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Zeus was called the master of the gods, and "father of men." The title may be more impressive than meritorious; it seemed applicable to the Zeus of the philosophers who regarded him as a supreme god and sculptor of the universe. The notion was not primitive; Zeus was master of men as Agamemnon was the half-imposed, half-elected king of the Achaeans. Within this capacity he was the guarantor of contracts, oaths, the protector of guests that was involved in the human activity unfolding beneath his vigilant gaze.
The mighty deity was thought to be god of the sky and master of the celestial fire, a side of Zeus' personality that the Homeric verses amply portrayed. As "king" of heaven he exercised a sort of providence; but his will was held in check by the immutable laws of fate, and his rule was often limited by these laws and respected. Although inhibited by this restriction, Zeus could govern and follow a policy; his decisions were rarely arbitrary or set forth with passion; they corresponded to hidden intentions, the wisdom of which was ultimately revealed. He was the ultimate dispenser of good and evil to all mortals.
Zeus was the son of Cronus and his sister, Rhea. Also from this relationship had came Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. But a curse had been put on Cronus, who being of a dishonest and violent nature, when he refused to plicate Gaea after he had turned his father off of the thrown. Instead of setting free his brothers, condemned by Uranus never to see the light of day, Cronus kept them shut away in their subterranean prison, which enraged Gaea. Gaea vowed that he would know the very fate that he had put upon his father by being dethroned by his own children. So in order to protect himself from this curse he devoured his offspring as soon as Rhea bore them. The first five he swallowed, but when Zeus was born Rhea decided to save the child. With Gaea's help she found shelter in a Cretan cave where she delivered the infant. Then taking a stone Rhea wrapped it in swaddling clothes and took it back to Cronus, who, without question, seized it and swallowed it. Zeus had been saved, and with the same stroke Cronus sealed his own fate.
The young Zeus grew from infancy in the cave being nursed by the nymphs of Amalthea, and protected by the Curetes, which mean "Young men," who were warriors with spears and shields that performed a war dance around the grotto. This was to drown out the infant's wailing so Cronus would not discover that he had been tricked and devour his son. In this instance, it appears, as frequently happened, the myth grew from a rite: a ritual war dance was practiced in Crete, also in other Hellenized countries, by people imitating the supposed actions of the spirits of the storm in the mountains and sky; such dancing probably gave rise to Rhea's ruse.
While being protected Zeus matured receiving all of his divine powers. When the time came for Gaea's prophecy to be fulfilled Zeus consort was Metis, a daughter of Oceanus, whose name means "Prudence" or more often "Perfidy." She gave him a drug that would make his father vomit up the five children that he had previously devoured and still carried in his body. They all emerged, and with these allies Zeus attacked Cronus and his comrades, the Titans. The war in which they battled each other lasted ten years. Finally, Gaea's oracle promised Zeus victory if he would accept help from the monster that Cronus had imprisoned in Tartarus. Zeus agreed, thus permitting Gaea's wish that Cronus disregarded. Zeus delivered the monsters and was victorious. Accounting for this victory were the weapons that the monsters gave to the young gods that in the future would bear their emblems, which included the thunderbolts that the Cyclopes forged for Zeus. Cronus and the Titans were then confined in the depths of the underworld and took the place of the monsters who became their guards.
Hesiod's Theogony, written shortly after 700 BC, relates the most accepted tradition regarding the birth and childhood of Zeus. But there were others: Arcadia in particular prided itself on having been the cradle of this god. It became easy to deduce the past-Hellenic Zeus was formed by absorbing many local "great gods." For example, in Crete itself Zeus probably replaced a vegetation god, since the Cretans exhibited a "tomb of Zeus," and few but vegetation deities were believed to be subject to periodic deaths and rebirths.
Zeus, the supreme sky-god of the Greeks and a composite figure, was believed to be involved in the daily affairs of people, but was never thought of as a creator deity. As Hesiod notes, the origins of things were related in other myths concerning Uranus, the sky, and Gaea, the earth. The Dorian invasion of Greece around 1200 BC resulted in the superimposition of the Indo-European sky father cult on an indigenous Minoan-Mycenaean tradition in which the earth goddess was predominant, just as in India the Aryans submerged the Hindus valley culture. Even though traces of pre-Greek tradition are seen in Hera being the wife of Zeus, it was he as Nephelogeretes, "the cloud gatherer," who reigned over all things. He was given other names as well that depicted his different aspects and functions; they included Ombrios, "rain god"; Kataibates, "the descender"; Keraunos, "lightening"; Gamelios, "god of marriage"; Teleios, "giver of completeness"; Pater, "father"; and Soter, "savior." Hades, the god of the dead, and Poseidon, the god of the sea, were distinguished from Zeus because their powers were seen as extensions of his in their special realms. They were granted separate mythical forms, yet the writ of the Olympian Zeus, "the wolfish," Lykaios, ran everywhere, and he alone judged the winners and losers.
In a similar tradition established by his father, Cronus, Zeus soon took a divine wife. Hesoid says his first wife was Metis, and from this union Athena was born. His second wife was Themis, the incarnation of law or equality. The first offspring was Horae (the Hours or the Seasons). The Horae were three in number: Eunonia, Dice and Eirene (Order, Justica and Peace), but the Athenians knew them as Thallo, Auxa and Garpo. Their names evoked the principle stages of vegetation: the plant's spouting, growth, and fructification. However, the agricultural aspects of the cults gradually took on social concepts, and the spirits who principally presided over the land were transformed into social concepts pertaining to city life. Then came three daughters known as the Fates or Morae: Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos who determined the destiny of every human being. This destiny was symbolized by a thread, which the first Fate drew up from her distaff, the second Fate wound, and the third Fate cut at the end of the lifespan that it represented was over.
Zeus' third wife, Eurynome, bore him three more daughters, the Graces (Charites): Aglaia, Euphrosyne, and Thalia. Similar to the Horae the Graces were vegetation spirits and spread the joys of nature in the hearts of men. They lived on Olympus, together with the Muses, with whom they loved to sing and dance. Like the Muses they were companions of Athena and presided over her feminine tasks.
After this Zeus was companion with his daughter Demeter from which union Persephone was born. Then he attached to Mnemosyne who bore him nine daughters, the Muses. Leto was his next wife who bore Zeus Artemis and Apollo. Next the god Hermes was born to Maia, daughter of Atlas. Last in line of Zeus' divine wives was Hera, his sister, who bore him a son Ares, the god of war, and two daughters: Hebe, who personified youthfulness, and whose task for a long time was to serve nectar at celestial banquets until she became the wife of Hercules; and Eileithyia, the female spirit presiding over childbirth.
Even after marrying Zeus was not a faithful husband, for he loved many mortals. These included Alcmene, who bore him Hercules, and a daughter Semele with whom Zeus fathered Dionysus. Furious by his abandonment, Hera bore the god Hephaestus by herself without the help of Zeus.
Zeus' Roman counterpart was Jupiter. A.G.H.
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 103-104, 115-116 Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, p. 163
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