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Proteus: The Old Man of the Sea *

When Poseidon became the god of the sea, he let Oceanus, one of the old sea-gods, and all his many children have part under him in ruling the great ocean and the other waters of the earth.

The most interesting of all the children of Oceanus was his son Proteus, whose duty it was to care for Poseidon’s sea-calves, as the Greeks called the seals. Every day he led them up on the land, where they lay and slept on the rocks and the warm sea-sands.

The Greeks never thought of Proteus as being young and beautiful like the gods of Mount Olympus; instead of that, they represented him in their pictures and in their stories as an old, old man, covered with the foam of the ocean, and with sea-weed and sea-shells clinging to his beard and his long gray hair.

One of the wonderful things that Proteus could do was to change into the shape of anything he wished. Once the ships of a famous Greek king, while they were sailing back from a great war, were blown about for a long while, so that he could not reach home. The king was told that some god was angry with him, and that the only way to reach home would be to seize the god Proteus, and force him to tell him what to do.

So at daybreak one morning, the king and three of the bravest and strongest of his men set out for a cave by the shore, where Proteus came every day; there, they made hollows in the sand, and lay down in them, and covered themselves with the skins of some sea-calves that they had brought with them. In a little while, great numbers of sea-calves came out of the water, and lay down beside them in the cave, and went to sleep.

At noon, Proteus himself came and counted his flock, and then he, too, lay down to sleep in their midst.

Then the king and his men sprang up, and seized the old sea-god. To escape from them, Proteus tried all his changes. First, he became a great lion with a shaggy mane.

Then, he became a panther. Then, he changed to a snake, and twisted and turned in their hands. Then, he became a tree, covered with rustling leaves. Then, he changed into flaming fire. And last of all, he turned into flowing water.

But in spite of all these wonderful changes, the king and his three brave men held fast to the god, and Proteus saw that he was beaten. So he changed back to his own form, and told the king all that he wished to know; after this, the king got safely home at last.

Source: Harding, C. H. Greek Gods, Heroes, and Men (Kindle Locations 627-648). A. J. Cornell Publications. Kindle Edition.

* If you’re wondering why I’ve published this article on my blog, please see my article, entitled “I Have Met the Enemy and It is Me,” which makes reference to this article.

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