A History of Poseidon

by , 2002

Cronus was told by his father Uranus and Mother Earth that one of his own sons would someday dethrone him. For this reason, he swallowed the first five children that his wife, Rhea, bore him: Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon. He meant to swallow the next child, Zeus, also, but the trickery of Rhea saved the baby. She substituted a stone wrapped in cloth for the baby and gave in to Cronus. Zeus was raised by nymphs and grew to manhood in secrecy of his father. Eventually, he returned home and became cup-bearer for Cronus. After drinking poison mixed into his drink by Zeus, Cronus vomited up his five children and a stone (Graves 12-13). This is how Poseidon came to the world.

After releasing his brothers, Zeus led a war against Cronus and the other Titans. The war had waged for ten years when Cronus' three sons released the Cyclopes from captivity on advice of a prophecy from Mother Earth. In gratitude, the Cyclopes gave each of the brothers a weapon. Poseidon received a trident, Zeus a thunderbolt, and Hades a helmet of darkness. They used these gifts to finally defeat Cronus and the rest of the titans. Now that the three brothers were the rulers of all existence they decided to draw lots to determine their domains. Poseidon drew water, Zeus drew the sky, and Hades drew the underworld. The Titan Oceanus then resigned his rule over the watery realm to Poseidon (Guerber 126). There were other gods associated water, such as the personified river gods, but they were under the control of Poseidon. Being the ruler of the seas, Poseidon built a palace for himself underwater near Aegea in Euboea. He generally resided there, even though he was officially one of the Olympian Gods (Graves 20).

Poseidon is not merely the god of the sea, but it also known as the Earth-Shaker and god of the Sable Locks. In art, he is generally represented as a mature, bearded man and is associated with horses, dolphins, and his trident. Like many of the Greek gods, he represents a set of standards that is somewhat ambiguous. More than anything else, he represents a changing character. His attitudes, like water, are constantly shifting. Poseidon is benevolent and helpful to mankind at times, but can quickly become jealous, angry, and destructive. Poseidon's swaying character often embodies the same traits that the water he rules over displays. Harold Bloom applies this idea to the struggle between Athena and Poseidon throughout the Odyssey and states, "We might trace then a politics pitting the forces of the land and civilization against the forces of the sea and brute mindlessness" (137). The brute force of the sea is applied to both Poseidon and his relations in both Homer's poetry and other pieces of Greek literature.

Poseidon's emergence as a god took place in about 2,000 B.C. among the Ionians and Minyans in Greece. He was the most dominant and powerful god for these people and possessed the control of thunder and earthquakes. Poseidon's thunder could be so powerful that it was often associated with the pounding of horses' hooves (Dixon-Kennedy 259). His association with earthquakes gave him the name of Earth Shaker, which, to the Greeks, was synonymous with his real name. Although he was often referred to as Earth Shaker in later Greek works, he is rarely seen actually causing earthquakes. Poseidon's reign as the dominant god of the Greeks ended sometime around 1450 B.C. when the Achaeans entered Greek territory and brought their god, Zeus, with them. The mingling of the two societies led to an intertwining of their religious beliefs and resulted in Poseidon becoming known as Zeus' brother.

Poseidon's relation to the city of Troy is a good display of his character. The walls of Troy were originally built by Poseidon, who was banished after conspiring to dethrone his brother Zeus (Guerber 127). The king of Troy, Laomedon, promised Poseidon and Apollo, who was also exiled at that time, great gifts in return for the building of the Trojan walls. But, after the two gods had constructed the city, Laomedon's greed caused him to refuse the payments to the gods. Poseidon recalls the events to Apollo, "I walled the city massively in well-cut stone, to make the place impregnable. You herded cattle, slow and dark amid the upland vales of Ida's wooded ridges. When the Seasons happily brought to an end our term of hire, barbaric Laomedon kept all wages from us, and forced us out, with vile threats" (Homer, Iliad 507). This aggression was the cause of Poseidon's wrath against the Trojans which would be displayed by his support of the Achaeans in the Trojan War. In his fury, Poseidon also created a sea monster that plagued the Trojans until Hercules destroyed it (Guerber 127).

Throughout the Iliad, Poseidon's actions at Troy are recorded by Homer. At the end of Book Seven, Poseidon becomes jealous of the wall the Achaeans are building around their ships and complains to Zeus, "The long-haired carls of Achaia put up a rampart, inshore from the ships, and ran a moat around; but they would not propitiate us with glory of hecatombs!… Men will forget the wall I drudged at with Apollo for Laomedon" (176). Zeus then scolds him and tells him that no one would forget a god as great as he is. However, Poseidon still disliked the Achaean wall and joined forces with Apollo in Book Twelve to destroy it. "Then Poseidon and Apollo joined to work erosion of the wall by fury of rivers borne in flood against it" (282). Poseidon displayed here his control over the watery realm, including freshwater, and also showed how little it takes to invoke Poseidon's jealousy.

