; Hades; Hera.


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Kérenyi, Karl. Zeus and Hera. Archetypal Image of Father, Husband, and Wife. London, 1975.

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Fritz Graf (2005)

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