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Greek Mythology: The Gods' Contest Over Athens

' Athene followed by Nike Disputing with Poseidon for Possession of Attica', Constantin Hansen, cc. 1819-1880.

' Athene followed by Nike Disputing with Poseidon for Possession of Attica', Constantin Hansen, cc. 1819-1880.

In the years before Athens established itself as the great city-state it would eventually become, the region of ancient Greece known as Attica was inhabited by a variety of different tribes. It was Cecrops, a mythological being in his own right who was believed to be half-man and half-serpent, who first entertained the thought of bringing those tribes together, and of establishing a great city in that region. It was also Cecrops who would go on to become that city's first king, intending to name the city after himself. Even the gods of Mount Olympus could see the clear potential in what Cecrops hoped to achieve, however, and it was not long until two of their number presented themselves—each intent on being named as the official patron of this new city.

Athena, the goddess of wisdom and learning, and Poseidon, the god of the seas and oceans, were the two gods in question. Each desired to earn the devotion of the people of this new city and, naturally, each felt that they were most deserving of the honor. Soon enough, the heated nature of their debate reached such a point that even the other gods of Mount Olympus began to fear the consequences of a seemingly inevitable conflict.

In the hope of encouraging a compromise between the two angry gods, Zeus determined that there should a contest to see which of them was truly better suited to become the patron of this new city - and, that this contest should be judged by the city's first king, Cecrops (though, in alternate versions of the myth, it was the other gods of Mount Olympus who judged). The nature of the contest was simple—each god would other a gift to Cecrops, and his people, and the one who offered the greater gift would earn the right to become the new city's patron.

The exact nature of the gift offered by Poseidon tends to vary, in different versions of the tale. Sometimes, what springs forth as Poseidon strikes the ground with his trident is a powerful and beautiful new creature revealed to be the first horse, and offered to Cecrops and his people as a beast of burden as well as a mode of transport. More commonly, though, Poseidon's gift takes the form of a gushing torrent of water brought forth as Poseidon strikes the ground.

In either case, though, it was soon decided that Poseidon's gift, as impressive as it may have been, was inferior to the one offered by Athena—a gift which took the seemingly simple form of an olive tree. Athena's gift of the olive tree, something which could grow even in the rough and dry ground of Attica, would provide an important source of food for the people of the region. In those versions of the tale in which Poseidon's gift took the form of a horse, it was also argued that the olive tree was a more fitting gift since its branch would one day go on to become an important symbol of peace, while the horse would go on to become a symbol of war. Athena's gift seemed particularly favorable in this versions of the story where Poseidon offered the gift of water—since those who first attempting to drink from Poseidon's well where dismayed to find water was as salty as the waters of the seas that Poseidon ruled over.

With its ability to grow in even the worst conditions, it was commonly believed that the seemingly simple olive tree was actually the greatest gift that the gods of Mount Olympus had ever given to the people of ancient Greece. Seeing the clear value of this gift, Cecrops declared Athena to be the winner of the contest. As reward, Athena was quickly declared to be the new patron of the city. The city, itself, was named Athens, in her honor. Athens went on to earn itself a reputation as a city devoted to the same principles which Athena, herself, held dear—soon establishing itself as a center for art, learning, and philosophy in the ancient world.

© 2019 Dallas Matier

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