Poseidon: The Greek God of the Sea

Ancient Greek mythology encompasses an enormous number of gods, goddesses, demi-gods, heroes, and monsters, but at the core of all of the myths were the 12 Olympian gods and goddesses. The Greek god Poseidon sat at the right hand of his brother Zeus atop Mount Olympus, when he was not in his ocean palace or driving his chariot around the seas, wielding his signature three-pronged spear, his trident. 

What is Poseidon the God of?

Although best known for being the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon was also considered the god of earthquakes, and often referred to as the earth shaker. 

In many traditions, Poseidon is the creator of the very first horse, which he is said to have designed as a reflection of the beauty of rolling waves and surf. The sea was his primary domain, and though he received worship from numerous inland cities as well, the most fervent prayers came from sailors and fishermen venturing out onto the unpredictable waters of the Mediterranean.  

Where does Poseidon live?

Although he spent much of his time with the other gods on Mount Olympus, the Greek god Poseidon also had his own magnificent palace on the ocean floor, made of coral and gemstones. 

In works by Home, the Classical Greek poet who authored epic poems such as the Odyssey and Iliad, Poseidon is said to have a home near Aegae. Poseidon is usually depicted as riding in a chariot pulled by horses or dolphins, and always wielding his signature trident. 

The Roman name for Poseidon was Neptune. Although the sea gods of the two cultures originated separately, in fact Neptune was initially a god of freshwater, their similarities caused both cultures to adopt some of the mythology of the other. 

The Rise of the Olympians

Birth of Poseidon: God of the Sea

In Greek mythology, at the time of Poseidon’s birth, his father, the Titan Cronus, had learned of a prophecy stating that he would be overthrown by his own child. As a result, Cronus immediately swallowed his first five children, Hades, Poseidon, Hera, Demeter, and Hestia. However, when their mother, Rhea, gave birth again, she hid the youngest son and instead wrapped a stone in a blanket, presenting it to Cronus to eat.

The baby boy was Zeus, and he was raised by nymphs until he came of age. Determined to overthrow his father, Zeus knew that he needed his powerful brothers and sisters. In some versions of the story, he disguised himself as a cupbearer and snuck his father a poison that made him ill, forcing Cronus to vomit out his five children. Other traditions suggest that Zeus befriended or even married Metis, the daughter of one of the Titans and the goddess of prudence. Metis then tricked Cronus into eating a herb that caused his regurgitation of the other original Olympians. 

The Titanomachy

With his siblings rallied behind him, and the help of the sons of Mother Earth who Zeus freed from Tartarus, the war of the gods began. Eventually the young Olympians prevailed, and they threw the Titans that stood against them into the prison of Tartarus, which Poseidon outfitted with new, powerful bronze gates to hold them there. Now the rulers of the world, the six gods and goddesses had to choose their places of dominion. 

Poseidon the Sea God

The three brothers drew lots, and Zeus became god of the sky, Hades god of the Underworld, and Poseidon the god of the sea. Poseidon essentially supplanted the previous god of the sea, Nereus, who was the son of Gaia and Pontus, personifications of the earth and sea, with a particular fondness for the Aegean Sea. 

Nereus was widely considered to be a gentle, wise god, usually depicted in ancient Greek art as a distinguished older gentleman, though half-fish, and he peacefully handed over the greater rule of the seas to Poseidon. Nereus was also the father of the fifty nereids, sea nymphs who joined Poseidon’s retinue. Two of them, Amphitrite and Thetis, became important players in mythology themselves, with Amphitrite in particular catching Poseidon’s eye. 

The Love Life of Poseidon

Poseidon and Demeter

Like most of the Greek gods, Poseidon possessed a wandering eye and a lustful appetite. The first object of his affection was none other than his older sister, Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and the harvest. Uninterested, Demeter attempted to hide by transforming herself into a mare and hiding among the horses of King Onkios, a ruler in Arcadia with a large herd. However, Poseidon could easily see through the disguise, and he changed himself into a large stallion and forced himself on his sister. 

Enraged, Demeter retreated to a cave and refused to return to earth. Without the goddess of the harvest, the earth suffered a devastating famine, until Demeter finally washed herself in the River Ladon and felt purified. She later gave birth to two children by Poseidon, a daughter by the name of Despoina, goddess of mysteries, and a horse named Arion, with black mane and tail and the ability to speak. 

