The God Oceanus in Greek Mythology
The Greek Sea God Oceanus
In Ancient Greece there was a multitude of gods and goddesses associated with water, both fresh and salty. Each river would have its own minor god, a Potamoi, associated with it, and every lake, fountain or spring would have an Oceanid nymph. Larger bodies of water would have even more important gods linked with them, and one of the most notable was the god Oceanus.
The Family of Oceanus
Oceanus was a Titan, a god of the generation before Zeus and his siblings. Oceanus was therefore a son of Ouranus, the primordial god of the sky, and his female partner, Gaia, the earth. Oceanus would therefore have five brothers and six sisters; making up the 12 Titans.
The Greek God Oceanus
The Castration of Ouranus
At the time of the birth of Oceanus, Ouranus was the supreme deity of the cosmos, but
Gaia was upset that some of her other children, including the Cyclopes and the Hecatonchires, had been locked up in Tartarus by Ouranus, and so Gaia started to incite the Titans to rise up against their father.
The Titans were worried about the power of Ouranus though, but eventually Cronus was convinced to take up an adamantine sickle against his father. Thus, when Ouranus next descended from the sky to mate with Gaia, the male Titans would hold their father down (although some writers claim Oceanus did not take part in this act), whilst Cronus castrated Ouranus.
The Rule of the Titans
With the castration, much of the power of Ouranus dissipated, and the god returned to the sky. The power vacuum that was left behind was filled by the Titans, with Cronus taking up the mantle of supreme deity.
Rule of the cosmos was then divided up amongst the Titans, and Oceanus’ share became dominion over the earth’s water supplies, with his palace located beneath the surface of the river, which was presumed to exist beyond the Pillars of Heracles.
Subsequently, Oceanus would normally be depicted as half-man, half-fish, a transformation having occurred to allow him to live in water.
Oceanus at the Trevi Fountain
The Offspring of Oceanus
Oceanus would be joined beneath the waves by his wife-sister Tethys. With Tethys, Oceanus would become parent to 3000 sons and 3000 daughters; the 3000 sons being the Potamoi, river gods, and the daughters being the fresh water nymphs, the Oceanids.
It might seem strange for the children of Oceanus to be associated with fresh-water, but in Greek mythology, it was assumed that Oceanus was the god of a great earth encircling fresh water river.
It was only in later antiquity that the perception of Oceanus changed; for at this time, sailors had started to explore the Atlantic Ocean to the west, and the Indian Ocean to the east, and discovered that the water was not fresh-water, but was salty. Some writers would then start to link Oceanus with another primordial sea god, Pontus.
Famous Children of Oceanus
In ancient sources, not all of the 6000 children of Oceanus are named, but many Potamoi and Oceanids do appear in Greek mythological stories.
The Potamoi would often appear in stories of conflict, for Scamander would fight against Achilles, and Achelous would wrestle with Heracles.
The Oceanids would appear in many more stories in Greek mythology though, where they were often lovers of other gods.
One of the most famous of the daughters of Oceanus was Amphitrite, who after much chasing would become the wife of Poseidon. Another Oceanid, Doris, would also wed another sea god, Nereus.
The Oceanids Pluto and Pleione would become famous for their children, for Zeus slept with Pluto, and Pluto become mother to Tantalus, whilst Pleione become mother to the Pleiades by Atlas.
The Fall of the Titans
The rule of the Titans would eventually come to an end when Zeus led his siblings in revolt against his father, Cronus. The revolt would lead to a ten year war, the Titanomachy, which matched the Titans against Zeus and his allies. During the war though, it was said that Oceanus remained neutral, withdrawing back to his domain, and not aiding his siblings in their fight.
Eventually, of course, the Titanomachy would end, and the victorious Zeus, would divide the cosmos amongst himself, Poseidon and Hades.
The drawing of lots would see Poseidon given dominion over the water, but this then caused a conundrum, for would it be right to take away the domain of Oceanus, when he had not fought against the Olympians?
To resolve the issue, the domain of Oceanus was then changed, for he was given dominion over the water beyond the Pillars of Heracles, whilst Poseidon’s realm was in essence the Mediterranean; although the Olympian god was also considered King of the Potamoi and Oceanids.
Oceanus in Greek Myths
The name of Oceanus is briefly mentioned in many Greek mythological stories, for it was common for prayers to be offered to the sea god when a safe sea voyage was required.
Oceanus also appears as an entity in some versions of the Heracles myth; for when the Greek hero is tasked with retrieving the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, god and demi-god would meet. Heracles though doesn’t pray to the god, nor ask for help, but instead threatens Oceanus with violence, unless the sea was calm when Heracles needed to cross it.
The name of Oceanus of course survives into modern English, for the word “ocean” of course derives ultimately from the old Greek sea god.