The god of the Mediterranean sea. His name seems to be connected with πότος (potos), πόντος (pontos), and ποταμός (potamos), according to which he is the god of the fluid element.1 He was a son of Cronus and Rhea, whence he is called Kronios (Κρόνιος) and by Latin poets Saturnius.2 He was accordingly a brother of Zeus, Hades, Hera, Hestia and Demeter, and it was determined by lot that he should rule over the sea.3
Like his brothers and sisters, he was, after his birth, swallowed by his father Cronus, but thrown up again.4 According to others, he was concealed by Rhea, after his birth, among a flock of lambs, and his mother pretended to have given birth to a young horse, which she gave to Cronus to devour. A well in the neighborhood of Mantineia, where this is said to have happened, was believed, from this circumstance, to have derived the name of the "Lamb's Well," or Arne.5 According to Tzetzes6 the nurse of Poseidon bore the name of Arne; when Cronus searched after his son, Arne is said to have declared that she knew not where he was, and from her the town of Arne was believed to have received its name. According to others, again, he was brought up by the Telchines at the request of Rhea.7
In the earliest poems, Poseidon is described as indeed equal to Zeus in dignity, but weaker.8 Hence we find him angry when Zeus, by haughty words, attempts to intimidate him; nay, he even threatens his mightier brother, and once he conspired with Hera and Athena to put him into chains;9 but, on the other hand, we also find him yielding and submissive to Zeus.10
The palace of Poseidon was in the depth of the sea near Aegae in Euboea,11 where he kept his horses with brazen hoofs and golden manes. With these horses he rides in a chariot over the waves of the sea, which become smooth as he approaches, and the monsters of the deep recognize him and play around his chariot.12 Generally he himself put his horses to his chariot, but sometimes he was assisted by Amphitrite.13 But although he generally dwelt in the sea, still he also appears in Olympus in the assembly of the gods.14
Poseidon in conjunction with Apollo is said to have built the walls of Troy for Laomedon,15 whence Troy is called Neptunia Pergama.16 Accordingly, although he was otherwise well disposed towards the Greeks, yet he was jealous of the wall which the Greeks built around their own ships, and he lamented the inglorious manner in which the walls erected by himself fell by the hands of the Greeks.17 When Poseidon and Apollo had built the walls of Troy, Laomedon refused to give them the reward which had been stipulated, and even dismissed them with threats;18 but Poseidon sent a marine monster, which was on the point of devouring Laomedon's daughter, when it was killed by Heracles.19 For this reason Poseidon like Hera bore an implacable hatred against the Trojans, from which not even Aeneas was excepted,20 and took an active part in the war against Troy, in which he sided with the Greeks, sometimes witnessing the contest as a spectator from the heights of Thrace, and sometimes interfering in person, assuming the appearance of a mortal hero and encouraging the Greeks, while Zeus favored the Trojans.21 When Zeus permitted the gods to assist whichever party they pleased, Poseidon joining the Greeks, took part in the war, and caused the earth to tremble; he was opposed by Apollo, who, however, did not like to fight against his uncle.22 In the Odyssey, Poseidon appears hostile to Odysseus, whom he prevents from returning home in consequence of his having blinded Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon by the nymph Thoosa.23
Being the ruler of the sea (the Mediterranean), he is described as gathering clouds and calling forth storms, but at the same he has it in his power to grant a successful voyage and save those who are in danger, and all other marine divinities are subject to him. As the sea surrounds and holds the earth, he himself is described as the god who holds the earth (γαιήοχος, gaiēochos), and who has it in his power to shake the earth (ενοσίχθων, enosichthōn, κινητὴρ γᾶς, kinētēr gas). He was further regarded as the creator of the horse, and was accordingly believed to have taught men the art of managing horses by the bridle, and to have been the originator and protector of horse races.24 Hence he was also represented on horseback, or riding in a chariot drawn by two or four horses, and is designated by the epithets ἵππιος (hippios), ἵππειος, or ἵππιος ἄναξ.25 In consequence of his connection with the horse, he was regarded as the friend of charioteers,26 and he even metamorphosed himself into a horse, for the purpose of deceiving Demeter.
