ANCIENT GREEK CULTURE
Initially Zeus was the god of weather phenomena. He lit up the heavens, [nephelegeretis] moved the clouds, caused rain and snow, and hurled his thunder and thunderbolts. Later in time, because the Greek tribes lived mostly by cultivation of the soil, they gave him additional attributes associated directly with their lives, and from the god of the heavens and weather phenomena who determined the rainfall, frost, and the number of sunny days in the year, he became even more influential and soon was the foremost of the gods in the pantheon. Homer was the first to give him the attributes for which he was always to be known, and Hesiod was the second author to do so. Zeus became father of gods and men and all things depend upon him. The epithets given to him by the poets and his votaries are countless and number more than 150 and are typical of his many attributes. Zeus Xenios, Horkios, Nepheligeretis, Eunous, Iketes, Saviour, Father, Lyceios, and Olympios give the clues to the range of some of his responsibilities which are without number and are of a natural and ethical nature. One can thus say that his power had as foundation the dual supremacy of power and of wisdom. He was supreme among the gods, second to none, and limited in his universal power only by the mysterious dictates of Fate. Zeus was worshipped throughout the entire length and breadth of Greece and he had sanctuaries and temples in all large cities. The oldest of these perhaps is the sanctuary of Dodona where was the famous oracle. A second old temple was situated at Olympia. In the latter especially his worship was preceded by devotions to the first dynasty of the gods. Zeus is represented in ancient art as a powerful and robust man with thick flowing hair and beard, holding in his hand the sceptre on which perches an eagle. In other representations he is seen carrying on his shoulders or over his knees the Aegis the hide of the goat Amaltheia, and grasps in his hand the thunderbolts. In conclusion, it should be pointed out that Greek anthropomorphism succeeded in creating in the image of the greatest of all Olympian deities the ideal form of a supremely noble and ethically beautiful figure that unites all the Greek ideals of what the perfect divinity should be like. For in his figure are combined kindness, ethical superiority, wisdom, reason, and the feeling for justice and harmony existing in the relationships between gods and men. Zeus as father of gods and men was not in the centuries that followed an enemy of mankind as he first appeared before he was idealized by the Greeks [p. 44] [Prometheus]. On the contrary, he loved the human race, looked after its affairs, and protected it from a thousand evils that beset it. This he attained by the laws of justice which he had imposed upon all alike. [pp. 42-45]
[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication. pp. 7-11]
'Hail, O Zeus, most glorious of the immortals, named by many names, forever all-powerful, leader of nature, you who govern the universe with laws; for it is proper that all mortals should call upon you. For from you we are born; of all mortal things that live and move upon the earth the only ones created in the god's image. So I will praise you, and always sing of your power . . . . ' [Cleanthes, Hymn to Zeus [p. 115]
Zeus, the 'All-Seeing' and 'All-High', lord of air and sky, is the personification of the principle of order and consciousness that illuminates all. His very name comes from the Indo-European root dyu, 'to shine'. But before he can establish his kingdom of light and luminous justice, he has to face two terrible ordeals. He has to overcome his devouring father, Cronos, and he has to defeat the Titans, the huge, monstrous representatives of the great Earth Mother, Gaia. The character of Zeus as the politician among the gods is immediately established by the means he uses to gain supremacy. Against the brute force of the Titans he deploys an uncanny instinct for strategy and or consolidating his power by key alliances with the older divinities. He frees the Cyclopes and the Hundred-armed Giants from the dungeon in the bowels of the earth where they were kept imprisoned, feeds them nectar and ambrosia and, having restored their fighting spirit, Hesiod tells us, he chooses the moment to address them: 'You fine sons of Earth and Sky, listen while I tell you what is in my mind. For a long time now there has been warfare every day between the Titan generation of gods and the children of Cronos to decide which shall be the victors and have the supreme power. Your duty is to employ the great strength of your invincible arms in the stress of battle on our side against the Titans; remember that we have been your good friends, and that you are indebted to our action for your release from the agony of imprisonment and for your return from the dark underworld to the light of day.
Since he carries, after all, the archetypal essence of the political strategist, both his timing and the words he chooses are impeccable and bring forth the precise response he intends: 'Son of Cronos, you are our master . . . we will join the bloody battle against the Titans and strengthen your side with [p. 115] unflagging energy and loyal hearts.' The new allies did not just bring Zeus unflagging energy and loyal hearts: they brought him the thunder and the lightning-bolts, the gifts from the Cyclopes that determined the battle.
Once victorious, Zeus establishes the new cosmic order--an order based not on brute strength but on intellectual supremacy, and, above all, on alliances and matings both sacred and political. He allies himself with the depths, from which the Cyclopes bring him the lightning-bolts, instruments and emblems of his power; he mates with Themis, the old goddess of law, and brings forth Good Order, Justice and Peace; with Eurynome and produces the three Graces; with Mnemosyne and produces the nine Muses; with Leto and produces Artemis and Apollo.
