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Zeus

Zeus (zōōs), in Greek religion and mythology, son and successor of Kronos as supreme god. His mother, Rhea, immediately after his birth concealed him from Kronos, who, because he was fated to be overthrown by one of his children, ate all his offspring. Rhea gave him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes which he devoured immediately, not suspecting that the infant Zeus still lived. Later, Zeus tricked Kronos into disgorging his brothers and sisters and led them in a successful revolt against their father (see Titan). When lots were cast to divide the universe, the underworld went to Hades, the sea to Poseidon, and the heavens and earth to Zeus. Zeus was an amorous god. His first mate was probably Dione, but his official consort was his sister, Hera, who bore him Ares and Hebe. Zeus also loved Themis, Eurynome, Demeter, Mnemosyne, Leto, and Maia and fathered many gods. Famous among his mortal loves were Danaë, Leda, Semele, Thetis, Io, and Europa. His sons sired from mortal wives include Hercules, Dardanus, and Amphitryon. He was also the father of Athena, who was said to have sprung from his head. Supreme among the gods, Zeus, ruling from his court on Mt. Olympus, was the symbol of power, rule, and law. As the father god and the upholder of morality, he rewarded the good and punished the evil. The root meaning of Zeus is "bright" or "sky," and in this sense he was god of weather and fertility. Thus he was worshiped in connection with almost every aspect of life. The most famous weapon of Zeus was the thunderbolt, but, according to some legends, he also possessed the aegis. The Romans equated Zeus with their own supreme god, Jupiter (or Jove).

See A. B. Cook, Zeus (3 vol., 1914–40).

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Zeus

Zeus

Zeus was the most important deity of ancient Greece, the leader of the gods and the all-powerful overseer of earthly events and human destiny. His role in mythology was complex and filled with contradictions. Zeus was the god of law and social order, yet he came to power through violent revolution. A patron god of marriage and the household, he was repeatedly unfaithful to his own wife, Hera*, and fathered children by a variety of women.

As a mythological figure, Zeus changed over the centuries. Originally a sky god, he was believed to bring clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning. His cults were associated with mountain peaks where clouds gathered. As Greek mythology developed, the figure of Zeus grew larger until he became the dominant force in the Greek pantheon. Later, as Jupiter, he was the chief god of Rome.


The Father of Gods and Men. Some of the earliest accounts of Zeus appear in the writings of Homer* and Hesiod*. Homer called Zeus "the father of gods and men," but the term fatber referred more to Zeus's position of authority than to actual parenthood. Zeus did father some of the gods, but many others were his brothers and sisters, nephews, or nieces. Although he ruled many aspects of earthly affairs and human life, Zeus was not a creator god. Other mythological powers brought the earth and human beings into existence. Zeus enforced the cosmic laws that governed them.

deity god or goddess

destiny future or fate of an individual or thing

patron special guardian, protector, or supporter

cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

pantheon all the gods of a particular culture

cosmic large or universal in scale; having to do with the universe

In a myth that some modern scholars believe reflects the triumph of the Greek gods over more ancient deities, Hesiod told how Zeus became the supreme god. Before the gods existed, the Titans ruled the universe. Their chief was Cronus*. He and his wife Rhea had five children, but because Cronus had been warned that one of his children would overthrow him, he devoured each child as soon as it was born. Zeus was the sixth. Rhea was determined to save this child, so she deceived Cronus by giving him a blanket-wrapped stone to swallow and secretly sent the infant to safety on the island of Crete. There, nymphs tended the baby Zeus, while Cretan warriors sang and clashed their swords so that Cronus would not hear his crying.

When he grew up, Zeus was ready to overthrow his cruel father and avenge the siblings that Cronus had swallowed. He befriended Metis, who was either a Titaness or an ocean nymph. Metis devised a potion to make Cronus vomit up his children, and either she or Zeus gave it to Cronus to drink. Cronus spat forth Zeus's sisters Hestia, Demeter*, and Hera and his brothers Hades* and Poseidon*. Last of all, Cronus vomited up the stone he had swallowed in place of Zeus. Tradition says that the stone was later set in a place of honor at Delphi*. It was called the omphalos, the navel of the world.

