Greek sea gods

The ancient Greeks had a large number of sea deities. The philosopher Plato once remarked[1] that the Greek people were like frogs sitting around a pond—their many cities hugging close to the Mediterranean coastline from the Hellenic homeland to Asia Minor, Libya, Sicily and Southern Italy. Thus, they venerated a rich variety of aquatic divinities. The range of Greek sea gods of the classical era range from primordial powers and an Olympian on the one hand, to heroized mortals, chthonic nymphs, trickster-figures, and monsters on the other.

The three types of sea gods

Primordial powers

Oceanus[2] and Tethys are the father and mother of the gods in the Iliad, while in the seventh century BC the Spartan poet Alcman made the sea-nymph Thetis a demiurge-figure. Orpheus's song in Book I of the Argonautica hymns the sea-nymph Eurynome as first queen of the gods, as wife of the ocean-born giant Ophion.

The pre-Socratic cosmogony of Thales, who made water the first element, may be seen as a natural outgrowth of this poetic thinking.

The primacy of aquatic gods is reminiscent of, and may even have been influenced by, ancient Near Eastern mythology - where Tiamat (salt water) and Apsu (fresh water) are the first gods of the Enuma Elish, and where the Spirit of God is said to have "hovered over the waters" in Genesis.

Pontus is the primordial deity of the sea.

Poseidon and the heroes

Poseidon,[3] as god of the sea, was an important Olympian power; he was the chief patron of Corinth, many cities of Magna Graecia, and also of Plato's legendary Atlantis. He controls the oceans and the seas,[4] and he also created horses. As such, he was intimately connected with the pre-historic office of king - whose chief emblem of power and primary sacrificial animal was the horse. Thus, on the Mycenean Linear B tablets found at Pylos, the name Poseidon[5] occurs frequently in connection with the wanax ("king"), whose power and wealth were increasingly maritime rather than equestrian in nature. Surprisingly, Poseidon's name is found with greater frequency than that of Zeus, and is commonly linked (often in a secondary role) with Demeter. Poseidon[6] is brothers with Zeus along with Hades and his father was Cronus, the leader of the Titans.

When the office of wanax disappeared during the Greek Dark Ages, the link between Poseidon and the kingship was largely, although not entirely, forgotten. In classical Athens, Poseidon was remembered as both the opponent and doublet of Erechtheus, the first king of Athens. Erechtheus was given a hero-cult at his tomb under the title Poseidon Erechtheus.

In another possible echo of this archaic association, the chief ritual of Atlantis, according to Plato's Critias, was a nocturnal horse-sacrifice offered to Poseidon[7] by the kings of the imagined island power.

In keeping with the mythic equation between horsemanship and seamanship, the equestrian heroes Castor and Pollux were invoked by sailors against shipwreck. Ancient Greeks interpreted the phenomenon now called St. Elmo's Fire as the visible presence of the two brothers.

Old Men and nymphs

Several types of sea gods conform to a single type: that of Homer's halios geron or Old Man of the Sea: Nereus, Proteus, Glaucus and Phorkys. These sea gods are not as powerful as Poseidon, the main god of the oceans and seas. Each one is a shape-shifter, a prophet, and the father of either radiantly beautiful nymphs or hideous monsters (or both, in the case of Phorkys). Nymphs and monsters blur, for Hesiod relates that Phorcys was wed to the "beautiful-cheeked" Ceto, whose name is merely the feminine of the monstrous Cetus, to whom Andromeda was due to be sacrificed. Each appearance in myth tends to emphasize a different aspect of the archetype: Proteus and Nereus as shape-shifters and tricksters, Phorcys as a father of monsters, Nereus and Glaucus for truth-telling, Nereus for the beauty of his daughters.

Each one of these Old Men is the father or grandfather of many nymphs and/or monsters, who often bear names that are either metaphorical (Thetis, "establishment"; Telesto, "success") or geographical (Rhode from "Rhodes"; Nilos, "Nile"). Each cluster of Old Man and daughters is therefore a kind of pantheon in miniature, each one a different possible configuration of the spiritual, moral and physical world writ small - and writ around the sea.

