King Erichthonius was one of the earliest rulers of the city of Athens. I have always found the story of his birth to be both curious and delightful. I hope you feel the same.
One day during the time of the Trojan War, the goddess Athena found herself to be in need of a new set of arms. It was customary for Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods to fashion the divine weapons used by the Olympians, so the goddess set out to visit him at his smithy on the isle of Lemnos.
When Poseidon heard what Athena had in mind, he decided to have a bit of fun with the unsuspecting pair. In order to set his plan into motion, the sea god hurried off to Lemnos, making sure to arrive just ahead of the approaching goddess. Finding Hephaestus busy working at his forge, Poseidon mischievously informed him that Athena was on her way with love in her heart.
Overjoyed by Poseidon’s news, Hephaestus enthusiastically fashioned Athena’s new weapons, but when it came time for her pay him for his services, the blacksmith refused. Instead, he sincerely proclaimed that he would rather accept her unremitting love over any sum of gold that she could offer.
He then lunged at the goddess and tried to have his way with her right there in the workshop. Athena quickly pulled herself from his grasp but not before a bit of his seed was accidently spilled upon her leg. Appalled by Hephaestus’ heinous behavior, Athena carefully wiped her thigh clean with a piece of wool and tossed it to the ground in disgust.
The discarded fragment landed near the city of Athens and caused Gaia to become pregnant. Wanting nothing to do with the child, the earth mother promptly handed him over to Athena, whom she blamed for the whole sordid ordeal. The goddess had no other choice but to take possession of the boy, whom she called Erichthonius.
Because Athena wanted to keep the infant’s birth a secret from Poseidon, she placed him inside of a sacred basket and gave him to Aglauros the Younger, a daughter of King Cecrops of Athens for safe keeping. Since Erichthonius sprung forth wholly from Gaia, he was considered to be autochthonous, or “self born of the earth.”
Like many of Gaia’s children, Erichthonius was born as a hybrid creature, bearing both the body parts of a man and a serpent. Because King Cecrops, also a son of the earth mother, shared the same deformity as Erichthonius, he was often rumored to be the boy’s true father.
Aglauros was sworn to secrecy. Athena instructed the princess to guard the basket with her life but under no circumstances was she to ever look inside. One day after returning home from a festival in honor of the goddess, Aglauros the Elder, the wife of Cecrops and her two daughters Pandrosos and Herse happened to come across the mysterious container.
Curious as to what Aglauros the Younger was trying so hard to conceal, the inquisitive group carefully removed the knotted straps and peeked underneath the lid. To their surprise, they found Erichthonius, who instead of legs sported the long tail of a serpent. Aghast at the sight of the child, the three women panicked and hurled themselves over the walls of the Acropolis.
There is another account that claims it was actually Aglauros the Younger and her sister Herse that defied Athena by looking inside of the basket. According to this version the two sisters went insane after discovering Erichthonius and committed suicide by jumping over the fortress walls.
A crow who had been present to witness the event flew off to where Athena was busy gathering large rocks needed to strengthen the Acropolis. When he told her the unhappy news, the goddess was so upset she dropped the stone she was carrying, subsequently creating Mount Lycabettus. As a punishment to the crow for being the bearer of bad tidings, Athena turned his snow white feathers to black and forbade him from ever returning to the Acropolis.
As for Erichthnoius, Athena placed him behind her aegis and raised him as if he were her own child. He later became king of Athens and was credited for instituting the Panathenaic Festival and for placing the the wooden statue of Athena on the Acropolis.
Erichthonious loved to partake in chariot races and was the first to introduce the four horse chariot to the people of Greece. It is for this reason that some accounts state it was he, not Myrtilus that Zeus placed among the stars as the constellation Aurgia, the Charioteer.