His essence, in its most positive aspect, is creative proliferation, the light of consciousness that impregnates the latent powers of law, wisdom and beauty and actualizes them. Even the older powers that he defeats are not actually destroyed. Cronos is sent to rule over the 'Island of the Blessed' and the Titans are sent to Tartarus; the 'island of the Blessed' may be 'at the end of the world' and Tartarus 'as far below the ground as the ground is below the sky', but they are still within the world over which Zeus rules. The new consciousness is secure enough to include the depths; in fact it is secure only so long as it rules over them but does not deny their existence. When the one god forgets the other gods, cries out Prometheus in Aeschylus' Prometheus Bound, he will die. He will die because he will have negated the powers that feed and strengthen the supremacy of consciousness that he represents.
Theos [god] was used almost interchangeably with Zeus by the Greeks. In his essential ability to integrate all powers in him, Zeus comes closest to the monotheistic ideal--the one in whom the many are reconciled, the higher single principle in which the tensions of opposites is resolved. When participants in the Orphic mysteries went on to exalt the supreme god that permeates all, they called him Zeus: 'Zeus is the first, Zeus is the last, the god with the dazzling lightning. Zeus is the head, Zeus is the middle, of Zeus all things have their end. Zeus is the foundation of the earth and of the starry sky. Zeus is male. Zeus is an immortal woman. Zeus is the breath of all things. Zeus is the sun and the moon. Zeus is the King. Zeus is the beginner of all things, the god with the dazzling lightning. For he has hidden all things within himself, and brought them forth again, into the joyful light, from his sacred heart, working marvels.'
Orpheus and his followers worshipped Zeus as 'the breath of all things'; the people sacrificed to him as 'the helper of men', 'the warder-off of evil', 'the god that dispenses all good things', 'the god of the suppliant, the healer [p. 116] of guilt'; Hesiod praised him as the guardian of law and morals; the Stoics identified him with the principles of reason and fire that animates the universe; Aeschylus celebrated him as the god of gods, just and omnipotent. But the aspect of Zeus that has fascinated poets through the ages is Zeus the lover. He mated with goddesses and nymphs, princesses and mortal women; he changed into a bull to ravish Europa as she was picking flowers by the seashore; into a shower of gold to penetrate Dana╬; into a swan to couple with Leda; into an eagle to catch Asteria who had turned herself into a quail; into Amphitryon to make love to his wife Alcmena.
Ageless, lusty, he twists into bull, ram, serpent,
Swan, gold rain; a hundred wily disguises
To catch girl, nymph or goddess; begets tall heroes,
Monsters, deities, gets Troy's fall and the long history
Of many a wandering after, petilence, death in exile,
Founding of hearths and cities. All that scribe or sculptor
Chronicle is no more than fruit of his hot embraces
With how many surprised recumbent breasts and haunches.
Look, they say, from his play is law begotten,
Peace between tribe and tribe, converse of merchants.
Trust, the squared stone, the ordered grave procession.
Maybe it is so.
All he knew was the law that stiffened his member
Seeing a girl's soft hair curled down on his shoulders.
A tale more likely.
[Graham Hough] [p. 120]
A sudden blow: the great wings beating still
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.
How can those terrified vague fingers push
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?
And how can body, laid in that white rush,
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?
A shudder in the loins engenders there
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.
Only one woman, Semele, the daughter of the founder of Thebes, begged her lover to reveal himself in his full splendour and majesty. Reluctantly he did, and the fire of his divine radiance destroyed her. In a poem by the nineteenth-c. English poet Conventry Patmore, Semele dies fulfilled: at least she has had a clear vision of the divine. In the myth, just before she dies, Zeus snatches from her womb the child she is bearing, sews it into his thigh and gives birth himself to the god Dionysos.
It is in the nature of myth that it can be experienced and understood on many different levels, but the stories of Zeus the lover are so imaginative, so rich, so colorful, at the first, most accessible level, that we can easily get lost in their poetry and sensuality. And the sexual imagery is so vivid and compelling that we can, just as easily, succumb to the temptation of analyzing them, as many have done, in terms of Zeus' promiscuity, his flagrant display of sexual potency or his underlying sexual insecurity.
When we turn again to Zeus' essence as the light of consciousness, we see in his sexual couplings with earthly women a beautiful metaphor for the impregnation of matter by spirit. The divine descends on earth and the result is always a new birth. Zeus' love-making is never sterile, and the fruit of the divine and human embrace is invariably a higher order of being--a god or a hero. There may be pain in the process, but then there seldom is birth of consciousness without pain.
