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The significance of Erechtheus/Erichthonios in Athenian myth and ritual

Monday 31st October 2003

Peter Eyland

This essay will first briefly examine the general concepts of myth and ritual in early Greek times; then secondly the particular Athenian myths surrounding the person (or persons) called Erechtheus and Erichthonios; thirdly the particular Athenian festive rituals associated with their names, and finally draw some conclusions on their significance.

Gould (2001:211) wrote perceptively that myth and ritual are “modes of religious response to ‘chaos’ ’’.  Gould used the word “chaos”, not in the modern Physics sense of deterministic unpredictability, but in Geertz sense of “a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability” (Gould, 2001:207 citing Geertz 1996:14).  Geertz refers to consequences that baffled or stretched human endurance and produced ethical dilemmas.  Such events challenged the ancient Greek religious proposition that life was comprehensible.

Greek myth and ritual were then, in Gould’s language (2001:216), a complex system of explanation and response that gave guidance and a measure of security.  As such, even though there would have been strong conservative forces against change (because of the imponderables that change brought), explanations and responses were not dogmatically fixed.  As people responded to new situations and events there were feedback loops whereby myth was re-interpreted or re-formed by ritual and also ritual by myth.  This evolutionary response probably began before the Trojan Epic Cycle, Homer and Hesiod (who retroactively justified Hellenic practices according to Harris and Platzner, 2001:192).  It then continued on well past the time of the Tragedy writers (who explored the ethical implications of the gods’ characters, e.g. Aeschylus in Prometheus Bound).

Burkert (2001:6) in drawing attention to the disparity in date between the visual arts (e.g. temples, statues and vase paintings) and collections of mythic texts (such as The Library of Apollodorus) indicated judiciously that the texts only gave information on ideas and practices that had survived and were current at the time of writing. Herodotus, Apollodorus and Pausanias would not then be necessarily representative of classical or archaic times.

Herodotus, Apollodorus and Pausanias are however still important sources, as seen by the main text sources on the myths.  The sources on Erechtheus are given in Table 1 and the source and details of the Erichthonios myth are given in Table 2 and the appendix. 

On Herodotus, Moles (1993:91) saw him as an inheritor of epic narrative, an analyst of cause and effect, and one who attempted to establish factual truth.  However there is the clear implication that some of his “wonderful” tales were untrue (Moles, 1993:93).  In line with this, Bury (1958:46) commented that Herodotus regarded human life as being under the control of superhuman powers but adds dryly that Herodotus was not prepared to admit this about recent times.  Waterfield (1998: Introduction xxxvi) wrote that Herodotus was not interested in the gods as actors and avoids mentioning them in his tales unless necessary.  Thus Herodotus wrote of Erechtheus in historical contexts and then only in passing.

As regards Apollodorus, Burkert (2001:5) retreated from ascribing The Library’s authorship to the historical person of 140 BCE, by writing that it “circulated under the name of Apollodorus”.  Frazer (1921:introduction xi-xvii) dated “Apollodorus” either the first century BC or the first century CE.  Hurwit (1999:30) placed “Apollodorus” in the first century CE.  Price (1999:15) placed the work in the first or second century CE.  Even though there is doubt about the authorship and date of composition sources used by “Apollodorus” seem to be early and conservative[1].  Also the corpus does not seem to have interpreted his sources as variant myths are placed side by side. 

Another source from about the same time was Pausanias' Description of Greece, dating from around the later seventies of the second century CE (trans. Levi 1979:1, reprint of 1971).  He wrote as an eyewitness of the physical sites and “a true believer” in the most sacred traditions (Levi, 1979:2, reprint of 1971).  However Levi was not convinced by his accuracy and for good reasons.  He wrote (among other derisive comments) that Pausanias genealogy of Erichthonios, Pandion and Erechtheus was a “hare-brained rationalization” which was the result of imposing a historical system on mythology (Levi, 1979:22, reprint of 1971).

