Poseidon: Ancient Greek God of Seas and Storms
Poseidon was a major civic god of several city-states, such as Athens and Corinth.
Curated/Reviewed by Matthew A. McIntosh
Poseidon was one of the Twelve Olympians in ancient Greek religion and myth, god of the sea, storms, earthquakes and horses. In pre-Olympian Bronze Age Greece, he was venerated as a chief deity at Pylos and Thebes. He also had the cult title “earth shaker”. In the myths of isolated Arcadia he is related with Demeter and Persephone and he was venerated as a horse, however it seems that he was originally a god of the waters. He is often regarded as the tamer or father of horses, and with a strike of his trident, he created springs which are related with the word horse. His Roman equivalent is Neptune.
Poseidon was protector of seafarers, and of many Hellenic cities and colonies. Homer and Hesiod suggest that Poseidon became lord of the sea following the defeat of his father Cronus, when the world was divided by lot among his three sons; Zeus was given the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea, with the Earth and Mount Olympus belonging to all three. In Homer’s Iliad, Poseidon supports the Greeks against the Trojans during the Trojan War and in the Odyssey, during the sea-voyage from Troy back home to Ithaca, the Greek hero Odysseus provokes Poseidon’s fury by blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, resulting in Poseidon punishing him with storms, the complete loss of his ship and companions, and a ten-year delay. Poseidon is also the subject of a Homeric hymn. In Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, the legendary island of Atlantis was Poseidon’s domain.
Athena became the patron goddess of the city of Athens after a competition with Poseidon, and he remained on the Acropolis in the form of his surrogate, Erechtheus. After the fight, Poseidon sent a monstrous flood to the Attic Plain, to punish the Athenians for not choosing him.
The earliest attested occurrence of the name was in Mycenean Greek. In Homeric Greek it appears as Ποσειδάων (Poseidaōn); in Aeolic as Ποτειδάων (Poteidaōn); and in Doric as Ποτειδάν (Poteidan), Ποτειδάων (Poteidaōn), and Ποτειδᾶς (Poteidas). The form Ποτειδάϝων (Poteidawon) appears in Corinth. A cult title of Poseidon in Linear B is E-ne-si-da-o-ne, “earth-shaker”.
The origins of the name “Poseidon” are unclear. One theory breaks it down into an element meaning “husband” or “lord” (Greek πόσις (posis), from PIE *pótis) and another element meaning “earth” (δᾶ (da), Doric for γῆ (gē)), producing something like lord or spouse of Da, i.e. of the earth; this would link him with Demeter, “Earth-mother”. Walter Burkert finds that “the second element δᾶ- remains hopelessly ambiguous” and finds a “husband of Earth” reading “quite impossible to prove.” According to Robert S. P. Beekes in Etymological Dictionary of Greek, “there is no indication that δᾶ means ‘earth'”, although the root da appears in the Linear B inscription E-ne-si-da-o-ne, “earth-shaker”.
Another, more plausible, theory interprets the second element as related to the (presumed) Doric word *δᾶϝον dâwon, “water”, Proto-Indo-European *dah₂- “water” or *dʰenh₂- “to run, flow”, Sanskrit दन् dā́-nu- “fluid, drop, dew” and names of rivers such as Danube (< *Danuvius) or Don. This would make *Posei-dawōn into the master of waters. It seems that Poseidon was originally a god of the waters. There is also the possibility that the word has Pre-Greek origin. Plato in his dialogue Cratylus gives two traditional etymologies: either the sea restrained Poseidon when walking as a “foot-bond” (ποσίδεσμον), or he “knew many things” (πολλά εἰδότος or πολλά εἰδῶν).
At least a few sources deem Poseidon as a “prehellenic” (i.e. Pelasgian) word, considering an Indo-European etymology “quite pointless”.
