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The Erechtheum, Acropolis at Athens

Archaeological Development

Parker believes the temple of Athena was built around 550 B.C.5 During the Classical period the temple was known as the Temple of Athena, over time it became to be known as the Erectheum, Both the Odyssey and Iliad suggest that the most sacred building on the acropolis to Athena was in fact the Erechtheion.5

The Great Altar, Erechtheum and the area of the sacred olive tree were the three core parts of the cult of Athena Polias. The closeness reflects the connection between Erechtheus and Athena. According to the myth, Athena was his foster mother and installed him in her temple in the sanctuary. He as mentioned erected the wooden statue of Athena and founded the festival there.9

The Old Temple was destroyed by Persians, but the opisthodomos (west cella) survived the destruction, becoming repurposed as a treasury (see below). In 406/5 BCE, as Xenophon reports (Hell 1.6.1), the Old Temple caught fire (or perhaps was set on fire), and was destroyed. After that time, the newly built Erechtheion became the abode of Athena Polias, and eventually inherited the name of the former temple. (from Grigsby's, Pg 1 of doc)


  • It is established by scholars that Athena Polias and Athena Parthenos were not distinct and different goddess, as they did not have different priestess of altars, but in fact Parthenos was added to help further describe the epithet Polias (p.136).
  • The Athenians specifically were very proud that they had not migrated to the land of Athens but instead were autochthonous (‘born from the earth itself’) and the story of Erechtheus’ birth (being that he was born from the semen of Hephaestus when it touched the ground) would help to explain the Athenians’ relationship with Athena and their autochthony (p.115-116).
  • Later on he became involved in a war with the Eleusinians and at the suggestion of the oracle of Delphi, he sacrificed one of his daughters to win the war. He was then struck down by Poseidon in anger, who was the father of the Eleusinian hero who was defeated, and Athena, to settle the conflict, established heroine cults to all the daughters (they had all committed suicide in solidarity), made her son’s wife her own priestess, and created a cult for Erechtheus and Poseidon in her own temple and sanctuary (p.116-117).
  • Poseidon and Erechtheus shared an altar and priest, and Poseidon was even given an epithet to reflect this. Every year since the Athenians worshipped Erechtheus in the temple of Athena by sacrificing bulls and rams (p.117).
  • The myth and the tragedy it inspired explained to its audience why they worshipped who they did, the daughter of Erechtheus (with annual sacrifices and ritual dancing), Erechtheus and Eumoplus as heroes, Poseidon. And also why Erechtheus and Poseidon shared the Erechtheum with Athena (which was under construction at the time), and why in this temple they shared one altar, one priest, and sometimes merged into the same figures with epithets that modified each other in personality (p.117-118).
  • The statue of Athena Parthenos is said to have had a shield with a large coiled snake inside, referencing the supposed real snake that the Athenians tended to in the Erechtheum, which may have embodied or symbolised Erechtheus (p.139).
    Mikalson, J.D. (2009, 2nd edition). Ancient Greek Religion (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated).
  • Erechtheus and Boutes, sons of King Pandion I, divided up (upon his death) their inheritance, Erechtheus receiving kingship and Boutes receiving the priesthood of Athena and Poseidon Erichthonius (p.290).

    ; Parker, R. (1996, reprinted edition), Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

  • His importance seems to have diminished after the time of Homer, possibly replaced by Erichthonius, his doublet, who is given the same birth-story of him, ultimately leading to Erechtheus being viewed as a man with divine parents (p.141)
    • Some ancient authors however seem to deny this distinction between the two, or possibly outright deny Erichthonius entirely (p.142).
    • Unlike similar cults (such as that of Hyacinthus), Erechtheus seems to have not been viewed as a hero but as a god as demonstrated by the Erechtheum, and the fact that he was, as previously mentioned, worshipped by the sacrifice of bulls and lambs (p.146)..
    • There is, despite this, no state festival for him (despite even monthly offerings), and as discussed before we may make the guess that in fact the major annual Athenian festival was originally for Erechtheus (p.147).
    • Jon D. Mikalson. (1976). ‘Erechtheus and the Panathenaia’, The American Journal of Philology, 141-153.

Ritual Activity

Two sacrifices weremade during the Lesser Panathenaia, one to the old statue of Athena in the Erechtheum, and the other to Athena Hygieia (who had a cult introduced by Pericles).
New funds were to go toward a larger sacrifice for Polias, and one would go towards Athena Nike. 8


From the time of Peisistratos onwards, votive offerings began to appear to Athena; most of which were statues.

