If you walk by the ocean, especially if you’re lucky enough to be near seaside caves, you will hear her voice. All the songs of the sea are hers, from soft sighs to bellicose roars. But the music for which she’s most famous are her drawn-out, evocative moans.
Amphitrite is a Nereid. Or maybe an Oceanid. There are endless, dull arguments for the merits of either, but since there aren’t clear lines around the definitions of each class of aquatic deities, it’s probably easier just to remember that she’s the wife of Poseidon and therefore the queen of the seas.
Hesiod says she’s the daughter of the Old Man of the Sea, Nereus, and his wife Doris, an Oceanid. Apollodorus lists her as sprung from Oceanos and Tethys, primordial deities of fresh water. All agree that she is blindingly beautiful, and identifiable (in addition to her voice) by a shining net worn over her hair, caught at the crown by a pair of crab claws. In fact, she’s often shown making a pinching gesture with her fingers, probably underscoring her affinity with ocean crustaceans.
And maybe it signals a warning.
She’s generally perceived as a beneficent goddess, helpful to sailors, a loving mother to her many sea-nymph daughters, and a calming influence on her wild husband. When Poseidon, a god of storms and earthquakes, is raging, her voice is one of the few things that can soothe him, lulling him into a sweet sleep that permits the waves to calm and give sailors safe passage.
But she is no kitten.
A personification of the sea itself, she can be as wild and dangerous as her husband. Homer holds her in awe, describing Odysseus’s fear as he floated adrift that “one of the swarming strange huge creatures in the breeding grounds of Amphitrite” might come against him, and referring frequently to drowning or being dashed to death against rocks in the “billows of Amphitrite.” Pausanias quotes a Pythian oracle as declaring that her querent should beware of “the wave of blue-eyed Amphitrite, roaring over the wine-dark sea.” Kallistrus describes a painting as featuring “an Amphitrite rose from the depths, a creature of savage and terrifying aspect who flashed from her eyes a bright radiance.” Perhaps most alarming, from Quintus Smyrnaeus, “A ruining storm maddens along the wide gulfs of the deep, and moans Amphitrite (the Sea-queen) with her anguished waves which sweep from every hand, uptowering like precipiced mountains, while the bitter squall, ceaselessly veering, shrieks across the sea.”
The view of her marriage to Poseidon depends largely on how one views Poseidon, a god widely regarded as being prone to rape. That view has to be balanced against the overwhelming and indomitable nature of the ocean, of course, but adds an edge to any reading of his myths, one that has to be navigated by the individual reader. Earlier versions tell of Poseidon seeing Amphitrite dancing on the sands of Naxos and desiring her madly. She preferred to remain single and fled from his advances, all the way to Atlas, i.e., the ends of the world. Poseidon sent his dolphin emissary to find her among the islands. The dolphin found her and informed his boss, who seized her and married her forcibly. Later versions are similar but indicate that the dolphin persuaded her to return to the sea-king’s court, and that Poseidon took the time to seduce her.
While the cult of Amphitrite was invariably associated with Poseidon, in myth she has adventures in which her husband doesn’t figure. In the Theseus story, the young hero dives into the ocean to retrieve a ring cast there as a test by King Minos. A dolphin guides him to Amphitrite’s throne, where, reclining in naked splendor, she gives him not only the ring but her own wedding wreath. The fact that Poseidon himself, the putative sire of Theseus, does not appear gives rise to speculation on the importance of Amphitrite in her own right. Like many Greek goddesses and heroines, it’s possible that her cultus held much greater sway in pre-literate times and was merged with Poseidon’s when the Olympians gained ascendancy.
Her importance can also be inferred from her presence at the birth of the divine twins, Apollo and Artemis, at the island of Delos. It’s notable that the Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo says that the most important goddesses were present, but none listed are Olympians. “And there were with her all the chiefest of the goddesses, Dione and Rhea and Ichnaea and Themis and loud-moaning Amphitrite and the other deathless goddesses save white-armed Hera, who sat in the halls of cloud-gathering Zeus.”
Ancient sources are a fun rabbit hole down which to dive, but, as always, the best way to acquaint oneself with the goddess is to seek her out. Swimming, sailing, walking on the shore, or losing oneself in a beautiful picture of the ocean are all great places to start. Listen to recordings of ocean sounds and whale song. Ponder the old argument, do her moans indicate grief and loss, or is she writhing in ecstatic union with her dark-maned lover?
Or could the moans be the voices of the sea-queen’s victims?
Picture her, naked on her throne of coral and pearl, crowned with crab claws, seaweed streaming from her hair, just as Theseus beheld her. Imagine her beside her husband in their chariot drawn by hippocamps, commanding the waves. Visualize her delicate ears, whorled like sea shells, dangling drops of pearl and sea-amber. See her laughing on the sunlit surface, watching her Nereid daughters play.
But don’t forget she’s also the goddess of the deepest black, undulating through clouds of marine snow in the inky darkness, bioluminescence glimmering in her wake, her teeth sharp and predatory.