Triton

The children of Amphitrite are hardly more prominent in myth than herself. Hesiod names only Triton, the well-known Greek merman, who, after the fashion of minor figures of mythology and cult, is now one, now many. The etymology of his name is quite uncertain, but it sounds as if it were connected with the latter half of his mother’s equally puzzling appellation. It is of course in no way certain that it is Greek, for the Greeks may have taken Triton, name and all, from Minoan or Anatolian belief. In shape, he is human from the waist up, fish-shaped from the waist down, a type found frequently in Etruscan art, and which is in a general way interestingly like such twy-form Oriental gods as the familiar Dagon of the Old Testament. Hence the Greek Triton tends to be confused, in art and perhaps in belief also, with other sea-creatures, such as Nereus, Proteus, and so forth. A favourite subject with Greek artists, especially for the decorative details of sea-pieces, he is multiplied in a variety of forms, sometimes male, sometimes female (here of course he trespasses on the domain of the Nereids, a confusion very readily understood). He can scarcely be said to have a mythology of his own, although he enters commonly enough into tales of the greater gods, in literature as in art.

Perhaps stories of him passed freely from mouth to mouth among sailors and fishermen, but if so, they are practically all lost to us. A few fragments from the possible wreck of such a mariners’ tradition are as follows.

When the Argonauts were making their way back from Libya, Triton gave a clod of earth to one of their number, Euphemos, in token that his descendants should bear rule in those parts; it fell, or was thrown, into the sea, and grew into the island of Thera, colonized long afterwards by Euphemos’ descendant Theras, and destined in still later times to send out a colony to Kyrene. This Triton (Pindar calls him Eurypylos) seems to be a local Libyan god, worshipped at Lake Tritonis. A perhaps more genuinely native Greek Triton is the central figure of the legend told at Tanagra in Boiotia: as certain women were bathing in the sea to purify themselves for the ritual of Dionysos, Triton appeared and offered them violence; they cried on Dionysos for aid, and he appeared and overcame the would-be ravisher after a sharp fight; another version was, that the Tanagraians set a large bowl of wine for him, and when he was helplessly drunk, one of them chopped off his head. In proof of this they showed his dead and headless body in the temple of Dionysos. In general he, like most mermen, was regarded as an unchancy creature, apt to be jealous, and very dangerous if provoked; hence Vergil’s story of how Misenos, having rashly challenged Triton to a contest in trumpeting, was drowned by him. As Triton is commonly represented as blowing a conch-shell, such a piece of presumption would of course be especially likely to offend him.

According to Apollodoros, Triton had two sisters, Benthesikyme (Wave of the Deep) and Rhode or Rhodos, the nymph of the island of Rhodes, who is elsewhere called daughter of Helios by Aphrodite or Amphitrite, or daughter of Aphrodite and Poseidon; a good example of the artificial way in which the Greeks often affiliated gods of highly various origins by combining them genealogically.

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