1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Zeus

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ZEUS, the Greek counterpart of the Roman god, Jupiter (q.v.). In the recorded periods of Hellenic history, Zeus was accepted as the chief god of the pantheon of the Greeks; and the religious progress of the people from lower to higher ideas can be well illustrated by the study of his ritual and personality. His name is formed from a root div, meaning “bright,” which appears in other Aryan languages as a formative part of divine names, such as the Sanskrit Dyâus, “sky”; Latin Diovis, Jovis, Diespiter, divus; Old English Tiw; Norse Tyr. The conclusion that has been frequently drawn from these facts, that all the Indo-Germanic stocks before their dispersal worshipped a personal High God, the Sky-Father, has been now seen to be hazardous.[1] Nevertheless, it remains probable that Zeus had already been conceived as a personal and pre-eminent god by the ancestors of the leading Hellenic tribes before they entered the peninsula which became their historic home. In the first place, his pre-eminence is obviously pre-Homeric; for Homer was no preacher or innovator in religion, but gives us some at least of the primary facts of the contemporary religious beliefs prevailing about 1000 B.C.: and he attests for us the supremacy of Zeus as a belief which was unquestioned by the average Hellene of the time; and appreciating how slow was the process of religious change in the earlier period, we shall believe that the god had won this position long before the Homeric age. In the next place, we cannot trace the origin of his worship back to any special stock or particular locality; we cannot find a single community that did not possess his worship or that preserved any legend that suggests a late date for its introduction.

Doubtless, it has very ancient and close associations with Thessaly; for most of the leading tribes must have entered Hellas by this route, and remembered the mountain Olympus that dominates this region as the earliest home of his cult, and took with them to their most distant settlements the cult-title Ὀλύμπιος. Also, some of the prehistoric stocks in Thessaly, like the Achaean Aeacidae, may have regarded him as specially their ancestor. But to maintain therefore that he originated in Thessaly as the special deity of a single tribe, who were able to impose him upon the whole of Hellas, is against the analogies offered by the study of the special cults of Greek polytheism. But if we assume that he was the aboriginal Hellenic High God, we must be quite ready to admit that the separate communities were always liable to cherish other divinities with a more ardent and closer devotion, whether divinities that they brought with them or divinities that they found powerfully established in the conquered lands, Athena or Hera, for instance, in Attica or Argolis, or Poseidon in the Minyan settlements. This in fact is a frequent fate of a “High God” in polytheistic systems; he is vaguely praised and reverenced, but lower divine powers are nearer to the people's love or fear.

The Cretan legend of his birth and origin, which gave rise to the Cretan cult of Zeus Κρηταγενής,[2] “Zeus born in Crete,” may appear evidence against the theory just set forth. But it is not likely that any birth-legend belongs to the earliest stratum of the Zeus-religion. The Aryan Hellenes found in many of the conquered lands the predominant cult of a mother-goddess, to whom they gradually had to affiliate their own High God: and in Crete they found her cult associated with the figure of a male divinity who was believed to be born and to die at certain periods; probably he was an early form of Dionysus, but owing to his prominence in the island the Hellenic settlers may have called him Zeus; and this would explain the markedly Dionysiac character of the later Zeus-religion in Crete.

We can now consider the question how the god was imagined in the popular belief of the earliest and later periods. Homer is our earliest literary witness; and the portrait that he presents of Zeus is too well known to need minute description. To appreciate it, we must distinguish the lower mythologic aspect of him, in which he appears as an amorous and capricious deity lacking often in dignity and real power, and the higher religious aspect, in which he is conceived as the All-Father, the Father of Gods and men in a spiritual or moral sense, as a God omnipotent in heaven and earth, the sea and the realms below, as a God of righteousness and justice and mercy, who regards the sanctity of the oath and hears the voice of the suppliant and sinner, and in whom the pious and the lowly trust. In fact the later Greek religion did not advance much above the high-water mark of the Homeric, although the poets and philosophers deepened certain of its nobler traits. But Homer we now know to be a relatively late witness in this matter. How much of his sketch is really primitive, and what can we learn or guess concerning the millennium that preceded him? His God is pronouncedly individual and personal, and probably Zeus had reached this stage of character at the dawn of Hellenic history. Yet traces of a pre-deistic and animistic period survived here and there; for instance, in Arcadia we find the thunder itself called Zeus (Ζεὺς Κεραυνóς) in a Mantinean inscription,[3] and the stone near Gythium in Laconia on which Orestes sat and was cured of his madness, evidently a thunder-stone, was named itself Ζεὺς Καππώτας, which must be interpreted as “Zeus that fell from heaven”;[4] we here observe that the personal God does not yet seem to have emerged from the divine thing or divine phenomenon. Yet the Arcadians, like the other Greeks, had probably long before Homer risen above this stage of thought; for Greek religion was so strongly conservative that it preserved side by side the deposits of different ages of thought sundered perhaps by thousands of years.

