Boat on the Aegean Sea at night in Santorini, Greece - Poseidon

The Realm of Poseidon: A Mythical Voyage Around the Aegean

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Poseidon
the great god
I begin to sing, he who moves the earth
and the desolate sea…
You are dark-haired
you are blessed
you have a kind heart.
Help those who sail upon
The sea
In ships.
                              ~Homeric Hymn to Poseidon

Gods and Legends

Poseidon was the Greek god of the sea, the shaker of the land responsible for earthquakes, and the god of horses. Usually living in the sea, he could make the waters either calm or stormy depending on his volatile moods. As a patron deity of Athens, Poseidon competed with Athena, who planted the sacred olive tree, by establishing a magical well of salt water on the Acropolis.

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens - Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512).

Poseidon and Athena battle for control of Athens - Benvenuto Tisi da Garofalo (1512). ( Public Domain )

If any boat was to survive in Poseidon’s Realm, its crew would have to appease him, usually in the form of sacrifices. The ancient Greeks would kill bulls on beaches or temples and offer up the sacrifices to the god; I preferred in my sailing voyage around the Aegean to make a libation to his memory and presence, usually in the form of the first glass of wine which I poured in the waters of Homer’s ‘wine-dark sea’.

Panoramic view of the Santorini caldera, taken from Oia.

Panoramic view of the Santorini caldera, taken from Oia. ( Public Domain )

Poseidon—Neptune to the Romans—was one of the three main gods of ancient Greece. He was the brother to Zeus, the most powerful god and ruler of the Heavens, and to Hades, the god of the Underworld where a soul goes to spend a ghostly existence after death. As with the other gods and goddesses, they intervened into human affairs and often took the form of what humans called fate.

The Greek Trinity: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades -- gods of heavens, sea, and underworld.

The Greek Trinity: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades -- gods of heavens, sea, and underworld. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When Odysseus, for instance, tried to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, Homer tells us in his epic poem The Odyssey , it took him many years because he had angered Poseidon after blinding one of his sons, the one-eyed monster Cyclops Polyphemus for eating his crew and for keeping him captive in a cave. On the other hand, Odysseus was helped on his way by the intervention of the goddess Athena who wanted the Trojans defeated.

The blinded Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, seeks vengeance on Odysseus

The blinded Polyphemus, son of Poseidon, seeks vengeance on Odysseus ( Public Domain)

The gods and goddesses normally lived on the summit of Mount Olympus (the tallest mountain in Greece, and only climbed by humans at the beginning of the last century, and by myself this century). Although in some ways idealized, they were all-too-human, quarrelling with each other, committing adultery, laughing as well as being downhearted. Zeus would often have arguments with his wife Hera, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, particularly because of his many infidelities.

Despite the cities along the coast of the Eastern Aegean being the birthplace of philosophy and science, with one philosopher saying we can know nothing of the gods and the afterlife, most Greeks firmly believed in their gods. They held Delos in the center of the Aegean to be a sacred island, the birthplace of Apollo, the god of light, music and knowledge, and his twin sister Artemis, the goddess of the hunt and the moon.   And they readily consulted oracles, especially at Delphi, in their attempts to see into the future.

Heraion, the Temple of Hera, on Delos, Greece.

Heraion, the Temple of Hera, on Delos, Greece. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The priestess of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece.

The priestess of the oracle at ancient Delphi, Greece. ( Public Domain )

But Apollo was also the brother of Dionysius, the god of wine and ecstasy.  Many festivals of plays and songs were put on his honour. The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche for one saw the birth of Greek tragedy to a combination of ‘Apollonian’ spirit giving form to ‘Dionysian’ energy.

Aegean Voyage

Mythology was an important part of my voyage around the Aegean as it helps to understand ancient Greeks.  I set off in a small sailing boat with a traveling companion and traveling at roughly the same speed as the ancient boats, I drew a great circle around the Aegean.

Satellite view of the Aegean Sea.

Satellite view of the Aegean Sea. ( Public Domain )

My voyage in space reflected my voyage in time, for I investigated the various stages in ancient Greek history, from the Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, Classical and the Hellenic. I also wanted to test my hunch that Greek civilization cannot be properly understood except from the point of view of the sea. It was central to their lives; Plato described accurately the city states like ‘frogs around a pond’. With a mountainous hinterland and poor soil, they inevitably looked to the sea for foreign trade and new colonies.

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