Bronze Age Greece
Linear B (Mycenean Greek) Inscriptions
If surviving Linear B clay tablets can be trusted, the name po-se-da-wo-ne (“Poseidon”) occurs with greater frequency than does di-u-ja (“Zeus”). A feminine variant, po-se-de-ia, is also found, indicating a lost consort goddess, in effect the precursor of Amphitrite. Poseidon carries frequently the title wa-na-ka (wanax), meaning “king” in Linear B inscriptions. The chthonic nature of Poseidon-Wanax is also indicated by his title E-ne-si-da-o-ne in Mycenean Knossos and Pylos, a powerful attribute (earthquakes had accompanied the collapse of the Minoan palace-culture). In the cave of Amnisos (Crete) Enesidaon is related with the cult of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. She was related with the annual birth of the divine child. During the Bronze Age, a goddess of nature, dominated both in Minoan and Mycenean cult, and Wanax (wa-na-ka) was her male companion (paredros) in Mycenean cult. It is possible that Demeter appears as Da-ma-te in a Linear B inscription (PN EN 609), however the interpretation is still under dispute.
In Linear B inscriptions found at Pylos, E-ne-si-da-o-ne is related with Poseidon, and Si-to Po-tini-ja is probably related with Demeter. Tablets from Pylos record sacrificial goods destined for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” (“to the Two Queens and the King”: wa-na-soi, wa-na-ka-te). The “Two Queens” may be related with Demeter and Persephone, or their precursors, goddesses who were not associated with Poseidon in later periods.
The illuminating exception is the archaic and localised myth of the stallion Poseidon and mare Demeter at Phigalia in isolated and conservative Arcadia, noted by Pausanias (2nd century AD) as having fallen into desuetude; the stallion Poseidon pursues the mare-Demeter, and from the union she bears the horse Arion, and a daughter (Despoina), who obviously had the shape of a mare too. The violated Demeter was Demeter Erinys (furious). In Arcadia, Demeter’s mare-form was worshiped into historical times. Her xoanon of Phigaleia shows how the local cult interpreted her, as goddess of nature. A Medusa type with a horse’s head with snaky hair, holding a dove and a dolphin, probably representing her power over air and water.
It seems that the Arcadian myth is related with the first Greek speaking people who entered the region during the Bronze Age. (Linear B represents an archaic Greek dialect). Their religious beliefs were mixed with the beliefs of the indigenous population. It is possible that the Greeks did not bring with them other gods except Zeus, Eos, and the Dioskouroi. The horse (numina) was related with the liquid element, and with the underworld. Poseidon appears as a beast (horse), which is the river spirit of the underworld, as it usually happens in northern-European folklore, and not unusually in Greece. Poseidon “Wanax”, is the male companion (paredros) of the goddess of nature. In the relative Minoan myth, Pasiphaë is mating with the white bull, and she bears the hybrid creature Minotaur. The Bull was the old pre-Olympian Poseidon. The goddess of nature and her paredros survived in the Eleusinian cult, where the following words were uttered: “Mighty Potnia bore a strong son”.
In the heavily sea-dependent Mycenaean culture, there is not sufficient evidence that Poseidon was connected with the sea. We do not know if “Posedeia” was a sea-goddess. Homer and Hesiod suggest that Poseidon became lord of the sea following the defeat of his father Cronus, when the world was divided by lot among his three sons; Zeus was given the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea, with the Earth and Mount Olympus belonging to all three. Walter Burkert suggests that the Hellene cult worship of Poseidon as a horse god may be connected to the introduction of the horse and war-chariot from Anatolia to Greece around 1600 BC.
There is evidence that Poseidon was once worshipped as a horse, and this is evident by his cult in Peloponnesos. However, some ancient writers held he was originally a god of the waters, and therefore he became the “earth-shaker”, because the Greeks believed that the cause of the earthquakes was the erosion of the rocks by the waters, by the rivers who they saw to disappear into the earth and then to burst out again. This is what the natural philosophers Thales, Anaximenes and Aristotle believed, which may have been similar to the folklore belief.
In any case, the early importance of Poseidon can still be glimpsed in Homer’s Odyssey, where Poseidon rather than Zeus is the major mover of events. In Homer, Poseidon is the master of the sea.
Worship of Poseidon
Poseidon was a major civic god of several cities: in Athens, he was second only to Athena in importance, while in Corinth and many cities of Magna Graecia he was the chief god of the polis.
In his benign aspect, Poseidon was seen as creating new islands and offering calm seas. When offended or ignored, he supposedly struck the ground with his trident and caused chaotic springs, earthquakes, drownings and shipwrecks. Sailors prayed to Poseidon for a safe voyage, sometimes drowning horses as a sacrifice; in this way, according to a fragmentary papyrus, Alexander the Great paused at the Syrian seashore before the climactic battle of Issus, and resorted to prayers, “invoking Poseidon the sea-god, for whom he ordered a four-horse chariot to be cast into the waves.”
