POSEIDON

In Greek mythology, Poseidon was the god of the sea as well as of earthquakes and horses. One of the oldest and most widely worshiped of the Greek deities*, he was associated with many cults*, and numerous shrines were erected in his honor throughout the ancient world. Poseidon was considered one of the most powerful and violent of the gods, and he was identified with sea storms, tidal waves, and other natural disasters. Greek art usually portrayed him as a bearded man with a fierce expression who held a trident*. The Romans also worshiped Poseidon, although they called him Neptune, the name of an ancient Italian water god.

Poseidon was one of the three sons of Cronos and Rhea, the king and queen of the Titans (the original race of gods who ruled the universe before the Olympian gods). Along with his brothers, Zeus and Hades, Poseidon overthrew his parents and imprisoned the Titans in the region of the underworld* known as Tartarus. The brothers then divided the universe between them, with Zeus (who became the supreme ruler of the gods) receiving the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld. Poseidon had many children with goddesses, sea nymphs*, and mortal* women. Most of his children inherited his violent nature, and many of them were giants and monsters. Several of Poseidon’s offspring were horses, including the famous winged horse Pegasus, the offspring of his union with Medusa.

* deity god or goddess

* cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god

* trident three-pronged spear; similar to a pitchfork

* underworld kingdom of the dead; also called Hades

* nymph in classical mythology, one of the lesser goddesses of nature

* mortal human being; one who eventually will die

Poseidon figures prominently in the epic* poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the Iliad, he is a fierce enemy of the Trojans because they refused to pay him for the walls he had helped to build around the city of Troy. In the Odyssey, Poseidon attempts to destroy the Greek hero* Odysseus, who blinded Poseidon’s son Polyphemus, the Cyclops. Although Odysseus survives, Poseidon kills all his companions, and Odysseus’s return home is delayed because of the hardships and disasters he suffers at the hands of Poseidon.

Although Poseidon was not associated with the official cults of any city, he was important in Athens because some myths considered him to be the father of the Athenian hero Theseus. Poseidon competed with Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom, to become the patron* of Athens. The contest, won by Athena, is depicted in the sculptures that decorate the Parthenon, the great temple located on the Acropolis in Athens. In Athens, Poseidon bore the additional name of Erechtheus, which was also the name of a legendary early king of the city. The Erechtheum, another important temple on the Acropolis, supposedly contained the mark of Poseidon’s trident, and the same family that provided the priestess for the cult of Athena also provided the priest of Poseidon Erechtheus. (See also Cults; Divinities; Epic, Greek; Religion, Greek; Religion, Roman.)

* epic long poem about legendary or historical heroes, written in a grand style

* hero in mythology, a person of great strength or ability, often descended from a god

* patron special guardian, protector; or supporter

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