- Adam Rappold
Erichthonius is one of the original, legendary kings of the Athenians. In his myth, he was born directly from the soil of Attica, after Hephaestus attempted to rape Athena, but instead cast his seed upon the ground. Athena conceals the child in a basket and entrusts the child to the daughters of Cecrops with a command to never look inside. Some (or all) of the daughters disobey this command and, in response, Athena forces them to jump off of the Acropolis. This sequence of events suggests that his existence was heavily tied to aitiologies of the cults and cult buildings of the Cecropides on the Acropolis, as well as the Arrhephoria ritual, which seemingly recreates this narrative sequence. As a king, he was thought to have created the Panathenaea festival. In general, although his earth-born origin means that he is sometimes connected to the development of Athenian autochthony in the 5th century bce, he is not particularly prominent in myth or cult. One notable exception is that Erichthonius is sometimes referred to as the guardian snake that often accompanies Athena in statues and, according to Herodotus, may actually have inhabited Athena’s oldest temple. Most scholarship on Erichthonius has revolved around whether or not he is a double of the similar autochthon, Erechtheus—separated either in the 6th or 5th century bce—albeit inconclusively.
Updated in this version
Text and bibliography expanded to reflect current scholarship. Keywords, images, and links to digital materials added.
Erichthonius of Athens did not have developed mythic narratives, to such a degree that Plato remarks that he had come down to the Athenians “as a name . . . without deeds” (Pl. Criti. 110a). The one exception is the tale of his earth-born origin, which perhaps because of its scurrilous tone or its claim of autochthony (see autochthons), was quite popular by the 5th century bce.
Born from the Earth
The general outline:1 Hephaestus attempts to rape Athena, because he had been promised her by Zeus. She escapes, but, during the scuffle, an overeager Hephaestus leaves his sperm on Athena's leg. She wipes the sperm from her thigh onto the ground of Attica, using a piece of wool. This produces a folk etymology for Erichthonius' name (ἔριον, érion = wool / χθών, chthṓn = earth), which may tie into the tradition at the amphidromia of affixing a piece of raw wool to the front of the house in which a daughter had been born (an olive branch was used for boys).2 Upon contact with the seed, Gē, either as an embodied entity or simply as representative of the land, becomes pregnant and gives birth to the baby Erichthonius. Contrary to the traditional image of Athena's virginity, some later authors recount that Athena might have been a willing, if temporary, partner, and that she, not Gē, gave birth to the child (Historiae Mirabiles 12, Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana 7. 24; possibly Cicero , De Natura Deorum 3.55.1–2; Augustine De. Civ. Dei. 18.12).
Euripides, Ion 267–274; Apollodorus 3.14.6; ΣΑ Il. 2.547; Ovid Met. 2.552f.; Hyginus Fab.. 166, Astronomica 2.13, Historiae Mirabiles 12, Callimachus Hecale F. 1. 2, Servius and Probus on Georg. 3.113, Fulgentius Mythologiae 2.11, Scholiast on Plato Timaeus (426).
The Daughters of Cecrops
In the second part of the myth, Athena adopts the infant Erichthonius, closes him in a cultic kiste (basket), and entrusts him to the daughters of Cecrops, the current king of Athens. The daughters are traditionally named Aglauros, Herse, and Pandrosus. Athena commands the daughters not to look inside the basket until she returns, either because she wishes to make the child immortal or because she is bringing back a mountain to fortify Attica. The daughters disobey, although the later accounts vary on which daughter (or combination of daughters) was at fault. Each of the girls had cults and temples on and around the Acropolis individually and so confusion on this point is most likely the result of several separate and contradictory cultic aitiologies being fused into a single narrative.
Regardless, the disloyal daughter(s) suffer a terrible fate. Unbeknownst to them, the baby had been wrapped in guardian snakes or, possibly, is half snake himself—the snake being the traditional animal of chthonic origins. In the dominant myth, they fling themselves from the Acropolis, terrified by whatever they see inside the basket. Alternate versions have the guardian snakes killing the girls or Athena punishing them directly for their disobedience, driving them mad or turning them into stone.