Both Erechtheus and Erichthonios were said to be Athenian kings who according to etymology through autochthonous birth emerged from the Earth.  Apollodorus derives Erichthonios from ( ἔριον ), the wool used by Athena in cleansing herself, and from ( χθών), earth[2].  Ancient Greek acceptance of autochthonous birth needs some comment.  Garland (1998:28) wrote that the ancient Greeks believed in spontaneous generation out of the soil.  In particular, testaceans (shell fish), fish and insects were thought to reproduce themselves by spontaneous generation. 

The Spartoi also were thought to have sprung from the Theban soil after Kadmos had sown it with dragon’s teeth.  Garland (1998:22) has cited a fragment of Empedokles (DK 31 B 62) which claimed that before sexual dimorphism occurred, autochthony was an explanation for the origins of the entire human race.

“Whole‑natured forms (oulophueis tupoi) first rose from the earth, possessing a measure of both water and heat, whom fire sent forth wishing to find their like, creatures which did not yet display a lovely form of limbs nor voice nor member specific to man”.

The story of Pandora also assumed a male race before the dimorphism of male and female.

The myth of Erichthonios was not strictly spontaneous generation because it involved male sperm.  Garland has illustrated the belief that males were the dominant factor in human reproduction by quoting Aeschylus’ Eumenides (ll. 658‑60).  Here Apollo says that “οὔκ ἔστι μήθρ ἡ κεκλημένου τέκνου τοκεύς, τροϕὸς δὲ κύματος νεοσπόρου τίκτει δ' ὁ θρῴσκων[3].  In other words, the male provides the whole of the seed and the female provides the soil in which it grows.  Myths about Zeus also downplayed the role of women.  Athena was born (as “wisdom”) from Zeus’ head and the “insewn” Dionysos (as “lust”) from his thigh.  Diodorus of Sicily (Bibliotheca Historica 1. 80) also wrote of male supremacy in Egypt.  His source was Hecataeus.

The similarity between the two names has to be examined.  Burkert (1983:156) states that, “Erechtheus and Erichthonios are obviously merely variants”.  He took Erechtheus as the original and non-Greek name because he saw the etymology of Erichthonios (“peculiarly of the earth”) as a “Hellenising neologism”.

Hurwit (1999:33) stated that their names meant essentially the same thing and were possibly variants.  Later he is more definite in writing “there can be no doubt that at some point early in the tradition” they referred to one and the same person.  The reasons he gives for this are that they both married a woman named Praxithea and they were both Athena’s foster-child.

Powell (1906:17) argued that at Athens, Poseidon, Erechtheus, Erichthonios and Cecrops were all the same person.  He pointed out that Poseidon was identified with Erechtheus because in the Erechtheum there was an altar for sacrifices to them both.
In Hesychii Alexandrini lexicon (possibly 5th Century CE, see under Ἐρεχθεύς , Erichthonios is also seen as an epithet of Poseidon.  Powell also connects Cecrops in his appearance as a snake with Erichthonios (1906:16, 17).

Powell (1906:19) has argued that Erichthonios was originally a snake.  Athena became his protectress and the cult was adopted to worship Athena.  The conflict between Athena and Poseidon-Erechtheus in the Erechtheum was settled mythically by Athena’s adoption of Erechtheus.

However, Hesychius is over a millenium from the events and Poseidon was always antithetical to Athena.  It is more likely that Hesychius confused the names and that the epithet and worship of Poseidon Erechtheus was apotropaic in the sense that this god was the-Poseidon-who-killed-Erechtheus.  Even though Burkert accepts a connection between a god and a local name in a cult setting and writes of a “fusion” (2001:120, 136, 184, 203) there is no argument for making Erechtheus a god equivalent to Poseidon.  The identification of Cecrops with Erichthonios is also not plausible as Cecrops on vase paintings is seen as distinct from Erichthonios.  Burkert’s comment (1983:156) that Erechtheus was the original form and Erichthonios was the same person with a Hellenised name seems to be the right conclusion.

Although they are confused in their origins and purposes, the significance of these myths for the early Athenians may lie in two assurances.  The autochthonous symbolism gave them right of possession by aboriginal connection to the land, and the “Athena’s child” association assured them that any greatness they had or acquired as a polis was a heritage and not mere hubris.

