Growing up one of my favourite movies was the 1981 animated classic, Clash of the Titans. It was fascinating to watch the story of Perseus brought to life as he battled with two-headed monsters, Medusa and of course the Kraken. The movie took some creative license but it would be my first taste of Greek mythology and spawned a never-ending fascination with its countless tales and legends.
So taking that metaphorical trip back in time to where it all began was a dream come true. I finally got to see some of the stories brought to life and it started at my first stop in the Greek capital. Here’s the story of how the city of Athens got its name.
The battle for Athens
With a history stretching back over 3000 years, Athens is one of the oldest cities in the world. The city was the birthplace of democracy and a place where travellers from all over came to immerse themselves in philosophy, art and literature, but it didn’t always go by that name.
According to Greek mythology, Athens was originally known as Cecropia and ruled by its founder, King Cecrops, one of the earth-born, mortals of Greek mythology. He was not a normal man because although the top half of his body looked human he had a serpent’s tail instead of legs. Cecrops is believed to have brought civilisation to the region and the first to end the practice of human sacrifice to the gods.
Cecropia flourished under Cecrops and the city’s beauty caught the attention of the Gods. On Mount Olympus they argued over it and Athena and Poseidon in particular wanted to be its benefactor. Zeus decided they should compete by offering gifts (some would say bribes) to the city and its inhabitants, whoever King Cecrops and the people of the city chose would be the winner.
Athena and Poseidon came down from Olympus to the top of the Acropolis, this would be the site of their contest. Poseidon went first, raising his trident in the air he struck the earth with a crack. The inhabitants cheered when a spring emerged, water was scarce and very important. However, the salty taste of the water quickly dampened their excitement, a reminder that Poseidon was God of the Sea.
Then came Athena’s turn. She knelt to plant something in the ground and an olive tree emerged in its place. The crowd cheered as they realised that the tree would provide olives for food, oil and wood for burning. The olive tree was also a promise of peace and Cecrops eagerly accepted it. The dispute was over and Athena had won. The citizens immediately renamed the city Athens in her honour and worshipped her as the main deity from then on.
The Special One
Athena was special. From the day she emerged from the head of her father Zeus, resplendent in her armor, shield and helmet, she was always destined for greatness. Her courage, wisdom and beauty would endear her to Athenians, a bond that survived over the centuries.
The Athenians built many temples and celebrated many festivals in her honour , none more impressive than the Parthenon itself. Construction of the building began in 447 B.C. and was completed in 432 B.C. It is considered one of the greatest works of Greek architecture. The temple of Athena Nike on the Acropolis was also built in her honour.
The inhabitants of Athens were also clever enough to hedge their bets and continued to pay homage to Poseidon. Completed in 421 BC, they built the Erechtheion at the place where Poseidon hit the Acropolis rock with his trident. The temple is dedicated to both Athena and Poseidon.
Next time, we take a trip to the centre of the world. 🙂