Oceanus – Titan God of the Ocean

Titan Oceanus, the first son of Gaia (Earth) and Uranus (Sky), personified the endless expanses of water that spanned the world. This ancient deity embodied all seas and oceans. Oceanus was the patron of all things within the sea. He is considered one of the most peaceful and gentle gods.

Key facts

Family tree

ParentsGaia and Uranus
Partner(s)Tethys
SiblingsTitans Cronus, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetus, Rhea, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Theia, Themis, Tethys as well as half-siblings: one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.
Offspring3000 river gods (Potamoi), 3000 nymphs of fresh water (Oceanids), and Nephelai (rain clouds).

Names

Roman NameOceanus
Other NamesOceanus
Ancient GreekΤηθύς
The God ofSeas and oceans
SymbolsSerpent and fish
  • Oceanus was the only Titan who did not participate in Cronus’ attack on their father, Uranus
  • Because of his support of the Olympians, Oceanus was not cast down into Tartarus with the other Titans after Zeus defeated Cronus and his army.
  • He was married to his sister, the goddess of fresh water Tethys.
  • Goddess Hera was sheltered and brought up by Oceanus and Tethys during the war between the Titans and the Olympians.
  • Oceanus the great eternal river is located near the ends of the earth, in the vicinity of the Underworld (Tartarus). Beyond it lies the entrance to the Underworld and the Isles of the Blessed.
  • The English word “Ocean” is derived from Oceanus

Origins

Oceanus origin
Hendrik Goltzius, via Wikimedia Commons

When Gaia, the Earth, married the Sky god Uranus, they produced three sets of children: the Titans, the Cyclops and the Hecotoncheires. Oceanus was the first of the Titans and the most gentle and peaceful of them. He was banished to the underworld together with his siblings by Uranus, who feared and loathed his monstrous children. The youngest of the Titan brothers, Cronus, castrated Uranus with a scythe that Gaia gave him, freeing his siblings. All the other male Titans including Oceanus refused to take part in castrating Uranus.

Oceanus married his sister, goddess of fresh water Tethys, and they ruled together over all the water bodies in the universe, as well as over everything that lived in both the salt water and fresh water bodies.

The liberation of the Titans by Cronus started the Golden Age, a time of prosperity for gods and men alike. Cronus and his consort Rhea ruled the universe, while Oceanus, Tethys and other Titans were their court.

The Golden Age was cut short by Cronus, who feared that his children would overthrow him. He swallowed five of his children, but the sixth one, Zeus, was hidden by Gaia and started a war against Cronus upon reaching adulthood, which was called Titanomachia. Oceanus and Tethys being peaceful deities, did not join the Titanomachia. On the contrary, they gave shelter to their niece Hera and brought her up. They were therefore not banished by Zeus to Tartarus after he won the war. 

Name and epithets

The name “Oceanus”  (also Okeanos) is identical to the Greek word “Okeanos”, meaning “great sea or river”. The ancient Greeks thought that this great body of water encompassed the world. 

Family tree

Oceanus was the son of Gaia, goddess of earth and mother of all life, and Gaia’s son Uranus, the god of Sky. He was the oldest one of the Titans. He had five male siblings (Cronus, Hyperion, Coeus, Crius, and Iapetus) and six female siblings, Titanides (Mnemosyne, Tethys, Theia, Phoebe, Themis, and Rhea). Apart from that, he also had half-siblings which included one-eyed Cyclopes Brontes, Arges and Steropes and Hecatoncheires (monstrosities with a hundred hands each) Kottos, Briareos and Gyges.

He married his sister Tethys, goddess of fresh water, and they produced three thousand sons, the river gods and three thousand daughters, the Oceanids. The sons included the Achelous, the dog of the Achelous River, Alphleus, and Scamander. The most prominent Oceanids are Metis, Eurynome, Doris, Callirhoe, Clymene, Perseis, Idyia, and Styx.

Oceanus Domains of power

He was the father of rivers, wells, streams and fountains. He embodied the seas and commanded the great power of their waters. He was also a personification of the river Okeanos, which was believed to encircle the world and connect the earth to the heavens and the underworld. As the patron of all things within the sea, Oceanus was generally viewed as a benevolent deity, a fatherly figure, and a giver of life.

Although he was one of the most gentle and peaceful gods, he could occasionally become a source of destruction due to his immense force. 

Oceanus stories
Peter Paul Rubens, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Oceanus was closely associated with heavenly bodies. The sun rose from his body in the morning and settled back at night. The stars bathed in Oceanus. Oceanus and Tethys were also rulers of the planet Venus.

This Titan was also considered a liminal deity that marked the boundary between the living and the dead, as well as the seas and heavens. 

Symbolism

The symbols of Oceanus are serpent and fish.