The Erechtheus/Erichthonios myths appear deeply embedded in Athenian ritual.  In particular Burkert (1983:156) drew attention to a festival cycle that included Arrhephoria, the Skira/Buphonia in the last month of the Athenian year then the Panathenaia in the first month.

In the Arrhephoria, Erichthonios’ unusual birth and adoption by Athena is celebrated.  Then, according to Burkert (1983:143-144), the Skira and Buphonia festivals followed soon after and should not be separated as they are connected by “inversion”.  At the Skira, there is the commemoration of the death of king Erechtheus in battle with the Eleusinians.  The priests of Poseidon Erechtheus and the priestess of Athena processed away from the Acropolis towards Eleusis and to the Skiron, emulating Erechtheus and Athena leaving Athens.  Two days later, in the Buphonia, the inversion was that the Eleusinians sacrificed to Zeus on the Acropolis. 

In the last month of the year there is the mysterious birth of an Athenian king and his sacrificial death.  Then in the first month of the year there is the Panathenaia, which has its legendary origin from Erichthonios, celebrated as an adult king in the prime of his strength, as Burkert (1983:156) interpreted it “Erechtheus is dead, long live Erichthonios!”

Looking in more detail at the festivals, Skira is the Threshing Festival according to Robertson (Neils, 1996:53-5).  He argued that the festival name came through the threshed grain being skira i.e. white.  The connection with Erechtheus was then taken from the verb erechthô as an intensive of ereikô “to crack”, hence erechthô became ”to flail or thresh”.  Robertson takes Erechtheus to originally mean “Thesher”, though the meaning of the name was lost with passing time.  Robertson thus argued that the significance of Erechtheus was not as legend but as a ritual myth - a hero self-born from the earth goes out to the ploughland to do battle and ultimately “threshes” the enemy of wet weather.  Poseidon’s attack and destruction of Erechtheus was then to do with the rushing water of the wet season.

The rituals involved in the Arrhephoria [4] , just before the Panathenaia, are according to Robertson (Neils, 1996:60-1) also associated with Erichthonios.  The arrhêphoroi were two small girls who carried a circular basket (kistê) with secret contents down an underground passage.  They left what they had brought.  It was honey-cakes for snakes, according to Robertson, (in Neils, 1996:61).  Robertson has argued that the name Erichthonios i.e. “He-of-the-very-earth” suits a snake because they lie on the earth and come out of the earth.  The arrhêphoroi then received something that was wrapped up and carried it back to the Acropolis (a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes according to Noel Robertson in a citation by Lefkowitz, in Neils, 1996:82).

In the myth, Erichthonios is the one carried in the basket and when two of the girls look into the basket they bring disaster on themselves.  Lefkowitz (in Neils, 1996:83) cited Robert Parker in his myths of early Athens, that Athena intended to make him immortal but with the intervention of the daughters (like Demophoon), he missed out.

Re-enacting the ritual both warned of the dangers that arise from Athena’s anger and also acted to prevent that anger.  It demonstrated the human tendency to frustrate the best intentions of the gods through curiosity, jealousy or ignorance (Lefkowitz, in Neils, 1996:83).  Powell (1906:53) also saw a sexual element in this but Robertson (Neils, 1996:61) rejects any initiatory rites of puberty.

The Panathenaia was also associated with Erichthonios.  Erichthonios’ “nubile daughter” Oreithya was said to be a basket weaver in the Panathenaian procession who was carried off by the North Wind, Boreas (Robertson in Neils, 1996:58-9).  This according to Robertson has weather magic in mind as the Panathenaia occurred in the worst heat of summer and the procession of nubile female basket weavers carried the hope of a cooling wind from the North.

In conclusion, Erechtheus and Erichthonios were probably the same personage. The autochthonous symbolism in their myths gave Athenians the right of possession to the land by aboriginal connection, and the “Athena’s child” association assured them that any greatness they had or acquired as a polis was a heritage and not mere hubris.
Re-enacting their rituals warned of the dangers that arise from Athena’s anger and also acted to prevent that anger.  There was some weather magic involved with them as they hoped to affect seasonal change.  Modifying Farnell slightly (as cited in Powell, 1906:12) the myths and rituals of Erechtheus/Erichthonios personified the ancient birth and growth of the Athenian state and this cult was the heart of the cities life.


