Erechtheus (//; Ancient Greek: Ἐρεχθεύς) in Greek mythology was the name of an archaic king of Athens, the founder of the polis and, in his role as god, attached to Poseidon, as "Poseidon Erechtheus". The mythic Erechtheus and an historical Erechtheus were fused into one character in Euripides' lost tragedy Erechtheus, (423/22 BCE) . The name Erichthonius is carried by a son of Erechtheus, but Plutarch conflated the two names in the myth of the begetting of Erechtheus.
Athenians thought of themselves as Erechtheidai, the "sons of Erechtheus". In Homer's Iliad (2. 547–48) he is the son of "grain-giving Earth", reared by Athena. The earth-born son was sired by Hephaestus, whose semen Athena wiped from her thigh with a fillet of wool cast to earth, by which Gaia was made pregnant.
In the contest for patronship of Athens between Poseidon and Athena, the salt spring on the Acropolis where Poseidon's trident struck was known as the sea of Erechtheus.
Erechtheus and the Erechtheum/Erechtheion
The central gods of the Acropolis of Athens were Poseidon Erechtheus and Athena Polias, "Athena patron-guardian of the city". The Odyssey (VII.81) already records that Athena returned to Athens and "entered the strong-built house of Erechtheus". The archaic joint temple built upon the spot that was identified as the Kekropion, the hero-grave of the mythic founder-king Cecrops and the serpent that embodied his spirit was destroyed by the Persian forces in 480 BC, during the Greco-Persian wars, and was replaced between 421 and 407 BCE by the present Erechtheum. Continuity of the site made sacred by the presence of Cecrops is inherent in the reference in Nonnus' Dionysiaca to the Erechtheion lamp as "the lamp of Cecrops". Priests of the Erechtheum and the priestess of Athena jointly took part in the procession to Skiron that inaugurated the Skira festival near the end of the Athenian year. Their object was the temenos at Skiron of the hero-seer Skiros, who had aided Eumolpus in the war between Athens and Eleusis in which Erechtheus II, the hero-king, was both triumphant and died.
That Poseidon and Erechtheus were two names at Athens for the same figure (see below) was demonstrated in the cult at the Erechtheum, where there was a single altar, a single priest and sacrifices were dedicated to Poseidon Erechtheus, Walter Burkert observed, adding "An historian would say that a Homeric, pan-Hellenic name has been superimposed on an autochthonous, non-Greek name."
Erechtheus II, king of Athens
The second Erechtheus was given a historicizing genealogy as son and heir to King Pandion I of Athens by Zeuxippe, this Pandion being son of Erichthonius. This later king Erechtheus may be distinguished as Erechtheus II. Erechtheus was father, by his wife Praxithea, of several daughters: Procris, Creusa, Chthonia and Oreithyia.
According to pseudo-Apollodorus, Erechtheus II had a twin brother named Butes who married Erechtheus' daughter Chthonia, the "earth-born". Erechtheus and Butes divided the royal power possessed by Pandion, Erechtheus taking the physical rule but Butes taking the priesthood of Athena and Poseidon, this right being passed on to his descendants. This late origin myth or aition justified and validated the descent of the hereditary priesthood of the Boutidai family.
The war with Eleusis
His reign was marked by the war between Athens and Eleusis, when the Eleusinians were commanded by Eumolpus, coming from Thrace. An oracle declared that Athens' survival depended on the death one of the three daughters of Erechtheus. Perhaps three unmarried daughters is meant. But in one version it is Chthonia who is sacrificed. In another both Protogeneia and Pandora, the two eldest, offer themselves up. In any case the remaining sisters (excepting Orithyia who had been kidnapped by Boreas), or at least some of them, are said to kill themselves. The story of the unfortunate daughters of Erechtheus is comparable to those of the daughters of Hyacinthus of Lacedaemon, and of the daughters of Leos.
In the following battle between the forces of Athens and Eleusis, Erechtheus won the battle and slew Eumolpus, but then himself fell, struck down by Poseidon's trident; according to fragments of Euripides' tragedy Erechtheus. Poseidon avenged his son Eumolpus' death by driving him into the earth with blows of his trident,
The ending lines of Euripides' tragedy were recovered in 1965 from a papyrus fragment. They demonstrate for Burkert that "the founding of the Erechtheum and the institution of the priestess of Athena coincide." Athena resolves the action by instructing Erichtheus' widow Praxithea:
"...and for your husband I command a shrine to be constructed in the middle of the city; he will be known for him who killed him, under the name of 'sacred Poseidon'; but among the citizens, when the sacrificial cattle are slaughtered, he shall also be called 'Erechtheus'. To you, however, since you have rebuilt the city's foundations, I grant the duty of bringing in the preliminary fire-sacrifices for the city, and to be called my priestess."
In the Athenian king-list, Xuthus, the son-in-law of Erechtheus, was asked to choose his successor from among his many sons and chose Cecrops II, named for the mythic founder-king Cecrops. Thus Erechtheus is succeeded by Cecrops II, his brother, according to a fragment from the poet Castor but his son according to pseudo-Apollodorus (3.15.1).
- Plutarch, Moralia 843b.
- Euripides, Medea, 824.
- R. M. Frazer, Jr, "Some Notes on the Athenian Entry, Iliad B 546-56" Hermes 97.3 (1969), pp. 262–266, observes in this displacement a submerged memory of Athena's lost role as a mother-goddess "by becoming strictly a virgin". (p 262); compare Wolfgang Fauth, Der Kleine Pauly (1954), s.v. "Athena"; a contrasting view is Martin P. Nilsson, Geschichte der Griechischen Religion, vol I, pt 2 (Munich, 1955) pp 442ff.
- pseudo-Apollodorus, 3.14.1, noted by Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks, (1959), p. 211; Kerenyi narrates myths of Erechtheus pp 21–46.
- Walter Burkert, (Peter Bing, tr.) Homo Necans 1983:144 remarked of the Skira procession "The priests are those of the central gods of the Acropolis: Poseidon-Erechtheus and Athena Polias".
- That the Erechtheion is built on the site of the "alleged tomb, the Kekropion" is noted in passing even in a work as general as Karl Kerenyi, The Heroes of the Greeks, 1959:213. The Kekropion is securely identified as lying beneath the Porch of the Maidens of the existing Erechtheum. The imprint of a small but vanished enclosure against the east foundation was analyzed by Holland, in American Journal of Archaeology (AJA) 28 1924:161f. No foundations for an actual temple structure have been discovered beneath the Erechtheum itself: William Bell Dinsmoor summarizes the archaeology in "The Hekatompedon on the Athenian Acropolis" AJA V51.2 (April–June 1947:109 note 4, 120 note 59.
- Nonnus, Dionysiaca 33.124, noted by Olga Palagia, "A Niche for Kallimachos' Lamp?" American Journal of Archaeology, 88.4 (October 1984:515-521) p. 519 and note 15.
- Walter Burkert, (Peter Bing, tr.) Homo Necans 1983, p. 149 gives references for this observation.
- The alternative, that Zeus slew him with a thunderbolt at Poseidon's request, simply sets the action at a remove, magnifying a universal role for Zeus.
- Euripides, Ion, 281. Another figure who was killed by driving him into the earth by repeated blows was Caeneus the Lapith.
- Colin Austin, in Recherches de Papyrologie 4 (1967); Nova fragmenta Euripidea (1968) frs.65.90-97.
- Burkert, (Peter Bing, tr.) Homo Necans (1983) p. 149.
- Praxithea ("cult of the Goddess") had assented to the sacrifice of her own daughter before the battle.
- Peter Bing's English rendering of Burkert's translation.
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