Many of the votives can be viewed on 'theacropolismuseum' website, including:3

  • Korai (in Parian Marble)
  • Animal statues, including bronze figurines
  • Athena figurines
  • INCLUDING: a portrait of a King of Bosporus Kingdom (southern Ukraine) in C2nd B.C.

Pausanias (C2nd A.D. Greek traveler and geographer) described a mixture of artifacts, including:4

  • Golden lamp for Athena by Kallimachos (mid-to-end C5th B.C.)
    that only needs filling once despite burning constantly
  • Wooden Hermes from Kekrops
  • Folding chair by Daedalus
  • Spoils taken from the Persians including a corselet and a sword


Greater Panathenaia:

A festival to Athena Polias in Hecatombaion 28, expanding the Lesser Panathenaia to include the presentation of a new peplos, and competitions, a few of which opened to Athens' allies and possibly other Greeks, giving it a Panhellenic status around C5th B.C.
Athena Polias was given a new peplos every year at the Greater Panathenaia and can even be identified on C3rd B.C. coins.6
Competitions included team torch races, pyrrhic dances (not unique to Athens, but in honour of Athena who danced in victory over a giant in the Gigantomancy), and various chariot races, footraces, wrestling, boxing, pentathlons, long jump, discus, javelin throwing, musical contests, and competitions of reciting from the Iliad and Odyssey.The rewards for some athletic events in the Greater Panathenaia were awarded large vases with olive oil pressed from the sacred tree, reflecting Athena’s agricultural and economical effect on Athens with her olive tree. 9

Other festivals:

In the annual drama festival of 423 BCE, Euripides debuted his new tragedy, Erechtheus, in which he gave his own version of Erectheus' story.9


Most of the known Priestesses of Athena Polias actually come from one family (p.292) ((ancestrally from Boutes)).7

  • Both the Odyssey and Iliad suggest that the most sacred building on the acropolis to Athena was in fact the Erechtheion, and the sacerdotal family the Eteoboutadai provided priests for both Poseidon-Erechtheus and Athena Polias (p.42).
  • The name Parthenon seems largely applied to the statue by Pheidias, though only four times throughout literature. By Himerios (4th century CE), Demosthenes, and twice by Pausanias (p.129).
  • It seems more generally however to just be referred to as ‘the statue’ or even ‘the golden statue’ (from the temple in their inventories) (p.129).
  • It was placed in the Erechtheion in the late 5th century BCE (p.130).
  • Various ancient authors claim it to be one of the most ancient and holy images that was provided from heaven, including Pausanias (p.130).
  • When the Athenians had to evacuate in 480 BCE, they supposedly took the image with them, and even apparently spat blood as an omen for the betrayal of Mark Antony (p.130) ((For non-Greeks Athena Polias and her Parthenos statue seem deeply important, and yet they are not Greek and so cannot speak for her importance over any other deity)).
  • The definition of ‘cult image’ can be hard to define exactly, and Irene Romano in 1980 defined it as a ‘sculptural image of a divinity which served as the major representation and as the focus of worship of that divinity at a particular shrine or sanctuary’ (p.131) ((Different Athenas can have different cult images based on the sanctuary then)).
    • and yet no specific altar or priesthood is connected with the Pheidian statue, and inscriptions that take note that Athena Polias, Nike, and Hygeia as the recipients of sacrificial offerings, and yet Athena Parthenos is not (p.132) ((What does this tell us about the relationship of the Athenians to different Athena cult-images)).
    • This statue in fact provided the Greeks with a new form of competition amongst each other, as Athens’ incredible statue was so wondrous that all city-states wanted one, and thus begun the fight to outdo each other in worship (p.144).
  • Laptain, K (2010, reprinted edition) ‘New Statues for Old Gods’ The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations, eds. Bremmer, J.N., Erskine, A. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

