Athenian Legends

In constructing the early history of the Acropolis of Athens, it is necessary to consult some of the legends that guided its development over the years.

Erechtheus was a legendary king of Athens who was also a deity. His parents were Gaea and Hephaestus, and he was the great-grandfather of Deaedalos and an ancestor of Theseus. It is after him that the Erechtheion was named.

Kekrops (circa 1600 – 1100 BCE) according to the Athenian legends, was the mythical king of Athens who organized Attica into twelve towns according to Strabo: Aphidna, Brauron, Dekelia, Eleusis, Epakria, Kekropia, Kephisia, Kytherros, Tetrakomoi, Tetrapolis, Thorikos, and Sphettos. In these legends, Kekrops is usually associated with a snake.

Theseus was the son of Aegeas (the man who gave his name to the Aegean sea), and he is credited with many deeds, most important of which are the slaying of the Minotaur (perhaps symbolizing Athenian freedom from Minoan hegemony), and the unification of all the tribes of Attica into a synoikismos (unity of communities) with Athens at its capital.

The Goddess Athena

The goddess of fertility and nature that the Mycenaeans worshiped was eventually replaced by the goddess Athena around 1000 BCE. Athena gave her name to the city of Athens, and she displayed dual nature. As Athena Polias she was the goddess of wisdom, protecting nature and fertility, while as Athena Pallas, she was a war-maker and a virgin (parthenos).

During the Geometric period (900-700 BCE) she was worshiped at a small temple that was built at the center of the Acropolis, a little to the south of the later Erechtheion. This temple sheltered a Xoanon (wooden statue) that was believed to have fallen from the heavens (Diipetes) as a gift to the city of Athens.

The God Poseidon

Poseidon, the god of the sea and of earthquakes (of which Greece enjoys many) eventualy replaced the prehistoric Erechtheus, although Erechtheus continued to be worshiped alongside Athena on the Acropolis.

According to a popular myth, Athena and Poseidon competed for the honor of being the patron of the city. The myth describes how the gods provided gifts in order to gain the people’s favor. Poseidon hit the Acropolis rock with his trident at the place where the Erechtheion was built later, and from the wounded earth a majestic horse arose as a gift to the citizens. The city however was named after Athena, for she gave the gift of the olive tree.

The myth is indicative of a struggle between major religious currents during the Archaic period in Athens and although Athena dominated worship, ultimately the two gods coexisted peacefully upon the Acropolis rock through temples and legends. This battle of the gods is depicted in the sculptural arrangement at the west pediment of the Parthenon.

Next: Archaic Acropolis


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