Greek MythologyMythology

Diving In: Who is Poseidon?

Who is Poseidon? In popular culture, he tends to be overshadowed, so it’s easy to forget just how insanely powerful he was and what an important role he played in the mythology. Let’s remedy that.

Poseidon is one of the Olympians, the 12 principal deities of Greek Mythology. One of the sons of Cronus and Rhea, he fought the Titans alongside his siblings as part of the succession myth in a battle known as the Titanomachy. He was a major god, so much so that we consider him one of the “big three”, along with Zeus and Hades. Each one was given dominion over some aspect of creation following the Titanomachy. Poseidon got the sea, depending on the source, by drawing lots. Apollodorus gives this as the explanation.

 αὐτοὶ δὲ διακληροῦνται περὶ τῆς ἀρχῆς, καὶ λαγχάνει Ζεὺς μὲν τὴν ἐν οὐρανῷ δυναστείαν, Ποσειδῶν δὲ τὴν ἐν θαλάσσῃ, Πλούτων δὲ τὴν ἐν Ἅιδου.

but they themselves cast lots for the sovereignty, and to Zeus was allotted the dominion of the sky, to Poseidon the dominion of the sea, and to Pluto the dominion in Hades

Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes.

It’s pretty similar to what we get in the Illiad:

Ζεὺς καὶ ἐγώ, τρίτατος δ᾽ Ἀΐδης ἐνέροισιν ἀνάσσων.
τριχθὰ δὲ πάντα δέδασται, ἕκαστος δ᾽ ἔμμορε τιμῆς: [190]
ἤτοι ἐγὼν ἔλαχον πολιὴν ἅλα ναιέμεν αἰεὶ
παλλομένων, Ἀΐδης δ᾽ ἔλαχε ζόφον ἠερόεντα,
Ζεὺς δ᾽ ἔλαχ᾽ οὐρανὸν εὐρὺν ἐν αἰθέρι καὶ νεφέλῃσι:
γαῖα δ᾽ ἔτι ξυνὴ πάντων καὶ μακρὸς Ὄλυμπος.

Zeus, and myself, and the third is Hades, that is lord of the dead below. And in three-fold wise are all things divided, and unto each hath been apportioned his own domain. [190] I verily, when the lots were shaken, won for my portion the grey sea to be my habitation for ever, and Hades won the murky darkness, while Zeus won the broad heaven amid the air and the clouds; but the earth and high Olympus remain yet common to us all. 

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

Table of Contents

Domain

He’s famous as the god of the seas, but that’s just part of it. He was also the god of horses, saltwater springs, and earthquakes. He was strongly associated with the earth, to the point where in the Mycenean age he may have been regarded as a cthonic deity. The Homeric Hymn to Poseidon gives a few examples of his varied roles.

ἀμφὶ Ποσειδάωτα, μέγαν θεόν, ἄρχομ᾽ ἀείδειν,
γαίης κινητῆρα καὶ ἀτρυγέτοιο θαλάσσης,
πόντιον, ὅσθ᾽ Ἑλικῶνα καὶ εὐρείας ἔχει Αἰγάς.
διχθά τοι, Ἐννοσίγαιε, θεοὶ τιμὴν ἐδάσαντο, [5]
ἵππων τε δμητῆρ᾽ ἔμεναι σωτῆρά τε νηῶν.
χαῖρε, Ποσείδαον γαιήοχε, κυανοχαῖτα,
καί, μάκαρ, εὐμενὲς ἦτορ ἔχων πλώουσιν ἄρηγε.

I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and fruitless sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the gods allotted you, O Shaker of the Earth, [5] to be a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships!
Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!

Anonymous. The Homeric Hymns and Homerica with an English Translation by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Homeric Hymns. Cambridge, MA.,Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914.

Symbols

Trident


The trident is probably the most iconic and widely recognized symbol of Poseidon. This three-pronged spear is a powerful weapon which Poseidon uses to create earthquakes and work other miracles. It was given to him by the Cyclopes during the Titanomachy and makes an appearance in several myths and pretty much all of the iconography featuring Poseidon.


Horses


Poseidon is frequently associated with horses, and there are a few reasons. In some versions, it was a horse that emerged from the ground instead of a saltwater spring during his competition with Athena. There’s also a story (the excerpt below is the only one I can find) confirming him, in one myth at least, to be the father of horses in general. Allegedly he fell asleep on some rocks and his semen created the first horse: Skyphios.

