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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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