Proteus: The Old Man of the Sea
Proteus, often called The Old Man of the Sea, was a truly mercurial god of the oceans.
While most sailors in Greek mythology encountered nymphs or sea monsters in their travels, only a few encountered the shape shifting, prophetic herder of seals.
While his brother Triton took on a more typical role as their father’s herald and right-hand man, Proteus was a god who forged his own path.
From napping with seals to wrestling with kings, here is everything that made The Old Man of the Sea one of Greece’s most unique gods!
The name Proteus comes from the Greek word for “first,” giving a clue as to the god’s origins.
Even this, however, still leaves more than one possibility.
The most commonly accepted tradition was that Proteus was the first son born to the sea god Poseidon. He was the “old man” because he was older than his brother, Triton.
Proteus occurs in even the earliest myths of Poseidon.
This, however, could also point to a more ancient origin.
While he was generally called Poseidon’s son, Proteus may have also been a primordial god who was far older than the Olympians. His name may have referred to his status as the first god of the seas.What is clear was that Proteus was one of the earliest sea gods worshipped by the Greeks. Click To Tweet
According to Homer, Proteus made his home on the island of Pharos. This interesting detail could give a clue as to how the Old Man of the Sea became a part of the Greek tradition.
Proteus bears some resemblance to the Phoenician sea god Melkart. Pharos, an island off the coast of Egypt, was once an important Phoenician trading post.
It is possible, then, that the archaic Greeks adopted the Phoenician god of the sea into their local traditions. As the mythology of the Olympians emerged, the Old Man of the Sea remained as one of their earliest gods.
If Proteus had an official job, it would be as the shepherd of seals. He spent most of his time in the company seals and kept careful count of his herd.
But Proteus, as the firstborn son of Poseidon and one of the great deities of the seas, was far more than an aquatic shepherd.
One of the most notable attributes of Proteus was that he was a god of prophecy.
He was said to be the only one among the gods or men that could see through the deepest, darkest parts of the sea. There, he learned secrets that were inaccessible to anyone else.
The Old Man of the Sea, however, was reluctant to give out his knowledge. He had to be compelled to give his prophecies and share his wisdom.
Usually, this involved capturing him. This was complicated, however, by the fact that Proteus was also a shape shifter.
This was illustrated in a story written by Virgil.
Aristaeus, the son of Apollo, had been keeping bees but they had all died. He went to Proteus to learn if there was anything that could be done to prevent the same thing from happening again in the future.
Aristaeus had to capture the god and hold on while he shifted through several shapes. Proteus turned himself into many different beasts and animals before giving up.
The Old Man of the Sea could imitate the forms of any animal of the sea or of land. He even turned himself into running water, an enormous tree, and a flame.
He finally told Aristaeus that the disease that had killed off his hives was a punishment for his involvement in the death of Eurydice. Proteus knew what sacrifices to make to the gods to appease them.
When Aristaeus did as the Old Man of the Sea advised, he found a swarm of bees in the carcass of the last animal he sacrificed. He took it home and never had a problem with his hives again.
The most famous story of Proteus’s prophesies and shape shifting, however, occurs in Homer’s Odyssey.
The protagonist’s son, Telemachus, had grown to adulthood while his father was away at war and struggling to make his way home. Believing that his father was still alive, the young man set out to find information about him.
Telemachus made his way to the court of King Menelaus of Sparta, who had experienced his own trials on the way home from the Trojan War.
Menelaus relayed the story of how his ship had been becalmed on the island of Pharos during the journey, and after twenty days his men were nearly out of supplies when he met the helpful sea goddess Eidothea.
Always a friend to troubled sailors, she informed the king that her father could tell him what gods he had offended to strand him on their island. And since he was a king, Proteus would also tell him what had come to pass in his own palace while he was away.
However, Menelaus would have to capture the sea god for him to talk. Eidothea knew how to do that, too.
She made a plan with Menelaus to trick her father when he was most vulnerable. Every day at noon Proteus came onto the island to nap among his herd of seals, in the same way that a shepherd might fall asleep among his flock.
Eidothea could disguise Menelaus and three of his bravest men among the seals. Then they could take the god by surprise as he was sleeping.
Of course, he would take many forms to avoid being held. Only when he resumed his natural form would it be safe to release him.
Menelaus agreed to the plan and lay in wait with his men among Proteus’s herd of seals.
Then with a shout we rushed upon him and locked our arms about him; but the ancient god had not forgotten his craft and cunning. He became in turn a bearded lion, a snake, a panther, a monstrous boar; then running water, then a towering and leafy tree; but we kept our hold, unflinching and undismayed, and in the end this master of dreaded secrets began to tire. So he broke into speech and asked outright: ‘Son of Atreus, which of the gods taught you this strategy, to entrap and overpower me thus? What do you want from me?’
-Homer, Odyssey 4. 365 ff (trans. Shewring)
Proteus was able to tell the Spartan king that his ship was becalmed because he had failed to make the proper sacrifices to Zeus before he sailed from Troy. It was fated that Menelaus would not reach home until he returned to Egypt and made the proper sacrifices of one hundred animals there.
