Poseidon: The Greek God of the Sea

Poseidon is the Greek god of the sea, earthquakes, and horses and is one of the twelve Olympian gods. He is the son of Cronus and Rhea and a brother of Zeus and Hades.

As the god of the sea, Poseidon is often depicted with a trident, a three-pronged spear, or fork, which he uses to control the waters and cause storms or calm seas.

He held a crucial place in Greek mythology and was revered and feared as one of the most powerful gods in the ancient pantheon. His influence extended over the seas and oceans, earthquakes, and the equestrian world, and he was an essential figure in the religious beliefs and rituals of the ancient Greeks.

Poseidon’s Role in Greek Mythology

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

In many traditions, Poseidon is the creator of the first horse, which he is said to have designed to reflect 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.

READ MORE: Water Gods and Sea Gods From Around the World

Poseidon’s Name, Portrayal, and Symbolism

Poseidon’s name is linked with the ocean, earthquakes, and horses in Greek stories. Some people think his name could mean “husband” or “lord” of the earth or water.

His name conveys a sense of sovereignty and power over the elemental forces of nature, articulating the ancient Greeks’ reverence and fear towards the unpredictability of the sea and the earth’s tremors.

In artistic portrayals and literary descriptions, Poseidon is most commonly depicted as a formidable figure, bearded and robust, wielding his iconic trident – a three-pronged fishing spear that symbolizes his rule over the waters. This trident, which, according to myth, was forged by the Cyclopes, expresses his ability to stir the seas and summon storms or calm the waves and grant safe passage to sailors. Besides the trident, the dolphin and the horse are recurrent symbols associated with Poseidon, emphasizing his connection to sea life and his creation of the horse from sea foam.

READ MORE: Poseidon’s Trident: A Legendary Weapon of the Sea God and The Cyclops: A One-Eyed Monster of Greek Mythology

Poseidon’s Epithets and Sacred Animals

Some of Poseidon’s titles were “Earth-Shaker,” reflecting his ability to cause earthquakes, and “Storm-Bringer,” which emphasized his control over the seas and storms. Another epithet, “Tamer of Horses,” underscored his association with horses, creatures believed to have been created by him and deeply emblematic of his strength and virility.

Sacred to Poseidon were animals that embodied his elemental domain and regal status: the horse and the bull. The horse, in particular, symbolized freedom, power, and swift movement, characteristics inherent to the untamable sea and to Poseidon’s own tempestuous nature.

Myths tell of Poseidon creating the first horse, either as a gift to humanity or as part of a contest to win the favor of a city. The bull, another animal sacred to Poseidon, signified both fertility and destructive power; it was an animal that, like the sea, was both bountiful and dangerous. These animals were often featured in rituals and offerings to appease and honor the sea god.

Poseidon’s Weakness

While Poseidon was revered as a formidable and powerful deity, his most significant weakness lay not in his divine capabilities but in his temperamental and vengeful personality.

Poseidon was quick to anger and, when slighted, did not hesitate to unleash his wrath upon mortals and gods alike. This volatile disposition often led to conflict with other deities and humans, sometimes producing devastating consequences for the latter.

Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, torments Odysseus with storms and shipwrecks, hindering his journey home for years. Moreover, Poseidon’s frequent disputes with Athena over patronage of certain cities further illustrate his competitive and vindictive nature, showcasing how pride and a fierce desire for recognition could override even divine wisdom and lead to destructive outcomes.

READ MORE: City Gods from Around the World

In this sense, Poseidon’s greatest weakness was his impulsiveness and his inability to forgive or forget slights against his divine honor, traits that could lead him away from the path of reason and into the turbulent waters of revenge and retribution.

Poseidon’s Family: Wife and Children

Poseidon, as you would expect from a god with an unprecedented urge to dispense his fertility throughout the world, had a vast and complicated family.

Triton

Triton is a Greek god of the sea, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite. Triton serves as a clear extension of Poseidon’s will in the oceanic domain. Often depicted as a merman, Triton’s lower body was that of a fish, while the upper body was human. He is well-known for carrying a conch shell that he would blow like a trumpet to either calm or raise the waves.

Theseus

In Greek mythology, Theseus is celebrated as one of the great heroes of Greek mythology. Although better known as the son of Aegeus, the king of Athens, the myth also accords Poseidon as a possible father, reflecting the hero’s connections to both the land and sea. Theseus’ most famous feat was slaying the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Crete, a task that underscored his bravery and cunning.

READ MORE: Theseus and the Minotaur: Fearsome Fight or Sad Slaughter?

