The first son of Gaia and Uranus, Oceanus was a Titan who personified the great seas and oceans. He was often likened to a great river that spanned the entirety of the known world. With his sister and lover Tethys, Oceanus spawned the legions of sea nymphs known as the Oceanids.
Though not as popular as the Olympian deities, Oceanus was still well known throughout ancient Greece. He was mentioned in the Homeric epics, though his exact personality remained relatively obscure. The ancient Greeks viewed Oceanus as a kind and benevolent deity, and he was generally represented as an older male with a flowing beard that symbolized his fatherly authority.
The name “Oceanus” was identical to the Greek word ōkeanos, meaning “great sea or river,” which referred to the body of water that encompassed the world. The term may have been derived from the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European o-khei-mno, meaning “lying on.” The Titan was often depicted in a reclining pose that mimicked his literal presence across the world.
Oceanus embodied the seas and commanded the enormous power of their waters. While he was occasionally viewed as a source of destruction, Oceanus was generally imagined as a father and giver of life. Oceanus was also viewed as a liminal deity—one who marked the boundary between the living and the dead, as well as the seas and heavens.
Oceanus was closely associated with heavenly bodies. The sun and its corresponding deity Helios, for instance, departed from the Titan’s body in the morning and settled there at night.
The first born son of the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus, Oceanus had many siblings. These included the Titans—Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Thea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe and Rhea, Tethys, and Cronus—as well as the one-eyed Cyclopes and the Hecatoncheires, monsters with a hundred hands each.
Oceanus took his sister Tethys as his lover, and together, they had over three thousand children. These children, who were known collectively as the Oceanids, were largely sea nymphs. Many of Oceanus’s children became significant figures in Greek mythology, including Metis, who mated with Zeus and conceived the goddess Athena. Among the Titan’s other significant children were Thetis, who married the mortal hero Peleus and gave birth to the mighty Achilles; Amphitrite, the consort of the sea god Poseidon; Dione, a lover of Zeus; Clymene, a lover of Iapetus; and Pleione, wife of the Titan Atlas and mother of the Pleiades.
Oceanus was mentioned in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, though he does not appear as an active character in either. In the Iliad, Hera wove a complex lie involving Oceanus and Tethys in order to distract the gods from her interventions in the Trojan War. She first approached Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, with the intention of borrowing her girdle, able to make its wearer irresistible to males both mortal and divine. Hera claimed she wanted to bring it to Tethys, as she and Oceanus had not made love in many ages. Hera’s words revealed much about Oceanus’s mythic standing:
Hera told her a lying tale and said, ‘I want you to endow me with some of those fascinating charms, the spells of which bring all things mortal and immortal to your feet. I am going to the world’s end to visit Oceanus (from whom all we gods proceed) and mother Tethys: they received me in their house, took care of me, and brought me up, having taken me over from Rhea when Zeus imprisoned great Cronus in the depths that are under earth and sea. I must go and see them that I may make peace between them; they have been quarrelling, and are so angry that they have not slept with one another this long while; if I can bring them round and restore them to one another’s embraces, they will be grateful to me and love me for ever afterwards.’1
With the help of Aphrodite’s charmed girdle, Hera seduced Zeus and had Hypnos, the god of sleep, put him into a deep slumber. She then began to meddle in the Trojan War, which Zeus had expressly forbidden.
Oceanus was mentioned in the Odyssey as well, though he did not appear as an active character. At one point in the epic, he was invoked by Odysseus’s wife Penelope, whose sorrow for her lost husband brought her to the verge of suicide:
When she [Penelope] had relieved herself by weeping she prayed to Artemis saying, ‘Great Goddess Diana, daughter of Jove, drive an arrow into my heart and slay me; or let some whirlwind snatch me up and bear me through paths of darkness till it drop me into the mouths of overflowing Oceanus, as it did the daughters of Pandareus.’2
Another passage found Odysseus in the waters of Oceanus, where he encountered the Cimmerians:
All day long her sails were full as she held her course over the sea, but when the sun went down and darkness was over all the earth, we got into the deep waters of the river Oceanus, where lie the land and city of the Cimmerians who live enshrouded in mist and darkness which the rays of the sun never pierce neither at his rising nor as he goes down again out of the heavens, but the poor wretches live in one long melancholy night. When we got there we beached the ship, took the sheep out of her, and went along by the waters of Oceanus till we came to the place of which Circe had told us.3
Oceanus was famously memorialized as the focal point of the Trevi Fountain in Rome. Designed in the mid-eighteenth century by the Italian architect Nicola Salvi and completed in 1762 by sculptor Guiseppe Pannini, the iconic landmark featured a bearded Oceanus towering over geysers, horses, and sea nymphs. The fountain’s theme is “taming the waters,” and Oceanus’s commanding position makes it clear that it is indeed the mighty Titan who is doing the taming.
Due to its etymological relationship to the word “ocean,” the Titan’s name is still strongly associated with the seas and its waters. In 2010, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) launched a ship called the NOAAS Okeanos. Equipped with modern technology, the ship gathered data about the oceans and atmosphere.
Oceanus made a brief appearance in the video game God of War III (2010), where he was one of several Titans to attack Mount Olympus.
Homer. Iliad. Translated by Samuel Butler. Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on January 31, 2020. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.html.
Homer. Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler. Internet Classics Archive. Accessed on January 31, 2020. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.html.
“Oceanus.” Wikipedia. Accessed January 30, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oceanus.
Homer, Iliad, translated by Samuel Butler, Book XIV. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/iliad.14.xiv.html. ↩
Homer, Odyssey, translated by Samuel Butler, Book XX. http://classics.mit.edu/Homer/odyssey.20.xx.html. ↩
Ibid., Book XI. ↩