Ancient Greek religion was polytheistic. There was an entire pantheon of gods and goddesses, each with their own particular responsibilities and spheres of influence. The god Zeus sat at the very top of the divine hierarchy and was known to the Greeks as the king or father of the gods.
But Zeus was not unique to the religion of the ancient Greeks. He was an ancient deity and versions of the god can also be found in Hittite and Mesopotamian cultures. The name “Zeus” also dates back to the Proto-Indo-European language (4500-2500 BCE) and derives from the words for day and sky. This ancient Zeus was known as the god of the bright sky. The Greek Zeus’ symbols, the thunderbolt, and the eagle reinforced this fundamental association with the sky and elemental forces. But who exactly was this king of the Greek gods?
The Mythology of the Greek God Zeus
The most well-known account of how Zeus became the king of the gods comes from the Theogony by Hesiod, written around 720 BCE. His story begins with his father Cronos, king of the Titans. The Titans were ancient deities who ruled the world before the Olympian gods rose to power. Cronos, who had castrated his own father Uranus, believed that he too would suffer at the hands of his own children. So he decided to stop his children from reaching their full potential by swallowing them when they were born.
But Cronos’ wife Rhea had other ideas for her youngest son, Zeus. She contrived to trick her husband by presenting him with a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes, instead of the newborn Zeus. None the wiser, Cronos swallowed the wrapped stone. Meanwhile, baby Zeus was carried away and raised in secret on the island of Crete.
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Once Zeus had become an adult, his grandmother Gaia tricked Cronos into regurgitating all of his children. Zeus and his siblings formed a powerful group. They soon went to war against the Titans and eventually defeated them following a 10-year war.
After a further power struggle against the Giants, Zeus became king of the gods and established his home on Mount Olympus. It was here that he assigned each Olympian deity their responsibilities and spheres of influence.
But Zeus’ story did not end here. He went on to assert his influence among mortals and immortals alike. Many of his mythological stories involve tales of deception and infidelity to the detriment of his wife and sister, Hera. A common theme of his deceit was for Zeus to change his form with the purpose of seduction or rape of both women and men.
One such story sees Zeus transform into a white bull in order to abduct the Phoenician princess Europa. Europa sees the bull walking along the beach and is so enamored with it that she jumps onto its back. Immediately, the bull turns and runs into the sea, taking the princess off to the island of Crete. Here the bull reveals himself as Zeus and then proceeds to rape Europa, who later bears him three sons.
A similar tale involves Leda, the beautiful queen of Sparta. One night Zeus decided to take Leda for himself in the form of a swan. Among their subsequent offspring was Helen, believed to be the most beautiful woman in the world and the instigator of the Trojan War. These stories of rape and abduction are abhorrent by today’s standards, but to the ancient Greeks, these tales simply emphasized the power and virility of the god Zeus.
Zeus’ Symbols and Spheres of Influence
In ancient Greek religion, symbols helped to establish the divine identities of the gods. These symbols were then reinforced by physical images, such as statuary, as well as literary representations, such as poetry and plays.
Zeus’ symbols include the thunderbolt, the eagle, and the oak tree, all images associated with power and strength. Due to its divine connotations, lightning was seen by the Greeks as a significant meteorological event and places struck by lightning were believed to be holy.
In literature, the god Zeus often has one of several epithets — short, descriptive labels, linked to thunder, lightning, and clouds. The epic poet Homer describes him as “gatherer of clouds”, evoking the ancient image of Zeus as a god of the sky. Herodotus tells us that the most sacred place to worship Zeus was the mountain top — the point closest to the sky (Histories, 1.131).
“My child, deep-thundering Zeus holds the ends of
all in his hands, and disposes of everything by his will…
we humans live from day to day and little know
what he holds in store.”
Semonides of Amorgos, Lyrics, 2.1
The god Zeus was believed to be at the heart of all human affairs and, as the above quote highlights, his main spheres of influence were justice and fate. But Zeus was also perceived as a protector, particularly of those on the fringes of society, such as foreigners, guests, strangers, and beggars.
The epic poetry of Homer emphasizes the influence that this divine protection had on social customs in ancient Greece. In the Odyssey, Princess Nausicaa of Phaeacia discovers the shipwrecked and injured Odysseus. She warns those around her that “we must look after him, since all strangers and beggars come under the protection of Zeus” (Odyssey, 6.207).
Divine Epithets of Zeus
Alongside Zeus’ symbols, divine epithets (descriptive labels) were used to distinguish between the different facets of his responsibilities. Many of these epithets were associated with his role as a protector. Zeus Poleius, literally means “Zeus of the city”, and he was widely worshiped as a protector of cities in times of political or civil disorder. Similarly, there was Zeus Soter, who was believed to ward off war and natural disasters. The god Zeus Herkeos had a more domestic role and was worshiped at household shrines as the protector of the home.
