Making Light: Zeus

His statue was one of the Seven Wonders of the World,
but he decided to move on to bigger things.

Where Dionysos has a reputation as a “party god,” Zeus is widely known as a philanderer with lightning bolts. For most, the name conjures up the idea of a big, booming womanizer, but such a portrayal reduces a complex entity to a cartoon image. On the other hand, when I asked my fellow Free Hellenics about Zeus, they had a wide range of reactions and approaches to him that are not easily summarized. I won’t quote them here because I don’t think I could do them justice, but suffice it to say, it’s complicated.

From a historical perspective, many Paganisms in the United States grew from a movement to understand the divine feminine. When a strong patriarchy is the only game in town, the arrival of goddess-centered spirituality causes the pendulum, in some cases, to swing very far toward the divine feminine side of things and away from the divine masculine. Dianic Wicca was born from this movement, and some circles that include the divine masculine and feminine diminished the role of the divine masculine to that of a consort to a queen. I see this focus on the divine feminine as largely a positive thing. Sometimes you just need to spend some time with mom.

The greater emphasis on divine feminine was still present in the largely Wiccan community that I entered into during the mid-1990′s. This, of course, assumes a male/female gender binary as the dominant paradigm. It is unfortunate that gender diversity in spiritual practice is largely not addressed. Things are changing, and I hope to touch on these topics where I can, but I also want to express my own joy and celebration around the divine masculine in this post without marginalizing other genders. To use a food metaphor, I want to say “hooray for carrots!” without saying “boo for kohlrabi!” I’m a polyvegetablist, so I can have both in the same dish. But I digress.

So, Zeus: If ever there was a strong masculine father figure, he’s it. If you’re a Pagan who is coming to a Paganism via the goddess movement or converting from a faith or practice that is strongly patriarchal with a desire to seek the divine feminine, Zeus is not your go-to god. In fact, I can see how complex relationships with him might arise because his divine masculinity is so divinely masculine. I remember my early thoughts on the divine were that there was a singular entity that was vaguely male-ish because everyone referred to it as “he,” but I wasn’t ever really emotionally invested in God the Father. After I became a Pagan, my relationship to Zeus began to change and grow as my concept of the divine expanded. I began to see him as a largely positive father figure, but even that is an oversimplification of the way I relate to him. I asked him to protect my eldest daughter at her blessing, I commune with him while doing yard work around the edges of my property, I ask his help when I need strength of any sort, I feel his presence when the sky turns grey, and I have said panicked prayers in a closet or hallway more than once during tornado warnings. My love for him is as common as gardening and as extraordinary as lighting the Olympic flame.

“But Sunweaver,” you might say, “how do you resolve all the extra-marital affairs and nonconsentual sex?” As a Free Hellenic, I understand that the myths arrive to us from a time and place very far from here and it isn’t necessary for me to accept what came to be written down as the gospel truth. We see the gods through our own filters and their stories change accordingly. Because the gods are vast, it’s possible to perceive them in many ways and even in Ancient Greece, the stories shifted and changed. When I read the myths, I look for the foundation of the story: “Zeus loves Ganymede,” for example, and I pray about the rest. Details like “Zeus took the form of an eagle” often remain, but the emotions and motivations around the bones of the story often differ from what the ancient authors eventually wrote down. In some cases, I’m sure I’m projecting my own sensibilities, but likely no more so than the ancient authors did. Their relationships with the gods were no more or less special than mine are; theirs are just older.

My pantheon is a vast divine family that is infinitely inclusive, so one might worship Father Strength and still have room in the heart for Apollo the Bright Lover, Uncle Ares Deployed, Aunt Athena the Wise, and so on. We’ve got a lot of gods. In fact, I’m certain the big oak in my lawn has its own tree spirit and the Stones River near here has its own god and attendant naiads. There are as many ways to approach the divine as there are people on the earth multiplied by the number of divine beings and the kinds of relationships and attitudes people have toward living and non-living things. That is to say, a lot. There’s no wrong way to relate to any one of them and those of my dear friends and colleagues who do not have wholly positive relationships with the Father King still learn much from that. But for me, I love that he spreads his love like an oak spreads its pollen. I love his strength and masculinity and I love that he is big in every way. He is present in the wind, the lightning, and the rain. He is Zeus, the Father King, whose eyes are eagle-sharp and whose voice is thunder. Awful and awesome Zeus, ruler of winds and Lord of rains.

