Oceanus is a key god in Greek mythology, but his existence – along with the existence of other critical gods – has been swept under the rug by most modern interpretations that narrow Greek mythology down to the 12 Olympians alone.
With his fish-like tail and crab claw horns, Oceanus ruled over a mythical river that encircled the world, far from the troubles of man and divinity alike. Although an uncharacteristically stoic Immortal – at least by Greek religious standards – Oceanus is credited with being the father of rivers, wells, streams, and fountains. This means that, without Oceanus, there would be little means for humanity to survive, including those who found their home in the regions that made up the ancient Greek world.
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Who is Oceanus? What Does Oceanus Look Like?
Oceanus (Ogen or Ogenus) is one of 12 Titans born to the primordial Earth goddess, Gaia, and her consort, Uranus, the Greek god of the sky and the Heavens. He is the husband of the Titan Tethys, a freshwater goddess, and his younger sister. From their union, innumerable water deities were born. Himself a reclusive deity, much of Oceanus’ acclaim comes from the feats of his children.
In particular, his daughters, the goddesses Metis and Eurynome, became famed wives of Zeus in Hesiod’s Theogony. A pregnant Metis was swallowed by Zeus after a prophecy foretelling one of his children will surpass him, and she gave birth to Athena while entrapped in her husband. The shield-wielding deity erupted from her father’s head after manifesting as the world’s worst migraine. Meanwhile, Eurynome became the mother of the three Charites (the Graces), goddesses of beauty and mirth, and attendants to Aphrodite.
In Greek mythology, Oceanus is generally accepted to be the personification of a massive, mythological river that shared his name – later on, even the ocean itself – but that didn’t stop ancient artists from trying to capture his image. Mosaics, frescoes, and vase paintings of the time frequently show Oceanus as an older bearded man with crab pinchers, or bull horns, emerging from his temples.
By the Greek Hellenistic Period, artists also give the god the bottom half of a serpentine fish, highlighting his relation to the world’s bodies of water. This was not always the case, however, as seen in the 2nd-century CE statue of Oceanus at Ephesus, where the deity appears as a reclined, completely average human: not a fishtail or crab claw in sight.
Is Oceanus the Oldest Titan?
According to Hesiod’s Theogony, an 8th-century BCE cosmogony that details the origins of the Greek gods and goddesses, Oceanus is the oldest Titan. Of the many children born of the union of the Earth and the Heavens, he was the most aloof by nature.
Oceanus and Tethys
At some point in time, Oceanus got married to his equally reclusive youngest sister, Tethys, the eleventh-born Titan. As one of the many power couples littered throughout Greek mythology, Oceanus and Tethys are the parents of countless rivers, streams, wells, and nymphs. In Theogony, Oceanus and Tethys have “three thousand neat-ankled daughters” and just as many sons, if not more. In fact, 60 of the young daughters of Oceanus and Tethys are members of Artemis’ entourage, acting as her choir.
Of their brood, their children can be classified into the Potamoi river gods, the Oceanid nymphs, and the Nephelai cloud nymphs.
What is Oceanus the God Of?
With a name that etymologically shares an origin with the word “ocean,” it is probably easy to guess what Oceanus is the god of.
Is he one of Greece’s many water deities? Yep!
Is he the main deity that rules the ocean? Nope!
Oceanus is the god of a mythical, massive river by the same name. Ocean is the name that is given to both the god and the river, described as being the source of the world’s water supply, but only later interpretations of mythology have Oceanus as being a literal ocean. Effectively, Oceanus is strictly the god of the River Oceanus since he is the river.
On that note, his lineage being made up of river gods, ocean nymphs, and cloud nymphs makes plenty more sense. At the end of the day, all rivers, wells, streams, and fountains came from – and will return to – Oceanus.
Additionally, Oceanus is believed to be the force that regulated heavenly bodies. Both Helios (the Greek sun god) and Selene (the moon) are said to rise and set in his waters for rest in their respective Homeric hymns.
What is the River Oceanus? Where is It?
The River Oceanus is the original source of the Earth’s fresh and saltwater supply. All rivers, springs, and wells, terranean or otherwise, originate from the River Oceanus. This idea is reflected in the genealogy of the gods, of which Oceanus is noted to be the father of innumerable river gods and water nymphs.
Greek cosmography of the time describes the Earth as a flat disk, with the River Oceanus stretching around it completely and the Aegean Sea residing at the absolute center. It is for this reason that, to reach Oceanus, one had to travel to the ends of the Earth. Hesiod places the River Oceanus near the abyss of Tartarus, while Homer describes it as being nearest to Elysium.