It is Zeus' marriage to Hera, the marriage on Olympos, that is, in fact, the least fruitful of his unions. Hera is his sister as well as his wife, and so doubly his equal and in no need of his fertilizing energy, either for offspring [Hephaistos, Typhon and Ares are all Hera's fatherless sons] or for consciousness.
In one of the most beautiful and powerful passages in the Iliad, in a striking reversal of the pattern associated with Zeus, it is Hera who initiates their love-making and seduces him on the highest peak of Mt. Ida as he is busily watching the progress of events on the battlefield of Troy. 'So speaking, the son of Cronos caught his wife in his arms. There underneath them the divine earth broke into young, fresh grass, and into dewy clover, crocus and hyacinth so thick and soft it held the hard ground deep away from them. There they lay down together and drew about them a golden wonderful cloud, and from it the glimmering dew descended.'
Hera in her positive aspect embodies the instinct for the deep mutuality of the 'sacred marriage'. She does not need Zeus to complete herself. What she needs is to be 'fully met, matched, mated', sexually, intellectually, spiritually. In Zeus' refusal to be deeply, sacredly, married to her we begin to [p. 12 9] see the dark tones behind Zeus' brilliant figure.
The god who embodies the forces of expansion and growth seems incapable of the inner growth and expansion which come from the deep connection that marriage signifies in its real rather than its social sense. And this rigidity and aloofness spill over from the personal domain to the social and political one, in his aspect as the 'angry, retributive god' who metes out the harshest punishments for human transgressions, especially the transgressions of men guilty of hubris--the pride of attempting to overstep the measure of humanity. Bellerophon, who with the help of Athena and the winged horse Pegasus has defeated the Amazons, is hurled down by Zeus' thunderbolt when he tries to mount still higher on his flying horse and gain the luminous heights of heaven; Phaethon, Apollos' son, who takes the fiery chariot of the sun across the heavens, is hurled into the vast abyss by Zeus, despite Apollo's plea for his son's life; and Prometheus, who stole the divine fire from Olympos, is chained naked to a rock by Zeus, who sends a hungry vulture day after day, year after year, to tear at his liver.
The divine Zeus, who in his glory is the god who appears as light and brings light and consciousness to the humans, becomes in his darkness an enemy of the life-force, locked in his structures and laws, fearing and resisting change and any threat to the status quo. The planet Jupiter displays the same essential ambivalence. Traditionally known as the planet of expansion and wisdom, it can also act on the personality as dogmatism, stagnation and blind adherence to old habits and conventions. The force that expands and creates becomes the power that binds and restricts. [p. 131]
Roman statue of Castor, the son of Zeus and Leda, one of his mortal lovers. Zeus' love-making was never sterile and the fruit of the divine and human embrace was invariably a higher order of being--a god or a hero. Castor and his brother Polydeuces, 'the heavenly twins', were Argonauts and the special patrons of sailors. [p. 131]
Zeus and Ganymede 500-475 BC. Ganymede, Homer tells us, was the most beautiful of mortal men. Zeus carried him off to Olympos to be his cupbearer. Michelangelo, Corregio, Rubens and Rembrandt painted him; Marlow and Tennyson immortalized him as Zeus' youthful lover; Xenophona and the allegorizers of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance extolled his intellect and his unsullied soul that made him the god's beloved. [p. 131]
Fallen column drums from Zeus' temple at Olympia. 'Stone, steel, dominions pass, Faith too, no wonder . . . . ═ [A. E. Housman] [p. 129][Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]
'The sun, the child of Hyperion, was descending into the golden bowl to cross the Ocean and reach the depths of the holy dark night . . . . ' [Stesichorus] [p. 129]
Zeus' temple in Athens, 6th c. BC - 2nd c. AD. 'It is the only temple on earth of a size adequate to the greatness of the god.' [Livy] [p. 129]
'Rugged Olympos', the home of the gods. 'Father . . . do not stop ascending in front of us, but climb always with slow even wings the heavens of our thought, eternal Daedalus, Dawnstar of the Beyond.' [Angelos Sikelianos] [p. 120]
The theatre at Dondona, c. 300 BC. The oracle of Zeus at Dondona was the oldest in Greece, and it is to the Zeus at Dodona that Achilles prays in the Iliad: 'High Zeus, lord of Dodona, Pelasgian, living afar off, brooding over wintry Dodona, your prophets about you living . . . . Hear me.' [p. 134]
'Now I am also a thing of the world in your hands, the tiniest under this sky . . . .
What a wonderful building,
moving inside itself, held up by
'The portion of Zeus is the broad heaven, in brightness and in cloud alike.' [Homer, Iliad] [p. 118]
[Stassinopoulos, Arianna and Roloff Beny. The Gods of Greece. New York: Abrams. 1983.]
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