Lightning-power-of-zeus
Image from Ancient Origins

This article was originally written in 2014 for an English assignment.

The human desire to explain existence has, over the span of time, sparked many myths. In ancient Greece, the myths of Mount Olympus, a mountain towering 9,500 feet over central Greece, was at the center of their beliefs. Mount Olympus, the home of the Greeks’ ancient gods was the home of the Twelve Olympians, of which Zeus, the god of thunder, reigned supreme.

In painting and sculpture, Zeus is portrayed with a long, curly dark or grey hair, a well-built man with a beard, an indication of age and, thus, wisdom. Sometimes he was pictured hurling thunderbolts to Earth, while other times artists depicted him sitting upon a throne, ruling over the world with a scepter in hand. The Statue of Zeus in Olympia, considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, featured Zeus sitting on a wooden throne covered in ivory and pearls; an eagle sat perched on the scepter in his left hand. (These descriptions are based on inscriptions on coins, as the original was burned and no copies were preserved.)

Statue of Zeus
Statue of Zeus at Olympia (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Zeus’ Titan father Cronus, who overthrew his father for control, feared mutiny from his own children. To avoid this usurping of power, Cronus rid of all the children born from his wife Rhea, or so he thought. Rhea, refusing to tolerate such atrocity, managed to save the last son: Zeus. When he was grown, Zeus left his sanctuary in the Diktaion Cave and went forth to do as his father had feared: take the throne. He released his siblings, and for ten years war raged between children and father, with Zeus rising to victory. The Titans Zeus banished to the underworld.

For their valiant conquests, Zeus granted his five brothers and sisters portions of his kingdom over which they would rule. Of the regions of the world, three were appointed. This decision came between Zeus and two of his brothers, Hades and Poseidon. They drew straws to determine who would be ruler of what. Zeus, with the longest, gained control of the skies, while Hades and Poseidon reigned over the underworld and the sea. Thus began Zeus’ life as ruler of the universe.

Zeus with other gods on Mount Olympus

Thinking men unworthy of having fire, Zeus kept it from the world. Prometheus, a Titan, snuck a spark to Earth. Part of Prometheus’s subsequent punishment was Zeus’ creation of the first woman, who wed Prometheus’s brother. As a wedding gift, Zeus gave Pandora a box that she was not allowed to open. And yet, there was the key attached. Overwhelmed with curiosity, Pandora unlocked the box, releasing into the world all the evils we encounter today. Only one small trace of goodness came from Pandora’s Box: hope.

As can be imagined, no good came from Pandora’s Box. Humans, whom Zeus had seen as inconsequential, committed such acts of wickedness that the god of thunder had soon seen enough of them. The waters rose, swallowing the earth and all its inhabitants, save two. These two survivors – a king and his wife – were supposedly forewarned by Prometheus. (You can imagine that by this point Prometheus had been kicked out of Zeus’ good book.) Finding safety in a sturdy boat, the king and wife lived to begin again the human race.

Pandora's Box
Pandora’s box (Artist unknown)

Perhaps the most well-known of Zeus’ faults was crimes against his wife Hera. Though Zeus selected her as his love and queen, he sought and found the companionship of others – immortal as well as mortal. So numerous were his offspring that he lost count. The reason for this may be due to the spread of the religion. As Greek mythology caught on in other regions, new parts accepted Zeus as supreme. However, some parts of the old supreme god would stay, including wife.

One of the children Zeus had with Hera was Hebe, who was goddess of forgiveness. She encouraged clemency to those who wronged you. Zeus, however, did not follow his daughter’s instructions. What Zeus said went; if you didn’t obey his command, that was it for you. He did, however, expect forgiveness from others, particularly Hera for his unfaithfulness.

giovanni-battista-tiepolo-danae-und-zeus-09404
Zeus and Danae, a mortal lover (Painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo)

Zeus wielded control over everything but fate and destiny. He was at the top, yet he hungered for more power. Perhaps Zeus didn’t grow up with his father, but he still inherited some of Cronus’ traits, including the fear of being overpowered. This wariness bred distrust in Zeus, especially towards his brother Poseidon, who physically attempted to knock the crown off his head.

Zeus’ name means “sky” or “day.” Other names for Zeus were Xenios and Milosios, which mean “patron of hospitality/ strangers” and “the protector of the sheep”. Both of these terms refer to his relationship with humans. After the whole Prometheus incident during which he viewed humans unworthy of life, Zeus kindled a friendlier relationship. Sometimes Zeus would shape-shift into various forms – animal and human. Once, disguised as a mortal to casually observe the state of things below, Zeus visited a poor couple who graciously welcomed him into their home, as was appropriate under xenia. (Xenia was the Greek custom of hospitality.)

The Greeks worshipped Zeus in two prime locations: the forest of Dodona and the temples and statues on mountaintops. The forest of Dodona was a grove of oak trees. The oak tree was a symbol of strength often associated with Zeus. Stories told that the Greeks would listen to the wind whistling through the branches, interpreting the “voices” as Zeus’ commands. To draw as close as possible to Zeus, so he could best hear, people would climb to the pinnacles of hills and mountains and exalt him loudly with palms raised towards the sky. If someone neglected to worship the gods, great calamities were certain to strike them.

Oak grove
An oak grove (Photo from Iberian

Belief in Zeus and Greek polytheism lasted up until the 8th centuries A.D. By the time the legalization and national spread of Christianity by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century came around, the Greeks were losing faith in their gods. The study of philosophy led many scholars to questions the gods who they’d worshipped for so many centuries. When the 9th century stepped into the world, only a few small regions of Greece still praised Zeus and his throng of gods and goddesses.

When thunderbolts strike across the sky, we know today they are not the result of an angered Greek god attacking a disapproved mortal. Zeus, king of the Greek gods, ruler of the sky, savior of Olympus, faded from the daily life of the common Greek as the centuries wore into the Middle Ages.

Such ended the created existence of Zeus atop Mount Olympus, shaking the earth with his footsteps. Such ended his prophesying whispers through the forests of Dodona. Such ended the story of imaginary supernatural beings who he led.

Such ended Zeus, the god of thunder, who had reigned supreme.

Zeus from agree mythology
Image from Weekly Greek Freak Club
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