According to Pausanias, Poseidon was one of the caretakers of the oracle at Delphi before Olympian Apollo took it over. Apollo and Poseidon worked closely in many realms: in colonization, for example, Delphic Apollo provided the authorization to go out and settle, while Poseidon watched over the colonists on their way, and provided the lustral water for the foundation-sacrifice. Xenophon’s Anabasis describes a group of Spartan soldiers in 400–399 BC singing to Poseidon a paean—a kind of hymn normally sung for Apollo. Like Dionysus, who inflamed the maenads, Poseidon also caused certain forms of mental disturbance. A Hippocratic text of ca 400 BC, On the Sacred Disease says that he was blamed for certain types of epilepsy.
Poseidon is still worshipped today in modern Hellenic religion, among other Greek gods. The worship of Greek gods has been recognized by the Greek government since 2017.
Epithets and Attributes
Poseidon had a variety of roles, duties and attributes. He is a separate deity from the oldest Greek god of the sea Pontus. In Athens his name is superimposed οn the name of the non-Greek god Erechtheus Ἑρεχθεύς (Poseidon Erechtheus). In Iliad he is the lord of the sea and his palace is built in Aegai, in the depth of the sea. His significance is indicated by his titles Eurykreion (Εὐρυκρείων) “wide-ruling”, an epithet also applied to Agamemnon and Helikonios anax (Ἑλικώνιος ἂναξ), “lord of Helicon or Helike”  In Helike of Achaia he was specially honoured. Anax is identified in Mycenaean Greek (Linear B) as wa-na-ka,a title of Poseidon as king of the underworld. Aeschylus uses also the epithet anax  and Pindar the epithet Eurymedon (Εὐρυμέδων) “widely ruling”.
Some of the epithets (or adjectives) applied to him like Enosigaios (Ἐνοσίγαιος), Enosichthon (Ἐνοσίχθων) (Homer) and Ennosidas (Ἐννοσίδας) (Pindar) , mean “earth shaker”. These epithets indicate his chthonic nature, and have an older evidence of use, as it is identified in Linear B, as E-ne-si-da-o-ne. Other epithets that relate him with the earthquakes are Gaieochos (Γαιήοχος)  and Seisichthon (Σεισίχθων)  The god who causes the earthquakes is also the protector against them, and he had the epithets Themeliouchos (Θεμελιούχος) “upholding the foundations” , Asphaleios (Ἀσφάλειος) “securer, protector”  with a temble at Tainaron. Pausanias describes a sanctuary of Poseidon near Sparta beside the shrine of Alcon, where he had the surname Domatites (Δωματίτης), “of the house”
Homer uses for Poseidon the title Kyanochaites (Κυανοχαίτης) , “dark-haired, dark blue of the sea”. Epithets like Pelagios (Πελάγιος) “of the open sea”, Aegeus (Αἰγαίος) ,”of the high sea”  in the town of Aegae in Euboea, where he had a magnificent temple upon a hill, Pontomedon (Ποντομέδων),” lord of the sea” (Pindar , Aeschylus) and Kymothales (Κυμοθαλής), “abounding with waves”, indicate that Poseidon was regarded as holding sway over the sea. Other epithets that relate him with the sea are , Porthmios (Πόρθμιος), “of strait, narrow sea” at Karpathos, Epactaeus (Ἐπακταῖος) “god worshipped on the coast”, in Samos., Alidoupos, (Ἀλίδουπος) “sea resounding”. His symbol is the trident and he has the epithet Eutriaina (Εὐτρίαινα), “with goodly trident” (Pindar). The god of the sea is also the god of fishing , and tuna was his attribute. At Lampsacus they offered fishes to Poseidon and he had the epithet phytalmios (φυτάλμιος)  His epithet Phykios (Φύκιος), “god of seaweeds” at Mykonos, seems to be related with fishing. He had a fest where women were not allowed, with special offers also to Poseidon Temenites (Τεμενίτης) “related to an official domain “. At the same day they made offers to Demeter Chloe therefore Poseidon was the promotor of vegetation. He had the epithet phytalmios (φυτάλμιος) at Myconos, Troizen, Megara and Rhodes, comparable with Ptorthios (Πτόρθιος) at Chalcis.
