God of the sea, rivers, storms, earthquakes, bulls, and horses, Poseidon occupies a large amount of ancient Greek mythology, literature, and theology, as well as multiple appearances in modern pop culture.
By Dimosthenis Vasiloudis
He had an unpredictable temperament that reflected his domain and could be tranquil or fatally tempestuous as per his natural powers and animal allegories.
Poseidon is associated with many evil and abusive giants and dragons. This affinity with various mythological monsters likely preceded Ionians’ associations of the god with the sea.
The origins of god’s name, “Posei-don,” are yet unclear although the most prominent theory breaks it down into two parts, the first of which means “husband” or “lord” (Greek πόσις, posis) and, the second of which means “earth” (δᾶ, da, the Doric form for γῆ, gaia). In other words, the meaning of this would be something along the lines of lord, or spouse, of the earth.
Some of the many epithets (adjectives) that accompany his name in Homer (and also on the Mycenaean Linear B tablets) tie him more so with the element of earth rather than the sea. Some of these are Enosigaios (Ἐνοσίγαιος) or Enosichthon (Ἐνοσίχθων), which mean “earth-shaker.”
These epithets have an older use as identified in Linear B religious scripts, such as in “E-ne-si-da o-ne,” with the root ‘da.’ Other epithets that relate him with earthquakes are Gaieochos (Γαιήοχος) and Seisichthon (Σεισίχθων).
The god who is said to cause earthquake also protects against them, so that he was simultaneously referred to with the epithets Themeliouchos (Θεμελιούχος), meaning “upholding the foundations,” and Asphaleios (Ἀσφάλειος), meaning “securer, protector.” A homonymous temple is located in Tainaron.
According to these facts, it seems that, initially, during the late Bronze Age Helladic civilizations, the Greek god, Poseidon, was mainly a chthonic deity and was mostly related to the earth as a fertility god or as a ruler or husband in the depths of the deified earth.
Herodotus’ testimony conveys that he is the one who locks the Titans in the dark Tartarus. This is also suggestive of his connection with the Underworld. It was Poseidon who was also invoked by the Spartans every time they felt the earth shaking under their feet, as Xenophon describes the Lacedaemonian invasion of the land of the Argeans in 390 BC.
The tracking of Poseidon in the maritime space is the last phase in the evolution of his physiognomy in the Greek pantheon and minimizes the prestige he seemed to have had in the proto-Olympian Greek religion.
This is something conveyed to us so far by indications related to the Mycenaean religious texts, where the worship of Poseidon appears to be quite strong and generally competes even with the worship of Zeus, clearly questioning its first position.
If surviving Linear B records are reliable, the name po-se-da-wo-ne (Poseidon) is much more common than does di-u-ja (Zeus).
Τhe limitation of the general Poseidon’s significance and the gradual undermining of his worship in the later Olympic pantheon is reflected both in the myths about the distribution of the power of the world in domains (Poseidon wins the domain of the sea) and, moreover, in the local cult traditions. These present Poseidon as losing his sovereignty over disputed places after a conflict with other gods.
It must be pointed out that the subversion of chthonic deities is connected with socio-political changes that took place within the Greek world after the so-called Dark Ages. The rationalization of religious structures within the new political organization of the city-states was especially significant in this development. This is not necessarily tied in with the invasion of other cultural or ethnic groups in the Greek mainland—according to older assumptions—who brought their own religious traditions.
Poseidon was the second son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, so he is the eldest brother of Zeus and Hades. After Poseidon was rescued from Cronus by Zeus, he teamed up with him and his other siblings against Cronus and the Titans.
Along with his siblings, the Hecatonchires and the Cyclopes, Poseidon fought against Cronus and the other Titans in the Battle of the Gods known as Titanomachy. In this battle, the Olympians, the younger generation led by Zeus, defeated the Titans and overthrew Cronus.
