Rivers (Potamoi/Flumina)

Category: Gods > Water Gods

1 Terminological and conceptual questions

Due to the influence of theoi.com on contemporary (English-language) polytheism, many now think that “the Potamoi were the gods of the rivers and streams of the earth”. This is not really right: potamos (ποταμός, pl. ποταμοί) is simply the ancient Greek word for ‘river’, just like the Latin flūvius (pl. flūviī) or flūmen (pl. flūmina). But the pleonastic formulation, “rivers are the gods of rivers”, does get at a conceptual difficulty: is it really the rivers as bodies of waters who were worshipped as gods, or are there something like “gods of the rivers”?

There are various sources we can turn to for at least partial answers.

According to Artemidorus, Rivers are among the perceptible riverine (potamioi) gods, which suggests that the bodies of water themselves are meant – but then again, he also classifies the Nymphs as such, probably because sightings of them (in anthropomorphic shape) were commonly reported.

The ancient grammarians sometimes make distinctions like “now Homer means the river Oceanus, but there are times when he means the body-shaped (sōmatoeidēs) Oceanus, ‘the origin of the gods’ [Iliad 14.201]” (Scholia on Iliad 1.423), where ‘body-shaped’ means something like ‘human-shaped, anthropomorphic’. But this clean distinction between animate (‘ensouled’, empsykha) gods and inanimate (‘soul-less’, apsykha) things was not developed to understand the real nature of the gods, but to analyze mythological poetry.

It becomes abundantly clear that this kind of analysis does not presume that the body-shaped gods are real if we look at the different scholia on Theocritus, Idylls 8.33, “O mountain glens (ankea) and rivers, divine offspring (genos)!” One scholiast writes: “an address (logos) as if to something animate; and this is a poetic custom”; another in the same vein: “a pleasant figure of speech, where inanimate beings are addressed as if animate.” A third again uses the technical term sōmatoeidēs: “he speaks to the mountain glens and rivers as if to body-shaped gods.”

Even if they are treated as gods, to the grammarians the primary way to understanding the gods was through mythology or etymology, not philosophizing about their nature: “By ‘divine offspring (genos)’ he means the ancestry (genos) of rivers, insofar as they are born of Tethys and Oceanus, or of Zeus, as Homer has it”; another: “either because they are the children of Tethys and Oceanus, who ‘is the origin (genesis) of all’ (Iliad 14.246), or because they are always in motion, deriving theion (‘divine’) from theō (‘to run’)” (Scholia on Theocritus, Idylls 8.33).

That said, there were grammarians who had a greater degree of interest in how the gods described in mythical poetry related to real divine beings and the traditions of their worship. Firstly, there is a fascinating passage in the Homeric scholia that is attributed to the philosopher-grammarian Porphyry of Tyre. Regarding a passage where Odysseus prays to a river he comes across, he writes: “Odysseus prays to the river because each (river) has a daemon. […] Thus, Homer considers all things to be filled with divine powers” (For the full scholium see Nymphs.)

Note that Porphyry says Odysseus prays to the river because each river has a daemon; in other words, to worship the river is the same as to worship its daemon. Because “all things are full of gods”, as the saying goes (Plato, Laws 899b), there is no reason to sharply distinguish between inanimate things and gods, as we saw other scholiasts do. We might almost go so far as to say that the daemons animate their respective rivers, and in that sense rivers too are animate beings – almost, but this would be putting words in Porphyry’s mouth.

A similar exegetical path, but with different terminology, is pursued in the scholia on the Latin poet Vergil, who describes a (dream) vision beheld by Aeneas as he rests near the river Tiber: “He saw the god of that place himself, the elder Tiberinus, rise up from the delightful river through branches of poplar. A thin garment clothed him in a blue-grey mantle, and a garland of shading reeds covered his hair” (Vergil, Aeneid 8.31–34).