Details describing the location of Oceanus also help us understand how the ancient Greeks viewed themselves, especially when compared to the rest of the world. In Theogony, the garden of the Hesperides lies far North, beyond the vast river. Meanwhile, to the westernmost region beyond Oceanus was a shadowy land Homer referred to as Cimmerii, which was thought to house the entrance to the Underworld. Otherwise, the feats of Perseus have the Greek hero travel to Oceanus to confront the Gorgons, and Odysseus’ trek home in Odyssey brought him through the vast waters of Oceanus.
Some scholars suspect that the River Oceanus was likely what we know today as the Atlantic Ocean and that the river was their greatest cosmographical explanation of the seemingly boundless western sea that appeared to encompass their known world.
What is a Myth about Oceanus?
Despite being a laid-back god that likes to keep out of the limelight, Oceanus does appear in a handful of notable myths. These myths tend to speak volumes about Oceanus’ nature, with a majority sticking to tradition and making the god out to be a bit of an isolationist. Truly, throughout history, it has seldom been recorded for Oceanus to have involved himself in the affairs of others – his plentiful children, however, don’t mind the meddling.
Usurping the Heavens
Oceanus, in Theogony, did not act to overthrow his father. After Uranus locked the Cyclopes and Hecatonchires away and caused Gaia great suffering, only the youngest Titan, Cronus, was willing to act: “Fear seized them all, and none of them uttered a word. But great Cronos the wily took courage and answered his dear mother.” In a separate description of the event, this time made in Bibliotheca by the mythographer Apollodorus, all Titans acted to overthrow their sire except Oceanus.
The castration of Uranus is the earliest myth in which Oceanus’ distant attitude with his family is witnessed, only to be overshadowed by the later events of the Titanomachy. Interestingly enough, he does not act on behalf of his own will, nor that of his mother or siblings: those who he would be closest to. Likewise, he does not openly side with his hateful father.
In Proclus Lycius’ commentary on Timaeus by Plato, Oceanus is depicted to be far more indecisive than indifferent to the actions of those around him, as Proclus quotes an Orphic poem that describes Oceanus lamenting about whether he should side with his wreckless brother or his cruel father. Naturally, he sides with neither of the two, but the excerpt is enough to distinguish the deity as one who persistently fluctuates between two extremes rather than being emotionally unavailable. As such, Oceanus’ emotions can act as an explanation for the behavior of the sea, which itself can be unpredictable and unforgiving.
Acting much as he did during the violent overthrow of his father, Oceanus kept his head down during the tumultuous years of the Titanomachy. That’s right: Oceanus is a champion at minding his own business. This would be a triumph in itself, especially when eyeing the drama that plagues the rest of the family tree.
In all seriousness, however, Oceanus is oftentimes described as a neutral party. And if not truly neutral, then he is at least tactful about playing his cards and letting his true allegiances be known.
Generally, much of Oceanus’ neutrality is implied by his lack of mention in popular accounts of the Titanomachy. In Iliad, Hera suggests that she resided with Oceanus and his wife, Tethys, during the Titanomachy, where they acted as her foster parents for 10 years.
If that didn’t cement Oceanus as an Olympian ally, then Hesiod’s Theogony certainly does. The work establishes that Styx and her children were the first to arrive at Olympus to offer their aid during the Titanomachy, no less it being “her beloved father’s idea” (line 400). The act of sending his daughter to help the Olympians rather than directly assisting them himself granted Oceanus the appearance of neutrality when he was really anything but.
Now, whether or not Oceanus’ absence during the Titanomachy was because of his own detachment from the worldly struggles of his family, a big-brained political play, or out of fear of Cronus or Zeus, Homer’s Odyssey does confirm that despite Oceanus’ immense power over water, “even Oceanus is afraid of the lightening of Great Zeus.”
If we follow along with Oceanus’ usual track record, it may be safe to assume that he doesn’t get involved with the Gigantomachy, when Mother Earth sent her Gigantes offspring to avenge the ill-treatment the Titans faced at the hands of the Olympians. However, this presumption may not be exactly true – at least not when taking a closer look at the Gigantomachy.
The Gigantomachy was unique in the sense that it successfully rallied the oft-quarreling Olympians to a singular cause, on a scale that had not been seen since their clash with the Titans. Of course, there is reason to believe that Oceanus avoided this conflict as per usual…if it wasn’t for the frieze at the Pergamon Altar.
