Modern Greek History

Ἀθῆναι. Ἀθήνα. Athina. Athens?

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How Greece’s National Capital Got Its Name

When it comes to ancient cities, there is always a popular myth of how the cities were founded or how they got their names. After all, every city that should be taken seriously at that time has to have a pretty awesome story to how it was founded. Of course in an ancient city as great as Athens this was especially true.

The myth starts with the first King of Athens, King Cecrops. This half man-half snake king was looking for a patron deity for his new city. Athena, the goddess of wisdom, and her uncle, Poseidon, the god of the sea, both wanted to be the patron deity of the beautiful city. As this is Greek Mythology, this obviously escalated very quickly with no signs of a solution. But since Athena was the goddess of wisdom, she proposed that they would each present the city with a gift and let the citizens of the city decide which gift was most useful and therefore who would be the patron.

Everyone gathered at the acropolis of the city where each presented their gifts. It is said that Poseidon struck the ground with his trident and a spring of water was created. Though the water could provide water to drink and farm, since Poseidon is the god of the sea it was salt water, which is also thought to possibly signify Athens being a naval power.

Athena on the other hand planted a seed, which grew into a beautiful olive tree. For this the Athenians could use the tree for the olives, the oil, as well as the wood for boats and houses. It was deemed that Athena’s gift was more useful and Athena became the patron of the newly named city of Athens.

Of course in Greek, Athens is called Ἀθήνα – Athina. In Katharevousa, the formal and conservative form of Modern Greek, the official name of the city was Ἀθῆναι, which matched the ancient Greek name for the city. However, usage of Katharevousa was abandoned and Demotic Greek was made the official language of Greece in 1976. It is from here that we get the current name and spelling of Ἀθήνα.

Although Athena won the competition and became the patron of Athens, Poseidon would be happy to know that “Poseidonos Avenue” is the main coastal road of Athens running from Faliro to Glyfada connecting Athens’ southern suburbs with its beaches. So that’s something at least, right?

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