His parents were Cronus and Rhea, children of Uranus and Gaia, his wife and sister was Hera and his children were… countless! Zeus was the leader of a group of gods who undoubtedly inspired Greeks during the best phase of their existence.
The king of gods and mortals, king of meteorological phenomena, protector of foreigners and visitors. The name Zeus comes from the root *dyeu (shine, lighten), as dios (Spanish), dieu (French) which mean “god” and dies (Latin) and day (English) which mean… “day”.
The rescue of the infant
The narration of the birth of Zeus follows the pattern of an infant being rescued, growing up, fighting and becoming a King. Zeus’ mother rescued him from his father’s bad habit of eating his children. Upon Zeus’ birth, Rhea gave her husband a rock wrapped in fabric which Cronus swallowed believing it was the newborn. Little Zeus would then grow up in Idaion Antron, a cave on mount Ida (also called Psiloreitis) in Crete. He was raised and taken care of by his grandmother Gaia and a goat called Amalthea, known for her miraculous horn, a later present from Zeus as a token of gratitude for her services. Nowadays we say “Horn of Amalthea” (horn of plenty, cornucopia) when referring to something that produces abundance. The new born god was protected by the Kouretes who muffled the sound of the infant crying with their boisterous dance.
The Clash of the Titans and the new divine order
This clash, which still inspires writers and artists, began when Zeus decided to dethrone his father after first forcing him to vomit his siblings. Along with the siblings, the rock Cronus had swallowed instead of Zeus came out and fell onto Delphi. The ancients named the rock “navel” and it became the symbol of mortality. Before starting the big battle, Zeus also freed his uncles and aunts who Cronus kept imprisoned in Tartara. Those were Giants, Hecatonchires and Cyclops, who, along with Zeus and his brothers were the allies. In the opposite camp was Cronus with his siblings, the old order of gods which was now in danger of being overthrown. Zeus won and the Titans were imprisoned in Tartara. All of them, except Atlas and Prometheus.
This battle symbolizes the establishment of order in a previously chaotic world. Cronus has not succeeded in forming a just world, but had instead left humanity to suffer under the predominance of the strong and violent. Zeus allied with all those who had been wronged by this ghastly system, established a more reasonable system of power and symbolizes the power of reason which slowly began putting order in a chaotic world of emotions. This way for the first time, we can see a distribution of powers and responsibilities: Zeus dominates the sky, Poseidon the sea and Hades the underworld. We can also observe the 12 gods collaborating, discussing the matters of earth and humans, disagreeing, wrangling and making decisions in the councils of Olympus.
Unlike his father, Zeus loved children and mostly he loved the process of making them. His official wife was his sister Hera and their five children were: Ares, Hephaestus, Hebe, Eileithyia and Eris. But he also had children with other goddesses: the Nine Muses, the Charites, Hermes, Apollo and Artemis, Athena, Nemesis, just to mention the most famous ones.
There were also many mortal women who charmed him with their beauty. And their offspring were demigods like Hercules, Perseus, Minos and dozens more.
Zeus might indeed have had a thing for love affairs, but he was not frivolous. He was serious in his palace and ready to bring back order anytime it was required, whenever one of the other gods disturbed order. He was the one to turn to whenever things would go out of hand. When Aphrodite intervenes in the war of the Achaeans against Troy, Zeus berates her: “My child, I’ve not assigned war affairs to you. You, deal with the works of marriage and leave the war affairs to Ares and Athena”.
He himself, being the leader of gods and mortals, is the only Olympian god who does not pick sides in the Trojan War. In fact, when Hera tried to lull him to favor the Achaeans herself undistracted, Zeus woke up and threw a lightning bolt to make everyone lose their courage and balance of powers to be restored.
On other occasions he is tense and doesn’t hesitate to throw lightning bolts onto those who don’t abide by the agreements or revolt against him. When he brawls with Hera, he seriously threatens her, when she is pulling it too far, and when Prometheus stole fire from him to give it as a gift to the humans, Zeus punishes him strictly by chaining him to Caucasus.
