Poseidon is known today as the god of the sea from Greek mythology. Unfortunately for him, he was only the second greatest god in the Greek pantheon, just behind his brother Zeus.
Zeus’s primacy in the Greek religion thus overshadows Poseidon, and so most people today are more familiar with Zeus’s (mis)deeds.
However, Poseidon himself was no saint, and there is no shortage of stories that describe his anger, strength, depravity and sometimes kindness.
- The Contest of Poseidon and Athena
- Poseidon, King Minos and birth of the Minotaur
- Medusa is blamed for Poseidon’s crime
- Odysseus angers Poseidon
- Poseidon and the construction of the walls of Troy
- Poseidon turns the tide during the Trojan War
- Poseidon and the wooing of Amphitrite
- Poseidon’s lust for Demeter
- Poseidon’s regret for ravishing Caenis
- Poseidon and Eumolpus
The Contest of Poseidon and Athena
According to Greek myth, both Poseidon, the god of the sea, and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, desired to be the patron of a newly founded city in Greece.
To settle the dispute, it was decided that the god who provided the city with the most useful gift would become the city’s patron.
Poseidon, known for his strength and power, struck his trident into the ground, from which a spring of saltwater emerged. This was seen as a display of his domain over the sea and he proclaimed it as a means for the city to have access to sea trade and wealth.
Athena, on the other hand, offered the olive tree. She explained that it was a gift of peace and prosperity that would provide food, oil for cooking and light, and wood for various uses.
After some consideration, the city’s inhabitants decided Athena’s gift was more beneficial for their survival and development. They were practical people and saw the potential of the olive tree’s multiple uses, recognizing it as a source of sustainable wealth and nourishment, rather than the undrinkable saltwater from Poseidon’s spring.
As a result, Athena became the city’s patron deity, and the city was named Athens in her honor. The olive tree became a symbol of Athens and can be found throughout the city even today.
This myth symbolizes the contrast between the two deities and the values they represented, with Poseidon embodying the promise of wealth and power, and Athena standing for wisdom, practicality, and sustainable prosperity.
The decision of the Athenians illustrates a cultural preference for wisdom and long-term sustainability over immediate wealth and power.
Poseidon, King Minos and birth of the Minotaur
Minos was the King of Crete and a son of Zeus. Each year he had to sacrifice the fairest, most majestic bull born on the island to the Poseidon, the god of the seas.
One year, a spectacular, snow-white bull was born that was so beautiful and impressive that Minos decided to keep it, substituting a different bull for the sacrifice to Poseidon.
This act of greed and disobedience deeply angered Poseidon.
In retaliation, Poseidon cursed Minos’s wife, Queen Pasiphaë, with such deep lust that Pasiphaë fell madly in love with the majestic bull.
Pasiphaë commissioned the master craftsman Daedalus to create a hollow wooden cow, which she used to deceive the bull and mate with him. From this union, the Minotaur was born.
The Minotaur, a monstrous creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, became a blight on Crete. To hide this monstrous progeny and protect his kingdom, Minos had Daedalus construct a labyrinthine structure known as the Minotaur’s Maze.
The Minotaur was imprisoned within this maze, and each year, tributes from Athens – seven young men and seven maidens – were sent into the labyrinth to become the Minotaur’s meal.
This lasted until the hero Theseus volunteered to be one of the tributes and, with the help of Minos’s daughter Ariadne, was able to slay the Minotaur and escape the labyrinth.
Medusa is blamed for Poseidon’s crime
Medusa was once a beautiful maiden who served in Athena’s temple. She was incredibly beautiful, and her hair was her most striking feature. Unfortunately, her beauty caught the attention of Poseidon, the god of the sea.
One day, Poseidon pursued and ravished Medusa against her will in Athena’s temple, which was a significant act of desecration.
Furious at this violation of her sacred space, Athena turned her wrath not on Poseidon, but on Medusa.
In her anger, Athena transformed Medusa into a hideous creature. She turned Medusa’s beautiful hair into a writhing mass of venomous snakes. Athena also cursed Medusa so that anyone who looked directly into her eyes would be turned into stone.