Classical literature on Oceanus

  • The epics of Homer and Hesiod describe Oceanus as a great river that encircles the world and is always flowing back into itself. 
  •  Oceanus appears in Ovid’s Metamorphose, Book XIII: 

“The gods of the sea received me, thinking me worth the honour of their company, and asked Oceanus and Tethys to purge what was mortal in me. I was purified by them, and, cleansed of sin by an incantation nine times repeated, they ordered me to bathe my body in a hundred rivers. Immediately streams from every side poured their waters over my head. So much I can tell of you of those marvellous things, so much of them, I remember: then my mind knew no more. When later I came to, my whole body was altered from what I was before, and my mind was not the same”.

  • Oceanus also appears in Aeschylus’s play “Prometheus Bound”:

“Now have I traversed the unending plain
And unto thee, Prometheus, am I come,
Guiding this winged monster with no rein,
Nor any bit, but mind’s firm masterdom.
And know that for thy grief my heart is sore;
The bond of kind, methinks, constaineth me;
Not is there any I would honour more,
Apart from kinship, than I reverence thee.
And thou shalt learn that I speak verity:
Mine is no smooth, false tongue; for do but show
How I can serve thee, grieved and outraged thus,
Thou ne’er shalt say thou hast, come weal, come woe,
A friend more faithful than Oceanus”. 

Place in ancient Greek religion

Oceanus was worshipped by Alexander the Great when he campaigned for world conquest. He was not, however, an object of a cult in ancient Greece.

Stories where Oceanus plays a part

Titanomachia

When Zeus summoned all the gods to help him fight the Titans, Oceanus told his daughter Styx to join Zeus. That’s why she was the first to come to Zeus’ aid, together with her children. According to the Roman poet, Ovid goddess Styx imprisoned a monster, half bull and half serpent because it was said that whoever fed the bull’s guts to the flames will defeat the gods. 

As a reward for the Greek goddess’ Styx help, Zeus allowed her children to dwell in his house. 

Heracles and Oceanus

Heracles sailed to the home of the monster Geryon in Erytheia in a golden cup that Helios (Sun deity) had given him. Oceanus teased Heracles during this voyage by sending great waves to rock the cup. Heracles responded by picking up his bow and threatening to shoot him if the waves didn’t stop. Oceanus was scared and obeyed. The waves subsided.

Great Bear and Oceanus

All the stars bathed in the body of the Great Ocean. The Great Bear, or Ursa Major constellation, was the only one that never bathed in the waters of Oceanus. The constellation had once been the nymph Callisto and one of Zeus’s lovers. She was placed in the sky as the Ursa Major constellation after her death. Zeus’s wife Hera remained jealous of Callisto even after her death and ordered Oceanus to never allow Ursa Major to bathe in his waters with other stars.

Oceanus and the Island of the Blessed

Oceanus rules over many islands and shores. Elysian Fields, or Island of the Blessed is the most famous of them all. Souls of the best of mortals come there to eternally live in peace and tranquility. The island is located by the deep shores in the Underworld. 

Depictions in Art and Pop Culture

Oceanus culture
Infinitebistromathics, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Classical Art

  • Oceanus is a very common subject in both Greek and Roman art. He is depicted on mosaics, vases, coins and sarcophagi. His statues were sometimes part of altars and very frequent decoration with fountains.
  • He is often depicted in a reclining pose, which alludes to his presence being spread all over the world. His depictions normally contain a mixture of both human traits and those of a sea creature: a beard, horns made of crab claws, a body of a snake or a fish.

In Pop Culture

  • Oceanus is the central figure of the 1762 Trevi Fountain in Rome. It is the statue of Oceanus that made the fountain an iconic landmark. The Titan hovers over geysers, horses and sea nymphs.
  • Oceanus features in the famous play Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus. The theme was popular among the 19th-century Romantic writers. Many adaptations of the play were staged both in the 20th century and recently.  It was also staged for the camera in 2015 by MacMillan Films in the United States. The production used a real skene (structure used in ancient Greece for a stage or set) for the Chorus of Oceanids.
  • The Titan’s name was given to the research base of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Okeanos Explorer.
  • Oceanus briefly features in the video game God of War III, where, contradictory to the myth, he is one of the several Titans taking part in the attack on Mount Olympus.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Oceanus the god of?

Oceanus the river was said to be the source of all other rivers and in fact all sources of water, both salt and fresh.

Is Oceanus the same as Poseidon?

There is a key difference between Poseidon and Oceanus. While Poseidon was the god who was able to control the sea, Oceanus was actually looked at as the deity that physically represented the sea.

What was Oceanus famous for?

Oceanus was the primordial Titan god of the great, earth-encircling River Okeanos, the font of all of the earth’s fresh-water – rivers, wells, springs and rain clouds. He was also the god who regulated the heavenly bodies which rose from and set into his waters.

What are Oceanus symbols?

Grain, sickle, scythe.

Featured Image Credit: Trustees of the British Museum, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons