Poseidon was one of the Twelve Olympians in ancient Greek religion and myth, the god of the sea, storms, earthquakes, and horses.

In pre-Olympian Bronze Age Greece, Poseidon was venerated as a chief deity at Pylos and Thebes. His Roman equivalent is Neptune.

He was the protector of seafarers, and of many Hellenic cities and colonies. In Homer’s Iliad, Poseidon supports the Greeks against the Trojans during the Trojan War and in the Odyssey, during the sea-voyage from Troy back home to Ithaca, the Greek hero Odysseus provokes Poseidon’s fury by blinding his son, the Cyclops Polyphemus, resulting in Poseidon punishing him with storms, the complete loss of his ship and companions, and a ten-year delay.

Poseidon is also the subject of a Homeric hymn. In Plato’s Timaeus and Critias, the island of Atlantis was Poseidon’s domain.

Linear B (Mycenean Greek) inscriptions

Poseidon carries frequently the title wa-na-ka (wanax) in Linear B inscriptions, as king of the underworld. The chthonic nature of Poseidon-Wanax is also indicated by his title E-ne-si-da-o-ne in Mycenean Knossos and Pylos, a powerful attribute (earthquakes had accompanied the collapse of the Minoan palace-culture).

In the cave of Amnisos (Crete) Enesidaon is related to the cult of Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. She was related to the annual birth of the divine child.

During the Bronze Age, a goddess of nature dominated both in the Minoan and Mycenean cult, and Wanax was her male companion (paredros) in the Mycenean cult. It is possible that Demeter appears as Da-ma-te in a Linear B inscription, however, the interpretation is still under dispute.

Arcadian myths

The illuminating exception is the archaic and localized myth of the stallion Poseidon and mare Demeter at Phigalia in isolated and conservative Arcadia, noted by Pausanias (2nd century AD) as having fallen into desuetude; the stallion Poseidon pursues the mare-Demeter, and from the union she bears the horse Arion, and a daughter (Despoina), who obviously had the shape of a mare too.

The violated Demeter was Demeter Erinys (furious). In Arcadia, Demeter’s mare-form was worshiped into historical times. Her xoanon of Phigaleia shows how the local cult interpreted her, as the goddess of nature.

A Medusa type with a horse’s head with snaky hair, holding a dove and a dolphin, probably representing her power over air and water.

Origins

It seems that the Arcadian myth is related to the first Greek-speaking people who entered the region during the Bronze Age. (Linear B represents an archaic Greek dialect).

Their religious beliefs were mixed with the beliefs of the indigenous population. It is possible that the Greeks did not bring with them other gods except Zeus, Eos, and the Dioskouroi.

The horse (numina) was related to the liquid element and with the underworld. Poseidon appears as a beast (horse), which is the river spirit of the underworld, as it usually happens in northern-European folklore, and not unusually in Greece.

Poseidon “Wanax“, is the male companion of the goddess of nature. In the relative Minoan myth, Pasiphaë is mating with the white bull, and she bears the hybrid creature Minotaur.

The Bull was the old pre-Olympian Poseidon. The goddess of nature and her paredros survived in the Eleusinian cult, where the following words were uttered: “Mighty Potnia bore a strong son“.

In the heavily sea-dependent Mycenaean culture, there is not sufficient evidence that Poseidon was connected with the sea. We do not know if “Posedeia” was a sea-goddess.

Homer and Hesiod suggest that Poseidon became lord of the sea following the defeat of his father Cronus when the world was divided by lot among his three sons; Zeus was given the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea, with the Earth and Mount Olympus belonging to all three.

Given Poseidon’s connection with horses as well as the sea, and the landlocked situation of the likely Indo-European homeland, Nobuo Komita has proposed that Poseidon was originally an aristocratic Indo-European horse-god who was then assimilated to Near Eastern aquatic deities when the basis of the Greek livelihood shifted from the land to the sea, or a god of fresh waters who was assigned a secondary role as god of the sea, where he overwhelmed the original Aegean sea deities such as Proteus and Nereus.

Conversely, Walter Burkert suggests that the Hellene cult worship of Poseidon as a horse god may be connected to the introduction of the horse and war-chariot from Anatolia to Greece around 1600 BC.

It is almost sure that once Poseidon was worshiped as a horse, and this is evident by his cult in Peloponnesos. However he was originally a god of the waters, and therefore he became the “earth-shaker” because the Greeks believed that the cause of the earthquakes was the erosion of the rocks by the waters, by the rivers who they saw to disappear into the earth and then to burst out again.

This is what the natural philosophers Thales, Anaximenes and Aristotle believed, which could not be different from the folklore belief. Later, when the Myceneans traveled along the sea, he was assigned a role as god of the sea.

In any case, the early importance of Poseidon can still be glimpsed in Homer’s Odyssey, where Poseidon rather than Zeus is the major mover of events. In Homer, Poseidon is the master of the sea.

Birth

Poseidon was the second son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea. In most accounts, he is swallowed by Cronus at birth and is later saved, along with his other brothers and sisters, by Zeus.

However, in some versions of the story, he, like his brother Zeus, did not share the fate of his other brother and sisters who were eaten by Cronus. He was saved by his mother Rhea, who concealed him among a flock of lambs and pretended to have given birth to a colt, which she gave to Cronus to devour.

According to John Tzetzes, the kourotrophos or nurse of Poseidon was Arne, who denied knowing where he was when Cronus came searching; according to Diodorus Siculus Poseidon was raised by the Telchines on Rhodes, just as Zeus was raised by the Korybantes on Crete.

According to a single reference in the Iliad, when the world was divided by lot in three, Zeus received the sky, Hades the underworld, and Poseidon the sea. In Homer’s Odyssey (Book V, ln. 398), Poseidon has a home in Aegae.

Foundation of Athens

Athena became the patron goddess of the city of Athens after a competition with Poseidon. Yet Poseidon remained a numinous presence on the Acropolis in the form of his surrogate, Erechtheus.

At the dissolution festival at the end of the year in the Athenian calendar, the Skira, the priests of Athena and the priest of Poseidon would process under canopies to Eleusis.

They agreed that each would give the Athenians one gift and the Athenians would choose whichever gift they preferred. Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring sprang up; the water was salty and not very useful, whereas Athena offered them an olive tree.

The Athenians or their king, Cecrops, accepted the olive tree and along with it Athena as their patron, for the olive tree brought wood, oil, and food. After the fight, infuriated at his loss, Poseidon sent a monstrous flood to the Attic Plain, to punish the Athenians for not choosing him.

The depression made by Poseidon’s trident and filled with saltwater was surrounded by the northern hall of the Erechtheum, remaining open to the air.

In a cult, Poseidon was identified with Erechtheus,” Walter Burkert noted:

“the myth turns this into a temporal-causal sequence: in his anger at losing, Poseidon led his son Eumolpus against Athens and killed Erectheus.”

The contest of Athena and Poseidon was the subject of the reliefs on the western pediment of the Parthenon, the first sight that greeted the arriving visitor.

This myth is construed by Robert Graves and others as reflecting a clash between the inhabitants during Mycenaean times and newer immigrants. Athens at its height was a significant sea power, at one point defeating the Persian fleet at Salamis Island in a sea battle.

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