This paper analyzes the evolution of Athenian myths of their origins from the eighth century to the fourth century BCE. The analysis shows that Athenian myths of origins changed in emphasis and significance according to political needs. In the earliest period (c.800–480 BCE), the Athenians emphasized their descent from earthborn kings who were nurtured by Athena. In this way, the Athenians laid claim to the territory of Attica and to a place in the panhellenic cultural landscape through their connection to Athena. By the mid-fifth century, Athenian myths of origins shifted emphasis in order to stress Athenian superiority over the other Greeks, especially their chief rivals, the Spartans. At this time, the Athenians adopted a new term to describe their origins, namely autochthony. Through this term, the Athenians emphasized their continuous habitation of the territory of Attica, in opposition to those cities (especially Sparta) whose population had emigrated from elsewhere. By the fourth century BCE, the myth changed emphasis again. At this time the Athenians focused on their common birth from the same mother (earth) as a way of affirming the principle of political equality among citizens following the restoration of democracy after the bloody oligarchic revolutions of the late fifth century.
ForsdykeS.ArnasonJ.P.RaaflaubK.WagnerP.“The Impact of Democracy on Communal Life: Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?”The Greek polis and the invention of democracy: a politico-cultural transformation and its interpretationsBlackwellForthcoming
Good recent discussions include Hall19971–33Malkin 2001 1–28 and Luraghi 2008 6–14.
Hall1997143–181; Luraghi 2010.
Hobsbawm and Ranger1983.
On Sparta and Dorian identity see Ulf1996. On Sicyon and Dorian identity see Forsdyke 2011.
Hall2002. For discussion and critique of this developmental model see Malkin 2001.
Russo et al.199283. For the proverb see e.g. Homer Odyssey 19.163 Hesiod Theogony 35 with West 1966 167–169.
Parker1987201. In Parker’s well-chosen phrase Erechtheus and Erichthonius are “joint heirs to a single mythological inheritance.” Cf. Ermatinger 1897 37–62 Kron (1976) 37–9.
Chantraine1968372; Frisk 1960 561.
Parker1987194. For the myth see Apollodorus Bibl. 3.14.6 and Fig. 2 (Hephaistos pursuing Athena. Red-figure neck-amphora. Bologna Museo Civico 158. C. 480 BCE. [=Shapiro Fig.7]. Athenian vase painting furthermore sometimes depicts Hephaistus as present at the birth of Erectheus/Erichthonius: Fig. 3: Red figure stamnos Antikensammlungen Munich 2413. C. 460 [=Shapiro Fig.3].
Rosivach1987297. Rosivach is followed in this interpretation by Hall 1997 54.
Shapiro1998136149 with bibliography cited therein.