In Book Eight, Hera comes to Poseidon and asks him to join forces with her against Zeus, who is aiding the Trojans. His response displays the way in which his attitudes can change quickly. "But the Earth-Shaker growled at her in anger: 'Hera, mistress of babble that you are, what empty-headed talk is this? I would not dream of pitting all the rest of us against Lord Zeus. He overmasters all'" (188). Poseidon had recently attempted to dethrone Zeus on his own, but now became angered at Hera for even mentioning the idea. He switches his opinion again soon after this, however. In Book Thirteen, Zeus chooses to disregard Zeus' orders to stay out of the combat and intervenes on behalf of the Achaeans. "Rancor within him deepened against Zeus… from the deep water, girdler of earth and shaker of earth, Poseidon came to arouse new spirit in the Argives" (300). He went from conspiring against Zeus, to anger at the mere mention of opposing Zeus, and back to opposing Zeus himself. Poseidon's attitudes towards Zeus here are not solid. Instead, they shift and sway, much like water does.

It should be mentioned, however, that Poseidon does not, at this point, openly defy Zeus. "Both gods were of the same stock, had one father, but Zeus had been first-born and knew far more. In giving aid, Poseidon therefore would not give it openly: always under cover, in a man's likeness, he inspired the ranks" (310). Although he disagreed with his brother, Poseidon had learned his lesson from his banishment and chose not to openly oppose his brother. The advantage Zeus had over Poseidon was the years of learning at the beginning of his life among the shepherds of Ida while Poseidon was still swallowed inside of Cronus. Although Poseidon was actually born before Zeus, the beginning of his life was spent inside of his father's stomach, therefore his rebirth made him a younger brother to Zeus, hence the reason Homer called Zeus the first-born.

Poseidon's attitude towards both Hera and Zeus quickly changed again. He agreed to go along with Hera's plot and she tricked Zeus, getting him to fall asleep on top of Mount Ida while Poseidon led the other gods in an attack against the Trojans. Zeus awoke, realized the plot, and sent the messenger Iris to order Poseidon to stop aiding the Achaeans. In response, Poseidon "grew dark with rage" and said, "'The gall of him! Noble no doubt he is, but insolent, too, to threaten me with forcible restraint who am his peer in honor. Sons of Cronus all of us are, all three whom Rhea bore'" (355). He was preparing to confront Zeus after just stating his inferiority to him. It was the wise words of Iris that convinced him to return to his home peaceably. This string of confrontations towards Zeus showcases not only the changing nature of Poseidon, but also his jealousy.

Poseidon also appears often in Homer's other epic poem, the Odyssey. In the very beginning of Book One, Homer states, "Yet all the gods had pitied Lord Odysseus, all but Poseidon, raging cold and rough against the brave king till he came ashore at last on his own land" (210). The anger of Poseidon is what kept Odysseus from his home for so long and served as the main conflict in the tale. Zeus told Athena that "Poseidon bears the fighter an old grudge since he poked out the eye of Polyphêmos" (211). Homer later documents in more detail how Odysseus blinded the Cyclops, Polyphêmos, son of Poseidon and the nymph Thoösa.

Although Poseidon seems to play a larger role in the events occurring in the Odyssey, the poem does not provide as much insight into his character as the Iliad did. By blinding Polyphêmos, Odysseus brought the rage of the Cyclops' father upon himself. If Polyphêmos had been any other god's son, they would have almost certainly reacted in the same way that Poseidon did. Odysseus was eventually able to make amends towards Poseidon by following the advice of Teirêsias, whom he met in the underworld. "Take an oar, until one day you come where men have lived with meat unsalted, never known the sea… and make a fair sacrifice to Lord Poseidon: a ram, a bull, a great buck boar" (334). By traveling inland, Odysseus brought a sacrifice to Poseidon far from his watery realm. After this sacrifice, Poseidon relented in his anger towards Odysseus and let him live a peaceful life.

The incident with the Phaiákians did, however, highlight Poseidon's jealous nature again. He said to his brother, Zeus, of the Phaiákian ship that had returned Odysseus to Ithaca, "Let me impale her, end her voyage, and end all ocean-crossing with her passengers, then heave a mass of mountain in a ring around the city" (364). Poseidon planned to destroy the ship and surround the sea-faring people with mountains. His anger towards them was not only because they helped Odysseus, his enemy, but because they were too confident in their ability to cross the seas, his realm (Gantz 63).

