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Full Access “Born from the Earth”: The Political Uses of an Athenian Myth

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“Born from the Earth”: The Political Uses of an Athenian Myth

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AbstractThis paper analyzes the evolution of Athenian myths of their origins from the eighth century to the fourth century BCE. The analysis shows that Athenian myths of origins changed in emphasis and significance according to political needs. In the earliest period (c.800-480 BCE), the Athenians emphasized their descent from earthborn kings who were nurtured by Athena. In this way, the Athenians laid claim to the territory of Attica and to a place in the panhellenic cultural landscape through their connection to Athena. By the mid-fifth century, Athenian myths of origins shifted emphasis in order to stress Athenian superiority over the other Greeks, especially their chief rivals, the Spartans. At this time, the Athenians adopted a new term to describe their origins, namely autochthony. Through this term, the Athenians emphasized their continuous habitation of the territory of Attica, in opposition to those cities (especially Sparta) whose population had emigrated from elsewhere. By the fourth century BCE, the myth changed emphasis again. At this time the Athenians focused on their common birth from the same mother (earth) as a way of affirming the principle of political equality among citizens following the restoration of democracy after the bloody oligarchic revolutions of the late fifth century.

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41. FN0 * I would like to thank Chris Faraone for his invitation to participate in the conference upon which this volume is based. I am also grateful to David Branscome and John Marincola for their invitation to give this paper before a helpful audience at Florida State University.
42. FN1 1Good recent discussions include Hall 1997, 1–33, Malkin 2001, 1–28 and Luraghi 2008, 6–14.
43. FN2 2For discussion and bibliography, see Isaac 2004, 25–37.
44. FN3 3Hall 1997, 25.
45. FN4 4Hall 1997, 21.
46. FN5 5Hall 1997, 143–181; Luraghi 2010.
47. FN6 6Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983.
48. FN7 7Trevor-Roper, 1983.
49. FN8 8Connor 1993.
50. FN9 9On Sparta and Dorian identity, see Ulf 1996. On Sicyon and Dorian identity, see Forsdyke 2011.
51. FN10 10Hall 1997.
52. FN11 11Hall 2002. For discussion and critique of this developmental model, see Malkin 2001.
53. FN12 12Birth from the earth distinct from autochthony: Rosivach 1987; Hall 2002. Other scholars argue that the two concepts were interrelated from the earliest times: Ermatinger 1897; Loraux 1996; Shapiro 1998.
54. FN13 13The Atthidographers, or local historians of Attica, recorded several precursors to Kekrops, including Ogygos (the first man), and Aktaios (from whom, according to these sources, Attica took its name). These generations were destroyed by a flood ( kataklusmos) and, according to these traditions, Attica was uninhabited for 189 years until Kekrops appeared. Interestingly, these traditions record that even Ogygos was believed by the Athenians to be autochthonous (Ὠγύγου τοῦ παρ’ ἐκείνοις αὐτόχθονος πιστευθέντος), apparently in the sense of born from the earth, and therefore fulfills the same ideological role as Kekrops, linking the king to the land (see below). The earliest attested representation of Kekrops comes from Palermo and is dated to shortly after 500 BCE: see Kron 1976, Table 1 and 4.
55. FN14 14On ethnic groups named after animals, see Osborne 1996, 283, Strid 1999, Luraghi 2008, 39–43, and Forsdyke 2011. Interestingly, the term “pelargikos” “of the stork” gets confused with Pelasgikos “Pelasgian” in some of our sources, suggesting that both terms had similar connotations of primordiality.
56. FN15 15Russo et al. 1992, 83. For the proverb, see e.g., Homer Odyssey19.163, Hesiod Theogony35 with West 1966, 167–169.
57. FN16 16One might compare this strategy of foundation myths with traditions of early lawgivers like Charondas, Solon and Lycurgus, who all were said to have spent time in Egypt. The subsequent legal systems alleged to have developed from this cross-cultural contact therefore similarly draw on the prestige of Egypt. For discussion, see Szegedy-Maszak 1978.
