Sailing and Culture: The element of the sea in the myth and the cults of Athens

Geography linked Attica inevitably with the sea. The ancient geographer Strabo characterizes Attica as a landmass with the sea on both sides. He goes on to quote a pseudo-etymology of the name Attica, current at the time, according to which in the past the land had been called Akte (Coast), a name that was later on paraphrased as Aktike (Land of the Coast), and finally became Attike. Strabo’s remarks summarize the capital importance of the sea for life in Attica. The sea played indeed a key role in the life and mentality of local inhabitants long before Athens became a strong naval power and maritime empire.

The eternal function of the sea in the cosmos of the Athenians is copiously recorded in the religious tradition of the city-state. First of all, the sea is omnipresent in the fundamental myths and cults connected with the origins of life itself in Attica. The Athenians believed that Deucalion, the righteous man selected by Zeus to regenerate the human race, was the only one that survived the flood which destroyed the corrupt generation of his time by enclosing himself along with life essentials in a chest, as the waters on both sides of the Isthmus and the Peloponnese merged into an endless sea. The chest floated for nine days and nights in the sea. The water receded then in a chasm half a meter wide, located close to the old precinct of Ge (Earth) (figs.1-2), in the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus at Athens. The Athenians asserted that after arriving in Athens, Deucalion founded the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus and died there. They even showed his tomb near the Temple of Zeus. Thus the sea water, out of which Deucalion regenerated the human race, marked the origin of existing life in Athens. On the third day of the spring festival of Anthesteria (Festival of Flowers), the Athenians threw cakes made out of corn and honey in the chasm for those who perished during the flood, while a procession of women carried in water. The ritual was a simulation of the primordial flood, aimed to renew and maintain its magical revitalizing effect.

In antiquity, the existence of life in a particular place was guaranteed by one or more gods. The land was sacred to them and all aspects of life were placed under their patronage. A contest between Athena and Poseidon assigned the land of Athens to the former, as, according to the myth, the Athenians considered her gift of the olive tree more valuable than Poseidon’s salt water. Nevertheless, Poseidon’s gift remained present at the heart of the Athenian territory. In the west compartment of the Erechtheion (fig.3), not far from Athena’s olive tree, a well, said to be the one opened by Poseidon’s trident in the rock of the Acropolis, the “sea in the shrine of Erechtheus”, as Athenians knew it, unified the city’s “holy of holies” with the sea of Phaleron. The Athenians maintained that when the wind blew from the south, one could hear the sound of waves coming out of the well. So the sea was sanctioned as an equally fundamental component of divine blessing to Athens.

Multiple myths and cults linked also Theseus, the founder of the Athenian city-state, with the sea. The name of his stepfather Aegeus refers to the Aegean Sea. His real father was Poseidon himself. This was attested in a legend, which expressed explicitly the maritime nature of the main Athenian hero: Minos, son of Zeus and king of Crete, quarreled with Theseus as to whether the latter was truly a son of a god, namely of Poseidon. He threw a ring into the sea and challenged Theseus to prove his divine parentage by retrieving it (fig.4). Theseus dived into the sea, reached Poseidon’s palace and emerged from the sea totally dry with the ring.

The voyage of Theseus to Crete and the story of the Minotaur was also in many respects a maritime adventure. According to the most familiar version of the story, Theseus and the Athenians were engaged in maritime activities for the first time in that occasion. The hero employed sailors from Salamis to man his ship and teach him how to navigate. The captain’s name was Nausithoos, meaning “the one that makes ships sail fast”. The name of another sailor positioned at the prow was Phaiax. The names of the two companions of Theseus remind us of the Phaeacians in the Odyssey: They had two kings, both sons of Poseidon, who were also named Nausithoos and Phaiax. The companions of Poseidon’s son Theseus, Poseidon’s sons themselves, seem to be mythical alter egos of the Athenian hero. Theseus founded anyway shrines dedicated to Nausithoos and Phaiax on the coast of Phaleron, and initiated the festival of Cybernesia. The name of the festival means the celebration of the mastery of sailing.

