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The Real Story Behind How Athens Got Its Name

The Real Story Behind How Athens Got Its Name

Picture of Ethel Dilouambaka
Updated: 7 March 2018

The Greek capital is one of the oldest cities in the world, having been continuously inhabited for at least 5,000 years. As one of the most powerful cities of Ancient Greece, Athens has many fascinating myths and stories. One of them is how the city got its current name. Continue reading to discover how the people of Athens named their city after the goddess Athena.

A long time ago…

Legend has it that Athens was built on a hill by a legendary creature named Cecrops. Half-man, half-snake, he decided to call this beautiful city Cecropia. And for many years, he ruled the city with a firm hand, turning it into an important trade centre. The city grew and prospered and attracted the jealousy of the gods of Olympus as the city never paid any tribute to them. They, therefore, decided to name the city after one of their own and established a patron god just like the other city-states in the country.

After much debate, two gods stood out as the main contenders: Poseidon, god of the seas, and Athena, goddess of wisdom. Both pleaded with Zeus, the king of gods, who, after much consideration, came to a decision. He ruled that both gods had to present King Cecrops and its citizens with a gift and that they would be the ones to decide which offering was the best, in turn choosing the most deserving god to be their patron.

Statue of the goddess Athena, patron of Athens | © Boboshow / Pixabay

The presentation of the gifts

And so, on a beautiful day, the two gods came to Cecropia to meet with the king and its population and present their offerings. Poseidon stepped forward, and standing on a rock, he stuck it with his trident, causing a spring of water to gush out of the ground. His gift, the gift of water, meant that citizens were never to face drought. Thrilled by the idea of never having to go thirsty, the citizens ran to the water but discovered that it was actually salty, just like the water of the seas, and were disappointed. Next came Athena with her hand stretched out. When she opened it, it revealed a seed, which she planted in the ground. At once, the seed took root and grew into a beautiful and tall olive tree. The citizens beamed and were happy, as an olive tree would mean food, oil and firewood. With one voice, they cheered for Athena and proclaimed her the winner.

Athena’s olive tree | © Tim / Flickr

All hail the new patroness of the city

Due to her offering, Athena was chosen to be the benefactress and patron deity of the city, and its name was changed in her honour. The event gave rise to a series of celebrations and festivals, and the people paid tribute to her. To this day, there is an olive tree on the site of the Acropolis that is considered sacred, and though it may not be the one that Athena gave to the city, it is part of the foundation myth of Athens and bears significance to Athenians and Greeks. Athena’s favourite pet, the owl, came to be the symbol of the city, and this is why the first Athenian coins bear the image of an owl.

While the veracity of this legend cannot be determined, there is certainly an element of truth. Olive trees are found over the entire Attica region, and olive oil is like liquid gold in Greece. The wood is used for many purposes, and olives are one of the simplest yet tasty ingredients in Greek cuisine.


A picturesque scene of Athens | © Tobias Van Der Elst / Flickr