Contesting for Athens

Athena and Poseidon on the Parthenon1

Athena and Poseidon c 5302

The great Theoi Project site has a selection of texts describing the contest of Athens and Poseidon over which of the two would name Athens and be its paramount god. With some modifications and additions, notably the oldest passage from Herodotus,3, and the revealing use of Athena and Poseidon as geographical and economic icons by Plutarch, these are:

Herodotus, Histories, 8.55 (c425 BC)
In that acropolis is a shrine of Erechtheus (…) and in the shrine are an olive tree and a pool of salt water. The story among the Athenians is that they were set there by Poseidon and Athena as tokens when they contended for the land. It happened that the olive tree was burnt by the barbarians with the rest of the sacred precinct, but on the day after its burning, when the Athenians ordered by the king to sacrifice went up to the sacred precinct, they saw a shoot of about a cubit’s length sprung from the stump.

Plato, Menexenus 237c (c390 BC):
Our country [Athens] is deserving of praise, not only from us but from all men, on many grounds, but first and foremost because she is god-beloved. The strife of the gods who contended over her [i.e. Athena and Poseidon] and their judgement [through the Olympians] testify to the truth of our statement.

Callimachus, Hecale Fragment 1.2 (3rd century BC)
The land [Attika] which she [Athena] had newly obtained by vote of Zeus and the other immortals and the witness of the Snake [Kekrops]4.

Ovid, Metamorphoses 6.70 ff (1st century BC – 1st century AD):
The rock of Mavors [= Mars = Ares] in Cecrops’ citadel is [in] Pallas [Athena’s] picture [in her weaving contest with Arakhne] and that old dispute about the name of Athens. Twelve great gods, Jove [Zeus] in their midst, sit there on lofty thrones, grave and august, each pictured with his own familiar features: Jove in regal grace, the Sea-God [Poseidon] standing, striking the rough rock with his tall trident, and the wounded rock gushing sea-brine, his proof to clinch his claim. [In the picture, Athena] herself she gives a shield, she gives a spear sharp-tipped, she gives a helmet for her head; the aegis guards her breast, and from the earth struck by her spear, she shows an olive tree, springing pale-green with berries on the boughs; the gods admire; and Victoria [Nike] ends the work.

Statius, Thebaid, VII: 185 (1st century AD)
Minerva banished Neptune’s fount from her citadel

Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Themistocles (1st-2nd century AD)
Themistocles equipped the Piraeus, because he had noticed the favorable shape of its harbors, and wished to attach the whole city to the sea; thus in a certain manner counteracting the policies of the ancient Athenian kings. For they, as it is said, in their efforts to draw the citizens away from the sea and accustom them to live not by navigation but by agriculture, disseminated the story about Athena, how when Poseidon was contending with her for possession of the country, she displayed the sacred olive-tree of the Acropolis to the judges, and so won the day. 

Plutarch. Morals: Quaestiones Convivales (1st-2nd century AD)
For you [Hylas] are wont to recount unto us how he [Neptune] has been oftentimes overcome — here [in Athens] by Minerva, in Delphi by Apollo, in Argos by Juno, in Aegina by Jupiter, in Naxos by Bacchus — and yet has borne himself always mild and gentle in all his repulses. In proof whereof, there is even in this city a temple common to him and Minerva, in which there is also an altar dedicated to Oblivion. Then Hylas (…) replied: You have omitted, Menephylus, that we have abolished the second day of September, not in regard of the moon [to coordinate the solar and lunar calendars], but because it was thought to be the day on which Neptune and Minerva contended for the seigniory of Attica.

Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 3.14.1 (2nd century AD):
Kekrops, a son of the soil, with a body compounded of man and serpent, was the first king of Attika (…) In his time, they say, the gods resolved to take possession of cities in which each of them should receive his own peculiar worship. So Poseidon was the first that came to Attika, and with a blow of his trident on the middle of the acropolis, he produced a sea5 which they now call Erekhtheis6. After him came Athena, and, having called on Kekrops to witness her act of taking possession, she planted an olive tree, which is still shown in the Pandrosion. But when the two strove for possession of the country, Zeus parted them and appointed arbiters, not, as some have affirmed, Kekrops and Kranaus, nor yet Erysikhthon,7 but the twelve gods (dodekatheoi). And in accordance with their verdict the country was adjudged to Athena, because Kekrops bore witness that she had been the first to plant the olive. Athena, therefore, called the city Athens after herself, and Poseidon in hot anger flooded the Thriasian plain and laid Attika under the sea8.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.24.2 (2nd century AD):
[On the Akropolis is a] group [of statues] dedicated by Alkamenes.9 Athena is represented displaying the olive plant, and Poseidon the wave.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.24.5:
As you enter the temple that they name the Parthenon, all the sculptures you see on (…) the rear pediment represent the contest for the land between Athena and Poseidon.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.27.1:
About the olive tree they have nothing to say except that it was testimony the goddess produced when she contended for their land. Legend also says that when the Persians set fire to Athens the olive tree was consumed, but on the very day it was burnt it grew again to the height of two cubits.