This is also sometimes linked to a folktale explaining why crows never fly over the Acropolis. In this version, after the daughters have looked inside the kiste, it is a crow who informs Athena. Furious, Athena throws down the protective stone she was carrying, where it becomes a mountain, punishes the daughters, and bars crows from every returning to the Acropolis.
Euripides Ion 23–6, 267–274, Apollodorus 3.14.6, Hyginus Fab. 166; Astronomica 2.13; Pausanias 1.18.2, Callimachus Hecale F. 1. 2, 3. Ovid Met. 2.552f.; Ovid, Met.. 2. 748; Philostratus Apollo Epist. 6.24; Fulgentius Mythologiae 2.11).
Although it is often stated that Erichthonius has no other mythology, there are hints of a wider range of stories about his adulthood that we no longer have, although these may simply be the elaborations of later authors: 3rd century bce atthidographers record that Erichthonius founded the worship of Athena, created the Panathenaea, and invented chariots and currency (Marmor Parium A.10, cf. Louvre Ma 579, Hyginus Astronomica 2.13, Fulgentius Mythologiae 2.11, Kastor of Rhodes 250F4). He is also made part of the lineage of Athenian kings, taking over after Cecrops and is, in turn, succeeded by his son Pandion (I).
By the Classical era, figures with earth-born origins were increasingly seen as monstrous, and so later versions of Erichthonius cast him as a more traditional hero (born of a god and a mortal) who expels the dangerous earth-born monsters that had preceded him. Apollodorus reflects this trend (as one potential variant), making Erichthonius the son of Hephaestus and the human Atthis, the daughter of the previous king Cranaus. The girl Atthis is still paralleled to the land of Attica (Atthis gē / Ἀτθὶς γῆ), demonstrating a rationalized version of the original story. Apollodorus also records a story of Erichthonius expelling the autochthonous Amphictyon from Athens, marrying a Praxithea, and having a son Pandion (1) (Apollodorus 3.14.6). Other examples: Erichthonius, now the son of Amphyction, kills the terrible earthy giant Asterios and celebrates by founding the Athenaia festival (Schol. Aelius Aristides, 1.362 [Lenz & Behr] = Dindorf, iii, p. 323).
Even at his height in 5th century bce Athens, Erichthonius was poorly attested, lacking elaborate mythology or cult sites. This has led to speculation about his origin. The prevailing opinion of scholars is that he was created, with prevailing theories suggesting either in the 6th century, by the tyrant Pisistratus, or in the 5th century, split apart from the older Erechtheus (see “Erechtheus-Erichthonius Controversy”). A third possibility must also be mentioned, that Erichthonius was a figure of oral myth prior to the 6th century, but that these tales were either lost or were taboo to be spoken (see “Cult”).
The tale of Erichthonius’ birth from the land of Attica and Hephaestus’ role as father likely predates the other parts of Erichthonius’ myth. Evidence suggests that the tale can be dated to at least the 6th century bce—primarily based on images engraved on the Amyklai Throne (Paus.3.18.13 and an assertion that the lost epic poem Danais had told some form of the story (fr. 2 PEG). By the early 5th century bce, Pindar and Hellanicus relate the legend at roughly the time that the story becomes popular in vase painting, with the first recorded instance appearing around 490 bce. The dates of these sources suggest that stories of Erichthonius must have originated in the 6th century, if not earlier (Pindar fr. 253 SM, Hellanicus 4F39). Euripides apparently also told the tale at some point in the mid-5th century, in a lost play (Hyginus Astronomica 2.13, ps-Erathosthenes, Katast 13). It must be stated though that the first definite piece of evidence that puts every piece in place (Hephaestus as father, rape of Athena, Erichthonius born from the earth) is dated to 440 bce, (Berlin, Berlin, Antikensammlung: Ch F2537) unless the reconstruction of the Danais is accurate.