Zeus was a versatile god with many responsibilities and that is why he had many epithets. The most common are:
Olympios, king to the gods of Olympus
Astrapios (“lightninger”), god of meteorological phenomena
Xenios (“hospitable” ), god of hospitality
Horkios (“the keeper of oaths”), punisher of perjurers
Panhellenios, (“Zeus of all the Hellenes”), guarantor of unity among all Greeks
Temples and Worship
In some regions he was also worshipped as a chthonian deity, usually with Demeter, and in Crete he was identified as the Sun King.
The center of Zeus’ worship was the city Dodona where his age-old oracle is to be found. Even in the 2nd millennium BCE, the symbol of his worship was the sacred oak tree. In the time of Homer, the temple priests, called Selloi, would prophesy by observing the leaves and branches of the sacred tree rustling. Later on, during the classical era, female priestesses called Peleiades took the place of the Selloi. In Dodona, the official wife of Vouleus (advisor) Zeus was Dioni (the female form of his name), who belonged to the clan of the Titans, was probably worshipped there even before Zeus, as she is more ancient. Their offspring was, according to a version, Aphrodite.
Another place of worship dating back to the archaic age was the temple and oracle in the desert of Siwah in Egypt, where the god was worshipped as Ammon Zeus. In this very oracle in 332 BCE, Alexander the Great would be declared “son of Ammon”. Sanctuaries of Ammon Zeus also stood in Thebes, Gytheion, Megalopolis and Oropos.
Most of the sanctums dedicated to Zeus are to be found on mountain tops. Among them, most famous is the one in Lycaon, Arcadia, where, during dry seasons, the priests would shake the water of the lake Agno using an oak branch and plead for Lycaon Zeus to send rain.
His most popular place of worship was of course Olympia, where the famous temple of Olympios Zeus was built in the 5thc BCE. This area had been the center of worship since the Mycenaean time, when the locals worshipped Pelops, Rhea and Eileithyia. The place was called Altis and it was a leafy grove of oak trees, olive trees and pine trees and full of shrines, sanctuaries and statues. Zeus’ and Hera’s worship was introduced there by the Dorians in a single temple for both of the divine couple. When Zeus’ temple was built, the older temple continued to be for Hera’s worship. Taking its name from mount Olympus, home of the new gods, the area was renamed to Olympia and became famous for the Olympic Games which took hold in the 8thc BCE. In this temple stood the, now lost, chryselephantine statue of Zeus, work of the famous Greek sculptor Phidias and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The giant seated figure of 13 meters height, made of gold and ivory, was erected behind an artificial lake of oil in which it reflected. The temple was burned down in 426 CE, during the time of Theodosius II, and statue was shredded and looted. According to other sources, the emperor ordered it to be carried off to Constantinople where it had been standing for 60 years in a hall with other works of art until 475 CE when the great fire destroyed it. Zeus temple was looted later on by the Goths and in its place a Christian temple was raised, which an earthquake destroyed at a later time. The riverbed of Alfios River covered the whole area and the remains were excavated by German archaeologists in 1875.
Last but not least, the annual festival Diipolia celebrating Zeus Polieus was held in Athens on the 14th of Skirophorion (about the end of June). The ritual with age-old roots was as following: In Zeus’ temple on Acropolis, the priest would place on a shrine the offerings of wheat and barley, which an ox would eat. Then the priest would kill the ox with an ax and disappear to avoid being punished for his action. The other priests would not be able to find him and so they had to convict the ax and throw it to sea. This ritual was to symbolize the sacredness of the ox, which was essential for cultivating land. And this is why they’d then stuff the animal and fasten its skin on a plough.
Join Zeus’ world
Zeus is an attractive god for those who hold positions of power, but also for those who tend to stay inactive when things change suddenly. The Orphic hymn 20 (to Astrapaios Zeus), can strengthen you and help you focus on anything that makes you more vivid. Zeus’ fiery personality can rouse within you qualities you didn’t even know you had. Also, read the Orphic Hymns 15, 19, 31 (to Kouretes).
Create an environment of bright blue and gray coloring. Use ornaments of oak branches and acorns and many radiant sources, imitations of lightings. Perfume your place with sage plant and decorate it with carnation and violets. And don’t forget the eagle and the bull, which are Zeus symbols as well.
Read “Prometheus Bound” by Aeschylus and “Theogony” by Hesiod.
Get to know the characteristics and the life of the eagle. Read anything relating to thunder and rain.
Get yourself seriously involved in political philosophy. Enjoy Plato’s “Republic” .