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In Greek mythology, the prophetic old man of the sea and the shepherd of sea animals such as seals. He was subject to Poseidon. He knew all things—past, present, and future—but disliked telling what he knew. Those who wanted information from him had to catch him sleeping and bind him. He would try to escape by changing his form, but if a captor held him fast he gave the wished-for answer and plunged into the sea.
Learn more about Proteus with a free trial on Britannica.com.
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According to Homer (Odyssey iv:412), the sandy island of Pharos situated off the coast of the Nile Delta was the home of Proteus, the oracular Old Man of the Sea and herdsman of the sea-beasts. In the Odyssey, Menelaus relates to Telemachus that he had been becalmed here on his journey home from the Trojan War. He learned from Proteus' daughter, Eidothea ("the very image of the Goddess"), that if he could capture her father he could force him to reveal which of the gods he had offended, and how he could propitiate them and return home. Proteus emerged from the sea to sleep among his colony of seals, but Menelaus was successful at holding him, though Proteus took the forms of a lion, a serpent, a leopard, a pig, even of water or a tree. Proteus then answered truthfully, further informing Menelaus that his brother Agamemnon had been murdered on his return home, that Ajax the Lesser had been shipwrecked and killed, and that Odysseus was stranded on Calypso's Isle Ogygia.
According to Virgil in the fourth Georgic, at one time the bees of Aristaeus, son of Apollo, all died of a disease. Aristaeus went to his mother, Cyrene, for help; she told him that Proteus could tell him how to prevent another such disaster, but would do so only if compelled. Aristaeus had to seize Proteus and hold him, no matter what he would change into. Aristeus did so, and Proteus eventually gave up and told him to sacrifice 12 animals to the gods, leave the corpses in the place of sacrifice, and return three days later. When Aristaeus returned after the three days he found in one of the carcasses a swarm of bees, which he took to his apiary. The bees were never again troubled by disease.
The children of Proteus include besides Eidothea, Polygonos and Telegonos, who both challenged Heracles and were defeated and killed, one of Heracles' many successful encounters with representatives of the pre-Olympian world order.
In the Odyssey (iv.430ff) Menelaus wrestles with "Proteus of Egypt, the immortal old man of the sea who never lies, who sounds the deep in all its depths, Poseidon's servant" (Robert Fagles' translation). Proteus of Egypt is mentioned in an alternate version of the story of Helen in Euripides' tragedy Helen (produced in 412 BC). The often unconventional playwright introduces a "real" Helen and a "phantom" Helen (who caused the Trojan War), and gives a backstory that makes the father of his character Theoclymenus, Proteus, a king in Egypt who had been wed to a Nereid Psamathe. In keeping with one of his themes in Helen, Euripides mentions in passing Eido ("image"), another unseen daughter of the king. Euripides' king (never seen) is only marginally related to the "Old Man of the Sea" and should not be confused with the sea god Proteus.
A further Proteus occurs in Greek myth, as one of the fifty sons of King Aegyptus.
Proteus syndrome is the name given to the deforming disease that afflicted Joseph Merrick, "The Elephant Man". Although difficult to differentiate from severe neurofibromatosis, there have been about 200 cases of Proteus syndrome over the last few decades.
our Catholick Mercury, by virtue of his universal fiery spark of the light of nature, is beyond doubt Proteus, the sea god of the ancient pagan sages, who hath the key to the sea and …power over all things. Von Hyleanischen Chaos| in Carl Jung, vol. 14:50
Why Proteus in Homer the Symbole of the first matter, before he settled himself in the midst of his Sea-Monsters, doth place them out by fives?
Shakespeare uses the image of Proteus to establish the character of his great royal villain Richard III in the play Henry VI, Part Three, the prequel to his play Richard III. In Act III, Scene ii, Richard (not yet the king), boasts:
Shakespeare also names one of the main characters of his play The Two Gentlemen of Verona Proteus. This character is inconstant in his affections. In the finale of the play when his deceptions have been unraveled and he is face to face with his friend Valentine and original love Julia, Proteus says:
In 1807 William Wordsworth finished his sonnet on the theme of a modernity deadened to Nature, which opens "The world is too much with us", with a sense of nostalgia for the lost richness of a world numinous with deities:
St. John's University Staten Island Campus releases a booklet named Proteus where students can express their artistic works.