And now that I’m reduced to poetic epithets, I’ll stop here. I’d love to hear other perspectives on Zeus or thoughts on other divine fathers and kings.


Making Light is an occasional column by Hellenic polytheist Sunweaver. Follow it via RSS or e-mail!

About Sunweaver

In addition to her personal and group practice as a priestess of Apollo, Sunweaver works as interfaith clergy with a diversity of religious groups in the Middle Tennessee area. She is a founding member of the Rutherford County Women of Faith and has worked with the area interfaith center, Wisdom House, to help bring positive awareness to the non-Abrahamic religions. She is a mother of two, a fiber arts enthusiast, and a holds a Master's degree in biology.

  • FeistyKat

    What could I say about Zeus in this tiny bit of space? I adore him. There are many layers to the myths but I did find somewhere that said Ganymede was a youth that died young and was memorialized by the myth of Zeus taking him for a cup bearer. YMMV. I have also had Zeus tell me in meditation that learning about him from the myths is like learning about our hollywood stars from gossip magazines. Shrug. So who is he…he is as much about the land as he is the sky. He was raised on Gaia after all. His sky “aspects” seem to be more interested in the overall picture, but his earthy and domestic aspects are all about the individual and family. He is a complex god so often trivialized because of the cultural lense of the ancients whose males were free to have relationships wherever they pleased. Those myths say more about the culture than they do fo Zeus. Melia Brokaw

    • Sunweaver

      I certainly agree. It’s good to know the myths as part of who he is and how others related to him, but that’s only a fraction of the whole picture. I don’t have enough space in one post to explore Zeus in his entirety. I can only touch on it a little here.

      • FeistyKat

        I’m not saying to avoid the myths, just people should be aware that the myths are more about the culture of the times than the deity himself. So many castigate Zeus because of the infidelities…

  • FeistyKat

    oh one other thing…Zeus was the youngest child…and yet he is the only one portrayed as gray haired in modern times. Many (if not all) ancient paintings portray his as dark haired. I think the gray hair is from associating him with the Christian concept of god. Just a personal opinion.

    • Sunweaver

      To which ancient paintings do you refer? I would guess that it’s the other way around. Greek imagery of Zeus and Roman depictions of Jupiter preceded any Christian imagery. It’s more likely that the Greeks influenced the Romans who influenced the Christians. Pottery fragments are not a good indication of hair color, since you can only do so much with red and black. We fare no better with statues, since only a few have been analyzed to see what colors of paint were used. There are precious few mosaics, so there’s not really a way to know for certain how Zeus was viewed in the ancient world (which is a big place full of lots of people with lots of different ideas). Well, he’s almost always had a beard except when he’s a swan or bull.

      The image above is The Most Interesting Man in the World, who is meant to exhibit masculinity as part of his schtick. Zeus wasn’t ever portrayed as a Hispanic fellow in the ancient world, either, but The Most Interesting Man is shown as a strong, attractive, accomplished gentleman, which seemed very Zeus-like to me. The grey hair is incidental. The beard is more important.

      • FeistyKat

        I was thinking of the vase paintings but also mosaics. Vase paintings also made use of the color of the vase itself and I have seen white on a few. All of them, he has black hair but you make a valid point. As a god of creativity and fertility (among other things) he would be depicted as a viral man but I doubt that would include gray hair…though within the culture mores it would certainly include the beard.

        In modern times, he is almost invariably depicted with gray hair which, whether we like it or not, is the influence of the wider culture which is Christianity. While I’m sure the Roman depictions informed Christian imagery, it is hard to say if the gray head was part of that or not. So many small ways they tried to differentiate themselves while at the same time sticking to what was familiar. I certainly hope they do more analysis of the paint on statues just to satisfy my curiosity!
        :)

        • Sunweaver

          Like I said, the past is a big place. And since I don’t worship Zeus in the past, how he was seen then is hardly relevant. Besides, I’m approaching an age where a grey-haired man is just as attractive as the young bucks. A little silver is kinda sexy.
          Not that I wouldn’t go for the beardless youth types, mind you. I’ll address that in a later post on Apollo.