When the three brothers deposed their father, the kingdom of the sea fell by lot to Poseidon. He lived with his wife, Amphitrite, who was a beautiful sea nymph, along with his son, Triton, in a palace on the ocean floor which was made of coral and gems. Poseidon often interfered in the plans of Zeus and once even attempted to overthrow his brother with the aid of Hera and Athena.
Poseidon was said to have had many lovers and many children, but not all of them were human. In an archaic myth, Poseidon once pursued his sister, Demeter. She spurned his advances, turning herself into a mare so that she could hide in a herd of horses, but he saw through the deception and became a stallion and captured and raped her.
Their child was a horse, Arion, capable of human speech. Poseidon also raped Medusa. She was then changed into a monster by Athena. When she was later beheaded by Perseus, Chrysaor and Pegasus, the mythical winged divine horse, emerged from her neck.
His other children include Polyphemus (of the Cyclops), Alebion, Tityos, Bergion, Otos, and Ephialtae (of the giants) among many other mythical creatures. Even the Laistrygons and other barbarians, cannibals, savages, and godforsaken thieves of the Greek province were, as many said, seed of Poseidon.
Figures linked to him are characteristic of the many features of Poseidon’s physiognomy, attributes, or phenomena of his domain and hypostases of his divinity. These include: the untamed nature of the sea, unpredictable natural hazards, extreme geological phenomena, his moody nature, and other earlier, similar gods whom Poseidon replaced. Elements of
theological compositions and pre-Olympic forms of his worship are also intertwined.
Experiences and memories of inhospitable places and barbarous peoples, including wild customs, incest, human sacrifices, and cannibalism among other things emphasized the characteristics of Poseidon’s wild sons.
We can assume that the extermination of so many of Poseidon’s wild sons by nobler heroes, as well as the loss of so many beloved places by God himself, are actually legends for the substitution of older forms of worship by redefined newer ones.
Poseidon’s most distinctive symbols
Poseidon’s main weapon and symbol was the trident, which is a three-pronged fishing spear—an image that became his most prominent in art. According to the Greek poet Hesiod, Poseidon’s trident, much like Zeus’s thunderbolt and Hades’ helmet, was fashioned by the three Cyclopes.
In many representations of various vessels, he also wielded a boulder encrusted with sea creatures. He was often crowned with a wreath of wild celery or a simple headband and was either clothed in a robe or with a billowing cloak.
Poseidon’s sacred animals were the bull, horse, and dolphin, and his sacred plants were the pine tree and wild celery—not accidental symbolisms at all if we consider the impetuosity of god’s nature, as well as the metaphor of the forces of both rushing rivers and stormy seas.
As god of the sea, he was also closely associated with other marine creatures. His chariot was drawn by a pair of fish-tailed horses (hippocampus). A very famous mythical creature of Poseidon was the Cretan Bull, sire of the Minotaur (killed by Theseus, a noble hero).
Greek God Poseidon in literature
In the Iliad, Poseidon favors the Greeks as a major protagonist in the Trojan War and, on several occasions, takes an active part in the battle against Trojan forces by leading Achaean heroes in battle with a flashing sword. Poseidon encouraged Greek troops indirectly by disguising himself as an old seer named Calchas.
However, he rescues Aeneas after the Trojan prince is laid low by Achilles. In The Odyssey, Poseidon is notable for his hatred of Odysseus who blinded the god’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus.
The nemesis of Poseidon prevents Odysseus’s return to Ithaca for many years. Odysseus is even told, notwithstanding his ultimate safe return, that an additional voyage would be required to placate the wrath of Poseidon.
Yet another interesting reference to the god is also made in the Aeneid, a Latin epic poem, written by Virgil in which the legendary story of Aeneas, a Trojan who fled the fall of Troy and traveled to Italy where he became the ancestor of the Romans, is narrated.
Neptune (Roman god of the sea, identified with the Greek Poseidon) is still resentful of the wandering Trojans. He is not as vindictive as Juno, and in Book I, he rescues the Trojan fleet from the goddess’s attempts to wreck it although his primary motivation for doing this is his annoyance at Juno’s having intruded into his domain.