Zeus, Overlord of Olympus

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Zeus (Jupiter, Jove) was the king of earth and air, yet himself not fully free from the power of what must be. He figures as a magnificent form, curled and bearded, sometimes crowned with oak leaves, holding in his hands the thunderbolts with which he scourged impiety. The “Thunderer” made one of his most famous epithets, and in some parts of Modern Greece, where Artemis has become St. Artemidos and St. Elias seems to have supplanted Helios, the Christian God is conceived of as aiming celestial artillery.

An eagle attends him as minister of his will, and for a cup-bearer he has Ganymede, a boy so beautiful that Zeus grudged him to mankind, and by the agency of his eagle had him stolen from Mount Ida to make him immortal in heaven. The serpent is an apt symbol for any god, and not unknown to Zeus.

Besides Hera, his recognized sultana, the father of gods and men had half a dozen other immortal consorts, Metis, Themis, Eurynome, Demeter, Mnemosyne, and Leto. This family did not hinder him from seeking secret brides on earth, to whom he was in the way of appearing transformed into a satyr, a bull, a swan, a shower of gold, and so forth. With sly humor Lucian makes the god complain that women never love him for himself but always in some unworthy disguise.

Of one of his illicit loves, Semele, daughter of Cadmus, it is told that she, prompted by Hera’s jealousy, desired to see her lover in all his Olympian majesty, and was burned up by the awful glow of that revelation. Another mortal maiden hardly treated was Callisto, turned into a bear, and in that shape hunted down by her mistress Artemis at the instigation of jealous Hera; then all the Olympian seducer could do for his victim was to place her and her son among the stars as the Great and Little Bear.

Mercury and Jupiter in the House of Philemon and Baucis by Jacob van Oost 

The god’s visits to earth, indeed, are sometimes on errands of justice. A pleasing story is that of Philemon and Baucis, the Phrygian Darby and Joan who entertained him as an unknown stranger in their humble home, and by divine gratitude were warned to fly from the wrath about to come on their impious neighbors. Moreover, this worthy pair, invited to choose a boon, asked nothing better than to end their days together after spending them as ministers in the temple to which their hospitable home was transformed.

More awful was the example of Lycaon’s fate, that cruel and unbelieving king of Arcadia who, to test his guest’s divinity, placed before Zeus a dish of human flesh, and for such impiety was turned into a wolf, his family exterminated by lightning. Another victim of divine justice was Salmoneus, the overweening king of Elis, who had sacrifices offered to him as a god, and even haloed himself with artificial thunders and lightnings, amid which a veritable bolt from heaven scorched up this mask of divinity with his city and all its people.

To common men, Zeus was represented by many statues, the noblest of them the work of Phidias, which, forty feet high, in gold and ivory, passed for one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, and was hailed by the Roman conqueror, Aemilius Paulus, as “the very Jove of Homer.” This adorned the rich temple at Olympia that became the chief seat of the god’s worship, while Dodona, seems his oldest oracle. Another famous oracle was that of Jupiter-Ammon in the sands of Libya; under this title Zeus seems to have been fused with an Egyptian deity and is figured with horns. But indeed his epithets and attributes are innumerable. The Roman Jove, who bore a graver character than his Greek fellow-despot, was reverenced as Jupiter Optimus Maximus, his chief shrine being a temple on the Capitoline Hill, the now St. Peter’s of pre-Christian Rome.

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