Water Gods

Category: Gods

1 Pages in this category

2 On the Water Gods

Water gods are, depending on your perspective, the gods who dwell in water, who watch over the waters, or who are the water. There are two basic ways of understanding them within ancient Greco-Roman learning.

In the mythological flat-earth model, as set out by Hesiod, the water gods in the main go back to two fathers: Pontus, the Sea surrounded by the land; and Oceanus, the great river encircling the land. Pontus is the progenitor of the marine gods, and his son Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea, is the father of the Nereids (marine Nymphs). Oceanus is the parent, with Tethys, of the rivers and (riverine or freshwater) Nymphs. Then, with Zeus’ ascension to kingship, Poseidon is given rule over the Sea and all in it, or indeed over all waters.

In mainstream pagan philosophy, by contrast, the Earth was understood to be spherical, and it was known that surrounding the known land masses (Africa, Asia and Europe), there was no encircling river, but a saltwater body connected to the Mediterranean Sea. There was also a shift away from the early poets’ genealogical model of theogony, so that divine procreation was in many contexts interpreted metaphorically, or at least as something other than sexual reproduction.

This led to reanalysis of the mythical accounts in different terms, such as in Porphyry’s On Cult Statues, where it is said Oceanus refers to the divine power over all water; subordinated to it are two general powers, Poseidon over marine waters and Acheloüs (the river par excellence) over freshwater bodies. Under these general powers are particular, local powers: the Nereids under Poseidon, the Nymphs under Acheloüs.

For other authors, the god who pervades all waters and rules them, or who is himself the ‘moist (i.e., watery) essence’ (hygrá ousía), is Poseidon – not set in by Zeus, but intrinsically.

In practical ritual terms, however, the difference between the mythological and philosophical views is not very significant; the iconography of the gods and the ceremonial practices remain the same. Thus, later poetry, and especially the hymns written for the water gods, often blend mythical and natural philosophical discourse.

Status: completed.