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From Greek and Roman Mythology & Heroic Legend, by Professor H. Steuding, Translated from the German and Edited by Lionel D. Barnett. The Temple Primers, London: J. M. Dent; 1901; pp. 14-22.


Greek Religion from the Beginning of the Homeric Age 

I.  Zeus and his Circle.   § 26.  The origin of the name Ζεύς, which appears in the genitive as ΔιϜος, certainly goes back — like the Sanskrit Dyaus, German Ziu, and Latin Iuppiter, which last is compounded of Diovis (or Iovis) and pater — to the root div (‘cast,’ ‘shoot,’ ‘shine’), and thus may equally well designate lightning or a light-god;1 among the Greeks and Romans however this deity certainly developed into a storm-god. Thessaly and a part of Epeiros once tenanted by Thessalians seem to have been the native home of Zeus; Dodona, at the foot of the ridge of Tmaros or Tomaros, specially claimed regard as the primitive seat of his worship. In this unusually stormy and hence well-watered 15 and fruitful region he dwelt under the name of Ζεὺς νᾴιος (‘Zeus of the waters’), as he was elsewhere as rain-giver styled ὑέτιος and ὄμβριος; his abode was in a primeval oak-grove, or rather in a single tree thereof, at the foot of which gushed forth a holy well. By the rustling of the twigs he manifested his will to mortals and above all to his priests the Selloi, who after the manner of primitive ages slept upon the earth with no cover except the shelter of the trees. Thus it was that Dodona stood highest in repute of the oracle-homes of Zeus. Elsewhere lightning and thunder, as well as ominous birds, — chiefly the eagle, which dashes like a lightning-flash upon its prey from the clouds, — were looked upon as representatives of his will.

§ 27.  The tree-dwelling of the god Ζεὺς ἔνδενδρος points to the great antiquity of his worship in this region. The reason for his being worshipped particularly in an oak is manifestly that, before the cultivation of corn was introduced, acorns and flesh formed men’s chief food; and moreover the thunderbolt, in which Zeus κεραύνιος himself descends as καταιβάτης to earth, more often strikes the towering stem of the oak than other trees.

§ 28.  Closely akin to the worship of Zeus at Dodona was that upon the Lykaion (‘Wolf-hill’) in the south-west of Arkadia. Here too the oak and a stream were sacred to him, though they did not as in Dodona take the first place in the cult. In times of continuous drought a priest touched with an oak-twig the surface of the spring Hagno (‘the sacred’ or ‘pure-one’) until a mist arose from it which gathered into a cloud (Ζεὺς νεφεληγερέτης) and brought the desired rain.

§ 29.  There was a sanctuary of Zeus that no man dared to tread. It stood on the peak of the Arkadian mount Olympos; the story ran that he who should intrude into it would there cast no shadow, as indeed is natural in the Olympian realm of light. The high antiquity of this cult also is shown by the fact that it claimed human sacrifices, a cruel custom said to have been introduced by King Lykaon, the founder of the competitions there celebrated in honour of Zeus (Λύκαια). 16 He once slew a child (his son or grandson) and set it as a meal before Zeus — to test his omniscience, according to the later explanation; properly however every sacrifice is to be explained as feeding the deity. In punishment for this he was changed into a wolf (λύκος), the type of the flying man-slayer. As Zeus has the power to inflict punishment in this way for blood-guilt (Ζ. τιμωρός), he can also as καθάρσιος vouchsafe to the penitent atonement and purification (compare § 72 of Apollon.)

§ 30.\  Whilst in Dodona he was probably looked upon as the bestower of all good gifts in general, he is here in Arkadia the Ζ. ἀρκαῖος or κορυφαῖος, the dweller on the mountain-tops where storm-clouds couch; and as such he later received worship throughout Greece, and especially on the lofty Olympos in Thessaly. From these heights he rules as supreme god (ὕπατος, ὕψιστος) over the surrounding land, like a king from his mountain castle; hence he is also called Ζ. βασιλεὺς. Besides the chief tokens of his power, the thunderbolt and the aigis (a representation of the storm-cloud with snaky lightnings twisting around, which later was commonly figured as a shaggy goatskin fringed with snakes), he carries as ensign of his kingship the sceptre.