The use of the word ‘himself’ (ipse) gave one anonymous commentator pause: “Since Tiberinus ‘himself’ is the river, how does Vergil say ‘the god from the river’? Because Tiberinus is the deus genius loci” (Servius auctus, On the Aeneid 8.31). Here, the phrase ‘god of the place’ (deus loci) is unpacked as meaning ‘the god (deus) who is the genius of the place’ – not a genius as opposed to a god, or a specific kind of god (see Genius, genii, junos), but any divine guardian allotted to a location. So Servius, in one instance, calls Isis the “genius of Egypt” (Servius, On the Aeneid 8.696; similarly of Apollo, ibid. 7.136). Apparently the relationship between place and deity is close enough to allow the transference of the pronoun ‘himself’ from one to the other, or else it is the genius of the river who is properly called Tiberinus.

Alternately, it might be argued that ‘himself’ here merely serves to express the greatness of the god, because “there are certain pronouns which lend dignity to the names they are added to, as in ‘Aeneas himself (ipse)’” (Servius auctus, On the Eclogues 4.43).

Yet there is other evidence that speaking of a river ‘itself’ and a divinity or genius over it was seen as equivalent – that the ‘himself’, in other words, is the river and its guardian without distinction. I am referring in particular to a passage from Pliny the Younger: “If certain divinity (divinitas) belongs to lands (terrae), or streams (amnes) have some sort of genius, and I pray to that soil, and to the river (flumen) itself, …” (Panegyricus 32.3). To have a genius, then, would be to possess divinity, so that the river itself is divine.

[Poetic descriptions: Ovid. Xanthus‘ fight, description makes no distinction between river and god at all. Below? Inadequacy of ancient grammar on this point]

Schol. Od. 4.474: πόντον] ἰστέον ὅτι δύο σημαίνει, τὸν ποταμὸν τὸ ῥεῖθρον, καὶ τὸν ἐπιστατοῦντα δαίμονα, ὡς εἶπον οἱ θεολόγοι. E.

72: TVO GENITOR CVM FLVMINE sic enim invocatur in precibus 8.72.2 ‚adesto, Tiberine, cum tuis undis‘.

Serv. Aen. 9.123.1 REVOCATQVE PEDEM TIBERINVS AB ALTO nunc ipsum deum territum dixit: supra, undas fuisse perterritas et in se repressas.

Serv. Aen. 5.85,95: nullus locus sine genio

Serv. Buc. 8.3: flumina etiam sensu carentia cursus proprios retardarunt.

Serv. Aen. 7.29.1 LVCVM PROSPICIT in quo erat fluminis numen: diximus enim numquam sine religione esse lucum a Vergilio positum.

philosophers who exercised their faculties in interpreting poetry, and philosophical exegesis did become part of the grammarian’s toolset.

Philodemus about Chrysippus; Seneca ep. 41

Seneca, Epist. 41.3: Magnorum fluminum capita veneramur; subita ex abdito vasti amnis eruptio aras habet; coluntur aquarum calentium fontes, et stagna quaedam vel opacitas vel immensa altitudo sacravit. (with more context?)

Schol. Theogonia 347b.1 <σὺν Ἀπόλλωνι ἄνακτι:> καὶ γὰρ Ἀπόλλωνι καὶ ποταμοῖς οἱ νέοι ἀπέκειρον τὰς κόμας διὰ τὸ αὐξήσεως καὶ ἀνατροφῆς αἰτίους εἶναι, R2WLZT ὡς Ὅμηρος (Ψ 144)· Σπερχεί‘ ἄλλως σοί γε πατὴρ ἠρήσατο [πῆμα] Πηλεύς. 347b.5 τὰ γὰρ ὕδατα αὐξητικὰ καὶ ὁ ἥλιος. R2WLZ

