Role in Mythology: God of the sea, god of fresh water, god of eathquakes
Alternative Names: Neptune, Neptune Equester
Family Relationships: Son of Saturn, brother of Jupiter, husband of Ampitrite, father of Triton
Symbols: Trident, dolphin
Greek Equivalent: Poseidon
Norse Equivalent: Rán
In the Roman religion and mythology, Neptunus, also called Neptune, was originally regarded as the god of fresh water, as opposed to salty sea water. He may have arisen as a sky god, casting lightning bolts instead of his triton, or as a fertility god, sending up springs of water from the earth. By 399 B.C., he was seen as equivalent to the Greek sea god Posedion. Thus, his domain changed from freshwater springs to that of the ocean and sea. His former role as a deity of fresh water was filled by the deity Salacia, the goddess of “leaping springwater.”
A temple to Neptune could be found in Rome’s Circus Flaminius, a large track for horse racing. The temple featured sculptures of the Greek Poseidon, Thetis, and other sea deities. According to Jewish Antiquities by the historian Josephus, Octavian Augustus built a temple to Neptune in Nicopolis, after he attained a naval victory over Antony and Cleopatra. The temple was erected on the location at which his personal tent had stood. Another temple was built in 25 B.C. in the Campus Martius; it was there that the Neptunalia was held on July 23. As a god of the water, Neptune’s festival was naturally held in the hottest part of summer, when water was most difficult to find. This petitioning for drinkable water was likely left over from his former role as a god of springs. He was considered a patron of sailors, but was not as popular as had been his Greek counterpart. Neptunus was most widely heralded as Neptune Equester, the patron deity of horses and horse racing.
Myths and Stories
The myths of Neptunus borrow heavily from those of the Greek Poseidon. In one myth, Neptunus fell in love with the Nereid Amphitrite, who is sometimes said to be a mermaid and is at other times more human in form. Amphitrite resisted Neptunus’ affections, but eventually they were married. They had a son named Triton, who was a merman – human from the waist up, but bearing a fish’s tail instead of legs. Later, Amphitrite became angry and vengeful due to her husband’s affinity for human women and goddesses alike. In Homer’s Odyssey, for example, her husband disguised himself and fathered twins by a human maiden, hidden from view by towering waves at the mouth of a river. On another occasion, he pursued Ceres as she searched for her daughter, Prosperine, who had been taken to the underworld. When Ceres turned herself into a mare, a female horse, in order to escape him, he became a stallion in order to mate with her.
In another legend, Neptunus battled with Minerva (or, the Greek Athena) for control of great cities. They had a contest of creation; Minerva created an olive tree, and Neptunus brought forth the first horse. Minerva was named victorious by the gods and kings, so in anger, Neptunus flooded the land. In another flood myth, Jupiter wished to punish the mortals for their wickedness. According to the poet Ovid, Neptunus “struck the earth with his trident; it trembled and with the quake laid open paths for the waters.” In a manner reminiscent of the Bible’s Noachian flood, humans, animals, and architecture were destroyed, until only one man and one woman remained. Jupiter then worked to reverse the flood, with Neptunus’ son Triton using his conch shell as a horn to call the waters back the riverbeds and the seabed.
In art and statue, Neptunus was often depicted as being muscular and bearded, holding a trident, or three pronged spear used in fishing. His appearance was rough and ferocious, mirroring the dangerous storms of the sea. He rode a chariot pulled by seagoing horses who sported both equine hooves and the tails of fish. At other times, he rode standing on their backs. Dolphins may accompany Neptunus or replace his horses.
Like many of his mythological counterparts, Neptunus’ legacy continues among the sciences. The planet Neptune was named after this god, as its blue coloration resembles a vast sea. Neptune’s largest moon is named after the deity’s son, Triton. The silvery metal neptunium (Np), element 93 on the periodic table, was named after the planet, and thus after the god himself.