A 6th century bce or earlier date is compelling: Erichthonius’ earth-born origins are one of the many ways that the eupatrid Athenians expressed their ancestral ties to the land of Attica or aristocratic lineages, a strategy paralleled by many other Greek ethnē (e.g., Lelex for Laconia, Paus.3.1.1; Anax for Miletus, Paus. 7.2.5; and Pelasgus for Arcadia, Paus. 8.1.4). But earth-born claims of this nature were relatively early and were mostly superseded by broader claims of autochthony in the 5th century – although see “Fifth Century—Autochthony.” Supporting this theory is the presence of a Trojan Erichthonius in Homer who, although he was (apparently) not born from the earth, serves a similar foundational role as the Athenian Erichthonius, siring Troos and the Trojan race.
If Erichthonius can be firmly placed in the 6th century, his mythology or even creation may have been influenced by Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens.5 Pisistratus was involved in a program of massive cultic reorganization and was interested in the use of myth to justify his tyranny. Early Atthidographers related that Pisistratus had created the Panathenaea out of an earlier festival called the Athenaea, which they understood, in turn, as having been created by Erichthonius (FGrH 323a F2; FGrH 324 F2; Schol., Aelius Aristides, 1.362 [Lenz & Behr] = Dindorf, iii, p. 32). Even if there is reason to doubt the actual existence of an earlier, lesser Athenaea festival, this may represent an accurate memory of the tie between Pisistratus, Erichthonius, and the creation of the Panathenaea – in this scenario, Pisistratus would have invented or adopted the myth of Erichthonius as a justification for whatever changes he made while organizing the festival. Further, the specifically Athenian ritual elements of Ericthonius’ story, such as his connections to the Acropolis cults of the daughters of Cecrops, might also plausibly also have originated in this broader cultic reorganization of this period.
The earliest evidence for Erichthonius’ influence in the story of the daughters of Cecrops, originates in the 5th century bce. In addition to the tale of Erichthonius’ birth, Euripides’ Ion described the fate of the Cecropides at length, and it may have appeared in his Erechtheus as well (Ion 23–6, 267–274). The 5th century bce logographer Hellanicus of Lesbos also told the tale (Ps. Eratosthenes Katast 13, Hellanicus 4F39), although it is not elaborated fully in extant sources until the 3rd century bce Callimachus’ Hecale and the much later Hyginus and Apollodorus (Apollodorus 3.14.6; Hyginus Fab. 166. Apart from that, the theme does appear on Athenian red-figure vase painting, although the story is never very popular and is very local—almost exclusively in the 5th century bce on the Athenian Acropolis (see “Daughters of Cecrops: Paintings and Sculpture”).
Erichthonius’ presence in the 5th century is likely related to the development of claims of autochthony by the Athenians—the concept that they were the first human inhabitants on the land and had never migrated.6 This concept was born both by the need to undercut the prestige of the Spartans, who claimed authority through the migrant Dorians, and the need to trace ancestry as a way of prove citizenship (especially after the Periclean reform required two Athenian parents instead of one). To express this new need, the Athenians adapted mythological figures who proved a connection to the land of Athens all the way back into the primordial past—Erichthonius, along with many other figures of Athenian origin, could serve that role. This was simultaneously tied up with the development of a growing sense of national identity, which similarly needed mythological figures to support it. The Athenians began to collectively call themselves the “sons of Erechtheus” or the “sons of Cecrops” or the “sons of Cranaus” as a way of speaking of their identity as Athenians without necessarily implying literal descent. It is the conflict between these two ideas that may have created Erichthonius, splitting him from Erechtheus.
At the heart of this issue is the confusion between Erichthonius, attested only in the 6th century, and another autochthonous king of Athens, Erechtheus, who is attested as early as Homer. This confusion between the two started very early, with even Hellenistic scholiasts asserting that they were the same figure (ΣΑ Il. 2.547); in later writers, the two figures are often used interchangeably—causing much confusion (e.g., Plutarch Mor. 843e., Nonnus Dionysica 13.172–179, Aelius Herodianus, Περὶ παθῶν 3.2.2, Strabo 13.1.48).
Both figures had similar origins: Homer and Herodotus record that Erechtheus was “born from the earth”and “nursed by Athena” (Homer Il. 2.547–8; Hdt. 8.55). These details, never elaborated on in extant myths, fit very closely the tale of Erichthonius. Given that these earth-born origins of Erechtheus largely disappear in the 5th century, around the time that Erichthonius becomes prominent, it seems possible then that Erichthonius has been split from the original Erechtheus into two functionally identical figures.