Primary Sources

Aeschylus, Eumenides, trans Smyth, H.W., (1926) Harvard
Antigonus Carystius, Historiae Mirabiles, cited in Powell (1906)
Apollodorus, The Library, trans. Frazer J., (1921), Loeb, Cambridge and London
Apollonius Rhodius, The Argonautica, trans. Seaton, R.C., Loeb, Cambridge & London
Athenagoras, Legat. pro Christ., cited in Powell (1906)
Augustine, De Civitate Dei, trans R.W. Dyson (1998), Cambridge
Diodorus of Sicily, Bibliotheca Historica, trans Oldfather, C.H., (1933) Loeb, London
 Etymologicum Magnum: seu verius, Lexicon saepissime vocabulorum origines indagans, ex pluribus lexicis, scholiastis et grammaticis anonymi cuiusdam opera concinnatum / Ad codd. mss. recensuit et notis variorum instruxit, Thomas Gaisford. (1967), Amsterdam
Eudocia, Violarium, cited in Powell (1906)
Euripides, The Ion, trans. Lee, K.H., (1997), Warminster
Fulgentius, Mythologiae, cited in Powell (1906)
Herodotus, The Histories, trans Waterfield, R., (1998), Oxford
Hesychii Alexandrini lexicon, ed. K. Latte, (1:1953; 2:1966), Copenhagen, also cited in Powell (1906)
Hyginus, “Fabulae” and “Astronomica”, Fabularum liber, (1976 reprint of 1535 ed Basel), New York & London
Lactantius, Divinae Institutione and Epitome, cited in Powell (1906)
Lactantius Placidus, Narrationes Fabularum, cited in Powell (1906)
Metamorfwsewn Sunagwgh, in Mythographi Graeci, Vol II, Fasc I, (1896) ed. Edgarus Martini, Lipsae
Ovid, Metamorphoses, (1986), trans. Melville, A.D., Oxford
Pausanias, Guide to Greece, (1971), trans. Levi, P., Penguin
Philargyrius, on Vergil’s Georgics, cited in Powell (1906)
Philostratus, Apollonii Vita, cited in Powell (1906)
Probus, on Vergil’s Georgics, cited in Powell (1906)
Scholia Bernensia, on Vergil’s Georgics, cited in Powell (1906)
Scholiast, on Homer’s The Iliad, cited in Powell (1906)
Scholiast, on Plato’s The Timaeus, cited in Powell (1906)
Servius, on Vergil’s Georgics, cited in Powell (1906)
Tertullian, De Spectaculis, (1966), trans. Glover, T.R., London


Secondary Sources

Burkert, W., (1983), Homo Necans, Berkeley and Los Angeles
Burkert, W., (2001, 12th Printing), Greek Religion, Harvard
Bury, (1958), Ancient Greek Historians, New York
Garland, R., (1998), Daily life of the Ancient Greeks, Westport
Geertz, C., (1996), “Religion as a Cultural system”, in Banton, M., ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion, London
Gould, J., (2001) Myth, Ritual, Memory, and Exchange. Essays in Greek Literature and Culture, Oxford
Hurwit, J.M. (1999), The Athenian Acropolis History, Mythology, and Archaeology from the Neolithic Era to the Present, Cambridge
Lefkowitz, M.R., “Women in the Panathenaic and Other Festivals”, in Neils, J., (1996),
Moles, J.L., (1993), “Truth and Untruth in Herodotus and Thucydides”, in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World, ed. Gill, C., and Wiseman, T.P., Austin
Neils, J., (1992), Goddess and Polis, Princeton
Neils, J., (1996), Worshipping Athena, Madison
Powell, B, (1906), Athenian Mythology: Erichthonios and the Three Daughters of Cecrops, Chicago
Price, S. (1999), Religions of the Ancient Greeks, Cambridge
Robertson, N., “Athena’s Shrines and Festivals”, in Neils, J., (1996)
Tyrrell, W.B., and Brown, F.S., (1991), Athenian Myths & Institutions, Oxford

 Table 1: Primary Sources on Erechtheus





The Histories, 5.82.3

The Epidaurians offered sacrifice to Erechtheus in return for Attic olive trees.

