Poseidon played a major role in many Greek myths, including competing against Athena to be the patron god of Athens, as well as bedeviling Odysseus on his journey home from Troy.
Poseidon was married to Amphitrite, one of the fifty daughters of Nereus and Doris known as the Nereids.
Poseidon turned his anger on the Greek hero after Odysseus and his crew blinded the cyclops Polyphemus, who was Poseidon’s son.
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, including earthquakes and horses/horsemanship.1 Worshipped across the entirety of the Greek world, Poseidon had particularly strong followings in seafaring 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 figured prominently in Greek mythology thanks to his resistance to Zeus’ control over the pantheon. He was also well known for his disruptive influence over human affairs in Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey. Stories of Poseidon provided the Greeks with some illusion of control over the one domain they could never fully master—the sea.
Poseidon was present in Greek religion from the earliest times: he was already well attested in the Mycenaean period (ca. 1600–1100 BCE). Originally written in a script called Linear B, which predates the Greek alphabet, the name appears in Mycenaean texts as Po-se-da-o or Po-se-da-wo-ne.
The name “Poseidon” likely has roots in two distinct words. The first of these is the Greek word posis, itself derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *pótis. Both words mean “husband,” “lord,” or “master.”
Some uncertainty surrounds the second linguistic element of Poseidon’s name. One interpretation holds 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.2
The second interpretation suggests 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.3 This association may be misleading, however, as none of the early Mycenaean references to Poseidon indicated that the god held any association with the ocean, water, or sea. Indeed, Poseidon’s main Bronze Age cult title was E-ne-si-da-o-ne, or “Earth-Shaker.”
Nowadays many scholars consider the origins of the name Poseidon to be pre-Greek, and possibly not even Indo-European.4
/poʊˈsaɪd n, pə-/
There were a few dialectic variations of Poseidon’s name in ancient Greece. In Homeric Greek he was called Ποσειδάων (Poseidaōn); in Aeolic he was Ποτειδάων (Poteidaōn); and in Doric he was Ποτειδάν (Poteidan), Ποτειδάων (Poteidaōn), and Ποτειδᾶς (Poteidas).
Poseidon’s Roman equivalent was called Neptune.
Poseidon’s most important epithets were related to his capacity not as god of the sea but as god of earthquakes—hence his titles Enosichthōn or Ennosigaios (“earth-shaker”). He was also called Gaiēochos (“he who holds the earth”).
Other epithets attest to Poseidon’s role as god of the sea. These include Kyanochaitēs (“dark-haired”), Pelagios (“belonging to the sea”), and even Phykios (“full of seaweed”).
Finally, Poseidon was also called Hippios (“horseman”) because of his close association with horses.
Poseidon was usually depicted as a mature god, powerfully built and bearded. His signature weapon was the trident, a three-pronged spear with which he did battle, mastered the sea, and caused earthquakes.
A god of horses, Poseidon was often pictured riding a chariot drawn by hippocampi—part-horse, part-snake creatures that glided across the waves. Poseidon was also associated with other animals of both land and sea, including dolphins, seahorses, tuna, and bulls.
In addition to his residence on Mount Olympus with the other gods, Poseidon was said to possess beautiful undersea palaces adorned with coral, pearls, and gems. He owned a stable of magnificent horses as well as numerous herds of horses throughout Greece.
Poseidon wed Amphitrite, one of the nymphs known as the Nereids and a figure long associated with the sea (and salt water in particular). Together, they had three children: the merman Triton; Benthesicyme; and Rhodos, the patron goddess of Rhodes and future wife of Helios.5
Like other male deities, Poseidon was celebrated for his many infidelities and violent sexual conquests. Among his numerous illegitimate offspring were some of the most legendary figures in Greek mythology. With his grandmother 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 Aphrodite6 and his sister Demeter. According to some traditions, he sired two children with the latter, including a small talking horse named Arion.7
Poseidon also raped Medusa in the temple of Athena. This union was ultimately responsible for the birth of the winged horse Pegasus and the giant Chrysaor; these two creatures burst from Medusa’s neck after Perseus lopped off her head.
