for National Geographic News
Excavations at Zeus's mountaintop "birthplace" suggest the site's ash altar was in use at least 5,000 years ago—a thousand years before the earliest known versions of the myth of the Greek god.
Perched on the summit of remote Mount Lykaion, some 4,500 feet (1,370 meters) above the sea, the shrine is about 22 miles (35 kilometers) from the more thoroughly excavated Olympia.
One of two locations referred to in classical literature as Zeus's "birthplace," Mount Lykaion has attracted the god's devotees and pilgrims for millennia.
Now pottery unearthed by the Greek-American Mount Lykaion Excavation and Survey Project shows the mountaintop's conical ash altar was used for sacrifices and other rites centuries before Greeks began to worship their most powerful god.
Birth of a God
Greek-speaking peoples moved into the region of modern Greece some 4,000 years ago and brought their religions with them, archaeologists say.
"What was the altar used for in the thousand-odd years before that time?" asked David Gilman Romano, one of the project's directors.
"It's our hope that we'll learn much more about the early use of this altar and the origins of Zeus [and] what was going on during those thousand years before there was a Zeus," said Romano, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
Romano and colleagues have no sure answers, but they say there's good reason to believe the mountaintop weather and natural phenomena gave rise to the stormy god of gods.
"Rain, thunder, lightning, storms, clouds—all of these things are [associated with] Zeus," Romano said.
"He's a god that historically is often found on mountaintops, and the theory has been presented that the whole idea of Zeus may have come from a weather god as a result of the natural phenomena found on mountaintops."
George Davis of the University of Arizona, a geologist working with the project, has even identified a fault line encircling much of the Arcadian mountaintop, suggesting earthquakes were also part of the impressive array of natural events.
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