In Greek mythology, Poseidon (Gr. Ποσειδων Lat. Poseidon) is the god of the sea.
He is assimilated to Neptune among the Romans. Poseidon is the son of Cronus and Rhea and the brother of Zeus, Hades, Demeter, Hera, and Hestia. His trident, forged by the cyclopses during the Titanomachy (confrontation between Cronos and his children), allowed him to lift or calm the waters.
What is Poseidon god of?
Poseidon is the god of the sea and oceans, as well as the “Ground Shaker”: god of earthquakes and springs in Greek mythology.
Before anthropomorphism made him a god of the sea, Poseidon seems to have been a Chthonian god linked to the underground world, a carrier of death and responsible for earthquakes. He is close to the personality of the god Hades. Arcadia where his cult is the oldest makes him an ambivalent god, responsible for natural disasters but also for the return of the fertile waters of spring. He is the Greek god most strongly linked to the horse through his myths and representations. However, He does not seem to come from a divinized horse, totemism being unknown in ancient Greece. More likely, his hippomorphic representations served to highlight the strange and superhuman forces he controlled.
This essential marine deity is one of the twelve Olympians, but he has always been eager for terrestrial kingdoms that he will try to conquer by entering into conflict with other divinities (Athena, Hera, Helios).
Poseidon’s symbols and his trident
Poseidon is one of the three masters of the Universe, along with his brothers Zeus and Hades. He rides a chariot harnessed to half-horse half-dolphin creatures and can cause earthquakes by driving his trident into the ground. He is also symbolized by the bull and especially the horse. Poseidon is often referred as the god of the oceans. He has a golden palace located at the bottom of the sea, located according to the sources, either in Aegae, or near the Gulf of Corinth, or near the island of Evia. He reigns as absolute master over the sea.
Neptune calming the waves (1733)
Lambert ADAM © Louvre Museum
He has the following symbols:
- the trident,
- the dolphin,
- the bull,
- the horse he would have created or domesticated.
Poseidon’s symbol is his trident. You can recognize this accessory used to fish large tuna, and you can notice that the same weapon is in the hands of other marine deities. Another hypothesis, the trident is a gift of the Cyclops and the thunder and lightning of zeus also. This second explanation would be consistent with the theory that identifies the two divinities. In any case, this weapon is, on the figurative monuments, its specific attribute; it is with it that it lifts the sea, that it destroys citadels and ramparts, breezes rocks and mountains, brings forth springs, fights against the Giants.
The dolphin, the animal dear to all the deities of the sea or protectors of navigators, is also one of his constant attributes in works of art: the god is often represented holding a dolphin in hand or setting foot on the animal dedicated to it. It is a dolphin that goes to seek Amphitrite fleeing from Atlas the pursuit of Poseidon. In the form of a dolphin he surprises Melantho, the daughter of Deucalion and the mother of Delphos; he gives his son Theseus an escort of dolphins to accompany him to the bottom of the sea in search of the Minos ring.
Facts and myths about Poseidon
Metropolitan Museum of Art, N.Y.
Son of Cronos and Rhea, Poseidon shared the fate of his brothers and was, from birth, swallowed by his father, who had to bring him back to light by the effect of the drink Zeus gave him on the advice of Metis. According to other authors, Rhea managed to remove Poseidon from her father’s voracity, she gave him a young foal to eat, and she hid her son in the middle of a herd of lambs, near Mantua; entrusted to a nurse named Arne, Poseidon grew up without his father’s knowledge. It was also said that the young god had been handed over by his mother to Capheira, daughter of Oceanus who raised him in Rhodes with the help of the Telchins.
When Zeus fought the Titans and Giants, Poseidon stood by his side and killed the giant Polybotes, throwing at him a fragment of rock detached from the island of Cos and later becoming the islet of Nisyros. After the common victory, the paternal inheritance was divided into three lots: Zeus had the vast sky, Hades the thick darkness of the underground world and Poseidon obtained the immense sea.
