Athena And Poseidon’s Contest: How Did Athens Get Its Name?

Back when ancient Athens was not named Athens, the gods Athena and Poseidon fought for the right to make the city theirs.  

May 19, 2021By Antonis Chaliakopoulos, MSc Museum Studies, BA History & Archaeology
The Acropolis of Athens, Leo Von Klenze, 1846, Neue Pinakothek; with Minerva, Gustav Klimt, 1898, Vienna Museum; and The Return of Neptune

“Our country is deserving of praise, not only from us but from all men, on many grounds, but first and foremost because she is god-beloved. The strife of the god who contended over her and their judgment testify to the truth of our statement.” Plato


In this passage, Plato refers to none other than the legendary contest between Athena and Poseidon over the city of Athens. This was one of the founding myths of ancient Athens and a popular story, also known as ‘the name-giving of Athens’.


As the contest’s winner, Athena became the city’s patron deity, honored on the sacred hill of the Acropolis. Nevertheless, Athens’ most sacred temple, the Erectheum, was shared between Athena and Poseidon.


The Protagonists: Who Were Athena and Poseidon?


Minerva, Gustav Klimt, 1898, Vienna Museum

Athena, or Minerva for the Roman, was the Greek Goddess of wisdom and war, more specifically strategic warfare. Athena is a peculiar case. Her father was Zeus and her mother the nymph Metis. However, in a weird way, Metis did not give birth to her.


The myth goes that Zeus heard a prophecy that his child from Metis would rule the sky. Himself being the ruler of the sky, Zeus could not allow this to happen. So, he swallowed Metis whole.


Sometime later, Zeus began to suffer from a headache which only got worse and worse to the point that it got insufferable. Hephaestus, the Greek God of fire and smithing, decided to help his father. He then did something that might seem odd, but it was not that big of a deal for an immortal god. He took an ax and opened Zeus’ head. From the head sprang Athena, not as an infant, but as a grown woman in armor and wielding her weapons, the spear and the shield. Zeus quickly came back to his senses. Besides, he was immortal.

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The symbolism of the Gods’ father giving birth from his head to the Goddess of wisdom is self-evident.


Even though Zeus was scared that Athena would challenge his rule, she had little interest in becoming a queen of the heavens. In the end, Athena became Zeus’ favorite daughter.


In Greek Mythology, Athena often appears as a helper of heroes like Jason, Perseus, Hercules, and others. Her sacred animal was the owl and her symbols the owl, the olive tree, and the gorgoneion (i.e. Medusa’s head) which she wore on her aegis after she helped Perseus kill the legendary Medusa.



The Return of Neptune


Unlike Athena, Poseidon (or Neptune for the Romans) was a brother of Zeus, descending from Cronus and Rhea who were the King and Queen of the gods before the coming of the 12 Olympians.


When Cronus ate his children, Poseidon was freed by his brother Zeus. Upon defeating Cronus and the Titans, Zeus divided the three kingdoms of the sky, the sea, and the underworld between himself and his two brothers, Poseidon and Hades. Zeus got the best of the three, the sky, Poseidon got the ocean and Hades got the worst deal, the Underworld. As such Poseidon was seen as an equal of Zeus, with a kingdom of his own, though one of lesser importance. The god ruled over his realm alongside his wife Amphitrite and with the company of the sea-nymphs, the Nereids and the Tritons, who were half man-half fish creatures.


Poseidon was one of the most revered Greek gods which makes sense for a people relying on the sea to travel and trade as much as the Greeks. Another essential aspect of Poseidon was his earth-shaking powers. Just like Zeus was seen as the source of thunders, Poseidon was seen as the source of earthquakes, an extremely common and catastrophic phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, he was the god of horses.


Poseidon also appears to have predated the other Greek gods. His cult seems to have been in place since the late Bronze Age and the Myceneans. His main symbols were the trident, the horse, the dolphin, and the bull.


Athena v Poseidon: The Contest for Ancient Athens

The Reign of Cecrops

The birth of Erechtheus, Cecrops on the far-left, Codrus Painter, 440-430 BCE, Antikensammlung


The story of Athena and Poseidon’s contest is one of the founding myths of ancient Athens. The story begins in a mythical time back when the city had just been founded. Its first king was Cecrops, a man of tremendous interest and importance for the ancient Athenians.


A common belief amongst the Greeks was that certain people were autochthones, i.e. they had been born directly out of the earth. This meant that someone had natural rights to a certain land, and, as such, many Greek city-states boasted that their ancestors were autochthones. Cecrops was one of these cases. He was a legendary king whose autochthony was so strong that he was half snake and half man. If this seems strange to you it didn’t to the Athenians. As snakes crawl, they were seen as creatures closer to the earth. In this case, the fact that Cecrops was half-snake indicated that he was inextricably linked to the land on which ancient Athens was built.


Cecrops was an amazing ruler. In fact, his reign ushered in a golden age so impressive that even the gods noticed his city’s greatness. According to Apollodorus, the king had named the city Cecropia after himself, while its previous name was Acte. Nevertheless, the city had not officially received the protection of a god, and, consequently, its name could still change.


Athena and Poseidon Claim Cecrops’s City

Athena, Poseidon and Hermes, Amasis Painter, 550-530 BCE, Louvre, Paris


The two gods that showed interest in Cecrops’ city were Athena and Poseidon. Both believed that they had the right to bring the city under their protection, name it after themselves and claim its glory.