After her transformation, Medusa was banished to a far-off island, where she lived in isolation. She became a monster in the eyes of the world, known for her deadly gaze rather than her once admired beauty.
Medusa’s story ends with her beheading by the hero Perseus, who used a mirrored shield given to him by Athena to avoid looking directly at Medusa and thus escaping her petrifying gaze.
This myth is often seen as a commentary on the injustice of divine retribution, as Medusa, the victim, is punished while Poseidon, the perpetrator, goes free.
It’s also seen as a story of transformation and power, with Medusa becoming a symbol of rage and retribution against those who would harm her.
Odysseus angers Poseidon
Odysseus, the king of Ithaca and hero of the Trojan War, incurs Poseidon’s wrath during his journey home. On the island of the Cyclopes, Odysseus and his men find themselves trapped in the cave of Polyphemus, a gigantic one-eyed monster who is the son of Poseidon.
To escape, Odysseus blinds the Cyclops while he sleeps. Before leaving the island, Odysseus reveals his true identity to Polyphemus, who then prays to his father, Poseidon, asking him to curse Odysseus.
Enraged by the harm inflicted upon his son, Poseidon decides to make Odysseus’s journey home as difficult as possible. He stirs up storms, sends adverse winds, and provokes other obstacles to prolong Odysseus’s voyage and keep him away from Ithaca.
The other gods, primarily Athena, intervene at times to help Odysseus, but Poseidon’s persistent anger ensures Odysseus’s journey is long and arduous.
After many trials and tribulations, and only after appeasing Poseidon, does Odysseus finally return home.
This voyage, which should have taken a matter of weeks, ends up lasting ten years, due primarily to Poseidon’s relentless punishment.
Poseidon and the construction of the walls of Troy
According to Greek myth, King Laomedon of Troy wanted to build a massive wall around his city to protect it from invaders. To ensure the wall was impregnable, he enlisted the help of two gods, Poseidon and Apollo, but under rather peculiar circumstances.
During this time, Zeus, the king of the gods, had become frustrated with Poseidon and Apollo for their rebellious behavior.
As a form of punishment, he made them serve King Laomedon for a period of time. Poseidon was tasked to build the towering walls of Troy, while Apollo was to tend to the king’s herds.
Honoring their obligation, Poseidon and Apollo worked in their respective roles, with Poseidon constructing the grand wall.
Laomedon promised to reward them handsomely for their service. However, upon the completion of the wall, Laomedon went back on his word and refused to pay the gods.
Infuriated by this deceit and lack of honor, both Poseidon and Apollo planned retribution. Apollo sent a plague to Troy, and Poseidon sent a sea monster to terrorize the city.
The only way for the Trojans to appease Poseidon and get rid of the monster was to sacrifice Laomedon’s daughter, Hesione. However, she was saved by the hero Heracles (also known as Hercules), which further complicated the relationship between the gods and the city of Troy.
Later, during the Trojan War, Poseidon favored the Greeks, potentially still bearing a grudge against Troy for Laomedon’s deceit.
Poseidon turns the tide during the Trojan War
During the Trojan War, Poseidon, the god of the sea, played a significant role. He is often depicted as supporting the Greeks, likely due to the previous deceit of King Laomedon of Troy, who refused to honor his agreement with Poseidon and Apollo.
In Homer’s “Iliad”, Poseidon is shown as an active participant in the war, even though the gods were generally advised by Zeus to remain neutral. However, Zeus at one point is tricked into sleep by Hera, and in his absence, Poseidon takes the opportunity to intervene.
Seeing the Greeks losing ground in the war, Poseidon took the form of the Greek prophet Calchas and rallied the Achaean troops. His divine presence inspired the Greek warriors, instilling them with renewed strength and courage. In doing so, Poseidon tipped the scales in favor of the Greeks, allowing them to drive back the Trojans.
However, Zeus eventually awoke and saw Poseidon on the battlefield. Angry at his defiance, Zeus sent Iris, the messenger of the gods, to command Poseidon to leave the battlefield.