Titan one of a family of giants who ruled the earth until overthrown by the Greek gods of Olympus

nymph minor goddess of nature, usually represented as young and beautiful

Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon battled the Titans in a conflict that lasted ten years. Zeus also had the help of 300 armed giants and of the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants imprisoned in Tartarus, a deep pit

* See Nantes and Places at the end of this volume for further information.

of the underworld. Released by Zeus, the Cyclopes forged a thunderbolt for him to use as a weapon. In the end, the Titans were overthrown, and Zeus sent all those who had opposed him to Tartarus. Only Atlas*, a Titan who had not fought against Zeus, was spared.

Zeus and his brothers divided the world. Zeus controlled the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the seaalthough Zeus had ultimate control over his brothers. The gods and their sisters took up residence on Mount Olympus*, which is why they and their offspring are called the Olympian deities.


The Loves of Zeus. Zeus fathered children with a series of partnersnymphs, Titanesses, goddesses, and mortal women. The offspring of these unions included deities, demigods, and heroes.

Accounts of Zeus's loves and children vary somewhat, but Metis is usually listed as his first partner or wife. When she became pregnant, Zeus learned that her child would be a powerful god who would one day replace him. Like his father Cronus before him, Zeus was determined to preserve his power, but he did not wait to swallow the infanthe swallowed Metis. Their child, Athena*, emerged full-grown from Zeus's head.

Next, Zeus turned to the Titaness Themis, who bore him two sets of daughters known as the Fates and the Hours. The ocean nymph Eurynome also had daughters by Zeus, including the Graces. His next wife or partner was his sister, the goddess Demeter. (Marriages between brother and sister deities occur in the mythologies of many ancient cultures.) Their child, Persephone, later became the wife of Hades.

Zeus's union with the Titaness Mnemosyne (memory) produced the nine goddesses known as the Muses. Leto bore Zeus's twins Apollo* and Artemis*. Maia, the daughter of Atlas, bore him Hermes*. Eventually, Zeus married Hera, his last wife and the mother of three more Olympian deities: Ares*, Hebe, and Hephaestus* (Vulcan).

Yet Zeus continued to have love affairs, many of them with mortal women. He sometimes mated with them in disguise or in animal form. After he visited the princess Danaë as a shower of gold, she bore Perseus*. To Europa, another princess, he appeared as a white bull. He came to Leda in the form of a swan. The children of their union were Helen of Troy, her sister Clytemnestra, and the brothers Castor and Pollux. His most famous half-human son was Hercules*, born to Alcmena, to whom he came disguised as her own husband.

Zeus's relations with other women infuriated Hera, and she despised all the children he fathered by these women. Hera particularly hated Hercules and frequently tried to harm him. Once, when she had gone too far, Zeus hanged her in the heavens with a heavy block pulling her feet down, and he threw Hephaestus out of Olympus for trying to help her.

Images of the God

Ancient artists generally depicted Zeus as a dignified, bearded man of middle age. Often, he was shown holding, or preparing to hurl, a thunderbolt, which took the form of a winged spear or a cylinder with pointed ends. One of the most remarkable ¡mages ever created of Zeus was a statue that stood in his temple at Olympia in Greece. The statue was lost long ago, but a description of it survives. The 40-foot-tall statue showed the god seated, with golden lions at his side. The head and upper body were made of precious ivory, and the lower body was draped in goldtruly a glorious and awe-inspiring representation of "the greatest god of all."

underworld land of the dead

demigod one who is part human and part god

Surviving Hera's attacks, Hercules aided Zeus and the other Olympians in a battle for survival. They were challenged by a race of giants, which Gaia, the earth, had produced to bring an end to their rule. Zeus defeated the giants as well as various other threats to his supremacy, including a conspiracy among Hera, Athena, and Poseidon.


The Roman Jupiter. The Romans, who adopted many elements of Greek culture and mythology, came to identify their own sky god, Jupiter, with Zeus. Associated with weather and agriculture in early Roman myths, Jupiter was the patron god of storms, thunder, lightning, the sowing of seeds, and the harvesting of grapes. As Roman civilization developed, Jupiter became known as Optimus Maximus, which means "best and greatest." He was viewed as the supreme god and the protector of the Roman state. As Rome became a military power, Jupiter took on such titles as "supreme commander," "unconquerable," and "triumphant."

Although Jupiter acquired many of the characteristics and myths associated with Zeus, his marriage to the goddess Juno was more harmonious than that of Zeus and Hera. Moreover, Jupiter shared some of his power with Juno and the goddess Minerva (the Roman version of Athena). The three deities were believed to preside jointly over both divine and earthly affairs.