Again the Homeric Zeus is fully anthropomorphic; but in many domains of Greek religion we discover the traces of theriomorphism, when the deity was regarded as often incarnate in the form of an animal or the animal might itself be worshipped in its own right. We seem to find it latent in the Arcadian worship of Zeus Λυκαῖος and the legend of King Lycaon. The latter offers a cannibal-meal to the disguised God, who turns him into a wolf for his sins; and the later Arcadian ritual in honour of this God betrays a hint of lycanthropy; some one who partook of the sacrifice or who swam across a certain lake was supposed to be transformed into a wolf for a certain time.[5] Robertson Smith[6] was the first to propose that we have here the traces of an ancient totemistic sacrifice of a wolf-clan, who offered the “theanthropic” animal “the man-wolf” to the wolf-God. The totemistic theory in its application to Greek religion cannot be here discussed; but we may note that there is no hint in the story that the wolf was offered to Zeus and that the name Λυκαῖος could not originally have designated the “wolf”-God: for from the stem λυκο- we should get the adjective λυκειος, not λυκαιος; the latter is better derived from a word such as λυκη = “light,” and may allude to the God of the clear sky; in fact the wolf, which was a necessary animal in the ritual and legend of Apollo Λύκειος, may have strayed casually into association with Zeus Λυκαῖος, attracted by a false etymology. Another ritual, fascinating for the glimpse it affords of very old-world thought, is that of the Diipolia, the yearly sacrifice to Zeus Polieus on the Acropolis at Athens.[7] In this an ox was slaughtered with ceremonies unique in Greece; the priest who slew him fled and remained in exile for a period, and the axe that was used was tried, condemned and flung into the sea; the hide of the slain ox was stuffed with hay, and this effigy of the ox was yoked to the plough and feigned to be alive. Again Robertson Smith saw here the “theanthropic” animal, the Ox-God-man, eaten sacramentally by an ox-tribe, and so sacred that his death is a murder that must be atoned for in other ways and by a feigned resurrection. We recognize indeed the sacramental meal and the sanctity of the ox; but the animal may have acquired this sanctity temporarily through contact with the altar; we need not suppose an ox-clan—the priest was merely βούτης “the herdsman”—nor assume the permanent sanctity of the ox, nor the belief that the deity was permanently incarnate in the ox: the main parts of the ceremony can be explained as cattle-magic intended to appease the rest of the oxen or to prevent them suffering sympathetically through the death of one. We may indeed with Mr Andrew Lang explain the many myths of the bestial transformations of Zeus on the theory that the God was the tribal ancestor and assumed the shape of the animal-totem in order to engender the tribal patriarch;[8] but on the actual cults of Zeus theriomorphism has left less trace than on those of many other Hellenic deities. The animal offered to him may become temporarily sacred; and its skin would have magic properties: this explains his use of the aegis, the goatskin, as a battle-charm; but of a Goat-Zeus, a Ram-Zeus, or a Wolf-Zeus, there is no real trace.

The peculiar characteristic of his earliest ritual was the human sacrifice; besides the legend of King Lycaon, we find it in the story of the house of Athamas and in the worship of Zeus Λαφύστιος of Thessaly,[9] and other examples are recorded. The cruel rite had ceased in the Arcadian worship before Pliny wrote, but seems to have continued in Cyprus till the reign of Hadrian. It was found in the worship of many other divinities of Hellas in early times, and no single explanation can be given that would apply to them all. A hypothesis favoured by Dr Frazer, that the victim is usually a divine man, a priest-king incarnating the God, may be well applied to the Athamantid sacrifice and to that of King Lycaon; for he derives his name from the divinity himself, and according to one version[10] he offers his own child; and the Lycaonid legend presents one almost unique feature, which is only found elsewhere in legendary Dionysiac sacrifice, the human flesh is eaten, and the sacrifice is a cannibalistic-sacrament, of which the old Mexican religion offers conspicuous example. Yet it is in this religion of Zeus that we see most clearly the achievement of progressive morality; Zeus himself punishes and abolishes the savage practice; the story related by Plutarch,[11] how a kid was substituted miraculously for Helen when she was led to the altar to be offered, is a remarkably close parallel to the biblical legend of Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac.