Schol. Op. sch.737-741.1 * <μηδέ ποτ‘ ἀεννάων ποτα- sch.737-741.2 μῶν:> οἱ παλαιοὶ καὶ πᾶσαν μὲν τὴν τῶν ὑδάτων φύσιν ὡς τρόφιμον καὶ αὐξητικὴν τῶν φύσεων ἱερὰν ἐνόμιζον εἶ- ναι τῶν ζωογόνων θεῶν· μάλιστα δὲ τοὺς ἀεννάους ποτα- sch.737-741.5 μοὺς θείους ἐνόμιζον, τὴν ἀνέκλειπτον τῶν θεῶν οὐσίαν ἱκανῶς μιμουμένους, καὶ δυνάμεις ᾤοντο θείας ἔχειν ἐφε- στώσας αὐτοῖς. εἰκότως οὖν διὰ πάντων ἡμᾶς παιδεύων εἰς εὐσέβειαν ἀξιοῖ μὴ διαβαίνειν εἰς ἀένναον ποταμὸν πρὶν <ἂν> εὐξώμεθα βλέποντες εἰς αὐτόν· εὔχεσθαι δὲ sch.737-741.10 ἀπονιψαμένους πρότερον. τὸν γὰρ ἄνιπτον διϊόντα διὰ κακίαν τοῦτο ποιεῖν τὴν καταφρονοῦσαν ὧν δεῖ μὴ καταφρο- νεῖν, <***>. καὶ ἔστι καὶ τοῦτο σημεῖον θεοσεβοῦς ζωῆς, τὸ μηδὲ ἐν τούτοις ἀμελεῖν τοῦ καθήκοντος.

Proclus, In Rep. essay 6: 1.148.25 Καὶ μὴν καὶ περὶ τῆς πρὸς τὸν Ξάνθον αὐτοῦ λεγο- μένης μάχης οὐ χαλεπὸν ἀπαντᾶν. οὐ γὰρ πρὸς αὐτὸν τὸν θεὸν ἀπειθὴς ἦν, ἀλλ‘ ἢ πρὸς τὸ φαινόμενον ὕδωρ ἐμποδίζον αὐτῷ τὴν κατὰ τῶν πολεμίων ὁρμὴν ἢ πρός τινα τῶν ἐγχωρίων δυνάμεων μετὰ θεῶν συμμάχων ἠγωνίζετο· 1.148.30 καὶ γὰρ Ἀθηνᾶς καὶ Ποσειδῶνος αὐτῷ παρόντων καὶ 1.149.1 συμπνεόντων ἀνθίστατο. καί μοι δοκεῖ κατὰ πάσας τὰς δια- φορὰς ἡ ποίησις τοὺς ἀγῶνας διαπλέκουσα, καὶ τότε μὲν ἀνθρώπων πρὸς ἀλλήλους μάχας ἱστοροῦσα, τότε δὲ τῶν κρειττόνων γενῶν, ὥσπερ ἐν τῇ καλουμένῃ θεομαχίᾳ, καὶ 1.149.5 ταύτην παραδοῦναι τὴν ἀντίστασιν τῶν ἡρώων πρός τι- νας δαιμονίας φύσεις, ἐνδεικνυμένη τοῖς τῶν τοιούτων ἐπαΐειν δυναμένοις, ὅτι καὶ τὰ πρώτιστα τῶν τελευταίων ἐξισοῦταί πως τοῖς ἐσχάτοις τῶν πρώτων, καὶ διαφερόντως ὅταν ὑπ‘ αὐτῶν κινῆται καὶ φρουρῆται τῶν θεῶν. καὶ οὐκ 1.149.10 Ἀχιλλεὺς πρὸς τὸν Ξάνθον μόνος, ἀλλὰ καὶ Ἡρακλῆς οὕτω πρὸς τὸν Ἀχελῷον διαγωνίσασθαι λέγεται, πρὸς ὃν καὶ ὁ Ἀχιλλεὺς τὴν ἑαυτοῦ ζωὴν ἐπανάγων οὐδὲ τοὺς τοιούτους ἀγῶνας ἀπεσείετο.

sacrifice to rivers; locks to rivers;

21.2b; 21.194; more in 21?; 21.237

relation to children-making, ritual: Scholia on Eur. Ph. 347; childbirth: Artemidorus on Potamoi Limnai Nymphai

Sextus, Proclus

relation to Nymphs: Serv. Aen. 7.137.1 NYMPHASQVE ET ADHVC IGNOTA PRECATVR FLVMINA bonum ordinem sequitur: sic alibi “nymphae, Laurentes nym- phae, genus amnibus unde est”. 7.138.1 NOCTEM NOCTISQVE ORIENTIA SIGNA quae noctem sequun- 7.138.2 tur, ut nymphas flumina: invocat enim sibi coniuncta.


