Erikhthonios and Erekhtheus: Folk-Etymology and Premature Ejaculation

Eratosthenes, Catasterismi 1.13

“Euripides also speaks of [Erikhthonios’] birth in this way. Because he was filled with lust for her, Hephaistos wanted to have sex with Athena. But when she turned away—because she preferred her virginity—she hid herself in a certain part of Attica which they say is also named “the Hephaisteion” after him. He thought that he could overpower her but when he attacked he was struck by her spear and ejaculated—his semen fell on the earth. They say that a child was born from it, and that he was named Erikhthonius for that reason…”

λέγει δὲ καὶ Εὐριπίδης περὶ τῆς γενέσεως αὐτοῦ τὸν τρόπον τοῦτον· ῞Ηφαιστον ἐρασθέντα ᾿Αθηνᾶς βούλεσθαι αὐτῇ μιγῆναι, τῆς δὲ ἀποστρεφομένης καὶ τὴν παρθενίαν μᾶλλον αἱρουμένης ἔν τινι τόπῳ τῆς ᾿Αττικῆς κρύπτεσθαι, ὃν λέγουσι καὶ ἀπ’ ἐκείνου προσαγορευθῆναι ῾Ηφαιστεῖον· ὃς δόξας αὐτὴν κρατήσειν καὶ ἐπιθέμενος πληγεὶς ὑπ’ αὐτῆς τῷ δόρατι ἀφῆκε τὴν ἐπιθυμίαν, φερομένης εἰς τὴν γῆν τῆς σπορᾶς· ἐξ ἧς γεγενῆσθαι λέγουσι παῖδα, ὃς ἐκ τούτου ᾿Εριχθόνιος ἐκλήθη…

The name Erikhthonios had folk etymologies in the ancient world based on the narratives surrounding him and the sound. One interpretation, “rich-earth” (eri-khthonios), points to his autochthonous character and his association with Athenian prosperity. Another (“strife-land”; eris-khthonios) draws possibly on the struggle between Poseidon-Erekhtheus and Athena. A third traces the root of the first half to wool” (erion) perhaps reflecting Athena’s association with weaving and occurring as a reflex in the version of the tale where Athena uses wool to wipe off Hephaistos’ premature ejaculation (Apollodorus records that it was this semen-sponge that impregnated Gaia).

The Birth of Erikhthonios

Here’s what a Byzantine Etymological Dictionary has to say:

Etymologicum Magnum

“Erekhteus: He is called Epikhthonios because he was engendered [espasthai] in lust; Or from Hephaistos desire [orekseôs], or from “breaking” [ereikô], Erekhtheus’ power; from the fact that he brought apart the earth and was born from Hephaistos’ semen when Athena hid it in the earth, he is also called Erikhthonios.”

᾿Ερεχθεύς: ῾Ο ᾿Επιχθόνιος καλούμενος, ἀπὸ τοῦ ἐσπᾶσθαι εἰς τὴν ἔραν· ἢ ἀπὸ τῆς ὀρέξεως τοῦ ῾Ηφαίστου· ἢ παρὰ τὸ ἐρείκω, ᾿Ερεχθεὺς κύριον· παρὰ τὸ διασχίσαι αὐτὸν τὴν γῆν καὶ γεννηθῆναι ἀπὸ τοῦ σπέρματος ῾Ηφαίστου, ἡνίκα ἔκρυψεν αὐτὸ ἡ ᾿Αθηνᾶ ἐν τῇ γῇ, ὁ αὐτὸς δὲ λέγεται καὶ ᾿Εριχθόνιος.

According to Homer (Il. 2.546-51) Erekhtheus, nearly identical to Erikhthonios in early narratives only to be disambiguated in royal genealogies by the classical period, was born from Gaia and raised by Athena. The name Erekhtheus may be derived from the verb erekhthô which means “to tear or smash” and may be associated with Poseidon the “earthshaker”.

Iliad 2.546-551:

“Then came the men who occupied the well-built city of Athens, the people of great-hearted Erekhtheus, whom Athena the daughter of Zeus raised after the fertile earth gave birth to him, the one Athena brought into her own wealthy temple. There the sons of Athens worship him every new year with bulls and lambs. Menestheus, the son of Peteos led them. No earth-born man ever was his equal at marshaling the cavalry and spear-holding men.”

Οἳ δ’ ἄρ’ ᾿Αθήνας εἶχον ἐϋκτίμενον πτολίεθρον
δῆμον ᾿Ερεχθῆος μεγαλήτορος, ὅν ποτ’ ᾿Αθήνη
θρέψε Διὸς θυγάτηρ, τέκε δὲ ζείδωρος ἄρουρα,
κὰδ δ’ ἐν ᾿Αθήνῃς εἷσεν ἑῷ ἐν πίονι νηῷ·
ἔνθα δέ μιν ταύροισι καὶ ἀρνειοῖς ἱλάονται
κοῦροι ᾿Αθηναίων περιτελλομένων ἐνιαυτῶν·
τῶν αὖθ’ ἡγεμόνευ’ υἱὸς Πετεῶο Μενεσθεύς.
τῷ δ’ οὔ πώ τις ὁμοῖος ἐπιχθόνιος γένετ’ ἀνὴρ
κοσμῆσαι ἵππους τε καὶ ἀνέρας ἀσπιδιώτας·

There are some interesting echoes here from stories we learn later about Erikhthonios. Note (1) the closeness between Athena and Erekhtheus (implying no strife or suppressing it); (2) the early evidence for co-worship of the two; and (3) the possible—though not probable—echo of Erikhthonios in the adjective epikhthonios (“earth-born”).

Of some interest: According to Pausanias (1.28.10) it was Erekhtheus (the king) who first offered animal sacrifices at the Bouphonia (“Cow-slaughter” festival). In his commentary on the Iliad G. S. Kirk (1985, 206) suggests that the annual festival (περιτελλομένων ἐνιαυτῶν, here translated rather feebly as “every new year”) may be a form of the Panathenaia.



Walter Burkert. Greek Religion. Cambridge, 1985.

L. R. Farnell. The Cults of the Greek City States. 1895.

Timothy Gantz. Early Greek Myth. Baltimore, 1993.

Simon Price. Religions of the Ancient Greeks. Cambridge, 1999.

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