An Introduction to Epithets

Culturally, we probably know the Greek gods better than any other pantheon. We can attribute this in part to artists and poets–Byron and his crew loved our gods and loved to write for them, and I think I’ve seen more art depicting Aphrodite than I have any other individual, immortal or otherwise.

We know them by their ancient names: Athena, Zeus, Persephone.

The ancients, however, knew them by other names as well. Zeus was Zeus, of course. But Zeus was also Zeus Maimaktes. He was Zeus Xenios. He was Zeus Meilichios. He was Zeus Teleios, Zeus Ktesios, Zeus Polieus.

Some epithets are functional. Zeus Maimaktes, or “Blustering Zeus,” reminds us that he is a storm god. Zeus Xenions, “Zeus of the Stranger,” is concerned with hospitality above all, with how visitors and guests are treated by a community. Another civic-minded form of Zeus is that of Zeus Polieus, or “Zeus of the City,” whose concern was the safety of the polis or city. Zeus Meilichios, “Kindly Zeus,” is a household god who helps maintain the prosperity of a home and is often represented by a snake. Another household Zeus also represented in this way is Zeus Ktesios or “Zeus of Household Property” who is the provider of abundance in a household’s larder. Zeus Teleios–“Zeus of Marriage”–and his counterpart Hera Teleia were honored together in their roles as protectors of the marriage bond.

Other epithets referred to a particular location where the deity was worshipped. This wasn’t simply a matter of emphasizing the god’s attachment to the local area. Sometimes a regional difference was considerable–Artemis in Ephesus, for example, was represented far differently than Artemis in the rest of Greece.

In most of the ancient Greek world, Artemis was most often depicted as an athletic young woman, dressed for the hunt, possibly accompanied by the animals, such as the deer, under her protection. In Ephesus, however, the most common depiction was very ancient and very unique–that of a more mature, statuesque woman wearing a tall crown and decorated with rounded objects that have been variously identified as breasts or eggs; she, too, is typically associated with wild beasts.

It is uncertain how closely the ancients associated a deity under one epithet with the same deity under another name–Artemis in Ephesus again being a good example of the differences that could exist. Did they think of Zeus Meilichios as the “same guy” as the Olympian Zeus of myth and drama? Again, I don’t know. I do know that when you called him Zeus Meilichios, he was given different treatment in a different venue, received different offerings, and was often perceived as manifesting in a different form. But does taking the appearance of a snake make Zeus someone other than Zeus? Leda and Europa, who knew him as a swan and a bull respectively, would beg to differ.

As a modern polytheist, I think that’s something we have to decide for ourselves as individuals. I don’t think the use of epithets is required in order to honor the gods, but it can add to our practice and to our understanding of deity.

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