According to Greek mythology, the city of Athens owes her name to the goddess Athena. The story, like many Greek myths is one of intrigue and grandeur and it begins as all great tales do...
Once upon a time there was a king named Cecrops, although in human form above the waist he had serpent's tail and he was the ruler of a very beautiful city, beloved by all her 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 to ask who would wish to become the patron and protector of his city. But, of the twelve gods, only two of them came forth as willing candidates. Their names? 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 to give their name to the city. The King determined that each god should offer their best gift and he, the people of the city and the remaining gods would decide which was the more impressive. Both gods were summoned to the Acropolis and called upon to present their gifts. First came Poseidon, striking the ground with his trident the rock ruptured and immediately salt water came gushing out of the ground until a small lake had formed. Being a sea faring nation he was certain the mortals would wish to have a god with command of the ocean as their protector.
Poseidon & Athena in contest - credits: René-AntoineHouasse
Athena, in her wisdom, 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. The King addressed his people and they began to shout "olive!" As he considered the gifts and his people's cries he favoured Athena's offering and believed it would prove the most precious of all to the city. Thus was Athena pronounced the winner, the city's new patron goddess and the city was duly named Αθηνα or Athensin her honour.The olive tree also became a sacred symbol for the Athenians, so much so that their currency depicted their goddess Athena with an olive wreath on her helmet.
The tree gifted by Athena is said to have survived for many years later. In 480 BC, when the Persians under Xerxes attacked Athens, were said to have burned the sacred olive tree as a sign of their dominance. The Athenians, devastated and considering it as a sign of their fate were given hope when 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 be a great city 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 this tree were planted across Attica and that the olive trees that surround the city of Athens are descendents of the original scared tree 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. Planted in 1952 the tree that you see today was planted 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 and it's resilience continues to be an important symbol for Athenians today.
Discover many more fascinating myths on our Mythological walking tour of Athens. Let us introduce you tothe gods, heroes, mortals and mythical beasts that featured in the every day lives of Ancient Athenians and still capture the imagination of people around the world today.