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  • Writer's pictureLucy Felmingham, MA

A Brief History of the Erechtheion on the Athenian Acropolis

What is the Erechtheion?

The Erechtheion is a complex religious site dedicated to Athena, Poseidon and Erechtheus (a cult figure and early king of Athens).

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Erechtheion History

According to Greek myth, in the reign of Cecrops, the legendary first king of Athens, the gods Athena and Poseidon competed for control of the city and its surrounding territory, Attica. Poseidon struck the Acropolis with his trident and brought forth a salt spring, while Athena produced an olive tree by the touch of her spear upon the ground. The olive, fundamental to the Greek economy and way of life, was deemed a worthier offering and Athena was thus adjudged the winner. Despite Poseidon’s anger, the two gods were reconciled and worshipped together here at this temple. In fact, if you head to the North Porch, you’ll see a hole in the floor (and a corresponding gap in the roof), which was considered the scar left by Zeus’ thunderbolt, which put a dramatic end to the divine contest.

Over time the number of cults housed in the temple increased. It was dedicated to Athena Polias (‘protectress of the city’) and to Poseidon, but also connected to the worship of Erechtheus (a cult figure and early king of Athens), who gives the temple its name. As such, the Erechtheion was home to cults that were intrinsically linked to the foundation of the city, housed many sacred relics and encompassed a number of sacred sites: an olivewood effigy of Athena Polias (that was said to have fallen from heaven), a salt-water well and mark of Poseidon’s characteristic trident, burial sites of Cecrops and Erechtheus, the ingenious golden lamp of Callimachus that needed to be refilled with oil only once a year, and the sacred olive tree given to the Athenians by the goddess Athena. (The tree that now stands on the site was supposedly planted by Sophia of Prussia, granddaughter of Queen Victoria.) Built from Pentelic marble, the temple was elaborately decorated with black Eleusinian limestone and featured painted columns that were gilded and set with coloured glass beads that would sparkle in the Mediterranean sun.

The Erechtheion is perhaps the most visually confusing of the Acropolis’s monuments. Dating from the Classical Period, it was part of the Periclean building programme and was built partly on the site of the 6th-century temple to Athena Polias, located between the current structure and the Parthenon, which was destroyed by the Persians. The fact that the building had to fit around other already existing sacred sites on the Acropolis might perhaps explain its unusual design.

The temple’s most recognisable section is the so-called ‘Porch of the Maidens’ (that projects from the south side of the building), which features six wonderful caryatids: supporting columns sculpted as draped women. The graceful caryatids create an explicit link between the vertical column, found throughout Classical Greek architecture, and the human body. The movement of their bodies is balanced by the pronounced vertical lines in their drapery, which gives a sense of stability to the structure (and around their legs even has the appearance of a traditional column). Scholars are not entirely sure who the figures are meant to represent, however the ancient Roman writer Vitruvius suggested that they represented the women of Carya (a city near Sparta) who were doomed to hard labour after siding with the Persians during their invasion of Greece; a neat but unlikely explanation, given the fact that this type of design was used long before the Persian Wars. The caryatids you see today are copies of the originals, five of which now reside in the Acropolis Museum, where a glaring space is left to represent the sixth, removed by Lord Elgin, who damaged another in the attempt. Legend says you can hear the others weeping for their lost sister.

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