Zeus

Drawing lots with his brothers, Haides and Poseidon, to see who should rule each of creation’s three zones – the land (together with the heavens); the sea; and the Underworld (or Hades) – Zeus won the earth and sky. Enthroned on the ridge of Mount Olympus, which is today called Stefani, and holding in his right hand a golden sceptre, he ruled both gods and men.

A passage from the Iliad, said to have inspired his celebrated statue at Olympia, describes the sheer power of his presence: ‘Zeus, the son of Cronus, spoke, and he inclined his head with his dark brows, and the mighty king’s hair, anointed with ambrosial oil, fell forward from his immortal head. And great Olympus trembled. ? As well it might. For the great sky-god was armed with an all-powerful weapon, the lightning bolt, whose blast wreaked total devastation. Some imagined that the lightning bolt was Zeus true essence – pure blazing, blinding energy, concealed and contained within his (safer) anthropomorphic form With an eagle perching on his left hand, Zeus wields his thunderbolt.

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All gods had avatars. Zeus’ was the eagle, his special messenger, which could soar so effortlessly and so resplendently. The fifth-century bc lyric poet Bacchylides encapsulates the bond between god and bird:

Lightning-fast on tawny wings, the eagle, confident in its immeasurable strength, cleaves the vast unfathomable sky – the messenger of Zeus, the thunder-god, whose rule is wide. And all the little birds, shrill-chattering, scatter in terror. The high peaked mountains cannot check him nor the pounding storm-waves of the tireless sea, but on outstretched wings he soars across the vastness of the earth, his feathers gently ruffled in the western breeze. And all men see him.

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