Greek Titan

Oceanus

The Greek Titan Oceanus personified the enormous expanses of water that spanned the world. As patron of all things within the sea, he was generally viewed as a benevolent deity, a fatherly figure, and a giver of life.

Top Questions

  • What was the difference between Oceanus and Poseidon?

    As a Titan, Oceanus was a primordial deity who embodied all seas and oceans. Poseidon, on the other hand, was one of the Olympian gods, known for ruling over the sea (rather than personifying it).

  • Who was Oceanus married to?

    Oceanus married his sister, the Titan Tethys. They had many children together, including three thousand daughters called the Oceanids.

  • What happened to Oceanus after the Titanomachy?

    Oceanus appears to have been one of the few Titans who did not fight against Zeus and the Olympians in the Titanomachy. Because of this, Oceanus was not punished or cast down to Hades when the Olympians became rulers of the cosmos.

Overview

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 obscure. The ancient Greeks viewed Oceanus as a kind and benevolent deity; he was generally represented as an older male with a flowing beard that symbolized his fatherly authority.

Etymology

The name “Oceanus” (Greek Ὠκεανός, translit. Ōkeanos) is identical to the Greek word ōkeanos, meaning “great sea or river,” a reference to the body of water thought to encompass the world. The origins of the word are obscure, and possibly pre-Greek[1] or even Semitic.[2] The term may have been derived from the hypothetical Proto-Indo-European *ō-kei-m̥[h₁]no-, meaning “lying on.”[3] The Titan was often depicted in a reclining pose that mimicked his literal presence lying across the world.

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    OceanusὨκεανός
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [oh-SEE-uh-nuhs]/oʊˈsi ə nəs/

Attributes

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. He 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.

Though sometimes imagined as a person, Oceanus was also regarded as a place. In the earliest texts of Greek mythology—the Homeric and Hesiodic epics—Oceanus was a great river, described as world-encircling,[4] perfect,[5] and endlessly flowing back into itself.[6]

Since the days of Homer, Oceanus has been seen  as the source of all seas, rivers, springs, and wells.[7] He was also 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 stars, too, bathed in Oceanus.[8]

Oceanus (either the river itself or the palace of the Titan) was located near the ends of the earth, somewhere in the west—perhaps even in the vicinity of the Underworld. Homer puts Oceanus near Elysium,[9] while Hesiod locates him near Tartarus.[10] Beyond Oceanus lies the entrance to the Underworld,[11] the Isles of the Blessed,[12] and the Garden of the Hesperides.[13]

As Oceanus marked the boundaries of the civilized world, the early Greeks imagined that those who lived near his waters were strange, fantastical beings. These included human or human-esque tribes like the dark Ethiopians,[14] the tiny Pygmies,[15] and the Cimmerians,[16] as well as monsters like the Harpies,[17] the Gorgons,[18] or Geryon.[19] Odysseus sailed in Oceanus' great river during his wanderings, which ultimately took him as far east as Circe’s island of Aea and as far west as the Underworld.

Oceanus, together with his sister-wife Tethys, was often represented as the primordial source of the world; in the Iliad, for example, Hera says that it is Oceanus “from whom the gods are sprung.”[20] It is unclear whether this was meant literally—as an alternative to the cosmogony in which Gaia and Uranus were the originators of the world—or merely as a kind of figurative epithet.[21]

According to the Orphics, a religious group which stressed the importance of asceticism and ritual in attaining a blissful afterlife, Oceanus and Tethys were indeed the first divine couple, born a generation before the Titans.[22] Despite his cosmic significance, however, Oceanus remained subordinate to Zeus in traditional Greek religion and myth.

In art, Oceanus is often depicted with the features of both a man and a sea creature. He usually has a beard and sometimes sports horns or crab claws growing out of his head, with the body of a snake or fish. He shows up frequently on Roman coins, mosaics, and sarcophagi.

Boss with head of Oceanus Roman 1st-2nd century ce mia

Roman bronze medallion (first century CE) showing the head of Oceanus, which is crowned with dolphins. Fish scales in the background further his reign as the ruler of the oceans and seas.

Minneapolis Institute of ArtPublic Domain

Family

The firstborn son of the primordial deities Gaia and Uranus, Oceanus had many siblings. These included the Titans CoeusCriusHyperionIapetusTheaThemisMnemosynePhoebe 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 wife, and together they had thousands of children. These included the three thousand rivers as well as the three thousand sea nymphs known collectively as the Oceanids.

