Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family

7 Poseidon

Poseidon, holding a trident, stands over Polybotes.
Poseidon fighting Polybotes, red-figure kylix, ca. 475 BCE (Cabinet des Medailles, Paris)


The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Poseidon was the son of Cronus and Rhea. Most stories relate that he was swallowed by his father and rescued by Zeus along with his other siblings. After the Olympians overthrew their Titan parents, the three Olympian brothers, Zeus, Hades, and Poseidon, drew lots to divide up the realms. Poseidon was allotted domain over the seas, but he always remained immensely jealous of Zeus’ position as King of the Gods. He once convinced Hera and Athena to join him in a rebellion against Zeus, whom they managed to imprison in chains until Thetis brought Briareus, the chief of the Hundred-Handers, to release him (Homer, Iliad, 1.396-405).

Poseidon in Action

God of Sea and Horses

Homeric Hymn 22, “To Poseidon” (trans. H. G. Evelyn-White)

Greek hymn, 7th century BCE

This hymn to Poseidon, from the 7th century BCE, names two of his major spheres of influence: the sea and horses. He was understood to be the father of horses (with Demeter as mother) and he was in charge of everything that happened in and on the sea, including the activities of ships. Not named in this hymn is his role as god of earthquakes. One of the epithets of Poseidon was “earth-shaker.”


[1] I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and fruitless sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae.  The gods allotted you two offices, O Shaker of the Earth, to be a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships! Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomericHymns3.html#22

Contests for Cities

Athena and Poseidon compete for patronage of Athens, black figure amphora, ca. 550-510 BCE (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

The gods often competed with each other to win patronage over areas in Greece. Poseidon vied with many of his fellow gods for several areas, though he did not often fare well in these contests. He and Helios (god of the sun) both wanted Corinth and could not agree, so they took their dispute to Briareus, the chief of the Hundred-Handers, who divided the area between the two, giving the citadel to Helios and the isthmus to Poseidon. Hera and Poseidon fought passionately over Argos, and when the three river gods who were given the task of judging the dispute found in favor of Hera, Poseidon flooded the city and dried up the rivers in anger. Athena and Poseidon argued over possession of Troezen and Zeus ruled that they should share possession of the city. The most famous of Poseidon’s contests for power was over Athens, where he competed unsuccessfully with Athena.

The Children of Poseidon

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound.

Poseidon was married to Amphitrite, a daughter of Ocean and Tethys, and they had a few children, most notably Triton. The cyclops Polyphemus (who famously appears in the Odyssey) was his son by the sea nymph, Thoosa, and he fathered the hunter Orion with Euryale, the daughter of Minos.


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 13 (trans. A.S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In this episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, written in Latin in the 1st century CE, Poseidon’s son, the cyclops Polyphemus, tries to woo the nymph Galatea. Because this is a Latin poem, Poseidon is called by his Roman name, Neptune.


[839-897] [Polyphemus speaking:] “Now Galatea, only lift your shining head from the dark blue sea: come, do not scorn my gifts. Lately, I examined myself, it’s true, and looked at my reflection in the clear water, and, seeing myself, it pleased me. Look how large I am: Jupiter, in the sky (since you are accustomed to saying some Jove or other rules there) has no bigger a body. Luxurious hair hangs over my face, and shades my shoulders like a grove. And do not consider it ugly for my whole body to be bristling with thick prickly hair. A tree is ugly without its leaves: a horse is ugly unless a golden mane covers its neck: feathers hide the birds: their wool becomes the sheep: a beard and shaggy hair befits a man’s body. I only have one eye in the middle of my forehead, but it is as big as a large shield. Well? Does great Sol not see all this from the sky? Yet Sol’s orb is only one.