There are many speculations on the reason that these figures were split: it is sometimes described as a specific function of their cult but the general agreement is that it has to do with the conflict between earlier eupatrid claims to the land through earth-born mythological ancestors and the development of a more generalized autochthony, which made use of those same ancestors on behalf of the entire demos. Further, tales of supernatural birth directly from the earth were seen as monstrous and old-fashioned in the 5th century.
In this view, Erichthonius removes the original, now scandalous birth narrative of the composite figure—while still providing the Athenians a direct link to the land—and Erechtheus is freed to be an autonomous, traditional hero, keeping the original mythology of kingship and death.7 Supporting this, the two names contain essentially the same linguistic components, both meaning “very earthy one.” Even the 3rd century Marmor Parium, which had both Erichthonius and Erechtheus in its line of Athenian kings, contributes to this confusion – spelling Erechtheus’ name as the hybrid Erichtheus (Marmor Parium A.1. 11–15). Even after their separation, they may have functioned as differing aspects of the same figure.
Despite the attractiveness of this idea, the argumentis far from conclusively settled—certainly by the 5th century, the figures are treated as distinct by the Athenians, without controversy. Although conflation of the figures has produced persuasive claims, especially in regards to their combined cults (see “Cult: Festivals”) it is unclear whether or not it is warranted— conflicting claims of earth-born origins are far from uncommon among Athenian progenitors, with Ogygus, Cecrops, Cecrops (2), Actaeus, Cranaus, and Erichthonius all said to have chthonic origins (Hellanicus: FGrH 323a F 10, Philochorus: FGrH 328 F 92, Apollod. Bib. 3.14) and there is a considerable amount of crossover and confusion between the myths of all of these kings (see chthonian gods). In some cases, even the names of these figures are similar—as is the case with Erysichthon and Erichthonius.
There are no recorded sacrifices, altars, or temples to Erichthonius, which does lend credence to the idea that he was created relatively late, in the 5th century bce. That being said, Erichthonius has a tentative presence in Athenian cultic life, often in connection with aitiological explanations.8 One explanation for the dearth of sources on Erichthonius’ origin is that the entire story might be “arrhēton/άρρητον,” a cultic matter that is not to be spoken of—like what happens in much of the Mysteries. Given the scandalous nature of Erichthonius’ origin tale, it suggests that more pious authors speak of Erichthonius’ earth-born birth but elide the role of Hephaestus or Athena. Callimachus specifically calls the truth of Erichthonius’ origin a secret and alludes to the more conventional tale while rejecting it as a rumor (Hecale F. 1. 2, 3). Pausanias too knows the story but refuses to record it (1.18.2). Even Apollodorus only regards the scandalous tale as a variant. If Erichthonius is held to be a variant of Erechtheus, this greatly expands his cultic associations, tying him to the Acropolis Erechtheum.
Festivals—Panathenaea and Arrhephoria
Erichthonius is linked to two festivals9: the Panathenaea and the Arrhephoria (see Festivals, Greek). The Atthidographers record that Erichthonius was the founder of the Panathenaea (or the earlier Athenaea), and Hellanicus and Androtion say that the games were offered in honor of him, likely implying, at the very least, a set of sacrifices (FGrH 323a F2; FGrH 324 F2). If Erechtheus and Erichthonius were functionally the same figure, then the celebration of Erichthonius at the Panathenaea should likely be understood as part of a larger cycle of festivals. According to Walter Burkert, the death of Erechtheus was commemorated at the Skira and Dipoleia festivals, marking a period of darkness and dissolution at the end of the Athenian year.10 This period of turmoil is ended only by the triumphant rebirth of the king in the new year's celebration of the Panathenaia, reborn as the new figure, Erichthonius.