§ 31.  As lord of the land he protects right and the righteous, and punishes all evil-doings, especially perjury (Ζ. ὅρκιος), as well as wrong to a guest (Ζ. ξένιος) or suppliant (Ζ. ἰκέσιος). The housefather hence makes sacrifice to him as the guardian of house and hearth (Ζ. ἑρκεῖος, the head of the family to him as its tutelary god (Ζ. γενέθλιος); many princely families claimed descent from him as father of their race. As the king advances in battle before his lieges, Zeus as champion and leader of the host (Ζ. ἀγήτωρ, στράτιος) leads his worshippers and holds victory (νίκη) in his hand; hence Pheidias placed the winged Nike upon the outstretched hand of his statue of the Olympian Zeus.

§ 32.  His adoption into the system of the Greek gods took place seemingly in Crete. The story of the birth and death 17 of Zeus is certainly based on a Cretan worship of a subterranean deity called Zeus Chthonios, whose cavern-dwelling was looked on as a grave. His father appears here as Kronos, who devoured his own children; but the wife of Kronos, Rhea, the μήτηρ ὀρεία, a maternal deity akin to the Kybele and Artemis of Asia Minor, gave him instead of Zeus a stone swaddled like a babe, by which perhaps is meant Zeus himself hidden as a meteoric stone in the storm-cloud, to be then vomited forth from heaven in the lightning-flash. Suckled by the goat Almatheia, a personification of the storm-cloud that bestows nourishing moisture, Zeus swiftly grows up until he is able to overpower his father.

§ 33.  Through his by-name Titan Zeus is characterised as god of the heaven and sun, and a troop of older powers appear as Titanes by his side. With the aid of other gods and of the three Kyklopes (‘Round-eyes’), Arges (‘Bright-Weather’), Brontes (‘Thunder’), and Steropes (‘Lightning’), whose one round eye is the thunderbolt, Zeus conquers these Titans and hurls them into Tartaros, the lowest part of the nether world, after having forced his father to bring forth again from his belly the children formerly swallowed by him. That this battle reflects the storm, compared to the hurtle of a fray, is proved by the names of the Kyklopes who aided to settle it.

§ 34.  In close connection with this are the other two battles of Zeus with the Gigantes and with Typhoeus. The former were reputed to have been the giant sons of Ge (‘Earth’), who rose up against the kingship of Zeus; with the aid however of Athena, the other Olympian gods, and Herakles, but chiefly by the thunderbolts of Zeus, they were overpowered and buried beneath mountains, under which they still burn with the lightning-fire and writhe in agony, thus producing volcanic outbreaks and earthquakes. In the Odyssey they have already become, like the Kyklopes, an earthly giant race hurling rocks, which for its arrogance is destroyed by the gods. In the art of the Hellenistic age however, and particularly in the frieze of the altar of Pergamon now 18 in Berlin, they were commonly represented with snaky coils for feet.

§ 35.  In the same way Typhoeus or Typhon (‘the smoking’ or ‘steaming one’) is an embodiment, probably of Asiatic origin, and perhaps native to Mount Argaios in Cappadocia, of the steam and smoke which bursts out during earthquakes from the ground and from volcanoes, as well as of the mighty forces there at work. Although he is armed with a hundred fire-spurting heads of snakes, he is like the Titans hurled by Zeus with his lightnings into Tartaros — plainly a picture of the seeming struggle that the storms accompanying volcanic outbreaks wage with the powers of the depths, which at the end of the eruption appear to sink back through the crater into the bowels of the earth.

