Summary and Analysis: Greek Mythology The Tragic Dynasties — Athens: The House of Erichthonius



During the fifty-year reign of King Cecrops of Athens the famous contest took place between Poseidon and Athena for possession of the city. According to one version Cecrops let the Athenians vote on which deity had given the city the best gift, Athena with her olive tree or Poseidon with his saltwater well. The men sided with Poseidon, but the women supported Athena, who won. Poseidon then flooded the countryside, and the men decided to deprive the women of the vote to appease him.

It was also in Cecrops' reign that Hephaestus scuffled with Athena, spilled his seed on the earth, and produced Erichthonius, whom Athena placed in a chest and gave to Cecrops' three daughters, warning them not to open the chest. The young women lifted the lid and saw an infant with writhing serpents for legs. This alone should not have surprised them, for their father Cecrops was a dragon from the waist down. But Athena drove the disobedient girls mad and they leapt from the Acropolis to their deaths. Under the protection of Athena, Erichthonius grew to manhood and assumed the Athenian throne. When he died his son Pandion reigned.

King Pandion had two daughters, Procne and Philomela. The king of Thrace, Tereus, took Procne as his wife and she gave him a son, Itys. An oracle declared that Itys would be killed by a blood relative, so Tereus slew his own brother in a rage of suspicion. Now Tereus fell in love with his wife's sister, Philomela. To get Procne out of the way he cut out her tongue, rendering her speechless, and put her in the slave quarters. Tereus then went back to Athens and told King Pandion that Procne had died. So Pandion gave him Philomela to marry, but Tereus raped her before the wedding. Procne wove a bridal robe for her sister that told where she was, and Philomela came to her aid. Both women hated Tereus, but it was Procne who killed her son Itys and sent the boiled flesh to Tereus for his dinner. On learning what he had eaten Tereus was dumbstruck. Then he seized an axe to pursue the fleeing sisters. Just as he was about to hack them to bits the gods changed the three of them into birds: Procne into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe or a hawk. When King Pandion heard he had lost both of his daughters he died of grief, and Athens went to his son Erechtheus.

But Erechtheus, too, had children fated to misfortune. One of his daughters, Orithyia, was courted by Boreas, the North Wind. Erechtheus did not approve of this blustering suitor, and he was rejected. Not to be thwarted, Boreas abducted Orithyia in a gust that carried her off to the North, where he ravished her. In time Orithyia gave birth to two sons that were to sail with Jason on the Argo.

Another of Erechtheus' daughters, Procris, married Cephalus, a man with a passion for hunting. He went off on a long expedition to hunt and Eos, the goddess of the dawn, fell in love with him. When she failed to seduce him Eos told Cephalus that surely his wife Procris had been unfaithful to him during his absence. To test his wife's fidelity Cephalus disguised himself, returned home and tried to tempt Procris. Although she never gave in to this stranger she softened considerably, and Cephalus revealed his true identity in a rage. Just as angry, Procis left him and went to Crete, where she cured Minos of a curse that Zeus had inflicted on him. In gratitude Minos gave her a spear that never missed its mark. Eventually Cephalus sought Procris out, having repented of his jealous fit, and the two were reconciled. As a token of her love Procris gave her husband the magic spear, and he took her with him on his next hunting trip. Seeing something move in the thicket before him, Cephalus hurled the spear, killing the only woman for whom he cared.

A third daughter of Erechtheus, Creüsa, was ravished by Apollo against her will and secretly gave birth to a son in a cave, where she abandoned it, fearing for her own safety. Erechtheus married her off to a foreign ally of his, a man named Xuthus. Creüsa produced no children to Xuthus, who desperately wanted a son. He finally took Creüsa with him to Apollo's oracle at Delphi. The oracle told him that the first boy he met on leaving the temple would be his. He found Creüsa talking to Ion, a lad who served Apollo at the temple. Xuthus joyfully greeted the boy and claimed him as his son, thinking he must have sired Ion on a Maenad, whereas Apollo had simply intended the boy as a gift. Creüsa felt a deep bitterness at this, because Xuthus now had a son while she had lost hers for good. She also hated Apollo for having raped and deserted her. Outraged, Creüsa tried to poison Ion, but when her attempt was discovered, Ion and a crowd were about to kill her. But then the Delphic priestess brought forth the blanket in which Ion had been wrapped as an infant, and Creilsa recognized it as her own. Creüsa embraced Ion as her son, but the priestess warned against telling Xuthus the truth. Presently Athena appeared at Apollo's request and prophesied that Ion would one day rule Athens. Creiisa gave up the long grudge she had felt for Apollo, and through her son she lost her dislike of men in general.

