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N.S. Gill

Myth Monday - Athena and the First King(s) of Athens

By October 5, 2009

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The story of the first Athenians is, as with other myths, complicated by duplication. In this Myth Monday blog, 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?

Further Reading:

Picture of Kecrops © Clipart.com


October 8, 2009 at 2:38 am
(1) surubaru adrian says:

I have read your issue upon Erichtheus, Erichthe-ion, a.s.o. But, if following the Swedish schollar M.P. Nilsson, for whom the Northerners were physi-cally involved in early history of Greece, we might at least propose versions for such names. E.G.: a rich (king in German languages ogf yore)could be perceived; and, if taking Ereichthon for a possible ancient or Hellenized form of Ericson, a name wide-ly spread even today among Icelanders, Norwegians or Swedish, we might extend such suppositions even toward English, where the noun ‘crops’, quite crucial for humans, not exclusively for primitives, could probably be contained by Cecrops’ name, we couldthus get a wider and somehow different horrizon of early Greece. Don’t you think so? If you consider such comments as useful, please let me know (and I could provide more comments , not exclusively on this line). Thanks for reading these. I wait for your answer.

October 8, 2009 at 6:42 am
(2) Darryl McDonald says:

Very interesting about Kekrops origens from Egypt but when? When “Black Athena” from Bernal’s hand mentioned this possibility many years ago it was met with a great welter of debate and scepticism. Now here it is again viewed by classicist inquiry. Could the Middle Kingdom’s Senworet dynasty have produced a king that could have made wide ranging explorations eventually ending in the little inhabited Greek mainland seeding a small colony with an Egyptian leader left behind? Just curious because of the repeated ancient references by Greeks to Egyptian sources.

October 8, 2009 at 7:46 am
(3) ancienthistory says:

Just to make it clear. Loraux didn’t say Kekrops came from Egypt. It is, as you say, something that has been suggested for the origins of the mythological being.

From Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities edited William Smith (1870).
“The later Greek writers describe Cecrops as having im­ migrated into Greece with a band of colonists from Sais in Egypt. (Diod. i. 29 ; Schol. ad Arist. Pint. 773.) But this account is not only rejected by some of the ancients themselves, but by the ablest critics of modern times. (Mliller, Orcliom. p. 123; Thirlwall, Greece, i. p. 66, &c.)”

October 8, 2009 at 8:13 am
(4) ancienthistory says:

surubaru adrian:Thanks for commenting. Etymology Onlines says Erechtheus “from L., from Gk. Erekhtheos, lit. ‘shaker’ (of the earth), from erekhthein ‘to rend, break, shatter, shake.’” I don’t understand very much of what you’re saying, and especially, I don’t know what the English word ‘crops’ has to do with it. I’d be interested to read more about Norse involvement in prehistoric ancient Greece if there is any evidence of it.

October 9, 2009 at 8:05 am
(5) Adrian Surubaru says:

I mean it! German languages could be indeed perceived in ancient Greek texts. And I will give you a brief example. Dedalus had a nephew who, unprecedentedly had no less than 3 different names:Perdix, Calos and Talos. What I will surprisingly say won’t ever be found (till now) in any online etymology. We know the giant Talus who protected the Cretan shores. His name (remember his gigantic stature), could be compared to the English adjective ‘tall’ , couldn’t it ? Now, remembering that the south-eastern Mediterranean basin was a real melting-pot of nations, we may resort to other languages too, including Romanian, about which I won’t repeat Marja Gimbutas’ assertions. I know now, it would be hard to jump from a language to another, but the similitudes can’t be easily rejected a priori either. So, in Romania, the noun ‘cal’ , present in Calos’ name, means ‘horse’; whereas ‘talan’ , present in Talos’ name , means old ‘horse’ (nag in English). Well, the final Perdix (‘partrige’ in Greek) is quite close to another ‘horse’ a German one this time – ‘Pferd’! Moreover:in modern German, the noun ‘Gaul’ means old ‘horse’, equivalent to the Romanian ‘talan’(nag). So many horses to ride. But the German ‘Gaul’ is quite close to the name of the English ancestors, the Gauls, don’t you think? And in order to stress the connection, I will remind one of the Irish major rituals ar their kings’ coronations: they used to mate a ‘mare’ serving then the assistants with its meat. Indeed the ‘horse’ was very important for the early Indo-Europeans and the Greeks, when arriving in Balkans, took over much autochthonous mythology and rites, but still meating linguistic barriers in a complete understanding. As for the Romanian language, we must remind that the Daci were a Thracian population, as Herodotus correctly claimed; and this neo-Latin language, by its minimal percent of un-Latin vocabulary, could still witness its Germanic belonging. I know, all such kind of things may look like fancy or guess-work, but I found many similitudes, not only between Greek and Germanic languages, but also between Bible’s names and the English and German. So, I just managed to complete some 400 pages, waiting to publish them. As for the Norse, I found many similitudes between ancient Greek names and the Swedish. Of course, all these suppositions won’t pass too easily for demonstrations, but they are waiting for confirmation. I will give you a final clue: according to post-Homeric tradition, Achilles Pellides was killed by an arrow, shot by Paris into his ‘heel’ . Well, you might call it obsession, but this ‘heel’ could be found within Achilles’ name. Furthermore, a comparison to the Romanian equivalent for ‘heel’ is ‘calcai’ , from the Latin ‘calcaneus’, but we could perceive here again the Gauls’ horse; I repeat it, in Romanian ‘cal’ means ‘horse’. Be sure, I haven’t striven to restore the language of the Man of Piltdown, but I found, if suposition could be called finding, that the English language is very old indeed. And, as the French Henry Hubert said long ago, the Gauls and Germans were always met together throughout history but, whenever we meet them, the military terms show that the Celts were the leaders. Need more? Please let me know. Bye!

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