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Generally regarded as the greatest god of the Greek pantheon. He was essentially the son of Light, of clear skies as well as of thunder, but he was not identified with the Sky any more than Apollo was with the Sun or Poseidon with the Sea. In Greek thought the gods lost the cosmic value with which they had been endowed at an earlier stage of their development, and Zeus became pre-eminently only a heroic figure.

His personality, that of the king of men and of gods, enthroned in the luminous heights of the sky, was created in the Homeric poems. Usually he presides at the summit of Mount Olympus, but he also travelled. He could be found, for example, living with the Ethiopians, a pious race above all others, whose sacrifices found particular favour with him. Gradually his abode lost its association with any particular mountain, and the word Olympus came to mean merely the ethereal region where the gods lived. Zeus not only presided over celestial manifestations - causing rain, thunder and lightning, powers symbolized by his shield - but above all he maintained order and justice in the world. He was responsible for purifying murderers of the stain of blood, and he ensured that oaths were kept, and that the appropriate duties were carried out to one's hosts. He was the guarantor of royal powers and, more generally, of the social hierarchy. He exercised prerogatives not only toward men, but also towards the gods. He himself was subject to the Moirai, which he interpreted and whom he defended against the whims of the other gods. For example, he considered carefully the destinies of Achilles and Hector, and when the scale bearing the latter went down to Hades, Zeus forbade Apollo to intervene, and abandoned the hero to his enemy. He was a benevolent god, aware of his responsibilities, and did not act solely upon his whims, at least when it was not a matter of passing love affairs, though even these apparent caprices were usually the result of forethought. He was the distributor of good and evil. Homer relates in the Iliad that at the gate of his palace there were two jars, one containing good, the other evil. Zeus' custom with each mortal was to take a portion from both jars. But sometimes he only used one of them, and the resulting destiny was either entirely good or, more usually, entirely evil.

This concept of Zeus as a universal power began to develop in the Homeric poems an ended, with the Hellenistic philosophers, in the conception of a single Providence. For the Stoics (notably Chrysippus who dedicated a poem to him), Zeus was the symbol of a single god, the incarnation of the Cosmos. The laws of the world were nothing but the thought of Zeus, but that was the extreme point of the god's evolution, beyond the limits of mythology toward theology and philosophical history where it more properly belongs.

Like all the Olympians, Zeus belonged to the second generation of gods. He was the son of the Titan Cronus and of Rhea, and just as Cronus was the youngest of the line of the Titans, so Zeus was the last-born (Table 38). Cronus was warned by an oracle that one of his children would dethrone him and tried to prevent this threat from coming about by devouring his sons and daughters as Rhea gave birth to them. On the birth of the sixth, Rhea decided to use a trick and save Zeus. She gave birth to him secretly at night and, in the morning, gave Cronus a stone wrapped up in a blanket. Cronus are this stone which he thought was a child, and Zeus was saved. There were two distinct traditions about the place of Zeus' birth. The most frequently mentioned place was in Crete, on Mount Aegeon or Mount Ida or Mount Dicte. The other tradition, defended by Callimachus in his Hymn of Zeus, situates it in Arcadia (see Neda). Even Callimachus admits that Zeus' earliest years were spent in a Cretan hiding place, where his mother had entrusted him to the Curetes and the Nymphs. His nurse was the Nymph (or goat) Amalthea, who suckled him. It was also said that when the goat died, Zeus used its skin for his shield: this was the aegis whose power was first put to the test at the time of the fight against the Titans. The divine child was also nourished on honey: the bees of Mount Ida produced honey especially for him (for the euhemeristic interpretations of this, see Melissa and Melisseus). The Cretans did not merely show the spot where, according to them, Zeus was born; they would also point out a so-called Tomb of zeus, to the great indignation of mythographers and poets for whom Zeus was the immortal god.