Before departing for Crete, Theseus prayed in the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios (fig.1). The epithet of the god means “The one of the dolphins”. The hero descended then to the coast of Phaleron accompanied by seven youths and seven maidens. In commemoration of those events, every year on the sixth of Mounichion a procession of girls holding supplicants’ twigs walked to the sanctuary of Apollo Delphinios. The rite venerated the god who blessed the travel of Theseus to Crete and transformed it from an ominous to a fortunate enterprise. It is not without significance that the inauguration of the new period of sailing after winter inactivity coincided with that auspicious day. Perhaps the procession of armed men riding dolphins (fig.5), depicted on vases produced at the time Theseus was becoming the city’s hero par excellence, allude to rites connected with the commemoration of his journey to Crete under the blessing of Apollo Delphinios or to theatrical plays referring to the story. The maritime trip under the protection of Apollon could have been mythically conceived as a ride on his sacred animal – Apollon himself voyaged from Crete to Delphi in the likeness of a dolphin – or as a normal trip on a ship escorted by dolphins.

The story of Theseus’ return from Crete, which resulted in the death of his father Aegeus, is well known: Theseus forgot to change the mournful black sail on his ship with a joyful white one. Aegeus received the wrong message and threw himself in the sea. The Athenians displayed a thirty-oar ship asserting that it was the one that brought Theseus back victorious from Crete. They maintained it in good condition by regularly replacing worn parts.

A less known version of Theseus’s journey to Crete is even more characteristic of the hero’s links to the sea. According to that, Theseus did not go to Crete because of the Minotaur. Daedalus, the Athenian architect who built the Labyrinth, escaped from Crete on a ship to Athens. Minos pursued him, but bad weather drove him to Sicily where he died. His son Deucalion demanded that Theseus sent Daedalus back to Crete; otherwise he threatened to kill the Athenian youths that Minos kept hostage. Theseus secretly built ships, sailed to Crete, killed Deucalion, and made peace with Ariadne. However, on his way back to Athens strong winds proved disastrous. His ship was carried away to the distant shores of Skyros, where he was killed by king Lykomedes after a period of pleasant stay.

One more Athenian religious activity can be traced back to the role of the sea in the formation of the city-state: during a festival in honor of Aphrodite Pandemos, the statue of the goddess and a second one of Peitho were carried from the Acropolis to the sea for a ritual bath. The festival was again said to have been founded by Theseus, in order to commemorate the synoecism of Athens. Once again a) Aphrodite, the goddess of procreation and in this special case Pandemos, that is “Aphrodite common to all citizen”, alluding to equal rights attributed to the whole population of Attica by the synoecism, b) Peitho, personification of the persuasive and seductive power of Aphrodite, alluding to the consensus needed for the synoecism, and c) Theseus, the hero founder of the Athenian state, are ritually connected with the sea, as a basic element of the city’s life.

The celebration of Dionysus’s arrival in Athens onboard a ship belongs to an age-old notion traceable in many different ancient cultures that all goods produced on earth originate from the sea. The Dionysian parade in Athens, in which Dionysus (actually his statue or a disguised priest) entered the city on a ship-cart (fig.6), is associated with the Great Dionysia, which took place in mid to late March, at the beginning of the Greek Spring. The parade was definitely an example of conspicuous display of wealth. Ancient texts and works of art bear evidence to the ‘carrying about of golden objects’, of ‘expensive himatia’, of food and drink, assorted with music and dance, which has led modern scholars to define the event as “a representation of a Golden Age plenitude and ease”. It is clear that the arrival of the god of regeneration onboard a ship expressed the common feeling of maritime nations that the sea is the major source of opulence. This feeling is explicitly expressed in a fragmentary work of Hermippus, an Athenian poet of the 5th century BC. The first three verses of the fragment read: “Tell me now o Muses, you who dwell in Olympus, / whence Dionysos sails across the blue sea, / tell me, how many goods he brought here to mankind on his black ship?”. In the following verses, the poet himself answers the question by citing a long list of various desirable goods brought to Athens from all over the known world. It is this imaginary, beneficent cruise of Dionysos that a vase painter represented on an Attic amphora in the Museum of Tarquinia (fig.7). This consideration of the sea as a source of plenitude and good fortune is still recognizable today in different traditions of people living by and off the sea, as for example, in the Aegean island of Chios (fig.8), where New Year carols are chanted by young men carrying around a model ship.