See also Athena; Atlas; Castor and Pollux; Cronus; Cyclopes; DanaË; Demeter; Gaia; Graces; Greek Mythology; Hades; Helen of Troy; Hera; Hercules; Muses; Persephone; Poseidon; Roman Mythology; Titans; Vulcan.

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Zeus

Zeus In Greek mythology, the sky god, lord of the wind, clouds, rain, and thunder. He is identified with the Roman god, Jupiter. Zeus was the son of Rhea and Cronus, whom he deposed. Zeus was the supreme deity of the Olympians. He fathered huge numbers of children by his wives and others, often seducing goddesses, nymphs, and mortal women, by taking the form of an animal.

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Zeus

Zeus in Greek mythology, the supreme god, the son of Cronus (whom he dethroned) and Rhea, and husband of Hera, traditionally said to have his court on Olympus. Zeus was the protector and ruler of humankind, the dispenser of good and evil, and the god of weather and atmospheric phenomena (such as rain and thunder). His Roman equivalent is Jupiter.

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Zeus

Zeusabstruse, abuse, adduce, Ballets Russes, Belarus, Bruce, burnous, caboose, charlotte russe, conduce, deduce, deuce, diffuse, douce, educe, excuse, goose, induce, introduce, juice, Larousse, loose, luce, misuse, moose, mousse, noose, obtuse, Palouse, papoose, produce, profuse, puce, recluse, reduce, Rousse, seduce, sluice, Sousse, spruce, traduce, truce, use, vamoose, Zeus •cayuse • calaboose • mongoose •Aarhus • verjuice • couscous •footloose • ventouse • refuse •Odysseus • Idomeneus • hypotenuse •Syracuse

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Zeus

ZEUS

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).

Cults

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.

Bibliography

Arafat, Karim. Classical Zeus. A Study in Art and Literature. Oxford, 1990.

Bianchi, Ugo. Dios Aisa. Destino, Nomini e Divinità nell'epos, nelle Teogonie e nel Culto dei Greci. Rome, 1953.

Cook, Albert B. Zeus. A Study in Ancient Religion. 3 vols. Cambridge, U.K., 1914; reprint, 1926, 1940.

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

Lolyd-Jones, Hugh. The Justice of Zeus. Sather Classical Lectures 41. Berkeley, Calif., 1971; reprint, 1983.

Parke, H. W. The Oracles of Zeus. Oxford, 1967.

Schwabl, Hans, and Erika Simon. "Zeus." Pauly-Wissowa 10A (1972): 253376; suppl. 15 (1978): 9931481.

Tiverios, M. "Zeus." Lexicon Inconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (LIMC ) 8 (1997): 310470.

Verbruggen, Henri. Le Zeus crétois. Paris, 1981.

Fritz Graf (2005)

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Zeus

Zeus

Nationality/Culture

Greek

Pronunciation

ZOOS

Alternate Names

Jupiter (Roman)

Appears In

Hesiod's Theogony, Ovid's Metamorphoses

Lineage

Son of Cronus and Rhea

Character Overview

Zeus was the most important deity, or god, of ancient Greece. He was the leader of the gods and the all-powerful overseer of earthly events and human destiny. His role in mythology was complex and filled with contradictions. Zeus was the god of law and social order, yet he came to power through violent revolution. A protector of marriage and the household, he was repeatedly unfaithful to his own wife, Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh), and fathered children by a variety of women.

Major Myths

In a myth that some modern scholars believe reflects the triumph of the Greek gods over more ancient deities, Hesiod told how Zeus became the supreme god. Before the gods existed, the Titans ruled the universe. Their chief was Cronus (pronounced KROH-nuhs). He and his wife Rhea (pronounced REE-uh) had five children, but because Cronus had been warned that one of his children would overthrow him, he devoured each child as soon as it was born. Zeus was the sixth. Rhea was determined to save this child, so she deceived Cronus by giving him a blanket-wrapped stone to swallow and secretly sent the infant to safety on the island of Crete (pronounced KREET). There, nymphs (female nature deities) tended the baby Zeus, while Cretan warriors sang and clashed their swords so that Cronus would not hear his crying.

