Why Were the Male Greek Gods so Similar?
The three chief male gods of the Greek pantheon – Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades – were amazingly alike. Was this just because they were brothers, or is there a deeper reason for their similarities?
According to legend, the three sons of Cronus divided the universe evenly when they defeated their father. Zeus became the king of the sky, Poseidon ruled the sea, and Hades lorded over the Underworld.
While Zeus was considered their leader, the three brothers had similar levels of power and authority in practice.
Not only did they differ little in their level of authority, but the three gods were similar in other ways as well. They had similar depictions in art, displayed similar temperaments, and even had similar love lives and children.
The similarities between the three major Greek gods could be attributed to the conventions of showing power. There could be another reason why they almost seem like the same god, however.
The Related Male Gods in Greek Mythology
Most Greek gods and goddesses had certain symbols and attributes that they were often pictured with. These helped to make them immediately identifiable even when there was no context of a story.
Athena, for example, always carried her aegis and wore a helmet. Hermes carried the heralds’ staff and wore his famous winged sandals.
For three of the most important gods in Greek mythology, these attributes were often the only real way to tell them apart.
Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were brothers. When they seized control of the universe from their father, they divided the realms of the world among themselves.
Zeus became the king of the sky as well as the chief god of the Olympians. Poseidon was the lord of the sea. Hades had dominion over the Underworld.
Zeus and Poseidon were typically identified by their most powerful weapons. Zeus carried his famous thunderbolts while Poseidon held his iconic trident.
Hades was depicted less often in art, so his symbolism was not as established. He was often identified through the inclusion of Cerberus, the three-headed dog that guarded his realm.
Similar context clues also helped to identify his brothers. Marine life typically surrounded Poseidon, while Zeus often sat on his throne in the company of other gods.
Without these attributes, however, it would be virtually impossible to tell the three male gods apart.
The male Greek gods were usually shown in almost the exact same way. Their attributes were the only reliable way to tell which god was shown if there was no inscription.
The sons of Cronus were usually shown as having thick, full beards. Although fashions changed over time, they were most often shown with longer hair.
In scenes of battle the gods were often shown either nude or in the armor of the time, but they otherwise wore similar noble-style robes. All three, as lords of their realms, were often seated on thrones.
Their bodies were muscular, in contrast to the lithe appearance that was considered the ideal in younger men. Sculptors in particular emphasized the definition in the muscles of their torsos, legs, and arms.
These were the idealized forms of older men, meant to convey both wisdom and power. They contrasted the idealized bodies of younger gods and heroes who were typically shown as lean, beardless, and lithe.
While artistic conventions and the emphasis on the ideal often led to many figures having similar appearances, the three most powerful male gods were virtually identical in how they were shown. This may stem from more than just the conventions of the time.
My Modern Interpretation
Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades not only looked alike. They acted similarly as well.
The three Olympian brothers were known for their stern demeanours and quick tempers. Zeus and Poseidon were especially similar in the number of love affairs they had and how they went about them.
Hades, as a god of death, was usually thought of as infertile. While he had a wife, Persephone, and there were a few stories of him loving certain nymphs, he had no drive to father children.
From the point of view of the people who wrote the myths, there was also no need to connect their families and cities to Hades. Many stories of Zeus and Poseidon’s affairs involved the foundation of states or ruling families, but few people wanted to have such a direct link to the god of the Underworld.
Zeus and Posiedon, however, had very similar stories of love. Both had numerous affairs and children among both the gods and men.
The three gods were also similar in the extent of their powers.
According to legend, the sons of Cronus had split creation between themselves after their father’s death. Zeus was the king over them all, but Poseidon and Hades ruled their own realms with almost no input or intervention from their brother.
Although there was a hierarchy, Zeus did not appear to be more powerful than the others. Rarely did he explicitly show that he had more authority, either.
The three male gods looked and acted alike, but they also had similar levels of power. The only real difference was in what realm they ruled.
Historians even note that in some stories, the gods appear to have switched roles.
