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In Greek mythology, Zeus is the God of the sky and ruler of the Olympian gods. Zeus corresponds to the Roman god Jupiter.
Zeus, Father of Gods
According to Homer, Zeus was considered the father of gods and mortals as well. He did not create either gods or mortals; he was their father because he protected them, as well as ruling both of the Olympian family and the human race.
He was lord of the sky, the rain god, and the cloud gatherer, who wielded the terrible thunderbolt. His breastplate was the aegis, his bird the eagle, his tree the oak. Zeus presided over the gods on Mount Olympus in Thessaly, Thessalia.
His principal shrines were at Dodona, in Epirus, the land of the oak trees and the most ancient shrine, famous for its oracle, and at Olympia, where the Olympic Games were celebrated in his honor every fourth year. The Nemean games, held at Nemea, northwest of Argos, were also dedicated to Zeus.
Zeus was the youngest son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea and the brother of the deities Poseidon, Hades, Hestia, Demeter, and Hera.
According to one of the ancient myths of the birth of Zeus, Cronus, fearing that he might be dethroned by one of his children, swallowed them as they were born. Upon the birth of Zeus, Rhea wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes for Cronus to swallow and concealed the infant god in Crete (Kríti), where he was fed on the milk of the goat Amalthaea and reared by nymphs. When Zeus grew to maturity, he forced Cronus to disgorge the other children, who were eager to take vengeance on their father. In the war that followed, the Titans fought on the side of Cronus, but Zeus and the other gods were successful, and the Titans were consigned to the abyss of Tartarus. Zeus henceforth ruled over the sky, and his brothers Poseidon and Hades were given power over the sea and the Underworld, respectively. The earth was to be ruled in common by all three.
Greek author Homer pictures Zeus in two separate ways:
- he is represented as the god of justice and mercy, the protector of the weak, and the punisher of the wicked.
As husband to his sister Hera, he is the father of Ares, the god of war; Hebe, the goddess of youth; Hephaestus, the god of fire; and Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth;
- he’s also described as falling in love with one woman after another and resorting to all kinds of tricks to hide his infidelity from his wife.
Stories of his infatuations were so many, such as the resulting offspring his love affairs with both goddesses and mortal women. His many affairs with mortals are sometimes explained as the wish of the early Greeks to trace their lineage to the father of the gods.
The name Zeus is related to the Greek word dio's, meaning bright.
Being the supreme ruler Zeus upheld law, justice and morals, and this made him the spiritual leader of both gods and men.
Zeus was a celestial god, and originally worshiped as a weather god by the Greek tribes. These people came southward from the Balkans circa 2100 BC.
He has always been associated as being a weather god, as his main attribute is the thunderbolt, he controlled thunder, lightning and rain. In Homer's epic poem the Iliad he sent thunderstorms against his enemies. His other attributes as well as lightning were the scepter, the eagle and his aegis (this was the goat-skin of Amaltheia.
Before the abolition of monarchies, Zeus was protector of the king and his family. Once the age of Greek kings faded into democracy he became chief judge and peacemaker, but most importantly civic god. He brought peace in place of violence, Hesiod (circa 700 BCE) describes Zeus as the lord of justice, Zeus was also known as Kosmetas (orderer), Soter (saviour), Polieos (overseer of the polis -city) and also Eleutherios (guarantor of political freedoms). His duties in this role were to maintain the laws, protect suppliants, to summon festivals and to give prophecies (his oldest and most famous oracle was at Dodona, in Epirus -northwestern Greece). As the supreme deity Zeus oversaw the conduct of civilized life. But the father of gods and men as Homer calls him, has many mythological tales.
Theogony: Zeus told by Hesiod
His most famous was told by Hesiod in his Theogony, of how Zeus usurped the kingdom of the immortals from his father. This mythological tale of Zeus' struggle against the' Titans (Titanomachy) had been caused by Cronus, after he had been warned that one of his children would depose him.
Cronus knowing the consequences, as he had overthrown his father Uranus. To prevent this from happening Cronus swallowed his newborn children Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, but his wife Rhea (who was also his sister) and Gaia her mother, wrapped a stone in swaddling clothes in place of the infant Zeus. Cronus thinking it was the newborn baby swallowed the stone. Meanwhile Rhea had her baby taken to Crete, and there, in a cave on Mount Dicte, the divine goat Amaltheia suckled and raised the infant Zeus.
When Zeus had grown into a young man he returned to his fathers domain, and with the help of Gaia, compelled Cronus to regurgitate the five children he had previously swallowed (in some versions Zeus received help from Metis who gave Cronus an emetic potion, which made him vomit up Zeus' brothers and sisters). However, Zeus led the revolt against his father and the dynasty of the Titans, defeated and then banished them. Once Zeus had control, he and his brothers divided the universe between them: Zeus gaining the heavens, Poseidon the sea and Hades the underworld. Zeus had to defend his heavenly kingdom. The three separate assaults were from the offspring of Gaia: they were the Gigantes, Typhon (Zeus fought them with his thunder-bolt and aegis) and the twin brothers who were called the Aloadae. The latter tried to gain access to the heavens by stacking Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympus, and Mount Pelion on top of Mount Ossa, but the twins still failed in their attempt to overthrow Zeus. As he did with the Titans, Zeus banished them all to Tartarus, which is the lowest region on earth, lower than the underworld.
Zeus and his affairs
According to legend, Metis, the goddess of prudence, was the first love of Zeus. At first she tried in vain to escape his advances, but in the end succumbed to his endeavour, and from their union Athena was conceived. Gaia warned Zeus that Metis would bear a daughter, whose son would overthrow him. On hearing this Zeus swallowed Metis, the reason for this was to continue to carry the child through to the birth himself. Hera (his wife and sister) was outraged and very jealous of her husband's affair, also of his ability to give birth without female participation. To spite Zeus she gave birth to Hephaestus parthenogenetically (without being fertilized) and it was Hephaestus who, when the time came, split open the head of Zeus, from which Athena emerged fully armed.