Πετραῖος τιμᾶται Ποσειδῶν παρὰ Θεσσαλοῖς, …ὅτι ἐπί τινος πέτρας κοιμηθεὶς ἀπεσπερμάτισε, καὶ τὸν θορὸν δεξαμένη ἡ γῆ ἀνέδωκεν ἵππον πρῶτον, ὃv ἐπεκάλεσαν Σκύφιον.
Scholia to Pindar Pythian 4.246
Poseidon Petraîos [= of the rocks] has a cult among the Thessalians…because he, having fallen asleep at some rock, had an emission of semen; and the earth, receiving the semen, produced the first horse, whom they called Skúphios.
There is a further report about this first horse ever:
Φασὶ δὲ καὶ ἀγῶνα διατίθεσθαι τῷ Πετραίῳ Ποσειδῶνι, ὅπου ἀπὸ τῆς πέτρας {232|233} ἐξεπήδησεν ὁ πρῶτος ἵππος
Scholia tο Pindar Pythian 4.246
and they say that there was a festival established in worship of Poseidon Petraîos at the spot where the first horse leapt forth.

https://chs.harvard.edu/chapter/chapter-9-phaethon-sapphos-phaon-and-the-white-rock-of-leukas-reading-the-symbols-of-greek-lyric-pp-223-262/

Bull

The bull is another symbol associated with Poseidon. We see this in the Iliad, where bulls are sacrificed to him. There’s also archeological data showing bulls as sacrifices in various towns.

Major Myths

Rivalry with Athena


Athena was his niece, but that didn’t stop them from being rivals of a sort. This is one of the more famous myths, in which both deities vied for status as the patron deity of Athens (which, from the name, Athena won). The story goes that each offered the people something: Athena the olive tree and Poseidon a spring named Erechtheis. The olive was judged to be more useful and Athena won the city.

 ἧκεν οὖν πρῶτος Ποσειδῶν ἐπὶ τὴν Ἀττικήν, καὶ πλήξας τῇ τριαίνῃ κατὰ μέσην τὴν ἀκρόπολιν ἀπέφηνε θάλασσαν, ἣν νῦν Ἐρεχθηίδα καλοῦσι. μετὰ δὲ τοῦτον ἧκεν Ἀθηνᾶ, καὶ ποιησαμένη τῆς καταλήψεως Κέκροπα μάρτυρα ἐφύτευσεν ἐλαίαν, ἣ νῦν ἐν τῷ Πανδροσείῳ δείκνυται. γενομένης δὲ ἔριδος ἀμφοῖν περὶ τῆς χώρας, διαλύσας Ζεὺς κριτὰς ἔδωκεν, οὐχ ὡς εἶπόν τινες, Κέκροπα καὶ Κραναόν, οὐδὲ Ἐρυσίχθονα, θεοὺς δὲ τοὺς δώδεκα. καὶ τούτων δικαζόντων ἡ χώρα τῆς Ἀθηνᾶς ἐκρίθη, Κέκροπος μαρτυρήσαντος ὅτι πρώτη τὴν ἐλαίαν ἐφύτευσεν. Ἀθηνᾶ μὲν οὖν ἀφ᾽ ἑαυτῆς τὴν πόλιν ἐκάλεσεν Ἀθήνας, Ποσειδῶν δὲ θυμῷ ὀργισθεὶς τὸ Θριάσιον πεδίον ἐπέκλυσε καὶ τὴν Ἀττικὴν ὕφαλον ἐποίησε. [2]

So Poseidon was the first that came to Attica, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea which they now call Erechtheis.2 After him came Athena, and, having called on Cecrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosium.3 But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Cecrops and Cranaus, nor yet Erysichthon, but the twelve gods.4 And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Cecrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attica under the sea.5 [2]

Apollodorus. Apollodorus, The Library, with an English Translation by Sir James George Frazer, F.B.A., F.R.S. in 2 Volumes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1921. Includes Frazer’s notes
.

The Illiad

The Trojan War, as told in the Illiad (granted, this is only a piece of the decade long war) featured a lot of gods playing major roles in battles. Poseidon was one of them. His role is mostly limited to books 13 and 14, but we learn a lot about him.

Book 13

Here we learn about Poseidon’s undersea, time-immune palace and his golden-maned horses. We also learn that he isn’t afraid of Zeus or of going against his wishes. He won’t openly defy him, but he’s perfectly willing to work by stealth, as the two excerpts below show. His role in the battle here isn’t direct. Rather, he transforms into a Greek named Calchas and inspires them, imbuing them with divine valor.

