An Overview of Zeus

Jeremy J. Baer

Pre-Greek History

Zeus is linked linguistically with an ancient Indo-European deity.   This Shining Sky Father of the Indo-Europeans was both a patriarchal figure and a deity of the luminescent day sky.  The same deity served as the prototype not only of Zeus, but also of the Italic Jupiter, the Germanic Tyr, and the Indic Dyaus.

Zeus is however not just a father figure, but a kingly one as well.  He is also more properly a storm deity than a god of the sunny heavens.   Both items suggest that once the Indo-European cult of the Sky Father was established in Greece, it was early subjected to influence from the Near East and West Asia.

Zeus is attested in Mycenean times as a very important deity, and was already paired with Hera.  A month was named after him.

 

Attributes

By the time of The Iliad and The Odyssey, Zeus is articulated as the deity known to later Greek history.    He is king of the Gods, ruling from Mount Olympus.  He is the god of rain, thunder and lightening.   Zeus is also the god of fatherhood.   In myth, Zeus fathers most of the other deities and heroes of the Greek pantheon, underlining with a familial harmony what might otherwise be an unwieldy collection of unconnected divinities.

Zeus is also god of the household and hospitality, and appeals to both guests and hosts.    He presides over the social order in general, including the political and commercial life of a city-state.   He promotes justice and law, and is thought to punish those who break oaths.

Zeus is the strongest of the gods who won his right to rule by overthrowing his own father, and by successfully vanquishing all threats to his rule.   Zeus is committing to upholding the order of the universe.  He controls Fate but is himself subjected to it.   He may occasionally prophecy his will, but usually is content to let others, especially his son Apollo, do this for him.

In later philosophies, Zeus is subsumed into a pantheistic universe.  He becomes either the primordial fiery essence of the universe (as in Stoicism), or else one of the cosmic layers of creation from which all things emanate (as in Neoplatonism).

Myth

Zeus deposed his father Chronos and the other Titans to become king of the gods.   He ruled from Mount Olympus, and was married to his sister, Hera, with whom he suffered a stormy relationship.   Zeus committed many acts of infidelity against Hera, and in so doing brought forth the order of gods and heroes known to Greek mythology.    Zeus then led the Olympians in war against a race of Giants, and later the monster Typhon, to secure control of the cosmos.

In the Odyssey, Zeus is portrayed as an implacable ruler, who can be temporarily distracted but not defeated.   Zeus sought to punish the city of Troy, as Paris betrayed the hospitality of the Spartans when he abducted Helen.

Cult

Zeus was honored as a household god.   Zeus Ktesios guarded the pantry.  This aspect of the god was often depicted as a snake.  Bottles filled with water, olive oil and fruits were dedicated to him.  Zeus Herkeios defended the borders of the property.

Zeus’ main panhellenic cult was at Olympia.  The Olympian temple of Zeus housed a cult statue to the god which was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Games were held quadrennially (every Olympiad) to honor the god, a great event to which all Greeks could aspire.  Later, given certain political considerations, Macedonians and then Romans were admitted to the games.

An Oracle of Zeus was found at Dodona.  There priests listened to the rustling of sacred oak leaves.  Zeus is there paired not with Hera but with Dione, said to be mother of Aphrodite.

Zeus Meilichios was a chthonic aspect of the god, depicted in the form of the snake, that protected families and clans.

Zeus Philios presided over bonds of friendship between individuals and communities.

Zeus Soter, or the savior, is a title to which entire cities would honor Zeus as the intercessor in a great natural disaster or military event.

Zeus Amon

Amon was an Egyptian deity of fertility and creation.   The Greeks identified Zeus with Amon, giving rise to the cult of Zeus Amon.   Amon’s sacred animal was a ram, and so Zeus Amon is depicted as a Zeus with curling ram’s horns.

The Oasis at the desert at Siwa was the most famous sanctuary of Zeus Amon.  It was there that the Oracle pronounced Alexander the Great as the son of Zeus Amon and the rightful Pharaoh of Egypt.  Cults of Zeus Amon also existed in mainland Greece.

Jupiter

Jupiter, like Zeus, is descended from the Indo-European Shining Sky Father.  Jupiter was honored universally throughout the Italic tribes as a sky deity.  The Ides of the Roman lunar calendar, when the full moon shone, was sacred to him.

Jupiter was considered a friendly deity, “Jovial”  being a word descended from Jove, another name for Jupiter.   The Romans were not in the habit of attributing myths to their deities in the manner of the Greeks.  However, the Augustus age poet Virgil describes Jupiter as a patron and guide for Trojan prince Aeneas, whose destiny it is to found the Roman race.

The Romans instituted a cult to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, or Jupiter the Best and the Greatest.  Jupiter O.M.  was the patron of Roman magistrates and victorious generals.  Jupiter O.M. was a member of the Capitoline Triad, sharing the honor with Juno and Minerva.    The Capitoline Triad presided over the Roman Republic for five centuries.  Every major Roman colony seems to have had a temple dedicated to the triad.

With increasing Greek contact, the myths of Zeus were attributed to Jupiter until the two became essentially synonymous in literature.  Jupiter took over Zeus’ identification with Amon.  Jupiter was identified with a variety of Celtic deities, especially Taranis, a thundering sky deity.   Jupiter was also identified with a universal, axe wielding deity from Asia Minor; this Jupiter Dolichenus became popular with soldiers and merchants of Eastern extraction.

Sources

Adkins and Adkins.  Dictionary of Roman Religion.

Burkert, Walter.   Greek Religion

Hornblower and Spawforth.  Oxford Classical Dictionary.  3rd Edition.

 

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