The sacred ship reappears in Athenian cult practice, this time as a symbol of sea power and the means by which it can be controlled. The peplos, the new robe woven every year for the cult statue of Athena, was carried in procession during the festival of Panathenaia from Kerameikos to the foot of the Acropolis, suspended from the mast of a ship. According to myth, the festival was founded at the time of Erechtheus. In 566 BC it was reorganized: the annual celebration continued, but every five years it was incorporated in the context of a more sumptuous program, the Great Panathenaia. Central to both the Lesser and the Great Panathenaia, which marked the beginning of the new Athenian year, was the ritualistic presentation of the new peplos to Athena, representing the replenishment of her divine power. That in turn symbolized the renewal of Athenian power. As the Athenians had become a seafaring people, they wished to signify the importance of navigation to the might of their city. Thus their gift to the patron goddess, the peplos, the object embodying the lasting vigor of the city, was presented in the fashion of a ship’s sail. Scholars interpret a bronze lamp in the shape of an Archaic ship found in the Erechtheion (fig.9), as a representation of the Panathenaic ship. An exciting recent work by Sh. Wachsmann has even recognized parts of the peplos on the mast of the Panathenaic ship wagon represented on the “Calendar Frieze”which was used as building material in the Little Metropolis of Athens. The representation is partly obliterated by the carving of a Maltese cross.Nevertheless it is clear that the wheeled ship replicates here too a galley of the Archaic period (fig.10). The folds of the peplos remind us of the description of the Panathenaia at the time of Herodes Atticus recorded by Philostratus, who praised the swelling of the peplos to the breeze. The Athenians further stressed the connection between their naval power and the patron deity of the city by organizing a boat race, which took place among other contests during the Great Panathenaia.

Another domain, in which gods and heroes were considered to be helpful to Athenians, was everyday life. The Athenians felt protected by them in sea affairs and attributed great naval feats of their city to divine help and guidance. Poseidon controlled cape Sounion, the gateway to the Saronic Gulf, the sea of Athens. His worship there developed out of an older hero cult (fig.11): Phrontes, the steersman of Menelaos according to the Odyssey, died on his way back from Troy to Sparta near “the extremity of Athens”, as Homer defines cape Sounion, and was buried there. He was venerated in a heroon as a sailor “first among all men at steering a ship when the storm winds blew”. Relevant archaeological finds in Sounion attest to a “male warlike nautical cult”. This combination of cults, one of the god of the sea and another of the unrivalled steersman, sheds light on the choice of the Athenians to anchor their sacred ship Paralos in the western bay of cape Sounion (fig.12). The vessel, whose name means “the one by the sea”, was the first of a series of six sacred Athenian ships used for sacred missions, embassies and the transfer of public money. Moreover, it was the flagship of the Athenian fleet during sea battles, governed by the head of operations. This ship used the anchorage of Sounion, not only in order to react rapidly in cases of emergency, as usually thought, but also in order to receive the blessing emanating from the sacred place. Besides that, the ship was said to have owed its name to the hero Paralos (“Man of the Shore”), a son of Poseidon credited with the invention of the galley, that is the long or war ship (figs 13). Each year the crew of Paralos held a festival and offered sacrifices to his memory. Every four years a festival associated with sea-faring took place at Sounion in honour of the god of the sea.

Poseidon was not alone on the side of the Athenians. Most characteristic of the Athenian belief in divine help in sea affairs is the case of the veneration of Artemis Mounichia in Piraeus for her assistance in the battle of Salamis. The commemoration of this event was made a part of her festival. As in many state celebrations, the ephebes took part, this time not on horses, but by ship. They performed a sea battle on ships which in some inscriptions are called sacred. Plutarch specifies the kind of help accorded to Greeks: “The sixteenth of Mounichion was dedicated to Artemis, for on that day the goddess shone with full moon upon the Greeks as they were conquering at Salamis”. It was presumably the same goddess who, according to Herodotos, appeared to retreating Greeks during the battle as a “specter of a woman” and encouraged them to return to the fight with a thundering voice saying “You, how much are you still going to recede?”