Zeus had many offspring; his wife Hera bore him Ares, Hephaestus, Hebe and Eileithyia, but Zeus had numerous liaisons with both goddesses and mortals. He either raped them, or used devious means to seduce the unsuspecting maidens. His union with Leto (meaning the hidden one) brought forth the twins Apollo and Artemis. Once again Hera showed her jealousy by forcing Leto to roam the earth in search of a place to give birth, as Hera had stopped her from gaining shelter on terra-firma or at sea. The only place she could go was to the isle of Delos in the middle of the Aegean, the reason being that Delos was, as legend states, a floating island. One legend says that Aphrodite was the daughter of Zeus and Dione
Besides deities, he also fathered many mortals. In some of his human liaisons Zeus used devious disguises. When he seduced the Spartan queen Leda, he transformed himself into a beautiful swan, and from the egg which Leda produced, two sets of twins were born: Castor and Polydeuces and Clytemnestra and Helen of Troy.
He visited princess Danae as a shower of gold, and from this union the hero Perseus was born. He abducted the Phoenician princess Europa, disguised as a bull, then carried her on his back to the island of Crete where she bore three sons: Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon. Zeus also took as a lover the Trojan prince Ganymede. He was abducted by an eagle sent by Zeus (some legends believe it was Zeus disguised as an eagle). The prince was taken to Mount Olympus, where he became Zeus' cup-bearer. Zeus also used his charm and unprecedented power to seduce those he wanted, so when Zeus promised Semele that he would reveal himself in all his splendour, in order to seduce her, the union produced Dionysus, but she was destroyed when Zeus appeared as thunder and lightening. Themis, the goddess of justice bore the three Horae, goddesses of the seasons to Zeus , and also the three Moirae, known as the Fates.
Leto, the daughter of the Titans Phoebe and Coeus. Known as the hidden one and bright one, her name came to be used for the moon Selene. Hera was jealous of Leto because her husband had fallen in love with her. From their union Leto bore the divine twins, Artemis and Apollo. Leto found this to be an arduous task, as Hera had refused Leto to give birth on either land or on an island out at sea. The only place safe enough to give birth was Delos, as it was a floating island. Therefore, Leto did not refute the wishes of Hera. In some versions, Leto was refused by other vicinities because they feared the great power of the god she would bear. To show her gratitude, Leto anchored Delos to the bottom of the Aegean with four columns, to aid its stability. A conflict of legends arises when in one version it says that Artemis was born one day before Apollo, and the birth took place on the island of Ortygia. Then the next day, Artemis helped Leto to cross to the island of Delos, and aided Leto with the delivery of Apollo.
Leto, being the mother of Artemis and Apollo, figured as the motive for the slaughter was Niobe's children was that Niobe had been bragging to Leto about bearing fourteen children (in some versions six or seven). Leto had only born two, and to make matters worse, Niobe then had the audacity to say, it must make her more significant than Leto. When the divine twins were told of this insult, they killed all Niobe's children with their deadly arrows. After which Niobe wept for her dead children so much that she turned into a pillar of stone. From one version of how Apollo slew the monster Python, it was said that while Leto was still pregnant with the divine twins, Python tried to molest her. As punishment, Apollo killed him and then took control of the oracle of Delphi. Leto was worshiped throughout Greece, but principally in Lycia (Asia Minor). In Delos and Athens, there were temples dedicated to her, although in most regions she was worshiped in conjunction with her children, Artemis and Apollo. In Egypt there is the Temple of Leto (Wadjet) at Buto, which was described by Herodotus as being connected to an island which floated. On this island, Khemmis, stood a temple to Apollo, but Herodotus dismissed the claim that it floated as merely the legend of Delos brought to Egypt from Greek tradition. The Romans called Leto Latona.
When Zeus had an affair with Mnemosyne, he coupled with her for nine consecutive nights, which produced nine daughters, who became known as the Muses. They entertained their father and the other gods as a celestial choir on Mount Olympus. They became deities of intellectual pursuits. Also the three Charites or Graces were born from Zeus and Eurynome. From all his children Zeus gave man all he needed to live life in an ordered and moral way.
Zeus and his cult
Zeus had many Temples and festivals in his honour, the most famous of his sanctuaries being Olympia, the magnificent "Temple of Zeus", which held the gold and ivory statue of the enthroned Zeus, sculpted by Phidias and hailed as one of the "Seven Wonders of the Ancient World". Also the Olympic Games were held in his honour. The Nemean Games, which were held every two years, were to honour Zeus. There were numerous festivals throughout Greece: in Athens they celebrated the marriage of Zeus and Hera with the Theogamia or Gamelia.
The celebrations were many: in all, Zeus had more than 150 epithets, each one being celebrated in his honour.
In art, Zeus was usually portrayed as bearded, middle aged but with a youthful figure. He would look very regal and imposing.
Artists always tried to reproduce the power of Zeus in their work, usually by giving him a pose as he is about to throw his bolt of lightening. There are many statues of Zeus, but without doubt the Artemisium Zeus is the most magnificent. It was previously thought to be Poseidon, and can be seen in the Athens National Archaeological Museum.
- Comte, Fernand, The Woodsworth Dictionary of Mithology. ISBN 1853263370.
- Ely, Talfourd,’’The Gods of Greece and Rome”, Dover Publications, ISBN 0486427986.
- Graves, Robert, The Greek Myths 1955.
- Kerenyi, Carl, The Gods of the Greeks 1951.
- Ruck, Carl A.P., and Staples , The World of Classical Myth 1994.