Historically, many artists and sculptors have chosen to represent gods using symbols instead of depicting them with a human appearance. For example, Hades was often represented using a bident or cornucopia because drawing the god was considered to be a bad omen.
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While a painting of Zeus was never considered to bring ill fortune, he was still represented by many symbols. The most notable of these was the thunderbolt. Zeus was depicted in many statues and paintings holding a thunderbolt in his right hand. In fact, this seems like a very obvious symbol for the god of the sky and storms.
However, Zeus’ thunderbolts hold a fair bit of importance in mythology as well. The thunderbolts were crafted by the cyclopes, sons of Uranus who excelled in forging weapons. Zeus thunderbolts were so powerful that they could cause massive damage to any being, mortal or divine. Zeus is known to have used thunderbolts to kill Asclepius, the physician who could cure death, and the 100-headed Typhon during the titanomachy.
The second most common symbol of Zeus was the eagle. Zeus was described in many epics as all-powerful and all-seeing. The eagle represents the fact that Zeus watches over the mortal realm from the sky. Some myths say that Zeus transformed into an eagle to observe humans and in the Odyssey, he sends a pair of eagles to Ithaca as an omen to the people there.
Many myths also describe a being known as the Aetos Dios, a golden eagle that was a companion of Zeus. However, the stories regarding the origins of the Eagle of Zeus are varied. Some sources say the eagle was created by Gaia, and sent to Zeus as a good omen before the titanomachy.
The other myth involves a king named Periphas. He was benevolent towards his subjects and was a pious and dutiful priest of Apollo. The citizens of Periphas’ kingdom loved and respected him so much that they began worshiping him as a god. Enraged, Zeus decided to kill Periphas. But Apollo intervened, and the gods compromised, agreeing to transform Periphas into an immortal eagle that would serve Zeus.
Zeus also famously used an eagle as mode of punishment in the myth of Prometheus. The titan Prometheus secretly gifted fire to humans to keep them warm and safe, against the wishes of Zeus. The sky god punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock and sending an eagle to tear out Prometheus’ liver each day.
The Oak Tree
The final significant symbol of Zeus was the oak tree. Oaks grow to a massive size, produce extremely strong wood and live for many years. As a result, they are associated with strength and wisdom, which are common characteristics of Zeus.
The Oak was commonly used in many rituals to worship Zeus. The oracle of Dodona, which was consulted by heroes such as Jason and Odysseus before their journeys, also resided underneath an Oak tree. Priests in temples of Zeus would consult with Oak trees, hoping to receive messages from the god himself.