Myths and Legends: Zeus, supreme god of the ancient Greeks

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Greek mythology evolved thousands of years ago. There was a need to explain natural events, disasters and events in history. Myths were created about gods and goddesses that had supernatural powers, human traits and human emotions.

The God Of The Sky

For the ancient Greeks, Zeus is the supreme god of the universe, the ruler of heaven and Earth. He is the god of the sky, the personification of the laws of nature, the lord of the state, and the father of gods and men.

As the god of the sky, he can produce storms, showers and darkness. At his command, the mighty thunder rolls, the lightning flashes, and the clouds open and pour rain upon the Earth.

As the personification of the laws of nature, he represents the harmonious order of the world. Therefore he is the god of regulated time, as marked by the changing seasons and the cycle of day and night.

Keeping Watch Over All

As the lord of the state, he is the founder of kingly power and the defender of all state institutions. He is the special friend of princes, whom he guards and assists with his advice. He protects the people and watches over the whole community.

As the father of the gods, Zeus ensures that each god performs his or her individual duties. He punishes their mistakes and settles their disputes. For each of them, he acts as a counselor and mighty friend.

As the father of men, he takes a protective interest in the actions and well-being of mortals. He watches over them with care. He rewards truth, charity and uprightness, and punishes lying, meanness, and lack of hospitality. Even the poorest wanderer finds him to be a powerful supporter, for Zeus orders that the mighty people of the Earth should help the needy.

View From Mount Olympus

The Greeks believed that the home of their all-powerful god was on the top of Mount Olympus, the highest mountain in Greece. Its cloudy summit was hidden from mortal view. Zeus lived there with his wife Hera in a palace made of gold, silver and ivory.

The worship of Zeus was central to the religion of the Greeks. As a result, his statues were both numerous and magnificent. He is usually represented as a grand and noble man, his face expressing all the majesty of the supreme ruler of the universe. He can be recognized by his thick masses of hair and rich flowing beard.

He is always accompanied by an eagle, which balances on his staff or sits at his feet. In one hand Zeus usually carries a bundle of thunderbolts, ready to be thrown. He frequently wears a wreath of oak leaves on his head.

Journeys On Earth

Zeus was first worshipped at Dodona in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece. This famous oracle sat at the foot of Mount Tomarus. Here, the voice of the invisible god was supposed to be heard in the rustling leaves of a giant oak tree. Through the oracle, Zeus announced to mankind the will of heaven. Later, Zeus was worshipped at Olympia in Elis, where there was a magnificent temple dedicated to him.

The Greeks believed that Zeus sometimes took on a human form and visited Earth. He descended from heaven to punish the guilty and reward the good.

On one occasion Zeus descended and made a journey through Phrygia, in present-day Turkey. He did not receive a kind welcome until he reached the humble home of an old man and his wife. The couple entertained him with great kindness and gave him what little food they had. To reward them for their generosity, Zeus asked the pair to name any wish they desired. The old couple begged that they might serve the gods and end life together. After living out the rest of their lives in worship, they were transformed by Zeus into trees, to remain forever side by side.

One another occasion, Zeus made a journey through Arcadia, a region in Greece. The people of Arcadia recognized him as the king of heaven and honored him with great respect. But Lycaon, their king, doubted the divinity of Zeus. He ridiculed his people and vowed to kill the supreme god. Before Lycaon could execute his wicked plan, however, Zeus turned the Arcadian king into a wolf.

Goddesses In Control

The Roman god Jupiter is frequently confused with the Greek Zeus. Both are the head of the Olympic gods. Jupiter is the lord of life and has total power over life and death. In this way, he differs from Zeus, who was somewhat controlled by the sway of the Fates.

The Fates were three goddesses who controlled the destinies of gods and men. Zeus often descends to Earth to visit mankind, taking on various disguises. Jupiter, however, always remains essentially the supreme god of heaven, and never appears upon the Earth.

From "The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.M. Berens.