Proteus – Greek Mythology

Affiliate Disclosures

As one of the earliest sea gods in Greek mythology, Proteus is an important god in Greek mythology with many variations to his story. Called Old Man of the Sea by Homer, Proteus is believed to be a prophetic sea god who could tell the future. However, in other sources, he’s depicted as the son of Poseidon.

Proteus is known for his elusiveness due to his ability to shapeshift, and only answered the queries of those who could capture him.

Who is Proteus?

While Proteus’ origins vary in Greek mythology, the only common belief 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.

Proteus as the Old God of the Sea

Homer’s story of Proteus says the sea god made a home for himself near the Nile Delta in the island of Pharos. According to Homer, Proteus is the Old Man of the Sea. He was a direct subject of Poseidon which is why he served as the herdsman of Amphitrite’s flock of seals and other sea beasts. Homer also says Proteus is a prophet, who can see through time, reveal the past and see through the future. 

However, the Greek historian says Proteus dislikes being a prophet hence he never volunteers this information. If a person wished for Proteus to tell them their future, they would first have to bind him during his midday nap.

People revere him for this, and many Ancient Greeks attempt to look for and capture Proteus. Proteus can’t tell a lie, meaning that any information he gives would be true. But capturing this particular Greek god is especially difficult because he can change his form at will.

Proteus as the Son of Poseidon

Proteus’ name means first, so many believe that Proteus is the eldest son of the Greek god of the sea Poseidon and the titan goddess Tethys.

Proteas was instructed by Poseidon to care for his army of seals in the sandy island of Lemnos. In these stories, he is said to prefer the appearance of the bull seal while looking after his sea cattle. Proteus is also known to have three children: Eidothea, Polygonos, and Telegonos.

Proteus as an Egyptian King

Stesichorus, a lyric poet from the 6th Century BCE, first described Proteus as an Egyptian King of either the City-state of Memphis or the whole of Egypt. This description can also be found in Herodotus’ version of the story of Helen of Troy. This King Proteus was supposedly married to the Nereid Psamathe. In this version, Proteus rose through the ranks to succeed King Pheron as pharaoh. He was then replaced by Ramesses III. 

However, this Proteus in Euripides’ story of Helen’s tragedy is described as dead before the story begins. Hence, most scholars believe that the Old Man of the Sea should not be confused with the Egyptian King, whose names are both Proteus.

Stories Involving Proteus

Whether or not one regards Proteus as King of Egypt or Old Man of the Sea, his story is most often connected to the story of the Odyssey and of Helen of Troy. Below are the significant parts of the stories in relation to the minor sea god.

  • Menelaus captures Proteus

In Homer’s Odyssey, Menelaus was able to capture the elusive god Proteus thanks to the help of the sea god’s daughter, Eidothea. Menelaus learned from Eidothea that when someone captured her shapeshifting father, Proteus would be forced to tell him whatever truths he wishes to know.

So Menelaus waited for Proteus to emerge from the sea for his afternoon slumber among his beloved seals, and captured him, even as Proteus thrashed and changed forms from an  angry lion, a slippery serpent, a ferocious leopard, and a pig, to even a tree and water. When Proteus realized that he was powerless against Menelaus’ grip, he then conceded to tell him who among the gods was against him. Proteus also told 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.

  • Aristaeus captures Proteus

In the fourth Georgic written by Virgil, the son of Apollo named Aristaeus sought Proteus’ help after his pet bees all died. Aristaeus’ mother, and queen of an African city, told him to seek the sea god because he was the one who could tell him how to avoid the death of more bees.

Cyrene also warned that Proteus was slippery and would only do as he asked if he was compelled. Aristaeus wrestled with Proteus and held him until he gave up. Proteus then told him that he had irked the gods after he caused the death of Eurydice. To appease their anger, the sea god directed the son of Apollo to sacrifice 12 animals to the gods and leave it for 3 days.

Once Aristaeus returned to the site of the sacrifice after the three days had elapsed, he saw a swarm of bees hanging above one of the carcases. His new bees were never plagued by any disease ever again.

  • Proteus’ Role in the Trojan War

In another version of the events of the Trojan war, Helen never reached the city of Troy. The eloping couple came to Egypt after their sails were damaged at seas and that’s how Proteus learned of Paris’ crimes against Menelaus and decided to help the grieving king. He ordered Paris’ arrest and told him he could go but without Helen.

Proteus was then tasked to guard Helen with his life. According to this version, Paris brought home a phantom that Hera made out of clouds, instead of his betrothed.

  • Proteus Receives Dionysus

After discovering how grapes could turn into wine, Dionysus was driven mad by the spiteful goddess Hera. Dionysus was then forced to wander the Earth until he met King Proteus who welcomed him with open arms.

Significance of Proteus in Culture

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 was 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 was also described in works of William Wordsworth as well as in Sir Thomas Brown’s discourse entitled The Garden of Cyrus.

However, more than great literary works, the significance of Proteus can really be seen in the field of scientific work.  

  • First, 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?

Because of Proteus’ significance in Greek mythology and even modern-day culture, it’s not surprising that the old god symbolizes several important factors:

  • First Matter – Proteus could represent the first, original matter that created the world because of his name, which means ‘primordial’ or ‘first born’.
  • The Unconscious Mind – German alchemist Heinrich Khunrath wrote about Proteus being the symbol for the unconscious mind which is hidden deep within the ocean of our thoughts.
  • Change and Transformation – As the elusive sea god who could shapeshift to literally anything, Proteus can also represent change and transformation.

Lessons from Proteus’ Story

  • Knowledge is power – 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.
  • The truth will set you free – 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. This could be seen as symbolic of the fact that regardless of how we change our demeanor and how we look, our true selves will always surface in the end.

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 and his indirect contributions to science makes him an influential mythical figure of ancient Greece.