Poseidon: The Greek God of the Sea
One of the chief gods of the Greek world, Poseidon ruled the waters with his powerful trident.
But, despite the importance of the sea in Greek life, Poseidon wasn’t one of the people’s favorite gods.
Few cities took him as their patron, and many of his temples were shared with other deities.
More feared than loved, the great sea god was as unpredictable as tempestuous as the waters he ruled. Known as Neptune to the Romans, he was a hard god to please.
From his power to shake the earth to his ability to hold a legendary grudge, here’s everything you need to know about the Greek god of the sea!
Poseidon was one of the six children of Chronus. Five of them, including Poseidon, were swallowed at birth to preserve their father’s position as king of the Titans.
Their mother Rhea, however, deceived her husband and hid their sixth and last child. Her youngest son, Zeus, grew up on the island of Crete.
When he grew to adulthood, Zeus returned to challenge his father. His first task was to free his siblings.
Zeus posed as a cup bearer and brought Chronus a drink laced with a magical purgative. Chronus vomited out the children he had swallowed years before.
Poseidon was freed along with his brother Hades and sisters Hera, Demeter, and Hestia.
The newly-freed gods joined their brother in fighting Chronus and the Titans for control of the universe.
The war between the old gods and the new is called the Titanomachy. It lasted for ten full years.
Zeus and his siblings eventually freed the Titans’ monstrous siblings – the Hecatoncheires and Cyclopes. These six monsters had been imprisoned by Uranus and were eager to help overthrow the Titans.
They were joined by a few children of other Titans, to whom Zeus had promised greater power and recognition than the old gods had been willing to share.
With their help, the younger gods were able to win the war.
The Titans were imprisoned in Tartarus, the deepest part of the underworld. The Hecatoncheires, also called the Hundred-Handers, were assigned to guard them.
To ensure they stayed locked away, Poseidon fitted heavy bronze gates onto the entrance to Tartarus. The Titans would remain imprisoned in the underworld for several millennia.
Having won the war and taken control of the cosmos, the three sons of Chronus drew lots to divide the lordships once held by the Titans. Each would become master of a different realm.
Zeus became ruler of the sky, in addition to being chosen as the king of all gods for his role in leading them to victory. Hades drew the underworld and his name became synonymous with the land of the dead.
Poseidon drew the sea. While Zeus established his seat of power on Mount Olympus, Poseidon drew beneath the waves and built his great palace there.
When the Olympians freed the Cyclopes, they were rewarded with great gifts. Zeus was given his thunderbolts and Hades received a mighty helmet.
This three-pronged fishing spear was not only an appropriate symbol for the god of the oceans, but also a powerful weapon.
Because of his trident, the sea god could affect more than just water. He became the bringer of earthquakes.
After the Titanomachy, Poseidon again had a chance to use his weapon in the great war against the Giants.
In pursuit of the giant Polybotes, Poseidon brought his trident down on the island of Kos. He broke off a piece of the land and threw it at the fleeing giant, crushing him.
He also used his trident’s magic to affix the once-floating isle of Delos firmly to the sea floor.
When Ajax the Lesser offended the gods by raping Cassandra as she took refuge in a temple, the other gods were furious that the Greeks did not punish the criminal.
After many escapes, Ajax was left clinging to a rock after a shipwreck. Poseidon would have helped him, but the arrogant man yelled that he would escape the sea without the help of any of the gods.
Offended by this hubris, Poseidon split the rock with a blow from his trident. Ajax the rapist drowned, finally getting the punishment he deserved.
His trident was also used in more mundane ways. For example, when the nymph Amymone was threatened by a lecherous satyr Poseidon used the weapon to scare it away.
Poseidon’s trident continues to be used as a nautical symbol, especially among naval forces. Island nations use it as a symbol of their strength, from the trident held by Britannica to the flag of Barbados.
While Poseidon is best remembered for his iconic trident, the Greeks also recognized him for a very terrestrial creation. The god of the sea invented the horse.
This aspect of Poseidon was introduced to Greece in the 2nd century BC. Poseidon’s connection to horses may have been through the people who first brought this myth to the region.
In one version, the first horse is a gift to the people of Athens.
Horses were also a fitting animal for the god of earthquakes – the pounding hooves of a herd or an army on horseback certainly feels like something Poseidon would be connected to.
Horses continued to be linked to Poseidon in later myths. He is often shown on a chariot, sometimes drawn by horses with the bodies of great fish.
Poseidon often changes himself into a horse in the stories. When he lusted after Demeter she turned herself into a mare to hide but, not to be outwitted, Poseidon became a stallion.
The result was two children. Arion was an immortal horse and their daughter Despoina, also sometimes depicted in horse form, was worshipped in Arcadia alongside her mother.
