1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Erechtheus

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ERECHTHEUS, in Greek legend, a mythical king of Athens, originally identified with Erichthonius, but in later times distinguished from him. According to Homer, who knows nothing of Erichthonius, he was the son of Aroura (Earth), brought up by Athena, with whom his story is closely connected. In the later story, Erichthonius (son of Hephaestus and Atthis or Athena herself) was handed over by Athena to the three daughters of Cecrops—Aglauros (or Agraulos), Herse and Pandrosos—in a chest, which they were forbidden to open. Aglauros and Herse disobeyed the injunction, and when they saw the child (which had the form of a snake, or round which a snake was coiled) they went mad with fright, and threw themselves from the rock of the Acropolis (or were killed by the snake). Athena herself then undertook the care of Erichthonius, who, when he grew up, drove out Amphictyon and took possession of the kingdom of Athens. Here he established the worship of Athena, instituted the Panathenaea, and built an Erechtheum. The Erechtheus of later times was supposed to be the grandson of Erechtheus-Erichthonius, and was also king of Athens. When Athens was attacked by the Thracian Eumolpus (or by the Eleusinians assisted by Eumolpus) victory was promised Erechtheus if he sacrificed one of his daughters. Eumolpus was slain and Erechtheus was victorious, but was himself killed by Poseidon, the father of Eumolpus, or by a thunderbolt from Zeus. The contest between Erechtheus and Eumolpus formed the subject of a lost tragedy by Euripides; Swinburne has utilized the legend in his Erechtheus. The scene of the opening of the chest is represented on a Greek vase in the British Museum. The name Erichthonius is connected with χθών (“earth”) and the representation of him as half-snake, like Cecrops, indicates that he was regarded as one of the autochthones, the ancestors of the Athenians who sprung from the soil.

See Apollodorus iii. 14. 15; Euripides, Ion; Ovid, Metam. ii. 553; Hyginus, Poët. astron. ii. 13; Pausanias i. 2. 5. 8; E. Ermatinger, Die attische Autochthonensage (1897); article by J. A. Hild in Daremberg and Saglio’s Dictionnaire des antiquités; B. Powell in Cornell Studies, xvii. (1906), who identifies Erechtheus, Erichthonius, Poseidon and Cecrops, all denoting the sacred serpent of Athena, whose cult she first contested, but then amalgamated with her own. The birth of Erichthonius (as a corn-spirit) is interpreted by Mannhardt as a mythical way of describing the growth of the corn, and by J. E. Harrison (Myths and Monuments of Ancient Athens, xxvii.-xxxvi.) as a fiction to explain the ceremony performed by the two maidens called Arrephori. See also Farnell, Cults of the Greek States, i. 270; and Frazer’s Pausanias, ii. 169.