The tantalizing figure of the halios geron has been a favorite of scholarship. The Old Men have been seen as everything from survivals of old Aegean gods who presided over the waves before Poseidon (Kerenyi) to embodiments of archaic speculation on the relation of truth to cunning intelligence (Detienne).

Homer's Odyssey contains a haunting description of a cave of the Nereids on Ithaca, close by a harbor sacred to Phorcys. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry read this passage as an allegory of the whole universe - and he may not have been far off the mark.

Otherworld and craft

The sea - at once barren and prosperity-bringing, loomed large and ambivalently in the Greek mind. Aside from the ebb and flow of piracy, sea-travel was fraught with superhuman hazard and uncertainty until the Industrial Revolution. It is impossible to assess the spiritual crisis in Aegean culture's relations with the sea's dangers and the capacity of its divinities that must have been engendered by the tsunamis that accompanied the volcanic explosion and collapse of Thera, ca. 1650 – 1600 BCE. Can the sense of the sea and its deities have survived the cataclysm unchanged? It seems unlikely. The sea could therefore stand as a powerful symbol of the unknown and otherworldly. Although many people thought about the sea and her depths, no one would enter the watery grave.

Thus Cape Tanaerum, the point at which mainland Greece juts most sharply into the Mediterranean, was at once an important sailor's landmark, a shrine of Poseidon, and the point at which Orpheus and Heracles were said to have entered Hades.

This motif is apparent in the paradoxical festivals of the shadowy sea-deity Leucothea ("white goddess"), celebrated in many cities throughout the Greek world. Identifying her with the drowned heroine Ino, worshippers would offer sacrifice while engaged in frenzied mourning. The philosopher Xenophanes[8] once remarked that if Leucothea were a goddess, one should not lament her; if she were mortal, one should not sacrifice to her.

At the same time, man's (always partial) mastery over the dangerous sea was one of the most potent marks of human skill and achievement. This theme is exemplified in the second choral ode of Sophocles's Antigone:

Wonders are many, and none is more wonderful than man. This power spans the sea, even when it surges white before the gales of the south-wind, and makes a path under swells that threaten to engulf him. (lines 332-338)

Certain sea divinities are thus intimately bound up with the practice of human skill. The Telchines, for example, were a class of half-human, half-fish or dolphin aquatic daemons said to have been the first inhabitants of Rhodes. These beings were at once revered for their metalwork and reviled for their death-dealing power of the evil eye. In Aeschylus's Prometheus Bound, the imprisoned craftsman is aided by the daughters of Ocean; and Hephaestus had his forge on "sea-girt Lemnos".

The nexus of sea, otherworld and craft is most strikingly embodied in the Cabeiri of Samothrace, who simultaneously oversaw salvation from shipwreck, metalcraft, and mystery-rites.


In Homer's heavily maritime Odyssey, Poseidon rather than Zeus is the primary mover of events.

Although the sea-nymph Thetis appears only at the beginning and end of the Iliad, being absent for much of the middle, she is a surprisingly powerful and nearly omniscient figure when she is present. She is easily able to sway the will of Zeus, and to turn all the forges of Hephaestus to her purposes. Her prophecy of Achilles' fate bespeaks a degree of foreknowledge not available to most other gods in the epic.


In classical art the fish-tailed merman with coiling tail was a popular subject, usually portrayed writhing in the wrestling grasp of Heracles. A similar wrestling scene shows Peleus and Thetis, often accompanied by a host of small animal icons representing her metamorphoses.

In Hellenistic art, the theme of the marine thiasos or "assembly of sea-gods" became a favorite of sculptors, allowing them to show off their skill in depicting flowing movement and aquiline grace in a way that land-based subjects did not.

