Greek mythological figures: Sea deities


The ancient Greeks had a large number of sea deities. The philosopher Plato once remarked[2]Plato, Phaedo 109b). that the Greek people were like frogs sitting around a pond—their many cities hugging close to the Mediterranean coastline from the Hellenic homeland to Asia Minor, Libya, Sicily and Southern Italy. Thus, they venerated a rich variety of aquatic divinities. The range of Greek sea gods of the classical era range from primordial powers and an Olympian on the one hand, to heroized mortals, chthonic nymphs, trickster-figures, and monsters on the other.

The three types of sea gods

Primordial powers

Oceanus[3]“Oceanus.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. and Tethys are the father and mother of the gods in the Iliad, while in the seventh century BC the Spartan poet Alcman made the sea-nymph Thetis a demiurge-figure. Orpheus‘s song in Book I of the Argonautica hymns the sea-nymph Eurynome as first queen of the gods, as wife of the ocean-born giant Ophion.

The pre-Socratic cosmogony of Thales, who made water the first element, may be seen as a natural outgrowth of this poetic thinking.

The primacy of aquatic gods is reminiscent of, and may even have been influenced by, ancient Near Eastern mythology – where Tiamat (salt water) and Apsu (fresh water) are the first gods of the Enuma Elish, and where the Spirit of God is said to have “hovered over the waters” in Genesis.

Pontus is the primordial deity of the sea

Poseidon and the heroes

Poseidon,[4]“Poseidon.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. as god of the sea, was an important Olympian power; he was the chief patron of Corinth, many cities of Magna Graecia, and also of Plato‘s legendary Atlantis. He controls the oceans and the seas,[5]Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (2005). ‘Where the Lord of the Sea Grants Passage to Sailors Through the Deep-Blue Mere no More’: The Greeks and the Western Seas. Greece & Rome, 52, pp 153-171 … Continue reading and he also created horses. As such, he was intimately connected with the pre-historic office of king – whose chief emblem of power and primary sacrificial animal was the horse. Thus, on the Mycenean Linear B tablets found at Pylos, the name Poseidon[6]“Poseidon.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. occurs frequently in connection with the wanax (“king”), whose power and wealth were increasingly maritime rather than equestrian in nature. Surprisingly, Poseidon’s name is found with greater frequency than that of Zeus, and is commonly linked (often in a secondary role) with Demeter. Poseidon[7]“Poseidon.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. is brothers with Zeus along with Hades and his father was Cronus, the leader of the Titans.

When the office of wanax disappeared during the Greek Dark Ages, the link between Poseidon and the kingship was largely, although not entirely, forgotten. In classical Athens, Poseidon was remembered as both the opponent and doublet of Erechtheus, the first king of Athens. Erechtheus was given a hero-cult at his tomb under the title Poseidon Erechtheus.

In another possible echo of this archaic association, the chief ritual of Atlantis, according to Plato‘s Critias, was a nocturnal horse-sacrifice offered to Poseidon[8]“Poseidon.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015. by the kings of the imagined island power.

In keeping with the mythic equation between horsemanship and seamanship, the equestrian heroes Castor and Pollux were invoked by sailors against shipwreck. Ancient Greeks interpreted the phenomenon now called St. Elmo’s Fire as the visible presence of the two brothers.

Old Men and nymphs

Several types of sea gods conform to a single type: that of Homer’s halios geron or Old Man of the Sea: Nereus, Proteus, Glaucus and Phorkys.They are minor gods and are subject to the major gods. These sea gods are not as powerful as Poseidon, the main god of the oceans and seas. Each one is a shape-shifter, a prophet, and the father of either radiantly beautiful nymphs or hideous monsters (or both, in the case of Phorkys). Nymphs and monsters blur, for Hesiod relates that Phorcys was wed to the “beautiful-cheeked” Ceto, whose name is merely the feminine of the monstrous Cetus, to whom Andromeda was due to be sacrificed. Each appearance in myth tends to emphasize a different aspect of the archetype: Proteus and Nereus as shape-shifters and tricksters, Phorcys as a father of monsters, Nereus and Glaucus for truth-telling, Nereus for the beauty of his daughters.

