Cecrops, the half-snake king of Attica, presided over a contest of the gods to see which one would be patron of his vibrant, thriving city. Poseidon and Athena each wanted the prize, and it was decided that whoever bestowed the best gift upon the city would receive the gift of the citizens’ worship. Poseidon struck his mighty trident upon the ground, and from that spot flowed a spring. Cecrops’s people rejoiced until they discovered that the spring ran salty. As her gift, Athena planted a seed that grew into an olive tree, providing food, shade, and oil to burn. Cecrops chose Athena as the winner, and the city came to be known after her as Athens. Poseidon, a sore loser, flooded much of Attica under a sea now known as Erekhtheis.
My daughter Q, just a week from turning 12, tells me this story in front of what’s left of the Erectheum, a temple on the north side of the Acropolis in Athens dedicated to this mythical contest between Poseidon and Athena. An olive tree grows vigorously in front of the bright ruin, its leaves copious and narrow and sharp like a regiment’s spears. The Acropolis sits high up more or less in the center of Athens, and looking west we can see for miles, out to where the ocean meets the land and even further still to where the ocean meets the sky. I imagine the Greeks standing watch here for warships coming in for them, heavy with soldiers and ambition.
A sign informs in several languages that this particular olive tree was planted in 2010 in honor of the Athena winning the city. I find myself feeling a little disappointed that it wasn’t planted by a god 2500 years ago. Do olive trees live that long? Does anything?
Stories certainly do. Q’s older brother M passed through a phase of fascination with Greek myths — he read and reread the pages right out of all the Percy Jackson books — but he has since left it for music and its languages. These old stories have stuck with Q, though. She can tell you the origins and highlights of all the Olympic immortals, and she has her favorites. Last Halloween (and perhaps her last Halloween to dress up) she went as Artemis, fierce goddess of the hunt, protector of young women, and deep source of inspiration to strong girls who have to deal with the ragged fact of young boys.
Q appreciates Athena the most. Athena is the goddess of pretty much everything cool: wisdom, craft, mathematics, strategy, and victory in battle. (War might belong to Ares, but…