The Quarrel between Athene and Poseidon

Published September 8, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

You know, Athene really seems to have trouble getting along with the other gods.  Or is that just my imagination?

The rocky hill in Attica was home to a number of people even before Kekrops arrived, but their ways were crude, and lacked the polish of civilization.

No one knew who Kekrops was, really.  They didn’t know where he had come from, or who his parents were.  Some said he had sprung whole from the ground, but that only made for more questions.

What mattered to the Attic people was that he brought them the ways to make their lives better.

He taught them to worship Zeus and the other Olympians.  And he taught them the ways of life the gods preferred.  (He taught them other things, too, that were less pleasant.  Like hating foreign ‘barbarians’ and disdaining the people from neighboring cities and enslaving those captured in war.  But no one likes to talk about that.)  By taking a wife and fathering three lovely daughters on her, he showed them how he wanted women to be treated.  The men liked that.  (The women, not so much.)

As the little village began to grow into a real city — or the tentative beginnings of one, at any rate — the people began to wonder just what they should call it.

Seeing an opportunity, Kekrops made a great offering to the gods, and told them that his city would one day be the finest city in any land, and that he would name that city in the honor of whatever god would be its protector.

Two of the gods appeared on that rocky hill, ready to take Kekrops up on his offer:  mighty Poseidon, god of the sea, and wise Athene, goddess of war.

Poseidon looked at his competition and sneered.  “You want a protector, not a child,” he said, looking back at Kekrops.  “My little niece will be no use to you.  But you have a fine harbor down below.  You need the backing of the sea’s waves!”

“This location will allow you to build a fine and mighty city,” Athene told Kekrops.  “You will need wisdom to manage it to its greatest potential, and the skill in battle to protect it from the enemies its prosperity will create.”

Some of Kekrops’ people clamored that Poseidon was right, and others insisted that they must choose Athene.  Kekrops himself could see the wisdom of both sides, and wasn’t sure which to choose.  (In truth, he hadn’t expected that more than one god would respond to his prayer.  He hadn’t really expected any of them to show up like that.)

Poseidon and Athene competed in many ways, and became more and more bitter towards each other with each successive contest, but their competitions always came out an exact tie.

Finally, Kekrops hit on a solution.  “If each of you will bestow a single gift upon this barren rock,” he said, “then the one most useful to us will gain the honor of our prayers.”

Everyone accepted Kekrops’ idea, though it led into another argument about who should go first.  After much argument, Athene relented and allowed Poseidon to go first, since he was, after all, older than she was.

Poseidon struck a rock with his trident, and a spring burst forth from it.  The crowd cheered with delight, for it was quite some ways down to the nearest source of water!

Athene smiled knowingly, and then tapped the earth with the tip of her spear.  A tree shot up out of the soil with unnatural speed.

The crowd unanimously exclaimed that Poseidon was the winner.

“I think you should examine your gifts more closely before you decide that,” Athene said, with a smirk.

Kekrops stepped over to the spring, and tasted its clear waters.  “Salty!” he exclaimed, spitting the water back out again.  “This is sea water!”

The crowd let out a moan of disappointment that befuddled blue-haired Poseidon.  Water was water, as far as he was concerned.  Why should the mortals care so much about a little bit of salt?

Next, Kekrops examined the tree.  “Why, there are fruits growing in this tree,” he said.

“Those are olives,” Athene told him.  “They can be eaten, but you’ll find them more useful for their oil.”

The crowd roared with glee as Kekrops announced that Athene was the winner.

“If you’re so mired in the earth, you can crawl along it for the rest of your days!” Poseidon roared, splashing some of his salt water at Kekrops.  The drops hit him in the feet, and they began to grow together.  As they did, his skin broke out into a shingled rash that soon turned into scales.  But Athene halted the transformation by applying a single olive leaf to Kekrops’ waist.  His legs were gone, replaced with the tail of a giant serpent, but he remained human from the waist up, and his people still accepted him as king from that day until his death many years later.

Poseidon departed in a snit, and Athene stayed to accept the joyous praise of her people.

Soon, the city was given the name Athens, and a great temple to Athene — the first of many that would rise and fall in that spot across the ages of man — was soon built upon that rocky hill, near the goddess’s sacred olive tree.

Yeah, there isn’t actually that much on this story.  It didn’t get written down much.  Or at least not much in what’s survived.

And yes, Kekrops really had the tail of a snake instead of legs.  And no, there’s no explanation in the literature as to why he had a snake tail instead of legs.  (Though some pots showed a fish tail rather than a snake tail.)  So I just decided to connect it to the contest,  because why not?  Also because this way he wasn’t fathering human daughters while having nothing from the waist down but a snake tail.  (‘Cause think about it:  how would that even work?  I mean, eew, you know?)   It’s possible the snake tail and “born out of the earth” stories were tied together.  At least one source I looked at seemed to equate the two.  (But others who were autochthonous didn’t have snake tails, so… (There’s a shock:  the in-browser spell-check doesn’t know “autochthonous”.))

Athenian king lists say Kekrops was the first human to worship Zeus, and place him a large number of generations before the flood.  I’m not sure yet when I’m going to place him.  Introducing the worship of Zeus into Attica, fine.  Introducing it altogether?  Sounds like Athenian self-adultation to me.  (Maybe I’m wrong, of course.  How would I know?)

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