          • FeistyKat

            Agreed. I typically see Zeus as a very attractive, dark haired bearded man (sometimes with white or blue flashes/streaks) but more along the style lines of a business man (that is closely trimmed beard and short hair) with blue eyes and a muscular (though not muscle bound) physique. Though he appears as he wishes…I have also seen him looking very similar to Sean Connery and with shoulder length red hair. But the…feel of him never changes…even tempered, loving, gentle, strength… As always YMMV. :)

    • Conor O’Bryan Warren

      He was the youngest by Hesiod’s reckoning, by Homer’s he was actually the oldest among his sibling :)

      • FeistyKat

        Nope. Homer’s Homeric Hymn 5 to Aphrodite says “[Histia (Hestia)] was the first-born child of wily Kronos (Cronus) and youngest too..” As in the first born from Rhea and the last disgorged from Kronos’ belly. :)

        • Conor O’Bryan Warren

          In the Iliad Zeus asserts his superiority over his siblings by way of his power and his age. When going up against Poseidon and his desires to defy his rule he explicitly states that he is the elder and therefore better.

          • FeistyKat

            Which is why I consider Homer a hack. He (assuming he is only one person) is a hack whose goal was entertainment and not consistency. Ye old writer’s prerogative, IMO. Traditionally Hestia was considered the eldest. Several other ancient writers refer to her as the eldest. Shrug.

            • Conor O’Bryan Warren

              I think that is a narrow view of Homer. On the other hand, I may be misinterpreting it (the passage) and it being in reference only to his being the oldest male. Either way, I definitely wouldn’t describe Homer as a “hack”.

              • FeistyKat

                You’ve got your opinions and I’ve got mine. He tells a great story but we do not have enough knowledge to know how much is “true” and how much is artistic license. It isn’t something important enough to me to be worth debating about it.

                • Conor O’Bryan Warren

                  The same can be said for the rest of the poets then, on the “truth” of it versus it being “artistic license”.

    • ridetbred

      it’s one of the divine paradoxes. he’s the oldest (first to emerge) and the youngest (last conceived.) he’s always portrayed as a mature god- fully bearded, massive, august, never as one of the koures. you’re not *wrong* to assume it’s all about christianity, any more than you are to dismiss homer, but that doesn’t make your opinion any more *right.*
      grey hair is not a pejorative.

      • FeistyKat

        I never said grey hair was a pejorative. I’m saying that the Greeks described and depicted Zeus as dark haired, though I did not explain it nearly as well as this gentleman did: http://thehouseofvines.com/2014/03/13/black-is-beautiful/ But there is also depictions of Zeus as a kouros. :) As I’ve said all along, your milage may vary.

        • Sunweaver

          Like I said before, the past is a big place. We do have a few pots, a couple mosaics, and some bits of writing that survived, but what we have is a fraction of what was produced. There is no certainty whatsoever that he was never portrayed as grey haired in the vast space and time that we refer to as “Ancient Greece.”
          And even if he wasn’t, Father Zeus is a contemporary god. Whether or not he was perceived as grey-haired in ancient times is irrelevant to a contemporary practice. We perceive the gods through our own filters and mine have little to nothing to do with ancient perceptions or Christian perceptions. My own dad has white hair. The Most Interesting Man looks like a spring chicken, comparatively.
          Besides, I feel that if he can appear as a bull, a swan, or an eagle at will, he can have whatever hair color he pleases to.

  • TrippedB

    “I don’t always come down on earth as a form of a man but when I do it’s as the most interesting man in the world.”

    Sorry I just had to say that, which I believe is a good choice of image. Though to be honest I always like Zeus for as a God as he carried quite a few mortal flaws. Those flaws made him seem more approachable for he has felt our grief of human mistakes as well. Then again those stories were written when men was in largely in power and men of power thought they can do what the gods can do. Which involved a lot of cheating. Not to mention those temples of Aphrodite or Venus though I believe that may have been the Romans who took those exotic elements a step further. Either way it was an interesting article.

    • Sunweaver

      HAHA! Well done! There are so many Zeus/Most Interesting Man jokes. So. Many.
      I’m glad you enjoyed the article. There’s a lot to the King of Gods and mortal feelings about him are definitely complicated.

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