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Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, [1928], at


The figure of Poseidon must be studied in some detail, not because he is a god of special splendour or beauty--he is nowise the equal of either Athena or Apollo--but because his life-history is of special and absorbing interest. In following it we shall learn much of the making of a god that would otherwise lie hidden.

One thing at the outset is notable. Poseidon and Zeus are constantly in all but open warfare. In a remarkable passage of the Iliad, Poseidon claims equality with Zeus. Zeus by the mouth of Iris threatens Poseidon with wrath and retribution, and Poseidon, greatly enraged, claims to be of like parentage and potency with Zeus, and counsels Zeus, if he wishes to "speak terrible words," to speak them to his own sons and daughters.


"Then in great displeasure the renowned Shaker-of-the-Earth answered her: 'Out on it, verily now, for as strong as he is, he hath spoken over-haughtily, if indeed he will subdue by force, against my will, me that am his equal in honour. For three brethren are we, and sons of Kronos, whom Rhea bare, Zeus, and myself, and Hades is the third, the ruler of the folk in the under-world. And in three lots are all things divided, and each drew a domain of his own, and to me fell the hoary sea, to be

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my habitation for ever, when we shook the lots: and Hades drew the murky darkness, and Zeus the wide heaven, in clear air and clouds, but the earth and high Olympos are yet common to all. Wherefore no whit will I walk after the will of Zeus, but quietly let him abide, for all his strength, in his third portion.'"


Moreover, in the Odyssey it appears plainly that the children of Poseidon are an impious and outrageous race, giants and Cyclopes. Odysseus appeals in the name of Zeus for hospitality, Zeus the god of strangers, and receives the rough answer from the Cyclopes:

                       "'Belike a fool are you,
O stranger, or from far away have come,
Who bid me fear or shun what gods can do.
For the Cyclopes heed of Zeus have none,
The Thunder-bearer nor of any one
Of the high gods: too strong are we by far.'"

And when Odysseus has bored out the eye of the Cyclope, he says to him:

"'Then to your father, lord Poseidon pray
  To heal you.'"

It was in reflecting on this antipathy to Zeus and this aloofness from the Olympian assembly that Mr. Gladstone long ago, in his monumental Juventus Mundi, came to divine that Poseidon was in some sense a foreigner. Unhappily, in his search for a maritime people known to the Greeks, he hit on the Phœnicians. Poseidon was certainly a foreigner, but as certainly no Phoenician. In order to discover who he was, we must examine his nature and attributes more in detail.

As to his nature, surely it will be said that is simple enough. Poseidon is god of the sea. Sea-god undoubtedly Poseidon is, though we must always remember that the Greek attitude of mind towards the sea is not ours. The sea is to us the means of abundant profit and sustenance;

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it is the highway of trade. To the Greek it was a barren salt waste where he might not sow or plough or reap. It was the "unharvested sea." It yielded, however, one form of nutriment--fish; and, unlike the Homeric heroes, the classical Greeks were largely fish-eaters. Poseidon was the expression of the hopes and desires of a fisher people. His trident was the fisherman's three-pronged spear.

The Homeric Hymn brings us to a new and astonishing aspect of Poseidon.


"Concerning Poseidon, a great god, I begin to sing: the Shaker-of-the-Land and of the sea unharvested; god of the deep who holdeth Helicon and wide Ægæ. A double meed of honour have the gods given thee, O Shaker-of-the-Earth, to be Tamer of horses and Saviour of ships. Hail, Prince, thou girdler of the Earth, thou dark-haired god, and with kindly heart, O blessed one, do thou befriend the mariners."


Pamphus, who wrote the most ancient hymns of the Athenians, says that Poseidon is--

                "Giver of horses and of ships
With spreading sails."

In both these hymns, be it noted, the horse-aspect takes precedence of the sea-aspect. In later literature we call to mind two great hymns to Poseidon: the chorus in Sophocles' Œdipus in Colonus and the hymn in the Knights of Aristophanes.

The Knights invoke, first and foremost, "dread Poseidon, the horsemen's king." Only second do they add: "Hail, Athena, the warrior queen." In the Œdipus Colonus--Colonus being a suburb of Athens--it is Athena and her olive who come first, but in the antistrophe we have:

"Son of Kronos, Lord Poseidon, this our proudest is from thee p. 50
 The strong horses, the young horses, the dominion of the sea.
 First on Attic roads thy bridle tamed the steed for evermore;
 And well swings at sea, a wonder in the rower's hand, the oar
 Bounding after all the hundred Nereid feet that fly before."

