Sea God

Phorcys

Roman mosaic possibly showing Ceto with Phorcys, Thaumas, and Triton

Roman mosaic from Trajan’s Baths of Acholla, perhaps showing Phorcys (center), Ceto (right), and Triton or Thaumas (left)

Bardo National Museum, Tunis / Dennis JarvisCC BY-SA 2.0

Etymology

The name “Phorcys” (Greek Φόρκυς, translit. Phórkys) is related to the Greek word φορκός (phorkós), meaning “white.”[1] This name may stem from Phorcys’ connection with the sea and the white foam of the waves. Alternatively, it may be meant to evoke the white hair of old age, as Phorcys was sometimes known as an “old man of the sea.”

Pronunciation

  • English
    Greek
    PhorcysΦόρκυς (Phórkys)
  • Phonetic
    IPA
    [FAWR-sis]/ˈfɔr sɪs/

Titles and Epithets

In at least one early source, Phorcys was known by the epithet ἅλιος γέρων (hálios gérōn), “old man of the sea.”[2] However, this epithet was more commonly associated with Phorcys’ brother Nereus (also a sea god).

Attributes

General

Phorcys, one of the “old men of the sea,” was typically imagined as a wizened sea god. He was the father of various monsters who dwelled in the terrifying depths of the sea, and was sometimes represented as a merman-like creature himself. As one of the lords of the deep, he danced beneath the waves with the other sea creatures.[3]

Iconography

Phorcys can occasionally be found in ancient works of art, including vase paintings and mosaics. He was often shown as human from the waist up but with the scaly lower body of a fish. Artists sometimes gave him a beard, though a few later representations show the “old man of the sea,” paradoxically, as a beardless and youthful god. In a few depictions, he holds a torch aloft.[4]

Family

According to the standard tradition, Phorcys was born from the union of Gaia, the primordial embodiment of the earth, and Pontus, the embodiment of the sea. His siblings were the sea deities Nereus, Thaumas, Eurybia, and Ceto.[5]

But there were other versions of Phorcys’ genealogy, too. According to one early account, Phorcys was the son of Eidothea, the daughter of the sea god Proteus.[6] In the Orphic tradition, Phorcys seems to have been the son of Oceanus and Tethys, whom the Orphics believed to be the first divine couple.[7] Another Orphic source made him one of the Titans.[8]

In one obscure tradition, which the commentator Servius attributes to the Roman scholar Varro, Phorcys was the son of Poseidon and a nymph named Thoosa. According to this account, he was originally the king of the islands of Sardinia and Corsica. After Phorcys was killed in a war against Atlas, his followers made him a god.[9]

In most traditions, Phorcys married his sister Ceto. Together they were the parents of several terrifying monsters, sometimes known as “Phorcides” (after their father). These offspring included the white-haired Graeae, the stony-faced Gorgons, the snake monster Echidna, and the gigantic serpent who guarded the Garden of the Hesperides (sometimes called Ladon, but other times unnamed).[10]

Gorgon head on terracotta tile

Gorgon head on terracotta tile from Tarentum in South Italy (c. 540 BC)

The Metropolitan Museum of ArtPublic Domain

Other sources swelled the ranks of Phorcys’ offspring. According to Homer, Phorcys was the father of Thoosa, who later gave birth to the Cyclops Polyphemus.[11] According to Sophocles, he was the father of the Sirens.[12] Apollonius of Rhodes made him the father of Scylla,[13] a sea monster whom Phorcys brought back to life (in one account) after she was slain by Heracles.[14]

Finally, one tradition—mentioned only by an early commentator, who does not identify their source—made Phorcys the father of the Hesperides.[15]

References

Notes

  1. Hesychius, Lexicon, s.v. “φορκόν” (phorkón); see also Robert S. P. Beekes, Etymological Dictionary of Greek (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 2:1587. Alternative spellings of the name include Φόρκος (Phórkos) and Πόρκος (Pórkos). In Roman literature, he was known as Phorcus, Phorcys, or Phorcyn.

  2. Homer, Odyssey 13.96, 13.345.

  3. Virgil, Aeneid 5.824; Pliny the Elder, Natural History 36.4.26.

  4. On Phorcys in ancient art, see Bruno Magri, “Phorkys,” in Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae (Zurich: Artemis, 1994): 7.1:398.

  5. Hesiod, Theogony 233–39; Apollodorus, Library 1.2.6.

  6. Acusilaus, Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FGrH) 2 frag. 11.

  7. Orphic frag. 16 Kern; see also Plato, Timaeus 40d–e.

  8. Orphic frag. 114 Kern.

  9. Servius on Virgil’s Aeneid 5.824.

  10. Hesiod, Theogony 270–336; see also Apollodorus, Library 1.2.6, 2.4.2ff; Hyginus, Fabulae pref.9.

  11. Homer, Odyssey 1.71–72.

  12. Sophocles, frag. 861 Radt.

  13. Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica 4.828–29; see also Apollodorus, Epitome 7.20.

  14. Lycophron, Alexandra 44–48 (see also the scholia on this passage). In this tradition, Scylla’s mother was said to be either Hecate or Crataeis.

  15. Scholia on Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica 4.1399d.

Primary Sources

Phorcys is mentioned as an obscure “old man of the sea” as early as Homer (eighth century BCE); but it was Hesiod (eighth/seventh century BCE) who first outlined Phorcys’ genealogy in his Theogony (233–336). Though Hesiod is no doubt our most important source on Phorcys, there are further references to him scattered throughout Greek and Roman literature.

Additional information on Phorcys, including his role in works that are now lost, can be found in texts, reference works, and commentaries produced during the Byzantine and medieval periods. For further references, see the notes.

Secondary Sources

  • Ambühl, Annemarie. “Phorcys (1).” In Brill’s New Pauly, edited by Hubert Cancik, Helmuth Schneider, Christine F. Salazar, Manfred Landfester, and Francis G. Gentry. Published online 2006. http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/1574-9347_bnp_e923740.

  • Bloch, L. “Phorkys (1).” In Ausführliches Lexikon der griechischen und römischen Mythologie, edited by W. H. Roscher, vol. 3.2, 2431–34. Leipzig: Teubner, 1902–1909.

  • Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

  • Hard, Robin. The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology. 8th ed. New York: Routledge, 2020.

  • Magri, Bruno. “Phorkys.” In Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, vol. 7.1, 398. Zurich: Artemis, 1994.

  • Rose, H. J. “Phorcys.” In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, 4th ed., edited by Simon Hornblower, Antony Spawforth, and Esther Eidinow, 1140. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

  • Schmidt, Johanna. “Phorkys, Phorkos (1).” In Paulys Realencyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft, edited by Georg Wissowa and August Friedrich Pauly, vol. 20.1, 534–35. Stuttgart: Metzler, 1941.

  • Smith, William. “Phorcus, Phorcys (1).” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed June 7, 2022. https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D28%3Aentry%3Dphorcus-phorcys-bio-1.

  • Theoi Project. “Phorkys.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Pontios/Phorkys.html.

Citation

Kapach, Avi. “Phorcys.” Mythopedia, September 06, 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phorcys.

Kapach, Avi. “Phorcys.” Mythopedia, 6 Sep. 2023. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phorcys. Accessed on 6 Jun. 2024.

Kapach, A. (2023, September 6). Phorcys. Mythopedia. https://mythopedia.com/topics/phorcys

Authors

  • Avi Kapach

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

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