In the abduction of Europa, for example, Zeus kidnaps the beautiful Phoenician princess to make her his mistress. Instead of flying with her, as he does in other myths, he swims to Crete with her on his back.
As the god of the sky, it would be more logical for Zeus to take flight in his more usual eagle form.
In the further legends of Crete, Zeus is absent. Instead, Poseidon takes on the role of the patron god of Minos, Zeus’s son. He even sends a white bull as his sign of favor, the same animal Zeus had transformed into to take Europa.
Historians believe that Poseidon was originally the primary character in both parts of the story. The abduction of Europa was partially rewritten to make Minos the son of Zeus, but other interactions with the gods were left as they were.
The story of Minos likely originated with the culture of Crete. Called the Minoan after him, it predated the rise of Mycenaean Greece.
The god of the sea was likely the chief deity of this island culture. Zeus, on the other hand, was brought into the region with the first Greek-speaking settlers.
When these Greek people took power, their god became the head of the pantheon. Others, like the powerful Minoan sea god, were incorporated into the Greek mythology.
During this process, some attributes and powers were traded between the traditions. Stories and traits that belonged to one god were passed on to the other.
Ultimately, the gods derived from the same source. The two traditions mingled so fully that the gods were essentially the same, with only their assigned domains singling them out.
The two gods were likely very similar to begin with. While their domains differed, as the chief gods of their pantheons they likely shared some of the markers of law and rule that were common across many Indo-European religions.
The Mycenaean and Minoan gods were able to combine so well because they came from the same archetype.
The result was that Poseidon and Zeus were homogenized into nearly identical figures. Not only were they brothers, but as chiefs of their pantheons that had many of the same innate markers of wisdom, power, and vitality.
In ancient Greece, some people acknowledged the relationship in how the gods developed.
Many of the mystery cults of the ancient world focused on secrets of the afterlife and the relationship between life and death. This focus meant that Underworld figures like Persephone were central to their beliefs, and they thought of many more gods as having ties to the realm of the dead.
One story told by the mystery cults was that the god Dionysus had been born twice. The first Dionysus, killed out of spite by Hera, had been the son of Persephone.
The cults taught, however, that there was no contradiction or scandal in Zeus fathering a child with his brother’s wife. This is because they believed that Zeus and Hades were one and the same.
Hades and Zeus were not only similar according to these cults, they were the same being. Hades was simply an aspect of one of Zeus’s many roles as the king of the gods.
The Chthonic Zeus traveled freely to and from the Underworld. He ruled over both Mount Olympus and the land of the dead.
Although surviving texts say little about the sea, there is some evidence that the mystery cults believed that the same was true for Poseidon. He was an aspect of Zeus as the ruler of another realm.
The ancient mystery cults had little knowledge of how different gods and domains were incorporated into mythology over the course of hundreds or thousands of years. They still came to the same conclusion as many modern historians, however – that Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades were too similar to be entirely separate entities.
The three chief male gods of the Greek pantheon were Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. While Zeus had some measure of authority over all of the other gods, in practice the three brothers had virtually identical levels of power.
They were similar in other ways as well. Their features in art were almost entirely the same, showing them all with the attributes of age and authority rather than idealized youth.
Zeus and Poseidon, in particular, had a similar propensity toward love affairs and fathering numerous children. There is even evidence in some stories that the stories of their affairs were sometimes conflated.
All three also had similar temperaments and personalities. Aside from the attributes of their domains, there was little to differentiate between the male Greek gods.
While this is partially due to artistic and storytelling conventions, there may be another reason the gods were so similar.
Some historians believe that all three derived from the same source. All followed Indo-European archetypes of power and law.
When different cultures met, their chief gods were able to easily combine and trade features because they were already of a similar type. The Minoan sea god may have been the chief of his pantheon, but he was recast as the brother of a similar Mycenaean sky god.
Some ancient writers recognized the similarities. They believed that Hades and Poseidon were aspects of Zeus fulfilling multiple roles as a ruler.
The mystery cults of ancient Greece inadvertently hit upon an historical fact – the major male gods of the Greek pantheon were similar to one another because they were, essentially, the same character.