Odysseus encountered another of Poseidon's relations that cost him the lives of six of his men. In Book 12, Odysseus' ship passed the island of Skylla, a monster with six heads and twelve tentacle-like legs. Odysseus later recounted that, while passing, "Skylla made her strike, whisking six of my best men from the ship… Voices came down to me in anguish, calling my name for the last time" (Homer 354). He attempted to fight her, but to no avail. The men were lost and Odysseus' men fled as quickly as they could to prevent more loss of life. Skylla was once a beautiful woman that Poseidon had loved. However, she was very hateful towards Artemis, Poseidon's wife, who turned her into the monster that Odysseus encountered (Dixon-Kennedy 260).

Odysseus had a less costly encounter with Tyro, mother of Poseidon's sons Pelias and Nelius. He spoke with her spirit in the underworld and she told him how Poseidon had tricked her by assuming the shape of her lover Enipeus in order to lay with her. After they had done so, he revealed himself as Poseidon and she became pregnant with his twin sons (Homer Odyssey 337). Nelius would go on to become the father of Nestor, who served as a mentor to the Achaean soldiers, including Odysseus.

Being a major Greek god, Poseidon also appeared many places in Greek literature outside of Homer's works. Because Homer's Iliad and Odyssey focus on Achilles and Odysseus, rather than on the gods, much of what we know about the gods comes from other sources. Among others, Apollodorus, Hesiod, and Pausanias wrote much of what we know about Poseidon today.

Poseidon and Athena are often found at odds with each other, like they were in the Odyssey. The city of Athens was the site of one such confrontation. Both gods wanted the city to be a site for worship to themselves and wanted it to be named after them. As gifts to the Athenian people, Poseidon struck the acropolis with his trident, forming the Erechtheis Sea, and Athena planted the first olive tree. "When the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters… And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena because… she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself" (Apollodorus 2, 79-81). The arbiters were a group composed of gods and goddesses. All of the gods voted in favor of Poseidon and all of the goddesses voted in favor of Athena. Because Zeus abstained from the vote, there was one more goddess than there were gods and Athena won possession of the city.

The battle with Athena over Athens was not the only one Poseidon would take part in on behalf of claiming a city for himself. He also tried claiming Troezen from Athena, which became shared equally between them. He received only the Isthmus of Corinth when he vied with Hêlios for control of it. Resulting from this conflict, the Isthmian Games were created in Poseidon's honor and featured horse and chariot racing, sports that he was associated with (Dixon-Kennedy 259). Poseidon was entirely unsuccessful in trying to take control of Aegina from Zeus, Naxos from Dionysus, and the Argolis from Hera (Graves 21). All of these confrontations were brought about by his jealous nature.

Poseidon produced many children, three of them with his wife Amphitrite. When Amphitrite, a Nereid, first learned that Poseidon was wooing her, she was afraid of him and fled. So, he sent a dolphin as a messenger to plead with her. She consented to his requests and was wed to Poseidon (Guerber 130-131). Amphitrite bore Poseidon his first son, Triton who lived with his parents in their magnificent palace at the bottom of the sea (Hesiod 30). She also mothered Rhode and Benthesicyme.

An affair with Medusa produced the winged horse Pegasus and Chrysaor and intensified the rivalry between Poseidon and Athena. Medusa was not always a monster. Instead, she was a beautiful woman who loved Poseidon, much like Skylla did. Here it was Athena that changed her into a monster instead of Artemis, though. She was angered because Poseidon and Medusa had made love in a temple sacred to her. After becoming the serpent haired monster Gorgon, Medusa was beheaded by Perseus while carrying Poseidon's unborn children. Out of her neck sprang the twins (Apollodorus 159). "Pegasus flew away and left the earth, the mother of flocks, and came to the immortals; and he lives in Zeus' palace, bringing thunder and lightening for Zeus the resourceful" (Hesiod 11). Chrysaor later became the father to the three-headed Geryoneus.

Theseus was the son of either Poseidon or King Aigeus of Athens. The confusion was created because both possible fathers slept with Theseus' mother, Aethra, on the same night. Before Theseus' birth, Aigeus was childless, leaving the throne of Athens vacant. Medea offered to help him gain a child through the use of magical potions in exchange for protection from her enemies. She said to him in Euripides' play, "I will end your childlessness, and I will make you able to beget children. The drugs I know can do this" (Euripides 657). The drugs she gave Aigeus caused him to sleep with the unmarried Aethra. Fearing the murder of his son by jealous nephews, Aigeus had Aethra hide Theseus in Troezen, telling people that Poseidon was his father.

