This illustration, created by the Dutch engraver Jacob de Gheyn III (c. 1596-1641), depicts the ancient Greco-Roman sea-god, Triton. Although not as powerful as his father, Poseidon/Neptune, Triton was described by the ancients as a strong and influential deity. In particular, he was thought to have possessed an ability to control the tides and flows of bodies of water. Describing Triton, the ancient Greet poet, Hesiod (flourished in the 8th century BCE), wrote, “From Amphrite and the loud-booming Shaker of Earth great Triton was born, whose strength extends widely, who occupies the bottom of the sea, dwelling in a golden house with his dear mother and the lord his father; a formidable god” (Hesiod, Theogony, between lines 925 and 936). For a physical description of Triton’s merman appearance and his tide-controlling conch shell horn, we can turn to the Roman poet Ovid (c. 1578–1660), who vividly brought the god to life in his poem, Metamorphoses. Ovid wrote:
“Neptune’s anger subsided as well. Lying his trident
aside, he calmed the turbulent waters and called upon Triton,
the sea-green merman, who heaved his shoulders, encrusted by nature
with shells of the murex, above the surface, with orders to blow
on his resonant conch and signal the rivers and waves to withdraw
Triton lifted his hollow horn, which wreaths in a spiral
up from its mouthpiece to broaden out to a bell, the horn
whose notes, when once he has filled it with breath in the midst of the deep,
rebounded on the echoing shoreline from east to west. So then,
when the god had raised his instrument up to his lips, with the salt drops
streaming down from his beard, and the blast had sounded the bidden
retreat, it was heard by all the water of land and ocean;
and all the waters by which it was heard were held in check.”
(Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1.330-342).
Such is the figure that Jacob de Gheyn III recreates in his artwork. Following Ovid’s description, Triton is depicted as a merman with a humanoid upper half atop a serpentine and finned body, fit for aquatic life. Jacob de Gheyn also equips Triton with his trusty conch shell horn, which, Hesiod and Ovid agreed, gave the sea god widespread control over rivers, lakes, seas and oceans.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Metamorphoses by Ovid. Translated by David Raeburn. Penguin Classics; Revised Edition, 2004.
- Theogony and Works and Days by Hesiod, translated by M. L. West. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, 1999, 2008.