At this point possibly someone will ask: "Why make a difficulty? This horseman aspect of the sea-god is merely poetical. Do we not still speak of the sea's 'white horses'? The racing, crested waves are galloping, rearing steeds."

This explanation we might perhaps regard as valid did Poseidon appear only in poetry as horseman. But it is another matter when we find him so figured in early art. On a fragment of Corinthian pottery not later than the seventh century B.C., Poseidon is represented riding on a horse. In his right hand he holds his trident fishing-spear, an attribute surely not of much use to the horseman! Then again, when we come to the ritual of Poseidon, we find that horses were solemnly sacrificed to him. Every ninth year, in Illyria, a yoke of four horses was sunk in the waters. Again, Pausanias tells us that the Argives threw horses bitted and bridled into Dione in honour of Poseidon. There is here no question of the "white horses" of the sea, for Dione, we know, was a fresh-water spring.

Poseidon, then, is sea-god and horse-god. This is bad enough, but there is worse to follow. He is also bull-god.

One of Poseidon's standing epithets was Taureus (He-of-the-Bull). In Hesiod's Shield, Heracles says to the young Iolaos: "Young man, greatly in sooth doth the Father of gods and men honour thy head, yea, and the Bull-God the Earth-Shaker." On a black-figured vase

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we have Poseidon depicted in strange and interesting fashion. He, lord of the sea, is seated on a bull. His left hand grasps a fish, and behind him, vaguely unattached, is his trident. In his right hand he, the lord of the "unharvested sea," holds, with curious irrelevance, a great blossoming bough. The god seems to be just a bundle of incongruities. What has the bull-god to do with the sea and the trident? What congruity is there between the salt sea fish and the blossoming bough?

The animal on which a god stands or rides, or whose head he wears, is usually the primitive animal form of the god himself. Poseidon, who had once for his animal form a horse, was also once, it would seem, a bull. The bull was, in the fullest sense of the word, his vehicle, his carrier. A bull is often chosen by a people of agriculturalists. He is himself the plougher, and he is also a splendid symbol and vehicle of that intense and vigorous life they feel without and within them.

Later, however, when the worshipper gains mastery over these strong and splendid animals, and comes to trust more fully in his own strong right arm, he is less impressed by the godhead of the sacred animal, and the sophisticated worshipper becomes a little shy of a bull-god or a horse-god.

But in poetry the terror and the majesty of the bull-god still remain, and this lives on in the story of the death of Hippolytos. Poseidon has granted to Theseus, father of Hippolytos and son of Poseidon, this boon, that thrice his prayer shall be granted. Hippolytos is driving his chariot by the seashore, and Theseus, when he curses his innocent son, says:

                "And by Poseidon's breath
He shall fall swiftly to the house of Death."

Hippolytos has reached the Gulf of Saronis when the curse falls.

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                           "Just there an angry sound,
Slow swelling, like God's thunder underground,
Broke on us, and we trembled. And the steeds
Pricked their ears skyward, and threw back their heads
And wonder came on all men, and affright,
Whence rose that awful voice? And swift our sight
Turned seaward, down the salt and roaring sand."

A great wave rose and swept towards the chariot of Hippolytos.

"Three lines of wave together raced, and, full
 In the white crest of them, a wild Sea-Bull
 Flung to the shore, a fell and marvellous Thing.
 The whole land held his voice, and answering
 Roared in each echo."

"A great Sea-Bull!" There is no such thing. The imagined terror that edges in awful silence up to the chariot is the god himself in his ancient animal form.


To resume: We have before us a god who, though he is not the sea incarnate, is certainly ruler over the sea--Pontomedon; or, as we should call it nowadays, thalassocrat. He is also Hippios (He-of-the-Horse), and, lastly, he is Taureus (He-of-the-Bull). Could any aspects be more incompatible? How does a god so incongruous come to be? What does it all mean?

The problem seems insoluble. It was, indeed, insoluble to the older psychology. But a more scientific psychological method allows us now--indeed, compels us--to ask the right question, and, once the question asked, the answer is simple enough.

To-day we no longer ask: "Who and what was the god Poseidon?" We all, even the most orthodox, agree that there never was a god Poseidon. There were images of him, but the god himself was not. But, though there was in reality no god Poseidon, there were worshippers of Poseidon, people who imagined the god, feared him,

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believed in him. It is not the god who comes first and creates the worshipper; it is the worshippers who, in their own image, create, imagine, as we should say nowadays, project the god. "An honest god's the noblest work of man" remains the profoundest of paradoxes.

"What then, we have to ask is: "Who and what were the worshippers of Poseidon, what their environment, and what their 'reactions,' as psychologists say, to this environment; how first and foremost did they earn their bread, what were their social activities, what the hopes and fears and joys and sorrows that took their shape in the figure of their god?"

