Skip to main content

Individual Athenians frequently disagreed on which king founded their city and each potential contender had a host of rituals, temples, legends, and connections with the local geography - Lieux de Mémoire (Nora 1989) – to bolster his claim. This paper examines the relationship in myth and ritual between two of these kings: Erechtheus and Erichthonius. The majority opinion of modern scholarship is that these two ancestral figures are interchangeable and their myths and rituals can be conflated (Burkert 2001 cf. Gantz 1993 and Kron 1976). Even in early antiquity, the similarity between the two names and the lack of evidence for their separate existence made combining them together an attractive option (Schol. Il. 2.547). However, this desire for streamlined, historical simplicity discounts the living vibrancy and changing nature of aitiological explanations and privileges elite textual rationalization of myth over the non-elite performance of rituals associated with that myth. By extending Barbara Kowalzig’s framework regarding the relationship of ritual and myth in a performative context (2007) , this paper argues that the meaning 'behind' the ritual and mythical celebration of each king was not communicated from the top down but was instead constituted through a conversation from the bottom up. Thus, seeking to pare down the complexity misrepresents how myth and ritual function in society and inhibits an accurate depiction of Greek culture as a whole- especially among the non-literate groups.

Specifically, by employing and testing the categories created by Noyes and Abrams (1999) in their work over the evolution of modern festivals, this paper creates a diachronic examination of the myths and rituals surrounding the two kings and their representation in later literature. In the first and most primal category, 'customary/bodily and calendrical memory,’ each king is associated with a distinct set of festivals – the Panathenaia for Erichthonius and the Skira for Erectheus (Robertson 1996). The festivals are interpreted through their performative context and by the actors involved. This interpretation is used to create a tentative reconstruction of the competing ideologies of the participants. As religious understanding at this level short-circuits the need for rationalization, this explains why there are so few myths concerning these figures from periods earlier than the fifth century. In the second category, 'practical traditionalizing,’ participants generate the basic but fluid mythic elaborations that surround each king which are then crystalized in texts at a later date. By focusing on the cognitive process of story and myth generation, some of the surface similarities between the two narratives can be explained (Schied and Svenboro 1996, Boyd 2006). In the third and most advanced category, 'ideological traditionalizing,’ elites consciously rework the folk traditions about the kings and employ them to create the ideal of Athenian exceptionalism during the Peloponnesian War (Loraux 1993, Rosivach 1983). It is this final form, where the myths are divorced of their original context and (by definition) full of similarities to other accounts, that invites later commentators and scholars to collapse the accounts of Erectheus and Erichthonius and thus the individuals themselves.

In addition to contributing to the long standing debate over the conflation of the two kings, this paper cautions against the dangers of creating any static version of a mythic account because it both misrepresents how mythology functioned but also because, as a modern construction, it fails to offer us real insight into antiquity. This paper also offers a set of tools to deal with similar confusion in other myths and rituals, which could be usefully employed whenever local and panhellenic traditions collide. Moreover, it argues that the true value of a mythic story can only be seen by accounting for its popular understanding – gained through examination of its performative context.