58. FN17 17See note 14 above.
59. FN18 18Another example of the alternative model of ethnic origins, namely alterity, in Athenian traditions is the idea that the Athenians are Pelasgians, a non-Hellenic race that inhabited Greece before the coming of the Greeks (cf. Hdt. 8.44, Hdt. 1.56–58 with Sourvinou-Inwood 2003 and Thomas 2000). Thomas argues that Herodotus is deliberately contesting Athenian national traditions not only by pointing to an alternative tradition, but by connecting the Athenians to a non-Hellenic race. She comments “Herodotus seems to be developing the contrast between Athenian and Dorian in a way which is at the very least mischievious.” (p. 122). Another example of Herodotus’ contestation of Athenian myths of national origins can be found in his care to note—alongside his Athenian characters’ claims that they were the only autochthonous people (e.g., Hdt. 7.161)—that other ethnic groups were also autochthonous (Hdt. 8.73). Similarly, as Harding 2007 notes, the local historians of Attica challenged Athenian myths of autochthony by pointing to other autochthonous Greeks (Hellanicus FGrHist323a F27) and by moderating the Athenians’ claim to autochthony by suggesting that they were only the first to settle down after the wanderings, not that they never wandered at all (Philochorus FGrHist328 F2a–b; cf. Thuc. 1.25, 2.36.1).
60. FN19 19For this passage as an interpolation, see West 2001. Janko (1992, 29–30) on the other hand, argues that there is no linguistic evidence for interpolation, and therefore takes this passage as part of the text dating back to the eighth century.
61. FN20 20Parker 1987, 201. In Parker’s well-chosen phrase, Erechtheus and Erichthonius are “joint heirs to a single mythological inheritance.” Cf. Ermatinger 1897, 37–62, Kron (1976) 37–9.
62. FN21 21Chantraine 1968, 372; Frisk 1960, 561.
63. FN22 22The name Erechtheus was subject to some false etymologizing in antiquity, being linked to the verb “ἐρέχθω” “to rend or break,” probably as a result of its use as an epithet of Poseidon: Chantraine 1968, 372; Frisk 1960, 556–57.
64. FN23 23For visual representations of the birth of Erectheus/Erichthonius, see Kron 1976 (plates 2–10) and Shapiro 1998.
65. FN24 24Cf. Euripides Medea824; Aristophanes Knights1015, 1030. The term is also used to refer to members of the tribe of Erechtheus, one of the ten Cleisthenic tribes.
66. FN25 25Parker 1987, 194.
67. FN26 26Parker 1987, 194.
68. FN27 27Parker 1987, 194. For the myth, see Apollodorus, Bibl. 3.14.6 and Fig. 2 (Hephaistos pursuing Athena. Red-figure neck-amphora. Bologna, Museo Civico 158. C. 480 BCE. [=Shapiro Fig.7]. Athenian vase painting, furthermore, sometimes depicts Hephaistus as present at the birth of Erectheus/Erichthonius: Fig. 3: Red figure stamnos, Antikensammlungen Munich 2413. C. 460 [=Shapiro Fig.3].
69. FN28 28In this sense, the Athenians’ assertion of an association with Athena is parallel to their inclusion in the Hellenic genealogy through their descent from Xouthos, one of the sons of Hellen. In this sense, the Hellenic genealogy is not wholly incompatible with the myth of Erechtheus/Erichthonius in so far as both place the Athenians within a panhellenic cultural frame. While Hall (2007, 53–54) is right to emphasize that the theme of autochthony becomes more prominent in the fifth century, there is no need to think that the idea of birth from the earth originates only then. The evidence (Homer, vase-painting) suggests that it goes further back and that the Hellenic genealogy coexisted with the myth of Erechtheus/Erichthonius in the archaic period.