Serv. Aen. 8.77.1 CORNIGER flumina ideo cum cornibus pinguntur, sive quod mugitum boum imitatur murmur undarum, sive quod plerumque in cornuum similitudinem curvatas cernimus ripas.

730.1 <βούκερως ἀρὴς>· Ἄρης οὐκ ἔστι ποταμὸς περὶ Τέρειναν, ὅθεν τινὲς ἐπιθετικῶς αὐτὸ ἐξεδέξαντο ἐπὶ τοῦ Ὠκινάρου ss2s3s4 ἵνα δηλοῖ τὸν ἰσχυρὸν καὶ ἐνεργῆ τῇ δυνάμει. τινὲς δὲ γράφουσιν <Ἔρης> καὶ <Ἔρις>· ἄμφω γὰρ 730.5 ποταμοὶ περὶ Τέρειναν ss2s3s6. <βούκερως> ὅτι τοὺς πο- ταμοὺς κερατοφόρους καὶ βουκεφάλους εἰσάγουσιν ἴσως διὰ τὸ βίαιον καὶ ἠχῶδες καὶ βρυχητικὸν τοῦ ῥεύματος. ss2s3s4s6 <Ὠκίναρος> ποταμὸς περὶ Τέρειναν <ἄρης> ἤτοι ἰσχυρὸς λεγόμενος καὶ <βούκερως> διὰ τὸ ἠχητικόν. s4


Cornutus p.42.16



Genealogy: Schol. Theogonia 338: 338.1 <Νεῖλόν τ‘:> ἐκ τούτου φαίνεται Ἡσίοδος Ὁμήρου νεώ- τερος· καὶ γὰρ Ὅμηρος (δ 477, 581; ξ 258; ρ 427) Αἴγυπτον καλεῖ τὸν Νεῖλον. Ἀλφειὸς δὲ ποταμὸς Πελοποννήσου ἐν Ἤλιδι· κατέρχε- 338.4 ται δὲ ἀπὸ Ἀσίας, κώμης Ἀρκαδικῆς. Ἠριδανὸς δὲ ποταμὸς Κελ- 338.5 τῶν· Στρυμὼν ποταμὸς Θρᾴκης· Μαίανδρος ποταμὸς Λυδίας ἢ Κα- ρίας· Ἴστρος ποταμὸς Σκυθίας· Φᾶσις ποταμὸς Κόλχων· Ῥῆσος ποταμὸς Τροίας· Ἀχελῷος Ἀκαρνανίας ἢ Αἰτωλίας· Νέσσος Θρᾴ- κης· Ῥόδιος Τροίας· Ἁλιάκμων Μακεδονίας· Ἑπτάπορος καὶ Γρή- νικος καὶ Αἴσηπος καὶ Σιμοῦς Τροίας· Πηνειὸς Θετταλίας· Ἕρμος 338.10 Λυδίας· Κάϊκος Μυσίας· Σαγγάριος Φρυγίας τῆς ἄνω· Λάδων Ἀρκαδίας· Παρθένιος Παφλαγονίας· Εὔηνος Αἰτωλίας· Ἄρδησκος Σκυθίας· Σκάμανδρος Τροίας. ὁμοῦ ποταμοὶ εἴκοσι πέντε. ὁ δὲ ἐν Σάμῳ Παρθένιος καὶ Ἴμβρασος καλεῖται. Ἴμβρασος δὲ ὑπὸ Καρῶν Ἑρμῆς λέγεται. R2WLZT 346.1 <τίκτε δὲ θυγατέρων:> ἔτεκε δὲ τὰς λίμνας, αἵτινες σὺν τῷ ἡλίῳ τρέφουσιν ἡμᾶς. ταῦτα δέ εἰσιν ὀνόματα ποταμῶν καὶ λιμνῶν. R2WLZ

