Many Greek gods were worshipped by very specific groups of people. Soldiers, for example, were almost the only people to pray to Ares while Hephaestus was the patron primarily of smiths and craftsmen.
While Ares and Hephaestos were tied to specific professions, however, Poseidon had a much broader role. His position as the god of the sea made him important to far more people.
The sea did not just form the borders of the Greek world, it was at its center. From trading goods to moving armies, travel by ship and along the vast coastline was a daily part of life for many ancient Greeks.
Poseidon’s worship did not stop at the shore, however. As the cause of earthquakes, the bringer of floors, and the father of horses, nearly everyone in the Greek world had a reason to worship Poseidon.
Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea. Because the people of the Greek world lived along the Mediterranean coast, this meant he was one of the most central gods in their pantheon.
Cities throughout Greece had temples to Poseidon. Many held him to be their patron god, making him particularly important there.
One of his greatest shrines was in the city of Corinth. Local legend said that Poseidon and the sun god Helios had competed for the patronage of the city, with Poseidon winning the low-lying isthmus and Helios becoming the chief god of the highlands that surrounded it.
The Isthmian Games were held in Poseidon’s honor. Like the Olympic Games, these were one of four Pan-Hellenic athletic festivals that attracted both competitors and audiences from throughout Greece.
Although the Isthmian Games were held specifically in Poseidon’s honor, he had a place at the other Pan-Hellenic games, as well. At Olympia, for example, statues of Poseidon were erected along the chariot course.
This is because Poseidon was the god of horses, and some believed that he had invented both the animal and the chariot. Anyone who worked with horses, in this case the charioteers who competed with one another at the Pan-Hellenic games, would pray to Poseidon.
Poseidon was also the “Earth-Shaker” and people around Greece would pray for protection from earthquakes.
Earthquakes remain relatively common in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in the ancient world they were believed to be a sign of the god’s anger. Even far from the coast, it was important to give sacrifices to Poseidon to avert this danger.
Many local myths told the story of how Poseidon’s wrath could manifest in destructive earthquakes. In Laconia, for example, it was said that the entire city of Sparta had once been levelled in an earthquake because the Spartan military had killed escaped prisoners that had taken refuge in Poseidon’s temple.
Another danger associated with the god of the sea was flooding. In Argolis, Poseidon the Flooder was prayed to in the hopes of averting a common natural disaster on the local plains.
Of course, as the god of the sea, some of Poseidon’s most fervent worshippers were those who lived and worked alongside his realm.
The fishermen and sailors of Greece prayed to Poseidon consistently for their own safety and fortune.
One of Poseidon’s chief powers was to either calm the sea or bring about storms and waves, depending on his mood. Sailors prayed for his favor to avoid rough seas.
In many places he was worshipped as Poseidon Asphaleius, a name that referenced him as the god who gave safety to ports. This not only meant that he protected the ports themselves, but also that he guided ships safely into harbor.
Closer to shore, fishermen also prayed to the god of the sea. While Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite, was responsible for the ocean’s bounty, the sea god himself also played a role.
Fishermen prayed to Poseidon as the “Averter of Disaster” as they cast their nets. They hope the sea god would drive away dolphins and swordfish that could tear their homemade nets and release the fish they hoped to catch instead.
The fact that Poseidon was worshipped in such a wide variety of circumstances points to his importance in the ancient Greek world.
Modern Greece has over 13,600 km of coastline, and the ancient Greek would would have also contained many additional coastal colonies and islands. Most cities were near the sea, and even most inland locations would have been under 100 km from the Mediterannean.
While Hermes protected the roads of Greece, the rugged terrain meant that travel by sea was often safer and more direct. Especially when moving large amounts of goods or people, ships were more efficient than carts or caravans.
Thus, Greek culture revolved almost entirely around the sea. Greece was a naval civilization that used the Mediterannean to facilitate trade, move armies, and colonize new lands.
In such a sea-based culture, the god of the sea would be among the most important deities. It is almost surprising that he was below the sky god in the hierarchy of the pantheon.
This may not have always been the case, however. There is significant evidence that Poseidon was once revered as a land-based god rather than a marine one.
The pre-Greek cultures of the region, including the powerful Minoan civilization, may have made their version of Poseidon the chief god of their religions. When the first Greek-speaking people arrived in the region, bringing their sky god with them, Poseidon was re-cast as the god of the sea and given a secondary role.
This theory is supported by the fact that Poseidon was worshipped in some ways that did not associate him with the sea. In some areas, for example, he was worshipped for promoting the growth of plants.
His role as the Earth-Shaker, however, was not completely distinct from his role as the sea god. Some ancient writers suggested that folk belief tied the occurrence of earthquakes to the erosion of rocks by underwater rivers, providing at least some link between Poseidon and the movement of the land.
Horses, too, were often associated with water. It is common in Indo-European religions for horses to be tied to springs, rivers, and the movement of water.
For his many roles and his importance in the patheon, Poseidon was one of the gods who was most often credited as the patron or ancestor of a city. Many states were said to have been founded by his sons and descendants, while others had local legends that gave them the sea god’s favor.
In at least two of these cases, at Athens and Corinth, Poseidon competed for another god for patronage of the city. While he was the god of the Corinthian isthmus, in Athens and other sites he was closely associated with the city’s founding and prosperity even if he was not its official patron.
Even when he was not a patron or ancestor, Poseidon was often a central figure in the founding of a city. It was traditional for new colonies to be established with water from their home city, and the first sacrifices made were to Poseidon for providing this sacred water and ensuring safe passage to their new land.
With these many roles, there was reason for everyone in the Greek world to worship Poseidon. Sailors, merchants, and fishermen prayed to him for calm seas while Greeks who lived further from the coast hoped to prevent natural disasters.
Poseidon was one of the most widely-revered patrons and protectors of the Greek world because his role in its religion encompassed so many of the gifts, hazards, and necessities that were universal to its people.
As the god of the sea, Poseidon was worshipped by the people who lived and worked both on the water and along the coast. Sailors and fishermen prayed to Poseidon daily for safety and prosperity.
The god’s role was not limited to the sea, however. In the seismically active Eastern Mediterranean, people worshipped him constantly to prevent the earthquakes he was believed to have caused.
Poseidon was also the creator of horses. This made him important for anyone who worked with the animals, including the military and the charioteers who competed in Greece’s many games.
Both because of his importance and to add to it, Poseidon was also considered the patron or ancestor of many Greek cities and colonies. In those places, he was revered as the local benefactor who protected the people and made them prosperous.
Whether to bring safety and wealth or to avoid natural disasters, the god of the sea was a central member of the pantheon. Virtually everyone in Greece had many reasons to worship Poseidon.