There was a discussion recently on the Mythology Stack Exchange about whether Poseidon had been the first head of the Greek pantheon. It’s an interesting question….
You can argue this one in a number of ways. While the name Zeus is clearly Indo-European (one of the very few that is), the name Poseidon, along with his title Earth-Shaker, appears in Mycenean texts from very early times. On the Messenian coast, at least, he seems to have kept his status, and like Zeus he is the father of kings and heroes. (Indeed, the number of his offspring is second only to Zeus’.)
An ingenious argument on the Stack Exchange relied on geography: the Greeks lived in the Mediterranean, and the land mass around that sea was surrounded by the vaster Ocean, which encircled the world. Simply put, Poseidon has the biggest realm. Since Greece has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean, it makes sense that Poseidon was an important god.
He wasn’t limited to the sea, though. Poseidon was the god who gave us horses, so that we could ride across land as well. “Greeks said quite simply that honour was due to Poseidon on two accounts, as tamer of horses and as rescuer of ships.” (Burkert 1985: 138) As the Homeric Hymn put it:
I begin to sing about Poseidon, the great god, mover of the earth and fruitless sea, god of the deep who is also lord of Helicon and wide Aegae. A two-fold office the gods allotted you, O Shaker of the Earth, to be a tamer of horses and a saviour of ships!
Hail, Poseidon, Holder of the Earth, dark-haired lord! O blessed one, be kindly in heart and help those who voyage in ships!
When he struck his trident to the earth, springs came forth (often salt, unfortunately). In his less beneficient mood, he also caused earthquakes by the same means. This was an intrinsic part of his mythos: the Mycenaeans (late Bronze Age) referred to him as both Poseidon (PO-SE-DO-O) and E-NE-SI-DA-O-NE, Earth-Shaker.
Poseidon and the Two Queens
The Mycenaean people used the early script called Linear B, and many of their clay tablets survive. (Some of their palaces burned; this baked the tablets and preserved them.) In these, the name po-se-da-wo-ne appears more often than Zeus’s, di-u-ja.
Poseidon seems to have been more important at Pylos, while Zeus is prominent at Knossos. (This continued into later times; the Odyssey describes a sacrifice to the sea-god at Pylos by the king, Nestor.1) His temple, the Poseidaion, was located in the city and may have housed the treasury. One tablet describes a ceremony to the god, with oil for libations. Officials of the cult had the title Posidaiewes.
His consort was also known as Posidaeja and was worshipped at the shrine of the chief goddess, the Pakijane. (Zeus also had his Mrs. Zeus, Diwija.)
That goddess was the Potina, or Mistress. (Another Potina, the Mistress of Horses, had a shrine in the palace at Pylos, but she doesn’t seem to be connected to Poseidon.) Tablets attest to slaves and other property of the sanctuary, as well as the oil and honey for offerings. Others detail offerings of bulls, rams, wine, grain and other food to the Poseidaion.
Husband of Earth?
There are two theories about the meaning of Poseidon’s name, and these have been used to support different theories about the god. If you read it as “husband of Earth” (Posis Da), then he can be slotted in as consort of the central goddess. Some people see this as proof that his nature as sea-god is secondary, and some go even further and argue that he is “really” the divine son/spouse of a great goddess. (Robert Graves, for example)
He does appear with several different goddesses in the Mycenaean tablets, often as “Earth-Shaker”, which the Wikipedia entry and others have seen as proof of a chthonic nature.
In Linear B inscriptions found at Pylos, E-ne-si-da-o-ne is related with Poseidon, and Si-to Po-tini-ja is probably related with Demeter. Tablets from Pylos record sacrificial goods destined for “the Two Queens and Poseidon” (“to the Two Queens and the King”: wa-na-soi, wa-na-ka-te). The “Two Queens” may be related with Demeter and Persephone, or their precursors, goddesses who were not associated with Poseidon in later periods.
The Wikipedia article makes much of Poseidon’s title wanax, but far from indicating an underworld god, it simply means king or military leader. I’m not sure that his identity as the Earth-Shaker is inconsistent with him being a sea-god. Hades in later times gives riches from the earth, but doesn’t generally disturb it, while as the god who stirs the sea to storms, it makes sense that Poseidon would also cause earthquakes. (Which in their turn can trigger tsunamis.)
Lord of the Waters
This takes me to the other possible meaning of Poseidon, Lord of the Waters, or *Posei-dawōn. If you look him up at Theoi.com, they have a comprehensive gazetteer of his cult sites, which are mainly near the coast.
His most notable appearances in literature also involve the sea: Homer’s description of him setting off from Samothrace in his horse-drawn chariot in the Iliad, and of him stirring up a storm against Ulysses in the Odyssey are impressive, and the Homeric Hymn (probably not by Homer, but in his style) quoted above all leave us in no doubt – the sea was his home and his element.