The common tradition about Poseidon creating the horse is as follows: — when Poseidon and Athena disputed as to which of them should give the name to the capital of Attica, the gods decided, that it should receive its name from him who should bestow upon man the most useful gift. Poseidon their created the horse, and Athena called forth the olive tree, for which the honor was conferred upon her.27 According to others, however, Poseidon did not create the horse in Attica, but in Thessaly, where he also gave the famous horses to Peleus.28
The symbol of Poseidon's power was the trident, or a spear with three points, with which he used to shatter rocks, to call forth or subdue storms, to shake the earth, and the like. Herodotus29 states, that the name and worship of Poseidon was imported to the Greeks from Libya, but he was probably a divinity of Pelasgian origin, and originally a personification of the fertilizing power of water, from which the transition to regarding him as the god of the sea was not difficult. It is a remarkable circumstance that in the legends about this divinity there are many in which he is said to have disputed the possession of certain countries with other gods. Thus, in order to take possession of Attica, he thrust his trident into the ground on the acropolis, where a well of sea-water was thereby called forth; but Athena created the olive tree, and the two divinities disputed, until the gods assigned Attica to Athena. Poseidon, indignant at this, caused the country to be inundated.30 With Athena he also disputed the possession of Troezen, and at the command of Zeus he shared the place with her.31 With Helios he disputed the sovereignty of Corinth, which along with the isthmus was adjudged to him, while Helios received the acropolis.32 With Hera he disputed the possession of Argolis, which was adjudged to the former by Inachus, Cephissus, and Asterion, in consequence of which Poseidon caused the rivers of these river gods to be dried up.33 With Zeus, lastly, he disputed the possession of Aegina, and with Dionysus that of Naxos.34 At one time Delphi belonged to him in common with Gaea, but Apollo gave him Calauria as a compensation for it.35
The following legends also deserve to be mentioned. In conjunction with Zeus he fought against Cronus and the Titans,36 and in the contest with the Giants he pursued Polybotes across the sea as far as Cos, and there killed him by throwing the island upon him.37 He further crushed the Centaurs when they were pursued by Heracles, under a mountain in Leucosia, the island of the Sirens.38 He sued together with Zeus for the hand of Thetis, but he withdrew when Themis prophesied that the son of Thetis would be greater than his father.39 When Ares had been caught in the wonderful net by Hephaestus, the latter set him free at the request of Poseidon,40 but Poseidon afterwards brought a charge against Ares before the Areopagus, for having killed his son Halirrhothius.41 At the request of Minos, king of Crete, Poseidon caused a bull to rise from the sea, which the king promised to sacrifice; but when Minos treacherously concealed the animal among a herd of oxen, the god punished Minos by causing his daughter Pasiphaë to fall in love with the bull.42 Periclymenus, who was either a son or a grandson of Poseidon, received from him the power of assuming various forms.43
He is mentioned by a variety of surnames, either in allusion to the many legends related about him, or to his nature as the god of the sea. His worship extended over all Greece and southern Italy, but he was more especially revered in the Peloponnese (which is hence called οἰκητήριον Ποσειδῶνος, oikētērion Poseidōnos) and in the Ionic coast towns. The sacrifices offered to him generally consisted of black and white bulls;45 but wild boars and rams were also sacrificed to him.46 In Argolis bridled horses were thrown into the well Deine as a sacrifice to him,47 and horse and chariot races were held in his honor on the Corinthian isthmus.48 The Panionia, or the festival of all the Ionians near Mycale, was celebrated in honor of Poseidon.49
It must be observed that the Romans identified Poseidon with their own Neptune, and that accordingly the attributes belonging to the former are constantly transferred by the Latin poets to the latter.
In works of art, Poseidon may be easily recognized by his attributes, the dolphin, the horse, or the trident,50 and he was frequently represented in groups along with Amphitrite, Tritons, Nereids, dolphins, Dioscuri, Palaemon, Pegasus, Bellerophon, Thalassa, Ino, and Galene.51 His figure does not present the majestic calm which characterizes his brother Zeus; but as the state of the sea is varying, so also is the god represented sometimes in violent agitation, and sometimes in a state of repose.
