In Greek mythology, Pontus was a primordial sea god, often referred to as the personification of the sea itself. He was born from Chaos, one of the original entities in the universe. Pontus was not typically depicted with a distinct personality or a significant role in myths like many other gods, but his name was often used to describe the sea or the open waters.
There aren’t many stories associated with him as is the case with some of the more prominent gods and figures in Greek mythology. However, his name and concept were used in various contexts to describe the vast and mysterious expanses of the sea.
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Who is Pontus?
Before the Greek deities known as the Olympian gods ruled the Earth, the universe was riddled with mysterious powers in the deep cosmic ocean. They preceded the Olympians and Titans by far. They consisted of primordial deities such as Chaos, Uranus, and (most famously) Gaia. Pontus happened to be one of these primordial deities of the very first generation.
As the personification of seas and oceans, Pontus had the honor of being associated with the very lifeline of the planet itself: water.
The Family of Pontus
In some sources, Pontus was born to Gaia (who was the personification of Earth herself). This source happened to be none other than Hesiod, the famous Greek poet. In his “Theogony,” he mentioned that Pontus was born to Gaia without a father.
However, other sources, such as Hyginus, mention in his “Fabulae” that Pontus was actually the offspring of Aether and Gaia. Aether was the personification of the upper atmosphere where the light was at its brightest.
Paired with Mother Earth, Gaia gave birth to Pontus, a perfect symbolism for the ground and the sky to mingle and produce the seas.
Gaia and Pontus
Even though Gaia was his mother and gave birth to him, Pontus ended up coupling with her and produced children of his own. As the sea and Earth intertwined, beings from the deep ocean resurfaced. Pontus’ children would go on to be significant deities in Greek mythology.
Some would be in charge of various sea creatures, and others would oversee sea life. However, all of them had their own role to play in the grand scheme of regulating the waters of planet Earth.
The children of Pontus are:
Nereus: Pontus fathered Nereus – Gaia and Pontus’s very first child. Nereus was the father of the Nereids, a league of 50 extremely beautiful sea nymphs. Nereus was also known as “The Old Man of the Sea.”
Sea Creatures: It was believed by some ancient writers that after Pontus also coupled with the sea goddess Thalassa, he produced sea life as a result. Therefore all kinds of fish, whales, and piranhas, are actually Pontus’ own children.
Thaumus: Thaumus was Pontus’ second born son. He would go on to be associated with the spirit of the sea, one that straddles the metaphysical and imaginative boundaries of the ocean. As a result, Thaumus was linked to being the Harpies’ father in many myths.
Ceto and Phorcys: Ceto and Phorcys were children of Pontus who would wed each other. This unnatural coupling brought about the onset of various offspring related to the sea, such as the Sirens, the Grey Sisters, and the Gorgons.
Other children of Pontus included Aegeus, the Telchines, and Eurybia. All of the children that had Pontus as their father went on to impact the happenings of the sea at both lesser and greater scales.
From the Sirens to the Nereids, all of them are famous figures within the scrolls of ancient Greeks.
Pontus and His Expertise
Though he isn’t flashy like the more famous sea god Poseidon, Pontus definitely has had his taste in powers and holding dominion over certain aspects of the ocean.
Pontus isn’t the subject of many well-known myths. However, the very fact that he is a primordial god is enough. Without Chaos, there would be no Cronus and Zeus. Without Gaia, there would be no Rhea and Hera. And without Pontus, there would be no Oceanus and Poseidon.
Even though Pontus’ direct line of descent didn’t have Poseidon in it, the fact that he was the very personification of what Poseidon held control over is simply phenomenal. Besides being the summation of the sea itself, Pontus was in charge of everything that lurked beneath and above the waters.
Unfortunately, Pontus hasn’t been depicted or described in many text pieces.
This is primarily due to his replacement, the more famous deity in Poseidon, and because they hold office over similar things. However, Pontus has been immortalized in one particular mosaic.
Produced by the Romans around the 2nd century AD, Pontus is depicted as a bearded man rising from water polluted with seaweed. His visage is surrounded by fish and a fisherman rowing a boat with a rudder. Pontus’ head is crowned by what seems to be the tails of lobsters, which honors him with a type of maritime leadership.
