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From Manual of Mythology, by Alexander S. Murray; Revised Edition, Philadelphia: David McKay, Publisher, 1895; pp. 52-63.





Black and white photograph of a bust of Zeus, with beard at the Vatican in Rome.

(Vatican, Rome.)


Third and last on the throne of the highest god sat Zeus. The fertile imagination of early times had, as we have seen, placed his abode on Mount Olympus in Thessaly. But a later and more practical age usually conceived him as 53 habiting a region above the sky, where the source of al light was supposed to be. He was god of the broad light of day, as his name implies, and had control of all the phenomena of the heavens, wherefore the sudden changes of weather, the gathering of clouds, and more than all, the burst of a thunder-storm made his presence felt as a supernatural being interested in the affairs of mankind. Hence such titles as “cloud-gatherer,” “god of the murky cloud,” “ thunderer,” and “mighty thunderer,” were those by which he was most frequently invoked. On the other hand, the serenity and boundless extent of the sky over which he ruled, combined with the never-failing recurrence of day, led him to be regarded as an everlasting god: “Zeus who was and is and shall be.” To indicate this feature of his character he was styled Cronides or Cronion, a title which, though apparently derived from his father Cronus, must have assumed at a very early time a special significance; otherwise we should expect to find it applied also to his two brothers, Poseidon (Neptune) and Hades (Pluto).

“He whose all-conscious eyes the world behold,
  The eternal Thunderer sat, enthroned in gold:
  High heaven the footstool of his feet he makes,
  And wide beneath him all Olympus shakes.”


Black and white photograph of a statue of Zeus called Jupiter Verospi, with beard, seated, with cloth draped over hsi lap and over his shoulder, sandals, bare chest, and holding a large staff with an eagled on the top of it at the Vatican in Rome.

(Vatican, Rome.)

The eagle soaring beyond vision seemed to benefit by its approach to Zeus, and came to be looked on as sacred to him. Similarly high mountain peaks derived a sanctity from their nearness to the region of light, and were everywhere in Greece associated with his worship, many of them furnishing titles by which he was locally known — as, for instance, Ætnæus, a title derived from Mount Ætna in Sicily, or Atabyrius, from a mountain in Rhodes. Altars to him and even temples were erected on hill tops, to reach which by long toiling, and then to see the earth spread out small beneath, 54 was perhaps the best preparation for approaching him in a proper spirit. In contrast with this, and as testimony to the saying of Hesiod that Zeus Cronides lived not only in the pure air but also at the roots of the earth and in men, we find the low ground of Dodona in Epirus viewed with peculiar solemnity as a spot where direct communion was to be enjoyed with him. A wind was heard to rustle in the branches of a sacred oak when the god had any communication to make while the task of interpreting it devolved on a priesthood called Selli. A spring rose at the foot of the oak, and sacred pigeons rested among its leaves, the story being that they had first drawn attention to the oracular 55 powers of the tree. It should here be noted that the real importance of this worship of Zeus at Dodona belonged to exceedingly early times, and that in the primitive religion of the Italian, German, and Celtic nations the oak was regarded with similar reverence.

As the highest god, and throughout Greece worshipped as such, he was styled “the father of gods and men,” the ruler and preserver of the world. He was believed to be possessed of every form of power, endued with wisdom, and in his dominion over the human race partial to justice, and with no limit to his goodness and love. Zeus orders the alternation of day and night, the seasons succeed at his command, the winds obey him; now he gathers, now scatters the clouds, and bids the gentle rain fall to fertilize the fields and meadows. He watches over the administration of law and justice in the state, lends majesty to kings, and protects them in the exercise of their sovereignty. He observes attentively the general intercourse and dealings of men — everywhere demanding and rewarding uprightness, truth, faithfulness, and kindness; everywhere punishing wrong, deceit, faithlessness, and cruelty. As the eternal father of men, he was believed to listen kindly to the call of the poorest and most forsaken. The homeless beggar looked to him as a merciful guardian who punished the heartless, and delighted to reward pity and sympathy. The following story will illustrate his interest in human affairs.