When Zeus reached adulthood, he wanted to seize power from Cronus. He asked Metis (Prudence) for advice, and she gave him a drug which made Cronus vomit up the children which he had swallowed. With the aid of his brothers and sisters now restored to life, Zeus attacked Cronus and the Titans. The struggle lasted ten years. Finally, Zeus and the Olympians were victorious, and the Titans were expelled from Heaven. To win this victory Zeus, on Gaia's advice, had had to liberate the Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires from Tartarus where Cronus had locked them up. To do this, he killed their guardian Campe. The Cyclopes then gave Zeus thunder and lightning which they had made; they gave Hades a magic helmet which made the wearer of it invisible; Poseidon received a trident, which could shake the sea and the land at a blow. Having won their victory, the gods shared power out among themselves by drawing lots. Zeus obtained Heaven; Poseidon the Sea; Hades the Underworld. In addition Zeus was to preside over the Universe. The victory of Zeus and the Olympians was soon contested. They had to fight against the Giants, aroused against them by the Earth who was annoyed at having her sons, the Titans, locked away in Tartarus. Finally, as the last ordeal, Zeus had to overcome Typhon. This was the toughest fight he had to endure. During his long struggle, he was imprisoned and mutilated by the monster, but he was saved by a trick played by Hermes and Pan, and was victorious.

The earliest of his wives was Metis, the daughter of Oceanus. Metis took on several forms in order to try and escape from the god, but in vain. She finally submitted, and conceived a daughter, but Gaia predicted to Zeus that if Metis gave birth to a daughter, she would then produce a son who would dethrone his father. So Zeus swallowed Metis and, when the time came for the delivery of the child, Prometheus or Hephaestus split Zeus' skull with an axe, and the goddess Athena emerged fully armed. Zeus then married Themis, one of the Titanideas, and had daughters by her who were called the Seasons (the Horae), named Eirene (Peace), Eunomia (Discipline) and Dike (Justice). Then he fathered the Moirai who were the agents of Destiny. The marraige with Themis (who was the incarnation of eternal order and of law) has an obvious symbolic value, and explains how the omnipotent Zeus can be subject to fate since the Moirai, emanating directly from him, are in reality an aspect of himself.

Zeus then fathered Aphrodite on Dione, one of the Titanides. By Eurynome, daughter of Oceanus, he fathered the Graces or Charites, Aglaea, Euphrosyne and Thalia, who were originally spirits of vegetation. By Mnemosyne, a Titanide who symbolized memory, he had the Muses. Finally, by Leto, he fathered Apollo and Artemis.

It was only at this moment that, according to Hesiod, the 'sacred marriage' with Hera, his own sister, took place, but it was generally considered to have happened much earlier. Hebe, Eilithyia and Ares were born of this marriage. By another of his sisters, Demeter, Zeus had a daughter, Persephone. Such were Zeus' unions with goddesses but his intrigues with mortals were countless. Only the main ones will be mentioned here (Table 40). There was hardly a region in the Greek world which did not boast an eponymous hero who was a son born of one of Zeus' love affairs. Similarly, most the great families of legend were connected with Zeus. The Heraclids, for example, were descended not only from the union of the god and Alcmene but also, earlier, from the union of Zeus and Danae (Table 31). Achilles and Ajax were descended from Zeus through the Nymph Aegina (Table 30), and the ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus, Tantalus, was said to be the son of Zeus and Pluto (Table 2). Similarly, the race of Cadmus was connected with Zeus through Io and her son Epaphus (Table 3). The Trojans, through their ancestor Dardanus, were born of the affair between Zeus and the Pleiad Electra (Table 7). The Cretans claimed connections with Europa and the three sons she had by Zeus: Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthys. The Arcadians had an ancestor called Arcas, son of Zeus and the Nymph Callisto (Table 9), and their neighbors the Argives took their name from Argos, the son (like his brother Palasgus, eponym of the Pelasgians) of Zeus and the Argive Niobe (Table 17 and Table 18). Finally, the Lacedaemonians claimed decent from the god and the Nymph Taygete (Table 6).

