Defiant Poseidon was one of chief Olympian deities, a god whose power was second only to Zeus. Although he is chiefly known as the god of the sea and seafarers, his power extended to other domains as well. Called the “deep sounding Earth Shaker,” the “Encircler of the Earth,” and the “black maned,” Poseidon controlled earthquakes and was associated with horses and horsemanship.
In some sources he is also referred as “Hippios,” meaning “horse lord.” Poseidon was worshipped broadly across the Greek world but particularly in the sea-faring city-states, such as Athens and Corinth.
Poseidon was as unruly as the seas he was thought to control. An instigator, a firebrand, and a rebel, Poseidon figures prominently in Greek mythology for his resistance to Zeus' control of the pantheon, and for his disruptive influence over human affairs in the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The stories of Poseidon projected the hope for control over the domain that the Greeks most wanted to control, but could not—the sea.
The name “Poseidon” is rooted in two distinct words. The first is the Greek word posis, from the Proto Indo-European root pótis, both meaning “husband,” “lord,” or “master.” Some uncertainty surrounds the second word and there are two broad explanations.
The better accepted interpretation holds that it comes from the root da-, meaning “earth” or “land,” which would make “Poseidon” something like “lord of the earth,” or even perhaps “husband of the earth.” This latter translation indicates an association with the earth goddess, Demeter, and indeed the oldest Mycenaean Greek references to Poseidon point to an intimate, though imprecise, relationship with Demeter and possibly Persephone.
The second interpretation suggests a link to the word dâwon, or “water,” which would make “Poseidon” into “lord of the waters.” This is obviously an attractive translation because it points to a link with the sea, the chief association of Poseidon. But ultimately that association is probably misleading in the etymological sense, because none of the earliest references to Poseidon during the Mycenaean period indicate an association with water, sea, or ocean.1
In the fullness of his manhood, Poseidon wedded Amphitrite, one of the sea nymphs known as the Nereids (the daughters of Nereus and Doris), a figure who was long associated with the sea and with salt waters in particular. Together they had three children: Triton, the messenger god of the sea; Benthesikyme; and Rhodos, the patron goddess of the island of Rhodes and later the wife of Helios, the god of the sun.
Like other male deities, Poseidon was celebrated for his many infidelites and forced sexual conquests. Among his numerous illegitimate offspring were some of most legendary figures in Greek mythology. With his own mother, Gaia, he sired the giant Antaeus, who did battle with Heracles during the Twelve Labors, and Charybdis, the sea monster that lurked in the straits of Messina, forming massive and relentless whirlpools that sucked in unexpected travelers. He reproduced with Aphrodite as well as his sister, Demeter, with whom he had two children, including a small speaking horse named Areion.
Poseidon also raped the Gorgon Medusa (in the temple of Athena no less), a union that created the famous winged horse Pegasus, who eventually burst from Medusa's neck but only after Perseus lopped off her head. According to Ovid, Poseidon's rape of Medusa so enraged the lovely maiden that serpents grew from her head and she became hideous to behold.
In addition to the goddesses, Poseidon courted nymphs and sea nymphs, such as Thoosa, who gave birth to the fearsome Cyclops known as Polyphemus. He also sought the pleasures of many mortal women, such as Euryale—the daughter of King Minos of Crete, and the mother of the huntsman Orion—and Phoenice who delivered the ever-changing Proteus, who, like his father, became a god of the seas and rivers.2
A central element of the Poseidon mythos was his involvement in plots to undermine the established order, whether human or divine. One older story, retold in regrettably brief detail in the Iliad, even has Poseidon leading a plot against the rule of Zeus. As the story goes, Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, and Hera together conspired to trick Zeus into his throne and fasten him there.
Zeus was saved only by the vigilance of Thetis, the sea nymph, who summoned Briareos, one of the monstrous, one-hundred handed creatures known as Hecatoncheires (these were the same beings who were responsible in large part for the Olympian pantheon's victory over the Titans and the Giants in the Titanomachy).
As a punishment, Zeus stripped the rebellious trio of their divine rights and sent them to run errands on earth. Among them was the humiliating task of serving Laodemon, the king of Troy and father of Priam, who ordered the disgraced gods to build walls around the great city. Poseidon did as he was instructed, but he nursed a bitter grudge for the affront, and when his period of service came to an end, he sent a monstrous sea creature to harass Troy. The creature baited Heracles into action and the great hero slew the beast, leaving Poseidon to dream of vengeance another day.3
Along with his brothers and sisters, Hestia, Demeter, Hades, and ultimately Zeus, Poseidon was born of the union between Rhea and Kronos, the Titans who ruled the earth and heavens before the rise of Zeus and the Olympian pantheon. When he discovered that one of his children was destined to overthrow him, Kronos swallowed Poseidon and the children, who resided in the belly of their father until mighty Zeus bested the Titan, forcing him to regurgitate the children.
