While we know the Greek gods by their most common names, nearly all of them had many other names in the ancient Greek world.
Occasionally these replaced the more wide-spread names given to them, but most often they were titles and epithets. These referenced the domains, powers, and legends of each god.
One can think of these names as being similar to the long list of titles given to nobility and royalty. While a king or queen has a given name, they can also be referred to by a number of titles that can be both functional and poetic.
Like a modern ruler, the god Poseidon had many names that referred to both the domains he controlled and his role in people’s lives.
Like the other gods of the ancient Greek world, Poseidon was known by many names.
Sometimes these names replaced his more familiar one, particularly in poetic writings. At other times these were epithets, which were used as last names or titles.
As the god of the sea, many of Poseidon’s names referenced his power over that domain.
The name Pelagaeus, for example, referred to Poseidon as “Of the Sea.” Aegaeon, on the other hand, specified the Aegean Sea as his domain.
On the island of Samos, he was called Epactaeus, “The God of the Coast.” A more poetic reference to the coastline was in the name Prosclystius, “One Who Dashes Against.”
Even more poetic names for the sea god included Phykios, “Full of Seaweed.” Kyanochetis, “Dark-Haired,” referenced the deep blue color of the sea’s depths.
Sailors might refer to Poseidon as Asphalius, “The One Who Secures Safe Voyage.” This name also referred to his protection of ports and harbors.
They may have also called him Epoptes, “Watcher,” because he saw everything that happened at sea.
Some of these names referenced the sea god’s punishments more than his protection. He was sometimes called Prosklystios, “The Flooder,” in regions that were prone to such disasters.
Other names were based on Poseidon’s role as the god of earthquakes. Homer and others called him Ennosigaeus, or “Earth-Shaker,” in their poems.
Another common epithet was Gaiêochos, or “Holder of the Earth.” While this could reference his involvement with earthquakes, it was also sometimes given to other deities such as Artemis, who were not associated with such events.
Some names were given because Poseidon was said to be either the creator of or the tamer of horses. Hippios simply meant “Of Horses,” while Hippocurius referred to one who tended to or cared for the animals.
These names were not only used by those who worked with horses. In Athens, the god was said to have given the people the gift of the first horse and his cult titles often referenced this.
Surprisingly, the god of the sea also had many names that associated him with plants. One of the most common was Phytalmius, “Nurturer of Plants,” and another was Ptortheion, which had a similar meaning.
This was likely due to the fact that Poseidon’s trident created the springs that provided water to vegetation, which were also often named for the horses that were sacred to him. In Thessaly, for example, he was called Petraios, “Of the Rocks,” because a local legend said that he had struck rocks to create the spring that gave the city its water.
Poseidon was also sometimes given the epithet Heliconius, referringing to Mount Helicon. Here, he was associated with the springs, sometimes also said to have been brought forth by his equine son Pegasus, that carried the power of the Muses.
In fact, many of the names for Poseidon were used for specific locations. Samius, for example, referred to his patronage of Samos while the people of Aegae gave him their city’s name, Poseidon Aegaeus.
In Corinth, he was called Isthmius, “Of the Isthmus.” Poseidon and Helios had competed for the patronage of the city and the sea god had won control of the isthmus it sat on, while Helios was the patron of the nearby mountain.
Some cities claimed to have been founded or ruled by descendants of Poseidon’s mortal sons. In those places, he was called Patrios, “Father,” or Genethlius, “Of the Family.”
Occasionally, the titles of a god made reference to how they were worshipped rather than the role they played. Poseidon was, like some other gods, sometimes called Taureos because his favored sacrifice was a bull, tauros.
Of course, the titles for Poseidon were not always so specific. On board a ship or in one of his cities the god of the sea could simply be referred to as Basileus, “The Lord.”
There were many reasons the gods of ancient Greece carried so many names, and Poseidon’s epithets followed many familiar patterns.
Calling a god by a title was a way of showing respect and reverence. Just as a mortal ruler would be called by a title that marked his station, so too would a god be referred to by a cult title.
In recorded hymns, for example, Poseidon would often be referred to by his proper name followed by a series of epithets and honorific titles. This served the purpose, as it did with mortal rulers, of showing respect by acknowledging his importance in many realms.
The specific names given could also serve to specify which of the god’s many domains was being referenced. A prayer to Poseidon to ensure a safe passage on the sea would appeal to a difference aspect of the god than the prayers of a chariot driver entering a race.
In poetry, this allowed the reader, or listener in earlier oral tradition, to immediately identify the role the god played in the story. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, Poseidon was often referred to as Earth-Shaker because he had a more threatening, antagonistic role.
When a god played such a threatening role, it was sometimes considered taboo to say their name. Rather than risk invoking a god who could bring destruction, an epithet was used in place of their more common name and titles.
This is most evident with Poseidon’s brother Hades, who was often called Plouton, “Wealth-Bringer,” to avoid attracting his attention through the use of his proper name. Poseidon, too, was sometimes called Earth-Shaker or The Flooder in the hopes that avoiding his name would also prevent him from taking notice of the speaker.
Local names were also important in the worship of the Greek gods.
For cities that had a specific tie to Poseidon, using a name that referenced this might cause the god to look more favourably on the speaker. Someone from Corinth might use the name Poseidon Isthmius so that the god knew that they came from a place where he was held in the highest regard.
At times, these names could possibly refer to another god altogether.
In Lydia, Asia Minor, the travel writer Pausanias specified that the people prayed to Poseidon Heliconius. The locals there associated the god with the mountain of the Muses, in Boeotia, more than the sea.
This could, potentially, be because the Lydians had conflated the Greek Poseidon with a local god who had a different function. Mount Helicon was said to be the most lush and fertile mountain in all of Greece, so the Lydian Poseidon may have sometimes been associated with fertility more than just the sea.
This seems to be a possibility based on the many titles of Poseidon that reference vegetation and growth. In at least three cities in Greece, Poseidon was called The One Who Nurtures Plants in his worship.
Many historians believe that the Minoan version of Poseidon, sometimes called Wanax based on surviving inscriptions from Crete, was the partner of the goddess of nature. The continuation of titles that referenced his importance in plant growth could be a holdover from this and other early religions that saw him as a nature or fertility god rather than the lord of the seas.
As was common for the gods of ancient Greece, Poseidon had many names and epithets. These were by no means universal, as many would be used in specific times, places, and circumstances.
Many of Poseidon’s names referenced his role as the god of the sea. From the succinct Pelagaeus, “Of the Sea,” to the more poetic Prosclystius, “He Who Dashes Against [the Shore],” Poseidon’s epithets often referenced his most notable role.
He was also the Earth-Shaker for his role in causing earthquakes and The Flooder for one of the more dangerous aspects of his role with water. Such threatening names were used prevent further disaster, either by appealing to the god for mercy or to avoid using his proper name and attracting attention.
He was often identified with horses, as well. Poseidon Hippius and Poseidon Hippocurius were names used in honor of his mastery of the animals.
Some titles referred to seemingly archaic roles the god may have played in pre-Greek religion. Names invoking him as the propegator of plants, for example, could be in reference to the springs that watered vegetation or to an earlier role as a nature god.
Finally, several names for Poseidon were location-specific. Referring to his role as patron or ancestor of the city, these names were used to invoke his favor and delineate him as a benefactor.