Other Sea Gods and Goddesses
“In the waves the Sea-gods (Di Caerulei) dwelt, Aegeon . . . ambiguous Proteus, Triton with his horn; and Doris and her daughters [the Nereides] might be seen, and some were swimming, some on fishes rode, or sat on rocks to dry their sea-green hair.” — Ovid. Metamorphoses 2. 6 ff (trans. Melville)
It would be a mistake to think that Poseidon is the only God that inhabits the Sea, lording it over the dolphins and fish all by Himself. The Sea is no less populated in the Divine Realm than in the physical. Poseidon’s court is as filled with Gods, Nymphs, Spirits, Heroes and other Divine Beings as Olympos or the Underworld is.
Pontos and Thalassa
Pontos (Latinized Pontus) is the primordial God (protogenoi) of the Sea. According to Hesiod, ever-fertile Gaia bore Him (fatherless) at the dawn of the Kosmos. By His Mother Gaia He father many other Sea-Gods, such as Nereus, Thaumas, Phorcys, Ceto, and Eurybia. His counterpart is Thalassa, Herself the daughter of Aether and Hemera, the Protogenoi of (Bright Upper) Air and Day. With Thalassa, Pontos fathered all the fish and other creatures that live in the sea. He is depicted as a gigantic head rising from the sea, with a watery-gray-green beard and crab-claw horns.
Thalassa likewise is depicted in art with green-gray hair and crab-claw horns, but instead of a giant head, She is shown wearing seaweed as clothing and sometimes carrying a ship’s oar in Her hand. Aesop’s fables describes Her body being made entirely of seawater. Pontos is the grandfather of Amphitrite, Poseidon’s wife. Despite Pontos being the most ancient Sea God, it is Okeanos Who looms in the Greek imagination and art as the sea personified.
Orphic Hymn 22 to Thalassa (trans. Taylor)
Fumigation from Frankincense and Manna.
Tethys [here equated with Thalassa] I call, with eyes cerulean bright,
hid in a veil obscure from human sight:
great Okeanos’ empress, wandering through the deep,
and pleased, with gentle gales, the earth to sweep;
whose ample waves in swift succession go,
and lash the rocky shore with endless flow:
delighting in the sea serene to play, in ships exulting, and the watery way.
Mother of Kypris [Aphrodite], and of Nephelai (Clouds) obscure,
great nurse of beasts, and source of fountains pure.
O venerable Goddess, hear my prayer,
and make benevolent my life thy care;
send, blessed queen, to ships a prosperous breeze,
and waft them safely over the stormy seas.”
Aesop, Fables 258 (from Syntipas 4)
“The Potamoi (Rivers) came together in order to make a complaint against Thalassa (the Sea). They told her, ‘Why is it that we come to you with waters that are sweet and fit to drink, but you change them into something salty and undrinkable?’ In response to the Potamoi’s (Rivers’) criticism, Thalassa (the Sea) replied, ‘Don’t come, and you won’t get salty!’”
Aesop, Fables 276 (from Babrius 71)
“A farmer saw a ship and her crew about to sink into the sea as the ship’s prow disappeared beneath the curl of a wave. The farmer said, ‘O sea, it would have been better if no one had ever set sail on you! You are a pitiless element of nature and an enemy to mankind.’ When she heard this, Thalassa (the Sea) took on the shape of a woman and said in reply, ‘Do not spread such evil stories about me! I am not the cause of any of these things that happen to you; the Winds (Anemoi) to which I am exposed are the cause of them all. If you look at me when the Winds are gone, and sail upon me then, you will admit that I am even more gentle than that dry land of yours.’”
The archaic pre-Hellenic Greeks, several thousand years B.C., believed that world was flat and round, like a disc, and surrounded by the fresh-water river Okeanos. In fact, Okeanos means literally “River Ocean”. He is typically described as the son of Gaia and Ouranus, but according to Hyginus was the offspring of Gaia’s union with Aether, “Air”, another of the primal First-Born Gods. Okeanos is the father of all the rivers and River-Gods by His wife Tethys, and They are also the parents of the 3,000 Okeanids, nymphs who look after fresh-water sources, and the Nephelae, Okeanid-nymphs of clouds and rain. He may also be the father of the Aurai, the nymphs of the breezes (if they are not considered the daughters of the North Wind Boreas). Like the River-Gods, He was depicted as horned with the tail of the serpentine fish. His sacred animals were fish and serpents.
Okeanos was the only one of the Titans Who would not attack His Father Ouranos (according to Pseudo-Apollodorus). Yet later after Kronos’ rebellion, Okeanos sided with Zeus in the Titan War, advising His daughter Styx, the Goddess of the River of Death, to do so as well. This may part of why Okeanos is so well-regarded among the Olympians.