Of course, Poseidon’s most famous child in horse form was Pegasus, a mythical animal that still appears and art and stories today. To the Greeks, the fabulous beast was associated with springs and fountains.
The sea is a dangerous and unpredictable place. Storms can arise from seemingly nowhere, rogue waves can crush ships and coastal towns, and many mariners simply disappear into its depths.
The sea belonged to Poseidon, and he almost invariably displayed the same violent unpredictability as his domain.
Even beside the other gods, who were almost all known to be temperamental, Poseidon’s wrath was legendary.
When Cassiopeia bragged that her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful than the sea nymphs Poseidon had sired, the god sent a terrible sea monster to assault her lands.
The people decided the only way to placate the god was to sacrifice the princess to the monster, but she was rescued by the hero Perseus.
A similar occurrence happened in Troy. Poseidon and Apollo helped build great walls around the city for King Laomedon.
The in itself was the result of Poseidon acting without forethought.
In an ill-devised scheme thought of by Hera, Poseidon and Apollo had tried to seize power from Zeus. When freed, the king stripped them of their own powers and forced them into servitude under the Trojan king.
When the time came to pay the gods for their service, however, Laemedon tried to go back on their deal. Poseidon punished the city in a familiar way, with floods and a sea monster.
This monster, too, nearly devoured a princess that was given over to placate it. This one was killed by Heracles.
Poseidon’s wrath was responsible for the birth of the Minotaur.
When the king of Crete tried to decieve the god by sacrificing an inferior bull to him, Poseidon cast a spell compelling the queen to fall in love with the beast. Their child would go on to be one of the most famous monsters in mythology.
When Erechtheus, the king of Athens, killed one of Poseidon’s mortal sons in battle the vengeance was terrible. Poseidon demanded that one of the king’s daughters be killed in return.
What Erechtheus did not know was that his daughters had sworn an oath to one another promising that if one was killed, they all would be. Erectheus’s daughters all committed suicide when one was sacrificed.
Still not done with the Athenian royal family, Poseidon asked his brother Zeus to strike Erectheus down with a thunderbolt. The entire family was finally destroyed.
As a final act of anger, Poseidon drove the dead king’s body into the ground with his trident.
The incident was a blow against Athena, who Poseidon was often at odds with. Erechtheus was her adopted son.
The seawater well Poseidon had created on the Acropolis was named for Erechtheus, and the two were forever intertwined in Athenian folklore.
Although Poseidon sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War, they were not exempt from his wrath when he felt the possibility of offense.
When the Greek army built a wall around their ships, the god worried that it would overshadow the work he had done on the walls of Troy. He helped the enemy troops destroy the Greek defenses to protect his own pride.
In addition to floods and monsters, Poseidon used his mastery of earthquakes to enact vengeance.
When a group of accused criminals took refuge in his temple, Poseidon grew angry with the Spartans who dragged them out to face their punishment.
Certain Lakedaimonians who had been condemned to death on some charge fled as suppliants to Tainaron but the board of ephors dragged them from the altar there and put them to death. As the Spartans paid no heed to their being suppliants, the wrath of Poseidon came upon them, and the god razed all their city to the ground.
-Pausanias, Description of Greece 4. 24. 6
Earthquakes, common in the volcanic regions of the Mediterranean, were often associated with Poseidon’s legendary temper. While coastal residents prayed for protection from waves and floods, those who lived inland hoped Poseidon the earth-shaker would spare them as well.
Like the sea, Poseidon’s moods could be unpredictable and his wrath immediate. Perhaps the most famous example of a man who attracted the god’s anger was the great hero Odysseus.
Following the Trojan War, the king of Ithaca wanted nothing more than to return home. But while the trip should have taken only a few weeks, it instead ended up taking ten years.
One of the major reasons for the delay was that Odysseus had angered Poseidon, a dangerous thing for the captain of a ship at sea. The god of the sea would take every opportunity to send misfortune to Odysseus and his crew.
Homer’s epic Odyssey details the many ways in which Poseidon tormented the hero on his long voyage. While most of the gods show sympathy toward Odysseus, Poseidon is a continual antagonist in Homer’s tale.
Athena often works against Poseidon’s machinations, helping both Odysseus and the family he left behind in Ithaca. Only through the help of her and other gods is Odysseus able to survive.
In fact, the first time the reader meets Odysseus in the poem he is near the end of his journey and, following a great wave sent by Poseidon, shipwrecked on the island of Ogygia.
Later in the story, the reason for Poseidon’s hostility is revealed.
Early in his travels, Odysseus had landed on an island that was home to Polyphemus, a rude and inhospitable Cyclops. Upset that the Greeks had eaten two of his sheep, which they assumed to be wild, he devoured two of their crewmen.
What follows is one of the most famous scenes in the story of Odysseus. He lulled the Cyclops with heavy wine, telling the monster that his name was “Nobody.”
