Ancient Greek Gods




Unlike many Greek divinities, the origins of Zeus' name are undisputed. "Zeus" is connected with an ancient Indo-European deity Dyeus, which roughly translates as 'sky', 'day' (as opposed to night) and 'clear'. All of these point to his role as a god of the heavens, the sky and thunder.


As the king of the Greek Gods, Zeus has been portrayed endlessly in art, often with specific aspects or symbols to identify him and his purpose. For example, early Classical vase paintings often show him throwing thunderbolts, identifying him as a powerful warrior deity, affiliated with Hephaestus the god of the forge and maker of thunderbolts (see figure 1). However, as the classical period progressed, it became fashionable to depict Zeus seated on a throne, holding a sceptre, often accompanied by the goddess Nike, thus symbolising his role as king and patriarch of the gods (see figure 2). It is important to note, however, that Zeus was not considered to be a tyrant and literature depicts him as fair and even-handed, especially considering that one of his mani functions was the lord of Justice. Regardless of his specific iconography, Zeus is always portrayed as an imposing man, full-grown and with a beard - indicating his status as experienced patriarch of the Olympian family, as opposed to other male deities such as Apollo and Hermes who are often depicted as young men (ephebes) with no beards; erotically appealing, but not powerful. Zeus' power is further indicated by his symbols of the eagle, the bull and the full-grown oak tree.


Before the pantheon of Greek gods we are familiar with ruled atop Olympus, an earlier generation of deities, known as Titans, held power. The ruler of these divine beings was Cronus, son of Gaia (Mother Earth). Cronus' mother had informed him that he would be usurped by one of his offspring who would be tremendously powerful. Therefore, whenever Cronus' wife Rhea bore a child he would swallow the newborn god to prevent them from overturning his power. Having devoured Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades and Poseidon, Cronus was tricked by his wife who, out of love for her child, bore Zeus in secret, while offering a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to Cronus in place of the baby. Sources disagree as to the upbringing of Zeus, some saying he was raised by Gaia, others by the Nymph Metis, still others maintain that he was brought up by Amalthea the goat! Regardless, all sources agree that when he was fully grown, Zeus returned to mount Olympus to confront his father.

Zeus Overturns Cronus

Again, sources conflict on the details of the encounter between Zeus and Cronus, some say that Metis administered an emetic drug in order to make Cronus vomit up his devoured children, while others say that Zeus cut open his father's stomach to release his brothers and sisters. Zeus proceeded to free the Gigantes (100 handed giants), Cyclopes (one eyed giants) and Hecatonchires (three giants each with fifty heads), all the siblings of Cronus whom the tyrant had imprisoned in Tartarus. In thanks for their freedom, the Cyclopes gave Zeus the knowledge of how to craft thunderbolts. Armed with these weapons and aided by his brothers and sisters as well as the freed giants, Zeus waged war on the Titans (this battle is popularly referred to as the Titanomachy). The Titans were overthrown and relegated to Tartarus to be punished for all eternity guarded by the Gigantes. Atlas, however, was singled out for special punishment as he had been the joint-leader of the Titans (with Cronus) and Zeus forced him to bear the weight of the sjk on his shoulders for ever. Not all those of the generation of the Titans sided with Cronus; Oceanus remained neutral, and Promethius is said to have been a great help to Zeus. Having usurped the old gods, Zeus instated himself as the king of Olympus and lord of the sky, delegating domains to his siblings (e.g. Poseidon was given dominion over the sea and Hades control of the Underworld). The only beings whom Zeus did not claim control over were Destiny and the Fates, who continued to be infallible throughout the reign of Zeus, as can be seen in Homer's Iliad, in which Zeus tells Thetis he cannot save her son's life for he is destined to die.


