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Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult, and Daily Life

Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult, and Daily Life

Edited by Seth D. Pevnick. Pp. 199, figs. 210. Tampa Museum of Art, Tampa, Fla. 2014. $49.95. ISBN 978-1-970804-30-4 (cloth).

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Although he is undisputedly one of the most important gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons, few scholars have devoted entire studies to Poseidon. This may be because of Poseidon’s complex personality in ancient myth and cult. Poseidon is mainly known as the god of the sea, but he also has an important role as master of the crust of the earth and god of horses. Are these functions of the god related, and if so, how? In what ways did ancient myths and cults of Poseidon illustrate and celebrate the different aspects of the god, and how were these beliefs integrated with the daily realities of living near the sea? These are some of the challenging and thought-provoking questions that Pevnick and the other authors of this collective work explore in a book intended to accompany the exhibitions held in Tampa and Omaha in 2014. In particular, the authors use the remarkable statue of Poseidon displayed in Tampa as a starting point to explore the various aspects of the god. Throughout the book, a strong focus on the objects shown in Tampa provides structure to the work and gives unity to a discussion that must be wide-ranging because of the very nature of Poseidon in ancient thought.

The first three chapters deal with Poseidon in ancient Greek myths and cults. In three complementary essays, Pevnick, Simon, and Kokkinou offer a detailed survey of the iconography of Poseidon in the Greek world. Using objects and images as starting points, they explore the ancient beliefs and practices attached to these representations of the god and his realm. In many instances, similar or closely related images are compared to highlight the nuances in conception that underlie these creations. Such careful iconographical analysis is rarely used in survey works, but here it is accomplished to the best effect. Readers at all levels can follow the argumentation and gain an understanding of complex beliefs and practices through the objects and images with which the Greeks surrounded themselves. In particular, the authors offer insights on the animals that accompany Poseidon such as aquatic birds, dolphins, and hippocamps. Each of these creatures, whether real or imaginary, carries its own web of significance, which is related to Poseidon in different ways. By showing how to decode this imagery, the authors give a rich depiction of ancient beliefs that reflects the multifaceted character of religious and cultural conceptions. Similarly, the various cults of Poseidon are given a large place and explored in all their complexity. Archaeological finds at temples and shrines are discussed to show how the worship of the god was conducted, from sacrifices aiming to placate storms at sea to social rites in the political and social spheres. The placement of some of the god’s temples in locations believed to lead to the underworld, such as Cape Taenarum, is also discussed and offers insights into the personality of a god who does not rule the realm of the dead, as such, but often controls its entrance.

The three following chapters deal with the ancient world more broadly, including the Etruscan and Roman cultures. Using similar methods as the previous essays, De Grummond, Murray, and Curtis discuss the role of Poseidon in Italy and in the Mediterranean world. They pay attention to the religious and political implications of Poseidon’s cult, from the Greeks’ use of fleets in warfare in the Classical period to Roman imperial imagery. De Grummond explores Etruscan imagery, showing how the iconography of Nethuns and Neptune evolved in accordance with changing political and cultural contexts in the Etruscan and Roman realms and Italic cultures. With her thorough and well-organized analysis, De Grummond makes the often difficult Etruscan materials accessible and highlights the similarities and differences among the Greeks, Romans, and Etruscans. The essays by Curtis and Murray do an excellent job of situating the daily realities of seafaring, shipbuilding, fishing, and fish-rearing within the multifaceted context of ancient culture, including religious, economic, social, and political considerations. These essays show that even the most pragmatic aspects of ancient life are replete with meaning. Finally, in the appendix, Maish conducts a detailed case study of the colossal bronze trident preserved in the J. Paul Getty Museum. Maish’s discussion shows how a careful stylistic and material analysis can lead to solid conclusions about a rather enigmatic object. The essay also provides welcome insight into the painstaking conservation and interpretative work that surrounds museum collections.

As a whole, the book is well integrated within current scholarship on ancient religion and ancient art. The discussion takes up issues raised by specialists and provides well-developed arguments to support the authors’ positions. The bibliography is up-to-date and will be a remarkably useful starting point for research on the sea in ancient cultures. The only major missing items seem to be Nicolet’s L’inventaire du monde (Paris 1988; for the English translation, see Space, Geography and Politics in the Early Roman Empire [Ann Arbor 1991]) and Corvisier’s Les Grecs et la mer (Paris 2008). The book is richly and beautifully illustrated, making the essays easy to follow and a pleasant read. A detailed map of the ancient world is provided at the front, and a useful glossary and index are found at the back. The exhibition catalogue is easy to reference, is detailed, and gives selected bibliography for each object. In this way, the book offers not only a broad survey of Poseidon in the ancient world but also serves as a handbook to conduct analysis of specific objects. The classification of objects into four categories in the exhibition checklist—myth and iconography, cult, daily life, and coins—is by necessity somewhat arbitrary. For instance, catalogue number 85 is a Roman sarcophagus lid fragment decorated with two dolphins and classified in “daily life.” While it is true that the object serves a pragmatic purpose, the religious implications of marine decoration and of dolphins on an object intended to hold the bodies of the dead blur the strict boundaries of categorization. Such nuances are absent from the catalogue but amply compensated for in the essays.

Different audiences will find this book useful in different ways. Scholars will be challenged to think about Poseidon in subtle ways, far beyond the accurate but superficial labels that are often applied to him, such as “master of the sea.” Students will find convenient starting points for papers and good models for scholarly work. Finally, the public will find thorough and generally accessible explanations concerning the objects presented in the exhibition and good overviews of ancient practices and beliefs related to Poseidon. Overall, the book is well rooted in the ancient experiences and beliefs surrounding the sea and represents an original and important publication in our field.

Marie-Claire Beaulieu
Department of Classics
Tufts University

Book Review of Poseidon and the Sea: Myth, Cult, and Daily Life, edited by Seth D. Pevnick

Reviewed by Marie-Claire Beaulieu

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 1 (January 2015)

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