Poseidon had a close association with horses. He is known under the epithet Hippios (Ἳππειος) ,”of a horse or horses”  usually in Arcadia. He had temples at Lycosura, Mantineia, Methydrium, Pheneos, Pallandion. At Lycosura he is related with the cult of Despoina. The modern sanctuary near Mantineia was built by Emperor Hadrian. In Athens on the hill of horses there was the altar of Poseidon Hippios and Athena Hippia. The temple of Poseidon was destroyed by Antigonus when he attacked Attica. He is usually the tamer of horses (Damaios ,Δαμαίος at Corinth), and the tender of horses Hippokourios Ἱπποκούριος) at Sparta, where he had a sanctuary near the sanctuary of Artemis Aiginea. In some myths he is the father of horses, either by spilling his seed upon a rock or by mating with a creature who then gave birth to the first horse. In Thessaly he had the title Petraios Πετραἵος, “of the rocks”. He hit a rock and the first horse “Skyphios” appeared. He was closely related with the springs, and with the strike of his trident, he created springs. He had the epithets Krenouchos (Κρηνούχος), “ruling over springs”, and nymphagetes (Νυμφαγέτης) “leader of the nymphs”  On the Acropolis of Athens he created the saltspring Sea of Erechtheus (Ἐρεχθηίς θάλασσα). Many springs like Hippocrene and Aganippe in Helikon are related with the word horse (hippos). (also Glukippe, Hyperippe). He is the father of Pegasus, whose name is deriven from πηγή, (pēgē) “spring”.
Epithets like Genesios Γενέσιος at Lerna Genethlios (Γενέθλιος) “of the race or family”  Phratrios (Φράτριος) “of the brotherhood”, and Patrigenios (Πατριγένειος)  indicate his relation with the genealogy trees and the brotherhood. Other epithets of Poseidon in local cults are Epoptes (Ἐπόπτης) , “overseer, watcher” at Megalopolis, Empylios (Ἑμπύλιος), “at the gate ” at Thebes., Kronios (Κρόνιος) (Pindar) and semnos (σεμνός), “august, holy”  (Sophocles).
The cult of Poseidon is often related with festivals. At Corinth the Isthmian games was an athletic and music festival to honour the god who had the epithet Isthmios (Ἴσθμιος). The Amphictiony of Kalaureia belonged to him. At Tainaron he had a famous temple and festival. Other games which belonged to him are the Pohoidaia (Ποhοίδαια) in Helos and Thuria and the race in Gaiaochō (ἐν Γαιαόχω)  Poseidon Gaieochos (Γαιήοχος) had a temple near Sparta beside a Hippodrome. Τhe epithet probably means ” the one who moves under the earth” ‘ and therefore shakes the earth. This seem to relate Poseidon with the rivers at Peloponnesus that seem to disappear and then flow under the earth. At Ephesus there was a fest “Tavria” and he had the epithet Tavreios (Tαύρειος), “related with the bull”.
Poseidon was the second son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. In most accounts he is swallowed by Cronus at birth and is later saved, along with his other siblings, by Zeus.
However, in some versions of the story, he, like his brother Zeus, did not share the fate of his other brother and sisters who were eaten by Cronus. He was saved by his mother Rhea, who concealed him among a flock of lambs and pretended to have given birth to a colt, which she gave to Cronus to devour.
According to John Tzetzes the kourotrophos, or nurse of Poseidon was Arne, who denied knowing where he was, when Cronus came searching; according to Diodorus Siculus Poseidon was raised by the Telchines on Rhodes, just as Zeus was raised by the Korybantes on Crete.
According to a single reference in the Iliad, when the world was divided by lot in three, Zeus received the sky, Hades the underworld and Poseidon the sea.
In Homer’s Odyssey, Poseidon has a home in Aegae.
Foundation of Athens
Athena became the patron goddess of the city of Athens after a competition with Poseidon. Yet Poseidon remained a numinous presence on the Acropolis in the form of his surrogate, Erechtheus. At the dissolution festival at the end of the year in the Athenian calendar, the Skira, the priests of Athena and the priest of Poseidon would process under canopies to Eleusis. They agreed that each would give the Athenians one gift and the Athenians would choose whichever gift they preferred. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprang up; the water was salty and not very useful, whereas Athena offered them an olive tree.