Added to that, my father Neptune, rules over your waters: I give you him as a father-in-law. Only have pity, and listen to my humble prayers! I, who scorn Jove and his heaven and his piercing lightning bolt, submit to you alone: I fear you, Nereid your anger is fiercer than lightning. And I could bear this contempt of yours more patiently, if you fled from everyone. But why, rejecting Cyclops, love Acis, and prefer Acis’s embrace to mine? Though he is pleased with himself, and, what I dislike, pleases you too, Galatea, let me just have a chance at him. Then he will know I am as strong as I am big! I’ll tear out his entrails while he lives, rend his limbs and scatter them over the fields, and over your ocean, (so he can join you!) For I am on fire, and, wounded, I burn with a fiercer flame, and I seem to bear Etna with all his violent powers sunk in my breast, yet you, Galatea, are unmoved.”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph13.php#anchor_Toc64105851

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved



Poseidon seduced Tyro (the mother of Aeson and the grandmother of the hero, Jason) in the form of a river and became the father of Pelias, who sent Jason on the quest for the golden fleece, and Neleus, who was the father of Nestor (a hero in both the Iliad and the Odyssey). Theseus was also a son of Poseidon. Unlike Hera, Amphitrite does not seem to have cared much that her husband had sexual relationships outside of marriage. In fact, in one version of Theseus’ journey to Crete when Theseus arrived in on the island, Minos questioned his paternity, and Theseus questioned Minos’. So, each one had to prove to the other that he was the son of a god. Minos prayed to his father Zeus for a sign and received thunder and lightning. Theseus jumped into the sea and Amphitrite gave him her tiara to prove his connection to her husband (F=for this myth, see chapter 22.) Indeed, if you add them up, Poseidon has more sexual affairs (with both men and women) than Zeus himself.

Poseidon and Demeter: The Origin of Horses

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

It seems strange that a sea god should be connected to horses, but Poseidon has several myths establishing him as a god of horses.  While Demeter was wandering the earth looking for Persephone, Poseidon decided to pursue her. Demeter, trying to avoid her brother, turned into a mare, but Poseidon responded by turning into a stallion and raping her. The product of this union was the divine horse, Arion.

Poseidon and Medusa

[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]
Head and torso of a grinning woman with wings, snakes in her hair, and tusks.
A gorgon, red-figure amphora, Archaic period (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, München)

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Poseidon is also sometimes involved in the myth of the origin of the Gorgon Medusa. In Ovid’s account of Medusa (though not in Hesiod’s version of the myth), Poseidon raped her inside one of Athena’s temples. Athena was angry that her temple was so defiled.  She retaliated by transforming Medusa into a gorgon, a hideous monster with snakes for hair who would turn anyone who looked at her into stone.

For further discussion of Medusa, see chapter 20.

Later, when Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, the winged horse Pegasus was born from her neck, the product of intercourse between Medusa and Poseidon. Pegasus was later tamed by another of Poseidon’s sons, Bellerophon.

For further discussion of Pegasus and Bellerophon, see chapter 21.

Furthermore, Peleus, the father of Achilles, was given the immortal horses, Xanthus and Balius, at his wedding by Poseidon. The god was also a friend to the centaurs and helped hide them from Heracles when he waged war on them.

Poseidon in the Trojan War

Poseidon with his trident stands among Greek soldiers with shields and weapons.
Poseidon among Greek warriors, black-figure kylix, ca. 540 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

The following content is adapted from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

During the Trojan War, Poseidon sided with the Greeks at least in part because he was still angry with Troy for the treatment he had received at the hands of Laomedon, the father of King Priam. Apollo and Poseidon were contracted by Laomedon to build walls around the city. The two gods agreed to perform this manual labor either because they wanted to test him or because Zeus had decreed, as punishment for a rebellion of which they had both been a part, that they work for Laomedon for a year. In any case, at the end of the year, Laomedon would not pay them and even threatened to sell them as slaves. Apollo responded by sending a plague and Poseidon sent a sea monster to terrorize them. Apollo, apparently, did not hold a grudge, since he always favored the Trojans, but Poseidon sided with the Greeks in the Trojan War. Despite favoring the Greeks, however, Poseidon, like Athena, was quickly angered by the rapacious behavior of the victorious Greeks. Poseidon helped Athena punish the Lesser Ajax for his rape of Cassandra during the sack of Troy and he kept Odysseus from his home for ten years to punish the hero for blinding his son Polyphemus.

Art and Symbolism

Side view of head and torso of Poseidon. He is bearded with long hair and ornate garments.
Poseidon, red-figure calyx, 5th century BCE (Cabinet des Médailles, Paris)

In Greek art, Poseidon was usually represented as a mature, bearded man with long hair. The most common and unmistakable attribute of Poseidon in art was the trident, the symbol of the god’s power over the sea and earthquakes alike. He is almost universally represented holding it in scenes of both peace and war.


