Many years ago, during a Rockwave live concert by the sea, on the south shore of Athens, rock band Garbage came up on stage for their first time in Greece. Their lead singer saluted the crowd and yelled out “Athena… born out of a man’s headache? I love this city!”.
That was when it hit me. Yeap, “Athens”, Greece’s capital is named after the ancient goddess of wisdom and knowledge. But why? And when?
To start with Athena, she was a beautiful young girl that sprung out of her father’s head after he, Zeus – suffering for long from a terrible headache- called Hephaestus (the DIY god) and ordered him to take a hammer and split his head open and be done with it. Yup, splitting headache are that old… Anyway, “this might hurt a little, but …you’re the boss” whispered Hephaestus, and banged hard. And out flew a small girl already dressed as a Greek hoplite, bearing a shield, a spear and a helmet.
To get back to the “naming” story now, Athens was not always called Athens. But, to learn what happened you have to go back, before historic times and be prepared for a more “trippy” journey down the rabbit hole of Greek mythology.
The place has been inhabited since 3200 B.C Initially the wider area –now called Attica- was called “Kranaa” that meant “harsh rocky land”. Later on, the settled part of the south coast was called “Aktiki” or “Akti” (meaning “beach” in modern Greek) after its ruler “Akteos”. Akteos’ daughter “Agravlos” married a guy named “Kekrops” or “Kekropas”, who was a charming fellow, human from the waist up and a dragon-like serpent from the waist down. Having the ego of a guy that believed to have Earth as his mother he named the place after himiself and called it “Kekropis”.
Then came a new trend among the 12 gods of Olympus and each wanted one city as his own, to honor him and offer sacrifices to please him in exchange for his protection. But this city was chosen by two gods, Athena and Poseidon, god of the seas, earthquakes etc. As territorial and egocentric as gangsta rappers, they wouldn’t stand down, so in order for general mayhem to be avoided, the city’s humans were called by the other ten gods, up to the Acropolis to choose their city’s god.
Poseidon made his case first. He banged his powerful trident against the rock and, miraculously, out came the first horse for humans to tame and a spring of water that started flowing. The humans were ecstatic to have fresh water, which meant a plentiful and prosperous life. But one of them tried to drink it and found out …it was sea water! Kekrops looked around from up there and he saw …sea all over his land, so he thought “we have enough salt water already…”.
Then the young virgin warrior goddess –a very similar set of qualities to the one the Byzantines gave to Virgin Mary- came forward and planted the very first olive tree that instantly grew up. It could stand the climate and would give them a superfood, strong wood and oil that can nourish, clean and heal and be burned to lighten up the darkness; products that would eventually make them rich, healthy and wise – especially as they started traveling to trade them – as well as provide them with the symbol of peace, glory and prosperity.
Then the people voted. The myth says that every man voted for Poseidon. Hard to find a guy who wouldn’t want his own proud divine horse I guess. And every woman voted for Athena. Horses are not a top priority when you got babies to feed and you need your husband to stay around, not galloping away when the babies start crying. But the women outnumbered the men by one so… Athena it was.
The myth was so deeprooted that ancient Athenians always believed that the 3 big marks on the rock behind the “Erectheion” building on the Acropolis rock were the holes made by the trident’s strike. And, nearby, they kept looking after a sacred olive tree, which they believed to be the same tree Athena planted and which gave birth to every other olive tree on the planet. Its symbolic power was so strong that the philosopher Plato was given 12 small branches cut from it and planted them next to the 12 gates of his school, the Academia, to mark the entrance to wisdom.