Classical Mythology: Surf and Turf: The Brothers of Zeus

Surf and Turf: The Brothers of Zeus

Though not as powerful as their younger brother, Poseidon and Hades could claim to equal his status. For just as Zeus ruled the sky, Poseidon was lord of the seas and Hades the supreme authority in the dark Underworld.

Turf Wars

Poseidon, who won the right to rule the seas, was also the god of horses and of earthquakes. Poseidon's domain actually extended beyond the oceans to include freshwater rivers, even though the river gods were the sons of Oceanus and Tethys.

Mythmakers often depicted Poseidon as gruff and quick to anger. He sometimes resented the greater dominion of Zeus. Perhaps for this reason, Poseidon lived not in Olympus, but in an underwater palace off the eastern coast of Greece.

His subordinate position to Zeus made him sensitive about his other rights. Poseidon argued more over city patronage than any other Olympian. He contested the patronage of Argos with Hera and the patronage of Corinth with Helius. Poseidon lost both disputes and had to settle for the patronage of various islands and seaports.

The most famous of these patronage disputes was the fight over Athens. Poseidon claimed the land by plunging his trident into the ground of the Acropolis and creating a salt-water spring. But Athena later planted the first olive tree beside this well and claimed the city as her own. Poseidon challenged her to combat, but Zeus intervened and put the matter before a divine tribunal. Wishing to remain neutral and above the fray, Zeus did not vote. That left four other gods, all of whom voted for Poseidon. (Hades, as was his custom, did not attend the Olympian hearing.) The five goddesses, however, all sided with Athena, giving her the right to the land by virtue of her greater gift to the city.

In a fury, Poseidon flooded the Attic plain. The Athenians adopted several measures to appease Poseidon's wrath. The city denied the women of Athens the right to vote. It ended the practice of men carrying on their mothers' names. And all Athenians continued to honor both Poseidon and Athena on the Acropolis.

Beastly Couplings, Beastly Children

Poseidon courted Amphitrite, one of the Nereids (daughters of Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea). Yet Amphitrite scorned the god's advances and fled to the Atlas Mountains. Poseidon refused to give up, sending messengers after her to plead his case. One of these, Delphinus, argued so persuasively for his master that he broke down Amphitrite's resistance. She agreed to marry Poseidon. (The god later showed his gratitude by placing his messenger's image in the sky as a constellation: the Dolphin.)

Like his brother Zeus, Poseidon was not exactly the poster boy for fidelity. He, too, had numerous affairs with goddesses, nymphs, and mortals. Like most sea gods, Poseidon had the power to transform his shape, and often did so in order to complete a seduction:

  • He appeared to the maiden Medusa as a bird. Unfortunately, he chose as the setting for this seduction one of Athena's temples. The enraged goddess punished Medusa by turning her into a Gorgon (see The Model Hero: Perseus).
  • To mate with Theophane, whom he had changed into a ewe in order to hide her from her many suitors, he transformed himself into a ram.
  • When Demeter, overwhelmed by the loss of her daughter Persephone, attempted to escape her brother's attentions by becoming a mare, Poseidon was not fooled. He changed himself into a stallion and mated with her in an Arcadian pasture.
What a Life!

Otus and Ephialtes, already 50 feet tall at age nine, literally moved mountains. Just because they could, they heaped Pelion, Ossa, and Olympus on top of one another, nearly reaching heaven itself. The twin giants later killed each other in a hunting “accident” orchestrated by Artemis and Apollo (see The A Team: Olympians All).

Poseidon also mated in the shape of a dolphin and a bull. These many transformations had a powerful influence on his offspring, too:

  • Medusa's children were the winged horse Pegasus and the giant warrior Chrysaor.
  • His union with Theophane produced the famous Golden-Fleeced ram (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts).
  • Demeter had two children by him: the nymph Despoena and a wild horse named Arion.
  • Many of his children were giants, including Chrysaor, the Cyclops Polyphemus, and the trouble-making brothers Otus and Ephialtes.

As a father, Poseidon was very protective, not only toward his three children by Amphitrite, but toward the children of his many mistresses, too. Poseidon made his son Cycnus invulnerable to weapons. He helped Theseus prove his parentage in a bragging contest with King Minos of Crete (see Lucky in War, Unlucky in Love: Theseus). And he avenged the blinding of Polyphemus by tormenting Odysseus for 10 years (see Take the Long Way Home: Odysseus).

Perhaps because he mated with a goddess in that form, the horse became sacred to Poseidon. Some storytellers insisted he invented the horse by smashing his trident down upon a rock. In any case, it is said that he invented horse racing and perhaps the bridle as well. Wherever he went, he rode in a gold chariot drawn by two magnificent white horses with golden manes and brass hooves.

The Prince of Darkness

Hades, who by chance won dominion over the Underworld, soon came to prefer the darkness of his own domain to any other place on Earth or in heaven. For the most part, he remained out of touch with both Olympus and Earth, learning of events there only when someone invoked his name in oaths or curses. He seldom met with the other gods and goddesses on Olympus. And unless moved by lust, he rarely left the Underworld for the common ground of Earth.

Hades became as absolute an authority in the Underworld as Zeus was in the sky. Fiercely protective of his own rights, he claimed ownership of all metals and gems below the surface of the earth.


Hades was originally the name only of the ruler of the Underworld, rather than the place itself. Homer, among others, began referring to the Underworld as the “House of Hades.” In time, the “house” was omitted and the Underworld itself became known as Hades.

The most private of all the gods, Hades did not welcome “visitors” and rarely let anyone who entered the Underworld leave again. Cerberus, a vicious, three-headed watchdog, stood guard at the locked gate, making sure the dead remained in the Underworld.

For this reason, men feared and loathed the fierce lord of the Underworld. Indeed, he became so closely associated with the darkness and horror of the Underworld that the place itself eventually came to be called simply Hades.

Yet Hades, though cold and grim, was neither vicious nor evil. True, he oversaw all punishments of the dead mandated by the gods, but most of these tortures were carried out by the Erinyes (Furies). In lording over the dead, he was simply doing his job. Nonetheless, mortals were reluctant to speak his name (or his somewhat longer title, Aidoneus, the “Unseen One”) for fear of attracting his attention.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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