Following the fall of the Titans, Zeus' grandmother, Gaia, grew angry towards the new order of gods, either because she felt that the Titans were being treated unfairly, or because she felt that she was not being sufficiently honoured in the new Olympian regime. Therefore, in revenge, she gave birth to a race of Giants; hideous creatures, gargantuan in size and nigh-on invincible. Amongst the hordes were famous beasts such as Echidna and Typhon. As soon as they were born, these giants launched an offensive on Mount Olympus, forcing the gods to wage battle yet again. The giants attempted to reach the heavens by stacking the mountains of Thessaly, Ossa and Pelion. The gods stood against the giants, but would not have won if not for the aid of Athene (who, some sources say, was born in the midst of the battle from Zeus' head) and of Heracles, who struck the death-blow to Alcoyoneus, the leader of the Giants. The Gigantomachy was a popular theme in Classical art, often displayed on temples, such as the east metope of the Athenian Parthenon.

Zeus' Wife

Having established himself king of the gods, Zeus made his sister Hera his wife and queen (and it is most probably because of this union that Hera is known as the goddess of marriage). Hera is almost always portrayed as Zeus' wife and can barely be considered a major mythological figure in hr own right. She mostly appears as meddling in Zeus' affairs, often exacting fierce revenge on her husband's lovers. A prime example of this is when Zeus fell in love with Io and Hera, in full knowledge of this, forced Zeus to hide the truth by transforming the girl into a cow (Aeschylus' Promethius Bound). Hera is also known for having viciously attacked Zeus' illegitimate children, most infamously Heracles, who she drove mad and caused to kill his own wife and children.

Zeus' Famous Lovers and Children

Aside from Hera, Zeus' lovers were many and varied, sometimes his affections falling to goddesses, others to mortal women. As mentioned above, Zeus raped Io, and seems to have had quite a penchant for young girls, going on to have relations with such maidens as Leto (who mothered Helen of Troy), Alcmene (who mothered Heracles), Europa (who mothered Minos and Sarpedon) and many other less notorious affairs are mentioned throughout the mythological tradition. These women and children Hera was able to persecute, however, when Zeus chose to lay with a goddess her ability to punish was limited, and Zeus chose to lay with a goddess reasonably often. Amongst his divine lovers were Leto (mother of Apollo and Artemis), Mnemosyne (who gave birth to the nine Muses), Dione (mother of Aphrodite) and Demeter (who bore Persephone). It has been theorised that these relationships went unpunished as they were in some way universal and natural - Guerber suggests that as Zeus was the god of the sky, his affairs with such beings as Dione (moisture) were symbolic and no different from his relationship with Juno (the atmosphere). It can thus be seen that Zeus' affairs with women were many and almost always resulted in a child. Zeus' love, however, was not restricted to women, as illustrated by the famous instance of Zeus, who was besotted with a beautiful youth names Ganymede, abducting the boy and carrying him up to Olympus to be the immortal cup-bearer to the gods and his consort. Although this kind of behaviour could be seen as outrageous in today's society, the Athenian practice of pederasty (in which an older male citizen would take under his wing a young man/ephebe in order to introduce him into the ways of adult society while conducting a sexual relationship) was common and a more or less essential part of a young man's pubescence. Thus, in this myth, Zeus can be seen to be taking on the role not of lecherous rapist as in the case of his relationships with mortal women, but of a mature, responsible citizen male, inducting a naive boy into the ways of the society of the gods.

Zeus and Mankind

The regard in which Zeus held man is unclear, as different myths involving Zeus' relationship and encounters with humankind offer varied evidence. For example, in the famous myth of Promethius and Pandora, Zeus forbids man to be given fire as Zeus wishes to keep it for the gods and to prevent humans from advancing by gaining the methods with which to cook food, forge tools and keep warm. When Promethius disobeyed this decree by stealing a spark of divine fire and giving it to men, Zeus chained the titan and punished him by having an eagle peck out his liver every day. Not satisfied with punishing Promethius, Zeus also had his fellow gods craft the first woman, Pandora, and gave her to the world with a box she was never to open. However, Zeus had given her intense curiosity, thus leading to her being unable to follow instruction and opening the box, releasing all the evils of the world to plague mankind. While this story would suggest Zeus had great animosity towards mankind on the whole, it seems as though later in the development of the human race Zeus' feelings softened, as displayed by the story of Philemon and Baucis. According to Guerber's version of the myth, Zeus would often visit earth, assuming some disguise, and visit men in order to ascertain the state of the world first-hand. One day, Zeus deigned to visit the poor but pious couple Philemon and Baucis. When Zeus arrived in the guise of a mortal, the couple were eager to show hospitality according to the laws of xenia (a specific code of guest-friendship dictating how to care for a guest, incidentally Zeus was the guardian of strangers and the enforcer of xenia) and they chose to kill their last goose to feed their guest. Seeing their generosity Zeus revealed himself and granted them both long life in the service of the gods as was their wish, and when they died Zeus transformed them both into oak trees who stood in front of his temple for centuries.

