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How Athens Got Its Name

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Athens. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Public domain

The story of how Athens, one of the oldest cities in the world, attained its current name is a foundational Greek myth.

Unbeknown 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 fight it out in a duel to possess the city.

Zeus then intervened in order to avoid a violent outcome.

Zeus declared that both of the gods must present a gift to the city’s king, Cecrops, who was a half-man, half-snake creature; 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 and 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 one interpretation of 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 on, the city adopted the name of the goddess, becoming known as 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 and statues and held festivals dedicated to their patroness, Athena, like the majestic Parthenon on the Acropolis.

The goddess Athena herself has quite an intriguing story. Although some myths claim that Metis, goddess of counsel, was her mother, most claim that she had no mother and was born of Zeus alone.

As the goddess of wisdom, it is fitting that Athena was not born naturally but emerged, fully grown, from the forehead of Zeus, her father.

According to numerous myths, Athena was a favorite of her father. In Homer’s Iliad, Ares, god of war, even accuses Zeus of bias toward Athena because of the manner of her birth.

Athena was also linked to war herself. Almost always shown wearing armor, she was considered to represent the strategic aspects of warfare and was known for protecting heroes, most notably Jason, Perseus, Herakles, and of course, Odysseus.

In fact, she even offered her shield to Perseus when he went to slay Medusa, and the hero successfully used it to defeat the monstrous creature by reflecting its image on the shiny surface.

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