Philemon and Baucis, an aged couple of the poorer class, were living peacefully and full of piety towards the gods in their cottage in Phrygia, when Zeus, who, in disguise, often visited the earth to inquire into the behavior of men, paid a visit to these poor old people, and was received by them very kindly as a weary traveller, which he pretended to be. Bidding him welcome to the house, they set about preparing for their guest and his companion, Hermes (Mercury), as excellent a meal as they could afford, and for this purpose 56 were about to kill the only goose they had left, when Zeus interfered; for he was touched by their kindliness and genuine piety, and all the more because he had observed among the other inhabitants of the district nothing but cruelty of disposition and a habit of reproaching and despising the gods. To punish this conduct he determined to visit the country with a destroying flood, but to save from it Philemon and Baucis, the good aged couple, and to reward them in a striking manner. To this end he revealed himself to them before opening the gates of the great flood, transformed their poor cottage on the hill into a splendid temple, installed the aged pair as his priest and priestess, and granted their prayer that they might both die together. When after many years death overtook them they were changed into two trees, that grew side by side in the neighborhood — an oak and a linden.

While in adventures of this kind the highest god of the Greeks appears on the whole in a character worthy of admiration, it will be seen that many other narratives represent him as laboring under human weaknesses and error. The first wife of Zeus was Metis, a daughter of the friendly Titan Oceanus. But as Fate, a dark and omniscient being, had predicted that Metis would bear Zeus a son who should surpass his father in power, Zeus followed in a manner the example of his father Cronus, by swallowing Metis before she was delivered of her child, and then from his own head gave birth to the goddess of wisdom, Pallas Athene (Minerva). Next he married, it is said, but only for a time, Themis, and became the father of Astræa and the Horæ. His chief love was, however, always for Hera (Juno), with her many charms, who after withstanding his entreaties for a time, at length gave way, and the divine marriage took place amid great rejoicing, not on the part of the gods of heaven alone, for those other deities also, to whom the management 57 of the world in various departments was delegated, were invited, and gladly attended the splendid ceremony.

Hera became the mother of Hebe, Ares (Mars), and Hephæstus (Vulcan). Zeus did not, however, remain constant and true to the marriage with his sister, but secretly indulged a passion for other goddesses, and often, under the disguise of various forms and shapes, approached even the daughters of men. Hera gave way to indignation when she found out such doings. From secret intercourse of this kind Demeter (Ceres) bore him Perséphonē (Proserpina); Leto (Latona) became the mother of Apollo and Artemis (Diana); Dionē, the mother of Aphroditē (Venus); Mnemósynē, of the muses; Eurýnomē, of the Charitēs (Graces); Semelē of Dionýsus (Bacchus); Maia of Hermes (Mercury); Alcménē of Héracles (Hercules); several of the demigods of whom we shall hereafter speak were also sons of Zeus by other and different mothers. (See Genealogical Table No. 11.)

These numerous love passages of Zeus (and other gods as well), related by ancient poets, appear to us, as it is known they appeared to the right-thinking men amongst the ancients themselves, unbecoming of the great ruler of the universe. The wonder is how such stories came into existence; unless indeed this be accepted as a satisfactory explanation of their origin, — that they are simply the different versions of one great myth of the marriage of Zeus, peculiar in early times to the different districts of Greece, each version representing him as having but one wife, and being constant to her. Her name and the stories connected with their married life would be more or less different in each case. In after time, when the various tribes of the Greeks became united into one people, and the various myths that had sprung up independently concerning Zeus came, through the influence of poets and by other means, to be known to the whole nation, we may 58 imagine that the only way that presented itself of uniting them all into one consistent narrative was by degrading all the wives, except Hera, to the position of temporary acquaintances. It is, however, unfortunate that we cannot now trace every one of his acquaintances of this sort back to a primitive position of sufficiently great local importance. At the same time, enough is known to justify this principle of interpretation, not only with regard to the apparent improprieties in the conduct of Zeus, but also of the other deities wherever they occur. Properly Zeus could have but one wife, such being the limit of marriage among the Greeks.

