7

In Book VI of the Odyssey, the sea-nymph Eidothea identifies her father Proteus, the Old Man of the Sea, as an Egyptian:

"'Stranger,' replied she, 'I will make it all quite clear to you. There is an old immortal who lives under the sea hereabouts and whose name is Proteus. He is an Egyptian, and people say he is my father; he is Neptune's head man and knows every inch of ground all over the bottom of the sea. If you can snare him and hold him tight, he will tell you about your voyage, what courses you are to take, and how you are to sail the sea so as to reach your home. He will also tell you, if you so will, all that has been going on at your house both good and bad, while you have been away on your long and dangerous journey.'

Source: Homer, The Odyssey. Translated by Samuel Butler

I wonder why Homer assumes an Egyptian origin for Proteus. Is there an Egyptian deity or mythical creature that fits the Old Man of the Sea motif?

  • 1
    There is no equivalent. Most water gods are Nile related. The closest could be Wadj-wer, a potential mediteranean sea god, but the more we know him, the less he is related to sea, and more to the Nile. So one should look at god of primeval water. Nu and his wife Naunet then would be the best candiate. This limits it to the Ogdoad. – Gibet Oct 16 '17 at 13:18
  • Why aren't you posting an answer @Gibet? Comments are not meant for answers (see: When shouldn't I comment?) – yannis Oct 16 '17 at 13:22
  • Perhaps someone has an answer out of his sleeves. – Gibet Oct 16 '17 at 13:30
  • 2
    I'm with Yannis. I think Nu and Nanuet are as close as you're going to get. Your point about the difference in geography between Egypt and Greece is good too. Make it an answer. – solsdottir Oct 18 '17 at 21:02
5

Interesting Question, in the Orphic Hymns there is a following invocation to Proteus:

Oh Keeper of the keys to the chambers of the deeps, By whose illustrious power all Nature's laws are clearly shown, Proteus, Master of the Sea Change, who transforms the unseen and known by His will, All honored, Wise One who knows all that was, and all that is, and all that shall be as Time unfolds her wings, For all things Nature first consigned to You and all things are confined to Your essence, Come, Blessed Father, and attend our rites, And grant our happy lives a prosperous end.

OR alternatively, translation from a Polish translation of Orphic Hymns from "Bibliotheca Curiosa" by Emilia Żybert (Atut: Wrocław 2012) from Orph. H 23-25: Nereus, Nereids and Proteus related to Poseidon as Sea (Orph. H. 22):

XXV [Hymn] to Proteus (also called the Old Man of the Sea is a minor sea deity that is capable of metamorphosis and divination - Hom. Od 4.349-570) In author's [of the Orphic Hymns] he represents a cosmic force, from which one type of matter turns to another; Styrax Incense was used during invocation and to please the daimons assisting in the invocation process.

"To whom is the bearer of keys, I invoke Proteus first-begotten, beginning of nature, who revealed holy matter, changing forms in multifarious shapes all-respected, wise, who knows the present things, these, which came into being, these which did not arise. He, containing it within, changes all - not any of immortals, who rule the Olymp and visit Earth, and sea, bringing propitiousness for Nature in Proteus has bestowed all in first manner Father, appear among these who celebrate these rites, and give us a happy resolution of life after toils.

Proteus in fact in identified with Hades, given the Egyptian descent of Orphic mysteries we would have to reach for The Egyptian Book of the Dead; Proteus might be identified with one of the lords of the underworld (think cosmic space, the wateways of universe) Similar to Hekate Drakaina who was the "key-holder of all the passageways of the universe and Earth"

He might be an ancient Egyptian magoi-priest, that grew to a role of a deity, or a deity that cannot be clearly identified;

The Orphic Hymns as I believe are a dynamic Transposition of forces that undergo hypostatic rephrasing during god-working (theurgy), delineated by words, hymns, singing, processions, libations, sacrifices; The mystoi intuitively understands and therefore intitiated, consecrates, and acts; Thus at once we are dealing with persons, Gods, and awe-inspiring, alter-human, supra-human forces that are merely semiotized.

