King of the gods, the High priest and the great benefic are only some of the epithets given to the largest planet in our solar system. In fact, many cultures saw Jupiter as one of the most important planets in the sky, surpassed only by the Sun, Moon and sometimes Venus. Surprisingly, despite the widespread admiration towards Jupiter, the mythological stories surrounding him often featured arrogance and egocentrism.
So what do the various myths and legends tell us about the largest planet in our solar system?
Young, drunk, and the dragon-slaying king of all the gods
The planet Jupiter gets its name from the supreme god of the romans, but today he is mostly known by his Greek name – Zeus. Hidden at birth, Zeus who was the youngest of his kin grew up to defeat his father Cronus (aka Saturn) and usurp his throne. To achieve such a feat he had to make alliances, procure a weapon in the form of lightning and defeat a monster named Typhon. With that done, the greatest threat to his power came not from a rival but from his insatiable lust that often got him in trouble with his wife Hera (aka Juno). In fact, the attempts to hide his affairs from his wife showcased another important power he possessed – Shapeshifting into the form of other people or even animals.
One might assume that this story is purely Greco-Roman, yet there were many to tell it in the last 5000 years. Among them one also finds the Scandinavian and Germanic pagans, to whom Jupiter was not the king but a boisterous youth named Thor. Thor also had to defeat an epic monster in the form of Jormangandr, the Midgard (world) serpent, using a magical throwing hammer instead of a lightning bolt. And just like Zeus, he was known for his appetite for women and alcohol as well as his ability to get into trouble. And while not as skilled at shapeshifting as his Greek counterpart, he did have to disguise himself on several occasions.
Same story, different continents and millennia
A far older version of the same deity can be found in the Enuma-Elish, the Babylonian creation myth. In this version, our hero is named Marduk who is a youngster that was created to defeat Tiamat, the primordial mother dragon. To accomplish his task, Marduk was given a chariot, divine weapon including lightning bolts, and allies in the form of the other gods, the 4 winds and the 7 storms (Rudras). More importantly, for accepting the task he was given the throne and control over the gods and over all creation by his father Enki, the god of water.
Now let’s replace Enki with Varuna, Marduk with Indra and Tiamat with Vritra, and we arrive at the Hindu version of the story. And just like his western counterparts, Indra was said to be far too fond of soma, women and trouble. He was also known for using disguises whenever required as well as special agents and allies to aid in his goals.
Another version of the story, this time from the land of Khem, calls the hero Horus and his usurped father Osiris. This time however it is his uncle Set, not Horus, who seizes the throne by dismembering Osiris and becomes the villain, taking the place of Saturn who mutilated and usurped Uranus in the Roman version of the myth. Interestingly, in this version it is not Horus but Set who is tasked with defeating the world serpent Apep (Apophis).
One might assume that these stories were wiped out with the spread of monotheism, but nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, there is not one but two separate versions of this story in the Abrahamic religions. The first is outlined in the book of Job, where God brags about the greatness of defeating the monstrous Leviathan, which shows his supremacy over all creation. The second morphs Jupiter into the archangel Michael, who is often depicted slaying the devil in the form of a dragon or a serpent.
From brash youth to wise teacher
While most cultures equate Jupiter exclusively with the king of the gods, Hindu tradition adds another dimension to the planet in the form of Brihaspati – the Guru, teacher and priest of the divines. While the rest of the gods obey Indra, Indra obeys Brihaspati. This hierarchical twist reflects the reality of many ancient cultures where the priests were the ones to choose, crown and advise the king, and can also be seen in the role of the church in European monarchies before the reformation.
Brihaspati however, was far from perfect when it came to both his ego and his marriage. When insulted by Indra, he left the gods to their fate in the middle of a war and refused to come back at any cost. When he was swamped with work, he started to neglect his wife Tara, forcing her to leave him in favor of the amorous Chandra (the Moon). Not one to let his ego rest and offer a divorce, Brihaspati started a full blown civil war and won back his wife who was now pregnant with Budha (Mercury). Whatever his flaws, he was nonetheless a dutiful and loving father to the boy his wife bore, and taught him well.
Lets add a mutant to the mix
While the figure of Brihaspati is quite unique and mostly relegated to Hindu mythology, there was a very similar figure in the Greco-Roman stories – Chiron. While he was a centaur, he was unrelated to his unruly peers, and once educated by Apollo he became a teacher to many others from Achilles to Dionysus. He often taught and protected children who would later become mythological heroes themselves. He was known not only for his proficiency with the bow but also for his skill with herbs and healing, and even for his knowledge of astrology. He was also quite selfless, taking the place of Prometheus on the mountain when he could no longer heal himself.
Another chimeric wisdom figure is the aforementioned Horus, whose all seeing eye protected the pharaohs. In his battles with the malevolent Set, he constantly outsmarts the villain but loses an eye before securing his victory. The victory over Set, along with the fact that he was actually conceived by the mummy of his father, made him the god of life and resurrection, and all living pharaohs were considered an embodiment of Horus. His chimeric form with the head of a falcon is in fact an amalgamation of the worship of falcons as divine omens as well as the Egyptian version of the chariot that carries the deity across the sky. Quite a practical solution, given the fact that this deity is even older than chariots themselves.
“A song to david: YHWH my shepherd, I shall not lack.
In lush meadows he puts me, in waters of calm he leads me.
My soul he will rejoice, and guide me in circles of justice in his name.
Even if I walk in deaths-shadow valley I will not fear evil as you are alongside me.
Your tribe and your adobe will be my comfort.
You will set before me a table, against my tormentors.
You nourished my head with oil, my cup is full.
Only good and grace shall haunt me all the days of my life.
And I return to the house of YHWH for days on end.”