In spite of his absence of mention in Apollodorus’ extensive Bibliotheca and in Metamorphoses by the Roman poet Ovid, the only evidence we have of Oceanus’ involvement in the Gigantomachy comes from the Pergamon Altar, constructed in the 2nd-century BCE. In the frieze of the altar, Oceanus is depicted – and labeled – as fighting against the Gigantes with his wife, Tethys, at his side.
In Prometheus Bound
Although not necessarily one of the major myths, Oceanus does make a rare appearance in the tragic play Prometheus Bound, written by the Greek playwright Aeschylus around 480 BCE. The play takes place after the major events of the Prometheus myth and opens in Scythia – a land notably thought to be beyond the River Oceanus – with Hephaestus chaining Prometheus to a mountain as punishment for giving fire to man against Zeus’ wishes.
Oceanus is the first of the gods to visit Prometheus during his suffering. Ascheylus describes that, on a chariot pulled by a griffin, the elderly Oceanus interrupts Promethus’ soliloquy to advise him to be less rebellious. After all, through his daughter’s (either Clymene or Asia’s) union with Iapetus, he is Prometheus’ grandfather.
Up next on our list of myths involving Oceanus is one that is lesser known. Taking place during the Tenth Labor of Heracles – when the hero had to capture the red cattle of Geryon, a monstrous three-bodied giant – the otherwise distant god uncharacteristically challenged Heracles. As the demi-god traveled in Helios’ goblet across the sea, Oceanus violently rocked his makeshift ship and only stopped the bullying at the threat of getting shot with the hero’s bow and arrow.
What is the Difference between Poseidon and Oceanus?
When looking at Greek mythology, a lot of gods have overlapping realms of influence which makes it pretty easy to get the deities confused with one another. Modern media hasn’t helped much, either.
Two gods that oftentimes get conflated are Poseidon, the Olympian, and Oceanus, the Titan. Both gods are tied to the sea in some way, and both wield a trident, though this is where the similarities between the two end.
Firstly, Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea and earthquakes. He is the brother of the supreme deity, Zeus, and splits his residency between Mount Olympus and his coral palace on the seafloor. For the most part, the Olympian god can be characterized by his daring and occasionally confrontational behavior.
Oceanus, on another hand, is the personification of the sea as the all-encircling river, Oceanus. He belongs to the former ruling generation of Titans and never leaves his aquatic dwellings; he barely even has an anthropomorphic form, leaving his appearance up to the interpretations of artists. More than anything, Oceanus is known for his habitual impersonality and indecisiveness.
Since Oceanus is the ocean itself, he doesn’t quite have a god that he can be equated with. Poseidon himself is the most similar to Nereus, the former god of the sea and a son of Gaia and Pontus, with his equivalent in Roman religion being Neptune.
What is Oceanus’ Role in Greek Mythology?
As a water deity, Oceanus would have played a vital role in Greek civilization. Much of their territories sat along the coast of the Aegean Sea, so water played a massive role in their day-to-day lives. More than that though, a multitude of ancient civilizations had humble beginnings near a river that could reliably supply its people with both fresh drinking water and food. With himself being the progeniture of thousands of river gods, Oceanus is a greatly important character in both Greek mythology and the story of mankind.
Further still, there are implications that Oceanus is much more than a watchful god of a great river and a dutiful husband. Looking at Orphic Hymn 82, “To Oceanus,” the old god is recorded to be the one “from whom at first both Gods and men arose.” The hymn leaves quite a bit to the imagination, and likely references an old myth from Orphic tradition where Oceanus and Tethys are the ancestors of gods and man alike. Even Homer, in the epic, Iliad, has Hera refer to this myth, describing Oceanus as being “from whom the gods are sprung,” while also affectionately calling Tethys “mother.”
Oceanus in Orphic Tradition
Orphism is a sect of Greek religion that ascribes to the works of Orpheus, a legendary minstrel and the son of Calliope, one of the 9 Muses. Those who practice Orphism particularly revere gods and beings that have descended into the Underworld and have returned like Dionysus, Persephone, Hermes, and (of course) Orpheus. At death, Orphics are encouraged to drink from the Pool of Mnemosyne rather than the River Lethe to retain the memory of their lives in an effort to break the cycle of reincarnation.
The implications of Oceanus and Tethys being primeval parents are a huge game changer to Greek mythology since together, they would be a cosmic ocean: an idea that is closer to the mythology found in ancient Egypt, ancient Babylon, and the Hindu religion.