Of the several localities in Greece where the worship of Zeus was conducted with unusual ceremony and devotion, the two most deriving of attention are Athens and Olympia. In Athens the change of season acting on the temperament of the people seemed to produce a change in their feelings toward the god. For from early spring and throughout the summer they called him the friendly god (Zeus Meilichius), offered public sacrifices at his altars, and on three occasions held high festival in his honor. But as the approach of winter made itself felt, thoughts of his anger returned, he was called the cruel god (Zeus Mæmactes), and an endeavor was made to propitiate him by a festival called Mæmacteria. At Olympia, in Elis, a festival, which from an early period had assumed national importance, was held in his honor in the month of July (Hecatombæon) every fifth year, that is, after the lapse of four clear years. It lasted at least five and perhaps seven days, commencing with sacrifice at the great altar of Zeus, in which the deputies from the various states, with their splendid retinues, took part. This ceremony over, a series of competitions took place in foot-racing, leaping from a raised platform with weights (halteres) in the hands to give impetus, throwing the disk (a circular plate of metal or stone weighing about 8 lbs.), boxing with leather 59 thongs twisted round the arm and sometimes with metal rings in the hands, horse-racing, chariot-racing with two or four horses, and lastly, a competition of musicians and poets. The lists were open to all free-born Greeks, except such as had been convicted of crime, or such has had entailed in former contests the penalty of a fine and had refused to pay it. Intending competitors were required to give sureties that they had gone through a proper course of training, and that they would abide by the decision of the judges. Slaves and foreigners might look on, but the presence of married women was forbidden. The entire management of the festival was in the hands of a board elected from their own number by the people of Elis. The plain of Olympia, where this national meeting in honor of Zeus was held, is now a waste; but some idea may still be gathered from the description of Pausanias of its magnificent temple and the vast number of statues that studded the sacred grove. Within the temple was a statue of the god, in gold and ivory, the work of Pheidias, the most renowned of ancient sculptors. It was forty feet in height, and for its beauty and grandeur was reckoned one of the Seven Wonders,* of the ancient world.

As some would have it, these games had been established by Zeus himself to commemorate his victory over the Titans, 60 and even the gods in early times are said to have taken part in the contests. The people of Elis maintained that the festivals had been founded by Pelops, while others ascribed that honor to Heracles (Hercules). The usual method of reckoning time was by the interval between these festivals, one Olympiad being equal to four years. The first festival from which the reckoning started, as ours does from the birth of Christ, occurred in the year 776 B. C.

The birth and early life of Zeus, up to the period when, after a long and fierce war around Olympus, he defeated the Titans and established his right to reign in the place of his father Cronus, has already been related. That his own brothers, to whose assistance he had been greatly indebted during the war, might have a share in the management of the world, lots were cast; and to Poseidon (Neptune) fell the control of the sea and rivers, while Hades (Pluto) obtained the government of the world under the earth. Opposition, however, on the part of the kindred of Cronus had not yet ceased, and the new dynasty of gods had to encounter a fresh outbreak of war even more terrible than had been that of the Titans, the enemy being in this case the Giants, a race of beings sprung from the blood of Uranus. The Giants took up their position on the peninsula of Pallene, which is separated from Mount Olympus by a bay. Their king and leader was Porphyrion, their most powerful combatant Alcinous, against whom Zeus and Athene took up arms in vain. Their mother Earth had made the Giants proof against all the weapons of the gods — not, however, against the weapons of mortals; and, knowing this, Athene brought Heracles (Hercules) on the scene. Sun and moon ceased to shine at the command of Zeus, and the herb was cut down which had furnished the Giants with a charm against wounds. The huge Alcinous, who had hurled great rocks at the Olympians, fell by the arrows of Heracles; and Porphyrion, while 61 in the act of seizing Hera, was overpowered. Of the others, Pallas and Enceladus were slain by Athene, the boisterous Polybotes fled, but on reaching the island of Cos was overtaken by a rock hurled at him by Poseidon (Neptune), and buried under it, while Ephialtes had to yield to Apollo, Rhœtus to Dionysus and Clytius to Hecate or Hephæstus (Vulcan). To the popular mind this war with the Giants had a greater interest than that with the Titans. Ultimately the two were confounded.

These wars over, there succeeded a period which was called the Silver Age on earth. Then, as in the Golden Age under the rule of Cronus, men were rich and lived in plenty; but still they lacked the innocence and contentment which were the true sources of human happiness in the former age; and, accordingly, while living in luxury and delicacy, they became overbearing in their manners to the highest degree, were never satisfied, and forgot the gods, to whom, in their confidence of prosperity and comfort, they denied the reverence that was due. To punish them, and as a warning against such habits, Zeus swept them away and concealed them under the earth, where they continued to live as dæmons or spirits, not so powerful as the spirits of the men of the Golden Age, but yet respected by those who came after them.

Then followed the Bronze Age, a period of constant quarrelling and deeds of violence. Instead of cultivated lands and a life of peaceful occupations and orderly habits, there came a day when everywhere might was right; and men, big and powerful as they were, became physically worn out, and sank into the lower world without leaving a trace of their having existed, and without a claim to a future spiritual life.