ἦ καὶ σκηπανίῳ γαιήοχος ἐννοσίγαιος [60]
ἀμφοτέρω κεκοπὼς πλῆσεν μένεος κρατεροῖο,
γυῖα δ᾽ ἔθηκεν ἐλαφρὰ πόδας καὶ χεῖρας ὕπερθεν.
αὐτὸς δ᾽ ὥς τ᾽ ἴρηξ ὠκύπτερος ὦρτο πέτεσθαι,
ὅς ῥά τ᾽ ἀπ᾽ αἰγίλιπος πέτρης περιμήκεος ἀρθεὶς
ὁρμήσῃ πεδίοιο διώκειν ὄρνεον ἄλλο, [65]
ὣς ἀπὸ τῶν ἤϊξε Ποσειδάων ἐνοσίχθων.

Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920.

As he spoke the earth-encircling lord of the earthquake struck both of them with his scepter and filled their hearts with daring. He made their legs light and active, as also their hands and their feet. Then, as the soaring falcon poises on the wing high above some sheer rock, and presently swoops down to chase some bird over the plain, even so did Poseidon lord of the earthquake wing his flight into the air and leave them

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Rendered into English prose for the use of those who cannot read the original. Samuel Butler. Longmans, Green and Co. 39 Paternoster Row, London. New York and Bombay. 1898 (?).

Ἀργείους δὲ Ποσειδάων ὀρόθυνε μετελθὼν
λάθρῃ ὑπεξαναδὺς πολιῆς ἁλός: ἤχθετο γάρ ῥα
Τρωσὶν δαμναμένους, Διὶ δὲ κρατερῶς ἐνεμέσσα.
ἦ μὰν ἀμφοτέροισιν ὁμὸν γένος ἠδ᾽ ἴα πάτρη, [355]
ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς πρότερος γεγόνει καὶ πλείονα ᾔδη.
τώ ῥα καὶ ἀμφαδίην μὲν ἀλεξέμεναι ἀλέεινε,
λάθρῃ δ᾽ αἰὲν ἔγειρε κατὰ στρατὸν ἀνδρὶ ἐοικώς.

Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920.

But Poseidon went among the Argives and urged them on, stealing forth secretly from the grey sea; for it vexed him that they were being overcome by the Trojans, and against Zeus was he exceeding wroth. Both the twain verily were of one stock and of one parentage, [355] but Zeus was the elder born and the wiser. Therefore it was that Poseidon avoided to give open aid, but secretly sought ever to rouse the Argives throughout the host, in the likeness of a man.

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

Book 14

This is the book where Hera puts Zeus into a spelled sleep, thus giving the other gods the freedom to actively intervene. And he does. He leads the Greeks into a battle against Hector and his army.

Then when they had clothed their bodies in gleaming bronze, they set forth, and Poseidon, the Shaker of Earth, led them, [385] bearing in his strong hand a dread sword, long of edge, like unto the lightning, wherewith it is not permitted that any should mingle in dreadful war, but terror holds men aloof therefrom. 

Homer. The Iliad with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, Ph.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1924.

αὐτὰρ ἐπεί ῥ᾽ ἕσσαντο περὶ χροῒ νώροπα χαλκὸν
βάν ῥ᾽ ἴμεν: ἦρχε δ᾽ ἄρά σφι Ποσειδάων ἐνοσίχθων [385]
δεινὸν ἄορ τανύηκες ἔχων ἐν χειρὶ παχείῃ
εἴκελον ἀστεροπῇ: τῷ δ᾽ οὐ θέμις ἐστὶ μιγῆναι
ἐν δαῒ λευγαλέῃ, ἀλλὰ δέος ἰσχάνει ἄνδρας.

Homer. Homeri Opera in five volumes. Oxford, Oxford University Press. 1920.

The Odyssey


The Odyssey, the story of Odysseus’ journey home after the Trojan War, is also the story of why you shouldn’t piss off Poseidon. He has a major role in the story, actively working to impede Odysseus after Odysseus blinds his son Polyphemus. There are a lot of examples, too many for me to catalog (I’m lazy), but there’s a line at the beginning of the poem that makes it perfectly clear.

 And all the gods pitied him [20] save Poseidon; but he continued to rage unceasingly against godlike Odysseus until at length he reached his own land. 

θεοὶ δ᾽ ἐλέαιρον ἅπαντες [20]
νόσφι Ποσειδάωνος: ὁ δ᾽ ἀσπερχὲς μενέαινεν
ἀντιθέῳ Ὀδυσῆι πάρος ἣν γαῖαν ἱκέσθαι.

Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.


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