We can now consider the special attributes of the anthropomorphic God. His character and power as a deity of the sky, who ruled the phenomena of the air, so clearly expressed in Homer, explains the greater part of his cult and cult-titles. More personal than Ouranos and Helios—with whom he has only slight associations—he was worshipped and invoked as the deity of the bright day (Ἀμάριος, Λευκαῖος, Λυκαῖος), whosends the rain, the wind and dew (Ὄμβριος, Nάϊος, Υέτιος, Οὔριος, Εὐάνεμος, Ἰκμαῖος), and such a primitive adjective as διϊπετής, applied to things “that fall from heaven,” attests the primeval significance of the name of Zeus. But the thunder was his most striking manifestation, and no doubt he was primevally a thunder-God, Κεραύνιος, Κεραυνοβόλος, Ἀστραπαῖος. These cult-titles had originally the force of magic invocation, and much of his ritual was weather-magic: the priest of Zeus Λυκαῖος, in time of drought, was wont to ascend Mount Lycaeum and dip an oak-bough in a sacred fountain, and by this sympathetic means produce mist.[12] A god of this character would naturally be worshipped on the mountain-tops, and that these were very frequently consecrated to him is shown by the large number of appellatives derived from the names of mountains.[13] But probably in his earliest Hellenic period the power of Zeus in the natural world was not limited to the sky. A deity who sent the fertilizing rains would come to be regarded as a god of vegetation, who descended into the earth, and whose power worked in the life that wells forth from the earth in plant and tree. Also the close special association of the European Thunder-God and the oak-tree has recently been exposed.[14] Homer calls the God of the lower world Ζεὺς Καταχθόνιος,[15] and the title of Zeus Χθόνιος which was known to Hesiod, occurred in the worship of Corinth;[16] and there is reason to believe that Eubouleus of Eleusis and Trophonius of Lebadeia are faded forms of the nether Zeus; in the Phrygian religion of Zeus, which no doubt contains primitive Aryan elements, we find the Thunder-God associated also with the nether powers.[17]

A glimpse into a very old stratum of Hellenic religion is afforded us by the records of Dodona. A Dodonean liturgy has been preserved which, though framed in the form of an invocation and a dogma, has the force of a spell-prayer—“Zeus was and is and will be, oh great Zeus: earth gives forth fruits, therefore call on Mother Earth.”[18] Zeus the Sky-God is seen here allied to the Earth-Goddess, of whom his feminine counterpart, Dione, may have been the personal form. And it is at Dodona that his association with the oak is of the closest. His prophet-priests the Selloi “with unwashed feet, couching on the ground,”[19] lived about the sacred oak, which may be regarded[20] as the primeval shrine of the Aryan God, and interpreted its oracular voice, which spoke in the rustling of its leaves or the cooing of its doves. Achilles hails the Dodonean God as Πελασγικέ, either in the sense of “Thessalian” or “primitive”;[21] and Zeus, we may believe, long remained at Dodona such as he was when the Hellenic tribes first brought him down from the Balkans, a high God supreme in heaven and in earth.