Although mythographers, especially from the Christian period onwards, pretended to consider these affairs merely as acts of debauchery, earlier poets and mythographers were at pains to recognize the deeper reasons which led the god to father children on mortals. The birth of Helen was explained as a desire to diminish the excessive population of Greece and Asia by provoking a bloody conflict. Similarly, the birth of Heracles was intended to provide a hero capable of ridding the world of destructive monsters. In short, procreation for Zeus was an act of providence. The ancient writers had already commented on the fact that many of these unions took place with Zeus disguised as an animal or in some other form: with Europa he took the form of a bull; with Leda a swan; with Danae a shower of gold. These bizarre acts were sometimes explained by the hypothesis that they offered the substitution of Zeus for earlier, local cults in which the divinity being replaced had an animal or fetishist form, but they nevertheless often aroused the indignation of these writers, who tried to give them a symbolic explanation. Thus for Euripides the shower of gold which seduced Danae was an image of the omnipotence of wealth. These adventures often exposed Zeus to Hera's anger. One explanation given by ancient writers for the god's metamorphoses was the desire to be concealed from his wife, but this is obviously a later invention, later than the stories of metamorphosis themselves. Zeus' lovers often took animal forms. Thus Io was metamorphosed into a cow, and Callisto became a she-bear.

Zeus intervened in a great many legends which are not easy to group together. The Iliad relates a plot against him by Hera, Athena and Poseidon, which was an attempt to chain him up. He was saved by Aegaeon. On one occassion he hurled Hephaestus into space, making the god lame thereafter, as a punishment for having sided with Hera. He re-eestablished order in the world after Prometheus' theft by chaining the latter to the Caucasian mountains, but, confronted by the wickedness of mankind, he caused the great flood, from which the human race was saved only thanks to Deucalion. Thus it was to Zeus the Liberator that Deucalion made his first sacrifice once this flood was over.

Zeus intervened in quarrels which frequently arose between Apollo and Heracles concerning the tripod of Delphi; between Apollo and Idas about Marpessa; between Pallas and Athena, thus bringing about, quite unintentionally, the former's death; between Athena and Poseidon who were fighting over possession of Attica; between Aphrodite and Persephone who were arguing over the beautiful Adonis. He also punished a number of criminals, notably sacrilegious people such as Salmoneus, Ixion (thus avenging a particular insult) and Lycaon. We see him intervening also in the Labours of Heracles, giving him weapons against his enemies, or removing him from their hands when he is injured. Zeus was said to have abducted the young Ganymede in the Troad, and made him his own cup-bearer as a replacement for Hebe. At Rome Zeus was identified with Jupiter, like him god of heaven, and protector of the city in his temple on the Capitol.


(zoos) GREEK: ZEUS

The people of Lystra, in what is now Turkey, were astonished at having seen Paul heal a crippled man and exclaimed, "The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men" (Acts 14:11). Because of Paul's skill at oratory, they assumed he was Hermes, the messenger god of the Greek pantheon. Paul's companion, Barnabas, they supposed to be the supreme god of the universe, Zeus. Scarcely able to restrain the crowd from worshiping them, the two angrily ripped their garments (the common reaction to blasphemy), proclaimed their humanity, and asked the citizenry to heed the gospel of Jesus.

The Christian missionaries from Palestine may have been upset partly because they remembered stories of the atrocities committed some 200 years earlier in the name of Greek religion. Antiochus IV Epiphanes tried to replace Judaism with the Greek way of life. He slaughtered Jews who resisted and went so far as to "pollute the temple of Jerusalem and call it the temple of Olympian Zeus" (2 Macc. 6:2).

Also known among the Romans as Jupiter, Zeus was considered ruler of the other gods. Greeks referred to the chief god of any non-Greek religion as Zeus.

{E2 Dictionary of Biblical People}