Apollonius Rhodius

The Histories, 7.189.1
The Argonautica 1, l.212

Erechtheus was the father of Oreithyia, who married Boreas and had sons Zetes and Calais.


The Histories, 8.44.2

The name of “Athenians” was first used in Erechtheus’ time.


The Histories, 8.55.1

Erechtheus had a shrine on the Acropolis.


The Library, 3.14.8

Erechtheus succeeded to the kingdom.


The Library, 1.9.19

Erechtheus marries Praxithea.


The Library, 1.9.23

Erechtheus sacrificed his youngest daughter for victory over the Eleusinians, and the other daughters killed themselves.


The Library, 1.9.23

Erechtheus killed Eumolpus.


The Library, 1.9.23

Erechtheus and his house were destroyed by Poseidon.

Mythographi Graeci

The Library, 1.9.2
Μεταμορϕωσεων Συναγωγη, XLI. Αλώπηξ

Erechtheus was the father of a daughter called Procris who married Kephales (Kephales and Eos produced Phaethon).


The Library, 1.9.19
 Metamorphoses 6.675ff

Erechtheus had four sons and four daughters.


The Library, 3.14.7
Guide to Greece, 1.5.3

Erechtheus was the father of a son called Pandion. Pausanius distinguishes two kings named Pandion - the son of Erichthonios, and the son of Cecrops the Second.


Guide to Greece, 1.38.3

Erechtheus was a king of Athens.


Guide to Greece, 1.5.3, 7.1.2

Erechtheus was the father of a son called Cecrops.


Guide to Greece, 2.6.5

Erechtheus was the father of a son called Metion.


Guide to Greece, 2.25.6

Erechtheus was the father of a son called Orneus.


Guide to Greece, 9.26.6

Erechtheus was the ancestor of Thespius.


Guide to Greece, 7.1.2

Erechtheus daughter Creusa was married to Xuthus.


Guide to Greece, 1.5.2, 1.36.4, 1.38.3

Erechtheus defeated the Eleusinians and died in battle.


Guide to Greece, 1.5.2

Erechtheus was the eponymous hero of an Athenian tribe.


Guide to Greece, 1.26.5

Erechtheus had sacrifice made to him.


Guide to Greece, 1.27.4, 9.30.1, 10.10.1

There were statues of Erechtheus in the Temple of Athena.


Guide to Greece, 1.28.4
The Library, 1.7.3,

Erechtheus was the father of daughter called Creusa.

Apollonius Rhodius

The Argonautica 1, l.101

Athenians are the Sons of Erechtheus.

Table 2: Primary Sources on Erichthonios: Page references from Powell (1906:56-64)




Antigonus Carystius

Historiae Mirabiles, 12 where he has quoted Amelesagoras the Athenian.



The Library, 3.14.6



De Civitate Dei, 18.12



Etymologicum Magnum. See under Ἐρεχθεύς



Violarium, Ie p.7, CCCL, p.151, CCCLV, p.159



The Ion, l.21, l.258-74



Mythologiae, 2.14



Fabulae, 166 and Astronomica, 2.13



Divinae Institutiones, 1.17; Epitome 9.2


Lactantius Placidus

Narrationes Fabularum, 2.12


Mythographi Graeci

Μεταμορϕωσεων Συναγωγη, XLI. Αλώπηξ



Metamorphoses, 2, l.552 ff; 2, l.740 ff



Guide to Greece, 1.18.2; 1.14.6



 on Vergil, Georgics 3.113



Apollonii Vita, 7.24



 on Vergil, Georgics, 3.113


Scholia Bernensia

Georgics, 3.113



on Homer, The Iliad, B 547



on Plato The Timaeus, 426



 on Vergil, Georgics, 3.113; 1.205



De Spectaculis, 9



Note: Powell’s  preface (1906:1-6) notes that the “classical evidence” is often “a repetition of some previous account”.