In Roman times with the construction of bath houses throughout the empire, mosaic art achieved primacy in the depiction of sea gods. Foremost of these were scenes of the Triumph of Poseidon (or Neptune), riding in a chariot drawn by Hippocamps and attended by a host of sea gods and fish-tailed beasts. Large mosaic scenes also portrayed rows of sea-gods and nymphs arranged in a coiling procession of intertwined fish-tails. Other scenes show the birth of Aphrodite, often raised in a conch shell by a pair of sea centaurs, and accompanied by fishing Erotes (winged love gods). It was in this medium that most of the obscure maritime gods of Homer and Hesiod finally received standardised representation and attributes.


  1. ^ Plato, Phaedo 109b).
  2. ^ "Oceanus." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  3. ^ "Poseidon." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  4. ^ Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (2005). ‘Where the Lord of the Sea Grants Passage to Sailors Through the Deep-Blue Mere no More’: The Greeks and the Western Seas. Greece & Rome, 52, pp 153-171 doi:10.1093/gromej/cxi003
  5. ^ "Poseidon." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  6. ^ "Poseidon." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  7. ^ "Poseidon." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  8. ^ Feyerabend, Paul. "Reason, Xenophanes And The Homeric Gods." Kenyon Review 9.4 (1987): 12. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  9. ^ There are two major conflicting stories for Aphrodite's origins: Hesiod (Theogony) claims that she was "born" from the foam of the sea after Cronus castrated Uranus, thus making her Uranus' daughter; but Homer (Iliad, book V) has Aphrodite as daughter of Zeus and Dione. According to Plato (Symposium 180e), the two were entirely separate entities: Aphrodite Ourania and Aphrodite Pandemos.
  10. ^ Most sources describe Medusa as the daughter of Phorcys and Ceto, though the author Hyginus (Fabulae Preface) makes Medusa the daughter of Gorgon and Ceto.

Further reading

  • Karl Kerenyi, The Gods of the Greeks, 5:"The Old Ones of the Sea"
  • Marcel Detienne, The Masters of Truth in Archaic Greece
  • Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (2005). ‘Where the Lord of the Sea Grants Passage to Sailors Through the Deep-Blue Mere no More’: The Greeks and the Western Seas. Greece & Rome, 52, pp 153-171 doi:10.1093/gromej/cxi003
  • "Poseidon." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  • "Oceanus." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
  • >eyerabend, Paul. "Reason, Xenophanes And The Homeric Gods." Kenyon Review 9.4 (1987): 12. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.

External links

Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea is a story from Greek mythology that originally appeared in Ovid's Metamorphoses. The story tells of the love between the mortal Acis and the Nereid (sea-nymph) Galatea; when the jealous Cyclops Polyphemus kills Acis, Galatea transforms her lover into an immortal river spirit. The episode was made the subject of poems, operas, paintings, and statues in the Renaissance and after.

Cetus (mythology)

In Ancient Greek, the word kētos (κῆτος, plural kētē or kētea, κήτη or κήτεα)—Latinized as cetus (pl. cetea)—denotes a large fish, a whale, a shark, or a sea monster. The sea monsters slain by Perseus and Heracles were each referred to as a cetus by ancient sources. The term cetacean (for whale) originates from cetus. In Greek art, cetea were depicted as serpentine fish. The name of the mythological figure Ceto is derived from ketos. The name of the constellation Cetus also derives from this word.


In Greek mythology, Glaucus (; Ancient Greek: Γλαῦκος Glaukos means "greyish blue" or "bluish green" and "glimmering") was a Greek prophetic sea-god, born mortal and turned immortal upon eating a magical herb. It was believed that he commonly came to the rescue of sailors and fishermen in storms, having earlier earned a living from the sea himself.

Haliacmon (mythology)

Haliacmon (or Aliacmon, Ancient Greek: Ἁλιάκμων) was in Greek mythology a son of Oceanus and Thetys. He was a minor river god in his own right, of the eponymous Haliacmon in Macedonia. In other mythological traditions he was the son of Palaestinus and grandson of Poseidon.

Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion

Neptune's Triumph for the Return of Albion was a Jacobean era masque, written by Ben Jonson, and designed by Inigo Jones. The masque is notable for the contradictory historical evidence connected with it and the confusion it caused among generations of scholars and critics.


In Greek mythology, Nereus (; Ancient Greek: Νηρεύς) was the eldest son of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth), who with Doris fathered the Nereids and Nerites, with whom Nereus lived in the Aegean Sea.

Nerites (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Nerites (Greek: Νηρίτης) was a minor sea deity, son of Nereus and Doris (apparently their only male offspring) and brother of the fifty Nereids. He is described as a young boy of stunning beauty.

According to Claudius Aelianus (Aelian), Nerites was never mentioned by epic poets such as Homer and Hesiod, but was a common figure in the mariners’ folklore. Aelian also cites two versions of the myth concerning Nerites, which are as follows.

In one of the versions, Aphrodite, before her ascension from the sea to Olympus, fell in love with Nerites. When the time had come for her to join the Olympian gods, she wanted Nerites to go with her, but he refused, preferring to stay with his family in the sea. Even the fact that Aphrodite promised him a pair of wings did not make him change his mind. The scorned goddess then transformed him into a shellfish and gave the wings to her son Eros. Nerea, one of Nerites' Nereid sisters, found him and begged Poseidon to give him back his normal form. Poseidon accepted and returned Nerites to normal.

In the other version, Nerites was loved by Poseidon and answered his feelings. From their mutual love arose Anteros (personification of reciprocated love). Poseidon also made Nerites his charioteer; the boy drove the chariot astonishingly fast, to the admiration of various sea creatures. Helios, for reasons unknown to Aelian's sources, changed Nerites into a shellfish. Aelian himself supposes that Helios might have wanted the boy for himself and was offended by his refusal. As in the first version, Nerea found her brother and successfully persuaded Poseidon to restore Nerites to his true shape.


Oceanus (; Greek: Ὠκεανός Ōkeanós, pronounced [ɔːkeanós]), also known as Ogenus (Ὤγενος Ōgenos or Ὠγηνός Ōgēnos) or Ogen (Ὠγήν Ōgēn), was a divine figure in classical antiquity, believed by the ancient Greeks and Romans to be the divine personification of the sea, an enormous river encircling the world.

Old Man of the Sea

In Greek mythology, the Old Man of the Sea (Greek: Γέροντα της Θάλασσας, translit. Géronta tes Thálassas) was a primordial figure who could be identified as any of several water-gods, generally Nereus or Proteus, but also Triton, Pontus, Phorcys or Glaucus. He is the father of Thetis (the mother of Achilles).


In some versions of Greek mythology, Ophion (; Greek: Ὀφίων "serpent"; gen.: Ὀφίωνος), also called Ophioneus (Ὀφιονεύς) ruled the world with Eurynome before the two of them were cast down by Cronus and Rhea.


In Greek mythology, Phorcys (; Ancient Greek: Φόρκυς, Phorkus) is a primordial sea god, generally cited (first in Hesiod) as the son of Pontus and Gaia (Earth). According to the Orphic hymns, Phorcys, Cronus and Rhea were the eldest offspring of Oceanus and Tethys. Classical scholar Karl Kerenyi conflated Phorcys with the similar sea gods Nereus and Proteus. His wife was Ceto, and he is most notable in myth for fathering by Ceto a host of monstrous children. In extant Hellenistic-Roman mosaics, Phorcys was depicted as a fish-tailed merman with crab-claw forelegs and red, spiky skin.

Pontus (mythology)

In Greek mythology, Pontus (; Greek: Πόντος, Póntos, "Sea") was an ancient, pre-Olympian sea-god, one of the Greek primordial deities. Pontus was Gaia's son and has no father; according to the Greek poet Hesiod, he was born without coupling, though according to Hyginus, Pontus is the son of Aether and Gaia.