Can we in antiquity find a people who fulfilled the conditions of Poseidon worshippers? A people, that is, of fishermen, of agriculturalists, of horse-rearers, of fat-cattle-rearers, a people who were rulers over the sea, a people, above all, who worshipped the bull. But for the bull-worship, we might be describing ourselves. We English, of mixed Anglo-Saxon and Danish race, have all the needful characteristics, Poseidon, Hippios, Taureos, Pontomedon might have been projected by ourselves.

The word "thalassocrat" (ruler of the sea) brings instantly before us the Cretan Minos. Minos is known in history as the first of the thalassocrats. His god was the Minotaur (the Minos bull). Astonishing though it may seem, the god Poseidon is, in essence and to begin with, none other than the far-famed Cretan Minotaur.

I say advisedly "in essence" and "to begin with," because I want carefully to guard my somewhat alarming statement. The Minotaur is not identical with Poseidon; rather he is the nucleus round which the complex figure of Poseidon slowly crystallises. The Minotaur began as a holy island bull, worshipped by a people of fishermen, agriculturalists, and herdsmen. With his people he develops pari passu, as we shall later see, into a great imperial power.

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We have tracked the bull-god home to Crete. Was the horse-god. Hippios, equally at home there? Were the thalassocrats and bull-breeders of Crete also horse-rearers? If not actually horse-rearers, they were certainly horse importers. A curious seal impression found at Cnossos shows us a one-masted vessel with rowers. On the vessel, superimposed proudly over the whole, is a magnificent horse. Sir Arthur Evans holds that we have here a graphic mode of recording the importation of the horse. The way the horse's mane is plaited, and his fountain-like, upspringing tail, mark him as a Libyan thoroughbred. He is imported, not indigenous in Crete. This Libyan horse helps us to understand a statement of Herodotus. "The god Poseidon," he says, "the Greeks learned of the Libyans, for no people except the Libyans had the name Poseidon, and they have always worshipped him." In one of Pindar's odes, Medea prophesies the colonization of Cyrene in Libya. "Seafarers," she says, "will come and plant cities there, and instead of short-finned dolphins they shall take to themselves fleet mares and reins, instead of oars shall they ply and speed the whirlwind-footed car." And in the Argonautica we hear how the Argonauts were caught and miserably stranded in the shifting shallows of the Syrtes, and were wellnigh desperate, but "there came to the Minyans a wonder, passing strange. From out the sea there leapt landwards a monster Horse. Huge was he with mane flowing in the wind." The monster horse was a portent, was, in fact, the god himself. Peleus, we are told, was glad at heart, "for he knew that Poseidon himself would lift the ship and let her go."

We know now whence came the bull-god and the horse-god. Libyan and Cretan elements both went to the making of the great figure of Minos the thalassocrat, the worshipper of the Minotaur.

But, it will naturally be objected, there is no such

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thing as the Minotaur; a man with a bull's head is an impossible monster. Let us not be too sure. In Egypt, Diodorus tells us, "it was the custom in the ruling house for the king to put on his head the fore-parts of lions, bulls, and snakes, as tokens of royal dominion." The Minotaur, then, is simply the king wearing as a ritual mask a bull's head and horns, and possibly his hide and hoofs. The Minotaur is literally what his name says--the Minos-bull. He is King Minos masking as a bull in the hope of getting for himself and his people the bull's fertility and potency. He desires what primitive people call the bull's mana; he prays, like Hannah, that his "horn may be exalted." In ancient days the horn was constantly connected with fertility. On a prehistoric sculpture a woman with huge breasts holds in her hand a great horn, and we speak to-day of a cornucopia, a horn of abundance.

The potency of the bull's head and horns is not dead to-day. Among the Berkshire Morris dancers the custom of carrying a bull's head still survives. The head is not actually worn, but carried aloft on a pole. Not only in Crete did men masquerade as bulls. At Ephesus the young men who poured out wine at the festival of Poseidon were called Tauroi (bulls).

The bull, then, was, in Crete, the sign of kingship, the mascot, as we should call it. When King Minos wished to obtain the kingdom of Crete, he prayed that a bull should appear to him. He prayed to Poseidon, and Poseidon from the deep sent up a splendid bull; so Minos got the kingdom.