Menelaus was frustrated that he would have to backtrack to Egypt before reaching home, but relieved that he knew how to continue on his journey.
The Old Man of the Sea then informed Menelaus of what had happened in his own kingdom while he was at sea. His brother Agamemnon had been murdered and Ajax the Lesser had been shipwrecked and killed, news that made the king fall to the sand and weep.
When Proteus offered him a third request, Menelaus asked about the fate of the man who was doomed to be trapped at sea for ten years. Proteus knew that this referred to Odysseus.
By capturing Proteus, Menelaus had learned that Odysseus was, in fact, still alive. When Telemachus arrived in Sparta, the king was able to tell him that his father was alone and unhappy, being kept by the nymph Calypso on her island.Before returning to the sea, Proteus gave Menelaus one last piece of prophecy. Click To Tweet
Because his wife Helen was the daughter of Zeus, he was not fated to die in Greece. Instead, he was promised eternal life on the Islands of the Blessed at the edge of the world.
Homer named Eidothea as the daughter of Proteus. The sea nymph was a friend of sailors and later helped Odysseus survive the wreck of his raft off of Calypso’s island.
But she was not the only child of Proteus to feature in Greek mythology. The Old Man of the Sea had other sons and daughters that were named in various sources.
- Polygonos and Telegonos were two of the sea god’s sons who challenged Heracles to a wrestling match at the behest of Hera. The hero killed them both in the contest.
- Cabiero was a sea nymph who lived on the island of Lemnos. When Hephaestus was expelled from Olympus he landed on Lemnos and they had three sons and three daughters together.
- The nymphs of Thabos were mentioned in a fragment of Hesiod as the daughters of Proteus who were seduced by Greek men.
Proteus had a connection to Egypt. His sacred island, Pharos, was nearby and he advised Menelaus to go there to make his sacrifices.
A few writers, however, have a very different version of Proteus. Instead of the Old Man of the Sea, he is the king of Egypt.
Like Homer’s story of the god of the sea, the stories of the Egyptian Proteus involve characters from the Trojan War. Herodotus, one of the writers who discusses the Egyptian Proteus, even says that Homer must have been aware of the stories of Egypt but chose to use the more common story.
In Herodotus’s story, Paris and Helen were blown off course while eloping to Troy and landed on the coast of Egypt. Their servants deserted them and reported them to the authorities.
The lovers were taken before King Proteus who, despite his anger over the Trojan prince’s actions, could not break sacred laws by killing a stranger.
Another story of the Egyptian king was written by the playwright Euripedes. In his Helen the sequence of events that takes the runaway Spartan queen to Egypt is even more complicated.
In the play, Helen had never reached Troy. Hermes, under orders from Hera, had taken her to Egypt instead and the goddess had sent a phantom with Paris in her place.
The play takes place after the war, when Menelaus went to Egypt to retrieve his wife. Proteus had kept her safe for the decade that the war went on, but the king had recently died.
His son Theoclymenos intended to marry Helen once she was no longer under his father’s protection, but was thwarted when her true husband, Menelaus, arrived.
These characters appear to not be directly related to The Old Man of the Sea, even though there is a significant overlap in their stories.
The name may be a simple coincidence, although that seems unlikely given the popularity of Homer’s works among later Greek writers. It could also be the case that the authors, particularly the unconventional Euripedes, were intentionally playing off the widely-recognized character.
As a sea god, Proteus represented many of the peculiarities of the ocean.
He could see far below the surface, into a realm that was completely unknown before the invention of modern diving equipment. The Greeks imagined that in the depths of the sea the god could learn the secrets of the gods and what the Fates had in store.
The god’s shape shifting powers also reflected the mysteries of the ocean.
The sea was an unpredictable and often uncomfortable place. Waves and currents could change in an instant, sometimes threatening the survival of a ship’s crew.
The water also distorted the view of what was underneath it. Marine life like seals, whales, and fish could appear to change shape or disappear entirely because of the distortion of the water’s surface.As a shape shifter, Proteus represented the mercurial and changing nature of the sea. Click To Tweet
This concept lives on in the English adjective “protean,” meaning something that is changeable or versatile.
In Greek mythology, there were few gods quite like Proteus.
Generally, when a god was given an epithet it was to highlight one of the defining traits or powers. Proteus was known as an old man.
He was a prophetic god who did everything in his power to avoid telling anyone what he knew. Rather than collect sacrifices or have adventures, he spent his days napping on a beach in a pile of seals.
Proteus knew the secrets of the deepest seas, but never used that knowledge unless he was forced to. While that knowledge was put to great use by Menelaus, the other story of the amazing prophetic abilities of Proteus involved something as mundane as beekeeping.
The Old Man of the Sea is a god of contradictions, constant change, and possibly a bit of humor. You can never be sure what form the sea god Proteus, or his stories will take.