In the archaic period, Poseidon is depicted on black-figure vases in a long robe and mantle, with a beard and a diadem on his head, and holding a trident. Occasionally he is wearing a cuirass and holding a sword, for example in the battle with the Gigantes. As of the fifth century BCE the god is depicted partially or fully unclothed. The representations of Poseidon on a frieze at the Parthenon and the bronze statue (ca. 460 BCE), discovered at Artemisium, show him in standing position, nude, with his left arm stretched forward and his right arm ready to throw his trident. Some argue that it represents Zeus but most agree that it is Poseidon. Among the representations of the god on coins are those from the city that was named after him: Poseidonia (Latin: Paestum), at the gulf of Salerno in southern Italy.
- Müller, Proleg. p. 290.
- Pindar. Olympian Odes vi, 48; Virgil. Aeneid v, 799.
- Homer. Iliad xiv, 156; xv, 187 ff; Hesiod. Theogony, 456.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 1.5, 2.1.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 8.2.
- On Lycophron, 644.
- Diodorus Siculus, v, 55.
- Homer. Iliad viii, 210; xv, 165, 186, 209; comp. xiii, 355; Odyssey xiii, 148.
- Iliad xv, 176 ff., 212 ff.; comp. i, 400.
- ibid. viii, 440.
- ibid. xiii, 21; Odyssey v, 381.
- Iliad xiii, 27; comp. Virgil. Aeneid v, 817 ff.; i, 147; Apollonius Rhodius. The Library iii, 1240 ff.
- Apollonius Rhodius. The Library i, 1158; iv, 1325; Euripides. Andromeda, 1011; Virgil. Aeneid v, 817.
- Homer. Iliad viii, 440; xiii, 44, 352; xv, 161, 190; xx, 13.
- ibid. vii, 452; Euripides. Andromeda, 1014.
- Neptunus and Poseidon being identified, Ovid. Fasti i, 525; Ovid. Heroides iii, 151; comp. Virgil. Aeneid vi, 810.
- Homer. Iliad xii, 17, 28 ff.
- ibid. xxi, 443.
- ibid. ii, 5.9.
- Homer. Iliad xx, 293 ff.; comp. Virgil. Aeneid v, 810; Iliad xxi, 459; xxiv, 26; xx, 312 ff.
- Iliad xiii, 12 ff., 44 ff., 209, 351, 357, 677; xiv, 136, 510.
- Iliad xx, 23, 34, 57, 67; xxi, 436 ff.
- Homer. Odyssey i, 20, 68; v, 286 ff., 366 ff., 423; xii, 101 ff; xiii, 125; Ovid. Tristia i, 2.9.
- Homer. Iliad xxiii, 307, 584; Pindar. Pythian Odes vi, 50; Sophocles. Oedipus Colonus, 712 ff.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 30.4; viii, 25.5; vi, 20.8; viii, 37.7; Euripides. Phoenician Women, 1707; comp. Livy, i, 9, where he is called equester.
- Pindar. Olympian Odes i, 63 ff.; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 156.
- Servius on Virgil's Georgics i, 12.
- Lucan. Pharsalia vi, 396 ff.; Homer. Iliad xxiii, 277; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 13.5.
- Herodotus. Histories ii, 50; iv, 188.
- Herodotus. Histories viii, 55; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.1; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 24.3 ff.; Hyginus. Fabulae, 164.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 30.6
- ibid. ii, 1.6.
- ibid. ii, 15.5, 22.5; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library ii, 1.4.
- Plutarch. Symposiacs ix, 6.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece ii, 33.2; x, 5.3; Apollonius Rhodius. The Library iii, 1243, with the Scholiast.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 2.1.
- ibid. i, 6.2; Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 2.4.
- ibid. ii, 5.4.
- ibid. iii, 13.5; Tzetzes on Lycophron, 178.
- Homer. Odyssey viii, 344 ff.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.2.
- ibid. iii, 3 ff.
- ibid. i, 9.9; iii, 6.8.
- Hesiod. Theogony, 930; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library i, 4.6; iii, 15.4.
- Homer. Odyssey iii, 6; Iliad xx, 404; Pindar. Olympian Odes xiii, 98; Virgil. Aeneid v, 237.
- Homer. Odyssey xii, 130 ff.; xxiii, 277; Virgil. Aeneid iii, 119.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece viii, 7.2)
- Pindar. Nemean Odes v, 66 ff.
- Herodotus. Histories i, 148.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece x, 36.4.
- ibid. ii, 1.7.
- Aken, Dr. A.R.A. van. (1961). Elseviers Mythologische Encyclopedie. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.