Myths of Greece and Rome Narrated with Special Reference to Literature and Art

Page: 70

[153] As god of the sea, Neptune did not generally remain in Olympus, but dwelt way down in the coral caves of his kingdom, over which he ruled with resistless sway. By one word he could stir up or calm the wildest storm, and cause the billows to roar with fury or subside into peaceful ripples.

“He spake, and round about him called the clouds
And roused the ocean,—wielding in his hand
The trident,—summoned all the hurricanes
Of all the winds, and covered earth and sky
At once with mists, while from above the night
Fell suddenly.”
Homer (Bryant’s tr.).

The rivers, fountains, lakes, and seas were not only subject to his rule, but he could also cause terrible earthquakes at will, and, when he pleased, raise islands from the deep, as he did when Latona entreated him to shelter her from Juno’s persecutions (p. 62).

Neptune is said to have loved the goddess Ceres, and to have followed her during her prolonged search for her daughter, Proserpina. Annoyed by his persistent wooing, the goddess, to escape him, assumed the form of a mare; but the God of the Sea, not at all deceived by this stratagem, straightway assumed the form of a horse, in which guise he contentedly trotted after her and renewed his attentions.

Neptune’s wives.

The offspring of this equine pair was Arion, a wonderful winged steed, gifted with the power of speech, whose early education was intrusted to the Nereides. They trained him to draw his father’s chariot over the waves with incredible rapidity, and parted with him regretfully when he was given to Copreus, Pelops’ son. This marvelous horse passed successively into Hercules’ and Adrastus’ hands; and the latter won all the chariot races, thanks to his fleetness.

On another occasion, Neptune, having fallen deeply in love with a maiden named Theophane, and fearful lest some one of her numerous suitors should find favor in her eyes before he had [154] time to urge his wooing, suddenly changed her into a sheep, and conveyed her to the Island of Crumissa, where he assumed the guise of a ram, and, in this metamorphosed condition, carried on his courtship, which eventually proved successful. The offspring of this union was the golden-fleeced ram which bore Phryxus in safety to the Colchian shores, and whose pelt was the goal of the Argonautic expedition (p. 265).

Neptune also loved and married Medusa in the days of her youth and beauty, and when some drops of blood fell from her severed head into the salt sea foam, he produced from them the graceful winged steed Pegasus (p. 244).

Neptune is also said to be the father of the giants Otus and Ephialtes, of Neleus, Pelias, and Polyphemus.

The Queen of the Ocean, Neptune’s own true and lawful wife, was a Nereid, one of the fifty daughters of Doris and Nereus,—the personification of the calm and sunlit aspect of the sea. Her name was Amphitrite, or Salacia. At first she was in great awe of her distinguished suitor, and in her fear fled at his approach, leaving him no chance to admire any of her charms, except the grace and celerity with which she managed to flit, or rather glide, out of his sight.

“Along the deep
With beauteous ankles, Amphitrite glides.”
Hesiod (Elton’s tr.).

This conduct grieved Neptune so sorely, that he sent a dolphin to plead his cause, and persuade the fair nymph to share his throne. The messenger, carefully instructed beforehand, carried out the directions with such skill, that Amphitrite formally consented to become Neptune’s wife.

The King of the Deep was so overjoyed at these good tidings, that he transferred the dolphin to the sky, where he forms a well-known constellation. Neptune and Amphitrite in due time became the happy parents of several children, among whom the most celebrated is Triton, whose body was half man and half fish, and who gave his name to all his male descendants.

Story of Idas and Marpessa.

[155] Like all other gods, Neptune took a lively interest in men’s affairs, and sometimes interfered in their behalf. On one occasion, for instance, he even lent his beautiful chariot to a youth by the name of Idas, who, loving a maiden dearly, and unable to win her father’s consent to their union, had resolved to kidnap her. Marpessa, for such was the lady’s name, allowed herself to be carried off without protest; and the lovers were blissfully speeding along in Neptune’s chariot, when her father, Evenus, perceiving their escape, started in pursuit of them. In spite of the most strenuous efforts, he could not overtake the fleeing pair, and in his anger plunged into a river, where he was drowned, and which from him received the name of Evenus.

