Chapter 7: Poseidon and Sea Deities
MAJOR DEITIES OF THE SEA
We have already met some of these many deities of the sea.
POSEIDON [po-seye'don] (NEPTUNE) became established as the mighty god of the seas. His wife was
PONTUS [pon'tus], or PONTOS (sea), produced by Gaia in the first stages of creation.
OCEANUS [o-see'an-us], or OKEANOS, the stream of Ocean, and his mate Tethys, titans who produced
thousands of children, the Oceanids [oh-see'a-nidz].
TRITON [treye'ton], son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, a merman, human above the waist, fish-shaped
below (many male deities of the deep are often so depicted). His most distinguishing characteristic was
that he blew on a conch shell and thus he was known as the trumpeter of the sea.
PROTEUS [proh'te-us], a pre-Olympian deity who became an attendant or son of Poseidon and Amphitrite,
was an old man of the sea who could foretell the future and could also change his shape at will.
NEREUS [nee're-us] was another old man of the sea and, like Proteus, could foretell the future and change
his shape. He was a son of Pontus and Gaia. Nereus mated with one of the Oceanids (Doris) and became
the father of fifty daughters called NEREIDS [nee're-idz]; three of these are important: THETIS [thee'tis],
GALATEA [gal-a-tee'a], and AMPHITRITE [am-fi-treye'tee]. Nereids are beautiful and often, but not
always, depicted as mermaids; and usually they can shange their shape.
PELEUS AND THETIS
Zeus learned from Prometheus the secret that Thetis was destined to bear a son mightier than his father,
and so he avoided her. Instead, a mortal named Peleus wooed and won her, not without difficulty,
because she changed herself into all sorts of things, a bird, a tree, and a tigress. The wedding of Peleus
and Thetis was one of the most famous in mythology and their son Achilles (the hero of the Trojan War)
did become mightier than his father.
ACIS, GALATEA, AND POLYPHEMUS
The second Nereid, Galatea, fell in love with ACIS [ay'sis], the handsome son of a sea-nymph, who was
daughter of the river-god Symaethus, in Sicily. To her dismay, she was wooed by the Cyclops
POLYPHEMUS [po-li-fee'mus], or POLYPHEMOS, son of Poseidon. This monstrous and boorish giant, with
one eye in the middle of his forehead, tried to mend his savage ways but to no avail. Galatea would listen
to his love songs, cowering in the arms of her lover Acis. Enraged with jealousy, Polyphemus finally turned
on the two lovers. He pursued Acis and hurled a jagged mass, torn from the mountain, which buried him
completely. But with the help of his beloved goddess of the waters, Galatea, Acis was transformed into a
river-deity, fulfilling his ancestry.
POSEIDON AND AMPHITRITE
The third Nereid, Amphitrite, became the wife of Poseidon, and herein lies her importance.
Poseidon himself looks very much like his brother Zeus, a majestic and bearded king, only more severe
and harsh. He can be identified by his trident, a long, three-pronged fork resembling a fisherman's spear.
Poseidon has many moods, just like the sea that he controls. He is often ferocious and relentless in his
hostility, as in the case of his devastating anger against Odysseus for the blinding of his son, the Cyclops
Poseidon, as the earthshaker, was a god of earthquakes as well as of storms. His virility and power are
symbolized by his association with horses and bulls.
SCYLLA AND CHARYBDIS
Poseidon made advances to SCYLLA [sil'la], or SKYLLA (a granddaughter of Pontus). Amphitrite was
jealous and threw magic herbs into Scyllas bathing place, which turned her into a vicious monster, encircled with a ring of dogs heads. She lived in a cave in the stormy Strait of Messina between Sicily and
Italy. With her was CHARYBDIS (ka-rib'dis], daughter of Poseidon and Gaia, an equally formidable ally,
who drew in mountains of water and spewed them out again. Scylla and Charybdis were a menace to
heroes such as Odysseus.
Another version of this myth has become famous because it is told by Ovid. A mortal GLAUCUS
[glaw'kus], or GLAUKOS, was transformed into a sea-god. He became enamored of Scylla, who rejected
him. He turned for help to the sorceress Circe, but she fell in love with him and through jealousy poisoned
the waters of Scylla's bathing place.
