One of the chief Olympian deities, Poseidon was a defiant god whose power was second only to that of Zeus. Although he was chiefly known as god of the sea and seafarers, his power extended to other domains as well. Befitting one called “deep sounding Earth Shaker,” “Encircler of the Earth,” and “black maned,” Poseidon controlled earthquakes and was associated with horses and horsemanship as well. In some sources, he was even referred to as “Hippios,” meaning “horse lord.” Worshipped across the entirety of the Greek world, Poseidon had particularly strong followings in seafaring city-states such as Athens and Corinth.

Poseidon of Milos, marble statue in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Athens, Greece (cropped and retouched).George E. Koronaios / CC BY-SA 4.0

Poseidon was as unruly as the seas he was thought to control. An instigator, a firebrand, and a rebel, Poseidon figured prominently in Greek mythology thanks to his resistance of Zeus’ control over the pantheon; he was also well known for his disruptive influence over human affairs in Homeric epics the Iliad and the Odyssey. Stories of Poseidon projected the illusion of control onto the one domain that the Greeks could never fully master—the sea.

Etymology

The name “Poseidon” had roots in two distinct words. The first of these was the Greek word posis, itself derived from the Proto Indo-European root pótis. Both words meant “husband,” “lord,” or “master.” Some uncertainty surrounded the second of Poseidon's linguistic origins. The better accepted interpretation held that it comes from the root da-, meaning “earth” or “land,” which would make “Poseidon” translate to “lord of the earth,” or perhaps even “husband of the earth.” This latter translation indicated an association with the earth goddess, Demeter. Indeed, the oldest Mycenaean Greek references to Poseidon pointed to an intimate—though imprecise—relationship with Demeter, and possibly Persephone.

The Return of Neptune (1754) by John Singleton Copley..Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

The second interpretation suggested a link to the word dâwon, or “water,” which would make “Poseidon” translate to “lord of the waters.” This was an attractive translation as it linked Poseidon's name with the sea. This association was misleading, however, as none of the early Mycenaean references to Poseidon indicated the god held any association with ocean, water, or sea.1

Family

In the fullness of his manhood, Poseidon wed Amphitrite, one of the nymphs known as the Nereids (the daughters of Nereus and Doris) and a figure long associated with the sea (and salt water in particular). Together, they had three children: Triton, the messenger god of the sea, Benthesikyme, and Rhodos, the patron goddess of Rhodes and future wife of Helios.

Like other male deities, Poseidon was celebrated for his many infidelites and violent sexual conquests. Among his numerous illegitimate offspring were some of most legendary figures in Greek mythology. With his mother, Gaia, he sired the giant Antaeus, who did battle with Hercules during the Twelve Labors, and Charybdis, a sea monster that lurked in the straits of Messina and formed massive, relentless whirlpools to suck in unexpecting travelers. He also reproduced with Aphrodite and his sister, Demeter. He sired two children with the latter, including a small speaking horse named Areion.

East frieze of the Parthenon depicting Poseidon (left) seated next to Apollo and Artemis.University of Michigan / Public Domain

Poseidon also raped the Gorgon Medusa in the temple of Athena. This union was ultimately responsible for the birth Pegasus; the famous winged horse would eventually burst from Medusa’s neck 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, making her hideous to behold.

In addition to goddesses, Poseidon courted nymphs such as Thoosa, who gave birth to the fearsome Cyclops known as Polyphemus. He also sought the pleasures of mortal women such as Euryale—the daughter of King Minos and mother of the huntsman Orion—and Phoenice, who gave birth to the ever-changing Proteus. Like his father, Proteus would himself become a god of the seas and rivers.2

Mythology

A central element of the Poseidon mythos was the god's involvement in plots to undermine the established orders both human or divine. One older story, retold in regrettably brief detail in the Iliad, even featured Poseidon leading a plot to overthrow Zeus. In this tale, Poseidon, Athena, Apollo, and Hera 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 the Hecatoncheires. These creatures were the same beings responsible for the Olympian pantheon’s victory over the Titans and the Giants in the Titanomachy, and could easily handle anything the rebellious gods could throw at them.