Oceanus was sometimes also called the father of the Cercopes, a pair of monkey-like thieves;[23] of Triptolemus, an inventor of agriculture;[24] and the Harpies.[25]

Many of Oceanus’s children became significant figures in Greek mythology, including Metis, who mated with Zeus and conceived the goddess Athena; Dione, another lover of Zeus, sometimes called the mother of Aphrodite; Clymene, a lover of Iapetus; and Pleione, wife of the Titan Atlas and mother of the Pleiades.

Family Tree

Mythology

Oceanus acquired a reputation as a sort of pacifist among the blustering and belligerent Titans. According to the mythographer Apollodorus, Oceanus was the only Titan who did not participate in Cronus’ attack on their father, Uranus.[26] It was through this bloody struggle that the Titans became the rulers of the cosmos, with Cronus as their leader.

Later, when Zeus and his siblings fought against Cronus and the Titans in the decade-long Titanomachy, Oceanus again stood on the sidelines. In Hesiod’s Theogony, Oceanus actually sends his daughter Styx, one of the Oceanids, to help Zeus.[27] In Homer’s Iliad, Hera claims that during the war, she was taken in and brought up by Oceanus and Tethys.[28] Because of his support of the Olympians, Oceanus was not cast down into Tartarus with the other Titans after Zeus defeated Cronus and his army.

Mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys Zeugma Museum

Mosaic of Oceanus and Tethys at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Turkey (second or third century CE).

Adam JonesCC BY-SA 2.0

Though Oceanus typically kept his distance from mythological adventures, he did appear in one tale with Heracles. The sixth-century BCE writer Pherecydes related a story in which Heracles sailed to Erytheia, the home of the monster Geryon, in a golden cup given to him by Helios. During this voyage, Oceanus decided to tease Heracles by creating large waves to rock the cup. Unfazed, Heracles drew his bow and threatened to shoot Oceanus if he did not stop. Knowing Heracles’ reputation (and thus rightly fearing this threat), Oceanus immediately complied.[29]

Another myth explained why Ursa Major, the Great Bear, was the only star or constellation that did not bathe in the waters of Oceanus. Ursa Major had once been one of Zeus’ lovers, the nymph Callisto. When she died, she was placed in the sky as a constellation, but the ever-jealous Hera sought to further punish her husband’s lover: she ordered Oceanus not to let Ursa Major bathe with the other starts in his waters.[30]

Worship

Oceanus was almost never an object of cult in the ancient Greek world, though he was worshipped by Alexander the Great during his campaign for world conquest.[31]

Pop Culture

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 features a bearded Oceanus towering over geysers, horses, and sea nymphs. The fountain’s theme is “taming the waters,” and Oceanus’ commanding position makes it clear that the mighty Titan is the one doing the taming.

Oceanus Statue at Trevi Fountain Rome

The statue of Oceanus at the center of the Trevi Fountain in Rome (1762).

Bonnie FerantePublic Domain

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, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) launched a ship called the NOAAS Okeanos Explorer to gather data about the oceans and atmosphere.

Oceanus makes a brief appearance in the video game God of War III (2010), where—contrary to the typical tradition—he is one of several Titans to attack Mount Olympus.

References

Notes

  1. Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 1677.

  2. Robert L. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography, vol. 2: Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 11; Martin L. West, The East Face of Helicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 146–47.

  3. Michael Janda, Die Musik nach dem Chaos: Der Schöpfungsmythos der europäischen Vorzeit (Innsbruck: Innsbruck University Press, 2010), 57ff.

  4. Homer, Odyssey 11.13.

  5. Hesiod, Theogony 242, 959; Homer, Iliad 12.1.

  6. Hesiod, Theogony 767; Homer, Iliad 18.399, Odyssey 20.65.

  7. Homer, Iliad 21.195ff.

  8. Homer, Iliad 5.5–6.

  9. Homer, Iliad 14.200–1, Odyssey 4.563–68.

  10. Hesiod, Theogony 729–92.

  11. Homer, Odyssey 11.24ff.

  12. Hesiod, Works and Days 167ff.

  13. Hesiod, Theogony 215–16.

  14. Homer, Iliad 1.423–24.

  15. Homer, Iliad 3.5–6.

  16. Homer, Odyssey 11.13ff.

  17. Homer, Iliad 16.150.

  18. Hesiod, Theogony 274–75.

  19. Hesiod, Theogony 287ff.

  20. Homer, Iliad 14.201 and 302; cf. 14.246.

  21. See the discussion in Timothy Gantz, Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 11; Martin L. West, The East Face of Helicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), 147.

  22. Plato, Cratylus 402b; Plato, Timaeus 40; Orphic Hymn 82.

  23. Suda s.v. “Cercopes.”

  24. Apollodorus, Library 1.5.2 (citing Pherecydes); Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.14.3 (citing Musaeus).