Appendix 1

The Myth of Erichthonios

Hephaestus attempted sexual intercourse with Athena.  He was either carried away by her beauty (Apollodorus and Euripides) or was given as a wife (Antigonus, Hyginus in Fabulae and Lactantius).  He was repelled but not before he ejaculated over Athena’s leg which Athena wiped it off with some wool and threw it on the ground.  Erichthonios was born from his semen seeping into the Earth.  He had no mother.  Apollodorus derives Erichthonios from ἔριον, the wool used by Athena in cleansing herself before throwing it on the earth.  Apollodorus has alternatively, that he was the son of Hephaestus and Atthis [5] , and Servius wrote that he was once regarded as the son of Electra and Jupiter.

Erichthonios had human form in Amelesagoras, Euripides, Apollodorus, Ovid, Pausanias [6] , Lactantius, Augustine, and Fulgentius.  He was half man and half snake in Hyginus, Servius, the Scholia Bernensia, the Etymologicum Magnum and Eudocia.  Philostratus and Tertullian imply that he was a snake completely.

Erichthonios was secretly protected by Athena.  He was hidden in a box and the three daughters of Cecrops were ordered to look after the box without opening it.  The trust is broken when the box is opened.

Euripides and Hyginus blame all three sisters.  Amelesagoras, Fulgentius, and Athenagoras (Legat. pro Christ. 1) blamed Aglaurus and Pandrosus.  Apollodorus and Pausanias blamed Aglaurus and Herse.  Ovid blamed Aglaurus by herself.  Since only Aglaurus was blamed in all accounts she became the sole culprit and Pandrosus was presumed innocent.

Amelesagoras & Euripides

Amelesagoras and Euripides had two protective snakes as shown, for example, on a vase from the British Museum (Cat. E418; Roscher, Lex., vol. i, p.1307, cited in Powell, 1906, figure 8).

One protective snake


Ovid, Apollodorus, Hyginus (Astronomica)Lactantius, Augustine and Fulgentius, have one protective snake as also pictured on a vase by Brygus (Robert, Bild und Lied, p.88, cited in Powell, 1906, figure 9 r.h.s)

Euripides, Apollodorus, Pausanias, and Hyginus specify that two sisters threw themselves from the Acropolis, but Apollodorus also has a variant in which they were killed by the snake.  The surviving sister Pandrosos ( Πανδρόσος ) and the box has a superficial resemblance to Pandora ( Πανδώρα ) and her box.  However Pandrosos has a κίστη and Pandora has a πίθος , or wine jar (Hesiod “Works and Days” l.94) so there is no real parallel.

Erichthonios became king of Athens, had a son Pandion.  He inaugurated the Panathenaian games in honor of Athena (Harpokration [7] s.v. Panathenaia, Apollodorus) and built her a temple. He was also said to have invented the four-horse chariot or quadrigae (Hyginus, Astronomica, Parian Chronicle, Marmor Parium 18, 21; Eusebius Chronic. Vol ii. p32, ed Schoene; A. [8] , Vergil, Georgics 3, 113, Tertullian - for which see Glover, 1966: 254-5). He was later placed among the stars as the constellation Auriga.


[1]As for example, Frazer, J., (1921:95 n 26) “as usual, Apollodorus seems to have drawn on the best sources”.

[2] One derivation of Erechtheus is from the verb to “rend, break or shake violently” which could associate it with Poseidon (Hurwit 1999:331 n.112). Another derivation stresses erion or “strife” (Tyrrell and Brown, 1991:140).

[3] The mother is not the begetter (tokeus) of that which is called the child, but only nurse (trophos) of the newly‑implanted seed.  It is the one who mounts who is the true begetter.

[4] Robertson in Neils, (1996:60) calls the idea of Arrhephoria being a festival “preposterous yarning:.

[5] Levy (1979:16) commented on Pausanias’ remark that “Hephaistos and Gê were his parents”, that it is an unhelpful attempt to reconcile legends.

[6] Pausanias 1.24.7 commented on a statue of Athena that it had a “snake beside the shield: this snake might be Erichthonios”, i.e. it represented Erichthonios as 1.5.3 has humans as descendants.

[7] Neils, J., (1992:194 n.33) has Harpokration citing Hellanicus FGrHist 323a F 2 and Androtion FGrHist 324 F 2

[8] The first two references cited from Frazer, J., (1921:95 n.26)


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