The story of the first Athenians is, as with other myths, complicated by duplication. In this Myth Monday blog, I'm taking a break from my usual reliance on the citation-filled Timothy Gantz; instead, I am following the lead of Nicole Loraux' Children of Athena, which blazes a trail through the inconsistencies, for the relationships and positions of the men and gods involved.
The first king of Athens is said to have been a half-man, half-snake creature (technical term to learn: "diphyes"), perhaps from Egypt, named Kekrops (Cecrops); while Erichthonios, the second king, is counted the first Athenian. One explanation for the duplication is that Kekrops civilized the land, pulling the people together into a city (technical term to learn: asty), and instituted marriage, while Erichthonios turned the asty into a a political unit or polis. However, as Loraux observes, the two first kings seem best understood as a doubling of the story of origins.
A second pair are Erechtheus and Erichthonios, human kings, sometimes represented as chronologically distinct (in order: Kekrops, Erichthonios, Erechtheus), but also used interchangeably, by writers before Euripides' Ion. Erichthonios may have been born on the Acropolis, whereas Erechtheus may have died there; Erichthonios is used in stories of birth and childhood, whereas Erechtheus is a king and father.
Last week's myth Monday refers to Hephaestus' return to Olympus and his request for a bride. Although Hephaestus ultimately married Aphrodite, his first choice may have been Athena, a virgin goddess, who spurned him. Hephaestus pursued Athena, but she was too fast for him -- almost. Hephaestus ejaculated onto her leg. Athena stopped to wipe it off and dropped the rag onto the ground. The ground is Mother Earth, also known as Gaia, who produced a child, Erichthonius.
This production from the earth makes Erichthonius autochthonous ['sprung from the land', from auto- 'self' + khthon 'land']. The claim is handed down to his descendants, the Athenian males. While such a genealogy is colorful, it is hardly unusual in ancient Greece. In Sparta, the men had been sown (elsewhere), by Jason, probably from the Golden Fleece's guardian dragon's teeth. Cadmus also sowed dragon's teeth to produce his Theban followers. Achilles' Myrmidons had been ants. The stones Deucalion tossed over his back became men who settled in Thessaly.
Athena and Hephaestus also came together to produce the first woman and ancestor of the race of women. She was not an Athenian, but Pandora, crafted by Hephaestus and given beauty and skills by Athena. Aphrodite gave her desire and grace. Guilefully, Zeus presented her to men, specifically, tricky Prometheus' less clever brother, the original Monday morning quarterback, Epimetheus. Pandora couldn't contain her curiosity any more than her descendants would proverbially be able to. Given a box she was told never to open, she opened it, anyway, releasing all the evils onto the world.
But back to Athens....
Mother Earth gave the child Erichthonius to his other sort of mother, Athena (Loraux considers her as a type of mother-father-nurse), who brought the infant to the daughters of Kekrops (Kekropides) to watch.
What Athena handed them was a closed basket containing the baby (presumably, humanoid) and a couple of snakes. Of course, the girls were curious and took a peek. You'd think the girls would be used to snakes, seeing that their father was half snake, but such was not the case. The snakes frightened the girls and they fled, jumping off the heights of the Acropolis to their deaths.
Erichthonius grew up despite Athena's choice of guardians and repaid Athena's favors when he matured by founding the civic festival of the Panathenaia and by naming the city for Athena. Athena had been in competition with Poseidon for the city's honor. Both gave gifts, but Athena's olive tree was valued higher than Poseidon's spring, so Athena won. (This event is alternatively dated to Kekrops time.) Judging between gods is a hard position to be put in. The losing god doesn't take it lightly and the mortals responsible will pay a heavy price.
Erechtheus is sometimes counted the son of Erichthonios, as he is in Euripides, but remember, he may be the same as King Erichthonios as an adult. When the Athenians went to war with Poseidon's descendant Eumolpos (of Eleusis), Erechtheus sacrificed at least one of his daughters, the Erechtheides, for the sake of Athens' victory. (The daughters became the constellation of the Hyades.) Poseidon then struck Erechtheus with his trident, killing him.
Pandion, son of Erechtheus, was possibly the next king of Athens. Pandion was the father of Philomela and Procne -- involved in one of the tales of cannibalism for revenge. Within a few generations, Theseus, son of Aigeus, a descendant of Erechtheus, or Poseidon, became king.
How many doubles did you count?
Picture of Kecrops © Clipart.com