Places of Myth

36 Athens

Athena, in a long chiton and plumed helm, stands facing right holding a spear and circular shield. Poseidon stands on the right, facing left. He is nude, holding a tridents, with one hand gesturing towards a young woman who sits between the two gods. The young woman is elaborately dressed with jewelry. Nike, a small winged goddess, hovers behind Athena.
Athena and Poseidon compete for Athens (possibly with the personification of Athens), red-figure krater, 4th century BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)


Mythological Foundation

Cecrops stands with a staff. From the waist up, he is a bearded man in a tunic with a laurel crown. From the waist down, he has a snake trunk.
Cecrops at the birth of Erichthonius, red-figure kylix, ca. 440 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)

Athens is the modern-day capital of Greece, and the most populous urban center in the region of Attica. In ancient mythology, the foundation of the city was attributed to the hero Cecrops, who was also the first king. Both he and his successor, Erichthonius, were depicted as snake-human hybrids to symbolize the autochthony of the Athenians who had inhabited the land since the beginning of times.

The most important landmark mentioned in myth is the acropolis, which was considered the centre of political and religious power, as it hosted the royal palace and the main buildings for the worship of the protectress of the city, Athena, as well as the sacred olive tree and the salt water spring that she and Poseidon had gifted to the city during their contest to claim its ownership.

For further discussion of Athena and the mythological foundation of Athens, see chapter 11.

In myth, the foundation of Athens is also tied to the hero Theseus. An early king of Athens, Theseus was credited with establishing elements of the Athenian political system and instituting the Panathenaic Festival.

For further discussion of Theseus, see chapter 22.


Plutarch, Parallel Lives, “Life of Theseus,” Part 24 (trans. B. Perrin, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin biography, 2nd century CE

Plutarch, a philosopher and historian, wrote a euhemerizing account of the life of Theseus, in which he attempted to incorporate the myths of Theseus into real history. In this passage, he describes Theseus’ unification of Attica into the democratic state of Athens.


[24.1] After the death of Aegeus, Theseus came up with a wonderful plan, and settled all the residents of Attica in one city. He thus made one people, of one city, out of those who had, up until then, been scattered about and not easily called together for the common interests of all. In fact, they sometimes actually argued and fought with each other.

[24.2] He visited them and tried to win them over to his project, township by township and clan by clan. The common folk and the poor quickly answered to his summons. To the powerful, he promised a government without a king and a democracy, in which he would only be commander in war and guardian of the laws, while in all else everyone should be on an equal footing.

[24.3] Some he readily persuaded of this plan. Others, fearing his power (which was already great) and his boldness, chose to be persuaded rather than to be forced to agree to it. Accordingly, after getting rid of the town-halls and council-chambers and magistracies in the several communities, and after building a common town-hall and council-chamber for all on the ground where the upper town of the present day stands, he named the city Athens, and instituted a Panathenaic festival.


Taken from:

Historical Foundation

The acropolis is indeed one of the places with the earliest traces of human occupation, including large fortification works dating from the 15th century BCE, the so-called ‘Cyclopean Walls’. Athens does not seem to have been a major Mycenaean palatial centre, but it was still affected by the collapse of the Bronze Age. During the Archaic Period the city expanded with an ambitious building program sponsored by both the tyrants of the city and aristocratic families that funded new walls, an aqueduct, temples, and a sacred way that connected Athens to the sanctuary of Eleusis. Most of the remains that are visible nowadays are, however, dating from the Classical and Hellenistic periods, when the city rose to fame and was monumentalized by its own democratic government and foreign kings alike.


Map of Athens, showing major buildings, as well as the Ilissos river (to the south) and Eridamos river (to the north) running east-west through Athens. The Agora, with temple of Hephaestus by it, the Acropolis, and the Areopagus are at the centre of the city. South of the Acropolis, the theatre of Dionysus and the Odeon. At the far south, a large temple of Zeus. To the west, the Phyx. The panathenaic stadium is south, outside the city.
Map of Athens ca. 430 BCE.

Several of the most important archaeological remains are located along the Panathenaic Way that connected Eleusis and Athens coming through the northwestern Dipylon Gate. This route went through the cemetery of Kerameikos, the agora, where the most important public buildings such as fountains, the mint, and the seat of the assembly had been situated since the late Archaic Period. The same area also contained important religious buildings such as the Altar of the Twelve Gods, from which all distances were calculated, and a large temple dedicated to Athena and Hephaistos as patrons of craftsmen.



Plan of the Athenian Agora. Buildings are arranged ina square around the Agora, and the Panathenaic way runs diagonally through the square.
Map of the Agora in Athens in the 5th century BCE, by MadMedea.


The Panathenaic Way proceeded southeast and climbed up to the acropolis, and ended at its monumental entrance, the Propylaia. On the top of the hill were the Parthenon, dedicated to Athena as protectress of the city, the Erechtheion, a religious building containing the sacred olive tree as well as other ancestral cults, and various altars and sacred precincts dedicated to Zeus and other gods.


Plan of the Acropolis of Athens, showing layers from the Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic, and Roman periods. Archaic and Classical (in yellow): The theatre of Dionysus in the south-east, and a collection of buildings including the Parthenon. Hellenistic (in orange): the Stoa of Eumenides along the south edge. Roman (pink): the Odeo of Herodes Atticus in the south-west.
Plan of the Acropolis at Athens, by Tomisti and Qirille.


Archaeological remains of the Erechtheion. The side view shows the columned portico and two-story columned building. An olive tree stands out front.
The Erechtheion in Athens.
Archaeological remains of Athens: the Parthenon and other buildings are on top of a hill, the Acropolis. At the food of the hill, more buildings are visible amongst trees.
Acropolis in Athens.

The area south of the acropolis is occupied by the 2nd century CE Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a long Hellenistic portico, the great Theatre of Dionysus (built in its current form in the late fifth century BCE over an earlier structure), and the coeval Odeion of Pericles, another building for public assemblies.


Archaeological remains of the semi-circular theatre seating of the theatre of Dionysus.
Theatre of Dionysus in Athens.

Lastly, on the southeastern portion of the city was the great temple of Olympian Zeus, started in the late 6th century BCE and completed only in the 2nd century AD by Roman Emperor Hadrian.


Archaeological remains of the temple of Zeus on the Acropolis. The remains comprise a columned portico of Corinthian order columns.
Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens.
A reconstruction of the temple of Zeus, showing a dozen original corinthian order columns, with the remaining columns and pediment digitally reconstructed.
Reconstruction of the temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens, by Valentin Fiumefreddo.


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