Jeremy J. Baer
When it comes to classical polytheism, people often talk of “gateway gods” – deities that actively recruit individuals into the polytheist rebirth. These deities may simply inspire a focused intellectual curiosity, but more often they reveal themselves in signs, dreams or other mystical encounters. The most popular gateway gods for Hellenism are Apollon, Dionysus and Hermes, with Athene, Artemis and Hekate not far beyond.
By contrast one doesn’t hear much about Zeus. The reasons for this are varied, as we shall explore. But first I must say – as unusual as it seems – Zeus was my gateway god. I was 25 and had been a neopagan for a short time. Dissatisfied with the premises and scope of neopaganism, I began studying classical religion. It was a stormy night, and I read aloud an ancient hymn to The Thunderer that I had discovered online. The mighty son of Chronos responded with a brilliant flash of lightening in the sky where I was looking. Coincidence? Perhaps. But I like to think otherwise. And I’ve been a classical polytheist ever since.
Zeus’s name is nearly unspoken in neopaganism, and seldom discussed even in Hellenism. The most common reason given is that Zeus reminds people too much of the Judea-Christian deity. I find this laughable; Zeus has little in common with the god of Sinai. Whereas Jehovah allegedly had one son, Zeus delights in his many and varied offspring. Zeus expects a certain morality, but he does not demand six hundred and some rules to follow. He does not get jealous when someone acknowledges other deities (many of whom are Zeus’ divine family). Certainly Zeus doesn’t seem to heavily regulate a person’s sexual habits.
The real reason, whether people want to admit it or not, is that Zeus is politically incorrect. He is a stern father figure and, at times, a ruthless ruler. He has no problem displaying his strength and power when it serves his ends. Nor does he flinch from endless sexual escapades, regarding it as his right. His unabashed use of power, strength and male sexuality is frowned on strongly by a certain politico-cultural mindset, a mindset which seems to predominate overwhelmingly in paganism.
But, really, the power, strength and potent sexuality are only the beginning of Zeus. Those who look no further would miss the side of him they might grow to like. Zeus is intimately connected with a well-functioning social order, one that is concerned at every level with justice and hospitality. Paternalism, after all, doesn’t mean mere dominance for its own sake; rather it seeks to ensure everyone is playing by the rules. It means protecting those who are too weak or immature to protect themselves. It means even handedness and generosity. It means that everyone is cognizant of their duties, and that they discharge them faithfully so that the family and community may thrive. It means opposing those that threaten that order.
That is Zeus.
Zeus protects the home; he defends its boundaries, ensures its pantry, and averts lightening strikes. He demands that a host offer aid and kindness to his guests, and he demands the guest treat the host with respect. His altar standing in the courtyard was a clear symbol of citizenship, and he presided over many of the phratry organizations. Zeus gave good counsel to political assemblies, and he watched over the marketplace as well. He presides over friendships, he protected cities as their savior (soter), and every four years his Olympic games drew otherwise warring Hellenes together for peaceful competition. His sons Apollo and Dionysus prophecy his will at Delphi to supplicants far and wide.
In short, from the lowest level of society (the house) to the highest (panhellenic events or panhellenic Oracles), Zeus is there to ensure safety, harmony and productive peace. Why this should be frowned on by anyone, politically correct or otherwise, is beyond me.
Another reason Zeus may suffer in popularity is that Hellenes, being a colorful lot, tend to devote themselves to areas in life in which Zeus does not play the leading role. Those that want lives resplendent with intellectual, artistic, mystical and sexual concerns tend to go for Athene, Apollo, Dionysus, Aphrodite and Hermes. I feel that Zeus is fine with this; he may be quite content to let his various sons and daughters take the lead in recruiting for Hellenism and receiving cultic devotion, as long as it is acknowledged that he is in charge of events from the background.
Jupiter, the Italian manifestation of Zeus, seems to have a larger following in Roman religion than Zeus has in Hellenism. The Roman tradition focuses on the great political traditions of the Eternal City where Jupiter was clearly patron, so this is to be expected. However, informally speaking, there may be another factor. Roman polytheists as a group, much like their ancestors, may be less interested in intellectualism, art and mysticism than their Greek counterparts, and more concerned with order, tradition and power – all attributes which Jupiter embodies. At least this has been my general experience in dealing with both communities.
Regardless of his popularity in either community, Zeus is a deity who should receive more devotion and good press then he currently experiences. Since the time that he revealed himself to me several years ago, I have developed relations with other deities who sometimes take the lead in my devotions. But Zeus has always been there, in the background, quiet and dignified, and ever watchful. I can’t imagine my home without his protection, or my religion without his guidance.