by Jolene Dawe
Before the birth of Poseidon (and his siblings) it was foretold that a son of Kronos would overthrow his father, in much the same way that Kronos himself had overthrown his own father. And, much the way his own father had brought about this prophecy by trying to thwart it, so too did Kronos. As Rhea gave birth to her offspring, the myth goes, Kronos swallowed whole the beings who issued forth, devouring Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Hades, and then Poseidon. Through Rhea’s cunning Zeus escaped the same fate and was raised to free his imprisoned siblings. Zeus, along with his siblings and other allies, then went on to overthrow his father’s supremacy, making the foretelling Kronos had worked hard at avoiding come to pass.1
According to this myth, Poseidon is not, perhaps, the oldest of Rhea’s offspring, but he is certainly among the first generation of Olympian gods.
Historically speaking, Poseidon is an ancient god. While the meaning of his name is still being debated (some believe it to mean “Husband of the Earth” while others believe that it is linguistically impossible to prove), his importance in the ancient world is not. He was the principal god of Pylos, and his importance to fishermen and sailors can be found throughout the culture. 2
Like any of the Hellenic gods, Poseidon was known in different polis by different names and for different things. Most people today know Poseidon as the sea-god of the Greeks, and while this is true, it is hardly all that he was.
One of the most used epithets we have of Poseidon comes to us from Homer’s Iliad. Over and over again, Poseidon is addressed as Earth-Shaker, or Ennosigaios3. In Corinth paeans were sung to Poseidon Asphaleios, or Stead-Fast, after an earthquake, praying to the god to hold the earth steady4. That he had the power to shake the very foundations of the earth was known and respected by our spiritual ancestors.
He is also known in various places as Poseidon Hippios5, and horses are one of his sacred animals. According to Pausanias in his Description of Greece Poseidon Hippios was the patron god of Mantineia. In myth, Poseidon has several ties to horses: he is the father of Pegasus6, who springs forth from Medusa’s severed head long after their initial encounter, as well as the father of Arion after coupling with Demeter while Demeter raged7. Other stories speak of the first horse coming forth after Poseidon spilled his semen onto a rock, where we find Poseidon Petraios, or Poseidon of the Rock8. Horses were sacrificed to Poseidon by drowning them.
Poseidon Soter9 is another epithet Poseidon has been known by, used by both fishermen and sailors, who were all at his mercy when on the water. The cult of Poseidon Soter emerged after a storm at sea saved Thessaly by damaging an invading Persian fleet.
Unfortunately, while we do have a large amount of sources to draw on, details regarding festivals to Poseidon are scarce. We know that the 8th day of the Athenian month was sacred to Poseidon (and Theseus), and we know that in Mantineia the festival Posoidaia was held, where the god was honored with chariot racing, sacrifices, and a feast. In Athens, Poseidon was one of the gods honored during the Skira festival, alongside Athena and Helios. In Corinth, the Isthmian games were held in his honor every two years10.
1 Hesiod;Theogony,450-461; Apollodorus; Library of Greek Mythology
2 Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion 1985 Basil Blackwell Publisher/Harvard University Press
3 Homer, Iliad; multiple references
4 Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion
5 Zaidman, Louis Bruit; Pantel, Pauline Schmitt; trans. Cartledge, Paul; Religion in the Ancient Greek City New York, NY 1992 Cambridge University Press
6 Hesiod; Theogony, 281
7 Pausanias; Description of Greece
8 Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion
9 Burkert, Walter; Greek Religion
10 Zaidman, Louis Bruit; Pantel, Pauline Schmitt; trans. Cartledge, Paul; Religion in the Ancient Greek City