Poseidon is the violent and ill-tempered god of the sea. One of the Twelve Olympians, he was also feared as the provoker of earthquakes and worshipped as the creator of the horse. A hot-blooded deity, Poseidon had many disputes with both gods and men, most famously with Athena and Odysseus.
Poseidon’s name is very old, and its meaning is lost to us. Various authors have tried to translate it as either “husband of the earth” or “lord of the waters.” Plato says that it means “knower of many things,” but this is much less likely.
Poseidon is nowadays known exclusively as a sea god, but in ancient times, he may have been the god of the earth and fertility or even the supreme god of the sky. In fact, in portrayals, he looks very much like Zeus, a distinguished, bearded man with a dense curly hair and piercing eyes. Homer says that his shriek was as loud as one of ten thousand men combined.
Oftentimes, he is depicted riding a four-horse chariot and wielding a trident over the waves. The trident is his most recognizable emblem, though his son, Triton, carries one as well. It is said that Poseidon struck a rock with his trident to create the very first horse, Skyphios. During the Gigantomachy, the god used the trident to break off a piece of the island Kos, under which he subsequently entombed the Giant Polybotes. This piece became today’s island Nisyros.
Since Poseidon had multiple powers, the Ancient Greeks invented various epithets to describe his manifestations and pray to him. To some, he was the “Savior of Sailors,” to others the “Averter of Earthquakes.” Yet a third group venerated him as “The Creator and Tamer of Horses” and to a fourth one he was “The Leader of Nymphs.”
Poseidon had a very violent character, Impulsive and hot-blooded, he couldn’t put up with Zeus’ arrogant behavior as a ruler. So, he teamed up with Hera and Athena to teach him a lesson. However, with the help of Thetis and Briareus, Zeus overpowered his challengers.
As punishment, he sent Poseidon and Apollo to serve the Trojan king Laomedon, for whom they built the vast, beautiful walls surrounding Troy. However, when the time came, Laomedon refused to pay them. As a result, Poseidon – even against the advice of Zeus – fought on the Greek side during the Trojan war, sending a sea monster named Cetus to torment the Trojans.
Even so, the narcissist that he was, Poseidon destroyed the fortifications built by the Greeks, firmly believing that his walls are the only buildings of the type worthy to remain. And, mad at him for blinding his son Polyphemus, he had a decade-long feud with one of the greatest Greek heroes, Odysseus.
The god of the sea was also greedy – especially when it came to earthly kingdoms. Once, he even wanted to obtain Athens from Athena, claiming that the city would have much more benefit from him than her. To prove this, he struck his trident into a rock, creating a seawater stream which welled up in the Temple of Erechtheion on the north side of the Acropolis. Athena, in turn, planted an olive tree. Cecrops, the first king of Athens, decided that Athena’s gift was more useful since it gave fruit, wood, and oil. Athena kept Athens, and ever since then, the olive branch is a universal symbol of peace.
Just like Zeus, Poseidon had a weak spot for women. And, much like him, he was not exactly loved back by them. However, what he couldn’t acquire with romance and gentleness, he did with violence and craftiness.
For example, he took by force both Caeneus and Medusa, who was afterward transformed into a beast by Athena as a punishment for allowing this. After Perseus beheaded the pregnant monster, Medusa gave birth to Poseidon’s children, Chrysaor and Pegasus.
To trick Demeter who turned into a mare to reject his advances, the god transformed himself into a stallion. Afterward, Demeter gave birth to the nymph Despoena and the talking horse Arion. With Amymone, Poseidon fathered Nauplius; with Aethra – the divine hero Theseus. The list goes on and includes hundreds of consorts and at least as many children.
Amphitrite, a Nereid, was Poseidon’s faithful wife throughout. She didn’t want it at the beginning, though. In fact, she fled to the Atlas Mountains to escape the god of the sea. However, Poseidon sent Delphinus to win her. Honey-tongued Delphinus did the job in flying colors. As a favor, Poseidon set his image among the star: the constellation Dolphin.
Learn some of the epithets the Ancient Greeks invented for Poseidon in the very brief 22nd Homeric Hymn. Or have a laugh or two with Lucian, while reading his modern-sounding “Dialogues of the Sea-Gods.” Naturally, most of them include Poseidon.
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