Each one of these Old Men is the father or grandfather of many nymphs and/or monsters, who often bear names that are either metaphorical (Thetis, “establishment”; Telesto, “success”) or geographical (Rhodefrom “Rhodes”; Nilos, “Nile”). Each cluster of Old Man and daughters is therefore a kind of pantheon in miniature, each one a different possible configuration of the spiritual, moral and physical world writ small – and writ around the sea.

The tantalizing figure of the halios geron has been a favorite of scholarship. The Old Men have been seen as everything from survivals of old Aegean gods who presided over the waves before Poseidon (Kerenyi) to embodiments of archaic speculation on the relation of truth to cunning intelligence (Detienne).

Homer‘s Odyssey contains a haunting description of a cave of the Nereids on Ithaca, close by a harbor sacred to Phorcys. The Neoplatonist philosopher Porphyry read this passage as an allegory of the whole universe – and he may not have been far off the mark.



1.0 AEGAEON (Αιγαίων), god of violent sea storms and ally of the Titans

2.0 ACHELOUS (Αχελώος), shark-shaped sea spirit

3.0 BENTHESIKYME (Βενθεσικύμη), daughter of Poseidon, who resided in Ethiopia

4.0 BRIZO (Βριζώ), patron goddess of sailors, who sent prophetic dreams

5.0 CETO (Κῆτώ), goddess of the dangers of the ocean and of sea monsters

6.0 CHARYBDIS (Χάρυβδις), a sea monster and spirit of whirlpools and the tide

7.0 CYMOPOLEIA (Κυμοπόλεια), a daughter of Poseidon married to the Giant Briareus

8.0 DELPHIN (Δέλφιν), the leader of the dolphins, Poseidon placed him in the sky as the constellation Delphin

9.0 EIDOTHEA (Ειδοθέα), prophetic sea nymph and daughter of Proteus

10.0 GLAUCUS (Γλαῦκος), the fisherman’s sea god

11.0 Gorgons (Γοργόνες), three monstrous sea spirits

11.1 STHENO (Σθεννώ)

11.2 EURYALE (Εὐρυάλη)

11.3 MEDUSA (Μέδουσα), the only mortal of the three

12.0 The Graeae (Γραῖαι), three ancient sea spirits who personified the white foam of the sea; they shared one eye and one tooth between them

12.1 DEINO (Δεινώ)

12.2 ENYO (Ενυώ)

12.3 PEMPHREDO (Πεμφρεδώ)

13.0 The Harpies (Ηάρπυιαι), winged spirits of sudden, sharp gusts of wind

13.1 AELLO (Αελλώ) or Aellope (Αελλώπη) or Aellopous (Αελλόπους)

13.2 OCYPETE (Ωκυπέτη) or Ocypode (Ωκυπόδη) or Ocythoe (Ωκυθόη)

13.3 PODARGE (Ποδάργη) or Podarke (Ποδάρκη)

13.4 CELAENO (Κελαινώ)

13.5 NICOTHOE (Νικοθόη)

14.0 HIPPOCAMPI (´Ιππόκαμπος), horses of the sea that have the upper-body of a horse and the lower-body of a fish

15.0 HYDROS (Ὑδρος), primordial god of waters

16.0 The Ichthyocentaurs (Ιχθυοκένταυροι), a pair of centaurine sea-gods with the upper bodies of men, the lower fore-parts of horses, ending in the serpentine tails of fish

16.1 BYTHOS (Βύθος) “sea depth”

16.2 APHROS (Άφρος) “sea foam”

17.0 KARKINOS (Καρκίνος), a giant crab who allied itself with the Hydra against Heracles. When it died, Hera placed it in the sky as the constellation Cancer.