Poseidon, draped and wearing a laurel crown, lunges towards Amymome with a trident.
Poseidon pursuing Amymome, red-figure lekythos, ca. 440 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)


Poseidon seated holding a trident and bowl. The winged goddess Nike waits on him.
Poseidon and Nike, red-figure krater, ca. 470 BCE (Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven)













On coins, Poseidon could either be depicted naked and ready to throw his trident, or the figure of the god could be omitted completely in favour of his trident.

Side 1: a trident. Side 2: nude Poseidon wielding a trident.
Trident and Poseidon, Greek coin, ca. 400 BCE.
Poseidon wielding a trident, a chlamys draped over his arms.
Poseidon, two sides of a coin, ca. 530 BCE (Sylloge Nummorum Greacorum, Copenhagen)


As he was the god of the sea, marine creatures were considered sacred to him. In particular, he was often represented in the company of dolphins and hippocamps, creatures with the head and fore-parts of a horse, wings, and a fish tail. Both animals could also be used as transportation means on their own, or to drag the god’s chariot.


Poseidon riding a winged sea horse.
Poseidon riding a hippocamp, black-figure lekythos, ca. 500 BCE (Yale University Art Gallery)
Poseidon on a horse, accompanied by the youthful Pelops.
Poseidon and Pelops, red-figure hydria, 4th century BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)
Poseidon riding a winged sea horse.
Poseidon on a hippocampus, black-figure lekythos, 5th century BCE (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford)


One very important scene from mythology concerning Poseidon represented in art was that of his contest against Athena for the control of Athens. The two divinities could be depicted facing each other, sometimes standing close to the gifts they bestowed on the city – the olive tree for Athena, and a salt water spring for Poseidon.



Athena with her shield and Poseidon with a trident stand on either side of an olive tree. Above flied the goddess Nike, and to their left is the god Dionysus with a panther.
Athena and Poseidon competing for the Athenian Acropolis, red-figure hydria, 4th century BCE (State Museum of the Hermitage, St. Petersburg)


Athena and Poseidon standing on either side of a pillar, on which sits winged Nike. Various creatures and figures surround them.
Athena and Poseidon in competition, red-figure krater, ca. 360 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)














This scene was represented on the western pediment of the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena on the acropolis of Athens.


In the centre, Athena and Poseidon with an olive tree. They are flanked by horses and chariots on either side, as well as a number of human figures.
Poseidon and Athena competing for Athens, West Pediment of the Parthenon, ca. 447 BCE (Acropolis Museum, Athens)


Head and shoulders of Nepturne holding a trident, surrounded by small mosaic fish.
Neptune, Roman mosaic (Regional Archaeological Museum, Palermo)


Most of Neptune’s attributes in art were the same as his Greek counterpart, Poseidon: the trident, dolphins, and hippocamps. Poseidon was exclusively represented as a mature, bearded man, often on his chariot dragged by sea creatures.


Neptune in the nude standing in a chariot drawn by two green hippocampi.
Neptune, Roman mosaic, 3rd century CE (Archaeological Museum, Sousse)


Neptune and Amphitrite stand side by side in the nude beneath a bright blue and red mosaic arch.
Neptune and his wife Amphitrite, Roman mosaic, ca. 1st century CE (House of Neptune and Amphitrite, Herculaneum)

During the late Republic and Imperial period, Neptune could be represented on the obverse of coins minted to celebrate naval victories.



Side 1: head of emperor Agrippa. Side 2: Nude Neptune standing holding a trident.
Head of Agrippa and Neptune, Roman coin, ca. 37 CE.


Side 1: a ship bearing a statue of Neptune wielding a trident. Side 2: Scylla, a sea monster with many arms and a humanoid female torso.
Roman ship adorned with statue of Poseidon, and (obverse) monster Scylla, Roman coin, ca. 40 BCE.


During the Renaissance, Italian condottieri who had obtained naval victories often employed images of Neptune and his court as an allegory of their triumphs. Some, like Andrea Doria, were also portrayed in the guise of the god himself.


Andrea Doria stands in front of a dark nautical background. He is bearded and nude, with a cloth modestly covering his genitals. He holds a trident in his right hand.
“Portrait of Andrea Doria as Neptune”, oil painting by Agnolo Bronzino, 1550-1555

Poseidon in modern day India. [images of Poseidon tattoos]

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions



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