When the giant passed out from drinking so much wine, Odysseus used a great lance to gouge out his single eye.
Enraged and in pain, the Cyclops screamed for help, but when asked by his siblings who hurt him he could only say “Nobody.”
Odysseus and his crew probably would have escaped unharmed if the king had not shown great arrogance. As they sailed away, he taunted the wounded monster and revealed his true name.
Polyphemus called upon his father, Poseidon, and begged for his help in exacting revenge. Now that he knew the assailant’s name, it would be possible to hunt him down.
Poseidon granted his son’s request. As foretold by prophecies, if Odysseus ever did manage to survive the voyage and make it home it would be alone and to great trouble and turmoil.
Poseidon’s anger toward the hero may have begun even earlier than the incident with the Cyclops.
Odysseus had, with the guidance of Athena, conceived of the Trojan Horse as a way to get past Troy’s impenetrable walls. As the builder of those fortifications, Poseidon’s pride was wounded by the trick.
Many times in the epic, Poseidon worked directly against Odysseus in an attempt to keep him from the end of his journey.
- He frequently sent storms and bad winds to blow the ship off course and cause delays.
- The crew’s ships were attacked by the Laestrygones, some of Poseidon’s giant children.
- Although Odysseus ordered his men to avoid the whirlpool Charybdis, he was later sucked in himself while stranded on a raft. Charybdis was another of Poseidon’s dangerous children.
- When Zeus ordered Calypso to release Odysseus after seven years, she and the hero built a simple raft. A short time after he set sail, Poseidon sent a storm to sink it.
- When the Phaeacians of Ogygia helped Odysseus, Poseidon convinced the other gods to allow him to turn all their ships to stone. This is one of the few times in mythology that people are punished for showing hospitality, but Poseidon claimed that in doing so they had disrespected him.
When Odysseus finally returned home and secured his rule, he was still not free from Poseidon’s anger. Luckily for him, a seer on his journeys had told him how to pacify the angry god.
Odysseus took up an oar and walked inland, stopping only when he had gone so far from the sea that a man mistook the oar for a plow. There he planted the oar in the ground and made offerings to Poseidon as well as the gods who had been helpful to him.
Odysseus made peace with Poseidon, but the god would have one last chance to destroy the hero.
Years later, Telegonus learned from his mother, Circe, that Odysseus was his father. He set out to find Odysseus, who was by then an old man.
Upon landing in Ithaca, Telegonus began to drive off the cattle that surrounded him. Not knowing who the newcomer was, Odysseus fought the young man to protect his herd.
In the confrontation, Odysseus was wounded by his son’s spear. He would die of the injury.
The spear was tipped with the barb of a stingray. A creature of the sea, one of Poseidon’s animals, had finally claimed the life of the resilient hero.
Poseidon’s final act against Odysseus was as unexpected and unpredictable as the storms he had sent during the great voyage home from Troy.
Like most Greek gods, Poseidon fathered several children with many lovers.
Poseidon married the nereid Amphitrite. She became the lady of the sea and the mother of dolphins, seals, and fishes.
Initially, she had rejected Poseidon and fled to the far ends of the earth. Delphin, a minor god, was able to convince her to reconsider.
In gratitude, Delphin was immortalized as a constellation. His name remains with us in the word “dolphin.”
While she later became an honored wife and lady of the seas, initially Poseidon took her by force. This was a common occurrence in Greek myths and a constant in many of Poseidon’s subsequent affairs.
Amphitrite and Poseidon had three children – Rhodes, Triton, and Benthisikyme.
Rhodes was the personification of the island that bears her name. She married Helios, the sun god.
Triton, usually represented as a merman, remained with his parents as his father’s herald and assistant.
Triton was one of a host of beings who bore his name and combined the traits of men, fish, and horses. The children and grandchildren of Poseidon, they made up his retinue and served his household.
With Gaia, Poseidon fathered several monstrous children. These included the Laestrigonians and Charybdis who both later threatened Odysseus.
Other giants were born by various titanesses and nymphs. Poseidon’s inhuman children came in many other forms, well.
In one famous story, Poseidon raped the beautiful maiden Medusa in the temple of Athena. The goddess changed the girl into a horrible monster as punishment for violating the sanctity of her altar.
When Medusa was beheaded by Perseus, the blood that spilled from her neck gave birth to the winged horse Pegasus. Poseidon is usually given as the animal’s father.
The legendary hero Theseus had both mortal and immortal characteristics. He was fathered by a human king with the help of Poseidon’s magic, giving both of them parenthood over him.
His twin sons Boeotus and Aeolus founded the Boeotia and the Aeolian Islands, respectively.
His son Proteus was a sea god with the gift of prophecy. Symbolizing the changeable nature of the sea, his name became synonymous with changing shapes and versatility.
In addition to his most well-known children, Poseidon was the father of many others.
