Athena: Goddess of Wisdom

‘Sing, Muses, sing to me a story of Olympus and the deathless gods who govern earth, sea and sky.’

That is what Zeus commands; he will hear the details of this dispute. At the plea of King Cecrops, he and his fellow Olympians have come to act as a jury. 

Cecrops bows his head in a reverent silence, but the sound of his anxiety, the sound of his worry, still fills the palace. It is not the drumming of fingers, the grinding of teeth or the tapping of feet, it is the whisper of scales against stone. For King Cecrops is an autochthon; he is born of the earth itself, neither mother nor father, and so while he has the head and body of a man, his legs are the coiled tail of a snake.

The sound is that tail nervously coiling and uncoiling about his throne.

What is it that fills his mind with worry? Why has he called on this deathless jury? King Cecrops has been asked to make an impossible judgement, to choose between two gods for patron of his city: Poseidon, Lord of the Deep, and the grey-eyed Athena, maiden of wisdom and war. 

And the stakes? They are no more or less than his city’s very survival.

The Muses’s story begins with Cecrops himself. He is without doubt the finest king the plain of Attica has ever seen. His autochthonous origin is his insight. He has taken inspiration from the harmony of nature, and now the warring tribes of Attica are a single people. He has taken inspiration from the laws of nature, and now courts, priesthoods and professions flourish under his protection. 

He has faceted his city into a priceless jewel. So it was inevitable that eventually one of the gods would come to claim it for their crown. 

Cecrops has already discouraged lesser deities: nymphs, satyrs and bastard demi-gods. No, he seeks the favour of a greater patron, an Olympian: grey-eyed Athena. The goddess would represent his city’s every virtue: she is wise but curious, a patron of tradition and innovation alike. She is pitiless in war, but temperate too, a paragon of strategy not savagery. And she is a direct line to the Father of Gods and Men himself: she is the favourite child of Zeus. 

Athena meets Cecrops atop the city’s highest hill, the Acropolis. There she presents a gift. She thrusts her spear into the ground. She tills the good black earth, her blade as fork and spade. She presses a single seed into the furrow.

An olive tree. It is a gift as versatile as Athena herself, not merely food, but oil, wood, fuel, fire, shade. With it, Cecrops sees the kind of staple that would make his city the centre of the world.

But another presumptive patron is not far behind: Poseidon. 

Now, the Lord of the Deep – he has a mood of salt and a disposition of storm. He regards himself eternally cheated; when he and his brothers drew lots for their domains, it was Zeus, the youngest, who was awarded the highest office. So, with Olympus beyond his reach, Poseidon claims the cities of mortal men as his due instead, and he is voracious as any collector. He has had little success though: Corinth he lost to sun-touched Helios; Naxos to the reveller, Dionysus; Argolis to royal Hera.

His grievance seethes and bubbles in the deep palaces of the wine-dark sea. It shakes the earth and stirs the waves. 

When he hears of Athena’s intent to claim Attica, he journeys to the Acropolis too. 

It is a delicate matter then. When the Muses sing of divine wrath, Poseidon’s refrain of crashing cymbals and pounding drums is a recurrent theme.

Cecrops can only hope in a simple answer: Athena has presented the city with her gift first.

Poseidon disagrees; his gift has been there all along. He drives his trident into the rock – like a fisherman spearing a prize catch – and a wonderous spring bursts forth, a well beneath the hill. But when Cecrops fills the cup of his hands and drinks deep, it is only to gag. The spring is salt water. Little better than brine.

And yet what choice does the king have? Meagre though Poseidon’s gift may be, the well was here first, so was not Poseidon’s patronage also? And now Cecrops is in danger of angering the goddess instead.

A jury of the gods is his only option. They will hear both sides. They will make a judgement.

With the Muses’ story complete, Zeus commands the arguments be heard. Poseidon begins. His temper is tempest, his rhetoric the roar of a sea squall. He speaks of dues, of obligations, of rightful law. His every word is drenched in threat.

Athena is silent throughout. She brings neither objection nor point of order. Her great peaked helmet disguises any hint of her thoughts. It is only when Poseidon is finished that she removes it. 

She explains she will make no opening statement, no narration, no peroration; she will simply call a witness: King Cecrops.

‘Where you there when I presented my gift to the city?’ she asks.

‘Yes, I watched you thrust your spear into the ground. I watched you till the good black earth, your blade as fork and spade. I watched you press a single seed into the furrow.’

Then she asks about Poseidon’s gift. And again, Cecrops affirms: he watched the Lord of the Deep drive his trident into the rock. But Athena looks puzzled at this.

‘I don’t understand, dear king. I am merely the goddess of wisdom; water is my uncle’s domain. But a spring is merely a conduit, yes?’ Athena plays up her confusion for the jury, her expression drawn into a comedy’s mask ‘Did my uncle not claim his gift predated mine, that it was the well beneath the Acropolis?’

Cecrops nods.

‘So did you see him present that gift?’

To the sound of a nervous slither, the king shakes his head.

‘Do we even know it is his gift to give?’ Athena asks. ‘Do we know it is he who set this well beneath the earth? Who among us saw it?’

Mercifully, she turns her questions from Cecrops then, addressing the jury of the gods instead.

‘A deed, a contract, a witness. Patronage should be an easy thing to evidence, should it not? Mine stands before you know – good King Cecrops and his testimony. So where is my uncle’s evidence?’

A titter winds its way through the jury, Zeus at its head. He can barely contain his amusement; the Father of Gods and Men has always enjoyed the precocity of his first born. 

All know the verdict then.

Poseidon’s temper threatens to flood the entire plain of Attica, but the matter has been decided by gods not men. The city is Athena’s.

It will forever bear her name: Athens. 

Commissioned by HistoryHit for The Ancients podcast

Written by Andrew Hulse