Beyond that, the narrative of Erichthonius’ care under the daughters of Cecrops is also reflected in the Arrhephoria festival: two young aristocratic girls, who had lived on the Acropolis for a year under the care of the priestess of Athena Polias are given a kiste, which they are told not to open. In the dark of night, they metaphorically throw themselves from the Acropolis, descending down a hidden, undergroundstaircase. Exiting into a precinct of Aphrodite or possibly traveling to the sanctuary of Aglauros, the girls leave the basket at the foot of the waiting priestess of Athena Polias without looking inside. With the festival acting as such a clear parallel to the story of the daughters of Cecrops, it is likely that Erichthonius received honors in the surrounding sacrifices.
Each of the daughters of Cecrops mentioned in Erichthonius' story, Pandrosus, Herse, and Aglauros were individually the recipients of Athenian cult. The Pandrosion was immediately adjacent to the Erechtheum on the Acropolis (which is sometimes tied to Erechtheus), and the sanctuary of Aglauros was at the base of the hill, presumably where the daughters fell after their death. As the entire story of the Cecropides and Erichthonius functioned as an aitiology for these cults, Erichthonius might have received sacrifices at any of these locations—although this is certainly not the only potential myth for the Cecropides’ demise (Pherc 243 II = p. 10 Gomperz, Ovid, Met. 2.708-832). In general, vases depicting the story almost exclusively appear on the Acropolis, suggesting that they were offerings to Athena or functioned as part of these cults.
Erichthonius was also tied to the 5th century temple of Hephaestus in the Agora, potentially as explanation for the site’s odd combination of bronze statues of both Hephaestus and Athena (Pausanias 1.18.2). Statue bases from the site suggest that the birth of Erichthonius played a central role in the temple's mythology (Louvre Ma 579).
Athena was associated with a snake, a symbol of chthonic powers—an association popular enough that a snake was pictured wrapping around Athena’s feet in the massive statue in the Parthenon. Some sources identified this snake as the embodied spirit of Erichthonius—perhaps because of the prominence of snakes in his origin story or because of his chthonic origin—although other figures, such as Cecrops are possible as well (primarily Pausanias 1.24.7, cf. Euripides Ion 23–6, 267–274, Hyginus Astronomica 2.13, Tertullian De Spectaculis 9, Aristoph. Lys. 758ff., with Scholiast; Plut. Them. 10; Philostratus Apollo Epist 6.24, Probus and Servius on Georg. 3.113, Suda sv. Δράκαυλος, Hesychius Delta 2305).
Far from simply being a symbol, Herodotus records that this was an actual snake, which lived on the Acropolis and was cared for by the priestess of Athena Polias (Herodotus 8.41). It may have lived in the Erechtheum (Hesychius, s.v. oikouron ophin). Immediately prior to the destruction of Athens in the Persian War, the snake apparently refused to lick the cakes that had been offered to it. The priestess interpreted this as a sign that Athena advised deserting the Acropolis. If the association between the snake and Erichthonius is genuine, this would have given Erichthonius a prominent and active role in Athenian cult. While snakes were certainly used in other Greek cults, prominently those of Asclepius, many scholars have doubted whether the snake actually existed or whether Erichthonius can solidly be connected to it.
Apart from reality of a sacred snake, there are a few hints that Erichthonius might have served in the role of domestic chthonic protector, certainly of children. Something of Erichthonius’ original role in this period might be attested to by a variant spelling of his name, Eruchthonus, attested on an Attic pyxis and possibly in Callimachus (Hecale F. 70.9H).11 Here, his name derived from the verb for ‘protection’ (erumai) suggests that far from simply being born from the earth, he was the protector of the land. Further, apotropaic snake amulets, linked to the story of Erichthonius, were apparently given to Athenian children at birth to ward off hostile influences (Eur. Ion. 20–26, 1427–1429).
- Baudy, Gerhard. “Der Heros in der Kiste. Der Richthoniosmythos als Aitiion athenischer Erntefeste.” Antike und Abendland 38 (1992): 1–47.
- Blok, Josine. “Gentrifying Geneology: On the Genesis of the Athenian Autochthony Myth.” In Antike Mythen: Medien, Transformation, und Konstruktionen. Edited by Ueli Dill and Christine Walde, 251–275. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009.