Hyginus, Fabulae 164 (2nd century AD):
When there was a contest between Neptunus [Poseidon] and Minerva [Athena] as to who should be the first to found a town in the Attic land, they took Jove [Zeus] as judge. Minerva won because she first planted the olive in that land, said to be there to this day. But Neptunus, in anger, wanted to have the sea flood that land. Mercurius [Hermes], at Jove’s command, forbade his doing that. And so Minerva in her own name founded Athens, a town said to be the first established in the world.

The ultimate result of the contest between Athena and Poseidon over Athens, and of the interest taken in it by the Olympian gods in council, was that Athena and Poseidon came to be worshipped in the same temple on the acropolis, the Erechtheion. Furthermore, this temple of the two together was where the great procession on the last day10 of the Panathenia festival terminated — not at the Parthenon. So the intense contest between these two of the 12 chief Greek gods led to a reconciliation brought about by the intervention of the other 10 of the Olympians led by Zeus.

Hegel called Greece the heir of Egypt and there are many parallels between this contest of Athena and Poseidon with the Egyptian contestings of Horus and Seth.11

In the mythology of ancient Egypt, Horus the hawk god and Seth, the desert animal god, fought each other in mortal combat over the lordship of the land. Horus was usually taken to be the god of lower Egypt to the north, Seth of upper Egypt to the south (although there were temples to both in both areas). Their reconciliation brought about by a council of the nine great gods was the founding event of the combined nation.

Seth was the god of the arid desert as opposed to Horus of the fertile fields of the Nile valley and delta. Similarly in Greece, Poseidon was the god of unnourishing salt water as opposed to Athena of the fertile olive tree. Athena was awarded Athens on the basis of this difference, but Athens, like Egypt, required both. Egypt obtained products from the desert, especially stone and metals, and required its vast extent as protection for its center. Above all, it was it was from the southern desert that the Nile brought water and life to the Egyptians. Now Athens, too, required many products from the salt water sea, especially food and trade, and relied on it for protection (as demonstrated particularly at Salamis).

In Greece the story of the contesting of Athena and Poseidon was told not only of Athens but also of Troizen, where the Athenians fled during the Persian sack of their city.12 And similar stories were told (with Athena being substituted by other protagonists) of Hera and Poseidon in Argos (where Poseidon caused the fresh water rivers to be dried up and the land to be flooded with salt water from the sea),13 Helios and Poseidon in Corinth,14 Zeus and Poseidon in Aegina, Apollo and Poseidon in Delphi, and Dionysus and Poseidon in Naxos.15 Additionally, the Greek national epic of the Odyssey is, of course, largely a tale of the enmity of Athena and Poseidon.  

All this matched Egypt where stories of Seth’s struggles not only with Horus but also with Osiris and other gods were already proverbial from the time of its earliest records — two millennia and more before classical Athens. There, too, Seth was seen as ultimately losing conflict after conflict, though with intermittent triumphs in them, before becoming integrated in the community of the gods (with an important place in the boat of the sun god’s daily journey) and in the worship of the Egyptians. 

The contests of Horus-Seth and of Athena-Poseidon were both settled by councils of the gods, councils which represented the triumph of justice both in their balanced assembly and in their rulings.

Both cases are examples of the threefold of Being as seen also in Plato’s gigantomachia peri tes ousias with its (1) gods, (2) giants and (3) philosophical child ‘begging for both’.16 Horus (1) versus Seth (2) is a fundamentally different matter from Horus and Seth together (3), just as Athena (1) versus Poseidon (2) is a fundamentally different matter from Athena and Poseidon together (3).17

The great difficulty of this third position is that it cannot be taken as singular truth or reality without reducing it to the first or second.  The third can be the third only by embracing that first and second to which it is fundamentally opposed. But fundamental opposition of course characterizes the relation of every possibility of Being, as fundament, to every other possibility of its astonishing plurality.

Opposition in the plurality of Being is necessarily also a belonging together and the very archetype of peace. Otherwise, as seen in gnosticisms and heresies of all sorts, opposition that is merely antagonistic inevitably leads to singularity and ultimately to the denial of any sort of plurality at all.

The central question at stake in the gigantomachia peri tes ousias concerns two twofolds: that of either-or (Athena < ≠ >Poseidon, Horus < ≠ > Seth) and that of both-together (Athena < ≠= > Poseidon, Horus < ≠= > Seth). The former dynamic tends to unilateral hegemony and singularity; the latter to reconciliation and harmonious plurality.

The fundamentality of the plurality option to the Greeks and Egyptians is shown in the accounts of the reconciliation of Horus and Seth, and of Athena and Poseidon, by its institution through — and reflection of! — the assembly of the nine great gods of Egypt and by the twelve Olympians in council in Greece. 