We may also believe that in the earliest stages of worship he had already acquired a moral and a social character. The Homeric view of him as the All-Father is a high spiritual concept, but one of which many savage religions of our own time are capable. The family, the tribe, the city, the simpler and more complex organisms of the Hellenic polity, were specially under his care and direction. In spite of the popular stories of his amours and infidelities, he is the patron-God of the monogamic marriage, and his union with Hera remained the divine type of human wedlock. “Reverence Zeus, the Father-God”: “all fathers are sacred to Zeus, the Father-God, and all brothers to Zeus the God of the family”: these phrases of Aristophanes and Epictetus[22] express the ideas that engendered his titles Πατρῷος, Γαμήλιος, Τελεῖος, Ὁμόγνιος. In the Eumenides of Aeschylus[23] the Erinyes are reproached in that by aiding Clytemnestra, who slew her husband, “they are dishonouring and bringing to naught the pledges of Zeus and Hera, the marriage-goddess”; and these were the divinities to whom sacrifice was offered before the wedding,[24] and it may be that some kind of mimetic representation of the “Holy Marriage,” the Ἱερὸς γάμος, of Zeus and Hera formed a part of the Attic nuptial ceremonies.[25] The “Holy Marriage” was celebrated in many parts of Greece, and certain details of the ritual suggest that it was of great antiquity; here and there it may have had the significance of vegetation-magic,[26] like the marriage of the Lord and Lady of May; but generally it seems to have been only regarded as a divine counterpart to the human ceremony. Society may have at one time been matrilinear in the communities that become the historic Hellenes; but of this there is no trace in the worship of Zeus and Hera.[27]

In fact, the whole of the family morality in Hellas centred in Zeus, whose altar in the courtyard was the bond of the kinsmen; and sins against the family, such as unnatural vice and the exposure of children, are sometimes spoken of as offences against the High God.[28]

He was also the tutelary deity of the larger organization of the phratria; and the altar of Zeus Φράτριος was the meeting-point of the phrateres, when they were assembled to consider the legitimacy of the new applicants for admission into their circle.[29]

His religion also came to assist the development of certain legal ideas, for instance, the rights of private or family property in land; he guarded the allotments as Ζεὺς Κλάριος,[30] and the Greek commandment “thou shall not remove thy neighbour's landmark” was maintained by Zeus Ὅριος, the god of boundaries, a more personal power than the Latin Jupiter Terminus.[31]

His highest political functions were summed up in the title Πολιεύς, a cult-name of legendary antiquity in Athens, and frequent in the Hellenic world.[32]

His consort in his political life was not Hera, but his daughter Athena Polias. He sat in her judgment court ἐπὶ Παλλαδίῳ where cases of involuntary homicide were tried.[33] With her he shared the chapel in the Council-Hall of Athens dedicated to them under the titles of Βουλαῖος and Βουλαία, “the inspirers of counsel,” by which they were worshipped in many parts of Greece.[34] The political assembly and the law-court were consecrated to Ζεὺς Ἀγοραῖος,[35] and being the eternal source of justice he might be invoked as Δικαιόσυνος “The Just.”[36] As the god who brought the people under one government he might be worshipped as Πάνδημος;[37] as the deity of the whole of Hellas, Ἑλλάνιος,[38] a title that belonged originally to Aegina and to the prehistoric tribe of the Aeacidae, and had once the narrower application to the “Thessalian Hellenes,” but acquired the Pan-Hellenic sense, in fact expanded into the form Πανελλήνιος, perhaps about the time of the Persian wars, when thanksgiving for the victory took the form of dedications and sacrifice to “Zeus the Liberator”—Ἐλευθέριος.[39] Finally, in the formulae adopted for the public oath, where many deities were invoked, the name of Zeus was the masterword.

There is reason for thinking that this political character of Zeus belongs to the earliest period of his religion, and it remained as long as that religion lasted. Yet in one respect Apollo was more dominant in the political life; for Apollo possessed the more powerful oracle of Delphi. Zeus spoke directly to his people at Dodona only,[40] and with authority only in ancient times; for owing to historical circumstances and the disadvantage of its position, Dodona paled before Delphi.

It remains to consider briefly certain moral aspects of his cult. The morality attaching to the oath, so deeply rooted in the conscience of primitive peoples, was expressed in the cult of Zeus Ὅρκιος, the God who punished perjury.[41] The whole history of Greek legal and moral conceptions attaching to the guilt of homicide can be studied in relation to the cult-appellatives of Zeus. The Greek consciousness of the sin of murder, only dimly awakened in the Homeric period, and only sensitive at first when a kinsman or a suppliant was slain, gradually expands till the sanctity of all human life becomes recognized by the higher morality of the people: and the names of Ζεὺς Μειλίχιος, the dread deity of the ghost-world whom the sinner must make “placable,” of Ἱκέσιος and Προστροπαῖος, to whom the conscience-striken outcast may turn for mercy and pardon, play a guiding-part in this momentous evolution.[42]