- Brule, Pierre. “La fille d'Athènes. La religion des filles à Athènes à l'époque classique.” Kernos 2 (1989): 260–262.
- Brumfield, Allaire. The Attic Festivals of Demeter and their Relation to the Agricultural Year. New York: Arno Press. 1981.
- Burkert, Walter. Homo Necans. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1983.
- Darthou, S. “Retour à la terre: La fin de la geste d’Érecthée.” Kernos 18 (2005): 69–83.
- Forsdyke, Sara. “Born from the Earth: The Political Uses of an Athenian Myth.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12, no. 1 (2012): pp.119–141.
- Gantz, Timothy. Early Greek Myth. Vol. 1. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1993.
- Gourmelen, Laurent. Kékrops, le Roi-Serpent. Imaginaire athénien, représentations de l’humain et de l’animalité en Grèce ancienne. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2004.
- Jacoby, Felix. Fragmente der griechischen Historiker (FrGH). Vol 3, Geschichte von Staedten un Voelkern. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1954.
- Kearns, Emily. “The Heroes of Attica,” Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies,, S57 (1989): 59–63, 202.
- Kron, Uta. Die zehn attischen Phylenheroen: Geschichte, Mythos, Kult und Darstellungen, 32–83, 249–259. Berlin: Mann, 1976.
- Kron, Uda. Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae. Vol. 4, 923–951. Zürich, Switzerland: Artemis, 1988.
- Luce, J.-M. “Érechthée, Thésée, les tyrannoctones et les espaces publics athéniens.” In Teseo e Romolo: Le origini di Atene e Roma a confronto. Edited by Emanuele Greco, 143–64. Athens: Scuola archeologica italiana di Atene, 2005.
- Loraux, Nicole (Fr. Orig. 1981). The Children of Athena. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993.
- Papachatzis, Nicolaos. “The Cult of Erechtheus and Athena on the Acropolis of Athens.” Kernos 2 (1989): 175–185.
- Parker, Robert. Polytheism and Society in Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
- Robertson, Noel. “Athena's Shrines and Festivals.” In Worshiping Athena. Edited by Jenifer Niels, 27–77. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996.
- Rosivach, Vincent J. “Autochthony and the Athenians,” Classical Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1987): 234–305.
- Skempis, Marios. “Ery-chthonios: Etymological Wordplay in Callimachus Hec. fr. 70.9 H.” Hermes 136 (2008): 143–152.
- Sourvinou-Inwood, Christiane. Athenian Myths and Festivals: Aglauros, Erechtheus, Plynteria, Panathenaia, Dionysia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2009.
- Valdés Guía, Miriam. “La revalorización de la Tierra y de la “autoctonía” en la Atenas de los Pisistrátidas: El nacimiento de Erictonio y de Dioniso órfico.” Gerión 26, no. 1 (2008): 235–254.
1. For a general look at the ancient sources for Erechtheus, see Gantz, Early Greek Myth, 233–244.
2. James Davidson, “Time and Greek Religion,” in Companion to Greek Religion, ed. Daniel Ogden, (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2007), 212.
3. This list is not exhaustive. For a full accounting see Kron, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 923–951.
4. This list is not exhaustive. For a full accounting see Kron, Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae, 923–951.
5. See Valdés Guía, “La revalorización de la Tierra.”
6. On this development see Roisvach, “Autochthony and the Athenians”; Blok, “Gentrifying Geneology”; and Forsdyke, “Born from the Earth.”
7. Loraux, The Children of Athena, 46. For further elaboration see Burkert, Homo Necans, 149; cf. Sourvinou-Inwood, Athenian Myths and Festivals, 88; and Kearns, “The Heroes of Attica,” 110–115.
8. On Erichthonius' cult, in general (although with ties to Erechtheus), see Baudy, “Der Heros in der Kiste”; and Papachatzis, “The Cult of Erechtheus.”
9. On both festivals see Brule, “La fille d'Athènes”; Sourvinou-Inwood, Athenian Myths and Festivals; and Parker, Polytheism and Society.
10. Burkert, Homo Necans, 142–143.
11. Skempis, “Ery-chthonios.”