The Greek god Poseidon has often been overlooked by his younger brother, Zeus, but Poseidon himself has a long and fascinating history. His legends, mythology and worship have influenced the lives of many ancient people in the classical world, and continue to inspire people today. It is my intention to look at the history and significance of this powerful deity.
According to mythology, Poseidon was born to the Titans Rhea and Cronus (also spelt Kronos and Cronos), who was immediately swallowed by his father. This was due to a prophecy stating that one of his offspring would bring about the end of his rule, in a similar way that Cronus had himself dethroned his father, Uranus. Poseidon was finally released with the rest of his sisters and brother, when Zeus was able to free them from Cronus’ stomach with the aid of a potion.
The first mention of Poseidon is within Homer’s Iliad, and the god plays a central role within the Odyssey, which were written in the 9th century BCE. From this, we can determine that the worship of Poseidon was much earlier, due to the fact that Homer used names, places and gods that were familiar to his audience, so that the underlying message in his epics would be understood.
Within the Iliad, Poseidon dwelled under the sea. When he travels in his chariot across the sea, the axle does not get wet. Sea monsters, knowing their master, frisk at his passing. However, these aspects of his power do not receive any more attention than this, and it may not altogether be because the story of the Iliad takes place on land. Instead, his domination over the earth is asserted, in formulaic titles such as ‘Earth-Shaker’. He is the patron of horses and horsemanship; indeed he is occasionally referred to ‘black-maned’. In fact, his most striking power has nothing at all to do with the sea; he causes tremendous earthquakes that Hades shrieks in terror, for fear that the horrors of death may be exposed to mortals and immortals alike.
As the Odyssey is a poem about change, the theology too is intimately bound up with the shifting experience and widening understanding of the hero. However, the role of Poseidon is one of divine justice here within this poem. But we also see the other aspects of his nature. By the siring of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and his associations with other giants, Homer virtually makes Poseidon one of the deities of primordial creation, and union with a daughter of the ancient sea divinity Phorkys to sire Polyphemus reinforces this regressive pattern (Segal, p.497). It also shows that Poseidon acquires the same aura of pre-Olympian antiquity with other deities, such as Aphrodite, Hecate, and Otus.
Indeed, the Odyssean Poseidon seems to move back into a pre-Olympian time of monsters, Titans, and Giants; but the poem subsumes this chronological or historical dimension of the world order into the here and now of Zeus’s reign. In this, Poseidon appears as an archaic feature of the world, the representative of an obsolescent world order.
However, Poseidon is not just a vengeful god; Homer shows another side to the powerful god. In the Odyssey, Homer shows his peaceful and calming nature. In the Phaeacian episode, Poseidon is a “dignified, effective peacemaker who conciliates conflicting positions through negotiation and the quasi-legal procedures of pledges and guarantees” (Segal, p.499). So here, we see his duel nature in the Greek order of things.
The archaeological evidence shows that Poseidon was once worshipped in every part of Greece as a god of general importance to the community. His festivals were usually held at the beginning of winter (Robertson, p.1), although others were held at other times during the year. At Poseidon’s festival, however, the sportive conduct has a definite purpose; this purpose arises from the fundamental agrarian background of Mediterranean society.
One of the most famous legends concerning Poseidon is the contest over Athens with his niece, Athena. The gods, knowing that Athens was to become a major power in the Greek world, began a debate to who would be the city’s patron. Eventually, it was decided that both Athena and Poseidon had the best claims – Poseidon, because Athens was close to the sea, his domain; and Athena, because the arts of the civilized life were bound to flourish there.
However, neither deity gave way to each other, so Zeus decreed that there would be a contest. They were challenged to produce a novelty for humanity, something both beautiful and practical. The deity with the best invention would win the city.
Poseidon struck the ground with his trident, the ground opened and a huge black horse appeared, shaking his mane and pawing the ground. The animal was both beautiful and practical. Then Athena stepped forward and produced an olive tree out of the ground. She pointed out that the tree would provide both food and olive oil for sacrifices to the gods. As well as this, the olive tree represents peace, while the horse represents war. Grudgingly, the other gods decreed Athena the winner, although they did not wish to offend Poseidon.
In the past there have been some interesting attempts to surmise Poseidon’s origins and significance from the evidence at hand. Given the sources available, it is idle to speculate on the nature and function of Poseidon before the Olympic pantheon was established as a concept.
Despite being overlooked by his younger brother, Poseidon is one of the most iconographic deities from the classical world. Even today, artists of all genres have looked to him for inspiration and will continue to do so in the future.
Robertson, Noel (1984) Poseidon’s Festival at the Winter Solstice, The Classical Quarterly, Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association.
Segal, Charles (1992) Divine Justice in the Odyssey: Poseidon, Cyclops and Helios, The American Journal of Philology, The John Hopkins University Press.