§ 36.  In Dodona the spouse of Zeus was held to be Dione. Her name is plainly derived from that of Zeus himself (compare Iuppiter and Iuno); hence probably she was his female complement, embodying the fertility which was there his leading attribute. Her place, after the cultivation of corn had been introduced, was taken in the Thessalian Pyrasos (‘Wheatland’) by the corn-bestower Demeter, who by him becomes mother of Kore-Persephone, the subterranean protectress and embodiment of the seed-corn. Later poetry gives expression to the same thought by connecting the rain-giving Uranos (‘Heaven’) with Gaia or Ge (‘Earth’), who is impregnated by him. In the same way Zeus unites in the Argive legend with Danae as golden rain, in the Theban story with Semele, who dies in his embraces when at her request he comes to her in the same form as to Hera, that is, as storm-god.


1  In the Vedas, the earliest literature of India, Dyaus is either the concrete ‘sky’ or else the sky as an All-Father, associated with Earth as Mother. He is little more than an abstraction to the early Hindu; the quality of fatherhood is practically the only touch of personality in the conception.

Hera.   § 37.  In Argos, Mykenai, Sparta, on the island of Euboia (probably the centre from which the cult started), the range of Kithairon, the island of Samos, and many other places, Queen Hera stands by the side of the King of the Gods. Her most glorious temple lay between Argos and Mykenai. Here, as in the other places of her worship, the chief festival was her marriage with Zeus (ἱερὸς γάμος), which was held in 19 early spring. She is the guardian of wedlock (Ἡ. ζυγία, τελεία ), and the jealous champion of womankind and its rights; the Goddess of Delivery, Ileithyia or Hileithyia, is accounted her daughter. Hebe (‘Bloom of Youth’), the war-god Ares, and the smith-god Hephaistos appear as offspring of this couple.

§ 38.  A male parallel to Hebe is Ganymedes, son of Tros or Laomedon of Troy. On account of his beauty Zeus caused him to be ravished away by an eagle and made him his page and favourite. Like Hebe he sets before the gods ambrosia and nectar (honey and mead ?), and Hebe herself bears the by-name of Ganymede. About 420 B.C. Polykletos made a representation in gold and ivory of the Queen of the Gods for her chief temple mentioned above. She sat, fully clad, on a throne, upon her head a crown (stephanos, in her right hand a pomegranate, which on account of its many pips was a token of fruitfulness; in her left she held the royal sceptre surmounted by a cuckoo, the messenger of spring. She appears similarly conceived in the noble colossal bust of the Villa Ludovisi, which however has also a connection with the school of Praxiteles.

Black and white engraving of the bust of Hera from the Villa Ludovisi.

§ 39.  With special reference to the moral side in the character of Zeus, which later was in the foreground, the school of allegorical poetry describes Metis or Wisdom, and Themis or Law as wives of this god, and makes him beget by the latter the Horai Eunomia (‘Lawfulness’), Dike (‘Right’), and Eirene (‘Peace’), as well as the Moirai or fate-goddesses who determine the arrangement of the human lot. For the same reason he is accounted the father of the Charites and Muses.

§ 40.  The artistic ideal of Zeus was created, in accordance with the conception dominant in Homer, by Pheidias about 435 B.C. for the temple in Olympia, where the great national games were celebrated in his honor. The ancients themselves believed that the artist was inspired in his work by the words of the Iliad (l. 528 ff.) — “Spake the son of Kronos and nodded thereto with swart brows, and the 20 ambrosial locks of the king rolled backward from his immortal head, and the heights of Olympos quaked.” The head from Otricoli, produced about a century later under the influence, as it seems, of Praxitelean art, gives also the same general impression of majestic power and god-like calm, combined with gentleness and clearness of thought.

Black and white engraving of the Otricoli bust of Zeus.

