THE OLYMPIAN FAMILY OF ZEUS: SHARING RULE OF THE UNIVERSE
Homer and Hesiod established for the Greeks the character and functions of the
gods. We learn about the deities’ physical attributes from Archaic and
Classical visual art.
Some of the deities (Aphrodite, Artemis, Poseidon, and Hermes), who had been
independently powerful even into Mycenaean times, were transformed, with
the passage of time, into the siblings or children of Zeus and thus subordinated
According to Homer, Zeus and his two brothers divided the world by casting
lots. Zeus received the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the Underworld. As
Hesiod’s firm focus, however, is on Zeus’s progress to lordship, so in his poem
the division of the universe among the three brothers belongs to Zeus alone.
Zeus’s reign, unlike previous ones, was characterized by lasting order and
Despite occasional temporary opposition, he is able to maintain his
position by giving each Olympian the power of independent governance in his
or her own sphere.
Greek gods could have been organized in any number of ways. That the Greeks
conceived of them as being members of a family is significant, as Zeus’s power
over the family unit was extensive but neither unlimited nor unchallenged.
Arrangement of cosmic rulers in a diverse family of divine personalities both
projected Greek human social hierarchies onto Olympus and helped explain the
human experience of contradictions and oppositions in life.
The children of Cronus and Rhea (Zeus, Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Demeter, and
Hestia) are depicted as having physically mature, perfect human forms.
Zeus is King of Heaven, the champion of justice, sworn oaths, and lawful order.
He is also a sky god, the god who gathers clouds and creates storms.
NOTE: There is linguistic evidence that many of the European, Middle Eastern, and Indian
cultures share a common ancestral culture. The ancient, Proto-Indo-European people whose
territories have not been established firmly because of conflicting archaeological and
linguistic evidence, but who may have occupied areas between the Danube and the Volga
Rivers, north of the Caucasus mountain range, have supplied common words to Indo-
European languages all the way from Ireland to Chinese Turkestan. The Proto-Indo-
European words for “one-two-three” are “oinos-duwo-treyes”; “brother” is “bhrater,”
“sky” is “dyeus,” and “father” is “pater.” From this last constellation of words (sky-father)
come the names of Zeus and Jupiter. However, linguists warn that we can’t assume that
gods have had the same roles in the ancient Indo-European culture as they had later in the
Mediterranean area. Today, English and Spanish are the most common Indo-European
languages in the world; the most ancient Indo-European language still spoken is thought to
be Romany, the language of the Gypsies.