Pontus being depicted as a part of Roman art is a testimony to how intertwined the two cultures had become after the conquest by the Roman Empire. Pontus’ mere inclusion into later art proves his role in Roman mythology. In doing so, his impact is further felt and solidified in Greek myths.
Pontus and Poseidon
They might both be the gods of the sea with similar traits, but they differed a lot in terms of the method of impact.
The effect and inclusion of Pontus in Greek and Roman mythology are simply passive. Instead of a physical form, Pontus was associated with a more cosmogonic one. For example, Pontus’ most notable contribution was his children, both sentient and non-sentient.
The fact that sea creatures were believed to be his offspring in some myths emphasizes his role as a primordial, omnipresent god of the sea.
Moreover, his impact on mythology was felt not through his actions; but through his omnipresence within his offspring.
On the other hand, Poseidon is a more well-known sea deity who has solidified his position in Greek and Roman mythology through sheer strength and heroics. For example, he and Apollo once tried rebelling against Zeus, the king of the gods himself. Though they failed to overthrow him this encounter was immortalized in myths. This act alone shows how Poseidon’s impact was more active.
The most significant difference between them would be that one is a primordial god while the other is an Olympian. Greek mythology centralizes the Olympians more than any other pantheon, including even the Titans.
Due to this fact, unfortunately, the lesser-known primordial gods tend to be left out.
Pontus’ Importance in Hesiod’s Theogony
Hesiod’s “Theogony” is basically a bubbling cauldron full of interesting bits of Greek mythology.
Pontus makes a small appearance in the pages of “Theogony,” where his birth is highlighted by Hesiod. It touches on how Pontus was born without Gaia having to lay with another deity.
“She (Gaia, the Mother Earth) bore also the fruitless deep with his raging swell, Pontus, without sweet union of love.”
Here, Pontus is titled ‘the fruitless deep,’ an ode to the unimaginable depth of the sea and its mysteries. The word ‘fruitless’ is used to signify how torturous the sea can be and how voyages on it aren’t as ecstatic and unrewarding as people make it out to be.
Hesiod’s view on the importance of seas and water is emphasized again in “Theogony.” He writes:
“In truth, at first Chaos came to be, but next wide-bosomed Earth, the ever-sure foundation of all1the deathless ones who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus, and dim Tartarus in the depth of the wide-pathed Earth.”
Though at first, it might fail to make sense how this statement is related to the seas, upon closer look, you’ll find that Hesiod describes a particular idea of his.
Basically, in Hesiod’s cosmology, he believes the Earth to be a disc wrapped by a layer of water upon which all the lands float (including Olympus). This body of water is the river known as Oceanus. However, he also mentions Pontus a couple of lines right after this statement, which further emphasizes Pontus and Oceanus’ importance as sea gods.
Pontus in Hyginius’ “Fabulae”
“From Pontus and Sea, the tribes of fishes. From Ocean and Tethys, the Oceanides — namely Melite, Ianthe, Admete, Stilbo, Pasiphae, Polyxo, Eurynome, Euagoreis, Rhodope, Lyris, Clytie, Teschinoeno, Clitenneste, Metis, Menippe, Argia.
Two different genealogies are put forward by Hyginius here. The first one states who Pontus came from, while the other states came from Pontus. It is essential to see how Pontus structures these two genealogies.
He states that Pontus is the son of Aether and Earth (Gaia) and lists the latter’s offspring. The list is filled with cosmogenic deities. They all possess somewhat omniscient traits that tie deep into the human psyche. Grief, Wrath, Lamentation, Vengeance, and then, finally, Pontus.
Pontus’ name is written at the very end as if it is the one foundation that holds all of them together. This also reflects Hesiod’s idea of the planet being surrounded by a layer of water on top of which everything (including land) resides. Pontus’ name, alongside such powerful sentiments of the human brain, only further emphasizes his importance as a primordial god looking over the lifeline of ancient Greece.
The other genealogy merely revolves around the offspring of Pontus. The mention of “sea” could be a reference to Thalassa herself. It refers to how Pontus and Thalassa wed and produced creatures of the sea. The fish tribes are in focus here more, along with a mention of Oceanus and Tethys, all of which can be traced back to Pontus himself.