Equal to Zeus by birth and dignity, Poseidon was nevertheless subject to the sovereign power of his brother. The god of the sea sometimes moaned and became irritated, and he even dared one day to conspire with Hera and Athena to dethrone Zeus, but Zeus was the strongest, and Poseidon had to atone for his attempt at revolt by serving the proud Laomedon for a year, and building the ramparts of Troy.
Neptune creating the horse
Jordaens © Pitti Florence Palace
However, his empire had enough to satisfy his ambition. Master of the sea, Poseidon still had under his dependence the lakes and rivers; the land itself belonged to him in some way, since he supported it on its waters and could shake it according to his fantasy. Didn’t we see him, during the war of the Giants, split with his trident the mountains and roll them into the sea, to form the first islands? Was it not he again who, at the time when Thessaly was only an immense lake, had, by splitting the Ossa massif in two, cleared a road to Paiania?
He boasts of having created the horse, but it is said that when he was still newborn, Rhea gave one to Cronus to eat. He also claimed the invention of the bridle, although Athena had already invented it before him; but he was not disputed for having instituted horse racing. In his vast stables, he owned white horses for his tanks, with golden manes and bronze hooves, as well as a golden chariot that instantly calmed storms down. In any case, the horses are dedicated to him, perhaps because of his loving pursuit of Demeter.
As he was of a gruff and quarrelsome character, he preferred to build his palace on the bottom of the sea off Aegeus in Evia (or Helike).
Poseidon had countless mistresses and was the father of many children. Below is a short list of his most famous achievements.
Loves of Poseidon
Gaia was made the mother of the fearsome giant Anteus, who regained her strength when she came into contact with Mother Earth.
It was in the form of a horse or a bird that Poseidon managed to seduce the beautiful Medusa, in the very temple of Athena, who, irritated by this desecration, turned Medusa’s hair into snakes.
Of Alcyone, one of the Pleiades, Poseidon had a daughter, Aethusus, who was loved by Apollo, and two sons: Hiperenor and Hyrieus; the latter reigned in Boeotia and, for the benefit of the gods, was the father of the giant Orion.
Demeter was in search of her daughter Persephone, tired and discouraged by her quest and reluctant to play love games, she turned into a mare and goes to rest with the flock of a certain Oncos, son of Apollo who reigned in Onceion in Arcadia. But she did not succeed in fooling Poseidon, who transformed himself into a stallion and joined her; from this union was born a nymph, Despoena, whose name was reserved for initiates only, and the immortal horse Areion or Arion endowed with words.
Coronis and Neptune (2)
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Celaeno (one of the Pleiades) and Poseidon had two or three sons: Lycus, who ruled the Fortunate Islands, Nycteus and Euphemus.
With Astypalea, sister of Europe, Poseidon had another child: Eurypyle, who ruled the island of Kos and was killed by Heracles, was born, as well as the Ancestor of the Argonauts;
Coronis, Phlegyas‘s daughter, was turned into a crow by Athena to allow her to escape Poseidon’s incessant pursuit;
Chione, daughter of Boreas, having been seduced by Poseidon, had a son, Eumolpe; to hide her fault, she threw her child into the sea; but Poseidon saved him and carried him to Ethiopia, where he entrusted him to his daughter Benthesikyme, whose son-in-law is Eumolpos.
Aethra was the daughter of Pittheus, king of Trezene. Athena having ordered him, during a dream, to go to the island of Spheria to offer a sacrifice on the tomb of Spheroas, the girl was surprised in the temple by Poseidon, who abused her. Aethra then married Aegean and became the mother of Theseus.
Theophane, daughter of Bisaltes, was sought by many contenders for her great beauty. To remove her from their attendance, Poseidon carried the girl, whom he loved, on the island of Crinissa. The suitors having followed him there, the god turned Theophane into sheep, the inhabitants of the island into sheep and himself took the form of a ram. Theophane gave birth to the famous ram with a golden fleece.
