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Nereus, the Old Man of the Sea

Hesiod describes the negative powers of the children of Night, and then lists the descendants of Pontus, beginning with the eldest and most venerable, Nereus, the Sea's Ancient or the Old Man of the Sea: "But Pontos, the great Sea, was Father of truthful (apseudes) Nereus, who tells no lies (alethes), eldest of his sons. They call him the old Gentleman because he is trustworthy (nemertes), and gentle, and never forgetful of what is right (oude themisteon lethetai), but the thoughts of his mind are mild and righteous (dikaia kai epia)" (Theogony 233-36). Three epithets, alethes, apseudes and nemertes, confer exceptional importance on Nereus. The association of these three epithets is in all likelihood traditional, since we also find them linked in this way in the description of the highest form of mantic speech, that of Apollo. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, when Hermes speaks before the gods, he claims in an ad hominem argument addressed to Apollo that he has the same virtues as those usually associated with his rival (368-69). He declares that he will speak Aletheia and that he is nemertes and apseudes. The "truth" of the Old an of the Sea thus seems to cover two domains: prophecy and justice. To understand the nature of this truth, we must first decipher the relations between Aletheia and both mantic speech and justice and then specify the modalities of the justice dispensed by the Old Man of the Sea. To discover Nereus's "truth" it is necessary to investigate the institutions intimately connected to the Old Man of the Sea.

In Hesiod's Theogony, Nereus administers justice. However, for an entire tradition he embodied a mantic power whose wisdom the Ancients always praised and whose "pronouncements" were carefully preserved and passed on (for example, Pindar's Pythian 3.93). The occasion on which he was consulted are famous, including those of Hercules and Pars. Nereus was, moreover, at the head of a lineage of oracular deities: his daughter, Eido, was called Theonoe because "she knew all divine things, the present and the future, a privilege she inherited from her forebear Nereus."(Euripides, Helena 13ff.) When Glaucus, a member of the same family of sea gods, appeared to the Argonauts, he declared himself to be the prophet of the Old Man of the Sea, the husband of Panteidyia, the All-Knowing One, and an apseudes interpreter. Nereus-like deities, such as Phorkys, Glaucus and Pontus, the Halios Geron, were all related, or even identified, through their mantic function.

Aletheia occupied a place of great importance in the realm of mantic speech (or prophecy). Evidence shows that the authority of mantic knowledge and pronouncements was derived from a particular concept of the truth. In the Homeric Hymn to Hermes, the ancient deities assigned to Hermes by Apollo are the Bee-Women who go everywhere, making all kinds of things "happen": endowed with a mantic knowledge, they speak Aletheia. The oracle of the Ismenion is known as the alethes seat of diviners (Pindar, Pythian 11.6). When Tiresias refers to his knowledge, he speaks of his Aletheia(Sophocles, Oedipus the King 299, 356, 369). Nocturnal oracles summoned up by Gaia speak Alethosune (Euripides, Iphigeneia in Tauris 1256-67, 1276-79). Cassandra is alethomantis Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1241). Some dream visions also belong to Aletheia. Finally, Olympia is "a queen of Aletheia," because there "men of prophecy, consulting Zeus' sacrificial fire, probe his will! God of the white-flashing bolt, what has he to say of his contenders, struggling for glory, breathless until they hold it?" (Pindar, Olympian 8.1-3). Furthermore, according to some traditions, Aletheia was the name of one of the nurses of the great oracular god Apollo (Plato, Phaedrus 275). Nereus, privileged by his possession of the most ancient oracular knowledge, is most certainly a righteous master of Aletheia.

The Aletheia of the Old Man of the Sea refers not only to his prophetic power; it is also why he is "never forgetful of what is right" and "the thoughts of his mind are mild and righteous" (Th 235-36): in other words, his function as a purveyor of justice. Like his daughter Theonoe, Nereus is "a living sanctuary, an August temple of Dike" (Euripides, Helena 1002). In religious thought a distinction does not exist between the domains of justice and truth. The many affinities between Dike and Aletheia are well attested. When Epimenides goes in broad daylight to the cave of Zeus Diktaios, where he then dreams for many years, he converses with the hods and speaks with Aletheia and Dike. This association is so natural that Hesychius defines Aletheia as dikaia, "things of Dike." Furthermore, through a play on the words Chronos and Kronos, Plutarch tells us that Kronos is said to be the father of Aletheia, do doubt because he is naturally "the most just one" (dikaiotatos: Plutarch, Questiones romanae 12.266ff.) Aletheia's power is basically the same as Dike's: Aletheia "who knows in silence what is going to happen and what has happened," corresponds to Dike, who knows "all things divine, the present and the future" (Euripides, Helena 13ff.). At this level of thought no distinction exists between truth and justice. The power of Aletheia thus encompasses the twofold domain of prophecy and justice.

The double field in which the Aletheia of the Old Man of the Sea operates makes it possible to define the forms of justice over which he presides: to wit, judicial procedures that involve and, to a point, are confused wit forms of divination. This type of judgment was not unusual and was still current in the sixth century B.C. in Megara, where Theognis declares, "I must judge this case exactly as with a line and a ruler, and give both parties their just due by consulting the diviners, the birds, and the burning altars, so as to spare myself the shame of making a mistake." (Theognis, 543ff) Gods, however, such as Nereus, Proteus and Glaucus live in the depths of the sea, from which they dispense a special kind of justice. To consult Glaucus, one had to set out in a boat; the god would rise from the waves when he was ready to prophesy.

These gods were patrons of a sea justice. Ancient ritual ordeals. When a conflict arose between Minos, gilt of violating a virgin, and Theseus, who defended the girl, the matter was decided by a "miracle duel." Theseus dove into the waves and recovered the ring he had just hurled to the bottom of the ocean. He thus penetrated the world of the gods and proved his own divinity by surfacing in the waters, safe and in possession of the ring. For the Greeks, the sea was a kind of Beyond. To return from these waters, one needed the assent of the gods.

Among these sea ordeals, one episode emphasizes its nature as ordeal by immersion. In Book IV of the Histories, Herodotus recounts the tale of Phronim, the wise virgin, slandered by her stepmother and given by her father to the merchant Themison, the dispenser of justice. Once at sea, he attached a rope to the girl, flung her into the waves, then pulled her out alive. The sea had pronounced its verdict. Solon's contemporaries still believed that the undisturbed sea represented "justice for all." This same historical and religious context nurtured and strengthened the belief that a safe sea crossing stood for innocence. The Old Man of the Sea embodied the gravest and most solemn form of justice, that by ordeal.

The Old Man of the Sea is a model of sovereignty, especially in his "political" aspects. Of his fifty daughters, most bearing names associated with navigation and sea trading, a dozen or so bear the names of "political virtues." The Theogony provides even more information about Nereus. He is given two telling epithets. First he is the Old One, the presbutatos par excellence (Th 234). In contrast to Geras, accursed Old Age, Nereus symbolizes the beneficent side to agedness. He embodies the principle of authority that elderly men naturally receive. Hesiod's other epithet for Nereus, "gentle," "kindly" (epios), reinforces and expands on the first.

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Last modified: Sun Dec 27, 1998 / Jeremiah Genest