We have seen the bull-god at home in Crete, we have watched him in Libya become a horse-god. Now he passes to the mainland. Had King Minos only desired what was naturally his--the lordship, the hegemony over the Ægean--all might have been well. But the Bull of

p. 56

[paragraph continues] Minos waxed fat and kicked. His lust for empire was his undoing. During the third and second millenniums B.C. the Cretans set forth to conquer and colonize Greece. Each landing-place of the immigrant Cretans is, we find, a site of Poseidon worship, and at each and every site what are called "Mycenæan"--that is, Minoan or Cretan--remains. We cannot here give the full archæological evidence. It must suffice to state the simple fact of the coincidence, all round the mainland coast of Greece, of Poseidon sanctuaries and Mycenæan antiquities. One instance may suffice. Telemachus, in the Odyssey, is seeking his father, and he comes to Pylos, on the coast of the Western Peloponnese. He finds there the "’stablished castle of Neleus," where dwells old Nestor, "tamer of horses." Down on the seashore the dwellers in the land

"Made to the blue-haired Shaker-of-the-Earth
Oblation, slaying coal-black bulls to him.

Nine messes were there, and in each of these
Five hundred men set after their degrees
Offered nine bulls: and then on the inward meat
They fed and burned to God the thigh-pieces.
            *     *     *     *     *
And to Poseidon the Protector now
Made supplication, saying, 'Hearken thou,
Poseidon, Girdler-of-the-Earth, nor grudge
Our work to end according to our vow.'"

This Homeric Pylos, now the modern village of Kakovatos, has yielded beehive tombs, always characteristic of late Minoan civilization.

Mycenæan antiquities and Poseidon sanctuaries are found all along the coast of Greece, right up to the north of Thessaly, where they both somewhat abruptly end. There, close to Mount Olympus, Poseidon must have

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joined the Olympians, and, as he scaled the holy mount, he dropped his bull's horns and hoofs and became the wholly human ruler of the sea, Pontomedon. But always to him, even in high Olympus, was dear the bellowing of bulls and the savour of their burnt sacrifice.

Poseidon, as has often been noted, was, on the mainland of Greece, a beaten god. With Hera he contends for Argos, with Helios for Corinth, with Zeus for Ægina. He was forced to yield Delphi to Apollo and accept Tænarum in exchange. In all cases he was worsted; only at Athens, after his contest with Athena, the two disputants were superficially reconciled, though obviously Athena remains mistress of the situation. Poseidon was worshipped by the old aristocracy in opposition to the new and rising democracy, whose patroness was Athena. Everywhere these legends show that the Minoan civilization took hold on the mainland for a time, but was ultimately ousted, in part by the indigenous "Pelasgian" inhabitants, in part by the northern Hellenic immigrants.

The crisis is at hand. The Bull of Crete has wasted Attica and Megara, and only been hardly bought off by the yearly tribute of young men and maidens. Theseus, the young hero of Trozen, after cleansing the isthmus of the monstrous sons of Poseidon, Sinis, Procrustes, and the like, comes to Athens, and is sent with the human tribute to Crete. There he drags the royal bull, the Minotaur, from his palace, the Labyrinth, and slays him. Translated into history, this means that, somewhere about 1400 B.C., Cnossos had imposed on Athens and Megara an intolerable tribute. The tributaries turned at last, and Cnossos fell. Henceforth, for Athens and for all the civilized world, the royal bull is a savage monster. Væ victis!

But Plato knew that this was only because events were seen through hostile eyes. Crete was mother and

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source of much of the civilization of the mainland, though her wealth was not untinged with barbaric excess. Minos was a mighty lawgiver, and made piracy to cease out of the Ægean Sea. In the Laws the companion of Socrates tries to maintain that Minos as a judge was hard and cruel, but Socrates turns on him and exclaims: "But, my good man, you know that that is but an Attic fable you are telling, a stage plot."

It is now abundantly clear why, in Homer, Poseidon though a mighty force, is mostly a vindictive one. He is an alien. He stands always for Crete and Cretan civilization, a civilization in some ways as great as that of Greece, and which contributed much to Hellenic culture, but which was not Hellenic, and could never wholly be assimilated by Greece. The Minoans were not a people of artists. With all their costly material and skill in handicraft, they lacked that austerity, that reserve, that instinct for clean beauty, which was the birthright of the Hellene.

To resume: We saw at the outset that, to the making of Olympus, there went two distinct racial elements--the southern indigenous "Pelasgian," the northern immigrant Hellene. We now have to add a third, the Cretan-Minoan. Masses of inscriptions have come to light in Crete, but unhappily at present they are unread. We cannot therefore determine with certainty to what race the Cretan-Minoans belonged, but it seems highly probable that they are of Mediterranean stock much nearer akin to the "Pelasgians" than to the Hellenes.

Next: The Mother of the Gods