Idas and Marpessa were just congratulating themselves upon their narrow escape, when suddenly Apollo appeared before them, and, checking their steeds, declared he loved the maiden too, and would not tamely yield her up to a rival.

This was quite equivalent to a challenge; and Idas, stepping down from the chariot, was about to engage in the fight, when suddenly out of a clear sky a thunderbolt came crashing down to earth, and an imperious voice was heard to declare that the quarrel could be settled by Marpessa only, and that she should freely choose the suitor she preferred as husband.

The maiden glanced at both her lovers, and quickly reviewed their respective attractions. Remembering that Apollo, being immortal, would retain all his youthful bloom when her more ephemeral beauty had vanished, and that he would then probably cease to love her, she held out her hand to Idas, declaring she preferred to link her fate to that of a mortal, who would grow old when she did, and love her as long as they both lived. This choice was approved by Jupiter; and the lovers, after reaching a place of safety, returned the wondrous chariot to Neptune, with many grateful thanks for his timely aid.

Neptune’s attendants.

All the Nereides, Tritons, and lesser sea divinities formed a part of Neptune and Amphitrite’s train, and followed closely when they rode forth to survey their kingdom.

[156] Neptune had, besides this, many subordinates, whose duty it was to look after various seas, lakes, rivers, fountains, etc., confided to their special care. In harmony with their occupations, these divinities were either hoary river gods (such as Father Nile), slender youths, beautiful maidens, or little babbling children. They seldom left the cool waves of their appointed dwellings, and strove to win Neptune’s approbation mostly by the zeal they showed in the discharge of their various duties.

Proteus, too, another inferior deity, had the care of the flocks of the deep, and he always attended Neptune when it was safe to leave his great herds of sea calves to bask on the sunny shores.

“In ages past old Proteus, with his droves
Of sea calves, sought the mountains and the groves.”

In common with all the other gods, Proteus enjoyed the gift of prophecy, and had the power to assume any shape he pleased. The former gift he was wont to exercise very reluctantly; and when mortals wished to consult him, he would change his form with bewildering rapidity, and, unless they clung to him through all his changes, they could obtain no answer to their questions.

“Shouting [we] seize the god: our force t’ evade,
His various arts he soon resumes in aid:
A lion now, he curls a surgy mane;
Sudden, our hands a spotted pard restrain;
Then, arm’d with tusks, and lightning in his eyes,
A boar’s obscener shape the god belies:
On spiry volumes, there, a dragon rides;
Here, from our strict embrace a stream he glides;
And last, sublime, his stately growth he rears,
A tree, and well-dissembled foliage wears.”
Homer (Pope’s tr.).

But if these manifestations proved unavailing to drive his would-be hearers away, the god answered every question circumstantially.


Refer to caption

FATHER NILE. (Vatican, Rome.)

[158] Amphitrite, Neptune’s wife,—generally represented as a beautiful nude nymph, crowned with seaweed, and reclining in a pearl-shell chariot drawn by dolphins, or sea-horses,—was worshiped with her husband.

Worship of Neptune.

Neptune, majestic and middle-aged, with long, flowing hair and beard, wearing a seaweed crown, and brandishing a trident, or three-pronged fork, was widely worshiped throughout Greece and Italy, and had countless shrines. His principal votaries were the seamen and horse trainers, who often bespoke his aid.

“Hail, Neptune, greatest of the gods!
Thou ruler of the salt sea floods;
Thou with the deep and dark-green hair,
That dost the golden trident bear;
Thou that, with either arm outspread,
Embosomest the earth we tread:
Thine are the beasts with fin and scales,
That round thy chariot, as it sails,
Plunging and tumbling, fast and free,
All reckless follow o’er the sea.”

Many large temples were dedicated exclusively to the worship of Neptune, and games were frequently celebrated in his honor. The most noted of all were undoubtedly the Isthmian Games,—a national festival, held every four years at Corinth, on the isthmus of the same name. Hither people came from all points of the compass, and all parts of the then known world, either to witness or to take part in the noted wrestling, boxing, and racing matches, or in the musical and poetical contests.