Reluctantly, Poseidon complied, but his intervention had already provided the Greeks with the momentum they needed to eventually win the war.
Poseidon and the wooing of Amphitrite
Amphitrite was one of the Nereids, the 50 daughters of Nereus, the old man of the sea, and Doris, a sea nymph. She was known for her beauty and grace.
When Poseidon saw her dancing with her sisters, he was captivated by her and immediately decided that she should become his wife.
However, when Poseidon approached Amphitrite with his proposal of marriage, she fled from him, not wanting to marry.
Undeterred, Poseidon sent one of his loyal followers, the dolphin-god Delphinus, to find and persuade Amphitrite to accept his proposal.
Delphinus succeeded in locating Amphitrite and was able to convince her to accept Poseidon’s proposal. In gratitude for his assistance, Poseidon placed Delphinus among the stars as the constellation Dolphin.
Amphitrite then became the queen of the sea, often depicted in ancient art alongside Poseidon. Together, Poseidon and Amphitrite had several children, including Triton, a merman; Rhodos, a sea nymph who personified the island of Rhodes; and Benthesikyme, a sea nymph.
Poseidon’s lust for Demeter
In Greek mythology, the story of Poseidon and Demeter transforming into horses isn’t as widely known as some of the other myths associated with these gods, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless.
Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, is the sister of Poseidon, the god of the sea.
In one story, Poseidon pursued Demeter with romantic intentions, but Demeter wasn’t interested in his advances, being distraught by the disappearance of her daughter Persephone.
In an attempt to evade Poseidon, Demeter transformed herself into a mare and hid among the herds of horses belonging to King Onkios.
However, Poseidon was not so easily deterred. He realized what Demeter had done, and he too transformed himself, taking the form of a stallion. He found Demeter and mated with her.
As a result of this union, Demeter bore a daughter, Despoina, and a fabulous black horse named Arion, who possessed supernatural speed, and according to some versions, the ability to speak.
Poseidon’s regret for ravishing Caenis
Caenis was a woman of extraordinary beauty, which drew the attention of Poseidon. Poseidon, captivated by Caenis, desired her and forcibly took her. Overwhelmed by guilt for his actions, Poseidon offered to grant Caenis a wish.
Caenis, having been violated, wished to never be a woman again so she would not have to endure such a thing.
She asked to be transformed into a man, a request Poseidon found surprising but decided to honor. He also decided to make her invulnerable to any weapon, transforming her into an invincible warrior.
Following this transformation, Caenis changed her name to Caeneus and went on to live as a man. He became an extraordinary warrior, known for his bravery and invincibility, and was eventually recognized as a great hero of Thessaly.
Despite his invincibility, Caeneus’s life came to an end during a clash with the Centaurs. Unable to wound him, the Centaurs crushed Caeneus under a pile of tree trunks and stones.
Some versions of the myth suggest that Caeneus was transformed into a bird and flew away, while others say that he descended to the Underworld still alive.
Poseidon and Eumolpus
Eumolpus is a character in Greek mythology associated with Poseidon. He was the son of Poseidon and Chione, a mortal woman, and was renowned for his musical talent, particularly his skill in playing the aulos, a type of ancient Greek wind instrument.
According to the myth, Chione, after giving birth to Eumolpus, was so afraid of her father’s reaction that she threw her newborn son into the sea.
However, Poseidon, being the god of the sea, rescued Eumolpus and brought him to Ethiopia. There, Eumolpus was raised by the ocean nymph Benthesikyme, who was also a daughter of Poseidon.
Later in life, Eumolpus traveled to Eleusis, where he would become the first priest of the Eleusinian Mysteries, a festival dedicated to Demeter and Persephone. This event made him a significant figure in the religious practices of ancient Greece.
Additionally, there’s a story of a conflict between Athens and Eleusis, in which Eumolpus sided with Eleusis.
During this conflict, Poseidon helped his son by causing the earth to shake, throwing the Athenians into panic. Despite this divine assistance, Eumolpus did not survive the war.
- 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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