Many were the progeny of the sea; some of them we shall meet later in saga, for example the Graeae, the
Gorgons, and the Harpies. Progeny of the sea often appear grotesque or fantastic. At this point, however,
we single out only IRIS [eye'ris], a beautiful descendant of Pontus and Gaia. Iris, fleet-footed and winged,
is the lovely goddess of the rainbow, the meaning of her name. She is also (like Hermes) a messenger of
the gods, only Iris often becomes the particular servant of Hera.
THE BIRTH OF ATHENA
Zeus swallowed his consort METIS [mee'tis] (wisdom), after he had made her pregnant, because he
feared that she would bear a son who would overthrow him. And so ATHENA [a-thee'na], or ATHENE
(MINERVA), was born from the holy head of Zeus. Hephaestus, with his ax, may have facilitated the birth.
The occasion was awesome as Athena sprang forth fully grown, a beautiful young woman in full armor,
fearlessly announcing her arrival with a thunderous war-cry.
CHARACTERISTICS OF ATHENA
Athenas birth allegorically proclaims her essential character: her divine wisdom drawn from the head of
god; the special bond of affection between father and daughter; her championship of heroes and male
causes, born as she was from the male, and not from a mothers womb. A dread goddess of war, she
remained a virgin.
APPEARANCE OF ATHENA
Athena bears an aloof kind of loveliness, akin to the beauty of youthful masculinity. She is associated with
the owl and the snake. She is usually represented with helmet, spear, and shield or aegis that bore a
depiction of the head of Medusa. With her there may be a female winged figure (called NIKE [nee'kay],
victory), bearing a crown or garland of success. Athena herself as victorious war goddess was called
Athena Nike and the simple but elegant temple of Athena Nike stands to the right of the entrance to the
THE CONTEST BETWEEN ATHENA AND POSEIDON
Athena and Poseidon vied for control of Athens and its surrounding territory, Attica. The contest took place
on the Acropolis. Poseidon struck the rock with his trident and produced a salt spring or a horse. Athena
brought forth an olive tree from the ground by the touch of her spear and she was proclaimed the victor.
The olive was fundamental to Athenian economy and life.
Angry at losing, Poseidon was appeased and continued to be worshiped in Athens, especially in
conjunction with the Athenian hero ERECHTHEUS [e-rek-thee'us] (see MLS, Chapter 23). In his lovelytemple the ERECHTHEUM [e-rek-thee'um], or ERECHTHEION, on the Acropolis, just across from the
Parthenon, the marks of the blow of his trident supposedly could be seen, and nearby it, the olive tree
that Athena had produced continued to grow.
THE PANATHENAEA OR PANATHENAIC FESTIVAL
The PANATHENAEA [pan-ath-e-nee'a], or PANATHENAIA, was an annual festival celebrating the birthday
of Athena; every fourth year the celebration of the Great Panathenaea was especially splendid. Important
in the ceremonies were sacrifices and games; the prizes for winners in the games were special
Panathenaic amphorasvases inscribed and decorated with a depiction of Athena and containing sacred
olive oil. A Panathenaic procession wound its way through the city ending with the presentation of an
embroidered robe (peplos) to Athena on the Acropolis. Athenians (young and old, male and female)
carrying sacred implements, leading sacrificial animals, with chariots or on horseback, figured in the
THE PARTHENON AND ITS SCULPTURE
The PARTHENON [par'the-non] is the great temple to Athena Parthenos on the Acropolis of Athens that
was built in the fifth century B.C. PARTHENOS [par'the-nos], an adjective meaning "virgin," was a
standard epithet of Athena. It is a most beautiful Doric temple (even in its ruined state today), and its
sculpture (created under the aegis of the great Athenian sculptor Pheidias) bears tribute to Athena herself
and her city and all that they mean forever.
East pediment: the dramatic moment of the birth of Athena, who stood in the center before the
throne of Zeus, from whose head she had just spring, fully grown and fully armed. Other divine
figures are present at the miracle. At the corners, the horses of Helius (the Sun) and those of
Selene (the Moon) set the momentous event in cosmic time.
West pediment: the contest between Athena and Poseidon, described above; these two central
figures pull away from each other as they produce the gifts with which they vie. On either side,
figures of Athenian d