Theseus, throughout his life, claimed each to be his father as it was convenient to him. He claimed to be the son of Poseidon when confronting the Minotaur, Asterius. Asterius tested Theseus' lineage by throwing his signet ring into the ocean and telling Theseus to fetch it, if he truly was the son of Poseidon. Theseus dove into the water and was given the ring and a crown by Poseidon's wife, Artemis. He returned to the surface and showed them to the Minotaur. Later, he slew the beast with the help of Ariadne, a daughter of Minos and half-sister to the Minotaur (Graves 95). Theseus later claimed to be the son of Aigeus and received the throne of Athens after escaping Medea's plot to poison him.

Demeter also mothered some of Poseidon's children. She was searching for her daughter Persephone and was followed by Poseidon who wanted to sleep with her. "So she turned, the story runs, into a mare, and grazed with the mares of Oncius; realizing that he was outwitted, Poseidon too changed into a stallion and enjoyed Demeter" (Pausanias 4, 25). The result of this union was the birth of the nymph Despoena and the wild horse Arion, and the strengthening of Poseidon's association with the horse.

Poseidon is further tied to the horse in other stories. Although the most Greeks believed that Poseidon had been swallowed by his father, Cronus, when born, a differing myth existed. Pausanias documented, "When Rhea had given birth to Poseidon, she laid him in a flock to live with the lambs… Rhea, it is said, declared to Cronus that she had given birth to a horse and gave him a foal to swallow instead of the child" (Pausanias 3, 381). This is in obvious opposition to the common myth that Poseidon was swallowed, but still provided the Greeks with another association between Poseidon and horses. The discrepancy might have stemmed from the merging of Achaean religion with the existing Greek gods. Poseidon is commonly acknowledged to be the inventor of horse-racing. He also claimed to have created the horse in his quarrel with Athena over Athens, but this claim was not universally accepted. Poseidon could not have invented the horse if one was substituted for him at the time of his birth, long before he supposedly created it.

Although the bull more often signified his brother, Zeus, it was linked to Poseidon as well. Greeks often sacrificed black or white bulls to him, especially before setting out on ocean voyages. They sometimes sacrificed horses in his honor, but bulls were much more common (Dixon-Kennedy 259). The story of Minos provided a further link between Poseidon and bulls.

King Minos of Crete brought Poseidon's anger down upon himself when he broke a promise to the god. The Cretan king before him, Asterius, died childless and therefore left a vacant throne. Minos claimed the throne for himself and said that the gods were in support of him. To prove this, he prayed to Poseidon to send him a fine bull from the sea, and promised that he would sacrifice it to him. "Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another" (Apollodorus 1, 305). Like Laomedon, Minos accepted the gifts of the god, then broke his promise of repayment. And, like Laomedon, Minos suffered the god's wrath in consequence. Poseidon, in his anger, convinced Aphrodite to make Minos' wife, Pasiphae, fall in love with the magnificent white bull. Pasiphae laid in a wooden cow created by the architect Daedalus and "the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow" (305). The Minotaur, Asterius, was created by this relationship and served as a reminder to Minos of his misdeed towards Poseidon. As mentioned earlier, Asterius was eventually killed by Theseus, along with the white bull that Poseidon had sent to Minos.

Poseidon showed his generous side when he granted Kainis' wish and transformed her into the invulnerable fighter Kaineus. However, Kaineus committed a sacrilege towards Zeus and was destroyed by the Centaurs as punishment. They "could neither bend nor slay him; but unconquered and unflinching he passed beneath the earth, overwhelmed by the down rush of massy pines" (Apollonius 2). Kaineus was such an extraordinary fighter that Nestor remembered him and mentioned him speech to the young soldiers of the Trojan War in an effort to make them realize how insignificant they were. (Homer Iliad 20). Poseidon had created an undefeatable warrior that was remembered for generations, but even he could not stand up to the wrath of Zeus.

Poseidon's influence would be felt long after the days of the Greek heroes. Roman mythology included Neptune, a god virtually equal to Poseidon in both relations and attributes. But, he did not play as large of a role in Roman mythology as Poseidon did in Greek, probably a result of the Romans being much more land-oriented than the sea-faring Greeks.

Neptune did, however, make an appearance in the opening book of Virgil's Aeneid. Juno (Hera to the Greeks) had, with the help of Eurus, sent a huge storm towards the Trojan fleet. Poseidon heard the commotion from his underwater palace and surfaced to see what the cause of it was. He became furious at Juno and the winds for overstepping into his domain and yelled to the winds, "Is it for you to ravage seas and land, unauthorized by my supreme command?… Hence! to your lord my royal mandate bear - The realms of ocean and the fields of air are mine, not his. By fatal lot to me the liquid empire fell, and trident of the sea" (5). He makes it very clear here that he is the ruler over the ocean realm and that he does not want anyone or anything infringing upon his reign. In doing so, Neptune reaffirms his association with jealousy and anger that Poseidon possessed throughout Greek myth and confirms that the legacy of Poseidon would continue among the Romans.

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