According to the mythology of the ancient Greeks, Zeus was the king of the gods. He is portrayed as the ruler of both the sky and Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece and the legendary home of all deities. Overthrowing his father to come into power, he is said to control the world with thunder and lightning. Through many lovers, he produced a large number children, many of whom were also gods and goddesses. People worshiped many different versions of him, with comparative figures existing in several other cultures.
Roles and Associations
Zeus’ main job was to rule over the sky, but he also had a number of other roles according to various traditions. Some individuals considered him to be the god of crops and harvests, and he is sometimes associated with nature. Many ancient people believed he was a patron of hospitality, as well. A god of justice, he punished liars, keeping people to their oaths, and he brought wrath on dishonest merchants and traders.
Given these duties, he became associated with the oak, his favorite tree, and the eagle, his bird. Both represent courage, strength and righteousness. Some images show him with or as a bull. He is often depicted holding either a thunderbolt or scepter, gathering clouds or sitting as though on a throne.
Greek mythology says that Zeus was the youngest child of Cronus, sometimes called Cronos or Kronos, and Rhea, both of whom were Titans — the children of the Earth and Heavens. Fearing that one of his sons would overthrow him as a prophesy had foretold, Cronus swallowed the rest of Rhea’s children: Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter and Hestia. To protect her new son, whom she delivered in Crete, she wrapped a rock in swaddling clothes and gave it to her husband to consume. Stories vary about how and where he grew up, but a common thread is that he initially was hidden in a cave on Mount Ida.
Overthrow of Cronus
After reaching adulthood, Zeus confronted Cronus and forced him to vomit up Rhea’s offspring. He also set Cronus’ brothers — the Cyclopes, Hecatonchires and Gigantes — free from Tartarus, a place of intense suffering said to exist below the underworld. The Cyclopes were so grateful that they brought lightning and thunder out of their hiding place and gave them as a present to the hero, who later used them to exercise his power.
Supported by his siblings and Cronus’ brothers, Zeus fought his father and the other Titans in a great battle called the Titanomachy. Emerging victorious, he sent the defeated gods into Tartarus, and he cast lots with his brothers to divide up rule of the world. Hades received the underworld, Poseidon got the sea, and Zeus took the sky. Together, all three brothers had some control over the Earth.
One of the purposes of ancient myths was to explain the world and how things came into being, as well as to establish rulers of certain elements, phenomena or areas. The Greeks, therefore, found it somewhat natural to portray the king of their gods as more than a little promiscuous, because the stories created more deities with logical authorities. According to legend, his main wife was his own sister, Hera, but he also had affairs with Demeter, Mnemosyne, Dione and many others, including nymphs. Some of those with whom he had trysts were mortals, so his unions produced a number of demi-gods as well as full deities.
To make many of his conquests work, he frequently took different forms. Most notable of these is the bull, but he also appeared as other creatures, such as a swan. In some instances, he impersonated other men.
Considering his many lovers, Zeus produced plenty of children. He is believed to be the father of Aphrodite, who was the daughter of Dione. The famous bard, Homer, reinforced this story in his epic, The Iliad. Through his affair with Demeter, he sired the goddess Persephone, and with Hera, he had Ares, Hephaestus and Hebe. Furthermore, his relationship with Mnemosyne brought the Muses into the world. Most schools of mythology also say he is the father of Minos, Athena, Artemis, Dinoysus, Heracles, Apollo, Hermes, Perseus and Helen.
Even though the ancient Greeks were a highly sophisticated society for their time, logistical problems with travel meant that communications were rather slow, and that, over time, different areas developed slightly different versions of very similar myths. As a result, several deities or interpretations of Zeus can be seen as representing a single god, with names based on both the area of worship and his associations. Some experts divide these broadly into four versions, including the national Hellenic, Dodonaean, Arcadian and Cretan Zeus.
Parallels for this god also existed in other cultures. In the Roman tradition, for example, he was Jupiter. People have also compared him to the Etruscan Tinia, Egyptian Ammon and Hindu Indra. The exact roles might vary slightly from society to society, but the idea of a supreme deity, particularly one that ruled over Heaven or the sky, remains consistent.
Worship and the Olympic Games
In order to pray and pay homage to Zeus, Greeks would travel to his temple at Mount Olympia. They held a festival there every four years, and part of the celebration was athletic games. Although these early competitions held much more political weight then than they do today, the tradition lead to the contemporary Olympic Games.