Dalliance with the Goddess of Love

Demeter was not the only family member that Poseidon pursued, though his niece Aphrodite was far more willing, being a free spirit herself in matters of the heart. Although married to Hephaestus and enjoying a series of lovers, Aphrodite was always most interested in Ares, the dashing god of war. Fed up, Hephaestus decided on a certain occasion to embarrass the lovers. He fashioned a trap on Aphrodite’s bed, and when she and Ares retired there they were caught, naked and exposed. 

Hephaestus brought the other gods in to mock them, but Poseidon felt bad and convinced Hephaestus to release the two lovers. To show her appreciation, Aphrodite slept with Poseidon, and ended up having twin daughters with him, Herophilus, a prophetess, and Rhodos, goddess of the island of Rhodes.

The Creation of Medusa

Sadly, the snake haired monster Medusa was another of Poseidon’s targets, and he was the reason for her monstrous form. Medusa was originally a beautiful mortal woman, a priestess of Poseidon’s niece and fellow Olympian, Athena. Poseidon was determined to win her, even though being a priestess of Athena required a woman to remain a virgin. Desperate to escape Poseidon, Medusa fled to the Temple of Athena, but the god of the sea did not let up, and raped her in the temple.

Sadly, upon learning of this, Athena directed her anger unfairly at Medusa, and punished her by turning her into a gorgon, a hideous creature with snakes for hair, whose gaze would turn any living being to stone. Many years later, the Greek hero Perseus was dispatched to kill Medusa, and from her lifeless body sprang the winged horse Pegasus, the son of Poseidon and Medusa. 

READ MORE: Snake gods and goddesses

Pegasus’s Brother

A lesser known piece of the myth is that Pegasus had a human brother who also emerged from the gorgon’s body, Chrysaor. Chrysaor’s name means “he who bears the golden sword,” and he is noted as a valiant warrior, but he plays very little role in any other Greek myths and legends. Athena and Poseidon remained frequently at odds in Greek Mythology, so perhaps she at least leveled some blame against Poseidon for the ugly incident. 

Poseidon’s Wife

Despite his enjoyment of fleeting romance, Poseidon decided he needed to find a wife, and he became enamored with Amphitrite, the sea nymph daughter of Nereus, when he saw her dancing on the island of Naxos. She was uninterested in his proposal, and fled the farthest reaches of the earth where the Titan Atlas held the sky aloft. 

It may be, however unlikely, that Poseidon had learned something from his earlier actions, for in this case instead of assaulting Amphitrite, he sent his friend Delphin, a fellow sea god who took the shape of a dolphin, to try to convince the nymph that the marriage was a good choice. 

Delphin was apparently a persuasive orator, for he successfully won her over, and she returned to marry Poseidon and rule as his queen under the sea. Poseidon fathered a son, Triton, and two daughters, Rhode and Benthesicyme, with his wife, though he never fully gave up his philandering ways.

Poseidon vs. Athena

Both Poseidon and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and just warfare, were particularly fond of a certain city in southeastern Greece, and each wanted to be considered its patron god. The inhabitants of the city suggested that each god present the city with a gift, and they would choose between the two based on the usefulness of the gift.

Poseidon struck the ground and caused a spring of water to well up at the center of the city. The people were initially amazed, but soon found that it was sea water, salt-filled and briny, just like the sea that Poseidon ruled, and therefore had little use for them.

Athena Victorious

Next, Athena planted an olive tree in the rocky soil, offering the gift of food, commerce, oil, shade, and wood. The citizens accepted Athena’s gift, and Athena won the city. It was named Athens in her honor. Under her leadership, it became the heart of philosophy and the arts in ancient Greece.

Even though Athena won the contest and became the patron goddess of Athens, the seafaring nature of Athens ensured that Poseidon remained an important city god in the center of the Greek world. A major temple to Poseidon can still be seen south of Athens to this day, on the southernmost tip of the Sounio Peninsula.

Poseidon and King Minos

Minos was the first to become King of the island of Crete. He prayed to Poseidon for a sign in support of his kingship, and Poseidon obliged by sending a beautiful white bull from the sea, intended to be sacrificed back to the Earth-Shaker. However, Minos’s wife Pasiphaë was entranced by the beautiful animal, and she asked her husband to substitute a different bull in the sacrifice.

Half Man, Half Bull

Enraged, Poseidon caused Pasiphaë to fall deeply in love with the Cretan bull. She had the famous architect Daedalus build her a wooden cow to sit in to watch the bull, and eventually became impregnated by the bull, giving birth to the horrible Minotaur, a creature that was half human and half bull. 

Daedalus was again commissioned, this time to build a complex labyrinth to contain the beast, and every nine years a tribute of seven young men and seven young maidens was sent from Athens to be fed to the beast. Ironically, it would be a descendant of Poseidon who would undo the punishment laid upon Minos by the sea god.

