God of the sea and rivers, creator of storms and floods, and the bringer of earthquakes and destruction, Poseidon was perhaps the most disruptive of all the ancient Greek gods, not only for mortals but also to Zeus’ peaceful reign on Olympus.
Son of Kronos and Rhea, and brother of Zeus and Hades, Poseidon was a key figure in the battles for control of the universe between the Titans, the Giants, and the Olympians. On their victory, the three brothers drew lots to decide which domain they would reign over and Poseidon gained the seas. The god dwelled in magnificent golden mansions beneath the sea, beautifully adorned with coral and sea flowers. Seemingly not content with this alone, Poseidon often interfered in the plans of Zeus, and once even attempted to overthrow his brother with the aid of Hera and Athena. It was as punishment for this treachery that Poseidon was made to build the magnificent walls of Troy.
Poseidon’s wife was the Nereid Amphitrite and his son was Triton (who was half-man, half-fish). However, as with the other divinities, he fathered many other offspring with various partners. Most notable are Theseus (with Aithra), Polyphemus the Cyclops (whom Odysseus encountered on his lengthy return from the Trojan War), Orion the hunter (with the daughter of Minos), Pegasus (after the rape of Medusa), and Charybdis (with Gaia), the ship-eating sea monster which created terrible whirlpools. Poseidon was also responsible for another terrible creature - the Minotaur. Minos’ failure to sacrifice the bull given as a gift by the god resulted in Poseidon bewitching Minos’ wife Pasiphae into falling in love with the bull, and the fruit of their amorous relationship was the half- man, half-bull creature which inhabited the labyrinth of Knossos.
Poseidon was said to hold the Isthmus of Corinth in special regard; probably as it was an important sea route. The god was particularly revered here, at Sounion, where his temple still stands and during the Panhellenic Isthmian games which were held in his honour. In the competition with Athena to win the patronage of Athens, Poseidon offered the gifts of a spring and a horse. However, Athena’s gift of an olive tree gained greater favour and it was she who would become patron of the great city.
The god is a major protagonist in the Trojan War of Homer’s Iliad, where he supports the Archaeans and gives them either encouragement with rousing speeches, often in disguise as various Archaean personalities, or actually leads them in battle with flashing sword. However, he does also give aid to the Trojan hero Aeneas in order to escape from the fearsome Achilles. Poseidon also features in Homer’s Odyssey as the nemesis of Odysseus. In revenge for the blinding of his son Polyphemus, he cursed Odysseus to wander the sea for ten years. Poseidon is most often described by both Homer and Hesiod as ‘deep sounding Earth-shaker’, ‘Encircler of the earth’, and the ‘dark-haired one’.
Poseidon is most commonly depicted in ancient Greek art as bearded and with his trident, fashioned by the Cyclopes and with which he would create earthquakes by striking it to the ground. He is also frequently portrayed riding his golden chariot pulled by hippocamps - half-horse and half-serpent creatures with fish tails - or gold-shod horses, of which he was patron. Perhaps the most celebrated representation of Poseidon is the 2 m high bronze statue (c. 460 BCE) from Cape Artemesium (although, such is the similarity in the depiction of Poseidon and Zeus in ancient Greek art, it may represent the latter).
About the Author
- Carabatea, M, Greek Mythology (Peania, Pergamos, 2007)
- Carpenter, T.H, Art and Myth in Ancient Greece (Thames & Hudson, 2012).
- Hesiod, Hesiod (Loeb Classical Library, 2007).
- Homer, The Iliad (Penguin Classics, 1998).
- Hope Moncrieff, A.R, Classical Mythology (Senate, London, 1994)
- National Geographic, National Geographic Essential Visual History of World Mythology (National Geographic, 2008).
c. 700 BCE