Okeanos’ wife is Tethys, Whose name means “Nurse” or “Grandmother”. As the sea personalized, Tethys is identified with Thalassa. Tethys is sometimes considered to be the nurse and educator of Hera, the Queen of the Gods. In mosaic art She is shown with a small pair of wings on Her brow, most likely to symbolize that She is the mother of the rain-cloud Nymphs, the Nephelae. She is often accompyied by Eileithyia, the Goddess of childbirth,
Phorkys and Keto
Phorkys is one of the most ancient Sea-Gods, the son of Pontos and Gaia. He and His wife Keto (Latinized Ceto) are the parents of many of the sea-monsters that menace heroes in myth, and of all the large animals in the sea. Keto’s name, in fact, means “Whale” or “Shark”. Phorkys is thought to be related to Greek word for “seal”, phokes. Phorkys is pictured with spiny skin and the lower body of a huge, monstrous crab.
Some of Their more famous sea-monster children include Ekhidna, a snake tailed she-dragon with the who is called the mother of all monsters, and the Gorgones, of which Medousa is the most famous. They also begot Ladon, the hundred-headed dragon who guards the Garden of the Hesperiades, Skylla, one of the sea-monsters that Odysseus had to face on his journey home, and the Graiai, three sea hags who were gray-haired from birth and personified the white foam of the sea. You might remember the Graiai from the story of Perseus, who forced them to tell him where to find Medousa by stealing the single, detachable eye and tooth that all three of them share by passing it back and forth.
As far as I can tell, there did not appear to be much cultus paid to Phorkys and Keto, although They were sometimes written of in poems and stories. Of course, it would make sense if you are a sailor to worship some of the friendlier Sea-Gods, such as Leucothea, Galateia, Poseidon or Nereus. But the fact that there are stories about Phorkys and Keto tells us something, I think, and it’s more than that the monsters in the stories had to come from somewhere. The Kosmos is full to bursting with Gods, and I don’t believe that all Gods are concerned with humankind. We aren’t the center of the universe.
Nereus, Whose name means “Wet One” is Poseidon’s father-in-law, an ancient Sea-God with prophetic powers. He is also called Gerôn Halios, or the Old Man of the Sea. Nereus is the son of Gaia and Pontos, the primal Sea, whom Gaia took as Her consort after Ouranos was overthrown and castrated by Kronos. He is shown fish-tailed like many Sea-Gods, but unlike the rest of them is shown clothed in a khiton. The rest of the merman-like Sea-Gods are shown bare-chested.
Nereus was considered extremely wise and just. Like many of the Sea-Gods, He is a shapeshifter and has the power of prophecy. He advised Herakles on one of his famous 12 labors, after the demi-God had bested Him in a wrestling contest, which is what is depicted below:
Orphic Hymn 23 to Nereus (trans. Taylor)
Fumigation from Myrrh.
O thou who dost the roots of sea (pontos) keep
in seats cerulian, Daimon of the deep,
with fifty maidens [the Nereides] attending in thy train,
fair virgin artists, glorying through the main:
the dark foundation of the rolling sea,
and earth’s wide bounds belong, much-famed, to thee.
Great Daimon, source of all, whose power can make
the sacred basis of blest Deo [Demeter] shake,
when blustering winds in secret caverns pent,
by thee excited, struggle hard for vent.
Come, blessed Nereus, listen to my prayer,
and cease to shake the earth with wrath severe;
send to thy mystics necessary wealth,
with gentle peace, and ever tranquil health.”
Doris is a Sea-Goddess, and Poseidon’s mother-in-law. Her name means “Gift” or “Bounty” from the Greek dôron, but is also connected to the word zôros, which means “pure” and/or “unmixed”. Zôroswas was the word most often used to describe fresh water. Because of this it is speculated that Doris specifically ruled over the rich fishing-grounds where the mouths of fresh-water rivers mingled with the briny sea – this would make Her understandably important to fishermen.
She is often referred to “Doris of the lovely hair”. She was thought to be friendly, benevolent, and charming, but there is little written about Her except that She is the wife of Nereus and mother of the fifty Nereids (including Poseidon’s wife Amphitrite). Nerites is the only boy offspring off Doris and Nereus, and was said to be Aphrodite’s first lover when She was still young and frolicking in the sea that birthed Her.
Leucothea and Palaimôn
Leucothea, the “White Goddess”, is a Sea-Goddess known to rescue sailors in distress. The Romans identified Her with Their sea-Goddess Mater Matuta. Leucothea began life as a mortal princess named Ino. She was the daughter of King Kadmos of Thebes. She and Her husband Athamas fostered the infant God Dionysos (Who was her nephew – Semele was her sister), and so incurred the wrath of the Goddess Hera. Hera drove Athamas insane, and in his frenzy he killed their oldest child. Ino grabbed their other son, Melikertes (Melicertes) and ran, and while doing so she fell off a cliff into the sea. They would have drowned, except the Sea-Gods took mercy on her and transformed her into one of Them. After she became a Goddess, She was renamed Leucothea, and Her son was became the child-God Palaemon. Palaemon means “Wrestler”. The Romans called Him Portunus, “Of The Harbor” . The Isthmian games were celebrated every fifth year in His honor. A few of Leucothea’s other names include Thalassomedusa, “Sea-Queen”, and Bynê “Malt” (for brewing),
Orphic Hymn 74 to Leucothea (trans. Taylor)
To Leukothea (Leucothea),
Fumigation from Aromatics.