  25. Epimenides, Theogony fragment 3b7.

  26. Apollodorus, Library 1.1.4; Proclus, On Plato’s “Timaeus” 40e (= Orphic Hymns fragment 135 Kern). In Hesiod’s Theogony (165–81), however, Cronus was acting alone and received help from none of his siblings.

  27. Hesiod, Theogony 398ff.

  28. Homer, Iliad 14.200–4.

  29. Pherecydes’ work has not survived, but this strange story is summarized in Athenaeus, Deipnosophistae 11.39, 470c–d.

  30. Homer, Iliad 18.487ff; Hesiod fragment 354 M–W; Ovid, Metamorphoses 2.508ff. In some sources, however, it is Oceanus’ wife Tethys who refuses to let Ursa Major bathe in the sea (Ovid, Fasti 2.191–92; Hyginus, Astronomica 2.1).

  31. Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 17.104.1; Arrian, Indica 18.11.

Primary Sources

Greek

  • Homer: Oceanus is mentioned in both the Iliad and Odyssey (eighth century BCE) as the source of the seas, rivers, and all life.

  • Hesiod: In the Theogony and Works and Days (seventh century BCE), Oceanus is named as one of the Titans and represented as a powerful lord of the seas.

  • Homeric Hymns: Oceanus is addressed, more as a place than an individualized person, in several of the Homeric Hymns (seventh–sixth century BCE). In Hymns 31 and 32, for example, it is into the waters of Oceanus that the heavenly bodies (such as Helios and Selene, the sun and moon) settle when their labors are complete.

  • Aeschylus: Oceanus is a character in the fifth-century BCE tragedy Prometheus Bound, attributed (dubiously) to Aeschylus. Oceanus tries to comfort Prometheus after he has been punished by Zeus and urges his stubborn nephew not to resist the authority of the Olympians.

  • Aristophanes: Oceanus is named as the father of the titular chorus of Clouds in the comedy Clouds (423 BCE). 

  • Plato: There are references to certain (presumably Orphic) cosmogonies—in which Oceanus is one of the first beings to come into existence and the origin of all life in the cosmos—in the Cratylus and Timaeus, fourth-century BCE dialogues by the philosopher Plato. 

  • Callimachus: Oceanus appears in some of Callimachus’ Hymns (third century BCE). In Hymn 3, for example, Artemis chooses several of Oceanus and Tethys’ daughters to be her handmaidens.

  • Aratus: In the Phaenomena, a third-century BCE poem about celestial phenomena, Oceanus is presented as the one responsible for changing astronomical signs throughout the year.

  • Orphic Hymns: Oceanus features in some of the Orphic Hymns (third century BCE–second century CE), religious texts produced by the Orphic Mysteries. The brief 82nd hymn is dedicated to Oceanus.

  • Strabo, Geography: A late-first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.

  • Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.

  • Quintus of Smyrna: Oceanus is mentioned as a geographical landmark (i.e., the world-encircling stream) throughout the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica.

  • Nonnus: Oceanus appears a few times as a powerful and fearsome sea deity in the fifth-century CE epic Dionysiaca.

Roman

  • Virgil: Oceanus is mentioned briefly in Book 4 of Virgil’s Georgics (29 BCE) in connection with the story of Aristaeus.

  • Ovid: Oceanus plays a minor role in the story of Callisto, told in Book 2 of the Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE) and mentioned also in Book 2 of the Fasti (ca. 8 CE).

  • Statius: Oceanus is mentioned briefly (as a host of the god Neptune/Poseidon) in the first book of Statius’ unfinished Achilleid (late first century CE).

  • Hyginus: The poem Astronomica (second or third century CE), erroneously attributed to the first-century CE writer Hyginus, mentions Oceanus and Tethys in connection with the myth of Callisto and the constellation Ursa Major.

Mythological Handbooks (Greek and Roman)

  • Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History: a work of universal history, covering events from the creation of the cosmos to Diodorus’ own time (mid-first century BCE). Contains references to Oceanus and his mythology.

  • Apollodorus, Library: a mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with references to Oceanus.

  • Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) which includes sections on the myths of Oceanus.

Secondary Sources

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Oceanus.” Mythopedia, November 29, 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanus.

Kapach, Avi. “Oceanus.” Mythopedia, 29 Nov. 2022. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanus. Accessed on 29 Nov. 2022.

Kapach, A. (2022, November 29). Oceanus. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/oceanus

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

    Avi Kapach is a writer, scholar, and educator who received his PhD in Classics from Brown University

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