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Erichthonius

by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
Erichthonius - the Athenian mythical king

According to the tradition the parents of Erichthonius were Hephaestus, the god of fire and smithies and Gaia, the goddess of the earth. Apollodoros was describing a story about Hephaestus and his strange encounter with Athena, when he tried to rape her. He was not successful, but from sperma-impregnated earth Erichthonius was born. Because Gaia did not like such a situation, she did not want this child and so Athena took care of Erichthonius. She brought him within a closed basket into the sanctuary of the Athenian Acropolis and insisted to her priestesses - Aglauros, Herse and Pandrosos, the daughters of the first Athenian king Cecrops - not to open the basket.

Once, when Athena was absent, while bringing from the peninsula Pallena a mountain for the Acropolis, her orders were broken. Pausanias noticed, that Pandrosos obeyed, but her sisters were curious and opened the chest or basket with Erichthonius. Unfortunately, one crow saw them and immediately flew to Athena to announce her the news. The goddess was just returning to the sanctuary, when she heard this event. She became so angry, that she lost her mountain, from which is the top of Lykabettos. And the daughters of Cecrops were getting mad and threw themselves off from the Acropolis. Apollodoros´ version is a little different, but the result was the same.

Erichthonius with the protection of Athena became the king of Athens. His activities were concentrating to the progress of people. From myths it is known, that he was the first putting the horses to chariot, cultivating the earth with plough and learning people to use silver, which was a more important metal than gold. After he decided to celebrate the Panathenaean festival in honor of the goddess Athena.

The Birth of Erichthonius was depicted on some Athenian red figured vases. Mainly the scene of Codrus Painter on the vase from the Classical period, which is in the British Museum in London, represents well the mythological story. Gaia is giving the child into the hands of Athena, while Hephaestus, Cecrops and one of his daughters, Herse, are standing around them. The same theme -the birth of Erichthonius-, surrounded by the other Olympian gods in a rich and ornate style, was used to decorate a later classical calyx crater at the British Museum in London. The so-called Erichthonius Painter is the author of a lovely scene on the pelike of the Classical period, also in the British Museum. Erichthonius as a young boy is sitting in his chest on the rocks of Acropolis, while two snakes are guarding him and his basket is nearby. He is making a sign to Athena, who is coming to see him, while she is holding her helmet and scepter in her hands.

Erichthonius was a kind of a mythical chthonic father of Athens. His name is a derivation from the Greek words eris, -idos, it means troubles and chdonios - born from the earth. Due to this contention between Athena and Hephaestus he was born from the earth. With his mother-earth he had connection by two snakes, which were guarding him. In a later myth Erichthonius was described like a snake with human head, similarly as Cecrops. There is presumption, that the snake beside the shield of Athena on her cult statue could be a symbol of Erichthonius. Educated by Athena, Erichthonius took a role of helper and good hero of the Athenian people.


Article details:

  • Also known as:
    Erichthonius
    Erechtheus

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