Promoting Proteus

It’s Saturday, and that means mythology here at VoVatia. Today’s subject is Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, who famously showed up in the Odyssey.

This son of Poseidon is a shepherd, a prophet, and a shape-shifter. He is said to live on the island on Pharos, off the coast of Egypt, and to spend most of his time herding seals. Because of his power to predict the future and explain the wills of the gods, people frequently try to seek him out for advice. He doesn’t like to be bothered, however, so he uses his shape-shifting powers to try to escape from potential querents. The only way to get him to listen to you is to hold on no matter what form he assumes, which is no mean feat.

He could take various animal forms, as well as that of a tree, or even of water. One person who managed to prevail against Proteus’ shape-changing was Menelaus of Sparta, who managed to extract information about what happened to his comrades in the Trojan War. Another was Aristaeus, a son of Apollo who kept bees. When his entire swarm died out, he consulted Proteus, who said to sacrifice twelve animals to the gods. More bees were attracted to the carcasses, and these bees remained healthy. The shape-shifting prophet was also said to have foretold the birth of Achilles. I thought I remembered Herakles consulting Proteus as well, but that was apparently actually Nereus, who was also a sea god with prophetic powers and shape-shifting ability.

I’m guessing these two were originally the same god, but different sources gave him different names. Herakles did deal with Proteus as well, however, or more specifically with his sons Polygonus and Telegonus, whom the demigod hero killed in a wrestling match.

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5 Responses to Promoting Proteus

  1. vilajunkie says:

    I could never understand how anyone could “hold” a stream of water or a blazing fire like you’re supposed to do with Proteus and other shape-shifting trickster beings. Must be something that just happens when it happens and you can’t question it or the magic won’t work anymore.

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