Who is Oceanus in Greek Mythology?
OCEANUS, or Oceanos, was a Titan, the son of Ouranos (Uranus) and Gaia, but never an enemy of Zeus. On the Contrary, he protected Zeus’ wife HERA and mother RHEA when the gods fought the Titans in the war called the TITANOMACHY. As ruler of the encircling sea, which the Greeks believed surrounding the world, Oceanus married his sister Tethys, and they produced three thousand rivers.
When most of us think of the ruler of the sea in connection to Greek mythology, it’s easy to think of Poseidon. Poseidon is almost commonly associated with the sea, and for the most part, you’d right in believing that he was the sovereign of the waters.
However, before Poseidon was even thought about, there was another entity who was considered to be not just the overlord of the oceans but the ocean itself. He was a titan, born to the world by the primordial Uranus, the god of the sky and Gaia, the goddess of the earth. He was known to the world as Oceanus.
Whilst there are many deities associated with the sea, from Poseidon himself to the many Oceanids and river gods, Oceanus is where it all started. As Homer tells us in the Odyssey,
Oceanus was first associated with the waters themselves, and it was Oceanus who may have served as inspiration for the subsequent deities who would later take a more prominent role in the ruling of the seas throughout the mythology. Perhaps the reason so few people know of Oceanus or why so few appear to associate him with the waters in mythology is because of how prominent characters like Poseidon were in comparison.
For the most part, Oceanus took a back seat in the grand scheme of things, something he is notoriously remembered for when he considered that he did not take part in either Cronus castration or the Titanomachy.
Meanwhile, characters like Poseidon were far less shy and far less humble with their manipulation of the waves and Poseidon, in particular, is often celebrated for his sovereignty over the seas. We know Poseidon interacted with both water and land. Still, Oceanus never appeared to demonstrate such an ability, but instead, according to the ancients, he remained only amongst the waters which flowed from him.
Furthermore, in some interpretations, Oceanus was the ocean itself and therefore did not possess a physical human body like Poseidon. In this, it is no wonder why many leaned more towards Poseidon, for Poseidon was to the ancients a tangible being. One they could converse with and form a relationship with.
Oceanus, on the other hand, was merely an element. Something that could never be truly understood, much less bonded with. Despite this, the ancient Greeks did seek to personify Oceanus, as we can see from ancient pottery, where the titan appears as a bull-horned god with the tail of a serpentine fish.
He appears to have crab claws horns in other variations and is often seen accompanied by an Ore, a school of fish or a serpent. The reasoning for Oceanus’s disappearance is never really documented in Greek mythology. We know that Oceanus liked to keep himself to himself, and assuming he was a personified being, he did not find much merit in the conflict between Uranus and Cronus.
Much like the other children of Gaia, Oceanus did not wish to involve himself in Uranus’ overthrowing. Whilst the other shunned Gaia’s pleased for help out of possible fear of their overlord father, Oceanus appears to have been more detached from such things and was likely more in tune with the way of the world’s water than he was with the political struggle that his mother was bothered by.
Unlike the others, Oceanus appeared to be programmed more towards nature and the natural order of things and appeared to be content long as the ocean was alive. He did not share the earthlier Cronus’ ambitions and therefore appear to be apathetic towards who ruled, so long as the waters still flowed.
Even in the Titanomachy, where Zeus had either imprisoned his kind or pitted them to face terrible tortures, Oceanus did not get involved. The Olympians’ uprising decimated his kind, but Oceanus did not pick a side and seemed content to be as motionless as the waters themselves. Zeus never appears to tackle Oceanus, and it emerges that Zeus was happy just to let him be.
There is some question as to whether Zeus had any power over Oceanus in the first place, for how a god could seek to punish the ocean. The ocean, by nature, is dispassionate and cares not for the disputes between men nor the rank of others; it merely is. It can either nurture life or drown it, but neither is done with any intention or motive.
Therefore, Zeus had no cause to tangle with the titan and even if he did, it is unknown how he would go about doing it without damning everyone else—after all, without water, there can be no life, and so you could say that Zeus’ hands were tied.