Charites.   § 41.  These (the Latin Gratiae) apparently passed from kindly bestowers of fruitfulness into goddesses of winsome grace. They were adored in Orchomenos of Boiotia under the symbol of three rough stones, which were perhaps believed to have fallen from heaven. In other places they were represented even in very early times as three maidens in long garments, standing behind one another, and holding in their hands musical instruments, flowers, fruit, and fillets (ταινίαι), so that they are not to be distinguished from Muses or Nymphs. From the fifth century B.C. they are united in a group holding one another’s hands; it is not until the third century that they are figured as quite naked and embracing one another.

In the Iliad there is a single Charis, the wife of Hephaistos; Homer, however, knows also a whole family of Charites. Their names are usually Euphrosyne (‘Mirth’), Thaleia or Thalia (‘Joy-of-Life,’ ‘Revel’), and Aglaïa (‘Splendour’), by which they are characterised as goddesses of cheerful social life, although in origin they may have been closely akin to the Horai.

Muses.   § 42.  Their fondness for the dance and the music accompanying it is shared by the Muses (Musai, ‘Seekers’ or ‘Discoverers’2), goddesses perhaps of Thracian origin and daughters of Zeus by Mnemosyne (‘Memory’). These were especially worshipped — in connection with Dionysos, Apollon, and the singer Orpheus, the representative of Dionysiac poetry — in the district of Pieria, on Olympos, and on the Boiotian Helikon, at holy springs (Aganippe and Hippokrene 21 on Helikon, Kastalia on Parnassos. Their number is not yet mentioned in the Iliad and older parts of the Odyssey; in a later section of the latter and in Hesiod they appear in the usual number of nine. It was not however until later times that their domains were more exactly determined, as follows — Kalliope (‘Sweet-voiced’) holds as muse of heroic song and elegy a writing-tablet and style; Kleio (‘Glorifier’), as muse of warlike song and history, a roll; Euterpe (‘Delighter’), as muse of lyric, a double flute; Thaleia (‘Joy’), as muse of comedy, a comic mask; Melpomene (‘Songster’) as muse of tragedy; a tragic mask; Terpsichore (‘Dance-gladdened’), as muse of choral lyric and dance, a great lyre; Urania (‘Heavenly’), as muse of astronomical epos and instructive poetry in general, a globe; Erato (‘Charming’), as muse of amorous song, a small lyre; finally Polymnia (‘She of many hymns’) practises ritual song and dance, and therefore appears veiled and cloaked. From the mimic dance practised in some places during the ritual, the connection of the Muses with the pantomimus may have afterwards developed.


2  The most recent etymology connects the name with Lat. mons, so that it would mean ‘mountain-goddesses.’

Horai.   § 43.  On the other hand, the Horai, as their name tells us, were representatives of the seasons (ὧραι). As men in older times distinguished only three seasons, there are three Horai corresponding to these three divisions, and typified as blooming maidens. In Attica indeed only two were known — Thallo (‘Blossoming one’) and Karpo (‘Fruit-bringer’). In Homer they open and close the gate of heaven, that is, they lead the clouds hither and away again; and in later times also they are accounted bestowers of rain and dew. In art the regularity of their return was expressed by representing them as engaged in dance; but at the same time it caused them to be regarded as protectresses of order, whence they were elsewhere styled Eunomia (‘Lawfulness’), Dike (‘Right’), and Eirene (‘Peace’). Eirene however was much worshipped in Athens also; her bronze statue, the creation of Kephisodotos, stood above the market-place. She held here the child Plutos (‘Wealth’) on her arm; for 22 wealth thrives in peace. An imitation of this work is to be found in Munich.

The mother of these Horai is Themis (‘Law’), who often bore the by-name of Soteira (‘Saviour’), and possessed sanctuaries in Athens, Delphoi, Thebes, Olympia, and Trozen. She was conceived as a woman of severe and grave aspect, with the horn of plenty and the balance as symbol of deliberative justice.

Next :
Olympian Deities:

II.  Ge, Demeter and Kore :  Eleusinian Mysteries.

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