mythical genealogy: Nonnus 40.551; Callimachus In Delum 109,256


Hermias, Porphyry, Papyrus Derveni

Serv. auct. Georg. 1.8: POCVLAQVE INVENTIS ACHELOIA MISCVIT VVIS Ache- lous Terrae fuisse filius dicitur, ut solet de his dici, quorum per anti- quitatem latent parentes. hic cum de Melpomene vel, ut quidam dicunt, de Calliope musa sirenas habens filias amisisset et maerore conficeretur, auxilium matris oravit, ut sibi seni luctus remedium praestaret. quae 1.8.25 miserans filium patefactis antris intra se obruit, cui postea ut peren- nem famam nominis daret, in Aetolica regione fluvium eiusdem voca- buli nasci fecit, quem nonnulli de Pindo, monte Thessaliae, oriri ad- serunt. circa hunc Staphylus, Oenei pastor, cum animadvertisset ex capellis unam esse pinguissimam, intellexit id pabuli ubertate fieri. 1.8.30 secutus itaque eandem cum vidisset uvis vesci, admiratus et novitatem et dulcedinem, decerptum fructum pertulit regi. qui cum liquorem ex- pressisset, a suo nomine appellavit οἶνον, ab inventore σταφυλήν. sed Hercules cum propter uxorem Deianiram cum Acheloo contenderet, cornu eius unum fregit, quod graece κέρας dicitur, unde miscere pocu- 1.8.35 lum apud Graecos κεράσαι dicitur. sed hic Acheloum non praeter ra- tionem dixit: nam, sicut Orpheus docet, et Aristophanes comicus et Ephorus historicus tradunt, Ἀχελῷον generaliter propter antiquitatem 1.8.38 fluminis omnem aquam veteres vocabant. ergo quia specialiter Achelous Graeciae fluvius dicitur, aut species est pro genere, aut secundum an- 1.8.40 tiquitatem est locutus.

Serv. auct. 8.299.27 Acheloum etiam fluvium, qui se propter Deianiram, Oenei filiam, cer- tando cum Hercule in formas varias commutabat, mutatum in taurum, avulso ab illo cornu, victoria cedere conpulit.

Underworld rivers (gods!)


Serv. Aen. 8.77: HESPERIDVM REGNATOR AQVARVM bene addidit ‚Hesperidum‘, id est Italicarum: 8.77.5 nam Eridanus rex est fluminum Hesperiae, ut “fluviorum rex Eri- danus”.


8.31 TIBERINVS bene ‚Tiberinus‘, quia supra dixerat ‚deus‘: nam in sacris Tiberinus, in coenolexia Tiberis, in poemate Thybris vocatur.
8.33.1 TENVIS GLAVCO VELABAT AMICTV CARBASVS ET CRINES VMBROSA TEGE- BAT HARVNDO fluvialem aquam purificationi aptam latenter ostendit in tantum, ut etiam harundinibus, quae fluminum germina esse non dubium est, purificatio rite celebretur. ideo inventa occasione poeta harundinibus tectum fluvium inducit, ut doceat hoc etiam harundinibus in purificatione, quod per aquam, impleri posse, sicut in sacris traditur. ideo et ubique fluminibus harundinem dat, ut “velatus harundine glauca Mincius, et ripis fluvialis harundo”.
quod autem ait ‚tenuis glauco volabat amictu carbasus‘ docet quaedam sacra pure a linteatis debere fieri. carbasus autem genus lini est: linum vero, ut ait Plinius, melius inrigatione fluminum, quam pluvia nascitur. ideo et vestis linea fluminibus tamquam propria datur.
8.33 SENIOR atqui ubique eum flavum dixit; sed ’senior‘ aut propter spumas dictum est, aut ad reverentiam pertinet: sic Lucanus de urbe Roma adhuc 8.33.15 florente “turrigero canos effundens vertice crines”
Asper, Grammatica Vergiliana: Contra abl. pro gen.: […] Fluvio Tiberinus amoeno

Aen. 8.72: TVO GENITOR CVM FLVMINE sic enim invocatur in precibus 8.72.2 ‚adesto, Tiberine, cum tuis undis‘. Thybrin vero alii a rege Abori- ginum dictum volunt, qui iuxta dimicans interemptus est; alii ab eo rege, quem Glaucus, Minois filius, in Italia interemit; alii, inter 8.72.5 quos et Livius, ab Albano rege, qui in eum cecidit.