Another sign of the fundamentality of the difference between the warring and the reconciled twofolds was that the Athenians omitted the day from the calendar on which the antagonistic contest between Poseidon and Athena was said to have taken place.18 The action of antagonistic contest was denied time and space — perhaps this is what was meant by an altar dedicated to Oblivion? — in favor of a calendrical round grounded in mutual recognition. Here is Plutarch (MoralsDe fraterno amore, 11):

But let them observe with caution that day above all others, as it may be to them the beginning either of mortal enmity or of friendship and concord


The Erechtheum on the acropolis with Athena’s olive tree before it.

The Erechtheum on the acropolis behind the Parthenon.


  1. This is a reconstruction of the west pediment of the Parthenon showing the contest of Athena and Poseidon.  The olive tree of Athena is in the background between the gods. Is this a sign of Athena’s victory over Poseidon? Or is it a sign of their reconciliation in the worship of both gods in the Erechtheum on the acropolis? For the olive tree, like all trees, is planted in the ground but reaches to the heavens — a representation of the peace of earth and sky and of the possibility of the reconciliation of all things.
  2. Here the Amasis vase painter from a century before Herodotus shows Athena and Poseidon together. But in enmity (as Athena’s snakes might signal) or reconciled (as the relaxed spear and triton might show)? The central script says that ‘Amasis made me’ (Άμασις μ’ ἐποίησεν) which is interesting in its language and placement for McLuhan’s contention that the making of experience, not matching, occurs in an ‘aesthetic moment’ that is gapped from ‘before and after’. It is here that the question of the contesting twofolds is decided.
  3. The Wikipedia entry for the ‘Erechtheion‘ notes that there are passages in Homer referencing the home of Athena in the Erechtheion. But the references given there (Iliad VII 80–81 and Odyssey II 546–551) seem to be reversed and should be Iliad II 546–551 and Odyssey VII 80–81.
  4. For Kekrops-Cecrops see the passage above from Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca.
  5. The salt water well of Poseidon in the Erechtheum was called a ‘sea’ (θάλασσα).
  6. For the connection of ‘Erekhtheis’ with Poseidon, see ‘Erysikhthon’ below.
  7. Kekrops, Kranaus and Erysikhthon were early kings of Athens. ‘Erysikhthon’ = ‘Earthshaker’ was named after Poseidon, the god of earthquakes.
  8. See note 5.
  9. Alkamenes was a Greek sculptor a generation before Plato.
  10. The 28th day of Hekatombaion.
  11. In many of his books Jan Assmann discusses the most complete early versions of the Horus and Seth cycle found in the coffin texts (c2000 BC). See, for example Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten, 2001, 374 (trans, Death And Salvation In Ancient Egypt, 2005, 283). But the contestings of Horus and Seth are already central to the pyramid texts (c2400 BC). For further discussion of the contestings of Horus and Seth, see The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy and Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  12. Pausanias, Description of Greece, 2.30.6: “They say that Athena and Poseidon disputed about the land (of Troizen) and after disputing held it in common, as Zeus commanded them to do. For this reason they worship both Athena (…) also Poseidon. (…) Moreover their old coins have as device a trident and a face of Athena.”
  13. Pausanias: “Here (in Argos) is a sanctuary of Poseidon, surnamed Prosclystius (flooder), for they say that Poseidon inundated the greater part of the country because Inachus (the god of the Argos river) and his (fellow) assessors decided that the land belonged to Hera and not to him. Now it was Hera who induced Poseidon to send the sea back, but the Argives made a sanctuary to Poseidon Prosclystius at the spot where the tide ebbed.” (Description of Greece, 2.22.4) Again in Pausanias: “Inachus (…) was not a man but the river. This river, with the rivers Cephisus and Asterion, judged concerning the land between Poseidon and Hera. They decided that the land belonged to Hera, and so Poseidon made their waters disappear. For this reason neither Inachus nor either of the other rivers I have mentioned provides any water except after rain. In summer their streams are dry” (2.15.5). The contest between fertility and aridity appears here again, together with flooding — all seemingly a reflex from Egypt. There the flooding of the Nile valley brought life, the flooding of the Nile delta from the sea brought death (both metaphorically in reference to the sea peoples and literally in the  destruction of crops and soil by salt). Always in the background was the great question of fertility or aridity, with Nile flooding bringing the two together and sea flooding driving them apart.
  14. Pausanias, 2.1.6.
  15. See the passage from Plutarch’s Morals:  Quaestiones Convivales above.
  16. Plato Sophist 246-249. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  17. “The gap (between the twofolds) is where the action (of decisive election) is.”
  18. The 2nd day of Boedromion. See the passage from Plutarch’s Morals: Quaestiones Convivales above.