In Anne Ursu's book The Siren Song, the second book in the Cronus Chronicles, the Greek Proteus, an ally of Poseidon, disguises as protagonist Charlotte's cousin Zee in order to keep the fact from her that he has kidnapped Zee himself. He is also the father of Charlotte's crush, Jason Hart, a mortal who does not appreciate his father's shape-shifting abilities. Once Charlotte finds this fact, she abandons Jason.
The term "Proteus" and "vombis" also were used in a James Blish short story about a race of alien beings who could change shape at will, but were not as malevolent as The Thing written about by John W. Campbell.
In the film Fantastic Voyage, Proteus is the apt name for the experimental submarine which is shrunk to sub-cellular size, and injected into a dying scientist to save his life.
In the animated TV series "Gargoyles", Proteus is the shape-shifting menace and arch-enemy of the city of New Olympus in the episode titled "The New Olympians."
In the role-playing games Vampire: the Masquerade and Vampire: the Requiem, vampires of the Gangrel clan may possess a discipline named Protean that allows them to transform into bats, wolves, mist and such.
Kurt Vonnegut's novel Player Piano revolves around the actions of Paul Proteus, a manager of a machine works in New York. Paul's life mirrors Proteus in that he must change his "shape" (character) to find his place in a machine-controlled society with which he is out of sympathy.
In the Film "Lost in Space", "Proteus" is the name of the space ship that is sent to look for the Robinson Family in an alternate time. The ship is subsequently destroyed.
In another Film, "Demon Seed", the evil supercomputer is named "Proteus IV"
In Craig Thomas' novel Sea Leopard, the British submarine is named HMS Proteus.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the Protean Charm is a complex spell used by Hermione Granger to enchant coins so that changing the serial number on one affected the others as well. She used it to communicate the times of secret meetings. It was also used by Voldemort to communicate with his Death Eaters.
In the DC Comics pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Legion of Superheroes stories, the Proteans are a race of telepathic shapeshifters. Shapeshifting Legionnaire Chameleon Boy kept a Protean as a pet, whom he dubbed "Proty". After Proty sacrificed itself to save Saturn Girl and resurrect Lightning Lad, Chameleon Boy obtained a new Protean pet, "Proty II".
In Rick Wakeman's song "The Battle/The Journey" Proteus is described as a giant pre-historic man who herds mastadons in the center of the Earth (itself an image from Jules Verne's Journey to the center of the Earth)
In Dean Koontz's "Phantoms" the character is referred to as being like Proteus by one of his victims.
In Charles Sheffield's science fiction novels titled "Proteus in the Underworld" and "Proteus Combined." Here Proteus refers to the process of using biofeedback equipment to change the shape of the characters' bodies.
James P. Hogan's novel The Proteus Operation. The term Proteus seems to relate to the ability to change time and reality, it that it is "flexible". He also uses it to refer to quantum mechanics wherein it seems as if something changes to avoid being caught (i.e.: the act of measuring something changes it).
In Treasure Planet, the alien Morph, a pink blob who takes the form of everything he sees (much like a parrot repeats what it hears), is referenced to come from the fictional planet Proteus 1, a reference to his shapeshifting abilities.
PROTEUS is also the name of a cross-genre roleplaying game. PROTEUS is a freely downloadable game available through base113 Games The game focuses on characters with incredible mental powers, Psionics. PROTEUS was a project to artificially create such people for military purposes. The name of the Greek god was chosen to reflect both the fact that these individuals are extremely adaptable and that they are among the first of their kind. An expanded version, Proteus: Second Edition, is currently in the works.
The collectible card game Magic: The Gathering references Proteus in the card Proteus Machine from the Scourge expansion that is able to change its creature type to any type when it is morphed. Recently in the Dissension expansion, the creature Protean Hulk allows its controller to replace it with other creatures when it dies.
Proteus is the name of an expansion for the collectible card game Netrunner.
Proteus is also the name of a key document in the computer game Freelancer.
In the Paragons setting for role-playing game Mutants and Masterminds Proteus is a silvery shapeshifting paranormal. He is a paranormal supremacist with uncertain origins - everything from regular paranormal to shapeshifting alien to artificial construct made of nanomachines has been proposed.
In the game F.E.A.R., 'Proteus' is the name for a text file concerning the Icarus and Perseus Projects.
In the game Culdcept Saga, a 'Protean Ring' tool will transform the user's creature into another random creature for the duration of the battle.