However, Homer does tell us in the Odyssey that,
“Not powerful Achelous matches his strength against Zeus, not the enormous strength of Oceanus with his deep-running waters, yet even Oceanus is afraid of the lightning of great Zeus and the dangerous thunderbolt when it breaks from the sky crashing.”
This in itself is quite telling and reminds us that even though Oceanus appeared to be impartial to the goings-on around him, he still has some fear of Zeus and who could blame him, given what Zeus had done to his kind.
Because of Oceanus’s potential power as the ocean, he reminds us of how mighty Zeus is. For if even the sea itself fears Zeus, then mere mortals should be terrified of him.
The Greek philosopher, Procurs, painted Oceanus as much less an indifferent character but more indecisive. In his commentary of Plato’s Timaeus, he refers to several lines of an Orphic poem where Oceanus is brooding as to whether he should be siding with Cronus or whether he should be siding with Uranus… much like the myths, though, Oceanus remains dormant and never appears to pick a side, despite his lamentations.
In the aftermath of the Titanomachy, it would appear that Zeus stripped Oceanus of his rank as the ruler of the oceans and that this was then handed to his brother, Poseidon, with who we are all more acquainted. It’s possible that Zeus wanted to keep the ruling of the world in the family and possibly did not trust that Oceanus, a titan, would remain compliant forever.
It would undoubtedly prove troublesome for Zeus if Oceanus suddenly decided that he opposed the Olympian rule and turned against him. So, in stating, Poseidon appeared to be a sensible move, for at least he could trust Poseidon on some level and would be able to deal with him should he turn.
Whilst Oceanus was not destroyed, he was relegated to become just another god of the sea, one who still maintained worship amongst the ancients but not one who would have influenced that Poseidon would one day come to have. Another idea is that whilst Oceanus was stripped of his rank, he maintained the rule of the Atlantic Ocean whilst Poseidon ruled over the Mediterranean Sea.
Despite never picking a sight in both the war between Uranus and Cronus and the Titanomachy, Hesiod suggests that Oceanus may have had a preference in the latter conflict, which was to side with Zeus. He notes that Oceanus sent his daughter Styx and her children Envy (Zelus), Victory (Nike), Power (Cratos) and Force (Bia) to fight on Zeus’s side against the Titans.
In this, Oceanus support for the Olympians seems to be unquestionable. It’s possible that this was why he was allowed to remain in existence without any severe punishment after the war. It’s also possible that by sending Styx and her offspring to fight for Zeus, he could lend the Olympians his support whilst remaining seemingly impartial to not warrant the anguish from his titan brothers and sisters.
By this, Oceanus takes on a new set of characteristics, ones of craftiness and furtiveness, as well as a sense of unpredictability and unscrupulousness, much like the ocean itself. After all, the ocean holds no allegiance to anyone, and so it cannot be blamed for what it feeds and what it destroys. This perhaps is why Zeus demoted the titan after the war ended, for it is in Oceanus nature to be flexible with his alliances.
As previously stated, it would appear that all sea life originated with Oceanus. His sister-wife Tethys that Oceanus has parented several children, including the Oceanids, the ocean nymphs and the rivers themselves, including that of the river Styx that flowed into the underworld.
An interesting parallel within mythology is that the nymphs, all of whom were descendants of Oceanus, were each responsible for a body of water throughout the world. So, much like the lakes, rivers and streams all led back to Oceanus, all the entities associated with them also led back to Oceanus through their heritage.
According to Hesiod, amongst Oceanus’s offspring were the river gods, such as the Achelous, the god of the Achelous river and the largest river in Greece. And also, Alpheus, the god of the Alpheus river and the longest river in Greece.
Alongside these gods, as previously mentioned, were the Oceanids, the ocean nymphs, of which there were three thousand from Metis, the first wife of Zeus, Eurynome, the third wife of Zeus, Clymene, the wife of the Iapetus and the mother of Atlas, Manutius, Prometheus, and Epimetheus and Perse, the wife of Helios, the god of the sun; to name a few. Most notably, Styx, the goddess of the River Styx, was also a daughter of Oceanus.
While the rivers get much of the recognition and love, the lakes and smaller water bodies are much less associated with Oceanus, almost like forgotten children of the great titan.
