Heracles Fights Triton

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Heracles Fights Triton

Image ID: 1623849 [Kylix depicting Hercules wrestling with Triton.] (1894)
Image ID: 1623849 [Kylix depicting Hercules wrestling with Triton.] (1894). NYPL Digital Gallery

The caption under the picture refers to the Greek hero by his Roman name, as Hercules. Heracles is the Greek version. The picture shows a fish-tailed man, Triton, wrestling with a lion-skin-wearing Heracles sitting on him. Heracles' encounter with Triton is not in the written versions of the Heracles myths. This pottery picture is based on an Attic black figure depiction of Heracles and Triton on a kylix at Tarquinia National Museum, RC 4194 [see Hellenica], a topic popular with Attic vase painters in the 6th century B.C.

Who Is Triton?

Triton is a merman sea deity; that is, he is half man and half fish or dolphin. Poseidon and Amphitrite are his parents. Like father Poseidon, Triton carries a trident, but he also uses a conch-shell as a horn with which he can rile up or calm people and waves. In the Gigantomachy, the battle between gods and giants, he used the conch-shell trumpet to frighten the giants. It also frightened the sileni and satyrs, fighting on the gods' side, who made a terrible noise, which also terrified the giants.

Triton appears in various Greek myths, such as the story about the Argonauts' quest for the Golden Fleece and Vergil's epic story of Aeneas and his followers' travails as they travel from the burning city of Troy to their new home in Italy -- The Aeneid: The story of the Argonauts mentions that Triton lives off the coast of Libya. In the Aeneid, Misenus blows on a shell, provoking Triton to jealousy, which the sea god resolved by sending a foaming wave to drown the mortal.

Triton is connected with the goddess Athena as the one who reared her and also the father of her companion Pallas.

Triton or Nereus

The written myths show Heracles fighting a metamorphosing sea god called "the Old Man of the Sea." The scenes look a lot like this one of Heracles fighting Triton. A note for those researching further: The Greek for the name "Old Man of the Sea" is "Halios Geron." In the Iliad, the Old Man of the Sea is the father of the Nereids. Although not named, that would be Nereus. In the Odyssey, the Old Man of the Sea refers to Nereus, Proteus, and Phorkys. Hesiod identifies the Old Man of the Sea with Nereus alone.

(ll. 233-239) And Sea begat Nereus, the eldest of his children, who is true and lies not: and men call him the Old Man because he is trusty and gentle and does not forget the laws of righteousness, but thinks just and kindly thoughts.
Theogony Translated by Evelyn-White

The first literary reference to Herakles fighting a shape-shifting Old Man of the Sea -- which he does to obtain information on the location of the Garden of the Hesperides, in the 11th Labor -- comes from Pherekydes, according to Ruth Glynn. In the Pherekydes version, the forms the Old Man of the Sea assumes are limited to fire and water, but there are other forms, elsewhere. Glynn adds that Triton does not appear before the second quarter of the 6th century, shortly before the artwork shown above of Herakles fighting Triton.

Artwork shows Heracles fighting Nereus as either a fish-tailed merman or fully human, and similar-looking scenes with Heracles fighting Triton. Glynn thinks the painters distinguish the Old Man of the Sea, Nereus, from Triton. Nereus sometimes has white hair suggesting age. Triton canonically has a full head of black hair, is bearded, may wear a fillet, sometimes wears a tunic, but always has a fish tail. Heracles wears the lionskin and sits astride or stands over Triton.

Later paintings of Triton show a more youthful, beardless Triton. Another image of Triton with a far shorter tail and looking more monstrous -- by this time he had sometimes been depicted with horse legs instead of human arms, so the mingling of a variety of animals has precedents -- comes from a 1st century B.C. weathervane.

Reference:

"Herakles, Nereus and Triton: A Study of Iconography in Sixth Century Athens," by Ruth Glynn
American Journal of Archaeology
Vol. 85, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 121-132

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Gill, N.S. "Heracles Fights Triton." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/heracles-fights-triton-121234. Gill, N.S. (2016, August 9). Heracles Fights Triton. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/heracles-fights-triton-121234 Gill, N.S. "Heracles Fights Triton." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/heracles-fights-triton-121234 (accessed September 20, 2017).