There can be little doubt but that the names Erichthonius and Erechtheus (Ἐρεχθεύς) are identical; but whether the two heroes mentioned by Plato, Hyginus, and Apollodorus, the one of whom is usually called Erichthonius or Erechtheus I and the other Erechtheus II, are likewise one and the same person, as Müller1 and others think, is not so certain, though highly probable. Homer2 knows only one Erechtheus, as an autochthon and king of Athens; and the first writer who distinguishes two personages is Plato.3
The story of Erichthonius is related thus: When Hephaestus wished to embrace Athena, and the goddess repulsed him, he became by Gaea or by Atthis, the daughter of Cranaus, the father of a son, who had either completely or only half the form of a serpent. Athena reared this being without the knowledge of the other gods, had him guarded by a dragon, and then entrusted him to Agraulus, Pandrosus, and Herse, concealed in a chest, and forbade them to open it.4 But this command was neglected; and on opening the chest and seeing the child in the form of a serpent, or entwined by a serpent, they were seized with madness, and threw themselves down the rock of the acropolis, or, according to others, into the sea. The serpent escaped into the shield of Athena, and was protected by her.
When Erichthonius had grown up, he expelled Amphictyon, and usurped the government of Athens, and his wife Pasithea bore him a son Pandion.5 He is said to have introduced the worship of Athena, to have instituted the festival of the Panathenaea, and to have built a temple of Athena on the acropolis. When Athena and Poseidon disputed about the possession of Attica, Erichthonius declared in favor of Athena.6 He was further the first who used a chariot with four horses, for which reason he was placed among the stars as Auriga;7 and lastly, he was believed to have made the Athenians acquainted with the use of silver, which had been discovered by the Scythian king Indus.8
He was buried in the temple of Athena, and his worship on the acropolis was connected with that of Athena and Poseidon.9 His famous temple, the Erechtheium, stood on the acropolis, and in it there were three altars, one of Poseidon, on which sacrifices were offered to Erechtheus also, the second of Butes, and the third of Hephaestus.10
See further Erichthonius II.
A bowl by the Codrus Painter (second half of the fifth century BCE) at Berlin depicts Gaea handing over the infant Erechtheus to Athena. Cecrops, shown here with the lower part of a serpent, oversees the transfer.
- Orchomenos und die Minyer, p. 117 (2d ed.).
- Iliad ii, 547 ff., Odyssey vii, 81.
- Critias, p. 110, a.
- Hyginus. Poetical Astronomy, ii, 13.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus, l.c.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.1.
- Hyginus, l.c.; Virgil. Georgics i, 205; iii, 113; Aelian. Varia Historia iii, 38.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 274.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.6; Servius on Virgil's Aeneid vii, 761.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 26.6.
- Euripides. Ion, 260 ff.
- Hyginus. Fabulae, 166.
- Ovid. Metamorphoses ii, 554.
- Pausanias. Description of Greece i, 2.5, 18.2.
- Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library iii, 14.6.
- Smith, William. (1870). Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology. London: Taylor, Walton, and Maberly.
This article incorporates text from Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology (1870) by William Smith, which is in the public domain.