Poseidon fought fiercely among the ranks of Zeus, his sibling deities, and Prometheus in the cataclysmic conflict known as the Titanomachy. When they bested the Titans, Zeus and his brothers, Hades and Poseidon (being male and thus privileged to rule in Greek society) assumed control of the cosmos and divvied up the domains of the cosmos. Drawing lots at random, Poseidon gained control of the seas and of all waters.
Poseidon and the Homeric Epics
Poseidon's rage over the affair involving Laodemon had enormous influence over the course of the Trojan War, as it is told by Homer in the Iliad. When the broke out, Poseidon threw his considerable might behind the Achaeans—the coalition of Greeks who sallied forth to crush Troy. Like the other gods who meddled in the Trojan conflict, Poseidon's assistance came mostly in the support of moral support.
At a critical moment in the battle, when the Achaeans seemed near to defeat at the hands of the attacking Trojans, Poseidon raced to the battlefield where he assumed the form of the prophet Calchas in order to avoid the detection of Zeus, who had ordered the gods to stay out of the affair. Poseidon's efforts are rendered beautifully in the Iliad:
Suddenly down from the mountain's rocky crags
Poseidon stormed with giant, lightning strides
And looming peaks and tall timber quaked
Beneath his immortal feet as the sea lord surged on.
… Down Poseidon dove and yoked his bronze-hoofed horses
Onto his battle-car, his pair that raced the wind
With their golden manes streaming behind them,
And strapping the golden armor around his body,
Seized his whip that coils lithe and gold
And boarded his chariot launching up and out,
Skimming the waves, and over the swells they came,
Dolphins leaving their lairs to sport across his wake,
Leaping left and right—well they knew their lord.
And the sea heaved with joy, cleaving a path for him
And the team flew on in a blurring burst of speed.4
Poseidon's desperate intervention quelled the fearful hearts of the Achaeans. He also rallied the spirits of the great warriors, Little Ajax and the Great Ajax, who mounted the defense that repulsed Hector's assault.
Yet while Poseidon's heroic efforts won the day, the Achaeans suffered tremendous losses that threatened their collective resolve—even the mighty Agamemnon proposed a retreat in order to regather their strength. Poseidon once again intervened, this time with the help from Hera, who distracted Zeus with her feminine charms and induces him into a deep slumber.
Seizing the moment, Poseidon revealed himself and led his troops in a terrific assault that left Hector wounded and the Achaeans ascendant. When Zeus finally awoke to sound of Poseidon bellowing in fury from the battlefield, he ordered the disobedient sea god from the site of the battle. Poseidon conceded, though not out of fear for Zeus, he assured the other gods, but because of his enormous respect for the Father of Olympus.
Poseidon in the Odyssey
After Troy had been brought to ruin, Poseidon focused his seemingly inexhaustible rage on Odysseus, the great hero whose long journey home after the Trojan War was immortalized in the Odyssey. Though Odysseus had fought on the side of the Achaeans, he and his crew happened to land on an island inhabited by Polyphemus, a Cyclops and the son of Poseidon. When Polyphemus began eating members of the crew, Odysseus and the few who remained of his men contrived to blind the creature. They tricked the massive creature into a drunken stupor, then blinded him when he was inebriated.
While the stratagem allowed Odysseus and the others to escape from the Cyclops' clutches, it also earned them the wrath of Poseidon, a god more than capable of waylaying Odysseus on his sea voyage home. In the end, there would be no Odyssey without Poseidon. At one point, Poseidon sent a storm that shipwrecked Odysseus after he left from the island of Calypso, and at another, he lures Odysseus into the range of his child, the maelstrom producing sea monster Charybdis.
Mainly by virtue of his central role in the Homeric epics, Poseidon has a lively presence in contemporary popular culture. There are of course the many film and television versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, where Poseidon almost always has a role. Poseidon appears briefly in the Disney animated films Hercules(1997) and The Little Mermaid (1989), where he takes the guise of the kind and benevolent old man, King Triton, also known as Neptune (the Romanized version of Poseidon).
The sea god also figures prominently in the Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan, in which Poseidon is the father of the eponymous hero Perseus “Percy” Jackson. He also parts in popular video games, such as the God of War and the Assassin's Creed series. Poseidon is also subject of many vivid, colorful and dramatic internet illustrations, which can be easily found on forums such as pinterest.5
In these popular manifestations, Poseidon maintains much of his ancient masculine vigour—heavily muscled and bearded, he wields his fearsome trident, rises out of the frothy seas in menacing poses, and generally intimidates his opponents into submission.
There is a nice discussion of Poseidon's revolt in Robin Hard's Routlege Companion to Greek Mythology, chapter three. https://www.routledgehandbooks.com/doi/10.4324/9780203446331.ch3#en3_93. ↩
Homer, the Iliad, translated by Robert Fagles, Book XIII, 20-38. ↩
As an example, I found the following pinterest page with a simple search for “Poseidon” or “Neptune.” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/368591550733052583/?lp=true. ↩