I call, Leukothea, of great Kadmos (Cadmus) born,
and Dionysos’ nurse, who ivy leaves adorn.
Hear, powerful Goddess, in the mighty deep
vast-bosomed, destined thy domain to keep:
in waves rejoicing, guardian of mankind;
for ships from thee alone deliverance find,
amidst the fury of the unstable main,
when art no more avails, and strength is vain.
When rushing billows with tempestuous ire
overwhelm the mariner in ruin dire,
thou hearest with pity touched his suppliant prayer,
resolved his life to succour and to spare.
Be ever present, Goddess! In distress,
waft ships along with prosperous success:
thy mystics through the stormy sea defend,
and safe conduct them to their destined end.”
Orphic Hymn 75 to Palaimon (trans. Taylor)
Fumigation from Manna.
O nursed with Dionysos, doomed to keep
thy dwelling in the widely spreading deep;
with joyful aspect to my prayer incline,
propitious come, and bless the rites divine;
thy mystics through the earth and sea attend,
and from old sea’s stormy waves defend:
for ships their safety ever owe to thee,
who wanderest with them through the raging sea.
Come, guardian power, whom mortal tribes desire,
and far avert the deep’s destructive ire.”
Galateia (Romanized Galatea) is one of the fifty Nereides, the daughter of Nereus and Doris, and the Goddess of calm seas. Her name means either “Calm-Goddess”, from galênê and theia or “Milk-White” from galaktos. Galateia is usually drawn as a beautiful woman riding side-saddle on a dolphin or sea-monster. She was known to roam the coasts of Sicily, where Her worship flourished. The most well-known story about Her is that She attracted the attention of the Kyklopes Polyphemus, the same son of Poseidon from the Odysseus. Her pursued Her and attempted to seduce Her, but She spurned Him and loved instead a handsome youth from Sicily named Akis (Acis). Polyphemus, jealous, killed Akis by crushing him with a boulder. Galateia, in grief, transformed him (or rather, his blood gushing from the rock) into a river, the river Acis or Acinius. This little river seems to come forth from under a large rock at the base of Mount Aetna, and this story seems to explain why that is. This is another example of how in myth, nearly everything, plants, streams, mountains, starts out as a person or nymph before being transformed into its current form. The world is filled with spirits, it is alive. The only full version of this story appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, but is referenced by many other authors.
Philoxenus of Cythera, Fragment 817 (from Scholiast on Theocritus 6)
“Douris (Duris) [historian C3rd B.C.] says that Polyphemos built a shrine to Galatea near Mount Aitna (Etna) in gratitude for the rich pasturage for his flocks and the abundant supply of milk, but that Philoxenos of Kythera (Cythera) [poet C5th B.C.] when he paid his visit and could not think of the reason for the shrine invented the tale that Polyphemos was in love with Galatea.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the Sea-Gods mentioned in Greek and Roman sources. There is still Thetis, the leader of the fifty Nereides and mother of the mortal hero Akhilleus (Achilles) and nurse of Hephaistos, Proteus, an old Sea-God and the herdsman of Poseidon’s seals, Glaukos, a mortal fisherman who became immortal after eating a magical herb that turned him into a blue-skinned merman (after this became the patron God of fishermen), Psamathe, the Nereid Goddess of sandy beaches, Eurybia, the Titan-Goddess of mastery over the sea, and Triton, the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite and Poseidon’s herald Who calms stormy seas with His conch-shell trumpet.
The Sea is also populated by many mythological/supernatural races. These include the Harpies (who are spirits of sudden gusts of winds), the Sirens (sea-nymphs with the bodies of birds and the heads of women), and the Tritones (fish-tailed Gods or spirits who were considered to be the Satyrs of the Sea). Poseidon’s chariot is pulled by the Hippokampoi, fish-tailed horses that were once believed to be the adult form of the literal seahorse. There were other fish-tailed creatures as well, like the Leokampoi, fish-tailed lions, Taurokampoi, fish-tailed bulls, Pardalokampoi, fish-tailed leopard, and Aigikampos, fish-tailed goats. Those who study astrology might recognize the fish-tailed goat as the symbol of Capricorn.
As I’ve said many times before, the world is full of spirits and Gods. The Sea is no different. The Sea is deeming with life, just as the land is, and this life is both physical and Divine. There is much more I could have written, but I’ve got to end somewhere, and I think I’ve made my point LOL.