18.0 LADON (Λάδων), a hundred-headed sea serpent who guarded the western reaches of the sea, and the island and golden apples of the Hesperides

19.0 LEUCOTHEA (Λευκοθέα), a sea goddess who aided sailors in distress

20.0 Nereides (Νηρηίδες), sea nymphs

20.1 THETIS (Θέτις), leader of the Nereids who presided over the spawning of marine life in the sea

20.2 ARETHUSA (Αρετούσα), a daughter of Nereus who was transformed into a fountain

20.3 GALENE (Γαλήνη), goddess of calm seas

20.4 PSAMATHE (Πσαμάθη), goddess of sand beaches

21.0 NEREUS (Νηρέας), the old man of the sea, and the god of the sea’s rich bounty of fish

22.0 NERITES (Νερίτης), a sea spirit who was transformed into a shell-fish by Aphrodite

23.0 OCEANUS (Ὠκεανός), Titan god of the Earth-encircling river Oceanus, the font of all the Earth’s fresh-water

24.0 PALAEMON (Παλαίμων), a young sea god who aided sailors in distress

25.0 PHORCYS (Φόρκυς), god of the hidden dangers of the deep

26.0 PONTOS (Πόντος), primeval god of the sea, father of the fish and other sea creatures

27.0 PROTEUS (Πρωτεύς), a shape-shifting, prophetic old sea god, and the herdsman of Poseidon’s seals

28.0 POSEIDON (Ποσειδῶν), king of the sea and lord of the sea gods; also god of rivers, flood and drought, earthquakes, and horses

29.0 AMPHITRITE (Αμφιτρίτη), sea goddess and consort of Poseidon

30.0 SCYLLA (Σκύλλα), monstrous sea goddess

31.0 The Sirens (Σειρῆνες), sea nymphs who lured sailors to their death with their song

31.1 AGLAOPE (Αγλαόπη) or Aglaophonos (Αγλαόφωνος) or Aglaopheme (Αγλαοφήμη)

31.2 HIMEROPE (Ίμερόπη)

31.3 LEUCOSIA (Λευκοσία)

31.4 LIGEIA (Λιγεία)

31.5 MOLPE (Μολπή)

31.6 PARTHENOPE (Παρθενόπη)

31.7 PEISINOE (Πεισινόη) or Peisithoe (Πεισιθόη)

31.8 RAIDNE (Ραίδνη)

31.9 TELES (Τέλης)

31.10 THELCHTEREIA (Θελχτήρεια)

31.11 THELXIOPE (Θελξιόπη) or Thelxiepeia (Θελξιέπεια)

32.0 The Telchines (Τελχινες), sea spirits native to the island of Rhodes; the gods killed them when they turned to evil magic

32.1 ACTAEUS (Ακταίος)

32.2 ARGYRON (Αργυρών)

32.3 ATABYRIUS (Αταβύριος)

32.4 CHALCON (Χαλκών)

32.5 CHRYSON (Χρυσών)

32.6 DAMON (Δαμων) or Demonax (Δημώναξ)

32.7 DAMNAMENEUS (Δαμναμενεύς)

32.8 DEXITHEA (Δεξιθέα), mother of Euxanthios by Minos

32.9 LYCOS (Λύκος) or Lyktos (Λύκτος)

32.10 LYSAGORA (Λυσαγόρα)?

32.11 MAKELO (Μακελώ)

32.12 MEGALESIUS (Μεγαλήσιος)

32.13 MYLAS (Μύλας)

32.14 NIKON (Νίκων)

32.15 ORMENOS (Ορμενος)

32.16 SIMON (Σίμων)

32.17 SKELMIS (Σκελμις)

33.0 TETHYS (Τηθύς), Titan goddess of the sources fresh water, and the mother of the rivers, springs, streams, fountains, and clouds

34.0 THALASSA (Θάλασσα), primeval goddess of the sea and consort of Pontos

35.0 THAUMAS (Θαῦμας), god of the wonders of the sea

36.0 THOOSA (Θόοσα), goddess of swift currents

37.0 TRITEIA (Τριτεια), daughter of Triton and companion of Ares

38.0 TRITON (Τρίτων), fish-tailed son and herald of Poseidon

39.0 TRITONES (Τρίτωνες), fish-tailed spirits in Poseidon’s retinue


2 Plato, Phaedo 109b).
3 “Oceanus.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
4, 6, 7, 8 “Poseidon.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2015): 1. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
5 Heinz-Günther Nesselrath (2005). ‘Where the Lord of the Sea Grants Passage to Sailors Through the Deep-Blue Mere no More’: The Greeks and the Western Seas. Greece & Rome, 52, pp 153-171 doi:10.1093/gromej/cxi003
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