With various women and nymphs, he sired a wide variety of minor sea gods and spirits.
While some of his human sons were great heroes, many others appear as minor characters in legends. Among these are several of the Argonauts.
Many islands and cities were named after the sea god’s children. They were the personifications of places like the colony of Taras, the Egyptian river Melas, the Elean people who were ruled by Eleus, Delphus of the temple city Delphi, the district of Aonia, the island of Thasos, and the town of Crommyon.
The city of Byzantium was named for his son Byzas. It later became a capital of Rome and the center of an empire that carried on Greek culture and language for hundreds of years.
Other famous kings were said to be his sons. Polydectes, the human husband of Danae, was one.
The god of the sea was an important figure for a culture that lived along a rugged coastline and scattered islands. For coastal cities, the favor of Poseidon ensured good trade, protection from floods, fair weather, and prosperity.
But in the myths, Poseidon was constantly at odds with other gods for the worship of the Greek people. Many times he quarreled with his peers over patronage of the cities.
The most famous example of these arguments is his contest with Athena for the city of Athens.
The two gods decided to settle the dispute in a contest of gifts. Each would give the city a gift to be judged, and the greatest benefactor would win patronage.
Poseidon brought down his mighty triton and created a well of sea water. The water flowed toward the ocean, giving the city access to the Mediterranean.
Traveling over the rugged Greek landscape was difficult and dangerous, so a port allowed for trade. Armies also traveled by ship, so access to the water would enable the city to become powerful.
Other versions of the story claim Poseidon gifted the people with the first horse. It could work the fields, carry soldiers into battle, and give speed to merchants and messengers.
Whichever gift Poseidon gave, Athena’s initially seemed less impressive next to it. She tapped her spear against the rocky ground and grew a simple olive tree.
But Cecrops, the king of the new city, and the gods were all impressed. The olive tree would give the city wood, food, and oil for trade.
With her simple tree, Athena had won the contest. The goddess of wisdom had seen to it that the city would be well-fed and prosperous for all time.
Poseidon’s legendary wrath was triggered by the loss of Athens to its new patroness and namesake.
He brought his trident down again, this time causing a great storm to arise out of the sea. The city was flooded by salty water.
When the waters eventually receded the Athenians returned to rebuild their city. They kept their word and honored Athena as their patron, but were always sure to burn sacrifices to Poseidon to keep his anger at bay.
A small well of salty water at the Acropolis served as a reminder to the people of Poseidon’s wrath.
When he and Hera asked three river gods to decide who would rule the region of Argolis, Poseidon again lost. He dried up the three rivers in revenge, sending them water only to flood the land.
The people of the city, like the Athenians, maintained their devotion to their goddess. But they built shrines to Poseidon to keep him from sending more droughts or floods.
The loss of Naxos to Dionysus may be based on actual history. Plutarch claimed that Poseidon was once the most worshipped god there, but was overtaken by the cult of Dionysus when it spread out of Thrace.
Poseidon even fought Zeus for human lands. Poseidon lost the island of Aegina to his brother, who created the great Myrmidon soldiers to make it powerful.
He also fought Helios for possession of Corinth. Briareus, the storm god, awarded Poseidon the small strip of land the city sat on while Helios received the mountaintop.
Poseidon often fought to win the patronage of Greek cities, but seldom won. More often, he lost out or had to share the people’s worship with another, equally important, deity.
As a result, Poseidon was the second most powerful god in many of these places. Only in Corinth did he have the largest temple, but even there Helios was nearly as strong.
Throughout the Greek world, people recognized the importance of the sea but it would never be as central to their lives as other matters.
Altars to Poseidon were erected throughout Greece but he could not inspire the people’s love and devotion. People prayed not for his blessings, but to avoid his anger.
As often as not, his temples were more of a warning than a place of refuge.
The Greeks revered Poseidon, but they didn’t love him the way they did many of the other gods and goddesses.
Poseidon wasn’t a god you could count on to protect and help you. As was the case with the walls of Troy or the Greek army, Poseidon’s aid could quickly turn to punishment.
Like the sea itself, Poseidon was too unpredictable and tempestuous to be relied on. He would inevitably become angry, so the best most people could do was delay the inevitability of a storm.
Living on a peninsula, the Greek people worshipped many aspects of the ocean.
Luecothia came to the aid of sailors in need, like the shipwrecked Odysseus. Galene was the nereid of calm seas. Her father Nerius sent fish and salt to people on the coast.
Poseidon represented the sheer power of the sea.
He could shake the earth and flood it at will. His waves could wreck ships and destroy city walls.
Like the sea, Poseidon was to be respected and feared, but never relied on. He could turn wrathful at a moment’s notice, even to those he had aided in the past.
For the ancient Greeks, the ocean, like the god who ruled it, was a powerful force that could turn dangerous at any time.