Zeus of the Greeks the Pantheon of Essay

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Zeus of the Greeks

The pantheon of Greek gods is still with us today: our planets are named after them (or, rather, after their Roman titles); their stories still enthrall ; and their narratives have shaped entire continents (Europe takes her name from Europa -- carried off on the back of Zeus who had changed himself into a bull). This paper will analyze Zeus as the greatest of the Greek gods and show how the Greeks believed he interacted in their lives.

Before writing of Zeus, however, it is important to understand the background mythology out of which he sprang. Zeus, unlike the Jewish god, did not exist from all eternity, but was on the contrary the son of Cronos (who was at the time the first king of the gods). Cronos was in fact such a controlling king that he determined that none of his children should ever usurp his position, so whenever his wife Rhea gave birth to another one, Cronos swallowed it up. When Zeus was born, Rhea decided to fool Cronos by dressing up a stone as a baby and giving it to her husband to devour. To save the life of Zeus she took him to a cave, which his presence alone filled with light -- and for which she gave him the name "Brightness" -- or, Zeus, in Greek (Haaren 10).

In the cave, Zeus was nursed by a goat (later rewarded with being placed in the sky in the form of stars). And when he reached adulthood, Zeus set to work at overthrowing his father, Cronos. Cronos enlisted the help of the Titans in the war against his son. The Titans were giants who could lift mountains and hurl them at their opponents. Zeus, in turn, enlisted the aid of another group of giants known as Cyclops -- who also happened to be blacksmiths (and are famous for forging lightning and thunder for the god Zeus). Zeus used his bolts of lightning to battle the Titans and in the end he emerged victorious.

Once Zeus had subjugated his father, he forced him to cough up the children he had swallowed. Zeus gave his brothers and sisters dominion over the sky and the earth: to the sea he gave Poseidon; to the underworld he gave Hades; to the crops he gave Demeter; to fire he gave Hestia; and for himself he took his sister Hera (whom he made queen of all the gods). Zeus dwelt in the sky with his queen -- with whom he did not exactly have a stable relationship, but with whom he had several children.

One of Zeus's children was Hermes, who was made the messenger of the gods because he was so swift (his sandals had wings on them, which enabled him soar quickly from place to place). Another was Hephaestus, who worked the forge under Mt. Etna and employed the Cyclops. Another was Ares (called Mars by the Romans), the god of war. Another was Apollo and his twin sister Artemis -- to Apollo he gave the sun and to Artemis he gave the moon. Yet one of Zeus's children stood out above all the rest -- and this was Athena, who literally sprang fully-formed from the head of Zeus (after his skull was cracked open with an axe to alleviate a headache).

Aphrodite's birth was, perhaps, even more startling for she was created out of the foam of the ocean. Since she was the most beautiful of all the goddesses, Zeus gave her to the ugliest god (Hephaestus) in marriage. Their child was Eros (Haaren 18).

While Zeus was now king of the gods, there were three sisters over whom Zeus had no control -- and these sisters were called the Fates. The Fates had the ultimate say in the life of the mortals: at the birth of a mortal, one sister began spinning thread, while another sister determined its length. Finally, the third sister would cut it -- and at that moment the life of the mortal was finished.

To keep some distance between the world of the gods and the world of men, Zeus established his kingdom on the highest peak of the mountains in Greece -- and this was called Olympus. Here the gods lived and watched the affairs of men and often intervened in their lives (Loewen 10).

Mirroring the Hebrew Old Testament flood narrative is the flood narrative of the Greeks. In this story (as in the Hebrew), Zeus decided to punish the wickedness of the Greeks with a flood. Only Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha were spared (because they were told by Prometheus of the impending doom) and managed to secure themselves in an ark. Deucalion and his wife ultimately established what became known as Hellas (which is why Greeks are often called Hellenes -- after Hellen, a son of Deucalion and Pyrrha).

Meanwhile, Zeus's dominion was not quite secure. He had to do battle with the Giants. He also had to defend himself against the attack of Typhon, who actually managed to "sever the sinews of the hands and feet" of Zeus (Parada). Fortunately, in this instance, Zeus's son Hermes was quick to help and was able to stitch the king's sinews back together so that Zeus could destroy Typhon.

Many gods were also constantly plotting to overthrow him -- especially his own wife, Hera. (Of course, she can hardly be blamed -- after all, Zeus was constantly chasing after other women, and she was always very jealous). Once, Hera, Athena and Poseidon all conspired to put Zeus in chains -- but Thetis helped defend Zeus by giving him bodyguards who frightened the gods from their course of action (Parada). Likewise, Homer tells us of the ways in which Hera attempted to distract Zeus from the fact that the gods were interfering in the Battle of Troy -- after Zeus had explicitly forbade this from happening. Still, it is Aeschylus who tells us in Prometheus Bound that "No one is free except Zeus" -- and that can be taken to mean that Zeus sits alone atop the world and atop the gods (Parada).

All the same, there are many more stories in which Zeus takes part in the affairs of men. Indeed, from the earliest history of the Hellenes, we are told that Zeus played a role in their development. For example, Cadmus, the sister of Europa, whom Zeus carried away on his back, established the city of Thebes and opened schools of learning there. Cadmus had come from Phoenicia and had slain a dragon -- for which Zeus punished him for nearly a decade -- but then rewarded him by giving him for a wife the daughter of Venus, named Harmony. Unfortunately, Harmony was given as a wedding present a necklace that brought only bad luck and the couple were plagued with sadness. Again, Zeus intervened, "turned them into serpents, and carried them to the realm of the blessed" (Haaren 30).

Another story in which Zeus took part is the story of the battle between Poseidon and Athena. The god and goddess were often fighting about something -- but in this story, they were fighting over who should get to be the guardian of the port city being built by Cecrops "near the finest harbor in Greece" (Haaren 62).

Poseidon (who was god of the sea) felt that he should get to be its rightful guardian, since the city was obviously going to be a great sea port with many sailing ships and vessels. Who better to look after it than the god of the sea?

However, Athena (who is famous for her bright intellect and wisdom) could see far into the future and knew that the men of the city which Cecrops was building would care ultimately more…

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