Poseidon (; Greek: Ποσειδῶν, pronounced [pose͜edɔ́͜ɔn]) was one of the Twelve Olympians in ancient Greek religion and myth. He was god of the Sea and other waters; of earthquakes; and of horses. In pre-Olympian Bronze Age Greece, he was venerated as a chief deity at Pylos and Thebes. His Roman equivalent is Neptune.

Poseidon was 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. 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.


In Greek mythology, Proteus (; Ancient Greek: Πρωτεύς) is an early prophetic sea-god or god of rivers and oceanic bodies of water, one of several deities whom Homer calls the "Old Man of the Sea" (halios gerôn). Some who ascribe to him a specific domain call him the god of "elusive sea change", which suggests the constantly changing nature of the sea or the liquid quality of water in general. He can foretell the future, but, in a mytheme familiar to several cultures, will change his shape to avoid having to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing the beast. From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean, with the general meaning of "versatile", "mutable", "capable of assuming many forms". "Protean" has positive connotations of flexibility, versatility and adaptability.


In Greek mythology, Thaumas (; Ancient Greek: Θαύμας; gen.: Θαύμαντος) was a sea god, son of Pontus and Gaia, and the full brother of Nereus, Phorcys, Ceto and Eurybia.


In Greek mythology, Thoosa or Thoösa (, Greek: Θόωσα, translit. Thoôsa) was a sea nymph whose name derives from the word thoos, meaning "swift". She and the god Poseidon are the parents of the cyclops Polyphemus. According to Homer, Thoosa was the daughter of the sea god Phorcys, but no mother is mentioned.


Trident is a three-pronged spear. It is used for spear fishing and historically as a polearm.

The trident is the weapon of Poseidon, or Neptune, the God of the Sea in classical mythology. In Hindu mythology, it is the weapon of Shiva, known as

trishula (Sanskrit for "triple-spear"). It has been used by farmers as a decorticator to remove leaves, seeds, and buds from the stalks of plants such as flax and hemp.

Triton (mythology)

Triton (; Greek: Τρίτων Tritōn) is a Greek god, the messenger of the sea. He is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea respectively, and is herald for his father. He is usually represented as a merman which has the upper body of a human and the tail, soft dorsal fin, spiny dorsal fin, anal fin, pelvic fins and caudal fin of a fish, "sea-hued", according to Ovid "his shoulders barnacled with sea-shells".

Like his father, Poseidon, he carried a trident. However, Triton's special attribute was a twisted conch shell, on which he blew like a trumpet to calm or raise the waves. Its sound was such a cacophony, that when loudly blown, it put the giants to flight, who imagined it to be the roar of a dark wild beast.According to Hesiod's Theogony, Triton dwelt with his parents in a golden palace in the depths of the sea; Homer places his seat in the waters off Aegae (presumably Aegae, Achaea, where Poseidon had his palace). The story of the Argonauts places his home on the coast of Libya. When the Argo was driven ashore in the Gulf of Syrtes Minor, the crew carried the vessel to the "Tritonian Lake", Lake Tritonis, whence Triton, the local deity euhemeristically rationalized by Diodorus Siculus as "then ruler over Libya", welcomed them with a guest-gift of a clod of earth and guided them through the lake's marshy outlet back to the Mediterranean. When the Argonauts were lost in the desert, he guided them to find the passage from the river back to the sea.

Triton was the father of Pallas and foster parent to the goddess Athena. Pallas was killed by Athena accidentally during a sparring fight between the two goddesses. Triton can sometimes be multiplied into a host of Tritones, daimones of the sea.

In Virgil's Aeneid, book 6, it is told that Triton killed Misenus, son of Aeolus, by drowning him after he challenged the gods to play as well as he did.

Water and religion

Water is considered a purifier in most religions.

Greek sea gods
The PotamoiThe Oceanids
NereusThaumasPhorcysCetoEurybiaThe TelchinesHaliaPoseidonAphrodite[9]
Ancient Greek deities by affiliation
Aquatic deities
Other deities

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