Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome
The most celebrated statue of the Olympian Zeus was that by the famous Athenian sculptor Phidias, which was forty feet high, and stood in the temple of Zeus at Olympia. It was formed of ivory and gold, and was such a masterpiece of art, that it was reckoned among the seven wonders of the world. It represented the god, seated on a throne, holding in his right hand a life-sized image of Nike (the goddess of Victory), and in his left a royal sceptre, surmounted by an eagle. It is said that the great sculptor had concentrated all the marvellous powers of his genius on this sublime conception, and earnestly entreated Zeus to give him a decided proof that his labours were approved. An answer to his prayer came through the open roof of the temple in the shape of a flash of lightning, which Phidias interpreted as a sign that the god of heaven was pleased with his work.
Zeus was first worshipped at Dodona in Epirus, where, at the foot of Mount Tomarus, on the woody shore of Lake Joanina, was his famous oracle, the most ancient in Greece. Here the voice of the eternal and invisible god was supposed to be heard in the rustling leaves of a giant oak, announcing to mankind the will of heaven and the destiny of mortals; these revelations being interpreted to the people by the priests of Zeus, who were called Selli. Recent excavations which have been made at this spot have brought to light the ruins of the ancient temple of Zeus, and also, among other interesting relics, some plates of lead, on which are engraved inquiries which were evidently made by certain individuals who consulted the oracle. These little leaden plates speak to us, as it were, in a curiously homely manner of a by-gone time in the buried past. One person inquires what god he should apply to for health and fortune; another asks for advice concerning his child; and a third, evidently a shepherd, promises a gift to the oracle should a speculation in sheep turn out successfully. Had these little memorials been of gold instead of lead, they would doubtless have shared the fate of the numerous treasures which adorned this and other temples, in the universal pillage which took place when Greece fell into the hands of barbarians.
Though Dodona was the most ancient of his shrines, the great national seat of the worship of Zeus was at Olympia in Elis, where there was a magnificent temple dedicated to him, containing the famous colossal statue by Phidias above described. Crowds of devout worshippers flocked to this world-renowned fane from all parts of Greece, not only to pay homage to their supreme deity, but also to join in the celebrated games which were held there at intervals of four years. The Olympic games were such a thoroughly national institution, that even Greeks who had left their native country made a point of returning on these occasions, if possible, in order to contend with their fellow-countrymen in the various athletic sports which took place at these festivals.