Poseidon is commonly ranked as the second most powerful god in Greek mythology, just behind his brother Zeus.
In popular culture, he is known as the Greek god of the sea, but his complete functions and roles in ancient Greek religion are much more surprising than first meets the eye.
So, what exactly are Poseidon’s powers and abilities?
In short, Poseidon had complete powers to control the seas, oceans, and any creatures within them, as well as manipulate terrestrial waters such as rivers, lakes, and springs. Using his magical trident, Poseidon could cause earthquakes, tsunamis, or even create springs and horses. Poseidon could also shapeshift into humans or animals at will.
Control over the sea
Poseidon is the god of the sea, which gives him absolute control over it. He has the ability to create waves, storms, whirlpools, or even calm the seas whenever he wishes.
In the Odyssey, Poseidon punishes Odysseus for blinding his cyclops son Polyphemus by throwing storms and waves at his ship, so as to delay Odysseus’s journey back home to Ithaca.
However, it’s important to note that Poseidon was not just the god of the sea; rather, he was the god of all terrestrial waters.
Thus, any body of water that came into contact with the earth was under Poseidon’s domain, and this includes much more than the sea: lakes, rivers, springs, and more.
There are some exceptions to this. For example, Achelous was the god of the river Achelous.
However, even this minor water god recognized the primacy of Poseidon over the waters, as seen in the story where Achelous prayed to Poseidon to save his lover Perimele from being thrown off a cliff.
Power to cause earthquakes
Ancient Greeks sometimes referred to Poseidon as the “Earth-Shaker”, and believed he could cause earthquakes by striking the bottom of the sea with his mighty trident.
This association likely came about because Greece is seismically active, and earthquakes often trigger tsunamis, so it was assumed that Poseidon generated earthquakes to dislocate the sea.
Protector of Earth’s stability
Just as Poseidon was capable of causing earthquakes, he could also stabilize the earth and prevent it from shifting and turning.
It is for this reason that regular offerings and prayers were recorded to have been made to Poseidon so that he would keep the land stable and safe.
Like many of the Greek gods, Poseidon had the ability to change his form. He often transformed into various animals or took on the guise of a human. For instance, he once turned into a stallion to woo the goddess Demeter.
In one myth, Poseidon pursued his sister, the goddess Demeter. To escape him, Demeter transformed herself into a mare and mingled with a herd of horses.
Poseidon wasn’t easily discouraged, however, so he transformed into a stallion, found her, and mated with her.
From the union of Poseidon and Demeter came the horse Arion, who had the ability to speak, as well as the goddess Despoine.
However, Poseidon could change his shape into that of humans, not just animals.
Thus, Poseidon is said to be the father of Theseus since he transformed himself into Aegeus, the husband of Aethra, and laid with her during the night. Out of the union came the hero Theseus, who is sometimes said to have had two fathers: the mortal Aegeus and the god Poseidon.
Poseidon’s shapeshifting powers allowed him to transform others, not just himself.
Theophane was a beautiful maiden, and her beauty attracted the attention of many men and gods. To keep her away from the other suitors, Poseidon took Theophane to the island of Crinissa, transformed her into a sheep, himself into a ram, and all the inhabitants of Crinissa into animals.
When the lovers of Theophane arrived on Crinissa, they began slaughtering the inhabitants-turned-animals, so Poseidon then turned the lovers into wolves.
Out of the union between Theophane and Poseidon came the golden-fleece ram, which would later be sacrificed and become the constellation Aries.
Creation and taming of horses
Poseidon is often credited with the creation of horses, having done so in an attempt to impress Demeter. He struck the ground with his trident, and from the earth sprung the first horse, named Skyphios.
In another version of the first creation of horses, Athena and Poseidon competed against each other to become the patron gods of a new city.
Poseidon’s turn came first, and the god struck the earth with his trident and created waves and a frothing sea that gradually took the shape of horses as they arrived at the shore. Poseidon explained that the Greeks could use the horses to ride them into battle or simply travel great distances whenever they saw fit.
However, Athena used her powers to create a magnificent olive tree. Athena then explained that this was an olive tree that could not only provide wood to build their homes and heat their fires, but the amazing fruit could also feed them, provide oil for their lamps, and even be traded with other cities.
She then went on to explain all of the many uses of olive oil along with these recipes and whatever else she could think of (which, as a goddess of wisdom, should have been considerable).
After great deliberation, the representatives of the young Greek city chose Athena as the patron god of the city, and named their city in her honor, Athens.
Because of Poseidon’s connection to horses, he was also worshipped as the god responsible for their taming and breeding.
Control over sea creatures
Being the lord of the seas, Poseidon has absolute command over all sea creatures. They obey his will and can be summoned to do his bidding.
Poseidon’s wife, the Nereid Amphitrite, at first refused to marry the god of the seas and fled far away at the ends of the earth to avoid the god. Ever determined, however, Poseidon ordered the dolphin to track down the reluctant Amphitrite and return her to him, which he did.
Another famous story involving Poseidon and a sea monster is the tale of Andromeda. Cassiopeia, Andromeda’s mother, offends Poseidon by claiming her daughter is more beautiful than the Nereids, who are Poseidon’s sea nymphs. In response, Poseidon sends the sea monster Cetus to terrorize their kingdom. Eventually, Andromeda is offered as a sacrifice to appease the monster, but she is saved by Perseus.
As one of the primary gods of the Greek Pantheon, Poseidon possessed superhuman strength.
The God’s superhuman strength was instrumental in the war against the Titans, where Poseidon, along with his brothers Zeus and Hades, were able to overcome the Titans and claim dominion over the world.
Poseidon’s magical trident
Poseidon’s trident was a powerful weapon that could be used to manipulate water, create springs, and cause earthquakes.
The Cyclopes produced it during the Titanomachy, the conflict between the Titans and the Olympians.
Poseidon used his trident on numerous occasions, such as creating the spring Erechtheis, the horse Skyphios, or drowning the hero Ajax the Lesser by destroying the rock he was using to stay afloat.
Creator of freshwater springs
In ancient Greek belief, godly control over water was split between Zeus and Poseidon.
As the god of heaven, thunder, and lightning, it was logically assumed that Zeus had dominion over the rainwater that fell upon the earth.
It was partly because Zeus was associated with rainwater that he became the supreme god of Greek mythology, since rainwater was essential in fertilizing the crops and orchards Greek civilization relied upon to survive.
By contrast, Poseidon was lord over all waters that were connected to the earth: the sea, springs, wells, and so on.
It was for this reason that any spring in Greece was considered a gift from Poseidon, the giver of springs. As such, some Greeks may have prayed to Poseidon to find fresh water or to establish a new spring.
Sea travel and trade
Because of his dominion over the sea, Poseidon was invoked for protection and blessings related to marine trade and sea travel.
Greek society heavily relied on maritime trade, and those embarking on such voyages would certainly seek the favor of the sea god.
- The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
- Bulfinch’s Mythology by Thomas Bulfinch
- D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths by Ingri d’Aulaire and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire
- The Library of Greek Mythology by Apollodorus
- The Gods of Olympus: A History by Barbara Graziosi
- The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth
- Greek Religion by Walter Burkert
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