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Proteus: An Early Sea God in Greek Mythology

As one of the earliest sea gods in Greek mythology, Proteus is an important god with many variations to his story. Sometimes called Old Man of the Sea by Homer, Proteus was a prophetic sea god who could tell the future. Some sources say that he’s the son of Poseidon. This sea god could shapeshift and would only answer the questions of those who captured him. Let’s find out more about Proteus.

Who is Proteus?

Seagod Proteus by Philips Galle
Proteus Rijksmuseum, CC0, Source.

While Proteus’ origins vary in Greek mythology, one thing that everyone agrees on is that Proteus is a sea god who rules over rivers and other bodies of water. It’s also common knowledge that Proteus can change his shape at will and is capable of assuming any form.

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Homer’s Version of Proteus

Proteus, an intriguing figure from Greek mythology, is first mentioned in Homer’s works. This ancient poet portrays Proteus as a sea deity who made the island of Pharos, near the Nile Delta, his dwelling. As a subordinate to Poseidon, Proteus was entrusted with tending Amphitrite’s seals and other marine creatures.

Notably, Proteus was depicted by Homer as a prophet with the ability to traverse time. He could uncover the past and foresee the future. Despite this remarkable ability, Proteus was not fond of his prophetic role and never offered information voluntarily. For anyone seeking to learn their future from Proteus, they had to catch him while he was taking his midday rest.

This unique trait earned Proteus deep reverence among the Ancient Greeks, many of whom attempted to seek out and capture this elusive deity. Proteus was known to be incapable of lying, ensuring that any revelation he made was true. However, capturing Proteus was a challenging task due to his ability to shape-shift at will.

Proteus as the Son of Poseidon

The name ‘Proteus’ translates to ‘first,’ leading many to conjecture that he is the eldest son of Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, and Tethys, a Titan goddess. Poseidon assigned Proteus the responsibility of tending to his many seals on the sandy isle of Lemnos. In these tales, Proteus is often depicted in the guise of a bull seal while overseeing his marine herd. Proteus is also recognized as the father of three children: Eidothea, Polygonos, and Telegonos.

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Myths Involving Proteus

Menelaus and Proteus by Giulio Bonasone
Menelaus wrestling with Proteus. PD.

1. Menelaus captures Proteus

One of the most famous myths involving Proteus is found in Homer’s “Odyssey”. In the tale, Menelaus, the king of Sparta and the husband of Helen of Troy, is trying to return home after the Trojan War. However, he gets stranded in Egypt due to unfavorable winds. He’s told by the goddess Eidothea, who is also Proteus’ daughter, that in order to find his way home, he must capture Proteus and force him to prophesy.

Eidothea advises Menelaus to hide among her father’s seal herd during his midday nap. When Proteus emerges from the sea to count his seals, Menelaus and his men seize him. Despite Proteus shape-shifting into a variety of forms (a lion, serpent, leopard, boar, and even water and a tree), they hold onto him until he reverts to his original form, at which point he provides the information Menelaus needs to return home.

Proteus tells him who among the gods was against him. Proteus also tells Menelaus how to appease the said god so that he could finally come home. The old sea god was also the one to inform him that his brother Agamemnon had died, and that Odysseus was stranded on Ogygia.

2. Aristaeus captures Proteus

Another myth involving Proteus comes from the tale of Aristaeus, a minor god and son of Apollo. In this story, all of Aristaeus’ bees die, and he is told by his mother, the nymph Cyrene, that Proteus can tell him how to prevent another such catastrophe.

