27 April 2012

Neptune: The Development of an Enigma

The Development of an Enigma

 “All was obscure at first, darkness in darkness, an endless ocean…”[1]

In the beginning there was nothing but water; the vast primal sea gave birth to all.[2] This is the chaos, the undifferentiated dark water, from which Gaia herself emerged and the wild kingdom Neptune eventually inherited – or stole, alongside his brothers Jupiter and Pluto - from his father, Saturn. Like the ocean itself (and the entire water cycle), Neptune is impossible to fully contain or to describe with any clear sense of who or what he is. We all have our theories and research and opinions, but in reality we are as clueless about Neptune as we are about what truly lurks deep in the depths of the sea. Like many before me, I will try to shine a light down into the darkness of the deep waters and share oceanic treasures…and possibly a sea monster or two.
There are conflicting views regarding Neptune’s background and how he came to be associated with the ocean, earthquakes, and especially horses. What is generally agreed upon is that over the centuries the Roman god Neptune became closely associated with the Greek god Poseidon to such an extent that the names are often used interchangeably; yet, the conflict in origin afflicts both gods. Some sources say that Neptune was not a sea god at all originally but rather a Roman god of fresh water and springs; they use this view to explain why his festival, Neptunalia, was held in summertime, in July, as water was scarce and offerings were made to assuage the shortages.[3] The writers who express this vision of Neptune’s origin generally draw the conclusion that Neptune became associated with the ocean and Poseidon during the Roman expansion as commerce by water grew rapidly in importance. According to C. Scott Littleton, Neptune became the Lord of the Sea through identification with Poseidon as early as 4 B.C.E as he first appeared on coins holding the trident, which he considers to be a main symbol of Poseidon, at that time.[4] However, this is clearly in error as Virgil wrote about Neptune as the oceanic lord in The Aeneid[5] in 19 B.C.E:

Meantime imperial Neptune heard the sound
Of raging billows breaking on the ground.
Displeas'd, and fearing for his wat'ry reign,
He rear'd his awful head above the main,
Serene in majesty; then roll'd his eyes
Around the space of earth, and seas, and skies.
He saw the Trojan fleet dispers'd, distress'd,
By stormy winds and wintry heav'n oppress'd.
Full well the god his sister's envy knew,
And what her aims and what her arts pursue.
He summon'd Eurus and the western blast,
And first an angry glance on both he cast;
Then thus rebuk'd: "Audacious winds! from whence
This bold attempt, this rebel insolence?

Is it for you to ravage seas and land,
Unauthoriz'd by my supreme command?
To raise such mountains on the troubled main?
Whom I- but first 't is fit the billows to restrain;
And then you shall be taught obedience to my reign.
Hence! to your lord my royal mandate bear-
The realms of ocean and the fields of air
Are mine, not his. By fatal lot to me
The liquid empire fell, and trident of the sea.

The conflicting information surrounding both Neptune and Poseidon is not surprising as we are discussing nebulous, mysterious water energy; however, if Virgil was already writing about Neptune as the supreme command of the sea in 19 B.C.E, Neptune was already associated with the “trident of the sea” by 4 B.C.E even if he first appeared on coins at that time holding a trident.  The view that Rome copied Greek mythology is so wide-spread that few appear to question the belief; however, I do question this conclusion and have come to one of my own, which I will share here. While I do not doubt that Neptune and Poseidon became closely affiliated over the centuries, and indeed, I believe that Neptune and Poseidon are actually only two faces of many of the same one deity who was worshipped long before the development of Ancient Greece and Rome, it seems likely to me that the Roman entity called Neptune is directly linked...

[1] Washburn, Katherine and John S. Major.  Creation Hymn, from the Rig Veda. World Poetry: An Anthology of Verse from Anitquity to Our Time. New York, New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998; pg 49.

[2]  Several of the most ancient cultures, including Egyptian, Sumerian, and Babylonian, had water creation myths and considered all life to have risen from the chaos of the churning waters. Nearly all civilizations have a water creation or flood myth.

[3] One such source : Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology, pg 217

[4] C. Scott Littleton. Gods, Goddess, and Mythology. Marshall Cavendish Corporation, 2005; pg 965.

[5] The Aeneid is available online at http://classics.mit.edu/Virgil/aeneid.1.i.html

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