Theseus

A young Greek hero, Theseus was himself often described as a son of Poseidon by the mortal woman Aethra. When he was a young man, he traveled to Athens and arrived in the city just as the fourteen Athenian youths were being prepared to be sent to the minotaur. Theseus volunteered to take the place of one of the young men, and sailed to Crete with the group. 

Theseus Defeats the Minotaur

Upon arrival in Crete, Theseus caught the eye of King Mino’s daughter, Ariadne, who couldn’t bear the thought of the young man dying at the hands of the Minotaur. She begged Daedalus to help, and he gave her a ball of thread to help Theseus navigate the labyrinth. With the thread for bearings, Theseus successfully killed the Minotaur and made his way out of the labyrinth, freeing Athens of their sacrificial debt.

Involvement in Troy

Homer’s great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are complex mixtures of historical fact and fictional legend. There are certainly kernels of truth in the works, but they are also riddled with Greek mythology as the powerful Greek gods of the Pantheon bicker behind the scenes and throw their influence into the lives of mortal men. Poseidon’s connection to the war on Troy begins in an earlier tale, when he rose up against his brother Zeus.

Rebellion against Zeus

Zeus and Hera enjoyed a contentious marriage, for Hera was eternally zealous of Zeus’s constant philandering and affairs with other minor goddesses and beautiful mortal women. On one occasion, fed up with his dalliances, she rallied the Greek gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus in a rebellion against him. While Zeus was sleeping, Poseidon and Apollo bound the chief deity to his bed and took possession of his thunderbolts.

Thetis Frees Zeus

When Zeus awoke and found himself imprisoned he was furious, but powerless to escape, and all of his hurled threats had no effect on the other gods. However, they began to argue amongst themselves as to who held the greatest claim to the Zeus’s throne, and should rule in his stead. Seeing this and fearing a massive conflict that would throw the world into chaos and destruction, the sea goddess and nereid Thetis sought out Briareus, Zeus’s fifty headed and armed bodyguard, who quickly freed the Greek god.

Revenge on Hera

Zeus swiftly let loose a hurl of thunderbolts that instantly subdued the other rebellious gods. To punish Hera, the ringleader of the rebellion, Zeus hung her by golden manacles from the sky with an iron anvil attached to each of her ankles. After hearing her anguished cries all night, the other gods and goddesses begged Zeus to free her, which he did after they all swore never to rise against him again.

The Walls of Troy

Poseidon and Apollo did not escape without a minor punishment as well, for being the two gods directly behind Hera and those that performed the trap upon Zeus. The chief god sent them to labor as slaves under King Laomedon of Troy for one year, during which time they designed and built the impenetrable walls of Troy

The Trojan War

Despite being responsible for the walls, Poseidon still harbored resentment for his year of slavery under the Trojan King. When war broke out between the Greeks and the Trojans, a war in which almost all of the gods took sides and interfered, Poseidon mainly supported the Greek invaders, though he did briefly aid in destroying a wall the Greeks had built around their ships because they had not done proper homage to the gods before building it. After this small incident, however, Poseidon threw his support behind the Greeks, even defying Zeus on occasion to do so.

Poseidon Rallies the Greeks

After the initial destruction of the Greek wall, Poseidon watched in pity from above as the Trojans pressed their advantage, and eventually decided to enter the conflict himself, despite Zeus’s edict to the other gods telling them to stay out of the war. Poseidon appeared to the Greeks in the form of Calchas, an old mortal seer, and roused them with encouraging speeches to greater resolve, as well as touching certain warriors with his staff and imbuing them with valor and power, but he remained out of the battle itself to avoid angering Zeus.

Fighting in Secret

Still upset with Paris, prince of Troy, for choosing Aphrodite as the fairest goddess, Hera also supported the cause of the attacking Greeks. In order to clear the path for Poseidon, she seduced her husband and then lulled him into a deep slumber. Poseidon then jumped to the front of the ranks and fought with the Greek soldiers against the Trojans. Eventually Zeus awoke. Realizing he had been tricked, he sent Iris, his messenger, to order Poseidon off the field of battle and Poseidon reluctantly relented.

Greek Gods in the Fray

The gods remained out of the fighting for a time after Zeus’s orders, but they continued to sneak away at intervals to get involved in the fighting, and finally Zeus gave up trying to prevent it. He released the gods to join in the battle, though he remained neutral himself, fully aware of what the outcome would be and uncommitted to either side. Meanwhile the gods unleashed their power on the battlefield. Poseidon, the earth shaker, caused such a great earthquake that he frightened his brother Hades below. 

