Zeus is the king of the gods, he is the ruler of creation and seen by the Greeks as the ‘Allfather’. He is the youngest son of the Titans Cronos and Rhea, and earned his place at the top of the pantheon by defeating his father in the Titanomachy – a war between the Titans and the Olympians. Following his victory, Zeus created order within the world and gave each god their duty so that this order could be maintained and that life could exist on earth. Due to these deeds, Zeus became known not only as the ‘Sky-Father’, god of thunder and lightning, but also as a protector of peace, an up-keeper of justice, and a bringer of order. As his will was for an ordered world he became a patron of civilisation, often seen helping people who acted righteously and severely punishing those that acted against their fellow humans.
Chief of all the Olympian gods.
Lives: Mt. Olympus
Symbols: Thunder Bolt, Eagle, Oak Tree
Parents: Cronos & Rhea
Siblings: Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon
Children: Many including gods and heroes.
Zeus is first found in mythology in the writings of Homer and Hesiod. Hesiod shows a great deal of respect to Zeus, and his book the Theogony can be read as not only the creation of the world, but the series of events that led to Zeus’ divine rule. The Theogony depicts the birth of Zeus as something quite horrific. His father Cronos, who was the king of the gods, had eaten all of his children up until this point because he feared that they would overthrow him. When Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she hid him in a cave on Crete, and tricked Cronos by giving him a stone wrapped in blankets which he thought was the baby Zeus. We are given several different mythologies on how Zeus grew up – some saying that nymphs raised him, others that it was mortal shepherds. In any case, once he was old enough, he confronted his father with the help of other gods and Titans and overthrew him in the great Titanomachy. He forced his father to regurgitate all of the children he had eaten, and in doing so saved his siblings from their father.
After the battle, Zeus divided creation into four parts. Some stories say that he and his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades, drew straws on who would rule over which part of the world. Hades was given the underworld to rule, Poseidon the sea, and Zeus ruled heaven from Mt. Olympus. This however left earth with no ruler, and as such, each of the gods had equal power on what occurred there.
Zeus then went on to have relationships with a number of gods, producing many children who themselves were gods, including Athena, Dionysus, Artemis, and Apollo. After some time he married his sister, the goddess Hera. Though Zeus married Hera, he was consistently pursuing sexual relationships aside from her. These extramarital relationships resulted in the births of some of the greatest heroes and gods known in Greek mythology. Some of Zeus’ lovers included Leto, Demeter, Metis, Themis, Eurynome, Mnemosyne, Dione, Maia, Semele, Io, Europa, Leda, and Ganymede. Hera became hateful and jealous of Zeus’ sexual activity which became both a tool of comedy and tragedy in Greek literature as she and Zeus bicker constantly and both attempt to stay ahead of the other.
As Zeus was the king of the gods, he was revered and loved by all in Greece, however, there was no set rules to his worship and it varied considerably from place to place. Despite the lack of rules, there was a kind of pan-Hellenic standard where Zeus was worshipped across Greece every four years at Olympia. This was the time and place of the famous Olympic Games and many sacrifices were made to the ‘Allfather’. It was standard for a white animal, usually an ox, to be sacrificed, which was done on an altar fashioned from the ash of centuries of countless sacrifice.
Many cities worshipped Zeus in their own ways and gave the god epithets signifying the way in which they believed, or wished for the god to help them. Zeus Horkios was the protector of oaths, and votive offerings were made to him at Olympia to expose liars. Zeus Xenios was the protector of strangers and travellers. Zeus Brontios was the thunderer and embodied a god of weather.
An important variation of the worship of Zeus was that of Zeus Velchanos which means Boy-Zeus. The epithet comes from the place of his birth, Crete, where there was a strong cult following for the long haired ho megas kouros (The Great Youth). Worship took place in a number of caves across the island including Knossos, Mt. Ida, and Palaikastro, and the Velchania Festival lasted well into Hellenic times.
A second place of great importance for the worship of Zeus was at Dodona in Epirus, north-western Greece. Here was the place of the famous Oracle of Dodona. Homer writes about Dodona (c.750 B.C.) in the 14th book of the Odyssey, saying that bare-footed Selloi (priests) would lay on the ground beneath great oak trees and watch the movement of the branches and rustling of the leaves, reading the motions as divine messages from Zeus. By the time Herodotus wrote of Dodona, some 250 years later, he recorded that the interpretations were now done by the priestesses called Peleiades (doves).
Dodona was an important centre of politics and religion, placed in a region believed to be filled with countless barbarians (Epirus means “Infinite Earth” which tells us that the sea-faring Greeks conceived of it as very strange land). However, as an Oracular site, Dodona was always second to Delphi, as the gift of oracles was given to Apollo, not Zeus.
As the Greeks travelled and colonised foreign lands, they brought their beliefs with them and intermingled them with those of the foreign people. As such there are crossovers between Zeus and other foreign chief deities. Zeus Kasios, or Zeus of Jebel Aqra was worshipped on the Turkish-Syrian border and was an amalgamation of the Hellenic Zeus and the Canaan Ba’al Zephon (a weather god). Zeus Labrandos, or Zeus of Labraunda was a mix with the Hurrian weather god Teshub, and was worshipped at Caria and represented with a labrys, a double-headed axe.
Zeus appears to be a sky-father-like deity which is a reoccurring archetype in the mythologies of humanity. Being likened to patriarchal rule and symbols such as lightning is common. The older versions of this type of God appear with Indra in Hinduism, but other Indo-European deities have also been likened to Zeus including the Slavic thunder god Perun, Thor and Odin of Norse mythology, and Jupiter who heads the Roman pantheon.
The name of Zeus is most likely the Greek continuation of the Proto-Indo-European god of the daytime sky, Dieus. This is the etymological origin, whose continuation can be seen in the Latin word for deity, deus. Through this etymology, we can see that Zeus himself probably originated from an older, Proto-Indo-European Sky-God. However, there are much older ideas on his origin, one of which is Euhemerus’ theory that Zeus was in fact originally a Cretan king who was deified after death.