The Athenians or their king, Cecrops, accepted the olive tree and along with it Athena as their patron, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food. After the fight, infuriated at his loss, Poseidon sent a monstrous flood to the Attic Plain, to punish the Athenians for not choosing him. The depression made by Poseidon’s trident and filled with salt water was surrounded by the northern hall of the Erechtheum, remaining open to the air. “In cult, Poseidon was identified with Erechtheus,” Walter Burkert noted; “the myth turns this into a temporal-causal sequence: in his anger at losing, Poseidon led his son Eumolpus against Athens and killed Erectheus.”
The contest of Athena and Poseidon was the subject of the reliefs on the western pediment of the Parthenon, the first sight that greeted the arriving visitor.
This myth is construed by Robert Graves and others as reflecting a clash between the inhabitants during Mycenaean times and newer immigrants. Athens at its height was a significant sea power, at one point defeating the Persian fleet at Salamis Island in a sea battle.
Walls of Troy
Poseidon and Apollo, having offended Zeus by their rebellion in Hera’s scheme, were temporarily stripped of their divine authority and sent to serve King Laomedon of Troy. He had them build huge walls around the city and promised to reward them with his immortal horses, a promise he then refused to fulfill. In vengeance, before the Trojan War, Poseidon sent a sea monster to attack Troy. The monster was later killed by Heracles.
Consort, Lovers, Victims, and Children
Poseidon was said to have had many lovers of both sexes (see expandable list below). His consort was Amphitrite, a nymph and ancient sea-goddess, daughter of Nereus and Doris. Together they had a son named Triton, a merman.
Poseidon was the father of many heroes. He is thought to have fathered the famed Theseus.
A mortal woman named Tyro was married to Cretheus (with whom she had one son, Aeson), but loved Enipeus, a river god. She pursued Enipeus, who refused her advances. One day, Poseidon, filled with lust for Tyro, disguised himself as Enipeus, and from their union were born the heroes Pelias and Neleus, twin boys. Poseidon also had an affair with Alope, his granddaughter through Cercyon, his son and King of Eleusis, begetting the Attic hero Hippothoon. Cercyon had his daughter buried alive but Poseidon turned her into the spring, Alope, near Eleusis.
Not all of Poseidon’s children were human. In an archaic myth, Poseidon once pursued Demeter. She spurned his advances, turning herself into a mare so that she could hide in a herd of horses; he saw through the deception and became a stallion and captured her. Their child was a horse, Arion, which was capable of human speech. Poseidon also raped Medusa on the floor of a temple to Athena. Medusa was then changed into a monster by Athena. When she was later beheaded by the hero Perseus, Chrysaor and Pegasus emerged from her neck.
His other children include Polyphemus (the Cyclops) and, finally, Alebion and Bergion and Otos and Ephialtae (the giants).
The philosopher Plato was held by his fellow ancient Greeks to have traced his descent to the sea-God Poseidon through his father Ariston and his mythic predecessors the demigod kings Codrus and Melanthus.
Male lovers included Nerites, Pelops and Patroclus.
In Literature and Art
In Greek art, Poseidon rides a chariot that was pulled by a hippocampus or by horses that could ride on the sea. He was associated with dolphins and three-pronged fish spears (tridents). He lived in a palace on the ocean floor, made of coral and gems.
In the Iliad Poseidon favors the Greeks, and on several occasion takes an active part in the battle against the Trojan forces. However, in Book XX he rescues Aeneas after the Trojan prince is laid low by Achilles.
In the Odyssey, Poseidon is notable for his hatred of Odysseus who blinded the god’s son, the Cyclops Polyphemus. The enmity of Poseidon prevents Odysseus’s return home to Ithaca for many years. Odysseus is even told, notwithstanding his ultimate safe return, that to placate the wrath of Poseidon will require one more voyage on his part.
In the Aeneid, Neptune is still resentful of the wandering Trojans, but is not as vindictive as Juno, and in Book I he rescues the Trojan fleet from the goddess’s attempts to wreck it, although his primary motivation for doing this is his annoyance at Juno’s having intruded into his domain.
A hymn to Poseidon included among the Homeric Hymns is a brief invocation, a seven-line introduction that addresses the god as both “mover of the earth and barren sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae, and specifies his twofold nature as an Olympian: “a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships.”
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