More broadly, Zeus Ktesios was worshiped as a protector of property and took the form of a snake — a sacred animal in Greek mythology. For farmers, there was Zeus Ombrios, the rain-giver, who might bless them with a healthy harvest. There was even a divine epithet for Zeus the protector of friendship between individuals and also whole communities, Zeus Philios.
Ancient Greek Festivals in Honor of Zeus
We can learn more about the god Zeus by examining the different ways in which he was worshiped by the ancient Greeks. Festivals were one of the most important forms of worship in the Greek world. The festivals of Zeus were widespread and not confined to one particular city or area of Greece.
The Diisoteria festival was held in Athens once a year. Participants honored both Zeus Soter and Athena Soteira as protectors of the city. The festival featured a large procession through the Piraeus and was followed by a sacrifice.
The Diasia festival was also held in Athens, each February. This was an appeasement festival held in honor of Zeus Meilichios, an ancient epithet associated with the underworld and the image of the snake. Ancient sources describe this as a more solemn gathering where families would celebrate in small groups rather than as a community.
The Olympic Games, first held in 776 BCE, was the most famous and widely attended festival of the god Zeus. The Olympic Games was not just a sporting event, it also held great religious significance for the Greeks. Olympia was home to the site most sacred to Zeus — the Altis Grove. From the 6th century BCE onwards, the Altis was populated with hundreds of statues dedicated to Zeus by victorious athletes and city-states.
The start of the Games was marked by a huge sacrifice at the Temple of Zeus Olympios. Inside this temple was a famous statue of Zeus which became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Sadly, the statue is now lost but ancient sources claim that it stood almost 13 meters high. Created by the great 5th-century sculptor Phidias, the statue was made entirely of gold and ivory befitting the majesty of the king of the gods.
The Oracle of Zeus at Dodona
Oracles played an important role in ancient Greek religion, since they provided a point of communication, theoretically at least, between mortals and gods. One of the oldest and most prestigious oracles in Greece was the Oracle of Zeus at Dodona in Epirus. Here, applicants sought the divine word and prophecies of the god Zeus. Interestingly, this ancient site was also shared with the goddess Dione, the mother of Aphrodite.
Ancient sources tell us that Zeus conveyed his prophecies at Dodona through the leaves of a holy oak tree at the site. The oak tree was, as we have seen, another of Zeus’ symbols. He is also believed to have spoken through the doves who lived in the oak tree.
Herodotus states that the site was supervised by three priestesses, known as ‘The Doves’ (Histories, 2.53). The priestesses apparently interpreted the responses of the god while in a trance-like state. This indicates close similarities with the Pythia priestess at the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi.
Epigraphic evidence from the site suggests that it was mostly private individuals who visited Dodona. The consultant would write their question on a lead tablet, offer it to the god and then receive a simple yes/no answer. Over 4,000 of these tablets survive from the 6th—3rd centuries BCE. The tablets give us a fascinating insight into the private concerns of people at that time.
Many tablets refer to personal relationships, and common questions include: will I have children with this woman? Will this wife bring a good dowry? Which god should I pray to in order to have beneficial children? Other questions are more agricultural in nature. These include queries about the weather and which god to pray to in order to guarantee a good harvest or healthy livestock. Sadly, the answers are not recorded but it is clear that the god Zeus had great influence over the lives of many people.
The Legacy of the Greek God Zeus
In keeping with his pre-eminence, the god Zeus was favored by some of the greatest leaders of the ancient world. Among his most notable followers were Alexander the Great and the Roman Emperor Hadrian. Alexander the Great believed himself to be the son of Zeus, as well as having heroic ancestors such as Hercules and Perseus.
In 331 BCE, as King of Macedon, Alexander visited the Oracle of Zeus Ammon in Libya. Zeus Ammon was the Libyan version of Zeus and was recognized as such even by the Greeks themselves. Ancient sources claim that it was here that Alexander asked the god if he may be granted power over the mortal world. Zeus apparently gave his consent. Some modern scholars argue that this was the point at which Alexander gained the confidence to proceed with his plans to conquer the whole known world (Fredricksmeyer, 1991).
Emperor Hadrian was an academic man who had a lifelong passion for Greek culture. He visited Greece a number of times during his reign and took on the task of restoring her monuments to their former glory. Most notably, Hadrian funded the restoration and completion of the Temple of Zeus Olympios in Athens.
The structure had been started over 600 years earlier and was never finished. The ancient writer Pausanias tells us that the Athenians were delighted at this show of piety and generosity. In later years, Hadrian himself was worshiped at the temple alongside Zeus as part of the Imperial cult.
Zeus’ importance as the king of the gods and as the divine figurehead of ancient Greek religion is undeniable. But his role was also emphasized by the ways in which he was worshiped by those in the Greek world and beyond. His legacy lives on, even today, albeit indirectly, through the celebration of the Olympic Games.