Aen. 3.500.1 SIQVANDO THYBRIM fluvium: pro quo regem ipsum posuit Thybrim, qui in hunc cecidit fluvium et ei nomen dedit; nam antea Albula dicebatur, ut ostendit in octavo Vergilius. alii volunt non Thybrim cecidisse, sed Tiberinum, regem Albanorum, a quo 3.500.5 Tiberis dictus est. ut autem Thybris dicatur, haec ratio est: quo- dam tempore Syracusani, victores Atheniensium, ceperunt Syracusis ingentem hostium multitudinem et eam caesis montibus fecerunt addere munimenta civitati. tunc auctis muris etiam fossa intrin- secus facta est, quae flumine admisso repleta munitiorem redderet 3.500.10 civitatem. hanc igitur fossam, per hostium poenam et iniuriam 3.500.11 factam, Thybrin vocaverunt ἀπὸ τῆς ὕβρεως. postea profecti Siculi ad Italiam eam tenuerunt partem, ubi nunc Roma est, usque ad Rutulos et Ardeam: unde est “fines super usque Sica- nos”: et Albulam fluvium ad imaginem fossae Syracusanae Thybrin 3.500.15 vocaverunt, quasi ὕβριν, ut “effigiem Xanthi Troiamque videtis”. circa Syracusas autem esse fossam Thybrin nomine Theo- critus meminit.

3.89.1 DA PATER ‚pater‘ religionis, ut supra diximus, nomen est. nam et hominibus datur, ut “inde toro pater Aeneas”, et montibus, ut “pater Appenninus”, et fluviis 3.89.4 ut “Thybri pater” numinibus etiam, ut “quid- 3.89.5 ve pater Neptune paras”, item “ipse pater Danais animos viresque secundas sufficit”, item “odit et ipse pater Pluton”.

Aen. 1.155.1 GENITOR venerabilis, ut “Thybri pater”. ergo hoc nomen et ad verum patrem pertinet et ad honorem refertur. {sane veteres omnes deos patres dicebant.}

Serv. In Aen. 8.330: 8.330.1 INMANI CORPORE THYBRIS hic Tuscorum rex fuit, qui iuxta hunc fluvium pugnans cecidit et ei nomen inposuit: vel ut quidam volunt a Glauco, Minois regis filio, occisus est. alii volunt istum ipsum regem latrocinatum esse circa huius fluminis ripas et 8.330.5 transeuntibus crebras iniurias intulisse, unde Thybris quasi ὕβρις dictus est ἀπὸ τῆς ὕβρεως, id est ab iniuria: nam amabant maiores ubi aspiratio erat Θ ponere. alii Tiberim, Iani et Camasenae filium, ibi in bello perisse tradunt. Varro Tiberim a Thebri quodam vel a * * * qui ibi perierit, dictum tradit. alii, ut supra diximus, 8.330.10 volunt eos qui de Sicilia venerunt, Thybrin dixisse ad similitudinem fossae Syracusanae, quam fecerunt per iniuriam Afri et Athenien- ses iuxta civitatis murum: nam quod Livius dicit, ab Albano rege Tiberino Thybrin dictum, non procedit ideo, quia etiam ante Albam Thybris dictus invenitur. sed hic Alexandrum sequitur, qui 8.330.15 dicit Tiberinum, Capeti filium, venantem in hunc fluvium cecidisse et fluvio nomen dedisse: nam et a pontificibus indigitari solet.