Zeus' Cult

Although, as the major god of the Greek pantheon, Zeus had cult sites all over Greece, his largest and most famous panhellenic precinct was at Olympia. It was at this site that the Ancient Olympic games originated, and men from all over Greece would collect there in order to compete against each other for their own honour and that of their city state. These games were highly politicised, with often warring cities competing against each other for the glory and prestige of victory. In fact, although it was normal for panhellenic precincts to have treasuries in which to keep the votive offerings of different cities, the treasuries at Olympia were situated on the main road through the site, thus encouraging gifts as no city wanted to be shown-up by their neighbours for not having given sufficient gifts. The temple of Zeus at Olympia was the home of the famous statue of Zeus (see Figure 2) now lost, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world and Pausanias (an ancient Greek travel writer) urges any visitor to Olympia to experience it.
The cult site of Olympia may have been the largest in existence, but there were other sites all over Greece, each with slightly different ideas about Zeus, his role and how one should worship him. For instance, Herodotus tells us that Zeus was often perceived as a weather god, and thus his worship was often concentrated on mountaintops, close to the sky. The most important of Zeus' mountain-sites was, of course, Mount Olympus, although there is no archaeological evidence for a peak-sanctuary, it is likely there was either some sort of precinct on the mountainside, or that Olympian rituals were carried out there. Such sanctuaries have, however, been excavated elsewhere, e.g. on Mount Hymettus, and it appears as though these were mostly associated with rain rituals.
Albeit rarely, Zeus is sometimes referred to in ritual contexts as 'he who signals' or 'he of the omens', thus suggesting that he performed some sort of Oracular role. As Zeus was an embodiment of Fate amongst other things, it seems appropriate that he be asked for omens rather than specific divine favours as no amount of prayer will enable Zeus to go against the course of Fate. This aspect of Zeus is further illustrated by a few oracular sites, at Dodona in Epirus (reported to be the oldest oracle in the Greek world, active until the late Hellestic eraas well as at Siwa in Egypt. Hornblower states that the priests of the oracle would interpret messages given by the god, in the forms of the flight paths of birds in and around the holy oak trees, divination by drawing lots (cleromancy), by the sounds of a gong and/or the song of nearby birds.
As mentioned above, Zeus was traditionally represented as a fully grown man. The cult on Crete, however, appears to have worshipped Zeus as an ephebe as all the art depicting him shows a long-haired youth on the verge of manhood.

Zeus' Numerous roles

Zeus, like most of the gods of the Greek pantheon, had many roles and epithets aside from his main function as weather god and king of Olympus. His title Zeus Panhellenios shows his applicability to all of Greece as it literally translates as "Zeus of all the Hellenes". As mentioned above, Zeus was the lord and enforcer of Xenia, leading to him having the name of Zeus Xenios, the patron deity of hospitality, guest-friendship and punisher of all those who violated the laws of xenia. In addition, Zeus Agoraios kept watch over business dealings at the marketplace (agora) and was ready to punish rogues, thieves and unfair traders. A further aspect of Zeus was as the keeper of oaths and punisher of those who violated those oaths. As a result, oaths were often sworn by 'almighty Zeus' and people who violated the terms of their oaths were made to

Zeus the man?

Euhemerism is the method of interpretation which seeks to rationalise the fantastical in order to make it more understandable and hopefully reveal an indication as to the truth behind such stories. The founder of this school of thought, Euhemerus, proposed the idea that Zeus was not a god at all, but rather that he was a king, who had been glorified after his death, probably with some sort of extravagant funerary monument, and his fame had led to the stories of his life being distorted until he was eventually turned into a deity in the minds of subsequent generations.

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