Athens is the capital of Greece, a city with a history spanning over 3.400 years. In ancient times, and specifically in classical times, Athens was a powerful Greek city-state. Democracy was born in Athens and the city was the center of arts, sciences, and, of course, philosophy.
Not only was it the birthplace of notable philosophers such as Socrates and Plato, but also of politicians, such as Pericles, and playwriters and tragedians, such as Aristophanes and Sophocles. Nowadays, many people dream of visiting Athens and specifically the hill of Acropolis, where many polytheistic temples are still intact.
The epicenter of Acropolis is the Parthenon; the temple that was dedicated to goddess Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategy, among other things. The question that arises is why did the Athenians choose Athena to be their protector and why does the name of Athens and the goddess are so similar?
Cecrops: The Founder of Athens
There is a myth that has survived thousands of years that explains why Athens was named after the goddess Athena. Many historians believe that Athena was actually named after the city of Athens. But today we are going to explore the myth surrounding the naming of the city.
Before Athens met its glory, it was called Cecropia. It was named after its mythical founder, Cecrops. The latter was born by the Earth itself and was half-man and half-serpent. Despite his appearance, he was not feared by the people. He is in fact considered the father of native Athenians and the one who taught them how to read and write.
Cecropia was considered a beautiful land with plenty of sunlight. It lacked a lot of vegetation, but it was located by the sea. At the center of the city, there was a hill that could be used for strategic purposes but also to connect with the divine. The people of Cecropia were educated, cultured, and among the first who started worshipping the Olympian gods. Soon enough, the Olympians noticed this beautiful land and wanted to protect it. The two gods who wanted Cecropia the most were Athena, the goddess of wisdom and strategy, and Poseidon, the god of the sea.
Athena vs. Poseidon
Athena and Poseidon were willing to compete against each other to win the sympathy of the natives. They did not try to force their power over the city; they knew that people would be more motivated to follow a god or goddess if he or she gained their respect rather than cause them to fear. This detail is important and often overlooked when describing the myth. The gods’ decision signifies the transition from oligarchy to democracy.
The two powerful gods stood in front of Cecrops and the citizens and presented their offers. Poseidon stood on the rocky terrain of Cecropia, which he then struck with his trident. A well full of salt water appeared, which was later called the “Sea of Erechtheus”. This was indeed very spectacular, however, the locals couldn’t drink the water and there was no practical use for it.
The wise goddess Athena did something less spectacular but she took into consideration the needs and wishes of the people. With her divine powers, an olive tree grew from the rocky terrain. The olive tree can survive the strong Attican sun and live for thousands of years. Today, visitors can see one of the oldest olive trees of Athens standing tall on the Acropolis hill. Rumor has it that this is the exact same tree that emerged from the ground with Athena’s powers.
Cecrops chose Athena to be the protector of the city, which was named after the goddess. This decision was proven very profitable, since the olive tree enabled the Athenians to produce olive oil – the “liquid gold” of the Mediterranean region. Not only did they become self-sufficient, but they exported the product in other regions as well. With their economy blooming, Athenians were able to spend more time thinking about how to improve society. What would the ideal governing style look like? What is moral and what is immoral? How can the arts and sciences improve people’s lives?
Other variations of the myth:
-Poseidon offered the people of Cecropia a goat; livestock farming would not bring a lot of profit, since the land lacked vegetation. Another, unpopular variation says that Poseidon actually offered the people a horse. Poseidon is indeed considered the creator of the horses.
-It wasn’t Cecrops who decided on the fate of the land, but the citizens. Women voted for Athena and men for Poseidon. The women were more than the men. This variation explains also the “birth” of Democracy, since the citizens voted for who would represent them. However, Democracy was developed around 600 BC, whereas Athens was founded 2,5 thousand years before that.