The supreme god of every Greek pantheon, Zeus appears in Greek cults not only as a sovereign god of kings and city councils, the “father of gods and men,” but in a multitude of other, humbler and less familiar guises. Zeus Pater, or “Father Zeus” is one of the few Greek gods whose name can be traced with certainty to Indo-European origins; the same name has been recognized in the Indic god Dyaus pitar and in Roman Juppiter or Diespiter. These are deities of the sky, perceived as divine fathers. Bronze Age Greeks knew the god Zeus, a feminine counterpart of Zeus called Diwa, and a month Diwos, which survived to historical times in Aitolia and Macedonia. This proto-Zeus probably bore only a partial resemblance to the Zeus of the Classical period, who took over the functions of a number of prehellenic deities, and also borrowed certain characteristics of Near Eastern deities in both myth and iconography. Like Babylonian Marduk and Hittite Teshub, Zeus rises to become the supreme deity of the divine assembly. Like West Semitic Baal, he is a storm god who wields the thunderbolt.

Early Archaic Zeus was a rain-making, agricultural deity, sometimes paired with Ge or Demeter, and worshiped at altars constructed on mountain peaks. Disturbing myths of child sacrifice were elements in several of his cults. These can be explained as imported Near Eastern themes or as the mythic expression of initiation practices through which symbolic death led to rebirth in a new stage of life. Later, Zeus was drawn from his rural haunts into the city center, where he presided in a general way over the realm of politics, yet rarely became the patron deity of an individual city. Instead, he was acknowledged as the most powerful of the Olympians through the establishment and growth of his Panhellenic sanctuaries at Olympia, Nemea, and Dodona. His cults typically reinforce traditional sources of authority and standards of behavior, whether in the family, the kinship group, or the city.