Proteus is depicted in many different ways in Greek mythology. In some, he is one of the water gods in Greek mythology, a son of Poseidon. In others, he is a son of Aegyptus where he was slain on his wedding night. In others, he was a Trojan soldier who was slain by Odysseus during the war with Troy.
In Homer’s mythology, he is called the “Old Man of the Sea”. Like the typical ever-changing sea, Proteus could constantly change his nature. Proteus is capable of telling the future, but he would only tell the future to someone who could catch him. Because of his changeable nature, it was very difficult to catch him as he would simply change his shape to avoid being caught. The word “protean” is derived from his myth which as a meaning of “mutable” and “versatile”.
His name is from the Greek stem of “protos” which means “first”. His name indicates he is “primordial” or one of the “firstborn”. This could mean that he is one of Poseidon’s first sons. This would suggest that Proteus is even old than the sea-god triton, another son of Poseidon.
Homer’s Odyssey indicates that Proteus lived off the coast of the Nile Delta near Egypt. He lived on the island of Pharos and was considered to be an oracle. He was also the shepherd and keeper of the sea-beasts. Menelaus, the brother of Agamemnon and husband of Helen of Troy, told Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, that he went to Proteus’ island after the Trojan war.
When he met Proteus’ daughter, Eidothea, a sea nymph, she told him to catch Proteus. If Menelaus could catch the ever-changing sea god, he would be able to force him to reveal what god was offended and kept him from reaching his home.
Menelaus waited and waited. Eventually, Proteus came out of the sea to sleep with his herd of seals. Menelaus managed to catch and hold onto him. This was an incredibly difficult task because Proteus kept shifting his form. He became a lion, a pig, water, a tree, a leopard, and a serpent. After admitting defeat, Proteus granted Menelaus some insight into his situation. He revealed truthfully to Menelaus some of the difficult things that had happened while he was away.
His brother Agamemnon had been killed by his wife, Clytemnestra, who also happened to be Helen’s sister. She murdered him because he had killed their daughter Iphigenia in order to appease the goddess Artemis. After the Trojan War, Agamemnon also brought home another woman, Cassandra, who Clytemnestra also killed. Ajax the Lesser had also been killed when Athena hit his boat with a thunderbolt. His boat crashed on the shore of the Whirling Rocks. He survived the shipwreck but then made a bold claim that he could escape the wrath of the immortals. Poseidon became angry and split the rock in half, throwing Ajax into the sea. Proteus also revealed that Odysseus was still shipwrecked on Calypso’s island. Calypso enchanted him with her songs and her dancing and tried to keep Odysseus on her island, even though he wanted to go home to his wife Penelope.
Proteus also plays a role in Virgil’s Georgic. The son of Apollo recognized that the bees had all died, preventing anything from growing. Apollo’s son went to his mom, Cyrene, where she told him to capture Proteus so he could tell him how to prevent that disease again. Cyrene told him to hold on to Proteus no matter what happened and no matter what form Proteus took. Proteus eventually gave up and revealed that all the bees had died because Eurydice had died. To fix it, Apollo’s son, Aristaeus had to sacrifice animals to the gods.
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