As a side-note there is a story of 'The shipwrecked Sailor' (The Literature of Ancient Egyptians, William Kelly Simpson, Faulkner, Wente, Simpson) , a tale from the Middle Egyptian Kingdom in which an ancient serpent tales a tale of woe of his loss and his family to a ship-wrecked Egyptian, and then as a good father equips him with splendor, enriches him and sends him back to the land of Khem with blessings.

  • The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor is about a servant trying to cheer his master who lost everything and for that use a story of him travelling on the sea, being shipwrecked and meeting a serpent trying to amuse him. It is a story about homesickness as the story of Sinuhe. There is no gdo of the sea there (simply because for Egyptians Egypt was everything so they never cared about creating a god of the sea when they god plenty for the Nile). It is basically a story within a story within a story with a Robinson Crusoe motif. – Gibet Oct 18 '17 at 20:00
  • Could you please provide a citation for the quoted Orphic Hymn. (I found an online source at Theoi, but the translation is different.) Could you also provide a source of Proteus being definitively identified with Hades? I don't mind your making a connections, but I'm not aware of prior scholarship on Hades/Proteus. – DukeZhou Oct 18 '17 at 20:54
  • 2
    I've modified the answer accordingly, providing an alternative source, and translating it, hopefully without the defects in "Translation recycling". – Wolves' Shepherd. Oct 19 '17 at 4:35
3

There is no especially close correspondence between Homer's Proteus, as a Halios Geron, "Old Man of the Sea," and any deity in the Ancient Egyptian pantheons. Two Egyptian water deities could be noted as somewhat, very vaguely approximate: Wadj-wer and Nu[n], who are themselves at rather opposite ends of the spectrum in their own world.

Wadj-wer

Wadj Wer was a fertility god who's name means "Great Green". His origins were probably either off Egypt's Mediterranean coast or along the major lagoons of the Nile Delta such as at Lakes Mariut, Idku, Burullus and Mazala. As early as the Old Kingdom this deity is shown in a relief from the pyramid site of Abusir. He proceeds among the fecundity figures, carrying an offering loaf on a mat and with symbols of life (the "ankh" sign) suspended from his arm. Under his androgynous form with an emphasized breast and a belly indicative of pregnancy, Wadj Wer is clearly associated with procreation and prosperity. Water signs are carved across his body suggesting the rich fishing in the Delta lakes.
TourEgypt.net's article "Wadj Wer: The Pregnant God"

According to Cow of Gold: An Encyclopedia of Egyptian Mythology, Wadj-wer was "A Hapi-like fecundity figure" who "was long believed to be the personification of the Mediterranean Sea, but is now thought to have actually represented the large lakes and lagoons of the north Delta region."

Cow of Gold's Wadj-wer

Wadj-Wer was shown as a man with long hair, a large belly, and heavy breasts, symbolizing the rich yield of the area he represents. He was often depicted as carrying the ankh, a palm branch, or trays of food. His body was always covered in symbolic waves.

Perhaps Wadj-wer's modern identification with the Mediterranean has to do with associating the meaning of his name with the term by which many ancient inhabitants of the Ancient Near East referred to the Mediterranean: the "Great Sea." If Wadj-wer really was a personification of this body of water then he would indeed come quite close to being a counterpart to Proteus, as well as several other major Greek sea-gods who were to some extents themselves personifications of this sea.

However, even if this identification of Wadj-wer were accurate, there is the fact of his androgyny. The reason that the Cow of Gold refers to him as "Hapi-like" is that he bears a striking resemblance to the much less obscure Nile deity Ḥāpi, with whom he shares the attributes of being depicted as a man with overt female attributes, such as being pregnant and apparently lactating.

Although Greek water deities (both of salt-water and fresh) were typically also conceived of as fertility deities, they are invariably represented as unambiguously male, even in their common animal form as bulls. (There are female Greek water deities too, and these, correspondingly, are unambiguously feminine.) The Greek gods of rivers in particular often appeared as bulls. Neilos, the personification and god of the Nile River in Greek myths, arguably does not have much, if anything, to do with the main Egyptian Nile personification Ḥāpi. In the same vein, Wadj-wer is quite unlike Proteus or any of the other Greek marine geriatrics (or any other Hellenic sea-god).