70. FN29 29 Agam.536; cf. Suppl.250 with discussion in Rosivach 1987.
71. FN30 30Even the ancients seem to have been uncertain of the meaning of the adjective, as is clear from Harpokration’s discussion of its meaning: Hellanikos FGrHis323a 27: Harpokration s.v. autochthones. “The Athenians. Demosthenes in the speech On the False Embassy[says]: “For you alone out of everyone are autochthonous.” Apollodorus in the books On the Godssays they are called autochthonous because they first worked the earth (τὴν χθόνα), that is, the land (τὴν γῆν), which beforehand had been uncultivated. And [they are autochthonous] because they are not immigrants (τὸ µὴ εἶναι αὐτοὺς ἐπήλυδας). But Pindar and the one who composed the Danaid poem, says Erichthonios, the son of Hephaistos, appeared from the land (ἐκ γῆς φανῆναι). But the Arcadians were also autochthonous, as Hellanicus says, and the Aeginetans and the Thebans.”
72. FN31 31LSJ, for example, give two basic definitions of αὐτόχθων: 1. “sprung from the earth itself ” 2. “indigenous, native.” Etymological dictionaries (Chantraine 1983; Frisk 1960) and most scholars (Ermatinger 1897; Loraux 1996; Shapiro 1998) accept that the essential meaning is “sprung from the earth.”
73. FN32 32Rosivach 1987, 297. Rosivach is followed in this interpretation by Hall 1997, 54.
74. FN33 33Thucydides makes further reference to the autochthony of the Athenians in Pericles’ Funeral Oration: Thuc. 2.36.
75. FN34 34Powerful Athenian families with non-Athenian ancestry include the Alcmeonids, who had connections not only with the tyrannical family of Cleisthenes of Sicyon, but also with the Lydian Kings. The Peisistratids, furthermore, traced their family back to Neleus, King of Pylos. Thucydides’ own family was intermarried with Thracian nobility, as is clear from Thucydides patronymic “son of Olorus,” a Thracian name. On these and other powerful Athenian families, see Davies 1971.
76. FN35 35For further discussion of this point, see Connor 1994 and Forsdyke forthcoming. Connor sums up his argument powerfully: “It seems likely, then, that the Athenian citizen body in classical times was more diverse than has commonly been allowed or than the Athenian panegyrists suggest. The claim of Attic autochthony is not a description of social reality. Far from it. It is a reflection of the anxiety of a people who knew that they were of very diverse origins and preferred not to look too closely at the descent lines of their fellow citizens” (1994, 37–39).
77. FN36 361996, 40.
78. FN37 37Shapiro 1998, 151.
79. FN38 38Detienne 2003, 2007.
80. FN39 39Literally, “equality before the law,” but used here as a by-word for democracy.
81. FN40 40By contrast Lysias continues to articulate an oppositional strategy in his Funeral Oration of the early fourth century BCE: “It was fitting for our ancestors to be single minded in fighting for justice. For the origin of their life was just. For they did not, as did many others, occupy land belonging to others by gathering together men from all over (πανταχόθεν συνειλεγµένοι) and after expelling other men. Instead, they being indigenous (αὐτόχθονες ὄντες), had acquired the same land as both mother and fatherland (µητέρα καὶ πατρίδα)” (2.17).
82. FN41 41Timaeus FGrHist566 F38 (= Diod 5.6.1) critiques Philistos for claiming that the Sicels came from Spain. Timaeus, according to Diodorus, proved irrefutably that they were autochthonous.
83. FN42 42See, for example, Hdt 7.161, cited above.
84. FN43 43Loraux 1996.
85. FN44 44Sahlins 2004, 2010.
86. FN45 45Hellenicus FGrHist4, F84.
87. FN46 46Shapiro 1998, 136, 149 with bibliography cited therein.
88. FN47 47Hobsbawn and Ranger 1983; Anderson 1983.
89. FN48 48I owe this suggestion to James Sickinger.
90. FN49 49See for example, Lysias 2. 7–10; Plato Menex.239b.
91. FN50 50See for example, Lysias 2. 11–16; Plato Menex.239b.

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