His wife, Amphitrite, was the daughter of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, who lived in the Agean. Her name is probably derived from amphis tris, the surrounding third, meaning that like Thalassa she personfied the sea. Their best-known child was Triton, the fish-tailed god. (See below for more of Poseidon’s many children.)
I mentioned in the introduction that Greece has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean. You would expect them to have a lively folklore about the sea and its inhabitants, as well as respect for its power. Even Poseidon’s trident is derived from the ones tuna fishermen used to spear the fish in their nets.
Kings and Heroes
Poseidon has the most offspring after Zeus. (Hard/Rose: 107) Once again, Theoi.com has an impressive list of children, including the horses Arion and Bellerophon (by Medusa).
His most famous sons, apart from Triton, were the heroes Theseus and Orion. (Theseus had a mortal and an immortal parent, perhaps because Poseidon was the Basileus or King of Troizen, his home, and they wished to grant him prestige.) He also fathered Aeolos and Boeotos, the ancestors of the Aeolians and Boetians. His giant one-eyed son Polyphemus was blinded by Odysseus, bringing down the god’s wrath upon the hero.
The first king Pylos, Neleus, was a son of Poseidon. Like Oedipus, he was exposed but survived, and later went on to either found or conquer Pylos in Messenia. He then had 12 sons of his own, the youngest of whom was Nestor, mentioned above. Neleus had a cult in Attica, and was the ancestor of several noble families. (Price and Kearns: 369)
Poseidon v. Zeus
It would seem that Poseidon was more important in the Bronze Age. The collapse of those civilizations, and the new Greek city-states that rose in their place, put an end to that except in a few places. Zeus became the ruler, although Poseidon continued to be widely honoured and a few places like Pylos continued to put him first.
He was, to many, second only to Zeus. Unfortunately, there is no recorded instance of the two actually squaring off. The closest we come is in the Iliad, when Hera tried to incite the other gods against her husband:
Mighty Earthshaker Poseidon, very angry,
“Hera, you fearless talker,
What are you saying? That’s not what I want,
the rest of us to war on Zeus, son of Cronos.
For he is much more powerful than us.”
(Iliad Book 8, Johnston’s translation)
and later, when Zeus gets wind of his brother’s intentions:
“Go now, swift Iris,
convey to lord Poseidon these instructions,
report it all precisely—he’s to stop,
to leave the battle strife, and go away
to the group of gods or to his sacred sea.
If he won’t obey my orders and ignores them,
he should consider in his mind and heart
this point—no matter how mighty he may be,
he can’t stand up to me if I attack him.
For I can say I’m stronger than he is,
more powerful. And I’m the first born.
Yet his fond heart thinks it’s all right to claim
equality with me, whom all others fear.”
(Book 15, Johnston’s translation)
Poseidon doesn’t take Iris’ message well, complaining:
for I’m as worthy of respect as he is.
We are three brothers, sons of Cronos,
born from Rhea—Zeus, myself, and Hades,
third brother, ruler of the dead. The whole world
was divided in three parts, and each of us
received one share. Once the lots were shaken,
I won the blue-grey sea as mine to live in
for ever. Hades got the gloomy darkness,
Zeus wide heaven, with the upper air and clouds.
But earth and high Olympus still remained
to all of us in common.
(Book 15, Johnston’s translation)
He eventually gives in, although he still protests the injustice of it, being ordered around by someone whose “share” is the same as his.
According to a later writer, the Roman Plutarch, they clashed over the city of Aegina, and Poseidon lost, although if there was an actual story it’s lost to the mists of time. (Poseidon had a long history of not becoming patron of various cities.)
Zeus could be gracious about it, though, as we see in the Odyssey, when Poseidon takes vengeance on Odysseus for blinding his son:
Then Zeus, cloud-gatherer, answered him, and said, “Ah me, thou shaker of the earth, wide of sway, what a thing thou hast said! The gods do thee no dishonour; hard indeed would it be to assail with dishonour our eldest and best. But as for men, if any one, yielding to his might and strength, fails to do thee honour in aught, thou mayest ever take vengeance, even thereafter.
Odyssey, Book 13, Murray’s translation)
Notice that now Poseidon is the elder brother, in line with the tradition that Zeus was Rhea’s final child, who rescued the others, swallowed by their father. Either way, he’s in charge, however honoured his brother might be.
1. This sacrifice involved Nestor and nine groups of 500 Pyladians sacrificing black bulls to him on the seashore.↩
Burkert, Walter 1985: Greek Religion, Harvard University Press. (Google Books)
Hand, Robin 2004: The Routledge Handbook of Greek Mythology, Routledge. (This is a revised edition of H. J. Rose’s earlier book.) (Questia)
Price, Simon and Emily Kearns, eds. 2003: The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion, OUP.