Another version says that Erichthonius and Erechtheus were the same person and that he had snakes for legs which so frightened the daughters of Cecrops that they leapt from the Acropolis. But Erechtheus himself had daughters who ended unhappily. Orithyia was abducted and raped by the North Wind. When Erechtheus as king of Athens made war on the Eleusinians, the foe called in Eumolpus, the son of Poseidon, to help them. Erechtheus learned from the oracle that he would win if his daughters perished. Since their father refused to kill them, they sacrificed themselves by jumping from the Acropolis, which allowed Erechtheus to win. However, for killing Eumolpus, Erechtheus was slain by Poseidon, and his son Pandion became king.

In a variant to the tale of Tereus, Pandion married off his daughter Procne to the Thracian king Tereus in order to gain an ally. Procne was lonely in Thrace, so she invited her sister Philomela to visit. When the. girl arrived, Tereus raped her and cut out her tongue to keep her from telling his wife. But Procne learned the truth from a tapestry woven by Philomela in the women's quarters. She took revenge on her husband by serving him their son Itys for dinner. And after telling him of it, she and Philomela made their escape. In time Tereus caught up with the pair and was about to kill them, but the gods turned the three of them into birds: Philomela into the silent swallow, Procne into the nightingale that mourns, "Tereus, Tereus, Itys, Itys," and Tereus into the hoopoe that calls, "Where? Where?"


Each of the tragic dynasties has a dominant theme. In that of Minos it is the use of power and retribution for wrong. In that of Atreus it is kin murder and atoning for this family curse. In that of Cadmus it is unmerited suffering and the fortitude necessary to overcome it. And here, with the House of Erichthonius, it is the battle of the sexes, in which rape is a major motif.

These legends present the relationships between men and women as soured, thorny, fated to unhappiness. The contest between Poseidon and Athena for possession of Athens triggers a conflict between the Athenian men and women in which the women lose their voting rights. This fight sets the stage for the other legends. Appropriately, the founder of the Athenian dynasty, Erichthonius, is engendered when Hephaestus tries to rape Athena.

In the tale of Procne the battle of the sexes becomes a murderous war, with ferocity and ruthless lust on Tereus' part and a hate-ridden urge for revenge on that of Procne and Philomela. With the story of Procris it is .Cephalus' unbalanced jealousy and Procris' pride that breaks up their marriage. The happy reunion is destroyed when Procris' gift to Cephalus becomes the instrument that kills her. While Orithyia is kidnaped and ravished by Boreas, her sister Creüsa is raped and abandoned by Apollo. Creüsa has a barren marriage to Xuthus. It takes a miraculous intervention on the part of Athena and the Delphic priestess to reconcile Creüsa to men and to Apollo. The flaws of these characters are those of normal human beings — pride, lust, wrath, jealousy, selfishness, and so on — but in this dynasty they are magnified beyond their normal limits. The House of Erichthonius seems afflicted with a lack of balance that tends to disturb or ruin its marriages. Despite the fabulous elements in these legends, there is a core of realism that is based on an understanding of human character.

It is interesting that each of the tragic dynasties has its own individuality. This may be due to prominent traits in the Cretans, Mycenaeans, Thebans, or Athenians that distinguished them from each other. It may be that there were actually dynasties with those qualities. Or it may be that a certain kind of story tended to evolve around a group of legendary figures. Of course, the conscious literary artistry of the Greek writers would have accentuated this shaping process, particularly with the tragic dramatists. But the important thing is that personality flaws often run in families, and that these defects do affect the destiny of a family. In Greek mythology the dictum that "character is fate" applies as much to clans as it does to individual heroes.