In addition to goddesses, Poseidon courted nymphs such as Thoosa, who gave birth to the fearsome Cyclops Polyphemus.8 Polyphemus would terrorize the cunning Odysseus on his way home from Troy, with dire consequences.
Poseidon also sought the pleasures of mortal women, with whom Poseidon fathered various heroes and other important mythical personalities. Among Poseidon’s most famous children were Theseus,9 Bellerophon,10 the hunter Orion, Otus and Ephialtes (who tried to storm Olympus), the twins Pelias and Neleus, and the shape-shifting Proteus.
Poseidon was regarded as the ancestor of several important ethnic groups and cities in the ancient world. His sons Minyas and Boeotus, for example, were founding figures in the central Greek region of Boeotia; his son Aeolus was the founder of Aeolia; another son, Eumolpus, was an early Thracian king who was killed in a war with the Athenians.
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 Cronus discovered that one of his offspring was destined to overthrow him, he swallowed Poseidon and his other children. Eventually, mighty Zeus bested the Titan and forced him to regurgitate the children, including Poseidon.
According to one variant, Rhea saved Poseidon from being swallowed by Cronus just as she had saved Zeus. When Poseidon was born, Rhea pretended that she had given birth to a colt, which she gave to Cronus to swallow.11 This myth reflects Poseidon’s association with horses.
Poseidon fought fiercely alongside Zeus and his other siblings in the cataclysmic conflict known as the Titanomachy. When they bested the Titans, Zeus, 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, and Poseidon gained control of the seas, as well as all other waters.
#Poseidon and Zeus
A key element of the Poseidon mythos was the god's plots to undermine established orders, both human and divine. One older story, retold in regrettably brief detail in the Iliad, even featured Poseidon participating in a plot to overthrow Zeus. In this tale, Poseidon, Athena, 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 Briaraeus, one of the monstrous, hundred-handed creatures known as the Hecatoncheires. These creatures were the same beings responsible for the Olympians’ victory over the Titans and the Giants in the Titanomachy; thus, they could easily handle anything the rebellious gods threw at them.12
When the city of Athens was first founded, it was said that both Poseidon and Athena wished to be its patron god. Each of the gods was asked to show what they could offer to the new city. According to the best-known version of the myth, Poseidon struck a rock and produced a saltwater spring, while Athena produced the first olive tree. Athena was chosen as the victor (sources vary on who the judges were). Poseidon, true to his irascible nature, flew into a rage and flooded much of Attica (the region of Greece in which Athens was located).13
A similar myth was told in Argos, though this time Poseidon’s rival was Hera. When Argos chose Hera as its patron rather than Poseidon, the unlucky god of the sea flooded much of the country (as he had done in Attica).14
#The Walls of Troy
In one myth, Poseidon (together with Apollo) helped Laomedon, king of Troy, erect the fortifications of his great city.15 According to some traditions, this task was ordered by Zeus as a punishment for the role Poseidon and Apollo had played in the Olympians’ revolt against him (see above).16
Poseidon performed the work as instructed, but nursed a bitter grudge for the affront, especially after Laomedon refused to pay him and Apollo the wages they had earned. When his period of service came to an end, he sent a monstrous sea creature to harass Troy. The creature was ultimately killed by Heracles, but when Laomedon tried to cheat Heracles as he had cheated Poseidon and Apollo, Heracles’ response was less subtle: he sacked Troy, killed Laomedon, and carried off his daughter Hesione.
#Poseidon and the Homeric Epics
Poseidon was involved in the Trojan War, the ten-year conflict between the combined armies of Greece and the city of Troy. This war started after the Trojan prince Paris carried off Helen, the wife of a Greek king named Menelaus. Poseidon, along with several other Olympians, threw his considerable might behind the Greeks.17
In Homer’s Iliad, which describes a few fateful weeks during the final year of the war, Poseidon intervened several times to give aid to the Greeks. Like the other gods who meddled in the Trojan conflict, Poseidon’s assistance came mostly in the form of moral support.
