Who is Zeus anyway?

lightning It wakes us up at night. It shatters the night’s darkness. It sears and cracks, shakes us to our bones, our foundations.

Lightning. Zeus’s tool, Zeus’s weapon.

The supreme deity of the Greek pantheon, the king of the gods, master of wind, rain, thunder, and lightning.

Wielder of justice, bestower of judgment, Zeus, metering out punishment, embodies Law.

And of course, let us not forget the “philandering” Zeus, the Zeus who could not keep his hands off goddesses and mortal women alike.

In a previous post I set the foundation from which my posts on the gods will proceed. The definition reads: gods “typify qualities associated with highly marked experience that indicate something transcendent.” (For a discussion of such definition, please read “Who are the gods anyway?”)

Gods are experiences, highly marked experiences, experiences marking something transcendent–something greater than us, bigger than us, that we cannot control. If the totality of the gods, as Christine Downing states, constitute the totality of the divine world, we have in each god and goddess a particular constitution of such.

To begin, let us look at the name, Zeus, which, according to Karl Kerenyi, one of the founders of the modern study of mythology, is equivalent to theos. Theos, he says, “originally refers to an event, the moment of lighting up…an epiphany” (Downing Gods in our Midst 127).  But all gods were theos (the term translates to “god”); thus “the number of events that could be theos was always infinite (127).

While not an attempt to be exhaustive, let us now enter the question: So who then is Zeus anyway?

Zeus is the “experience of light appearing, of the sacred as event, of overwhelming divine energy. To say ‘Zeus’ meant ‘the god is here, the god has just arrived in this moment'” (Downing 128).

As the gods “typify qualities associated with highly marked experience,” that Zeus wields the lightning bolt is to say the lightning-wielding of Zeus gives an image to what Zeus is: he is the moment of “lighting up”–those “ah-ha” moments, those moments when the light-bulb goes on over our heads. Not that Zeus represents anything: Zeus is the name given to that moment, that event.

The penetration of the divine into the human and we may gain an understanding of the nature of such experiences and how such experiences can effect us by looking at Zeus’s epithets: Zeus Trophonios, the nourisher; Zeus Melichios, the gentle; Zeus Maimaktes, eager for blood–in that Zeus is associated with expiation–the process of pleasing the gods, the realm of the divine. That is, honoring the gods.

He is Zeus Xenios, honorer of the guest. He is “open to all that appears, he is ‘above all else the god of things as they are,’ the god who brings us ‘the knowledge of things as they are’–and the acceptance that that is how it is'” (Downing 141-2). This latter reminds me a little of Buddhism in that as the Buddha taught, as long as our desires are in tact and we form attachments to that which we desire, we perpetuate our ignorance of true reality–“the knowledge of things as they are” (and the “acceptance that that is how it is”–the acceptance of reality”). Zeus, the lighting up,  is the experience of seeing things as they really are.

What sense then can we make of Zeus’s “philandering?” As David L Miller puts it, “Zeus’s sexual exploits are an expression of the way that divine and immortal reality touches life and body and history and mortality” (Three Faces of God 58). When we understand Zeus as that moment of “lighting up,” we see in Zeus’s exploits that such an event is not relegated to one aspect of life, of experience–it speaks to the complexity of life. When we consider the gods as “highly marked experience,” we must consider Zeus’s exploits in relation to the multiplicity of our experience. That the divine can and must penetrate deeply into such complexity, into such multiplicity so that we may see our experience for what it really is.

So sure, at a literal level, Zeus is a misogynistic pig, but myths are not meant to be taken literally, but metaphorically. Is this then, that moment of epiphany by which we have come to see Zeus?

Just as lightning shatters the sky, Zeus, that epiphanic moment of lighting up, shatters our literalisms, our concretisms–Zeus opens us to life as metaphor, as poetry, as complexity and multiplicity. Things as they really are, that is, that we may come to and integrate “all the variety, the tension, the conflict, the successes and failures, the wounds and the gifts, that are part of life as we humans experience it” (Downing 142).

He is “there in the rare moments of conciliation and in all the moments of contention. Zeus, the god of things as they are” (Downing 142-3).

Zeus is the moment we begin to see.

How can we not honor him?




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