The history of Athens is a long and winding road (Beatles reference! :D) and I don’t want to bore you guys (or myself, for that matter) with historical dates and events, so I will tell you the mythological founding story instead (which is frankly much more exciting!) :
In the early times of Greece, a group of people lived on a steep, stony hill. They lived in caves and rocks, used simple tools for hunting and lived off of the flesh of wild animals and berries from the surrounding forest. The lived on the steep hill because they could be protected from the scary beasts and wild men that roamed the forest below them.
One day, a couple of men spotted a mysterious youth in the forest. His beauty and radiance captivated them, and they decided to take him to their settlement. The youth ended up staying with these people, learning their langugage and teaching them many things. He told them his name was Cecrops (English spelling) and that he came from far away and had been shipwrecked. The people of the hill respected his wisdom and talent, and decided to make him the king.
With Cecrops’s help, the inhabitants of the hill built a little town and were well on their way to becoming a prosperous city. There was one problem however: the town had no name.
One morning, two strangers were seen in the town: one man in a magnificent robe holding a staff with three spear points at one end, and a woman with beautiful grey eyes, holding a spear and a shield. They inquired about the name of the town, and when told it did not have one yet, demanded to be led to the king. The man introduced himself as Poseidon (god of the sea) and offered the prospect of wealth and gold to the people if they named the city after him. The woman (Athena, the goddess of wisdom) offered to give that which gold cannot buy: wisdom and knowledge in return for patronage of the city.
The decision was not an easy one, so it was agreed that each of them should present the town with a real gift so that the citizens could choose better.
Poseidon struck his trident into the ground, and out of the crevice sprang a white horse. The people of the hill had never seen a horse before, and were mesmerized. Poseidon argued that the horse could ease their burdens by pulling their wagons and plows.
When it was Athena’s turn, she drove her spear into the grass and out sprang an olive tree. Athena explained the virtues of the tree by saying it would provide them with food, oil and shelter from the sun, while also beautifying the city.
The people did not see the usefulness of the horse because they knew nothing of wagons and plows, and subsequently chose Athena’s gifts of wisdom and olives. That’s when the city was named “Athens” and grew into the vibrant city we know today. As for the horse, it wandered off into the north, and it is said that all horses in the world descended from that one.
The olive tree, the place where Poseidon struck the earth and Cecrops’s grave are all located on the Acropolis, and can still be admired today (pictures will follow when I get my hands on a computer!) 🙂
It comes as no surprise then that Athens should become the cultural and philosophical center of Greece, the birthplace of democracy and the location of monumental buildings and structures. When you walk around the Acropolis and see the Parthenon and surrounding buildings, you can’t help but think that at least a little divine help must have been involved during the construction. It’s really that magical and impressive 🙂