Zeus and His Dysfunctional Family
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
Greek hymn, 7th century BCE
 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 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
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 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.
Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE
[839-897] [ speaking:] “Now , 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: , in the sky (since you are accustomed to saying some 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 not see all this from the sky? Yet ’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 and his heaven and his piercing lightning bolt, submit to you alone: I fear you, your anger is fiercer than lightning. And I could bear this contempt of yours more patiently, if you fled from everyone. But why, rejecting , love Acis, and prefer Acis’s embrace to mine? Though he is pleased with himself, and, what I dislike, pleases you too, , 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 with all his violent powers sunk in my breast, yet you, , are unmoved.”
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.
[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]
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.
[content warning for the following section: sexual assault]
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
This scene was represented on the western pediment of the Parthenon, the great temple of Athena on the acropolis of Athens.
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.
During the late Republic and Imperial period, Neptune could be represented on the obverse of coins minted to celebrate naval victories.
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.
Poseidon in modern day India. [images of Poseidon tattoos]
Media Attributions and Footnotes
- Poseidon Polybotes Cdm Paris 573 © Bibi Saint-Pol is licensed under a Public Domain license
- athena-and-poseidon is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike) license
- Berlin Painter ARV 197 11 Gorgo pursuing Perseus (05) © ArchaiOptix is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Terracotta kylix (drinking cup) is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Poseidon enthroned De Ridder 418 CdM Paris © Marie-Lan Nguyen is licensed under a CC BY (Attribution) license
- Teracotta Lekythos (Poseidon Pursuing Amymome) is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Red-figure Calyx Krater; A: Nike and Poseidon; B: Woman and Old Man is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Haliartos Stater 83000126 © Classical Numismatic Group is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- SNGANS 606 © Classical Numismatic Society is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Lekythos showing Poseidon Riding a Hippocamp is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Terracotta hydria: kalpis (water jar) is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Athenian black-figure, white-ground, pottery lekythos, 5th century BC, an imposing Poseidon, the god of the sea, trident in hand rides an windged sea-horse while dolphins sport around them, Ashmolean Museum © Carrole Raddato is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Attic Red-Figure © M. Tiverios and Elliniki Techni is licensed under a All Rights Reserved license
- Athena Poseidon Louvre CA7426 © Marie-Lan Nguyen is licensed under a Public Domain license
- Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon © Tilemahos Efthimiadis
- Mosaico delle stagioni (epoca romana) © G. Dallorto is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Sousse Neptune © Asram is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- House of the Neptune Mosaic (7254082844) © Dave and Margie Hill is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Agrippa Neptunus coin © Classical Numismatic Group is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Denarius Sextus Pompeius-Scilla © Classical Numismatic Group is licensed under a CC BY-SA (Attribution ShareAlike) license
- Portrait of Admiral Andrea Doria as Neptune © Agnolo Bronzino is licensed under a Public Domain license
Goddess of agriculture.
See chapter 10.
A mountain in Hesiod's native Boeotia that was sacred to the Muses. Writers of myth often associate their hometowns to significant mythic events, which lends prestige to both their place of origin and authority to themselves as writers.
A Nereid, and daughter of Nereus and Doris. Known for turning her partner Acis into a river after Polyphemus killed him in jealousy.
Featured in chapter 7.
Roman: Jupiter or Jove
God of the sky, ruler of the Olympian gods.
See chapter 5.
Nature spirits or nymphs of the sea.
One-eyed giant humanoids, and children of Gaia. Known for their skill at crafting, and particularly for forging weapons of the gods. Notable Cyclopes include Polyphemus.
A mountain in Sicily. Known for being both the location of the forge of Hephaestus, and the mountain under which Zeus trapped Typhon.