Nu[n]

In Egyptian cosmogony, especially at Heliopolis and Hermopolis, the universe is supposed to have begun as an inert mass of water containing all the matter which later separated to form the different elements and compounds that make up recognisable objects and distinct lifeforms, including the gods. This water-mass was itself a god, named Nu, or Nun, whose properties strikingly parallel the watery abyss in Hebrew and Mesopotamian cosmogonies.

In all these cosmologies the entire universe seems to exist as a bubble inside the endless expanse of primordial fluid. The counterpart to this in Greek myth, rather than Proteus or any other mainstream marine divinity, is found in the somewhat unorthodox cult of the Orphics, who say that one of the first entities to exist was the god Hydros, literally "Water." Together with some other primaeval beings, Hydros would go on to engender the rest of the universe. There is correlation here with the Titan Okeanos [Oceanus], whose cosmic body formed a stream which encircled the entire earth.

In the mainstream version of the Greek cosmogony, Khaos [Chaos], "Gap," represents virtually all the same things that Nu does, except that Khaos is more of an admixture of all the elements in such a way that he (or she, maybe) is described as more of a vast emptiness (hence the name "Gap") rather than a solid or liquid bulk. In this version Khaos is the origin of the material that everything else in existence derived itself from. Okeanos is a generation or two younger than the first beings to emerge from Khaos, and one of his numerous daughters would become the mother-in-law of Proteus.1 Neither Khaos nor Hydros nor Okeanos is a Halios Geron, however (although two of Okeanos' half-brothers are2), even if we could more plausibly connect them to Nu.

The English word "ocean" comes from Okeanos' name. At least one British Egyptologist3 has this to say regarding Nu:

It must also be noted that the ocean and also the Nile were identified with Nu, whose characteristics changed during the latter part of the dynastic period. The name of this god has been compared with the Coptic word Coptic noun "abyss," "deep," and the like, and it is possible that it may have some connection with it...

Perhaps by "ocean" here this writer could also intend "sea," and so perchance a loose connection could be made therefrom to a Greek sea deity, although that, I think, would be tenuous.

The King and His Origins

Having disclaimed all of that, there is in Greek mythology a rather different version of Proteus, who was a mortal king of Egypt. Like two of his predecessors on the throne,4 he was a son of Poseidon. Through this king's father, the King of the Sea, then, we still have the connection, in the Greek myths, between Egypt, together with Proteus, and the sea. King Proteus, like the sea-god Proteus, is also connected to the Trojan War saga, even more intimately.

The most popular version of his involvement therein is that while on the way to Troy from Lakedaimon, Paris and Helen passed through his domain. Proteus substituted Helen for a phantom version of herself, which he sent Paris off to Troy with. For nine years thereafter, then, the Greeks fought the Trojans essentially for nothing, for an illusion. Menelaus later had to come to Egypt to retrieve the real Helen from thence. Also Proteus' sons Polygonos and Telegonos challenged Herakles to a wrestling-match and both paid for the effort with their lives.

Ancient writers after Homer, just as well as modern ones, have made attempts to expound upon King Proteus and his connection to Egypt and even to the divine marine version of the same character, either via the etymology of his name or by equating him with a particular "historical" Pharaoh. According to Diodorus Siculus:

After the death of this king [“Mendes, whom some call Marros”] there were no rulers for five generations, and then a man of obscure origin was chosen king, whom the Egyptians call Ketes [Cetes], but who among the Greeks is thought to be that Proteus who lived at the time of the war about Ilion.

Some tradition records that this Proteus was experienced in the knowledge of the winds and that he would change his body, sometimes into the form of different animals, sometimes into a tree or fire or something else, and it so happens that the account which the priests give of Ketes is in agreement with that tradition.

For, according to the priests, from the close association which the king constantly maintained with the astrologers, he had gained experience in such matters, and from a custom which has been passed down among the kings of Egypt has arisen the myths current among the Greeks about the way Proteus changed his shape.

For it was a practice among the rulers of Egypt to wear upon their heads the forepart of a lion, or bull, or snake as symbols of their rule; at times also trees or fire, and in some cases they even carried on their heads large bunches of fragrant herbs for incense, these last serving to enhance their comeliness and at the same time to fill all other men with fear and religious awe.