Alope, daughter of Cercyon, had had a son from Poseidon; she exposed him, after covering him with rich clothes. Breastfed by a runaway, the child was taken in by shepherds, who brought their find to Cercyon. The latter, when he saw the clothes, discovered his daughter’s fault; he sentenced her to life imprisonment and had the child exposed again. But the faithful runner came again to breastfeed him. That’s why it was called Hippothoos. Later, when Cercyon was killed by Theseus, Hippothoos ascended to his grandfather’s throne.
Érysichton sells his daughter Mestra.
Engraving by JW Bauer
Erysichthon, king of Thessaly, was tormented by an insatiable hunger for having ransacked a wood dedicated to Demeter. In order to appease him, he had to sell everything he owned; at the end of his resources, he put his own daughter Mestra on sale as a slave. Poseidon, who loved her, gave her the gift of metamorphosing and escaping from the buyers every time. This scheme allowed Erysichthon to sell his daughter several times, until the day when, after the trick was discovered, he had no other resource but to devour himself.
The origin of the Pirene fountain, which was located near Corinth, was also linked to the legend of Poseidon. The god had had the nymph Pirene, daughter of Acheloos or Asôpos, two sons who perished miserably. Their mother inconsolable stopped crying, and it was his tears that gave birth to the famous fountain.
Daughter of Salmoneus and Cretheus, the nymph Tyro had fallen in love with the river god Enipeus, and Poseidon, who loved her, was desperate to one day touch her heart. As Tyro walked along the rives of the Enipeus, Poseidon took the form of the river god and presented himself to her. Abused by this disguise, the young girl abandoned herself to him. From this union were born two sons, Pelias and Neleus, who, first exposed by their mother, were taken in by shepherds and raised among herds of horses. However, Tyro had married Cretheus, king of Iolcus, and was mistreated by his mother-in-law Sidero. Returning later to their mother, Pelias and Nelea killed Sidero.
Neptune, Amymone and the Satyr
Carle Van Loo (© Musee Cherret, Nice)
Amymone and her sisters were ordered by their father Danaus to discover a source to feed the population because the Argolida was experiencing a terrible drought because of Poseidon’s anger against the river god Inachus who had supported Hera. The god was furious that this territory he coveted had been denied him, which is why Danaus also recommended to his daughters not to displease Poseidon by their conduct.
On the way, Amymone met a satyr who tried to rape her (others say she had inadvertently wounded him), she called Poseidon who chased the brazen man by throwing his trident at him; the weapon was planted in a rock from which immediately sprang a clear and fresh spring that Amymone begged to let it flow. It has been named since Amymone and it feeds Lerne, whose water never runs out even in the summer.
Poseidon, who had fallen in love, consented on condition that the girl gave herself to him; she did not hesitate for a single moment, obeying her father’s order without running the risk of incurring his wrath. From this union was born Nauplius, who later founded the city of Nauplia and was swallowed up in the waves for having blasphemed against the gods.
The wedding of Poseidon
by N. POUSSIN
Museum of Art Philadelphia
Poseidon wanted to marry the Amphitrite nereid, who initially took refuge in the Atlas to escape it.
He sent her messengers, including Delphinus, who was so good at pleading his case that she agreed to become his wife.
To reward him, the image of Delphinus was placed in the firmament to become the constellation of the dolphin.
The couple had three children: a son Triton, and two daughters Rhode who gave his name to the island of Rhodes and was the mother of the Heliads, and Benthesikyme, who settled in Ethiopia. Like her brother Zeus, Poseidon had many extramarital affairs, but unlike Hera, Amphitrite patiently endured her multiple infidelities.
Poseidon was greedy for earthly kingdoms and many times he came into conflict with other deities to take possession of a piece of land.
Athena against Poseidon
One day he claimed Attica by planting his trident in the Acropolis of Athens where a well of salt water was immediately formed.
