King Erichthonius (also written Erichthonios, Ancient Greek: Ἐριχθόνιος) was a mythological early ruler of ancient Athens, Greece. He was, according to some legends, autochthonous (born of the soil, or Earth) and raised by the goddess Athena. Early Greek texts do not distinguish between him and Erectheus, his grandson, but by the fourth century BCE, during Classical times, they are entirely distinct figures.
According to the Bibliotheca, Athena visited the smith-god Hephaestus to request some weapons, but Hephaestus was so overcome by desire that he tried to seduce her in his workshop. Determined to maintain her virginity, Athena fled, pursued by Hephaestus. Despite Hephaestus' lameness, he caught Athena and tried to rape her, but she fought him off. During the struggle, his semen fell on her thigh, and Athena, in disgust, wiped it away with a scrap of wool (ἔριον, erion) and flung it to the earth (χθών, chthôn). As she fled, Erichthonius was born from the semen that fell to the earth. Athena, wishing to raise the child in secret, placed him in a small box (an ark).
Athena gave the box to the three daughters of Cecrops, the king of Athens (Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus), and warned them never to open it. Overcome with curiosity, Aglaurus and Herse opened the box, which contained the infant and future-king, Erichthonius ("troubles born from the earth"). (Sources are unclear whether only one sister or all three participated.) The sisters were terrified by what they saw in the box: either a snake coiled around an infant, or an infant that was half-man and half-serpent. They went insane and threw themselves off the Acropolis. Other accounts state that they were killed by the snake.
An alternative version of the story is that Athena left the box with the daughters of Cecrops while she went to fetch a mountain from Pallene to use in the Acropolis. While she was away, Aglaurus and Herse opened the box. A crow saw them open the box, and flew away to tell Athena, who fell into a rage and dropped the mountain she was carrying (now Mount Lykabettos). As in the first version, Herse and Aglaurus went insane and threw themselves to their deaths off a cliff.
When he grew up, Erichthonius drove out Amphictyon, who had usurped the throne from Cranaus twelve years earlier, and became king of Athens. He married Praxithea, a naiad, and had a son, Pandion I. During this time, Athena frequently protected him. He founded the Panathenaic Festival in the honor of Athena, and set up a wooden statue of her on the Acropolis. According to the Parian marble, he taught his people to yoke horses and use them to pull chariots, to smelt silver, and to till the earth with a plough. It was said that Erichthonius was lame of his feet and that he consequently invented the quadriga, or four-horse chariot to get around easier. He is said to have competed often as a chariot driver in games. Zeus was said to have been so impressed with his skill that he raised him to the heavens to become the constellation of the Charioteer (Auriga) after his death.
Ericthonius was succeeded by his son Pandion I. The snake is his symbol, and he is represented in the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as the snake hidden behind her shield.
- Smith, William; Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology, London (1873). "Erichtho'nius"
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