WHO WAS POSEIDON?
Poseidon was the god of the sea,
earthquakes and horses. Although he was officially one of the supreme gods of
Mount Olympus, he spent most of his time in his watery domain. Poseidon was
brother to Zeus and
Hades. These three gods divided creation between them. Zeus became ruler of the
sky, Hades got dominion of the Underworld and Poseidon was given all water, both
fresh and salt.
Although there were various rivers personified as gods,
these would have been technically under Poseidon’s sway. Similarly, Nereus, the
Old Man of the Sea, wasn’t really considered on a par with Poseidon, who was
known to drive his chariot through the waves in unquestioned dominance. Poseidon
had married Nereus’s daughter, the sea-nymph Amphitrite.
The Romans’ name for Poseidon was Neptune.
In dividing heaven, the watery realm and the subterranean
land of the dead, the Olympians agreed that the earth itself would be ruled
jointly, with Zeus as king. This led to a number of territorial disputes among
the gods. Poseidon vied with Athena to be patron deity of Athens. The god
demonstrated his power and benevolence by striking the Acropolis with his
three-pronged spear, which caused a spring of salt water to emerge. Athena,
however, planted an olive tree, which was seen as a more useful favor. Her
paramount importance to the Athenians is seen in her magnificent temple, the
Parthenon, which still crowns the Acropolis. The people of Athens were careful,
all the same, to honor Poseidon as well.
Poseidon was father of the hero Theseus, although the
mortal Aegeus also claimed this distinction. Theseus was happy to have two
fathers, enjoying the lineage of each when it suited him. Thus he became king of
Athens by virtue of being Aegeus’s son, but availed himself of Poseidon’s
parentage in facing a challenge handed him by King Minos of Crete. This monarch
threw his signet ring into the depths of the sea and dared Theseus to retrieve
it. The hero dove beneath the waves and not only found the ring but was given a
crown by Poseidon’s wife, Amphitrite.
Poseidon was not so well-disposed toward another famous
hero. Because Odysseus blinded the Cyclops Polyphemus, who was Poseidon’s son,
the god not only delayed the hero’s homeward return from the Trojan War but
caused him to face enormous perils.
Poseidon similarly cursed the wife of King Minos. Minos
had proved his divine right to rule Crete by calling on Poseidon to send a bull
from the sea, which the king promised to sacrifice. Poseidon sent the bull, but
Minos liked it too much to sacrifice it. So Poseidon asked Aphrodite, the
goddess of love, to make Minos’s queen, Pasiphae, fall in love with the bull.
The result was the monstrous Minotaur, half-man, half-bull.
As god of horses, Poseidon often adopted the shape of a
steed. It is not certain that he was in this form when he wooed Medusa. But when
Perseus later killed the Gorgon, the winged horse Pegasus sprang from her
Poseidon sometimes granted the shape-shifting power to
others. And he ceded to the request of the maiden Caenis that she be transformed
into the invulnerable, male warrior Caeneus.
One of the most notorious love affairs of Poseidon
involves his sister, Demeter. Poseidon pursued Demeter and to avoid him she
turned herself into a mare. In his lust for her, Poseidon transformed himself
into a stallion and captured her. Their procreation resulted in a horse, Arion.
Poseidon is Greek for “Husband” (possibly of wheat), and therefore it
is thought that he and Demeter (goddess of wheat) are a good match because they
reign as the god and goddess of fertility.
Another infamous story of Poseidon involves the
competition between him and the goddess of war, Athena, for the city of Athens.
To win the people of the city over, Poseidon threw a spear at the ground and
produced the Spring at the Acropolis. However, Athena won as the result of
giving the people of Athens the olive tree. In his anger over the decision,
Poseidon flooded the Attic Plain. Eventually, Athena and Poseidon worked
together by combining their powers. Even though Poseidon was the god of horses,
Athena built the first chariot. Athena also built the first ship to sail on the
sea over which Poseidon ruled.
Copyright Poseidon Books © 2003