Many stories in Greek mythology are well-known today. They were given in several forms by many of the ancient world’s greatest writers.
Others, however, never received the attention of great poets like Homer or playwrights like Euripedes. They were stories told by the common people of characters that had no great temples or cults.
One of these figures was Nerites, a sea god who was not mentioned by any of the famous writers. Instead, it was a later naturalist who recounted the competing stories of the god who became a snail and passed on a legend that would have otherwise been lost to history.
Aelian, a natural historian who wrote in the 2nd century AD, recounted the legends that related to many animals found in and around Greece. One of these was how the story of how snails that live in water got their name.
According to Aelian, there were two legends of how Nerites became a snail.
Both claimed that he was the son of Nereus, a sea god, and Doris, and Oceanid. While their fifty Nereid daughters were mentioned by many writers, Aelian claimed that their youngest child was their only son.
Nerites was a handsome young boy who soon attracted the attention of the Olympians. Two different legends had prominent gods vying for his attention.
Nerites refused, however, saying that he preferred to swim with his parents and sisters. Aphrodite gave him wings so he could fly to Olympus with her, but he still refused to leave the sea.
The rejection made Aphrodite angry so she twisted the boy’s body and hardened his skin until it became a spiral shell. His wings were taken and eventually given to Eros.
Another myth claimed that it was Poseidon who was in love with the boy. Nerites did not reject the sea god, but enjoyed his affection.
The two were so close that their bond created Anteros, the god of mutual love. Poseidon also granted Nerites exceptional speed so he could swim alongside the god’s chariot and not be outpaced by any sea creature.
Helios soon grew angry with the younger god, however. Aelian did not give a reason, but suggested many possibilities.
It was possible that it was the speed granted by Poseidon that made Helios unhappy. Nerites may have even been foolish enough to challenge the sun god to a race.
Another possibility is that Helios was jealous of the love shared between Poseidon and the young sea god. He, too, desired Nerites, and wished he was traveling through the sky with him instead of through the sea with Poseidon.
Aelian also suggests that the sun god’s anger toward Poseidon’s young lover was motivated by the rivalry between the two older gods. Poseidon and Helios had vied for patronage of Corinth, and the writer suggested that there was lingering dislike between them.
Whatever the reason, in this version of the legend it was Helios who made Nerites into a snail.
Nerites snails were insignificant creatures, but Aelian claimed that they retained some of the attributes of the god they had once been. They were beautiful animals who lived only where the water was clean and pure.
At the end of his account, Aelian offers his apologies for not knowing which of the two legends was the true one. He chose to “observe a religious silence” by not commenting on which story he thought was more likely accurate, if either.
Such a stance was common in the ancient world.
Because Greece was never a single unified country and included many wide-spread colonies and territories, there were often many versions of a single story. In fact, there were few myths that were universally agreed on by all Greek-speaking people.
When given two stories, many Greek academics made the same choice as Aelian. They chose to recount both and offer no personal opinions rather than risk offending any of the gods.
Aelian did not offer any specific origins for either of the stories, so modern historians do not know where each of the accounts originated from. Although On Animals was written at a relatively late date, the existence of two different stories suggests that the story had existed for some time.
The story of Nerites does not occur in any other surviving written accounts, and Aelian points out that great writers like Homer and Hesiod did not mention him. Instead, he says, the story was part of the popular folklore of mariners and coastal villages.
By including this origin, Aelian makes it clear that the stories that are preserved in epic poems and plays represent only a fraction of Greek belief.
The most well-known myths were those that were written about by the great names in ancient literature. But, as the story of Nerites shows, there were many stories told by the common people that did not receive the same attention from the poets.
These stories often seem to have been little-known even in their own times. Although he included hundreds of other Greek legends, for example, Ovid did not mention the transformation of Nerites in Metamorphoses, implying that he was unaware of either version of the tale.
Stories that existed in popular folk belief often didn’t survive; we have no way of knowing how many myths were told in the Greek world or in any other ancient culture that are lost to us today because they were never written down.
To this day, salt- and freshwater snails are still known by the young sea god’s name because of Aelian. The Neritidae are a taxonomic family of aquatic snails that are found in both the Mediterranean and the Southern Hemisphere.
The character Nerites, the only brother of the fifty Nereids, appears in only one ancient source. Rather than being part of a famous poem or play, he was mentioned in the works of a natural historian.
Aelian recounted two myths of Nerites that, he claimed, were told to him by mariners. In each, the handsome young sea god is the love interest of a different Olympian.
In one story, Aphrodite wished for Nerites to accompany her to Mount Olympus. When he refused her, she turned him into a snail instead.
In another, he was the lover of Poseidon. Although a reason is not given for his jealousy, Helios was the one to prompt the transformation in this legend.
Nerites became the water-dwelling snails that bore his name. They lived only in the cleanest water and were considered to be exceptionally beautiful by the Greeks.
Aelian’s writing shows clearly that many stories were not told by the great writers whose works survive today. Folklore included many tales and beliefs that were never preserved for posterity.