Aristaeus has to capture and bind Proteus, just as Menelaus did. After initially struggling against Aristaeus’ chains by shape-shifting into several forms, Proteus finally concedes and informs Aristaeus that the loss of his bees is a punishment from the gods for causing the death of Eurydice. He tells Aristaeus to sacrifice four bulls and four cows to the gods (or 12 animals), leave their bodies in the place of sacrifice for three days, and then return nine days later. When Aristaeus does this, he finds a swarm of bees in one of the carcasses, effectively giving him a new beehive

3. Proteus and Dionysus

Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and festivities, hires a group of Tyrrhenian sailors to take him to Naxos. However, the sailors, enticed by Dionysus’ seemingly noble appearance, decide to kidnap him and sell him into slavery. They try to tie him up, but the ropes won’t hold him. Then, Dionysus turns into a lion and unleashes a bear on the ship. Terrified, the sailors jump into the sea to escape, but as they do so, they transform into dolphins.

Now, Proteus’ role in this myth varies depending on the version of the story. In some accounts, Dionysus himself is responsible for the transformation of the sailors. However, in other versions, Proteus, known for his shape-shifting abilities, is said to have turned the sailors into dolphins as punishment for their actions. This particular myth isn’t a popular one featuring Proteus, but it goes to show the sea god’s powers.

How Important is Proteus Today?

Thetis and Proteus by Noël Le Mire
By Noël Le Mire – ETH Zurich, PD.

Because of his shape-shifting nature, Proteus has inspired many literary works. He was an inspiration for one of William Shakespeare’s plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Just like his shape-shifting sea god namesake, Shakespeare’s Proteus is pretty fickle-minded and could easily fall in and out of love. However, unlike the truthful old man, this Proteus lies to anyone he meets for his own gain.

Proteus is also mentioned in John Milton’s book, Paradise Lost, which described him as one of those who sought the philosopher’s stone. The sea god is also described in works of William Wordsworth as well as in Sir Thomas Brown’s discourse entitled The Garden of Cyrus.

Proteus has also influenced the English language, with many words tracing back to the sea god. For example, the word protein, which is one of the macronutrients needed by humans and most animals, is derived from Proteus. Proteus as a scientific term can also refer to either a dangerous bacterium that targets the urinary tract or a specific type of amoeba that is known for changing shapes. The adjective protean means to change shape easily and frequently.

What Does Proteus Symbolize?

Proteus by Jörg Breu the Elder. PD.

Proteus is most prominently associated with knowledge, wisdom, changeability, and prophecy. His different symbolic aspects can be traced back to his unique attributes and myths. Here’s how they relate:

  1. Knowledge and Wisdom: Proteus was known for his deep wisdom and prophetic knowledge. He is often seen as a symbol of hidden truth and knowledge that requires effort to uncover.
  2. Changeability: As a shape-shifter who could take on the form of any creature or element, Proteus is a symbol of changeability, fluidity, and versatility. This aspect can be seen as a metaphor for the constantly changing nature of the sea and life itself.
  3. Prophecy: Given his prophetic abilities, Proteus also symbolizes foresight and prophecy. He had the power to know the future but would only reveal his visions if captured and constrained, signifying the often elusive nature of truth and prophecy.
  4. Elusiveness: Proteus was notoriously difficult to capture because of his shape-shifting powers. This elusiveness can symbolize the difficulty in seeking truth or knowledge and the challenges often faced when trying to predict the future.

Lessons from Proteus’ Story

Proteus’ story shows the necessity of knowledge as a tool to succeed in life. Without Proteus’ insights, heroes would not be able to win over challenges. But more importantly, Proteus is the literal embodiment of the adage that the truth will set you free. Only by telling the truth could he regain his freedom to go back to the seas.

Wrapping Up

Proteus might not be one of the most popular Greek gods today, but his contributions to society are significant. His ability to shapeshift has inspired countless literary works. He’s only in a few myths, but these showcase his importance and power. All these make him an influential mythical figure of ancient Greece.

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Juan Salazar Sanchez
Juan Salazar Sanchez

Juan Sanchez has been a freelance writer for years, with a particular focus on Mythology and History, especially Greek mythology. He has been a part of the Symbol Sage team for several years, and has contributed immensely to the team. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling and reading.