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Triton: A God of the Sea in Greek Mythology

Triton was a sea god and the son of Poseidon. So why have you likely never heard any of his myths?

The sea god Triton’s imagery is far more famous than his mythology.

The son of Poseidon and Amphitrite was immediately identifiable as a god of the sea. His fish tail and blue skin became the standard depiction of mermen even before mermaids were thought of.

Despite his iconic imagery and position as Poseidon’s only son with his wife, Triton was a very minor god in Greek mythology. His role was poorly-defined and not a single myth survives that is cantered on him.

Compared to the sons of Zeus, Poseidon’s son received very little attention!

Some things can be inferred, however, from the little that is known about Triton. Historians believe that the sea god’s son might be best understood by how he compares to other gods on land.

The Sea God Triton

Poseidon was the ruler of the sea in Greek mythology. His wife was Amphitrite, one of the Oceanids.

While Amphitrite was the mother of all sea life, she and Poseidon were said to have had only one son according to most sources. His name was Triton and he embodied his parents’ realm.

While Poseidon was shown as fully human in appearance in classical art, Triton had far more attributes that linked him to the sea. His upper body was in the shape of a man, but he otherwise resembled some of his mother’s marine children.

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One of Triton’s most notable attributes was his fish-like tail. From the waste down, he was fully adapted to life under water.

Later writers made Triton even more inhuman in appearance. Ovid wrote that his shoulders were covered in barnacles and shells and his hair was a seaweed-like color green.

He also said that Triton’s entire body was a shade of blue. His steed was likewise blue, making them both blend in with the water around them.

Triton lived with his parents in their golden palaces beneath the sea. While his father ruled over the whole realm of the sea, Triton was specifically associated with the depths and the unknown life there.

He sometimes carried a trident like his father, although this was more common in later images. More often, he carried a conch shell.

Triton could blow this shell like a horn, making a sound so loud and terrible that it frightened even giants. It also had the power to control the waves, either calling up rough waters or calming them.

This horn was also his symbol of office. Triton was most well-known as the herald and messenger of the sea gods, specifically both his father and Oceanus.

Few myths survive that specifically feature Triton, even in his role as a herald.

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In the Aeneid, Virgil claimed that Triton killed one of the sons of Aeolus for challenging him to play a horn as well as he did. This Roman tale, however, seems to be based on earlier Greek legends of musical contests between other gods.

The most notable instance of Triton appearing as a character is unattested in literature but common in art, particularly black-figure vase painting. Many pieces showed a scene of Triton and Heracles in a wrestling contest.

The story is sometimes told that the hero engaged in a similar contest with Nereus, one of the old sea gods. Some historians believe that the vases may show Nereus while he shifted between shapes, but some label the participants and even include Nereus as a spectator.

Because no written record of this myth survives, it is unclear what the context of the scene was. Without this story, there are no myths that prominently feature Poseidon’s son.

My Modern Interpretation

In the Greek view of the world, life in the sea was largely similar to life on land.

Poseidon was very much like Zeus and his realm, although mysterious, was imagined to be like that of Zeus as well. The sea had palaces, legendary creatures, and minor gods just as the land did.

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The idea of life under the water mimicking life on land became more pronounced throughout Greek history. Underwater versions of livestock, centaurs, and plants were said to thrive in Poseidon’s realm.

In this view of the sea, it would seem logical for the family and court of Poseidon to mirror that of Zeus.

Just as Zeus made his son Hermes a messenger and herald, so too did Poseidon. Without another significant function, Triton took on a role that was familiar for the sons of rulers.

Like other children of the gods, Triton also became the head of an entire category of deities.

The Tritons began to be depicted en masse by the 4th century BC. The beautiful nymphs of the sea were accompanied by fish-tailed men who rode on dolphins and seahorses.

This put Triton in a similar category to Eros or, more likely, Pan.

Pan had also begun as a single deity who was later depicted as one of many of his type. Another half-human minor deity, he shares many similarities with Triton.

Both played rustic wind instruments, Pan’s pipes and Triton’s horn. Both were connected more to an environment than a specific duty.

Both appear to have been types of rustic gods, particularly when pictured as a race. The Tritons were the half-human male counterparts of the beautiful sea nymphs just as the Pans and Satyrs were to the nymphs of the forest.

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Pan and Triton both may have been far more ancient gods then their stories implied, as well.

Triton and his mother, Amphitrite, shared the fact that they were rarely featured in mythology. Despite their important positions in Poseidon’s realm, they were less prominent than many other gods and goddesses of lower status.

Some historians believe that Amphitrite was a relic of pre-Greek belief. While she was incorporated in the mythology of the Olympian gods as Poseidon’s wife, her mythology and defining traits were lost.

The same may be true of her son. Like Nereus, he may have been an archaic sea god who received only a small role in the realm of Poseidon.

In Summary

In Greek mythology, Triton was the son of Poseidon and his wife, Amphitrite. Like his mother, he had a minor role in mythology despite the prominence of his father.

Triton established the image of a merman, with a human torso and a fish-like lower body. Later writers and artists showed him with blue skin, green hair, and shells affixed to his body.

He carried a conch shell that he could blow as either a terrifying instrument or to control the waves. It also signified his role as the herald of Poseidon.

This task may have been modelled after that of Hermes. Poseidon’s realm mirrored that of Zeus in many ways, and their sons’ roles may have been among them.

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Triton may have also mirrored the rustic gods of the Greek countryside. Like Pan, he was later shown as one of many of his type who kept company with beautiful nymphs.

Some historians believe, however, that Triton’s enigmatic purpose may be the result of a lost tradition. Like Amphitrite, his image may have been derived from an earlier source whose mythology was overtaken by that of the Olympian gods.

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My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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