A Deeper Look into Seas and Pontus
Long before Rome invaded the Greeks, the Mediterranean Sea was already an important route of trade for the people of Greece. They were active voyagers seeking contracts and the most efficient of trade routes. The seafarers also founded new trading settlements and Greek cities across the sea.
This meant that the Mediterranean Sea was the most important of lifelines for the ancient Greek people. As a result, it needed to have some sort of collective personification.
You might associate it with Poseidon, but in all honesty, Poseidon is just another Olympian simply in charge of watching the seas in his spare time while he spends the rest of his day lazing around the palace.
While Poseidon may be just a god, Pontus is the entire sea.
The Mediterranean Sea and the Black Sea were associated with Pontus more than Poseidon because it was an ode to the omnipresence. The sea was vast and full of mysteries to the Greeks and Romans. This converged into the idea of the entire body of water belonging to a single deity instead of one watching from the clouds above.
The Idea of Pontus
Wanderlust and fascination wasn’t the only factor that compelled the Romans and the Greeks to kickstart the idea of Pontus. It was also the fact that both the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea were crucial for fishing, traveling, scouting, and, most importantly, trading.
In Greek mythology, the most famed conflicts include the seas in some form. From the Trojan War to the advance of the Persian empire, all of them feature stories where the sea is involved. Roman mythology is no stranger to this as well. In fact, the importance of the sea seeps out from myths and enters natural life history as well; for example, Alexander’s conquests across half of the world.
All of this ties to Pontus and his offspring, as the action goes down in the sea on top of Pontus himself. On top of that, the Greek gods of wind, the Anemoi, tie in with him here due to the fact that traveling at the sea is impossible without wind propelling the vessels in the first place.
READ MORE: Greek God of Wind: Zephyrus and the Anemoi
Pontus and Oceanus
It is believed that Pontus and Oceanus might’ve been closely tied to each other in the idea of a deity personifying the sea.
Though they are different gods, their roles remain the same: simply being the sea and encompassing the entire world. However, they can be easily distinguished when their genealogy is brought into the equation.
Pontus is the son of Gaia and Aether, while Oceanus is the son of Gaia and Uranus; that makes him a Titan and not a primordial god. Though they both share the same mother, they do share different fathers. Regardless, Pontus is both Oceanus’ uncle and brother, considering how Pontus coupled with Gaia, his mother.
Though other sources state that Pontus was born without coupling, which doesn’t make him Oceanus’ brother anymore, there is no doubt that they both are poetic personifications of the seas, rivers, and oceans.
The Kingdom of Pontus
Pontus’ name also appears in other places. Pontus was a region of land on the southern Black Sea near Turkey and close to the River Halys. The area is also considered the home of the Amazons in Greek mythology, as cited by Herodotus, the father of History and by Strabo, the famous geographer from Asia Minor.
The name “Pontus” has been associated with this Kingdom due to its proximity to the Black Sea and the Greeks’ colonization of this area.
The Kingdom soon became a Roman province after Pompey subjugated the region. Over time, with the Roman reign weakening and eventually completely defeated, the Byzantines took over the area, declaring it a part of their empire.
However, this is when the fate of Pontus blurs and turns into a myriad of different empires and blocks of unclaimed Roman and Byzantine land. An attempt to revive the “Republic of Pontus” was proposed, eventually resulting in genocide.
With that, the sea god Pontus’ last remaining namesake reached a dead end. His name began to be overshadowed by the likes of Poseidon and Oceanus.
Of all the gods that exist, only a few can significantly impact the entirety of mythology with comparatively less action.
While other deities feast in the halls of Mount Olymp, slumber in the dungeons of the underworld, or wander through the eternally dark skies of the heavens above, one deity experiences it all right in his backyard: the sea itself.
As not only the sea god but a holistic personification of it, Pontus resides everywhere there is sea water, and wind to help sail. As a primordial god, he is a lingering reminder that the old can’t be surpassed by newer generations.
Working alongside the thunderous likes of Gaia and Oceanus, Pontus quietly performs his job, guiding voyagers on his body to their destination and punishing them when appropriate.
Eumelus, Titanomachy frag. 3 West (cited in the scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 1.1165).↩