Polyphemus

Polyphemus is one of the Cyclopes, monstrous sons of Poseidon known for their single eye. He is famously depicted in Homer’s “Odyssey,” where he traps Odysseus and his men in his cave, only for Odysseus to escape by blinding the Cyclops.

Pegasus

Pegasus, the magnificent winged horse, sprang from Medusa‘s blood when she was beheaded by the hero Perseus. Although the lineage is more tangentially related to Poseidon, the connection is definitely a nod to the god’s domain over all creatures of the sea and associated mythic beings.

Rhodos and Benthesikyme

Rhodos (or Rhode) and Benthesikyme are relatively lesser-known figures in Greek mythology, daughters of Poseidon and Amphitrite. Rhodos is associated with the island of Rhodes and is said to be the mother of the Heliadae, the sun god Helios‘ descendants. Benthesikyme’s details are more obscure, but like her sister, her story emphasizes Poseidon’s familial connections across the Greek islands and seas.

Arion

Arion is an immortal horse in Greek mythology, known for its incredible speed and the ability to speak. The offspring of Poseidon and Demeter, Arion is most famously associated with the hero Adrastus, aiding him during the Seven Against Thebes.

Despoina

Poseidon’s relationship with Demeter culminated in the birth of Despoina, a deity shrouded in mystery. Her worship was closely guarded, with few details known to those outside her cult.

Bellerophon

Although Poseidon does not father Bellerophon, his indirect involvement comes through the gift of Pegasus, the winged horse Bellerophon captures to defeat the Chimera.

Disputes with Other Gods and Men

At the time of Poseidon’s birth, his father, the Titan Cronus, had learned of a prophecy stating that his own child would overthrow him. 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.

READ MORE: The 12 Greek Titans: The Original Gods of Ancient Greece

The baby boy was Zeus, and nymphs raised him 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 an herb that caused his regurgitation of the other original Olympians. This then led to the Titanomachy.

Titanomachy

With his siblings rallied behind him and the help of the sons of Mother Earth whom Zeus freed from Tartarus, the Titanomachy – 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.

READ MORE: The 12 Olympian Gods and Goddesses

Poseidon Challenges Zeus

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.

READ MORE: 41 Greek Gods and Goddesses: Family Tree and Fun Facts and The Trojan War: Ancient History’s Famed Conflict

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.

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 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.

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 with golden manacles from the sky and 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.

Poseidon and Apollo did not escape without a minor punishment as well, for being the two gods directly behind Hera and those who 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.

Contest with Athena

Both Poseidon and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and just warfare, were particularly fond of a certain city (Athens) 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.

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.

READ MORE: Ancient Greek Art: All Forms and Styles of Art 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.

Assault on 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 a black mane and tail and the ability to speak.

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 appreciation, Aphrodite slept with Poseidon and ended up having twin daughters with him, Herophilus, a prophetess, and Rhodos, goddess of the island of Rhodes.

Poseidon and 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.

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.

Role in the Trojan War

Despite being responsible for the walls, Poseidon still harbored resentment for his year of slavery under the Trojan King. When the Trojan 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.

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. It roused them with encouraging speeches to greater resolve, as well as touching certain warriors with his staff and imbuing them with valor and power. Still, he remained out of the battle itself to avoid angering Zeus.

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.

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.

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 never to aid the Trojans, so Poseidon stepped forward, causing a mist over the eyes of Achilles and spiriting Aeneas from the dangerous fight.

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.

Conflict with 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 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.

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 leaped out and opened the gates to the Greek army. Troy was sacked, and most of its inhabitants were 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.

Poseidon: Myths and Hidden Truths

Although he spent much of his time with the other Olympian 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 Homer, 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.

Pegasus’s Brother

A lesser-known 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 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, she 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 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.

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 that 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

As the god 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 Amphitrite.

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.

Referenmce

https://www.owleyes.org/text/odyssey/read/book-v#root-219179-1-1

Segal, C. (1992). Divine Justice in the Odyssey: Poseidon, Cyclops, and Helios. The American Journal of Philology, 113(4), 489–518. https://doi.org/10.2307/295536

Gibbons, F. (1968). “The Triumph of Poseidon.” Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University, 27(2), 79–80. https://doi.org/10.2307/3774491

Tzetzes ad Lycophron 644

^ Kerenyi 1951, p. 182.

^ Diodorus Siculus, 5.55

 Ovid, Metamorphoses 4.794–803

^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.134

^ Ovid, Metamorphoses 12.195-199; Apollodorus, Epitome.1.22

Iliad 13.43: “Poseidawn gaiaochos ennosigaios ” (carrying the earth, earthshaker) Iliad 13.43

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