Saving Aeneas

Despite his clear preference for the Greek forces, seeing the Trojan Aeneas preparing to do battle with Greek hero Achilles at the urging of Apollo, Poseidon pitied the young man. The three main divine supporters of the Greeks, Hera, Athena, and Poseidon all agreed that Aeneas should be saved, for he had a greater destiny before him and they knew Zeus would be furious should he be killed. Hera and Athena had both sworn oaths to never aid the Trojans, so Poseidon stepped forward, causing a mist over the eyes of Achilles and spiriting Aeneas from the dangerous fight.

Poseidon and Apollo

Irritated with Apollo for putting Aeneas in danger and also disgusted with his nephew for supporting the Trojans when they had both labored as slaves under the King of Troy, Poseidon next confronted Apollo. He suggested that the two of them should fight one another in a divine duel. 

Although boasting that he could win, Apollo refused the fight, insisting that it was not worth it to gods to fight for the sake of mortals, much to the disgust of his twin sister Artemis, who chastised him for cowardice. Nevertheless, the battle between the gods was not joined, and each returned to urge on their respective sides.

Anger at Odysseus

Though Poseidon supported the Greeks in their assault on Troy, after the fall of the city, he quickly became the fiercest enemy of one of the surviving Greeks, the wily hero Odysseus, whose disastrous journey home is recounted in Homer’s Odyssey.

The Trojan Horse

The Trojan War finally drew to an end after ten long years of battle outside the walls with the deception of the Trojan Horse. The Greeks built a large wooden horse, which they dedicated to Athena although it likely also represented an offering to Poseidon, associated as he was with horses, for safe travels home across the sea. They then sailed their ships around a headland, fooling the Trojans into thinking they had abandoned the war. The Trojans resolved to wheel the giant wooden horse into the city as a trophy. 

The Fall of Troy

Only the Trojan priest Laocoön was suspicious, and advised against bringing in the horse, but Poseidon sent two sea serpents in the night to strangle Laocoön and his two sons, and the Trojans took the deaths as a sign that the priest was in the wrong and offended the gods with his caution. They brought in the horse. 

That night, the Greeks concealed within leapt out and opened the gates to the Greek army. Troy was sacked, and most of its inhabitants slaughtered. Only a few small groups survived, one of them led by Aeneas, the Trojan hero that Poseidon had saved, destined to establish the foundations of Rome. 

Odysseus and Polyphemus

Following the sack of Troy, Odysseus and his men set sail for their home in Ithaca, but early in the journey they had a run-in which brought them ten long years of arduous travel and the deaths of most of Odysseus’s men. Arriving on the island of Sicily, Odysseus and his men found a well-provisioned cave and helped themselves to the food within. The occupant of the cave soon returned, Polyphemus, a cyclops, and proceeded to eat several of Odysseus’s men before the Greek hero managed to drive a spear into the eye of the cyclops and blind him. 

As they escaped back to their ships, Odysseus called out mockingly to Polyphemus, “Cyclops, if any mortal man ever asks you who it was that inflicted upon your eye this shameful blinding, tell him that Odysseus, sacker of cities blinded you. Laertes is his father, and he makes his home in Ithaca.”  Unfortunately for the Greeks, Polyphemus was also one of Poseidon’s children, and the act brought down the wrath of the sea god upon them.

The Wrath of Poseidon

Poseidon punished Odysseus with a series of massive storms that lost ships and men, as well as forcing the hero and his men to land on various dangerous islands that either cost them more lives or delayed their progress home. He forced them through the narrow strait between the sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Some myths name Charybdis as the daughter of Poseidon. Scylla is also sometimes thought to have been one of Poseidon’s many flings, and to have been transformed into a sea monster by a jealous Amphirite.

Eventually, in a final storm, Poseidon wrecked the remainder of Odysseus’s ships and Odysseus himself almost drowned. He barely managed to wash up on the shores of the Phaeacians, renowned seafarers and favorites of Poseidon, who ironically then helped return Odysseus to his home in Ithaca. 

Modern Myths Re-told

Though millenia have passed, the stories of classical mythology continue to surround us, influence society, and inspire new tales and interpretations, including names of ships, products associated with the sea, and modern media. Theseus could be said to loosely form the inspiration for the main character in the young adult series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians

The protagonist of the story, Percy Jackson, is another demi-god son of Poseidon, who has to help defend against the re-emergence of the Titans. Many famous mythological story beats are visited in the series, which has also now been adapted to film, and it is safe to say that the legends of the ancient Greeks will continue to influence and inspire for years to come.

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