published 3.24.2016


Enjoy our first edition of  Off Center, our new digital column featuring information and insights on the themes of our exhibitions, festivals, and public programs. This issue is dedicated to the god that gave Dion its name: Zeus (genitive: Diós), a name of Proto-Indo-European origin that means "celestial," or "shining.” Our exhibition Gods and Mortals at Olympus: Ancient Dion, City of Zeus is on view March 24 to June 18 at the Onassis Cultural Center.

The Life and Times of Zeus 

(HESIOD, Theogony, ca. 8th-7th century BC)

Ancient Dion was a city largely devoted to the cult of Zeus, whose exploits are catalogued in Hesiod's poem, the Theogony. Revealed to the him by the nine Muses, the poem describes Zeus' birth and rise to power. In order to become king of the gods, he first tricks his father Cronos out of eating him alive, and then defeats him in a cosmic battle against the Titans:

"Then Zeus no longer held back his might; but straight his heart was filled with fury and he showed forth all his strength. From Heaven and from Olympus he came forthwith, hurling his lightning: the bold flew thick and fast from his strong hand together with thunder and lightning, whirling an awesome flame. The life-giving earth crashed around in burning, and the vast wood crackled loud with fire all about. All the land seethed, and Ocean's streams and the unfruitful sea." 

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Zeus 1

Comic Conversations with Zeus 

(LUCIAN, Dialogues of the Gods, 125-180 AD)

In his witty and irreverent dialogues, Lucian reimagines famous encounters between the Gods. One episode has Zeus ordering Hephaestus to crack open his skull. The God of Fire and Metallurgy does so with reluctance, and is astounded by the resulting birth of goddess Athena: 

"Why, what have we here? A maiden in full armour! This is no joke, Zeus. You might well be waspish, with this great girl growing up beneath your pia mater; in armour, too! You have been carrying a regular barracks on your shoulders all this time. So active too! See, she is dancing a war-dance, with shield and spear in full swing. She is like one inspired; and (what is more to the point) she is extremely pretty, and has come to marriageable years in these few minutes; those grey eyes, even, look well beneath a helmet. Zeus, I claim her as the fee for my midwifery."

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Why Do Men Believe in Zeus? 

(LUCRETIUS, On the Nature of Things, 99-55 BC)

In his philosophical poem De rerum natura, the Roman poet Lucretius lays out his Epicurean (and largely atheistic) worldview. In this excerpt, he speculates about how and why we came to believe in gods like Zeus:

"And in the sky / They set the seats and vaults of gods, because / Across the sky night and the moon are seen / To roll along- moon, day, and night, and night's / Old awesome constellations evermore, / And the night-wandering fireballs of the sky, / And flying flames, clouds, and the sun, the rains, / Snow and the winds, the lightnings, and the hail, / And the swift rumblings, and the hollow roar / Of mighty menacings forevermore."

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In Praise of Zeus, the One

(CLEANTHES, "Hymn to Zeus", 331-232 BC)

The writings of Cleanthes, an early Stoic philosopher, survive only in fragments. The longest and most famous of these is his "Hymn to Zeus," which, like the cult of Zeus Hypsistos in Ancient Dion, suggests a cultural shift toward monotheism: 

"Omnipotence, who by your just decree / Controls all, hail, Zeus, for unto you / Must your creatures in all lands call."

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Strange Zeus

(ANNE CARSON, "More Zeus Bits")

In these short poems, Anne Carson reflects on Zeus and his bizarre whims: 

"That's the interesting part of being Zeus / Zeus / Says / When asked about a sudden disappearance of all / The rivers in the / World I / Don't need to explain stuff"

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HOMER, The Odyssey, ca. 8th-9th century BC

In this audio excerpt from Homer's Odyssey (translated by Robert Fagles and read by Ian McKellan), the gods gather on Mount Olympus to discuss Odysseus' fate. Zeus, the final decision-maker, hands down his order to Hermes: 

"Announce to the nymph with lovely braids our fixed decree: / Odysseus journeys home--the exile must return. / But not in the convoy of the gods or mortal men. / No, on a lashed, makeshift raft and wrung with pains." 

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Ian Mckellan


Vice Documentary, The Greeks Who Pray to Zeus

In which a group of contemporary Greeks revive the pagan religion of their ancestors: 

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Zeus Now:

 1) Hercules in New York (1970)

In which Hercules (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first ever role) asks Zeus for permission to leave Mount Olympus: 

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2) Clash of the Titans (1981)

In which Zeus (played by Laurence Olivier) doles out merciless punishment to King Acrisius and the people Argos:

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Cronos Eating One of His Children 

(GOYA, Saturn, 1820-23)

Were it not for the cunning of his mother, this would have been Zeus's fate, too:

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The Birth of Athena  

(Ceramic amphora, Athens, ca. 540 BC)

Sprung from Zeus' head, in full regalia:

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Zeus and Danae 

(KLIMT, Danae, 1907)

Zeus as a golden rain, impregnating Danae:

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The fall of the Titans 

(VAN HAARLEM, The Fall of the Titans, 1588-90)

The battle that made Zeus king of the gods: 

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Crime: Stealing fire, giving it to man

Punishment: Daily eagle attacks to the liver

(PETER PAUL RUBENS, Prometheus Bound, 1611-1618)

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Crime: Feeding his Son to the Gods 

Punishment: Eternity in a pool of water, under a fruit tree, both forever eluding his grasp

(HONORÉ DAUMIER, Le Supplice de Tantale, 1842)

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Crime: Betraying Zeus

Punishment: Endlessly rolling of a large boulder up a hill

(TITIAN, Sisyphus, 1548-1549)

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Crime: Fighting against Zeus in the Battle of the Titans

Punishment: Carrying the heavens on his shoulder

(JOHN SINGER SARGENT, Atlas and the Hesperides,1922–25)

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Zeus' Affairs, Visualized

The king of gods was known for his voracious sexual appetite, as strikingly demonstrated in this this infographic: 

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