The two gods were so determined that Zeus, scared that their disagreement would lead to a fight, decided to intervene.  The solution he offered was a contest between Athena and Poseidon with Cecrops (other authors say the twelve Olympian Gods or simply Zeus himself) as the judge. The prize would be the city.


The Contest Begins

Reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon, Acropolis Museum, via Wikimedia Commons


“Twelve celestial Gods surrounded Jupiter, on lofty thrones; and all their features were so nicely drawn, that each could be distinguished. — Jupiter appeared as monarch of those judging Gods.” Metamorphoses 6.70


Athena and Poseidon met on the sacred hill of the Acropolis. Zeus, the Olympian gods, and the people of Athens gathered to witness the spectacle.


Poseidon moved first. With one swift move, he struck his trident on the ground. The earth shook and an underground sea was created. Water sprang from the hole on the ground and this was Poseidon’s gift to the people of Athens (though according to some ancient sources, his gift was a horse). However, the ocean god’s gift was seawater which had little to no use for ancient Athens, a city with access to plenty of rivers and in proximity to the sea. As a result, Poseidon’s gift was met with limited enthusiasm.


Athena and Poseidon, Nazzano Painter, 380-360 BCE, Louvre, Paris


But now, it was Athena’s turn. The goddess kneeled and planted something on the ground. Everyone held their breath. Within moments, a fully grown tree rose from the earth. This was Athena’s gift; an olive tree. The tree was a high-quality timber source while its fruit was nutritional and could be used to make olive oil which had multiple applications.


Athena’s gift was superior beyond doubt. Without hesitation, Cecrops proclaimed Athena the winner of the competition and the goddess of wisdom gave her name to the city, which was hence called Athens.


Instead of accepting his defeat with dignity, Poseidon proved to be a sore loser. According to Apollodorus, “Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea”.

This was the end of the name-giving of Athens, one of the founding myths of the city.


Acropolis: The Sacred Hill of Athena

The Acropolis of Athens, Leo Von Klenze, 1846, Neue Pinakothek

Following the contest of the Athena and Poseidon, the hill of the Acropolis became a sacred space devoted to the cult of Athena.


Following a triumph over the Persian Empire in 480 BCE, ancient Athens entered its Golden Age, known for its most remarkable accomplishment, the democratic political system. It was at this time that the Athenians chose to honor their patron deity with a great temple, the Parthenon. Inside this temple, one would find a monumental gold and ivory statue of Athena, the work of antiquity’s greatest sculptor, Phidias. Going outside, one could wonder at the pediments of the temple featuring on the one side the birth of Athena and on the other the contest of Athena and Poseidon.


Of course, the images of Athena on the Acropolis did not stop there. There were also other sculptures by Phidias, the most notable of which was Athena Promachos, a gigantic bronze sculpture of the goddess. In the entrance of the sacred hill, the visitor could see the small but elegant temple of Athena Nike (Victory).


Worth mentioning is also the Great Panathenaia, the greatest festival of the city which was centered around the cult of the goddess and included a great ritual procession that ended at the xoanon, the sacred wooden effigy of the goddess in the Erectheum.


Erectheum: The Shared Temple of Athena and Poseidon

Erechtheum, Acropolis Conservation Service


However, the Parthenon was not the most important temple on the Acropolis. That title belonged to the Erectheum, a unique case of a temple. While the Parthenon was devoted just to Athena, the Erectheum was a hybrid temple, half belonging to Athena and half to Poseidon.


Furthermore, there was a series of other deities whose altars and monuments were housed in the temple. The most famous of these monuments today is a tomb that the ancients ascribed to Cecrops, the legendary king and judge of the name-giving contest. This part of the Erechtheum is famous due to the caryatids. These were six sculptures of noblewomen, two of which were taken by Lord Elgin to England in the 19th century. Today, four of the sculptures can be seen at the Acropolis Museum of Athens and two at the British Museum in London. These sculptures are at the center of a heated restitution debate between Greece and the UK.


Erechtheum, Acropolis Conservation Service


Although the superstars of the Erectheum are the Caryatids, the temple was full of wonders. Some of these are directly related to the name-giving myth. According to Pausanias, inside the Erectheum, one could find a well with saltwater and the mark of a trident on the floor. These were said to be the marks left by Poseidon during his contest with Athena and were sacred monuments of the god.  Pausanias also mentions an olive tree that stood inside a small courtyard of the temple. This was said to be the tree planted by Athena herself.


Herodotus records a miracle related to Athena’s tree that took place after the sack of ancient Athens by the Persians in 480 BCE:


“It happened that the olive tree was burnt by the barbarians  with the rest of the sacred precinct, but on the day after its burning, when the Athenians ordered by the king to sacrifice went up to the sacred precinct, they saw a shoot of about a cubit’s length sprung from the stump, and they reported this.” Herodotus


If you visit the Erectheum today, you will find an olive tree in the exact place where the ancient one stood. Although this tree was planted in modern times it is a monument to one of the most important myths of antiquity, the name-giving of ancient Athens.

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By Antonis ChaliakopoulosMSc Museum Studies, BA History & ArchaeologyAntonis is an archaeologist with a passion for museums and heritage and a keen interest in aesthetics and the reception of classical art. He holds an MSc in Museum Studies from the University of Glasgow and a BA in History and Archaeology from the University of Athens (NKUA). Antonis is a senior staff member at TheCollector, managing the Archaeology and Ancient History department. In his spare time, he publishes articles on his specialty.