The intervention of Artemis in the battle of Salamis recalled in legends and rites was not a unique phenomenon. Athenians seem to have attributed a broader interest in sea affairs to the goddess dwelling at the port of Mounichia. Ancient literary sources inform us of another aspect of protection offered to seamen by Artemis Mounichia: officers of ships or common sailors facing just or unjust charges took refuge in her sanctuary and remained safe as supplicants at her altar.

Faith in divine assistance in sea affairs could even be exploited for political gain: Themistocles founded a sanctuary of Artemis Aristoboule (Artemis of Best Counsel) at his own expense near his house in Athens (fig.14). He wanted to immortalize the fact that he had devised the best plan for the city’s defense against the Persian threat, by attributing the inspiration to engage the Persians in a naval battle to the goddess generally believed to have been present in the battle of Salamis. Plutarch says that the people were nevertheless offended by Themistocles’ presumption.

Another prominent Athenian leader, Pericles, made also use of Attic sacred legends concerning the sea in order to show his commitment to the navy: he named his second son Paralos after the legendary son of Poseidon and inventor of warships. And a third Athenian general, Conon, dedicated a sanctuary by the sea at Piraeus to Aphrodite, after he had crushed the Lakedaimonian warships off Knidos in the Karian peninsula, where the goddess was venerated as Euploia (Of the Fair Voyage). The general linked his naval victory to the maritime epithet of the goddess, indicating that his success at Knidos was due to her support.

One final word should be added about Athenian myths reflecting difficulties in real life and sometimes fatal adventures of seafarers. Theseus’ fate changed radically as his ship was carried away by strong winds to Skyros. The Attic heroes Erysichthon and Phrontes died while sailing. Another hero, who appeared in Athenian myths either as forefather of the priests of Athena and Poseidon or as an Argonaut, was Butes. In the latter capacity he is recorded to have thrown himself from the ship Argo into the sea, lured by the song of the Sirens, and to have settled in Sicily after his rescue by Aphrodite. The music of the Sirens alluded to the treacherous charms of foreign lands that often won over Athenian seafarers and robbed them of their return to the homeland.



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Vassilis Lambrinoudakis

Athens 2015



Fig. 1: The precinct of Ge at the sanctuary of Olympian Zeus

Fig. 2: The chasm at the precinct of Ge

Fig. 3: The “sea” under the “Prostomiaion” of Erechtheion

Fig. 4: Amphitrite gives to Theseus the ring of Minos and a crown in the submarine palace of Poseidon. Cup in New York, Metrop. Mus. 53.11.4, ca.480 BC

Fig. 5: Hoplites riding dolphins. In front of them written “on a dolphin”. Psykter in New York, Metrop. Mus. 1989. 281.69, ca. 510 BC

Fig. 6: Procession with Dionysos on a ship-cart. Skyphos in Bologna, Mus. Civ. 130, ca. 500 BC

Fig. 7: Dionysos and his attendants on sailing across the sea. Amphora in Tarquinia, Mus. Naz. 678, ca. 510 BC

Fig. 8: New Year’s carols in the island of Chios sung while carrying around a ship model

Fig. 9: Attic bronze lamp representing presumably the Panathenaic ship. New Acropolis Mus. X 7038, ca. 400 BC

Fig.10: Reconstruction of the Panathenaic Ship on the Calendar Frieze, Athens, Little Metropolis, after Sh. Wachsmann 2012

Fig.11: Phrontes on the ship of Menelaos.Clay pinax from Sounion,Nat. Archaeol. Mus. 14935, 7th c. BC

Fig.12: Ship sheds at the sanctuary of Poseidon on the promontory of Sounion. Anchorage of the Athenian sacred ship Paralos.

Fig.13: The ship Paralos and the homonymous hero represented on the fragmentary relief Acrop. Mus. nr. 1339, 410-400 BC

Fig.14: The temple of Artemis Aristoboule in the deme of Melite at Athens, Arch. Deltion 19, 1964, Part A, Pl.18b