The Wrath of King Neptune

I was originally thinking of profiling Krishna this weekend, but seeing the Percy Jackson movie reminded me that I don’t think I’d ever done a proper post on Poseidon (or Zeus, for that matter, but he’ll have to wait, unless I get a message by thunderbolt in the next few days).

I’m sure we all know Poseidon is god of the sea, but historical research has determined that he might well have been the main god in some areas before being retconned as Zeus’s brother. His role might have originally been that of a fertility deity, and he did maintain a certain amount of that power in his position as ruler of fresh water as well as the salty kind. Even after being made a subordinate to Zeus, Poseidon still had a fair number of powers and associations that weren’t related to the sea. He was the creator of earthquakes, and was commonly referred to as “Earth-Shaker” by Homer and other Greek writers. The creation of horses is also attributed to the sea god, with the general idea being that horses resemble foaming waves, but this could easily have been after-the-fact rationalization for a pre-existing connection.

Sailors would sacrifice horses to the King of the Deep by drowning them, which reminds me of the folk etymology of the Horse Latitudes, although the horse-drowners in that case were Spanish rather than Greek. Some versions of the myth of his birth have Rhea feeding Kronos a foal instead of the infant Poseidon (which I guess would mean he couldn’t have created the animal). The god turned himself into a horse in order to rape his sister Demeter, the product of their union being Arion, a talking horse.

Poseidon seems to have been fairly similar to his brother Zeus in personality, in that he was quick to anger and likely to have sex with just about anyone. While he did lose the contest for patronage over Athens to Athena (which I suppose is why it isn’t the city of Poseidonopolis), he was also the father of one of the city’s most famous kings. His legitimate children with his wife Amphitrite included the merman Triton.

Most of the offspring from his extramarital affairs don’t appear to have much connection with the sea, however. They include the cyclopes of northern Africa (including Polyphemus, with whom Odysseus had a run-in), the giant Aloadae, and another giant named Antaeus who drew power from the earth.

In this last case, the mother was identified as Gaea, who is Poseidon’s grandmother in the more mainstream version of Greek mythology. I have to wonder if the Earth-Shaker was suffering from a bit of ocean madness.

Like most of the other Greek gods, Poseidon was given a place in the Roman pantheon, specifically as Neptune (or, more accurately, Neptunus). His Latin name is thought to have been derived from that of Nethuns, an Etruscan sea god who came to be associated with Poseidon. And this post would be lacking if I didn’t mention Poseidon/Neptune’s main symbol and weapon, the trident.

Like Zeus’s thunderbolt, it was constructed by the original cyclopes, and had some unusual powers. The deity is sometimes described as striking his trident on the ground in order to produce something, like the horse or the saltwater spring that he gave to the people of Athens.

EDIT: I just scanned these, and figured I’d post them here, since they were relevant to the topic. These are John R. Neill’s illustrations of Neptune from Ruth Plumly Thompson’s The Curious Cruise of Captain Santa.

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35 Responses to The Wrath of King Neptune

  1. vilajunkie says:

    Poseidon/Neptune definitely seems to be more popular in literature and other media than Zeus/Jupiter. he’s also present in the idea of the “Old Man of the Sea”, but that seems to be a Roman association. I’ve heard the title used in Greek mythology more for minor gods, like Okeanos/Oceanus (the personification of the world ocean and a Titan) and Proteus (the shapeshifting sea god who knew prophecies and general information about other supernatural beings).

    • Nathan says:

      I think Nereus was sometimes referred to as the Old Man of the Sea. I get the impression that Neptune being portrayed as an old man was largely a Roman invention. The Greeks might well have thought of him as young and virile, considering how many affairs he had.

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