In Greek mythology, Proteus (Πρωτεύς) is an early sea-god, one
of several deities whom Homer calls the "Old Man of the
Sea", whose name suggests the "first" (from Greek "πρῶτος"
- protos, "first"), as protogonos (πρωτόγονος) is the
"primordial" or the "firstborn". He became the son of Poseidon
in the Olympian theogony (Odyssey iv. 432), or of Nereus and
Doris, or of Oceanus and a Naiad, and was made the herdsman of
Poseidon's seals, the great bull seal at the center of the
harem. He can foretell the future, but, in a mytheme familiar
from several cultures, will change his shape to avoid having
to; he will answer only to someone who is capable of capturing
him. From this feature of Proteus comes the adjective protean,
with the general meaning of "versatile", "mutable", "capable
of assuming many forms". "Protean" has positive connotations
of flexibility, versatility and adaptability. The earliest
attested form of the name is the Mycenaean Greek 𐀡𐀫𐀳𐀄 po-
ro-te-u, written in Linear B syllabic script....
（Πρωτεύς), the prophetic old man of the sea (ἅλιος γέρων),
occurs in the earliest legends as a subject of Poseidon, and
is described as seeing through the whole depth of the sea,
and tending the flocks (the seals) of Poseidon (Hom. Od.
4.365, 385, 400; Verg. G. 4.392 ; Theocr. 2.58; Hor. Carm.
1.2.7; Philostr. Icon. 2.17). He resided in the island of
Pharos, at the distance of one day's journey from the river
Aegyptus (Nile), whence he is also called the Egyptian (Hom.
Od. 4.355, 385). Virgil, however, instead of Pharos,
mentions the island of Carpathos, between Crete and Rhodes
(Georg. 4.387; comp. Hom. Il. 2.676), whereas, according to
the same poet, Proteus was born in Thessaly (Georg. 4.390,
comp. Ace. 11.262). His life is described as follows. At
midday he rises from the flood, and sleeps in the shadow of
the rocks of the coast, and around him lie the monsters of
the deep (Hom. Od. 4.400; Verg. G. 4.395). Any one wishing
to compel him to foretell the future, was obliged to catch
hold of him at that time; he, indeed, had the power of
assuming every possible shape, in order to escape the
necessity of prophesying, but whenever he saw that his
eudeavours were of no avail, he resumed his usual
appearance, and told the truth (Hom. Od. 4.410, &100.455,
&c.; Ov. Art. Am. i. 761, Fast. 1.369; Philostr. Vit. Apoll.
1.4). When he had finished his prophecy he returned into the
sea (Hom. Od. 4.570). Homer (Hom. Od. 4.365) ascribes to him
one daughter, Eidothea, but Strabo (x. p.472) mentions
Cabeiro as a second, aud Zenodotus (apud Eustath. ad Hom. p.
1500) mentions Eurynome instead of Eidothea. He is sometimes
represented as riding through the sea, in a chariot drawn by
Hippocampae. (Virg. Georg. 4.389.)
Another set of traditions describes Proteus as a son of
Poseidon, and as a king of Egypt, who had two sons,
Telegonus and Polygonus or Tmolus. (Apollod. 2.5.9; Tzetz.
ad Lyc. 124.) Diodorus however observes (1.62), that only
the Greeks called him Proteus, and that the Egyptians called
him Cetes. His wife is called Psamathe (Eur. Hel. 7) or
Torone (Tzetz. ad Lyc. 115), and, besides the above
mentioned sons, Theoclymenus and Theonoe are likewise called
his children. (Eur. Hel. 9, 13.) He is said to have
hospitably received Dionysus during his wanderings (Apollod.
3.5.1), and Hermes brought to him Helena after her abduction
( Eur. Hel. 46), or, according to others, Proteus himself
took her from Paris, gave to the lover a phantom, and
restored the true Helen to Menelaus after his return from
Troy. (Tzetz. ad Lyc. 112, 820; Hdt. 2.112, 118.) The story
further relates that Proteus was originally an Egyptian, but
that he went to Thrace and there married Torone. But as his
sons by her used great violence towards strangers, he prayed
to his father Poseidon to carry him back to Egypt. Poseidon
accordingly opened a chasm in the earth in Pallene, and
through a passage passing through the earth under the sea he
led him back into Egypt. (Tzetz. ad Lyc. 124; Eustath. ad
Hom. p. 686.) A second personage of the name of Proteus is
mentioned by Apollodorus (2.1.5) among the sons of Aegyptus.
- A Dictionary of Greek and Roman biography and mythology,
William Smith, Ed.