From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Member of Sea Gods
Nereus in a frieze of the Pergamon Altar (Berlin).
Other namesOld Man of the Sea
AbodeAegean Sea
Personal information
ParentsGaia, Pontus

In Greek mythology, Nereus (/ˈnɪəriəs/ NEER-ee-əs; Ancient Greek: Νηρεύς, romanizedNēreús) was the eldest son of Pontus (the Sea) and Gaia (the Earth), with Pontus himself being a son of Gaia. Nereus and Doris became the parents of 50 daughters (the Nereids) and a son (Nerites), with whom Nereus lived in the Aegean Sea.[1]


The name Nereus is absent from Homer's epics; the god's name in the Iliad is the descriptive ἅλιος γέρων 'Old Man of the Sea', and in the Odyssey the combination of ἅλιος γέρων and Πρωτεύς 'Proteus'.[2] Besides Nereus and Proteus, the descriptive "Old Man of the Sea" was also used for other water deities in Greek mythology, who share several traits; such as Phorcys, Glaucus, and perhaps Triton. It is suggested that the "Old Man of the Sea" had at one time played a cosmogonic role comparable to that of Oceanus, and could have received different names in different places.[3] It is not known whether the name Nereus was known to Homer or not, but the name of the Nereids is attested before it, and can be found in the Iliad.[2] Since Nereus only has relevance as the father of the Nereids, it has been suggested that his name could actually be derived from that of his daughters;[4] while the derivation of the Nereids from Nereus, as a patronymic, has also been suggested.[5] According to Martin Litchfield West (1966), Nereus is much less important than his daughters, mentioning that Herodotus offered "the Nereids, not Nereus, as an example of a divine name not derived from Egypt".[6]

In Hesiod's Theogony, which is where the name was first attested, Nereus is presented in immediate juxtaposition to Eris; something that also extends to their children. First of all, there exists a feminine-masculine opposition. Also, Eris is the oldest and most important child of Nyx, while Nereus is Pontus' oldest and most important son. Another example is Hesiod's choice of verbs and adjectives used to describe Nereus in juxtaposition to Eris' children; such as ἀ-ψευδέα 'does-not-lie' and ἀ-ληθέα 'does-not-forget', as opposed to Ψευδέα 'Lies' and Λήθη 'Forgetfulness'.[7] This has prompted scholars to propose a derivation from Ἔρις Eris 'Discord' with the negative prefix νη‑ ne‑ added to it; namely Ne-Eris 'Not-Discord', which evolved to Νηρεύς (< νη-ερ(ι)-ευς).[8] Furthermore, Hesiod also played with the verbal likeness between Nereus and his last daughter Νημερτής Nemertes 'Unerring', whose name also bears the negative prefix νη‑.[9]

Another possible etymology could be from νηρόν, nerón '(fresh) water or fish', which is a contraction of the Greek adjective νεαρός, nearós 'new, fresh, young'.[10] It is commonly believed that the contraction of νεαρός to νηρός happened later than Hesiod; however, the contraction of ε and α to η is quite old, and is widespread over many Greek dialects.[11]

The name could also be related to the Hesychian glosses νηρίδας 'hollow rocks' or νηρόν 'low-lying'. Robert S. P. Beekes (2010) favors a Pre-Greek (pre-Indo-European) origin, as is suggested by the suffix ‑εύς, ‑eús.[10] Another view is that of Apostolos Athanassakis (1983), who suggested an Illyrian origin for the name, and compared it to the Albanian word njeri 'man'.[12]

According to August Fick (1890), the closest Indo-European relative of Nereus, as well as the Nereids, is the Lithuanian verb nérti 'to dive'; also, the Lithuanian noun nėrõvė 'mermaid' has been associated with the Nereids.[13] Papachristophorou (1998) supported a derivation from the aforementioned Lithuanian verb, citing Pierre Chantraine (1968),[14] while Tsantsanoglou (2015) considered the relation plausible.[13]

The name of the Nereids has survived in modern Greek folklore as νεράιδες, neráides 'fairies'.[15]


In the Iliad,[16] the Old Man of the Sea is the father of Nereids, though Nereus is not directly named. He was never more manifestly the Old Man of the Sea than when he was described, like Proteus, as a shapeshifter with the power of prophecy, who would aid heroes such as Heracles[17] who managed to catch him even as he changed shapes. Nereus and Proteus (the "first") seem to be two manifestations of the god of the sea who was supplanted by Poseidon when Zeus overthrew Cronus.

