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Worship at Zeus's "Birthplace" Predates the Greek God

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
January 25, 2008
 
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.

What's Already There

Ken Dowden, director of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham, U.K., said that when the Greeks arrived, they likely adapted the region's existing religions rather than sweeping them away.

"Paganism is a language, and you suppose that other people worship your gods under the appropriate names in their language," said Dowden, author of Zeus, one in a series of books on ancient gods.

"So if, as we suppose, the Greeks arrive in Greece at the beginning of the second millennium B.C., it is no surprise to see that their cult site goes back to the third millennium B.C.," Dowden said in email.

"The cult sites of earlier inhabitants are still regarded as valid," he said, "and when the language spoken eventually changes to Greek, so may the name of the god.

"There can be no doubt the Greeks brought 'Zeus,' the name, with them to Mount Lykaion. But you do tend to worship a sky and weather god on mountain peaks, and that's doubtless what his predecessor (as we would view it) was."

The two leading myths about Zeus's birth were perpetuated in the writings of Greek and Roman authors. One suggests the God had his origins on Crete, instead of Mount Lykaion.

"It's always interesting to look for what may be the facts behind the myth," Romano said. "That's what we're involved in."

Sacrifice, Competition

The research team is also turning up interesting findings from the site's later history.

Many ancient authors have documented the peak as a thriving center for Panhellenic pilgrimage from the Archaic period to the Hellenistic period (700-200 B.C.).

Some Writers—including the second-century A.D. geographer Pausanias—have hinted that human sacrifices took place at the site.

So far, digging has turned up only numerous goat and sheep remains.

But an ancient hippodrome, stadium, and other buildings grace a lower-mountain meadow—remains of ancient athletic contests that once drew competitors from across Greece and rivaled the games at neighboring Olympia.

"In some ways Olympia might have been modeled after this site, which may have been—according to Pliny—an earlier site," Romano said, referring to the first-century A.D. Roman scientist and historian.

The team has also unearthed an intriguing find from this later era—a rock crystal seal with an image of a bull that identifies it as Minoan, from around 1500-1400 B.C.

Scholars say the artifact may indicate some kind of Crete-Arcadia connection related to early Zeus worship.

Certainly, Romano said, the seal's presence is not an accident.

"It's an important object, so whoever put it there did it for a reason," he said. It's "a dedication to the god—at that time, Zeus—that was meaningful, [because it meant] leaving something of worth on the altar."

The excavations—the first at the Mount Lykaion site in a century—are a collaborative project of the Greek Archaeological Service, 39th Ephoreia in Tripolis, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and the University of Arizona operating under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens.

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