At one 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 resounding entry into battle was rendered beautifully in the Iliad:
Forthwith then he went down from the rugged mount, striding forth with swift footsteps, and the high mountains trembled and the woodland beneath the immortal feet of Poseidon as he went. Thrice he strode in his course, and with the fourth stride he reached his goal, even Aegae, where was his famous palace builded in the depths of the mere, golden and gleaming, imperishable for ever. Thither came he, and let harness beneath his car his two bronze hooved horses, swift of flight, with flowing manes of gold; and with gold he clad himself about his body, and grasped the well-wrought whip of gold, and stepped upon his car, and set out to drive over the waves. Then gambolled the sea-beasts beneath him on every side from out the deeps, for well they knew their lord, and in gladness the sea parted before him; right swiftly sped they on, and the axle of bronze was not wetted beneath; and unto the ships of the Achaeans did the prancing steeds bear their lord.18
Despite Poseidon’s aid, the Greeks were still suffering tremendous losses that threatened their collective resolve. Even Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek army, was shaken; he proposed a retreat so that the Achaeans might regain their strength.
Once again, Poseidon intervened—this time with 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 Greeks 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, he assured the other gods, but because of his enormous respect for the Father of Olympus.19
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 Homer’s 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 one of Poseidon’s sons. 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 him 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 near another one of his children, the maelstrom-producing sea monster Charybdis.
As god of the sea, Poseidon was treated with great respect and fear: the Greeks, who had engaged in seafaring since earliest antiquity, understood the dangers of Poseidon’s domain. Because of this, Poseidon was not a god to be neglected.
Though regarded first and foremost as a god of the temperamental deep, Poseidon’s domain also included the earth and earthquakes. Poseidon was also regarded as a god of social relationships and education.
In addition to being worshipped with temple cult, prayer, and sacrifice, Poseidon was uniquely honored in the many coastal settlements that were named for him. One important example is the city of Poseidonia (modern Salerno) in southern Italy.
Poseidon held temples throughout the ancient Greek world, but the most important ones were located at Corinth, Helice (in Achaea), and Onchestus (in Boeotia).
There was an altar to Poseidon in the Erechtheion in Athens, a shrine dedicated to one of the city’s early founders and kings. Near this shrine was the spring that Poseidon was said to have created when he and Athena competed for the city. It was thought that a stone by the spring still bore the sign of Poseidon’s trident where the god had once smote it.20
Many of Poseidon’s temples were built on the coast or on capes and islands. One remarkably well-preserved example is the Temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion, about 43 miles southeast of Athens.
The most important of Poseidon’s festivals were the Isthmian Games, one of the four major Greek athletic festivals (the other three were the Olympic Games and Nemean Games, both in honor of Zeus, and the Pythian Games, in honor of Apollo). These were held every two years near the great Temple of Poseidon in Corinth. Participants would compete in various athletic and musical competitions for the first prize, which was a crown of celery leaves.
Poseidon was also worshipped throughout the Greek world with sacrifices of bulls, other livestock, and even horses.21 Horse sacrifices were unusual in Greece, but Poseidon was, after all, the god of horses (hence his title Hippios). There are also vase paintings showing that tuna were sometimes sacrificed to Poseidon.
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 is often featured as a main character.
Poseidon briefly appears in the Disney animated films Hercules (1997) and The Little Mermaid (1989); in the latter he takes the guise of the benevolent King Triton, also known as Neptune (the Roman version of Poseidon).
The sea god also figures prominently in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, a book series by Rick Riordan in which Poseidon plays the father of the eponymous hero.
Poseidon has frequently appeared in popular video games, including the God of War and Assassin’s Creed series.
Poseidon is 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 vigor. Often appearing heavily muscled and bearded, he can be seen wielding his fearsome trident, rising menacingly out of the frothy seas, and intimidating his opponents into submission.
Homer: Poseidon plays a key role in the Iliad and the Odyssey (eighth century BCE); see above for a more detailed description of these texts.
