Friday, February 25, 2011

On Aegeus as Poseidon

Last week I mentioned that my mythology textbook posits Aegeus is himself an aspect/stand-in for Poseidon. On the one hand, this makes so much sense it's ridiculous that I didn't see it myself, but on the other hand, I have a hard time imagining an Olympian god spending years on earth in mortal guise to be king of a city which honors a different higher power. Unless of course the Aegeus-as-Poseidon aspect only reaches as far as the little jaunt Aegeus makes to the oracle, and his stop in Troezan to impregnate Aethra, which then becomes a little bit too convenient, and leaves more questions than answers.

Here's what the book has to say, verbatim (full citation at the end of the post):
"Aegeus, like Erechtheus, is another form of the god Poseidon. This is indicated by his connection with the Aegean Sea and by the tradition that Poseidon rather than Aegeus was Theseus' father." (p. 555)
which is followed by this endnote:
"And by his link with the cult of Apollo Delphinius, i.e., Apollo as a god of spring, when the sea becomes navigable and the dolphins appear as portents of good sailing weather." (p. 571)
Themis Aigeus Antikensammlung Berlin F2538 n2
Aegeus meeting with Themis
But let's not forget that Aegeus was taken in by Medea the, uhm, witch, who supposedly murdered her own children to take revenge on Jason. Poseidon seems much too wily to let himself get roped into that kind of drama-- and he's already married to Amphitrite. While his sea-goddess wife might turn a blind eye to his affairs, here and there, I have yet to meet an Olympian goddess with the character it would take to overlook her husband's disappearance for decades to live as a mortal and take mortal wives. And why would he want to? Boredom? If he was only there as Aegeus long enough to have his pleasure with Aethra, what happened to the real Aegeus, and why does he remember Theseus as his son, later? Add to that the fact that the gods have NEVER had trouble getting male children off anyone, and I have a hard time seeing Aegeus, with his struggle to get a male heir, as any kind of godly aspect.

However. It does neatly solve the paternity problem of Theseus, and to argue that Aegeus could NOT have been an aspect of Poseidon imposes human limitations on gods which, for all any of us know, are able to do much, much, more than the occasional shape-shift to seduce a woman. Poseidon in particular, as god of the seas and Earth-Shaker, comes off as pretty mighty when it comes to godly powers. So then, perhaps this is some small bit of Poseidon, exploring the world of man and mortality-- not unlike Jesus-- with the whole of Poseidon back home in his underwater palace.

Again though, why King of Athens, after Poseidon lost out on the patronage of that city to Athena? It seems to me more likely Poseidon would be interested in spiting them than blessing them with a great hero, after something like that. This is something we've seen over and over again. The entire Trojan War is based off of a grudge match between the goddesses who Paris did NOT choose looking to take revenge on the entire city of Troy for the insult. And the fall of Crete can also be attributed to Poseidon teaching Minos a hard lesson for breaking trust and not giving the beautiful gift of a bull back to the gods in sacrifice as he promised.

I suppose Poseidon might have simply possessed Aegeus for the duration of his conjugal visit with Aethra, but I've never heard of another god taking over the body of a man in spirit, when he wanted to get it on, and if he did so, how would that have any effect on Theseus' paternity?

I can definitely see the author's point, regarding Aegeus' associations and his general sea-like presence, but I'm just not sure it takes into account everything else that we know about Aegeus, his relationship to Athens, Poseidon, and the behaviors of the gods. It does not seem consistent with the rest of the myths I've read by any means-- though perhaps I'm just reading too much from an historical viewpoint, with the assumption that these people, in some manner, lived, or must follow some internal logic. After all, if it is all just a story told around the hearth-fire, then why does it have to be anything but what it is? But if myth comes from some kernel of truth, if myth is the cultural memory of gods that have been given up for dead, no less true than any other religious story which we take as history now (like the birth of Jesus as an historical figure), then I need some more convincing than an association with Apollo and his association with the sea.

Source Cited:
Morford, Mark P.O., and Robert J. Lenardon. Classical Mythology: Seventh Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


  1. I've learned so much about the different myths from reading your posts. I hope you continue sharing. Could it be the Aegeus/Poseidon debate starts from an inconsistency between storytellers before the myths were written down?

  2. It could definitely be an inconsistency-- or a case of modern day scholars looking for connections where there aren't really any in order to MAKE IT WORK. I expect it's more likely we've lost a missing piece of the story of Theseus' conception over the years which leaves us with the disjointed account of who really fathered him, and academics grasping to make the connection elsewhere.

  3. Interesting post. I believe a similar story of a double paternity is found in the Heracles story, in which Alcmene is impregnated the same night by both Zeus and her human husband. I'd welcome your thoughts about the encounter of Aegeus and Themis - why it is Themis, rather than the oracle, or Apollo.

    1. Yes -- Heracles does have a similar story of dual paternity, except that in his story, it's clear that Alcmene had two separate encounters with two separate people (both with the appearance of her husband) in the same night. With Theseus, they're trying to make it out as one encounter, at least in this book -- and their argument feels awfully forced, to me.

      Regarding Aegeus and Themis: Themis was probably the earlier god/dess in charge of the oracle and predated Apollo. As for his speaking directly to the goddess and not to an intermediary oracle, I would guess that's a way of emphasizing that Aegeus was an important person, not just some peasant from the fields, but a king, and a king who was going to father a very important son, too.

      But I could be wrong in both instances :) Thanks for the comment!

  4. You note an important point - the appearance of Themis herself would be a sign of something momentous being set or spoken. My particular interest is Ovid's rendering of myth in his Metamorphoses - for Themis in that poem:



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