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Who is Poseidon

WHO IS POSEIDON

Poseidon is one of the brothers of Zeus, his kingdom was that of the sea but he is often called the “Earth-Shaker” in mythology because of his association with earthquakes. This duality in roles for Poseidon is brought about by his long worship spanning the age of Greece, and at one point he may have been more important than Zeus. He is seen throughout mythology and as such is quite an active god.

Greek Name: Poseidon
Roman Name: Neptune
God of the Sea and the “Earth-Shaker”
Lives: The Ocean
Symbols: Trident, dolphin, fish, horse, and bull
Wife: Amphitrite
Parents: Cronos & Rhea
Siblings: Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades, and Zeus
Children: Theseus, Triton, Polyphemus, Belus, Agenor, Neleus, Atlas

POSEIDON IN GREEK MYTHOLOGY

Poseidon holding a trident. Corinthian plaque, 550-525 BC. From Penteskouphia.

Most myths follow the writing set within Hesiod’s Theogony which sees Poseidon being born as the second son of Cronos who ate him at birth. However, there is a lesser known story which closely follows the events of Zeus in his youth. In this myth, Poseidon is hidden away at birth by his mother, Rhea, who offers a colt to the unknowing Cronos instead. Cronos eats the horse unaware and Poseidon grows up on the island of Rhodes where he is raised by local shepherds.

As the Greek people were primarily a sea-faring culture, the importance of a sea god cannot be underestimated. The fragments that are left of the Homeric Hymn To Poseidon show him as a protector of many Greek cities. However, there is an important story involving the patronisation of Athens.

Poseidon & Athena

In this myth, the city of Athens called out to the gods asking for a god that they could worship and who would, in turn, protect them. Athena and Poseidon both came to the call and met at Eleusis where they would compete for the role. Cecrops, the king of Athens wished to know what each god could do for his city. Poseidon struck the ground with his great trident and a spring of water came forth. However, the water was salty and unusable. Athena offered the olive tree, and the king accepted the gift due to its benefits and so Athena became the patroness of Athens.

Poseidon was enraged at the choice and flooded the Attic plain and sent his son to kill the Athenian Erechtheus. The Athenians were terrified at the wrath of the god, so in a bid of good will also worshipped Poseidon and built a wall around hi original spring making it a place of worship (called the Erechtheum).

This story is euhemeristic in nature as it attempts to explain the importance of Athena to Athens. Robert Graves also suggests there be a historical link. He believes the story is portraying the clash of foreign settlers and immigrants into the Mycenaean region of Greece. In any case, this story was incredibly important to the city and a relief of it can be found as you enter the Parthenon.

Atlantis

Poseidon also plays a central role in Plato’s myths of Atlantis. Poseidon fell in love with the mortal woman Cleito who lived on an island alone. He made a sanctuary of the island and bore a number of sons with her. The island sanctuary became the centre of Atlantis whish the sea-god built by raising concentric circles of land around the sanctuary island. Poseidons eldest son, Atlas, became king and the nation relied on sea power blessed by Poseidon.

Poseidon in Homer

Triumph of Poseidon and Amphitrite showing the couple in procession, detail of a vast mosaic from Cirta, Roman Africa (ca. 315–325 AD, now at the Louvre)

Poseidon exists in many myths, sometimes as a key character and sometimes as lesser. For example, he is not overly present in the mythic cycle of Medea but is integral in her transformation into Medusa. In this case, it is his rape of the woman in Athena’s temple that leads to Athena transforming Medea into the monstrous Medusa.

However, he is the prime antagonist of the greatest myth that came out of the classical world. In Homer’s Odyssey, Poseidon is the one who stops Odysseus in his tracks and causes the hero to wander the oceans for years through bad storms and nightmarish sailing. This anger is revenge due to Odysseus blinding Poseidon’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus.

WORSHIPPING POSEIDON

Poseidon was the major civic god for many cities throughout the Greek world. He was very popular in Magna Graecia (Greek settlements in Italy) and Corinth, where he was the head of the polis. In Athens, he is second in importance only to Athena.

It was believed that when he was happy and satisfied, Poseidon was a great help to seafarers and had the ability to create new islands. However, when he was angry who could cause earthquakes by striking the ground with his trident or worse yet, he could make the seas rage and drown sailors by wrecking their ships.

With the power to do great good or devastatingly evil deeds, it was in the interest of the Greek people to keep Poseidon happy. It was common therefore for sailors to make sacrifices for a safe journey which was often in the form of drowning a chosen horse in the sea.

Poseidon at Delphi

Pausanias wrote on how Poseidon was a custodian of the Oracle at Delphi before Apollo took the role. The two became associated gods through the eyes of travellers, where Apollo would divine the future of the journey, and Poseidon would ensure the prediction became a reality.

Poseidon & Hippocrates

Hippocrates suggests in his work On The sacred Disease that Poseidon was responsible for certain types of epilepsy. Sufferers of the disease would appeal to the god for mercy.

ALEXANDER THE GREAT & POSEIDON

The Papyrus Oxyrrhincus tells of Alexander the Great’s actions in Syria. Before he took the field of battle against the Persians at Issus, he made a sacrifice to Poseidon and the other sea gods (Thetis, Nereus, and the Nereids) by sending a four-horse war-chariot into the ocean.

THE ORIGINS OF POSEIDON & COMPARATIVE MYTHOLOGY

Poseidon statue in Prešov, Slovakia displaying the typical idea of how Poseidon should be depicted.

Poseidon is worshipped primarily as a sea god, however, he has a great association with the land. It is believed that he was first the god of land before later being associated with the sea. There are two major theories for what happened. Nobuo Komita suggests that Poseidon was originally the god of horses and fresh water before the time that the Hellenic peoples had settled the coasts of Greece. Once the people had migrated and became a seafaring culture, the role of Poseidon became associated with the sea where he over took the roles of lesser sea gods such as Nereus and Proteus. Walter Burkert suggests the second theory in that Poseidon’s association with horses and land was a result of the introduction of the war-chariot from Anatolia to Greece around 1600 B.C. Such a devastating weapon of war was a great symbol of power, to have witnessed a brigade of chariots charging across the fields would be reminiscent of an earthquake and so the connection can be seen.

The older connection to earthquakes and chariots can be found in the epithet Poseidon Enosichthon which is ‘Poseidon the Earth-Shaker’ from Mycenaean Greece. This also attests to Poseidon’s original role as a chthonic earth god, not a sea god. The complexity of Poseidon is also shown in his other titles such as  Poseidon Wanax which relates him to being a lord of the underworld. There is a Linear B tablet from Pylos that details sacrificial goods for “The two Queens and Poseidon” insinuating that he was married to Demeter (earth goddess) and Persephone (underworld goddess). The mythology of these marriages is lost and we find in later times that these goddesses have no association with Poseidon.

The complexity of Poseidon was lost as the Mycenaean culture waned. As the nature of Greek religion became increasingly homogenous, Poseidon was simplified to hold the role we know today, that of a brother to Zeus, god of the sea, and the great earth-shaker.

The Etruscans must have had a great deal of cultural contact with the Greeks settlements in Magna Graecia, for it is evident that the Roman Neptune is synonymous with the Greek Poseidon. It is believed that the Etruscan sea-god Nethuns slowly adopted the traits of Poseidon until the Romans took him up as Neptune.

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About Robert Jones

Robert Jones is a student of history, classics and languages and has been studying his whole life! Along with that he has a degree in earth sciences and shares his life with his beautiful fiance, step-daughter, the tiny minature pinscher Chico and the not as tiny english staffy Bear.

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