Drinking vessel picturing Poseidon, god of the sea, riding a sea horse.Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

As punishment, Zeus stripped the rebellious deities of their divine rights and sent them to run errands on earth. Among these errands was the humiliating task of serving Laodemon, king of Troy and father of Priam, who ordered the disgraced gods to build walls around the great city. Poseidon performed the work as instructed, but nursed a bitter grudge for the affront. When his period of service came to an end, he sent a monstrous sea creature to harass Troy. The creature baited Hercules into action, and before long the great hero slew the beast, leaving Poseidon to take his revenge another day.3

Origin

Along with his brothers and sisters, Hestia, Demeter, Hades, Hera, and Zeus, Poseidon was born of the union between Rhea and Cronus, Titans who ruled the universe before the rise of the Olympian pantheon. When he discovered that one of his children was destined to overthrow him, Cronus swallowed Poseidon and his other children. Eventually, mighty Zeus bested the Titan and forced him to regurgitate the children, including Poseidon.

The Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion, Greece. Built on Cape Sounion, just south of Athens on the Attic peninsula and near the center of the god's worship, this is perhaps the oldest and best maintained of Poseidon's temples.A.Savin / CC BY-SA 3.0

Poseidon fought fiercely alongside Zeus and his other siblings 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 it up into various domains. The brothers drew lots at random, and with his draw Poseidon gained control of the seas, as well as 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 told by Homer in the Iliad. When war 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 form of moral support. At a critical moment in the battle, when the Achaeans seemed near defeat at the hands of the attacking Trojans, Poseidon raced to the battlefield and assumed the form of the prophet Calchas. He did so in order to avoid the detection of Zeus, who had ordered the gods to stay out of the affair. Poseidon’s efforts to help the Achaeans were 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 Ajax the Great, who mounted the defense that repelled Hector’s assault.

Engraving entitled Naval Battle Between Greeks and Trojans (1538) by Giovanni Battista Scultori. Poseidon is possibly rendered in the foreground, sword in hand, with the body of Hector protected by another warrior lying beneath him.Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

While Poseidon’s heroic efforts won the day, the Achaeans still suffered tremendous losses that threatened their collective resolve. Even the mighty Agamemnon was shaken; he proposed a retreat so that the Achaeans might regain their strength. Once again, Poseidon intervened—this time with the help from Hera, who distracted Zeus with her feminine charms and lured 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 the sound of Poseidon bellowing in fury from the battlefield, he ordered the disobedient sea god to retreat from the battle immediately. Poseidon conceded—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 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 son of Poseidon. When Polyphemus began eating members of the crew, Odysseus and his few remaining men devised a plan to blind the creature. Using great cunning, they tricked the massive creature into drinking himself into a stupor and blinded him when he was inebriated.

While the act 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 voyage home. Truly, there would be no Odyssey without Poseidon. At one point, Poseidon sent a storm to shipwreck Odysseus as he was leaving the island of Calypso; the sea god would later lure Odysseus into range of his child, the maelstrom-producing sea monster Charybdis.

Pop Culture

Thanks to his central role in the Homeric epics, Poseidon has maintained a lively presence in contemporary popular culture. There have been many film and television versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Poseidon has almost always played a key role within them. Poseidon appeared briefly in the Disney animated films Hercules (1997) and The Little Mermaid (1989); in the latter he took the guise of the benevolent King Triton, also known as Neptune (the Romanized version of Poseidon).

The sea god also figured prominently in Percy Jackson & the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan in which Poseidon played father to the eponymous hero. Poseidon has frequently appeared in popular video games, including in the God of War and the Assassin’s Creed series. Poseidon was also the subject of many vivid, colorful, and dramatic internet illustrations on forums such as Pinterest. In these popular manifestations, Poseidon has maintained much of his ancient masculine vigour. Often appearing heavily muscled and bearded, he could be seen wielding his fearsome trident, rising menacingly out of the frothy seas, and intimidating his opponents into submission.

References

Bibliography

  1. Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Routledge, 2004.

  2. Homer. The Iliad. Translated by Robert Fagles. New York: Viking, 1990.

  3. Wikipedia contributors. “Poseidon.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poseidon.

Footnotes

  1. See the great etymological discussion under the Wikipedia entry for “Poseidon.” 

  2. A very thorough discussion of Poseidon’s family and children, complete with an accessible table, can be accessed through the Wikipedia article for “Poseidon,” under the Consorts and Children section. 

  3. There is a nice discussion of Poseidon’s revolt in Robin Hard’s Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, chapter 3. 

  4. Homer, The Iliad, 13.20–38.