Zeus was the supreme god of the ancient Greeks. He was believed to live in the clouds on Mt. Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. He ruled over the other divinities of the traditional Greek religion and also controlled all human affairs. Zeus was believed to be strict but fair in using his powers to regulate both the human and the divine worlds. The Roman equivalent of Zeus was Jupiter.
Zeus's Powers. Originally, the Greeks considered Zeus the god of the daytime sky only. Over time, his powers were extended to include control of day and night, the seasons, and the weather. As the god of weather, Zeus was believed responsible for storms of all kinds. His weapons were thunderbolts, and the Greeks often interpreted thunder and lightning as omens* from Zeus.
The powers attributed to Zeus continued to increase. By the Hellenistic* period, other gods and goddesses were insignificant by comparison. The Greeks believed that Zeus was responsible for virtually everything that happened, either directly or indirectly through other divinities under his control. The only exception was the underworld*, where Zeus interfered very little.
* omen sign, good or bad, of future events
* Hellenistic referring to the Greek-influenced culture of the Mediterranean world during the three centuries after Alexander the Great who died in 323 B.C.
* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades
In addition to being the overall protector of humans, Zeus had special powers in certain areas. He was the protector of political liberty, law and order, oaths, moral behavior, and friendships. He was also believed to safeguard strangers, guests, travelers, and beggars. As the defender of property, he was the guardian of both individual households and entire city-states*.
The Worship of Zeus. Greek religious cults* worshiped Zeus as early as 3000 B.C. The Olympic Games, the major Greek festival honoring Zeus, were first held in the 700s B.C. During the games, participants held a magnificent sacrifice* to Zeus. He had only a few city-state festivals, probably because he was considered to be the protector of all humans, not just the inhabitants of a particular city-state. Zeus also had a Greek oracle* dedicated to him, called Dodona, in the mountains of Epirus. It may have been the oldest oracle in Greece, and it remained in use until around 200 B.C.
As the supreme god, Zeus was worshiped by everyone—from individual families to entire communities. As a protector of the household, he received sacrifices on the family altar. As the protector of the city-state, he was believed to reside in the agora*, where he controlled the political and commercial life of the community. He was worshiped along with the patron* god or goddess of the city-state.
Myths About Zeus. There are many myths about Zeus. Among the best known are those told in the poems of Homer and Hesiod. According to Hesiod, Zeus’s father was Cronos and his mother was Rhea. Cronos and Rhea were Titans, who were the children of Earth and Sky. They were believed to rule the universe. In addition to Zeus, Cronos and Rhea had five other children—Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon.
Because Cronos was jealous of his children, he swallowed all of them except for Zeus. Zeus was saved from the same fate by his mother, Rhea, who gave Cronos a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes to swallow and hid the child in a cave on the island of Crete. When Zeus grew up, he tricked Cronos into spitting up his five brothers and sisters. Zeus and the others then deposed* Cronos and the other Titans.
As the new rulers of the universe, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades divided up the domain. Zeus became god of the sky, Poseidon god of the sea, and Hades god of the underworld. Mt. Olympus and the rest of earth were common territory. Because of his role in freeing the others from Cronos and leading them against the Titans, Zeus was accepted by the other divinities as the supreme god.
Zeus married several goddesses, finally settling down in a permanent marriage with his sister Hera. He also had many love affairs with goddesses and mortal women and fathered many children, most of whom were gods and goddesses themselves. Athena, who sprang from his head a fully grown maiden dressed in full armor, was one of his favorites. Zeus assigned to his children their respective spheres of control over the human world. He made Athena the goddess of warfare and wisdom, his son Apollo the god of music and poetry, and his daughter Artemis the goddess of the hunt. Zeus was also the father of Dionysus, the god of wine; the muses, the goddesses of the arts and sciences; and Heracles and Perseus, Greek heroes. (See also Cults; Myths, Greek; Religion, Greek.)
* city-state independent state consisting of a city and its surrounding territory
* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
* sacrifice sacred offering made to a god or goddess, usually of an animal such as a sheep or goat
* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made
* agora in ancient Greece, the public square or marketplace
* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter
* depose to remove from high office