The Loves & Cities of Poseidon

Poseidon married the sea-nymph Amphitrite, but their courtship was unconventional. Some say that Poseidon abducted Amphitrite when he saw her dancing with the Nereids near Naxos; others that the nymph, reluctant, fled east to seek sanctuary with Atlas. But Poseidon sent a dolphin to plead with her and such was its success that the gods created a constellation in its memory. Poseidon’s passion for his wife did not prevent him from straying, however, and his love-affairs were legion.

Among over a hundred lovers of both sexes, whose status ranged from gods to mortals and everything between, were Gaia (on whom he fathered the whirlpool Charybdis), and the Olympian goddesses Aphrodite and Demeter (his sister). Like many of Poseidon’s conquests, Demeter was unwilling to succumb to his advances, so she shape-shifted into a mare and hid among the herds of Oncius, king of Arcadia. Her disguise was ill thought out. The god of horses, Poseidon tracked her down, changed himself into a stallion and covered her. Thus Demeter was delivered of two children: a goddess-daughter, Despoina (‘Mistress’), who presided over rituals known as the Arcadian Mysteries, and an immortal black horse, Arion, swift as the wind and possessed of the power of speech.

Lesser goddesses and nymphs, too, attracted Poseidon’s eye, often with unhappy consequences. Two were daughters of a fellow sea-god, Phorcys. When Amphitrite learned of her husband’s dalliance with one, the lovely Scylla, she took vengeance by dissolving noxious herbs into the pool in which her rival habitually bathed. As Scylla sank into the water, she felt her body change. Though still a beautiful woman from the waist up, from her hips six dogs’ heads now protruded on long necks, their jaws bristling with triple rows of teeth, while beneath them twelve dogs’ legs dangled down beside a fishy tail. Devastated, Scylla took up residence in a cave above a narrow strait, where she devoted her existence to destroying sailors. (Other accounts blame Scylla’s transformation on the witch Circe, who was jealous of the lesser sea-god, Glaucus.)

The Loves & Cities of Poseidon Photo Gallery

Another of Phorcys’ daughters was the beautiful sea-nymph Medusa. When Poseidon raped her in a temple of Athene, Athene was outraged. Unable to vent her anger on Poseidon, she turned its full force on Medusa, transforming her into a gross monster with boar’s-tusk teeth and writhing snakes instead of hair – and piercing eyes, which turned all who looked at her to stone. In addition, Athene prevented Medusa from giving birth. It was only when she was decapitated by Perseus, the prince from Argos, that Medusa was at last delivered of Poseidon’s two children: a giant, Chrysaor, and the winged horse, Pegasus.
Cities, too, caused Poseidon and Athene to quarrel. They reluctantly shared the northeast Peloponnesian town of Troezen, but when Athens was awarded as a prize to Athene, Poseidon in pique flooded the nearby Thriasian Plain, and only Zeus’ intervention restored the situation.

Poseidon was equally unsuccessful – and consequently vengeful – in his dealings with other cities. Cheated of his rightful prize for building Troy, he sent a sea-monster to devour the daughter of its king, Laomedon; and when Argos was awarded to Hera, Poseidon, unpredictable as ever, caused its rivers, which once flowed throughout the year, to dry up in the summer (as they still do to this day). Contesting Corinth, he again failed to secure a total victory. He was forced to concede Acrocorinth to Helios, though he won the lower city and the port of Isthmia, where close to his temple the two-yearly Isthmian Games were held in his honour. In antiquity only two cities were named for Poseidon: Potidea in northern Greece and Poseidonia in southwest Italy, known today by its Roman name, Paestum.

Some say it was from Sunium’s cliffs that King Aegeus watched daily for Theseus’ ship to return from Knossos, hoping to see the white sail, the agreed sign that his son’s quest to kill the Minotaur had been successful. When, instead, he saw a black sail (left in place by a forgetful Theseus), the grief-stricken Aegeus threw himself into the sea, which ever since has borne his name, Aegean (a more common explanation than Strabo’s). Later, Sunium was the scene of another death. In the Odyssey, King Nestor of Pylos, tells how, as the Greek fleet returned from sacking Troy:

We came to holy Sunium, the headland of Athens. Here Phoebus Apollo with his gentle arrows slew Menelaus’ helmsman, as he gripped in his hands the steering-oar of his swift ship – Phrontis, the son of Onetor, who surpassed all tribes of men in steering when storm winds blew in fury. Despite his impatience to be on his way, Menelaus stayed there to conduct a funeral for his companion and perform the proper rites.

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