Did Athena Have Children?
Athena is well-known to have been a virginal goddess, so the answer to whether she had a child may seem obvious. A local tradition in Athens, however, still found a way to make her the ancestor of the city’s legendary kings.
According to the story, Hephaestus attempted to assault Athena but was rebuffed by the warrior goddess. A drop of fluid fell into the dirt, causing Gaia to bring forth a child.
Athena named the baby Erichthonius and adopted him as her own. She hid his existence until he was grown and could claim the throne of Athens as his own.
Erichthonius was remembered in Athens as a wise king who brought many new inventions and technologies to the city. His appearance, however, always betrayed his unusual and immoral origins.
Athena swore on the day of her birth that she would never marry or have children. The people of Athens, however, believed a story that made their patron goddess an ancestor of their founding kings.
According to the legend, Hephaestus fell in love with the warrior goddess. Athena, of course, was not interested and took little notice of the lame smith’s affections.
Athena went to the smith god for weapons, and overcome with lust he attacked her. He tried to force himself on her, but Athena was able to fight him off.
Athena pushed him away in disgust, causing a drop of liquid to fall into the dust at her feet. From this encounter, a child was born from the ground, the son of Hephaestus and Gaia.
Although he was not her son by birth, Athena took the baby and named him Erichthonius. She hoped to keep the baby a secret until he was grown and could be presented to the gods of Olympus as one of their own.
Athena was busy, however, as she had recently won the patronage of the city of Athens in her famous contest with Poseidon. The goddess was believed to have built her own temple there and needed to fetch limestone for the construction.
Unable to take Erichthonius with her, she enlisted the help of some local princesses.
She placed the baby in a wicker box, which she gave to the three daughters of King Cecrops of Athens. She left the young women with strict instructions not to look inside.
One of the princesses obeyed the goddess. The other two, Aglaurus and Herse, were overcome with curiosity and looked in the forbidden chest.
The sisters were driven mad by what they saw inside the box and threw themselves from the Acropolis to their deaths.
Some legends claimed that a snake, one of Athena’s sacred animals, was coiled around the baby to protect him. Others said that Erichthonius himself was half serpent and monstrous in appearance.
A crow that witnessed the sisters’ actions flew to tell Athena about the discovery of her foster son. The goddess dropped the rock she had been carrying, which became Mount Lykabettos, and made the crow black as a lasting sign of her anger.
The son King Cecrops was usurped some time later. Athena’s stepson remained hidden in the city under the patron goddess’s protection. Years later Erichthonius overthrew the usurper king and took the throne of Athens for himself.
Athena’s adoptive son was credited with many great inventions, combining the crat of Hephaestus with the keen wisdom he had been taught by Athena. He taught people to yoke horses and use them to plow the earth.
Some Athenian legends claim that, like his father, Erichthonius was lame. He invented the chariot to help him navigate his city.
Erichthonius was remembered as one of the founding kings of Athens. He created the Panathenaic Festival and erected a great statue in honor of his adoptive mother.
The most sacred building on the Acropolis, the Erechtheum, bears the name of Athena’s son. While he never became a god as she had hoped he would, the early king of Athens remained important in religious rituals for many centuries.
The people of Athens cultivated strong ties with the goddess who gave their city its name. She featured prominently in the city’s founding myth and daily life, but as a virgin goddess there was no way to include her in the lineage of its kings.
The story of Erichthonius provided a solution to the problem of incorporating a chaste goddess into the family tree.
The unusual tale preserved Athena’s chaste status but provided a way for her to have been the mother of a founding king. She had not given birth to Erichthonius but had acted as his mother in all other ways.
The story of his unique birth also ensured that no other goddess or woman could claim the position over Athena. She had been the intended target of Hephaestus and while Gaia was technically the king’s mother he had not been born in the traditional way.
Thus, the people of Athens could claim that their early kings were descended from Athena without violating the tradition of her virginity.
Of course, the story’s origins could have come about before that story existed.
It is possible that the story of Erichthonius reflects an older, pre-Greek tale about the local patron goddess. There is no proof that Athena was considered a virgin by older civilizations, so it’s possible that an ancient story existed in which she was the literal mother of a founding king.
Whenever the story was created, it served to strengthen the bonds between the city and its patron goddess.
As Athens grew in power and influence, the story also established a link between the city and the god of craftsmen.
Erichthonius, like his father, was known for his skills in invention and crafting. While he learned Athena’s wisdom, he also inherited skills from Hephaestus.
This link was probably made not to glorify the smith god, but to emphasize Athen’s role as a center of innovation and commerce. By claiming a great inventor as a forefather, the Athenians gave reason to believe that their city was a natural place to conduct trade and develop new technologies.
What is unusual about Erichthonius, however, was that he was often given negative attributes. Whether he had a limp or a serpentine tail, he broke with the tradition of strong and handsome kings.
The people of Greece believed that physical appearance and fitness were a reflection of moral quality and natural favor. Erichthonius may have been cursed not because of his own faults but because he was created in an attempt at violating Athena’s oath of chastity.
While Erichthonius was revered by the people of Athens as a wise king who brought prosperity to their city, his unusual appearance served as a reminder that his birth was a violation of the city’s most cherished goddess.
As a sworn virgin, Athena never became a mother to a child she bore herself. When Hephaestus attempted to attack her, however, she adopted the baby that was born from Gaia as a result.
Athena named the child Erichthonius and decided to keep his existence a secret. The only people who found out about his existence were two Athenian princesses who were driven mad by what they saw when they looked at him.
According to some accounts, Erichthonius was protected by coiled snakes. Others said he had the tail of a serpent himself.
He grew to adulthood and claimed the throne of Athens from a foreign usurper. As king, Erichthonius was considered fair, wise, and inventive.
He was said to have created the plow and the chariot. The chariot of Erichthonius may have served as a wheelchair since he was sometimes said to have been lame like Hephaestus.
The unusual story of Erichthonius allowed the people of Athens to claim succession from the patron goddess without betraying her virtues. The creative story allowed the virgin goddess to become a mother and give rise to a dynasty of legendary kings.