Friday, June 3, 2016

TFBT: Proteus, Another Old Man of the Sea

“Proteus I call…All-honored, prudent, whose sagacious mind knows all that was and is of every kind, with all that shall be in succeeding time, so vast thy wisdom, wondrous and sublime: for all things Nature first to thee consigned, and in thy essence omniform confined. O father, to the mystics' rites attend, and grant, a blessed life a prosperous end."  Orphic Hymn 25 to Proteus  

Proteus is the unerring “Old Man of the Sea”[i]as are the sea-gods Nereus[ii] and Phorcys.[iii] He, like other marine divinities, possessed power of prophesy and shape-shifting.  He and one of his daughters are major characters in the story of Odysseus.  Proteus rides through the Carpathian Sea, in a chariot drawn by Hippocampal[iv] or with fishes and two-footed sea-horses.[v] He was a son Phoenice, the eponymous nymph Phoenicia and of Poseidon.[vi]  

"This is Egypt; here flows the virgin river, the lovely Nile, who brings down melted snow to slake the soil of the Egyptian plain with the moisture heaven denies. Proteus…lived…on the island of Pharos. Now Proteus married Psamathe, one of the sea-nymphs, and formerly the wife of Aeacus.” Euripides, Helen 11   

 According Virgil, Proteus was a blue marine deity who ruled the Carpathian Gulf off the island of Karpathos.  His father Poseidon’s “monstrous flocks and ugly seals he herds under the gulf.”  Though ambiguous of form he was straight forward in his prophecies.  Though famous for living in Pharos, for a while he tarried on Emathia's borders at his birthplace of Pallene.[vii]  (Pallene, interestingly enough, is another name for Phlegra,[viii] the birth-place of the giants.) 

He prophesied to Menelaus about his future[ix] and therebye revealed to humanity a hope for a brighter life beyond dread Hades.  He prophesized to Aristaeus about his bees[x] and established the erroneous doctrine of spontaneous generation which held sway over philosophers for two millennia.  And he prophesized to the mother of Apollonius of Tyana;  

"To his mother, just before he was born, there came an apparition of Proteus, who changes his form so much in Homer, in the guise of an Egyptian daemon. She was in no way frightened, but asked him what sort of child she would bear. And he answered: ‘Myself.’ ‘And who are you?’ she asked. ‘Proteus,’ answered he, ‘the god of Egypt’ Well, I need hardly explain to readers of the poets the quality of Proteus and his reputation as regards wisdom; how versatile he was, and for ever changing his form, and defying capture, and how he had the reputation of knowing both past and future. And we must bear Proteus in mind all the more, when my advancing story shows (Apollonius) to have been more a prophet than Proteus." Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 1. 4  

One final aside before we leave this wise, honest, god of ambiguous form, born in the nursery of the giants.  According to Strabo,[xi] Proteus was grandfather of the gods and goddesses of the Mysteries at Samothrace.   

But that’s another blogpost.  

[i] Od 4:350
[ii] Hom. Il. 18.140-141
[iii] Odyssey 13.93
[iv] (Virgil. Georg. iv. 389.) 
[v] Aeneid Book 4)
[vi] Chiliades 2:12, John Tzetzes 
[vii] (Aeneid Book 4) 
[viii] (Herod. viii. 123)
[ix] (Od 4:350)
[x] (Ovid, Fasti 1. 363)
[xi] (Geography 10. 3. 21)


  1. Our whiner Hesiod didn't find a place for Proteus. I wonder why.

  2. Maya,

    I am guessing it is because Proteus, isn't a Pan-Hellenic deity. Homer refers to three gods called The Old Man of the Sea; Proteus, Phorcys and Nereus. Triton and Glaucus served similar roles in other epics.