The earliest poet to link Nereus with the labours of Heracles was Pherekydes, according to a scholion on Apollonius of Rhodes.[18]

During the course of the 5th century BC, Nereus was gradually replaced by Triton, who does not appear in Homer, in the imagery of the struggle between Heracles and the sea-god who had to be restrained in order to deliver his information that was employed by the vase-painters, independent of any literary testimony.[19]

In a late appearance, according to a fragmentary papyrus, Alexander the Great paused at the Syrian seashore before the climacteric battle of Issus (333 BC), and resorted to prayers, "calling on Thetis, Nereus and the Nereids, nymphs of the sea, and invoking Poseidon the sea-god, for whom he ordered a four-horse chariot to be cast into the waves."[20]

Nereus was known for his truthfulness and virtue:

But Pontos, the great sea, was father of truthful Nereus who tells no lies, eldest of his sons. They call him the Old Gentleman because he is trustworthy, and gentle, and never forgetful of what is right, but the thoughts of his mind are mild and righteous.[21]

The Attic vase-painters showed the draped torso of Nereus issuing from a long coiling scaly fishlike tail.[22] Bearded Nereus generally wields a staff of authority. He was also shown in scenes depicting the flight of the Nereides as Peleus wrestled their sister Thetis.

In Aelian's natural history, written in the early third century,[23] Nereus was also the father of a watery consort of Aphrodite and lover of Poseidon named Nerites who was transformed into "a shellfish with a spiral shell, small in size but of surpassing beauty."

Nereus was father to Thetis, one of the Nereids, who in turn was mother to the great Greek hero Achilles, and Amphitrite, who married Poseidon.


  1. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 233-36, is unequivocal that Nereus is the Old Man of the Sea (ἅλιος γέρων), whereas the Odyssey gives the sobriquet to Nereus (xxiv.58) to Proteus (iv.365, 387), and to Phorkys (xiii.96, 345).
  2. ^ a b Tsantsanoglou 2015, p. 5; Chantraine 1968, p. 751; "Νηρεύς – Ancient Greek (LSJ)".
  3. ^ Rudhardt 1992, p. 82
  4. ^ Beekes & van Beek 2010, pp. ix, xliii, 1017; Tsantsanoglou 2015, p. 14
  5. ^ Beekes & van Beek 2010, pp. ix, xliii, 1017
  6. ^ Litchfield West 1966, p. 233
  7. ^ Litchfield West 1966, pp. 232–234; Prier 1976, pp. 40–41; Scully 2015, pp. 16–18; Scully 2018, pp. 87–89; Vergados 2020, pp. 87–89
  8. ^ Scully 2015, p. 18; Scully 2018, p. 88; Vergados 2020, p. 89
  9. ^ Prier 1976, p. 40
  10. ^ a b Beekes & van Beek 2010, pp. ix, xliii, 1017–1018
  11. ^ Tsantsanoglou 2015, pp. 11–12
  12. ^ Athanassakis 2004, p. 43
  13. ^ a b Tsantsanoglou 2015, p. 14
  14. ^ Papachristophorou 1998, p. 190; Chantraine 1968, p. 751
  15. ^ Chantraine 1968, p. 751; Papachristophorou 1998, p. 190; Litchfield West 1966, p. 233
  16. ^ Iliad i.358, 538, 556; xviii.141; xx.107; xxiv.562.
  17. ^ Or, as Proteus, Menelaus.
  18. ^ On Argonautica iv.1396f, noted by Ruth Glynn, "Herakles, Nereus and Triton: A Study of Iconography in Sixth Century Athens", American Journal of Archaeology 85.2 (April 1981, pp. 121–132) p 121f.
  19. ^ Glynn 1981:121–132.
  20. ^ Karl Wilhelm Ludwig Müller's ed. Papyrus Oxyrrhincus Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum 148, 44, col. 2; quoted by Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great (1973) 1986:168 and note. Thetis was the mother of Alexander's hero Achilles.
  21. ^ Hesiod, Theogony 233
  22. ^ Beazley Archive 201859;; Glynn 1981.
  23. ^ "Aelian, On Animals 14.28".


External links[edit]