When he grew up, Zeus was ready to overthrow his cruel father and avenge the siblings that Cronus had swallowed. He befriended Metis (pronounced MEE-tis), who was either a Titaness or an ocean nymph. Metis devised a potion to make Cronus vomit out the children he had swallowed, and either she or Zeus gave it to Cronus to drink. Cronus spat forth Zeus's sisters, Hestia (pronounced HESS-tee-uh), Demeter (pronounced di-MEE-ter), and Hera, and his brothers, Hades (pronounced HAY-deez) and Poseidon (pronounced poh-SYE-dun). Last of all, Cronus vomited up the stone he had swallowed in place of Zeus. Tradition says that the stone was later set in a place of honor at Delphi (pronounced DEL-fye). It was called the omphalos, or the navel of the world.

Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon battled the Titans in a conflict that lasted ten years. Zeus also had the help of the hundred-armed giants and the Cyclopes (pronounced sigh-KLOH-peez), one-eyed giants imprisoned in Tartarus (pronounced TAR-tur-uhs), a deep pit of the underworld or land of the dead. Released by Zeus, the Cyclopes forged a thunderbolt for him to use as a weapon. In the end, the Titans were overthrown, and Zeus sent all those who had opposed him to Tartarus. Only Titans who had not fought against Zeus, such as Atlas (pronounced AT-luhs), were spared.

Zeus and his brothers divided the world. Zeus controlled the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea—although Zeus had ultimate control over his brothers. The gods and their sisters took up residence on Mount Olympus (pronounced oh-LIM-puhs), which is why they and their offspring are called the Olympian deities.

The Loves of Zeus Zeus fathered children with a series of partners: nymphs, Titanesses, goddesses, and mortal women. The offspring of these unions included deities, demigods (half human, half god), and heroes.

Accounts of Zeus's loves and children vary somewhat, but Metis is usually listed as his first partner or wife. When she became pregnant, Zeus learned that her child would be a powerful god who would one day replace him. Like his father Cronus before him, Zeus was determined to preserve his power, but he did not wait to swallow the infant—he swallowed Metis. Their child, Athena (pronounced uh-THEE-nuh), emerged full-grown from Zeus's head.

Next, Zeus turned to the Titaness Themis (pronounced THEEM-is), who bore him two sets of daughters known as the Fates and the Hours. The ocean nymph Eurynome (pronounced yoo-RIN-uh-mee) also had daughters by Zeus, including the Graces. His next wife or partner was his sister, the goddess Demeter (marriages between brother and sister deities occur in the mythologies of many ancient cultures). Their child, Persephone (pronounced per-SEF-uh-nee), later became the wife of Hades.

Zeus's union with the Titaness Mnemosyne (pronounced nee-MOSS-uh-nee) produced the nine goddesses known as the Muses. Leto (pronounced LEE-toh) bore Zeus's twins Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh) and Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss). Maia (pronounced MAY-uh), the daughter of Atlas, bore him Hermes (pronounced HUR-meez). Eventually, Zeus married Hera, his last wife and the mother of three more Olympian deities: Ares (pronounced AIR-eez), Hebe (pronounced HEE-bee), and Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs).

Yet Zeus continued to have love affairs, many of them with mortal women. He sometimes mated with them in disguise or in animal form. After he visited the princess Danaë (pronounced DAN-uh-ee) as a shower of gold, she bore the hero Perseus (pronounced PUR-see-uhs). To Europa (pronounced yoo-ROH-puh), another princess, he appeared as a white bull. He came to Leda in the form of a swan. The children of their union were Helen of Troy, her sister Clytemnestra (pronounced klye-tem-NES-truh), and the brothers Castor and Pollux (pronounced PAHL-uhks). His most famous half-human son was Heracles (pronounced HAIR-uh-kleez), born to Alcmena (pronounced alk-MEE-nuh), to whom he came disguised as her own husband.

Zeus's relations with other women angered Hera, and she despised all the children he fathered by these women. Hera particularly hated Heracles and frequendy tried to harm him. Once, when she had gone too far, Zeus hanged her in the heavens with a heavy block pulling her feet down, and he threw Hephaestus out of Olympus for trying to help her.

Surviving Hera's attacks, Heracles aided Zeus and the other Olympians in a battle for survival. They were challenged by a race of giants, which Gaia (pronounced GAY-uh), the earth, had produced to bring an end to their rule. Zeus defeated the giants as well as various other threats to his supremacy, including a conspiracy among Hera, Athena, and Poseidon.

The Roman Jupiter The Romans, who adopted many elements of Greek culture and mythology, came to identify their own sky god, Jupiter, with Zeus. Associated with weather and agriculture in early Roman myths, Jupiter was the god of storms, thunder, lightning, the sowing of seeds, and the harvesting of grapes. As Roman civilization developed, Jupiter became known as Optimus Maximus, which means “best and greatest.” He was viewed as the supreme god and the protector of the Roman state. As Rome became a military power, Jupiter took on such titles as “supreme commander,” “unconquerable,” and “triumphant.”

Although Jupiter acquired many of the characteristics and myths associated with Zeus, his marriage to the goddess Juno (pronounced JOO-noh) was more harmonious than that of Zeus and Hera. Moreover, Jupiter shared some of his power with Juno and the goddess Minerva (pronounced mi-NUR-vuh), the Roman version of Athena. The three deities were believed to preside jointly over both divine and earthly affairs.

Zeus in Context

As a mythological figure, Zeus changed over the centuries. Originally a sky god, he was believed to bring clouds, rain, thunder, and lightning. His cults were associated with mountain peaks where clouds gathered. As Greek mythology developed, the figure of Zeus grew larger until he became the dominant force in the Greek pantheon, or collection of recognized gods and goddesses. Later, as Jupiter (pronounced JOO-pi-tur), he was the chief god of Rome.

Some of the earliest accounts of Zeus appear in the writings of Homer and Hesiod. Homer called Zeus “the father of gods and men,” but the term “father” referred more to Zeus's position of authority than to actual parenthood. Zeus did father some of the gods, but many others were his brothers, sisters, nephews, or nieces. Although he ruled many aspects of earthly affairs and human life, Zeus was not a creator god. Other mythological powers brought the earth and human beings into existence. Zeus enforced the laws that governed them.

Key Themes and Symbols

One of the central themes found in the myths of Zeus is interference in the affairs of humans. Like many of the Olympian gods, Zeus did not seem content to interact with only other gods and nymphs. He took time and effort to punish specific individuals, such as Phineus (pronounced FIN-ee-us), a seer whom Zeus blinded for revealing too many of the gods' secrets to humans, or Salmoneus (pronounced sal-MOH-nee-uhs), who impersonated Zeus and was struck dead with a thunderbolt for his mockery. He also provided rewards to others, such as the seer Tiresias (pronounced ty-REE-see-uhs), who took Zeus's side in an argument the god was having with Hera; Tiresias was blinded by an angry Hera, but Zeus gave him the power to see the future.

Another theme common in the myths of Zeus is physical transformation. Very often it was Zeus who transformed himself, such as when he became a shower of gold to reach Danaë, or when he mated with Leda in the form of a swan. However, he often transformed others into animals and objects—usually as punishment, but sometimes for their own safety. Pandareos (pronounced pan-DAHR-ee-ohs) was transformed into stone for stealing a statue of a dog from one of Zeus's temples; Periphas (pronounced PEHR-uh-fas) was a king of Attica whom Zeus changed into an eagle when he died as a reward for living a just life.

Zeus in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Ancient artists generally depicted Zeus as a dignified, bearded man of middle age. Often, he was shown holding, or preparing to hurl, a thunderbolt, which took the form of a winged spear or a cylinder with pointed ends. One of the most remarkable images ever created of Zeus was a statue that stood in his temple at Olympia in Greece. The statue was lost long ago, but a description of it survives. The forty-foot-tall statue showed the god seated, with golden lions at his side. The head and upper body were made of precious ivory, and the lower body was draped in gold—truly a glorious and awe-inspiring representation of “the greatest god of all.”

In modern times, Zeus is still the best known of the Olympian gods. He has appeared as a character in numerous television shows and films. Notable examples include Jason and the Argonauts (1963), Clash of the Titans (1981), and the Disney animated film Hercules (1997). He has also appeared in video games, such as Zeus: Master of Olympus.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

In ancient Greek mythology, Zeus was believed to interact with humans frequently, though not always in his godlike form. In modern times, people generally do not support the idea that a god (or God) regularly appears in physical form on Earth to interact with humans. What do you think this indicates about modern believers when compared to the ancient Greeks? Is there a difference in the way these two groups relate to the realms of the gods?

SEE ALSO Athena; Atlas; Castor and Pollux; Cronus; Cyclopes; Danaë; Demeter; Gaia; Graces; Greek Mythology; Hades; Helen of Troy; Hephaestus; Hera; Heracles; Muses; Persephone; Poseidon; Roman Mythology; Titans

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