Even this summary reveals the deep indebtedness of early Greek civilization to this cult, which engendered ideas of importance for the higher religious thought of the race, and which might have developed into a monotheistic religion, had a prophet-philosopher arisen powerful enough to combat the polytheistic proclivities of Hellas. Yet the figure of Zeus had almost faded from the religious world of Hellas some time before the end of paganism; and Lucian makes him complain that even the Egyptian Anubis is more popular than he, and that men think they have done the outworn God sufficient honour if they sacrifice to him once in five years at Olympia. The history of religions supplies us with many examples of the High God losing his hold on the people's consciousness and love. In the case of this cult the cause may well have been a certain coldness, a lack of enthusiasm and mystic ardour, in the service. These stimulants were offered rather by Demeter and Dionysus, later by Cybele, Isis and Mithras.

Bibliography.—For older authorities see Preller-Robert, Griechische Mythologie, i. pp. 115-159; Welcker's Griechische Götterlehre, ii. pp. 178-216; among recent works, Gruppe's Griechische Mythologie, ii. pp. 1100-1121; Farnell's Cults of the Greek States, vol. i. pp. 35-178; Daremberg and Saglio, Dictionnaire des antiquités grecques et romaines, s.v., “Jupiter”; A. B. Cook's articles in Classical Review, 1903-1904, “Zeus, Jupiter, and the Oak”: for cult-monuments and art-representations, Overbeck, Kunst-Mythologie, vol. i.  (L. R. F.) 

  1. See, however, Schrader, Prehistoric Antiquities of the Aryan Peoples (trans. Jevons), 416-419.
  2. Corp. Inscr. Graec. 2554.
  3. Bull. Corr. Hell., 1878, p. 515.
  4. Pausan. iii. 22, 1.
  5. Pliny, Nat. Hist. viii. 82; Pausan. viii. 2, § 3 and § 6.
  6. Article on “Sacrifice” in Ency. Brit., 9th ed.
  7. Cf. Porphyry, ii. 29, 30 (from Theophrastus) and Pausan. i. 24, 4.
  8. Myth, Ritual and Religion, ii. 176.
  9. Herod. vii. 197.
  10. Clemens, Protrept. p. 31 P.
  11. Parallela, 35.
  12. Pausan. viii. 38, 3.
  13. Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, i. 154; ref. 66-89.
  14. See Chadwick in Anthropological Journ., 1900, on “The Oak and the Thunder-God.”
  15. Il. ix. 457.
  16. Works and Days, 456; Pausan. ii. 2, 8.
  17. Journ. Hellen. Stud. iii. 124; v. 257.
  18. Pausan. x. 12, 10.
  19. Hom. Il. xvi. 233.
  20. Chadwick, op. cit.
  21. Il. xvi. 233.
  22. Arist. Nub. 1468; Epict. Diatrib. iii. ch. 11.
  23. 213-214.
  24. Schol. Aristoph. Thesm. 973.
  25. Photius, s.v. Ἱερὸς γάμος.
  26. See Frazer's Golden Bough, 2nd ed. i. 226-227.
  27. The attempts to discover the traces of matrilinear society in Greek religion may be regarded as mainly unsuccessful: vide A. B. Cook, Class. Rev. 1906 (October, November), “Who was the wife of Zeus?”
  28. Dio. Chrys. Or. 7 (Dind. i. 139).
  29. Demosth. Contra Macartatum, 1078, i.
  30. Pausan. viii. 53, 9.
  31. Plato's Laws, 842 E.
  32. Vide Farnell, op. cit. i. 159; ref. 107-109.
  33. Corp. Inscr. Attic. iii. 71 and 273.
  34. Antiphon vi. p. 789; Pausan. i. 3, 5: cf. Corp. Inscr. Attic. iii. 683.
  35. Farnell, op. cit. vol. i. p. 162.
  36. Amer. Journ. Archaeol., 1905, p. 302.
  37. C. I. A. 3, 7. Head, Hist. Num. p. 569.
  38. Herod. ix. 7, 4; Pind. Nem. v. 15 (Schol.).
  39. Simonides, Frag. 140 (Bergk), Strab. 412.
  40. There was a minor oracle of Zeus at Olympia. See Oracle.
  41. Pausan. v. 24, 9.
  42. Farnell, op. cit. vol. i. pp. 64–69.