The marriages and relationships of the gods are usually pretty clear in Greek mythology. The gods of Olympus each have a wife: Zeus was married to Hera, Hades to Persephone, and Poseidon to Amphitrite.
Sometimes, however, a writer will name another woman or goddess as the god’s wife or consort. The Near Eastern nymph Beroe, for example, is described as Poseidon’s wife in one source.
This does not mean that the Greek gods were polygamous. Instead, it reflects both the realities of marriage relationships in Greek society and the way in which its complex mythology led to sometimes contradictory relationships.
The practice of having several wives was not the norm in Greek culture. Among both the gods and humans, a man had just one wife.
This is not to say, however, that strict monogamy was enforced.
A man’s wife would be the mother to his legally-recognized children and keep his home. She was expected to remain strictly loyal to her husband and, particularly among the nobility, to have no relationships before her marriage unless she was a widow.
However, it was socially acceptable for men of the upper classes to have mistresses and relationships before marriage. While they were expected to provide for and protect their wives to a greater extent than they would a mistress, there was much less of an expectation of fidelity.
This was especially true among the gods. While deities like Poseidon and Zeus were married, they were also known for their many affairs.
The difference between a wife and a mistress among the gods was essentially one of duration. Men made vows to the gods, but marriage among the Olympians themselves was often unrecognizable from their affairs.
The story of their marriage is almost indistinguishable from the way in which he pursued any other nymph, goddess, or mortal woman. Poseidon was attracted to Amphitrite so he pursued and chased her, even though she did not wish to marry him.
The one feature that distinguishes Amphitrite from any other nymph seduced in this way was that her association with Poseidon was lasting. Unlike the more casual relationships the god enjoyed both before and after taking Amphitrite as his wife, she continued to be described in relation to him and be pictured beside him in art.
The term “wife,” however, does not necessarily even mean the relationship was long-term. There is some evidence that the Greeks sometimes practiced temporary marriage, in which a relationship would be recognized as binding for a brief period of time.
Essentially, this meant that a couple could be called man and wife even if their relationship lasted only one night. This provided a moral loophole for short-term relationships to be accepted without the responsibility and commitment of a traditional marriage.
It also meant that any lover taken before a long-term marriage could be given the title of “wife” in mythology. If the Greeks sometimes practiced temporary marriage, it would mean that gods like Poseidon had many “marriages” that lasted just moments.
It is impossible to say how many women Poseidon “took to wife,” to use the euphemism that occurs often in mythology, because myths from different places and time periods are often contradictory and local legends varied.
Like his brother Zeus, however, Poseidon was known to have had dozens of mistresses among both the immortal goddesses and human women. While he had only one true wife, he had over a hundred shorter-term relationships.
Gods like Poseidon were often described as having many lovers and mistresses in addition to their recognized wives. This was in part a reflection of the culture that worshipped them, in which men had much more freedom in their relationships than women.
Of course, it is unlikely that the average Greek man, even a king, fathered hundreds of children with dozens of mistresses. Like many aspects of mythology, the romantic exploits of the gods are an extreme exaggeration of real-world society.
The fact that men in the real world were not faithful in their marriages, however, does not fully explain the escapades of Poseidon and the other gods, however.
One of the most practical reasons to name a woman as a god’s lover was to establish paternity for her child. Both heroes and kings were thought to receive power from divine lineage.
The hero Theseus, for example, was described as being miraculously fathered by both Poseidon and King Aegeus of Athens. His mortal paternity gave him a claim to the throne, but his divine parentage gave him both superhuman qualities and the favor of the gods.
This is also why stories of the gods and their lovers were often localized. Many cities claimed that their founders were children of Poseidon, adding to his list of lovers, because such a claim legitimized the city and its rulers and gave them favored status.
A more abstract reason for the gods’ many affairs has to do with the way in which Greek mythology developed and evolved.
The Greeks did not take their gods and legends from a single source. Instead, Bronze Age Greeks inherited mythology from the Mycenaeans, Phoenicians, Egyptians, Minoans, and many smaller cultures.
As a result, the gods sometimes had conflicting stories. The predecessors of Poseidon in the Minoan and Mycenaean religions, for example, both influenced his later character but had different types of goddesses as their consorts.
When this happened, one story would be retained as the official marriage legend while another would be interpreted as the story of a shorter affair. While an earlier culture cast the goddess of nature as the horse god’s consort, in Greek mythology this became a single story of Poseidon seducing Demeter in the form of a horse.
As Greek religion developed, it also continued to take on and create new gods. These more minor deities were often incorporated into the main pantheon by giving them relationships with the major gods.
New gods and goddesses were often written in as either lovers or children of the Olympians. When they were the offspring of a god, another story was often created or adapted to give an identity to their mother as well.
For example, when new rivers and were discovered, they were given namesake nymphs in the same manner as well-known Greek features. These nymphs, such as Melas in Egypt, were often associated with Poseidon as mistresses or daughters.
Greek culture only recognized a single marriage at a time, so even a god like Poseidon had just one wife. This was Amphitrite.
Greek marriages were not necessarily monogamous, however. Husbands, especially among the upper classes, often took several mistresses and had relationships before marriage.
These pre-marital relationships were sometimes referred to as marriages, even if they lasted just a single night. Thus some of Poseidon’s mistresses were sometimes referred to as his wives even if the relationship was not long-lasting.
Not only did the many lovers of the gods reflect Greek attitudes toward marriage, they were also the result of their religion’s expansion.
Because Greek mythology took its gods and legends from different sources, there were sometimes conflicting stories. While a goddess was Poseidon’s wife in one tradition, their relationship was recast as temporary in another.
New relationships were also created to legitimise kings and cities and to incorporate newly discovered territory and religion. Many sites in Asia Minor have familial connections to Poseidon because of attempts to integrate their founders or deities into the Greek world.