In his poem, Dionysiaca, the poet Nonnus perfectly sums up the lake entities’ existence, as the liquid daughters cut off from Oceanus. While it is generally accepted that Oceanus was the child of Uranus and Gaia, there are suggestions within the Iliad itself, amongst other sources, that Oceanus and Tethys were the ancient parents of the gods and not Uranus and Gaia.
It is Hera in the Iliad herself who notes Oceanus and Tethys as being the source from which the gods are sprung, saying,
Through this, it might be said that there are variations where Oceanus and Tethys are the father and mother of the gods and not the Titan offspring of Uranus and Gaia. However, some debate this account by Hera and believes she referred to Oceanus and Tethys as merely foster parents, given that Hera was sent to Oceanus and Tethys for safekeeping and guardianship during the war.
Interestingly, homer later refers to Oceanus as the genesis for all, implying that it was Oceanus who was the father of all things and not just the river gods and nymphs. In some orphic traditions, meanwhile, Oceanus and Tethys are Uranus and Gaia’s children, but here they become the parents of Cronus and Rhea and not their siblings. Therefore, they were suggesting that there was yet another generation of titans in between.
A common debate regarding Oceanus is whether or not he was treated as a person or location. Both Hesiod and Homer appear to refer to Oceanus as a place or at least as the water itself as he is dubbed as the perfect river by Hesiod, whilst homer makes mention of a stream of the river Oceanus.
Verbs such as flowing and deep swirling are often used to describe him, suggesting that he has no physical body but a watery form. Homer also tells us that Oceanus bound the earth, and the ancient Greeks would come to believe that the ocean, which encapsulated the world, was the manifestation of Oceanus himself.
According to some ideas, Helios, the sun, sails up and down upon Oceanus, marking the day’s cycle. As far as Oceanus being a location, though, both Hesiod and Homer continue that Oceanus could be found at the ends of the earth, somewhere near Tartarus in the theogony or near Elysium in the Iliad.
The Odyssey tells us that Oceanus needed to be crossed, again implying that the entity took the form of an ocean and that this was necessary to reach Hades‘ house. Oceanus here would become something of a boundary between the mortal world and the more fantastical one, a world filled with the Hesperides, the Gorgons and other marvellous creatures and exotic tribes.
With this idea, Oceanus becomes a crossing into the unknown—a checkpoint by which explorers and adventurers could find themselves in a time when the world was still young, and anything could have been on the horizon.
In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, Oceanus appears in a human form and visits the tragic Prometheus when he is chained and mauled by the eagle. Whilst here, Oceanus offers his sympathies to Prometheus, given his plight. He was once more suggesting the nature of Oceanus as the ocean to provide comfort. But Prometheus is not keen on Oceanus’s presence and proceeds to berate him for his cowardice hiding away from the conflict.
He questions Oceanus’s bravery, wondering how he dares to emerge now that the battle is done and Zeus is triumphant. However, Oceanus does not seem to react and merely tells Prometheus that he should be humble now that Zeus is the new ruler and that he should keep his mouth shut to avoid incurring an even worse punishment.
But Prometheus, ever the virtuous, declares that he envies Oceanus because Oceanus has escaped blame despite being a titan himself. In this, Prometheus’s clarification highlights Oceanus’s indifference as gutlessness and that he too should be suffering this fate, for he should have stood up to Zeus as well.
In another tale, by the historian Pherecydes of Athens, Oceanus once encountered Heracles on one of his many travels. For some reason, Oceanus sought to provoke Heracles by sending high waves to rock the bone. Vexed over this inconvenience, Heracles turned his bow upon the waters and threatened to shoot Oceanus. Out of fear, Oceanus calmed the waves and didn’t bother Heracles again.
Whether Oceanus was a personified being or whether he’d manifested as the ocean, itself it’s clear that the character had some significant importance to the ancient Greeks. At some point, he would have most certainly been a well-respected and revered god, given that he was, in essence, the source of the water itself.
He was also the father of many creatures and characters that would go on to populate and influence much of the mythology going forward. In this, he leaves his mark upon these stories as something of a founder or catalyst for the emergence of some of our favourite characters.