Poseidon was almost as infamous for his affairs with goddesses and human women as his brother, Zeus. Among his many lovers and consorts, it’s easy to forget that he even had a wife.
If you read Greek legends or look at ancient art, it’s also easy to miss the existence of Poseidon’s wife. Unlike Hera, she was not an exceptionally powerful or imposing figure.
Poseidon was married to Amphitrite, the oldest of the fifty Nereids. As a nymph she was eternally young and beautiful, but had few defining characteristics, legends, or attributes.
His nearly-anonymous wife may have once, however, been a much more powerful figure. Before people prayed to Poseidon, they may have seen his unassuming wife as the embodiment of the sea and all the life within it.
While his brothers married great goddesses of the pantheon, who happened to also be close relatives, Poseidon’s wife had a much less vaulted position before their marriage.
Amphitrite was a Nereid, one of fifty daughters of Nereus, a more ancient sea god who became one of Poseidon’s subjects after the Olympians rose to power.
As one of fifty sea nymphs, Amphitrite would ordinarily belong to a category of minor goddesses with little importance or distinctive character. As Poseidon’s wife, however, her position was greatly elevated.
Despite this, however, she was not initially receptive to the idea of marrying the sea god.
Poseidon first saw Amphitrite while she was dancing with her sisters on the island of Naxos. Overcome with love for her, he wished to make the beautiful sea nymph his wife.
Amphitrite had no desire to be married though, especially as Poseidon had a reputation for having many mistresses and a terrible temper. She fled as far as the water she was bound to allowed and hid near Atlas in the furthest reaches of Oceanus, the great world-encircling river.
Her hiding place was eventually found, however, by the god of dolphins. Delphin went to Poseidon to report Amphitrite’s hiding place.
In some versions of the story, Poseidon took Amphitrite by force and married her against her will. Other legends told a happier story and claimed that Delphin reasoned with the frightened nymph and persuaded her to marry Poseidon willingly.
Amphitrite was considered the mother of all sea life. She and Poseidon had four children together, but she was revered more as the creator of the animals that swam in the sea.
This made her especially important to the coastal communities that relied on fishing for their diets and incomes. Amphitrite was a mother goddess to the creatures of the sea and to the people who relied on fish and shellfish.
She was also a great queen in her role as Poseidon’s wife. She was often pictured beside him in his chariot dressed in royal clothing.
While Amphitrite still had little real character beyond her role as wife, she distinguished herself from her sisters by becoming a powerful and widely-revered mother goddess.
Amphitrite is a simple nymph in writer Greek accounts, but there is evidence that she was once a more powerful goddess in her own right.
Her identification as a daughter of Nereus associates her with pre-Greek beliefs. It is widely believed that Nereus, often called the Old Man of the Sea, was a pre-Greek god whose importance was diminished with the introduction of the Olympic pantheon.
Another indication of Amphitrite’s pre-Greek importance was her inclusion among the mother goddesses of the pantheon.
Amphitrite was included among the goddesses who witnessed the birth of Apollo and Artemis on the floating island of Delos. Like the birth of a human royal prince, the birth of the twin gods was legitimized by having important personages in attendance for the event.
The most important maternal goddesses of Greece, with the exception of Hera who had tried to prevent the birth, were the witnesses to Leto’s labor. These were the Titanesses, the mothers of the gods of Greece, including the mother of Zeus and his siblings, Rhea.
The inclusion of Amphitrite could be a nod to her role as the mother goddess of the ocean. It could also, however, be a relic of a time in which Amphitrite was a major goddess in her own right instead of a silent companion to her husband.
Amphitrite has often been linked to Thelassa. While this goddess appeared in classical and Roman sources, historians think she originated as a pre-Greek sea goddess.
Thelassa was the wife of Pontus, the pre-Olympian king of the sea. These primordial deities represented the elemental form of the sea, existing in a time before gods were born who resembled humans.
Amphitrite was sometimes invoked as the personification of the Aegean Sea. This practice could come from belief in Thelassa as the elemental Aegean, married to the elemental Mediterannean.
Iconography of Thelassa more closely resembled that of Gaia, the mother earth, than the youthful nymph who became Poseidon’s wife. Her role was as the mother goddess of the sea.
It is possible, given this evidence, that Amphitrite and Thelassa developed from the same ancient goddess. Thelassa retained the earlier deity’s maternal imagery and elemental nature, while Amphitrite was reimagined in a way more in keeping with the Olympian pantheon.
With the development of this pantheon, Poseidon supplanted Pontus as the supreme ruler of the seas in the popular imagination. His wife, however, was simply recast a younger, more demure figure.
Amphitrite was depicted as a minor goddess who rose to a higher social status through her marriage but was otherwise almost indistinguishable from the thousands of other beautiful young nymphs who inhabited the world. Evidence suggests, however, that she was once a powerful elemental goddess in her own right and a sea-based counterpart to the great creative power of Gaia.
Amphitrite was a Nereid, or sea nymph, who married the god of the sea Poseidon. She initially avoided his advances but either agreed after appeals from Delphin or was forced into the marriage against her will.
She was a largely anonymous figure who had little role beyond that of a wife. She was almost always pictured at Poseidon’s side as his beautiful young wife.
Despite this, she was considered the mother of all sea life. The few cult sites in her honor were among coastal populations who relied on her children, fish and shellfish particularly, for their livelihoods.
Amphitrite may not have always been such a minor goddess, however. Her role as a mother goddess and link to pre-Olympian figures indicates that she may have developed directly from a more powerful goddess.