Finally came the Iron Age, in which enfeebled mankind had to toil for bread with their hands, and, bent on gain, did their best to overreach each other. Dikē or Astræa, the 62 goddess of justice and good faith, modesty and truth, turned her back on such scenes, and retired to Olympus, while Zeus determined to destroy the human race by a great flood. The whole of Greece lay under water, and none but Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were saved. Leaving the summit of Parnassus, where they had escaped the flood, they were commanded by the gods to become the founders of a new race of men — that is, the present race. To this end, it is said, they cast around them, as they advanced, stones, which presently assumed the forms of men, who, when the flood had quite disappeared, began to cultivate the land again and spread themselves in all directions; but being little better than the race that had been destroyed, they, too, often drew down the displeasure of Zeus and suffered at his hands.

Among the Romans, Jupiter held a place of honor, corresponding in some degree to that held by Zeus among the Greeks. His favorite title was Optimus Maxumus. His name has the same derivation as that of Zeus, and indicates his function as god of the broad light of day, armed with the weapon of lightning. Temples and altars were erected for the purpose of his worship, statues were raised, and public festivals held in his honor. As to sacrifice, both he and Zeus delighted most in bulls. To both gods the eagle, the oak, and the olive were sacred.

The growth of religious feeling precedes the development of artistic faculty in man, and accordingly we find that in the earliest ages the presence of a god was symbolized only by some natural object. In the case of Zeus this was an oak-tree, while in the case of Rhea-Cybele it was, as we have seen, a stone which was believed to have fallen from heaven. The first artistic efforts to reproduce the image of a god were called xoana, and consisted of a pillar rudely shaped like a human figure seen at a distance, the artist’s attention being mostly directed to the head. Of this kind was the figure of Zeus Labrandeus as represented on the coins of Caria, the figure of Zeus with three eyes at Argos, and figure of him without ears at Crete. Piety caused these rude and strange images to be 63 retained till long after the art of sculpture had become equal to the production of imposing figures. The gold and ivory statue of Zeus at Olympia, of which mention has already been made, represented him seated on his throne, and some small idea may still be gained of it from what is no doubt a copy of it on the coins of Elis. The bust of Plate I., known as the Zeus of Otricoli, is perhaps the best existing example of the face of Zeus as conceived by the Greek sculptors. The attributes of Zeus are the eagle, a sceptre, a thunderbolt, and, in the case of an ancient image in Caria, an axe. He is represented sometimes with Hera by his side, sometimes with Athene, or with both, or with Athene and Heracles. When he leaves his throne it is generally to rise in might against an enemy such as the Giants, and in these cases he is always armed with the thunderbolt, and either stands in the act of hurling it, or drives in a chariot attended by other gods, as he is frequently to be seen on the ancient painted vases. Another favorite subject on these vases is the birth of Athene from the head of Zeus. In works of art no distinction is made between Zeus and Jupiter, for this reason, that Rome had not distinctive sculpture of its own. Fig. 2 represents the infancy of Zeus in Crete.

[REF. — Hesiod: Works and Days. Mueller: Ueber den Zeus Lykaios. Lewis Morris: The Epic of Hades. W. E. Gladstone: “The Olympian Gods,” in North Am. Rev., April, 1892.]



*  These seven wonders of the ancient world were — (1) The Pyramids of Egypt; (2) The Walls of Babylon: (3) The Hanging Gardens of Babylon; (4) The Temple of Diana at Ephesus; (5) The Statue of Zeus at Olympia; (6) The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus; (7) The Colossus at Rhodes: all monuments of art of extraordinary beauty or stupendous dimensions. In statues of gold and ivory, such as that of Zeus at Olympia, and many others, the face and nude parts of the body were made of ivory, while the hair and drapery were reproduced in gold, richly worked in parts with enamel. We obtain an idea of the expense of such splendid statues from the statement that a single lock of the hair of Zeus at Olympia cost over $1000 of our money.

[For an account of the Seven Wonders of the world known in England in the 8th century A. D., see Bede’s Account HERE.

[Curiously, Murray never mentions the name Jove, nor does the entry mention of Jupiter or of Zeus mention Jove in the massive Harper’s Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities; New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers; 1897; pp. 899-900. In it, IUPITER or IUPPITER is the entry. The entry under JOVE only refers the reader to this entry. In the long article on Jupiter, all that is said with any hint of the form Jove (or Iove) is in one sentence: . . . “In concluding a treaty the Roman took the sacred symbols of Iupiter — i.e. the sceptre and flint stone — together with some grass from his temple, And the oath taken on such an occasion is expressed by per Iovem Lapidem jurare. . . . ” [Swear by the Stone of Jove]

Of course, Jove is a name used for him frequently, in the translations of that period — as well as the favorite form in later non-classical literature, “By Jove!” for example, was a favorite expression in modern English literature as late as the 19th and 20th centuries. — Elf.Ed.]

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