During the Plynteria and Kallynteria, the revered ancient wooden statue of Athena was brought out of the temple, undressed, cleaned, and adorned with fresh garments. In summary, the ancient olive-wood statue of Athena Polias was removed from its temple late in the month of Thargelion (late spring to early summer). Once all the jewellery had been removed, the image was disrobed, cleaned by two young women of the Praxiergidai clan, then veiled in a shroud. The statue’s peplos was also washed. Hesychius and Photius report that the two girls were called loutrides, in reference to the washing of the statue, and plyntrides, in reference to the washing of its garment.[1] These rites, which commemorated the death of the priestess Aglauros, had a solemn funerary quality. Xenophon (Hell. 1.4.12) reported that the day of the Plynteria was considered inauspicious, polluted. Later, Plutarch (Alc. 34.1) and Pollux (Onom. 8.141) characterized it as ἀποφρὰς ἡμέρα (‘a day not to be mentioned’). This temple and others were closed off, and no business was conducted. There may have been a procession in which cakes of dried figs (“ἡγητηρία”) were carried. Eventually, the statue was robed again and adorned with its jewellery in the Kallynteria.

[1] Hsch., s.v. “λουτρίδες”; see also Phot., Lexicon “λουτρίδες.”

above is Grigsby's doc pg 9

The procession and presentation of the peplos to Athena Polias was the central rite of the Panathenaia festival which marked the beginning of the new Athenian year.[1] The procession-day, on the 28th of Hekatombaion (July-August), Athena’s birthday, was the climax of the festival. Ancient sources (Schol. Pl. Resp. 327a) tell that on this day, the Panathenaia was celebrated with a procession to the Acropolis that carried a peplos through the city up to Athena. The procession of the peplos took place on the Street of the Panathenaia, which served as the sacred way of Athens. The procession began at sunrise, and it was dedicated to Athena Polias in the Erechtheion

[1] The most important festival day, representing the original version of the festival, was called ‘the presentation of the peplos’ – Parke, 1986, 33.

above is Grigsby's doc pg 10

Rules and Regulations

Whenever the work was started on the Erechtheion, and whenever it was broken off, it is clear from another inscription (IG I3 474) that the Athenians decided to renew work[1] on it in 409/8 BCE, beginning with a review of the current state of the building. From the inscription, we hear that the ‘overseers of the temple on the acropolis in which the ancient statue is’ (l.1) [presumably now the Erechtheion][2] ‘wrote up these works on the temple in the state in which they took them over, according to the decree of the People which Epigenes proposed, those that were complete and those half-finished, in the archonship of Diokles’ [409/8BCE] (ll.3-6), and that they ‘took over these parts of the temple half finished: at the corner towards the Kekropeion…’ (ll.8-9).[3]

[1] The renewal of work in this year belongs in the context of a revival of Athenian finances (apparent e.g. in the introduction of the grant payments known as the diobelia in 410/9 BCE, see IG I3 375.

[2] As argued in AIO and OR, while at the time of IG I3 7 it seems that the old wooden statue of Athena was kept in the remains of the "old temple of Athena" which still existed on the site between the Parthenon and the Erechtheion, it seems that by 409/8BCE that the statue had been transferred to its new home in the Erechtheion complex – see note 3.

[3] Full text and commentary are found at

(the above is from Grigsby pg 6 of doc)

Historical Significance

A large part of the Athenian identity was based on autochthony, the idea that their ancestors had always resided in Attica and thus were born of the earth.1 As a result, Erechtheus is largely considered to be, by scholars, the mythological ancestor of the Athenians, as they even received the epithet 'the Erechtheidai'.2

Who used the site, and where did they come from? 

Some scholars say in C6th B.C. the Peisistratid tyrannical line pushed for larger scale worship of Athena among other gods. 5

Select Site Bibliography

  • Humphreys, S.C. (2004). The Strangeness of Gods: Historical perspectives on the interpretation of Athenian religion (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • Laptain, K (2010, reprinted edition) ‘New Statues for Old Gods’ The Gods of Ancient Greece: Identities and Transformations, eds. Bremmer, J.N., Erskine, A. (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).
  • Larson, J. (2007) Ancient Greek Cults: A Guide (New York: Routledge).
  • Mikalson, J.D. (2009, 2nd edition). Ancient Greek Religion (West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated).
  • Parker, R. (1996, reprinted edition), Athenian Religion: A History (Oxford: Clarendon Press).


1- Rosivach (1987), 294.
2- Rosivach (1987), 294-295.
3-  & 
4- Pausanias 1.26-27
5- Parker (1996)
6- Laptain (2010)
7- Larson (2007)
8- Humphreys (2004)
9- Mikalson (2009)


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