Anne Burton has written a commentary on this passage of Diodorus,5 saying that:

The identity of the Egyptian king called by the Greeks Proteus remains uncertain. Diodorus is the first to attribute to him the Egyptian name Cetes, a form which appears to bear no relation to the known name of any Egyptian king. It is, however, very likely that Cetes is the Greek form of the Egyptian ḥȝty-Ꜥ “chieftain”, or “local prince”✭, particularly as Diodorus specifically says that this king was of obscure origin, i.e. he was not a member of the ruling dynasty.

In Homer Proteus appears as an old man of the sea, but even here he is called Αίγύπτιος, and is said to live on the island of Pharos. In Herodotus, II, 112, he appears for the first time as a king, and therefore mortal, and here he is said to live in Memphis. In Euripides, Helen, Proteus appears as king, not δαίμων, of Pharos; while Vergil and Ovid both associate Proteus with Carpathus, an island between Crete and Rhodes, probably used to indicate roughly the same area of the Mediterranean as Homer. Elsewhere, Proteus appears to have been associated with Thrace, and legends portray him as coming from Thrace to Egypt. Spiegelberg, “Der ägypter König Proteus”, BIFAO, XXX, 1930, 103-106, suggests that the confusion between the Greek and Egyptian Proteus arose when the Greeks saw statues of kings with the attributes of the Nile-god, and related them to their own Proteus. But this is not entirely convincing, as Proteus appears never to have been seen as a fruitful river god. Wiedemann, Herodots zweites Buch, p. 432, suggests that the Proteus of Herodotus’ account was not the Greek figure, but an unidentified Egyptian who was compared with him. This explanation is made the more plausible by the similarity between the Greek name Proteus, and the Egyptian title pȝ-rwty.✭✭

A couple of Burton's footnotes being equally informative, I have embedded them into my own, below, q.v.

Burton references a Herodotus commentary by Walter Wybergh How & Joseph Wells,6 which says the following under the heading "Homer and Egyptian history", on Historiai 2.112.

The words, "a man of Memphis," imply that Proteus was of a different family from the previous kings. Homer (Od. iv 126) makes Polybus king in Egyptian Thebes at the time of the Trojan War, and Manetho (FHG ii. 581) identifies him with the last ruler of the nineteenth dynasty, whom he calls Θούωρις. Diodorus (i. 62) follows H. Perhaps H. has confused an Egyptian title, Proutî, with the familiar “Proteus.” It is suggested that, as Proteus is a sea-god in Homer (Od. iv. 385), H. may have identified him with the fish-god (Dagon) of the Τυρίων στρατόπεδον (112. 2). At any rate, H. does not commit the absurdity of Diodorus (ut sup.), who explains the famous transformations of Proteus as a myth due to the Egyptian custom of the king wearing lion skins and other articles on his head, to inspire terror and reverence.

Notes

1. The Oceanid Doris, whose daughter, the Nereid Psamathe, married Proteus.

2. The sea-gods Nereus (husband of Doris and father of Psamathe [see prev. note]) and Phorkys [Phorcys], sons of Pontos and Gaia.

3. Budge, E.A.W. 1904. The Gods of the Egyptians, or Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Methuen & Co., London, p. 284.

4. Belos [Belus], son of Poseidon by Epaphos' daughter Libya; and Bousiris [Busiris], son of Poseidon by Epaphos' daughter Lysianassa.

5. Burton, A. 1972. Diodorus Siculus, Book 1: A Commentary. E.J. Brill. Leiden, pp. 182-183.

✭ The main argument against this theory is that the Egyptian usually disappears in the Greek (cf. Ḥwt-Ḥr—Ἄϑυρ), though it is retained in Coptic as ϧ (Wb., III, 25f.). There is no instance of becoming κ, which one might expect rather to come from Egyptian , or perhaps . But there is e.g. the anomalous instance of Greek χάμψα from Egyptian msḥ, Coptic MSAH [N. 1 on p. 182 in original.]

✭✭ The title pȝ-rwty, “high doors” (of temple or palace), is mentioned by Mallet, Les premiers éstablissments grecs en Égypte, p. 401, n. 3, as “un des nombreux titres donnés aux souverains égyptiens.” … Lauth, Ägyptische Chronologie, p. 181f. was the first to identify this title with the name Proteus. [N. 1 on p. 183 in original.]

6. How, W.W., & Wells, J., 1928. A Commentary on Herodotus. Oxford University Press, Great Britain.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.