Zeus, Ruler of Olympus

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The Greeks honored Zeus at the Temple of Olympia. Image by Riccardo Botta/EyeEm/Getty Images

Zeus was the youngest son of Cronos and Rhea, and became the supreme ruler of all the gods of the ancient Greeks. Citizens from all of the Greek city-states honored him, particularly at the Temple of Olympus, which became the site of a major festival every four years - that religious festival eventually became known as the Olympic Games. A colossal golden statue of Zeus was the site of many rites and rituals involving the athletes of the Olympics.

Early History and Worship

Although Zeus was venerated in many areas of Greece, there doesn't seem to be much consistency about the methodology of this worship, and his temples (and titles) took a variety of forms. A number of different "cults of Zeus" popped up throughout history. One common form of honoring him appears to be the sacrificing of a white animal -- sheep, bull, pig, etc. -- over an elevated altar.

In addition to being the head honcho of Olympus, Zeus is the god of thunder and lightning. He is often represented by a lightning bolt, and is sometimes depicted with an eagle, bull, or oak tree. Because Zeus was also considered a weather god - after all, he was the one who threw thunderbolts down from the sky - he was often worshiped on high mountaintops, including but not limited to Mount Olympus.

Eventually, the cult of Zeus expanded beyond the borders of Greece, and into nearby empires, including Persia.

Herodotus wrote a lengthy description of a temple to Zeus Belus in Babylon. He described "a square of four hundred and forty yards each way, with gates of bronze. In the center of this enclosure a solid tower has been built, two hundred and twenty yards long and broad; a second tower rises from this and from it yet another, until at last there are eight.

The way up them mounts spirally outside the height of the towers; about halfway up is a resting place, with seats for repose, where those who ascend sit down and rest. In the last tower there is a great shrine; and in it stands a great and well-covered couch, and a golden table nearby."

Zeus Gets Around

Zeus was known as quite the philanderer. Although he was married to his sister Hera, goddess of marriage, he strayed from her bed fairly regularly. Zeus hooked up with numerous other goddesses, mortal humans, the occasional nymph, and even a few animals. Hera jealously put up with his wandering ways, and often took revenge upon Zeus' women by going after their children. Zeus sired many of the Greek heroes and demi-gods during his amorous adventures. His extramarital activities weren't limited to women, either. Zeus' cup-bearer, the handsome Ganymede, earned Hera's wrath when she discovered that the young man was also her husband's lover.

Modern Worship of Zeus

As the supreme ruler of Mt. Olympus, Zeus was in charge of justice, morals and law. His word was to be obeyed by both men and gods alike. Today, many Hellenic Pagans continue to honor Zeus and the other gods of the ancient Greeks.

Some are members of a group called the Return of the Hellenes, and consider today's Greece to be under Christian occupation. A 2013 BBC article quotes Exsekias Trivoulides, who says, "People want to identify with something in the past - where they came from - so as to know where they are going... If you don't know your past, you don't have a future."