Hesiod: Some myths of Poseidon’s origins, genealogy, and relationships are given in the seventh-century BCE epics of Hesiod, especially the Theogony.
Homeric Hymns: Poseidon is not among the central figures of the Homeric Hymns, religious poems about the gods composed around the seventh and sixth centuries BCE. However, the brief Homeric Hymn 22 is dedicated to him.
Pindar: Poseidon features in some of Pindar’s surviving poems (fifth century BCE): Olympian Ode 1 (476 BCE), for example, describes Poseidon’s homoerotic love for the young Pelops.
Euripides: Poseidon is present on stage in the beginning of Euripides’ Trojan Women (ca. 415 BCE), where he and Athena plan to punish the Greeks for their sacrilegious behavior during the sack of Troy. Poseidon also plays a behind-the-scenes role in Hippolytus (ca. 428 BCE), in which he is invoked as Theseus’ father and is involved in the killing of Hippolytus.
Aristophanes: In the comedy Birds (414 BCE), Poseidon is the leader of an embassy of gods sent to negotiate with the city of the birds, who have revolted against the Olympians.
Orphic Hymns: The Orphics were a Greek cult that preached the religious importance of living an ascetic life. The seventeenth Orphic Hymn (ca. third century BCE to second century CE) is dedicated to Poseidon.
Strabo, Geography: A late first-century BCE geographical treatise and an important source for many local Greek myths, institutions, and religious practices from antiquity.
Lucian: Poseidon is prominent in the irreverent Dialogues of the Gods and Dialogues of the Sea Gods (late first to early second century CE).
Pausanias, Description of Greece: A second-century CE travelogue; like Strabo’s Geography, an important source for local myths and customs.
Quintus of Smyrna: In the fourth-century CE epic Posthomerica, Poseidon occasionally intervenes in the Trojan War, as he does in the Homeric poems.
Virgil: Neptune (the Roman equivalent of Poseidon) plays a minor role in the Aeneid (19 BCE), where he is an ally of Venus and her son Aeneas.
Ovid: Neptune and some of his myths are described throughout the epic Metamorphoses (ca. 8 CE).
Silius Italicus: Neptune appears briefly in Book 17 of the epic Punica (late first century CE), where he almost drowns Hannibal in a storm.
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 some references to the myths of Poseidon and his family.
Apollodorus, Library: A mythological handbook from the first century BCE or the first few centuries CE with many references to the myths of Poseidon.
Hyginus, Fabulae: A Latin mythological handbook (first or second century CE) that includes sections on the myths of Poseidon/Neptune.
Fulgentius, Mythologies: A Latin mythological handbook (fifth or sixth century CE) with sections on the myths of Poseidon/Neptune.
Bremmer, Jan N., and Balbina Bäbler. “Poseidon.” 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_e1006030.
Burkert, Walter. Greek Religion. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986.
Cartwright, Mark. “Poseidon.” World History Encyclopedia. Published online 2019. https://www.worldhistory.org/poseidon/?visitCount=4&lastVisitDate=2021-4-11.
Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth: A Guide to Literary and Artistic Sources. 2 vols. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.
Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin, 1955.
Guthrie, W. K. G. The Greeks and their Gods. London: Methuen, 1962.
Hoena, B. A. Poseidon. Mankato, MN: Capstone, 2006.
Kerényi, Károly. The Gods of the Greeks. London: Thames and Hudson, 1951.
Long, C. R. The Twelve Gods of Greece and Rome. Leiden: Brill, 1987.
Rose, H. J. A Handbook of Greek Mythology. London: Methuen, 1929.
Smith, William. “Poseidon.” In A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Spottiswoode and Company, 1873. Perseus Digital Library. Accessed April 17, 2021. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0104%3Aalphabetic+letter%3DP%3Aentry+group%3D42%3Aentry%3Dposeidon-bio-1.
Theoi Project. “Poseidon.” Published online 2000–2017. https://www.theoi.com/Olympios/Poseidon.html.