Later, during the reign of Cecrops, Athena came and settled in a more pleasant way by planting the first olive tree near the well. Poseidon, furious, provoked her into single combat and Athena was ready to accept if Zeus had not interfered and ordered them to submit to arbitration to find out who had made the most useful gift. Zeus did not express an opinion, but all the other gods supported Poseidon and all the goddesses supported Athena. And so, by a majority of one vote, the court ruled that Athena had more rights in the territory because she had given her a better and more useful gift.
As for Troezen, Zeus gave the order that the city should be divided between the two of them, which was not pleasant to either of them.
A dispute also arose between Poseidon and Helios over the Corinthian isthmus. Briareus, chosen as referee, granted Helios the Acrocorinth and abandoned the rest of the isthmus to Poseidon; this was the origin of the particular cult of which Poseidon was honored in the isthmus of Corinth, and which had as its main manifestation the famous Islamic games.
Poseidon claimed the Argolida from Hera and refused to appear before his Olympian peers, who, he said, were warned against him. But a court composed of the three river gods, Inachos, Cephisos, and Asterion, rendered a judgment in favor of Hera. Very disappointed by this Poseidon judgment, all the water in the Argolida disappeared except after the rains, when catastrophic floods ravaged the region. However, he made an exception for Lerna thanks to Amymone’s request.
Poseidon fought unsuccessfully for Aegina
by Walter CRANE (1892)
Finally, Poseidon fought unsuccessfully for Aegina against Zeus, Naxos and Dionysus, and had to give Apollo the territory of Delphi, which he had hitherto owned in common with Gaia, and in exchange for which he received the island of Kalaureia.
On the other hand, Poseidon’s royalty on the sea remained undisputed. He had established his residence in the depths of the Aegean Sea, where “a magnificent palace, bursting with gold, had been built for him, of eternal duration”. To get out, he tied his fast couriers, with bronze hooves and golden manes, to his chariot; he himself, covering himself with gold armour, grabbed a whip industrially shaped, and threw his chariot on the liquid plain. Around him were the sea monsters, who came out of the depths of the abyss to pay homage to their sovereign; the merry sea opened before him, and the chariot flew lightly on the waves, which could not wet the brass axle. But most often, Poseidon’s appearance was accompanied by terrible storms, a manifestation of the god’s noisy anger.
Cult of Poseidon
Poseidon, the national God of the Peloponnesian Ionians, who won the day in their migration to Asia, was particularly adored in this part of Greece: in Sparta, he was even called Genethlios, the creator. But his cult was also widespread throughout Greece, mainly in the maritime cities, where he even supplanted the local divinity, as in Corinth, Rhodes, and Tenure.
The animals dedicated to him were horses, symbols of gushing springs, and bulls, emblems of his fertile action or impetuousness. During certain festivals dedicated to Poseidon, which were called Taureia, black bulls were precipitated into the waves.
In the same way, horse races were celebrated in Poseidon’s honor; this custom originated in Thessaly, where the god, it was said, had brought the horse into being with one blow from his trident, but it is said that when he was still newborn, Rhea gave one to Cronos to eat.
Poseidon in arts
The type of Poseidon, as consecrated in ancient art, is very similar to that of Zeus: he has the majesty of it when he stands up, his bare chest, leaning on his trident. But usually, his appearance is less serene and betrays a worried expression, with his hair in disorder and his thick beard.
The representations of Poseidon / Neptune do not abound in painting, but the sculptures are more numerous. One of the best-preserved statues known of Poseidon can be sees at the Dresden Museum. In the Madrid Museum, there is a semi-colossal Poseidon, made of marble, standing near a dolphin.
Neptune calming the storm
Bardo Museum, Tunisia
Neptune and Amphitrite
Jacques de GHEYN Museum of Cologne
Let’s mention two more ancient bronzes from the Louvre;
a Greek marble statue in the Vatican; a Herculaneum bronze in the Naples Museum; etc.
Among the paintings discovered in Pompeii, we will mention a Neptune armed with his trident. In the Naples Museum, there is a magnificent antique cameo attributed to Pyrgoteles, which represents the dispute between Poseidon and Athen.