What is Poseidon’s Symbol?
Like almost all the gods of Greece, Poseidon is often recognizable because of certain symbols that were associated with him more than any other god.
As would be expected for the god of the sea, many of his symbols related to the realm in which he ruled. Sea creatures, both real and imagined, formed his retinue and the features of the water were central to his iconography.
One item related to the sea was also the symbol that most obviously represented its god. His trident, a type of three-pronged fishing spear, was both his primary weapon and his most usual symbol.
There were other things associated with Poseidon that seem less obvious at first glance, however. And while Poseidon’s trident was central to his iconography, the story that surrounds it presents a puzzle for modern readers.
Perhaps more than any other god of the pantheon of Olympians, Poseidon had one unique and consistent symbol.
The god of the sea was rarely separated from his distinctive weapon, the three-pronged trident.
When the gods of Olympus waged war against the Titans, they freed the imprisoned Cyclopes and Hecatonchieres as allies. In thanks, the Cyclopes presented the three sons of Cronos with distinct and powerful gifts.
The trident was more than just a distinctive symbol, it was a powerful weapon. By striking his trident against the earth, Poseidon could call up water or even cause earthquakes.
As a sea god, Poseidon was often shown with the features and creatures of his domain as well. His retinue often included dolphins and fish and he was sometimes surrounded by shells or seaweed.
The sea creatures associated with Poseidon included a very unique type of animal, the hippocampoi. The name, meaning “seahorse” was literal in ancient Greek and these fantastical creatures pulled Poseidon’s chariot with the heads and front legs of horses and the tails of enormous fish.
The hippocampoi were a logical variation on the land-based version of Poseidon’s sacred animal. Although he was the god of the sea, he was also said to have created the first horses.
Poseidon occasionally took the form of a horse and some of his children were even said to be equine. One of these was Pegasus, the famous winged horse.
So while much of Poseidon’s imagery focused on the sea, he was also closely associated with horses and chariots.
While the inclusion of horses among a sea god’s imagery might seem incongruous, the two were actually very closely associated in the ancient world. The movement of waves was frequently compared to the galloping of horses, creating a link between the sea god and their creation.
Some historians also believe that a pre-Greek version of Poseidon may have been a horse god who was not explicitly tied to the ocean. If this is the case, the story of Poseidon creating the first horses and chariot may be a remnant of these Bronze Age beliefs.
Poseidon’s trident is another symbol of the god with a connection to the sea that is more complex than it may initially seem to be.
The trident is usually recognized as a fishing spear, which would be a common tool in the coastal communities of Greece. For this to be the chief weapon of the god of the sea seems logical.
The story of his trident is inconsistent, however. According to the most common legends, the gods were given their gifts before they drew lots to divide the realms between themselves.
It isn’t logical, therefore, for each to have a gift that perfectly reflected the domain they ended up ruling.
This could be a simple error on the part of writers to whom the symbols of the gods would have been familiar. But historians also note that the weapons themselves are only listed in later works.
Earlier writings claimed that Zeus was given thunderbolts but do not mention Poseidon’s trident or Hades’s helmet.
The Cyclopes may have given these gifts after the war. It’s also possible that the gifts were not originally as distinct as they appeared in later stories.
At least one historian has put forth the idea that all three gods originally carried a similar weapon, possibly a labrys or ceremonial axe. Only later, when the symbolism of each god had become more pronounced, were the gifts of the Cyclopes specified as relating to each.
The use of the labrys in Crete, where it is believed the earliest version of Poseidon originated, may lend credence to this theory.
This theory also fits the idea that the three gods may not have originally been separate at all, but were rather aspects of the same divine king. If Poseidon was once another name for Zeus, the earliest written records would not have specified a separate weapon for him.
Poseidon, the god of the sea, was generally associated with images relating to the water. These included features like shells and coral and sea creatures of many types.
One creature often pictured with Poseidon was the hippocampus, the literal sea horse that pulled his chariot. These fantastical creatures formed a link between Poseidon and his familiar sacred animal.
While he was the king of the waters, he was also considered the father of horses. Horses were often compared to water in ancient texts, so the unusual pairing may make more sense in context.
More than anything else, though, Poseidon could be identified by his trident. This three-pronged fishing spear was a common tool, but in the hands of the god it was a powerful weapon and symbol of his position.
The story of how Poseidon got his trident seems to be contradictory, however, raising questions about how it fits into Greek believe. While it’s possible the story of his weapon’s origin is a later addition, some scholars also believe that it is rooted in a time when the gods and their attributes were less well-defined.