According to Greek mythology, the city of Athens owes its name to goddess Athena. The story regarding the name of Greece's capital, like many Greek myths, is one of intrigue and grandeur and it begins the way all great tales do...
Once upon a time, there was a king named Cecrops. Although he was a human, his body had a serpent's tail above the waist. However, that didn't stop him from being the ruler of a very beautiful city, beloved by all of its residents. So proud was he of his majestic city, that he wished to find a name worthy of her beauty. After much thought, he decided to call upon the twelve gods of Olympus and ask who would wish to become the patron and protector of his city. Yet, of the twelve gods, only two of them came forward as willing candidates: Athena and Poseidon.
Athena was the goddess of wisdom, war, and crafts, while Poseidon was the god of the sea, storms, horses, and earthquakes. In an unusual reversal of power, it was the mortal King Cecrops who decided how the gods should compete against each other in order to become patrons of the city. Cecrops determined that each god should offer their best gift and he, the people of the city, and the remaining gods, would decide which was more impressive. Both gods were summoned to the Acropolis to present their gifts. First came Poseidon. Striking the ground with his trident, the rock ruptured and salt water came gushing out of the ground until a small lake had formed. Being a seafaring nation, he was certain the mortals would wish to have a god who could command the ocean as their protector.
Poseidon & Athena in the contest - credits: René-AntoineHouasse
The wise Athena was not daunted. She planted the seedling of an olive tree on the rock, which immediately grew and bore olives, enough to feed all the people of the city. Watching the contest, Zeus -king of the twelve gods of Olympus- asked the other gods to judge which gift was best. However, he also requested the opinion of King Cecrops. Cecrops, in turn, addressed his people who began to shout "olive!". As he considered the gifts and his people's desire, he favored Athena's offering, as he believed it would prove to be the most precious of the two for the city. Thus, Athena was pronounced the winner and the city's new patron goddess, with the city being duly named Αθηνα or Athens in her honor. The olive tree also became a sacred symbol for the Athenians, so much so that their currency depicted goddess Athena with an olive wreath on her helmet.
The tree gifted by Athena is said to have survived for many years. In 480 BC, when the Persians under the rule of Xerxes attacked Athens, they burned the sacred olive tree as a sign of dominance. The Athenians were devastated, but the very next day the dry and burnt trunk of their beloved olive tree began to rejuvenate. This was taken as a foretelling that Athens would once again stand tall and as a sign of their resilience, even in the face of adversity.
Statue of Athena goddess - credits: yiannisscheidt/Shutterstock.com
Legend has it, that seeds from the sacred tree were planted across Attica and that the olive trees that surround the city of Athens are its descendants, which continue to ensure the success of olive cultivation to this day; a symbol of Athena's enduring gift. An olive tree can in fact still be seen today at the top of the Acropolis. This, however, is not the original one from the myth. Instead, it was planted in 1952 with a surviving branch from the tree that was all but destroyed during the German invasion during the Second World War. As you can imagine, the olive tree continues to be an important symbol of Athens to this day.
Discover many more fascinating Greek myths on our Mythological walking tour of Athens. Let us introduce you to the gods, heroes, mortals and mythical beasts that featured in the everyday lives of ancient Athenians and still capture the imagination of people around the world.