1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Proteus (mythology)

PROTEUS, in Greek mythology, a prophetic old man of the sea. According to Homer, his resting-place was the island of Pharos, near the mouth of the Nile; in Virgil his home is the island of Carpathus, between Crete and Rhodes. He knew all things past, present and future, but was loth to tell what he knew. Those who would consult him had first to surprise and bind him during his noonday slumber in a cave by the sea, where he was wont to pass the heat of the day surrounded by his seals. Even when caught he would try to escape by assuming all sorts of shapes: now he was a lion, now a serpent, a leopard, a boar, a tree, fire, water. But if his captor held him fast the god at last returned to his proper shape, gave the wished-for answer, and then plunged into the sea. He was subject to Poseidon, and acted as shepherd to his “flocks.” In post-Homeric times the story ran that Proteus was the son of Poseidon and a king of Egypt, to whose court Helen was taken by Hermes after she had been carried off, Paris being accompanied to Troy by a phantom substituted for her. This is the story followed by Herodotus (ii. 112, 118), who got it from Egyptian priests, and by Euripides in the Helena. From his power of assuming whatever shape he pleased Proteus came to be regarded, especially by the Orphic mystics, as a symbol of the original matter from which the world was created. Rather he is typical of the ever-changing aspect of the sea (Homer, Odyssey, iv. 351; Virgil, Georgics, iv. 386).