Poseidon, the god of the sea, plays a vital role in Homer’s ancient epic ”The Odyssey.” Poseidon’s conflict with the poem’s hero, Odysseus, drives the action, and in the process, it teaches Odysseus, and the rest of us, what it means to be human.

A God and Father

Imagine someone’s messing with your kid, beating him up and stealing from him. That’s going to tick you off, right? Now imagine that this someone is an underling, some measly little upstart who can’t even come close to the kind of power you hold? The temptation’s going to be pretty great to squash him like a bug.

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But anyone who has ever had a kid knows that things are rarely so black and white. The one picking on your kid is never as diabolical as your kid makes it seem, nor is your kid ever as innocent. This is precisely what Poseidon, the god of the sea, discovers in Homer’s ancient epic The Odyssey.

The Son

Odysseus is a mortal, a cunning and powerful warrior king from Ithaca, a Greek city-state. For ten years, Odysseus and his men have been away from home, fighting in the Trojan War. Now, at long last, the war with Troy is over, and Odysseus and his men are ready to sail home. Almost immediately though, they’re shipwrecked on the magical island where the Cyclops, or one-eyed giant, Polyphemus, Poseidon’s son, lives.

At first, things seem to go well. As a Greek, son of a god or not, Polyphemus is bound to the sacred duties of hospitality: the requirement that a householder treat guests, especially guests in distress and seeking aid, with great kindness and respect. This is a sacred duty, because you never know when you’re going to be entertaining gods in human disguise.

Then, apparently, Polyphemus gets hungry and his Cyclopean savagery shines through. Instead of feeding Odysseus and his men, he begins to feed on them. That’s right: Polyphemus starts eating the men, two at a time, twice a day.

Odysseus devises a clever plan to blind Polyphemus’s one eye and to escape with his men by tying themselves to the underside of the sacred sheep that roam freely on the island.

Once Odysseus and his men are safely away, with a few of Polyphemus’ prized sheep stolen for good measure, Odysseus, in a fit of hubris, or destructive pride, can’t help bragging about what he’s done. He mocks Polyphemus and reveals his real name. Outraged, Polyphemus prays to his father to avenge him. Poseidon does and then some. The sea voyage home that should have taken a few days or weeks becomes an ordeal of another ten years.

The Angry Father

Let’s face it: no one can drive you nuts like your family, but let someone dare even to look at your kin (especially your kid) wrong, and you’re ready to throw down. Of course, eating your house guests is not exactly proper etiquette, and we’re sure Poseidon had a few choice words for Polyphemus when they were alone together. Still though, there’s probably no anger on earth like that of a father protecting his child, especially when that father also happens to be a god.

Poseidon’s anger towards Odysseus reveals a tension between the private and the public realm. As an irate father, Poseidon has a very personal, private grudge against Odysseus. Nevertheless, Polyphemus committed a very public wrong, violating social and religious law.

This is why Poseidon can punish Odysseus, but it’s also why the other Olympian gods, the major Greek gods who are said to reside on Mount Olympus, prevent Poseidon from killing Odysseus. To exact this ultimate punishment would be to suggest that only partiality matters and that no public rules, norms, values, or laws exist. It would mean that Polyphemus, the son of a god, can do whatever he wants, while mortal men like Odysseus must bow to their will.

The Angry God

Just because the gods kept Odysseus alive doesn’t mean they allowed him to skate. He did offend one of the most powerful gods in the Greek pantheon, or family of gods. Poseidon is one angry deity. After all, it’s got to be pretty insulting as the god of the sea to have some scrawny little mortal defying you and your kid, boasting about his cunning and his victory.

This, in fact, is another great theme explored in the conflict between Odysseus and Poseidon: the relationship between gods and humans. Odysseus is a powerful king and, frankly, an arrogant man. He’s brilliant and wily, and he knows it.

Plus, he’s a favorite of one of the most powerful of the gods, Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategic warfare. But even she is not happy with his boastfulness in beating Polyphemus. She is his strongest advocate in ensuring that Poseidon doesn’t ultimately kill him, but she also knows that he’s got to learn some humility. He has to acknowledge his human limitations and learn to respect and submit to the gods, never as their whipping boy, but as the recipient of the gods’ care and keeping.

Poseidon is the perfect god to teach Odysseus such a lesson. He uses his incredible power over the oceans to chastise, terrorize, and humble Odysseus until he learns his proper place as one finite mortal, albeit a brilliant and powerful one, in an immense, eternal, and divinely-orchestrated universe.

Lesson Summary

Poseidon, the god of the sea, plays a vital role in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey. Poseidon’s conflict with Odysseus over the blinding of Poseidon’s son, Polyphemus, sets the classic tale in motion. Poseidon, in his role of the angry father, illustrates the conflict between the private and the public realm because Poseidon’s grudge against Odysseus is largely private in nature when, in truth, Polyphemus violated public norms relating to hospitality.

However, Poseidon is also an angry god, and even Odysseus’ benefactor, Athena, knows that Odysseus’ hubris was wrong. The gods allow Poseidon to punish Odysseus severely for his arrogance, so Poseidon uses his incredible power over the ocean to teach Odysseus humility and respect for the gods.