The story of how Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, attained its current name is a foundational Greek myth.
Unbeknownst to many, the city actually had several names throughout its 3,400 years of recorded history.
The initial name of Athens was “Coast” or “Aktiki,” and it was taken from the first king of the land, King Aktaio. Afterwards, as the city continued to grow, Aktaio’s successor, King Cecrops, named the city after himself.
Greek mythology says that the Gods of Olympus looked down at the beautiful prosperous city of Cecrops and decided to make it their own, causing Athens’ name to be changed one last time.
A duel between the gods for the name of Athens
As history notes, the ancient city of Athens was a powerful force and played an important role in the developing and advancing ancient Greek civilization.
In modern times, remnants of the Gods and their glory from antiquity are scattered throughout the city.
There is a rich and mythical history all around Athens, and the way the Greek capital was named is no exception.
The story starts with a duel between the ancient gods of Olympus to determine who would give the city its name and become its patron.
It is said the god of the sea, Poseidon, and the goddess of wisdom, Athena, made it to the final round, and were ready to duel it out to possess the city.
Zeus then intervened in order to avoid a violent fallout.
Zeus declared that both of the gods had to present a gift to the city’s king, Cecrops, who was a half-man half-snake creature, and whichever gift was accepted by the citizens would determine the new name of the city.
The gifts presented to the people of Athens
Legend says that all of the citizens went high up on the Acropolis to witness the offerings of Athena and Poseidon.
First up was Poseidon, who struck the rock of the Acropolis, opening a spring of water, offering the new city success in war and at sea.
However, the people tasted the water and were not enchanted as it tasted salty, like the seas that the god reigned over.
When it was Athena’s turn, she stepped forward and planted a seed into the ground which immediately sprouted up into a beautiful olive tree.
This was the goddess’ gesture of giving the symbolic fruits of peace and wisdom to the Athenians, as well as planting the tree that provided them with oil, food, and wood for burning and creating tools.
According to the fable, the men supported Poseidon while the women, who out-voted the men, were in favor of Athena.
The Legend of Athena
From that day, the city took the name of the goddess, becoming Athens. The owl, which signifies wisdom and was connected with Athena, came to represent the city in antiquity.
The goddess Athena was depicted on one side of the Greek drachma coin, while the owl was on the other.
The citizens of Athens built temples, statues and held festivals dedicated to their patroness, Athena, like the majestic Parthenon on the Acropolis.