The Most Important Contest of Western Civilization
Updated: Sep 25
By: Ellie Chang
Last Updated on: November 28, 2021
Photo by: Sergio García / Unsplash
A contest had begun.
Standing against the backdrop of a barren Acropolis, two gods faced each other. On one side was the Greek goddess Athena who held power over wisdom, war and crafts. On the other was the Greek god of the sea, Poseidon, armed with a trident.
Cecrops stood between them. He was the founder of a new city-state, a place ripe with opportunity and rich with resources. Both Athena and Poseidon wished to become the city’s patron and neither was willing to back down. Cecrops, a quick thinker, declared a contest of gifts. Whoever could give the best gift to the city would become its patron.
“Who would like to present their gift first?” Cecrops asked, his serpent tail swishing against the rocks. He was nervous, standing amongst two powerful deities of the Greek pantheon. The citizens of the city had cautiously stood a distance from the two gods, just at the edge of the acropolis. They murmured amongst themselves, predicting who would win.
“I will,” Poseidon declared before Athena could speak any words. But the goddess did not seem angered, she only gestured with her hand for Poseidon to begin. Poseidon rolled his powerful shoulders and heaved his trident into the air. It flashed, a whirlwind of gold and coral, spraying a fine mist as he spun it over his head. Athena watched the sea god calmly as he suddenly brought the trident crashing against the rocks of the Acropolis. The ground split apart in a deafening tremor that could be heard for miles.
Bursting from the deep crack was a cascade of water, vividly blue and crystalline. It sparkled and swirled the way a mesmerizing dancer might lure you in. The citizens of the city burst out in applause, eyes reflecting the glowing blue liquid.
“This is a fountain that will never dry,” Poseidon pronounced, thrusting his trident into the air and raining fat droplets of fountain water upon the people. “You will have water until the end of time.”
The people eagerly held their hands out to catch the droplets, laughing. With permission from Poseidon, they surged forward to dip their hands in the fountain and bring the water to their lips.
“Ack!” A citizen suddenly cried, his fingers scraping at his tongue. “This is salt water!”
“It’s from the ocean!”
“We can’t drink this!”
A chorus of discontent spread as each citizen pushed away from the spring and tried to shake the salt water from their hands and clothing. Poseidon watched this all with a stormy gaze, his grip tightening on his trident until the muscles of his arms bulged.
“Of course it is salt water. I am the god of the sea,” Poseidon proclaimed, casting his trident upwards again and making the fountain spew. This time the citizens flinched away from the droplets that landed on their skin.
Cercrops spoke for his people. “Poseidon, with all due respect, we cannot drink this water. Nor use it to wash our clothes or cook our food.”
“You are ungrateful,” Poseidon growled. “All of you.”
“Only those who lose speak as such.” Athena’s grey eyes flashed. “And insulting the people of the city you wish to claim patronage of is foolish. You’ve cost yourself the contest, Poseidon.”
Poseidon turned on Athena. “What gift could you give them, grey-eyed goddess?! Will you give owl feathers or volumes of useless paper and ink? What could you possibly give that could be more valuable than my fountain?!”
“This.” Athena touched the tip of her spear to the ground and a great rumbling started. Another crack split the rocks and a great gnarled root burst forth. It slowly grew upwards, a tendril of bark and wood. It twisted like a rope, slowly thinning into little branches which sprouted leaves and a strange, round fruit. When the rumbling finally stopped and the tree stopped growing, the people of Athens looked upon it with curiosity.
“What type of tree is this?” Cecrops asked Athena.
“It is an olive tree.” Athena tapped her spear against the trunk of the tree and a single green fruit dropped from its branches into her hand. “This is an olive.”
The citizens all pressed closer to get a better look and in response Athena beckoned for them to come closer. They walked up to the tree and plucked the little olives from its leaves. Athena handed her olive to Cecrops who observed it, confused.
“You can eat the olive,” Athena started. “It is a vitamin-rich fruit which, though bitter when ripe, tastes delicious when cured with salt water.” With a wink at Poseidon, Athena drew water from his fountain and instantly cured all the olives cupped in the citizens’ hands. Hesitating, one man bit into it. He spat out a seed but as he chewed the rest of the fruit, a smile spread across his face.
“This is good!”
As everyone ate their olives and a chorus of “delicious” and “amazing” arose, Athena plucked another olive from the tree and squeezed it. A yellow-green liquid pooled in midair and the people pressed closer to look at it once more.
“From olives you can make olive oil. It will keep your fires burning through the night and prevent food from sticking to your cooking pans.” Athena snapped her fingers and a fire lit in the middle of the pool of olive oil. The people gasped in excitement and awe.
“But my olive tree provides more than a fruit. Its leaves give shade during your long summers. It’s trunk gives wood during the cold winters. And it is a tough, sturdy tree that will grow in any soil.”
The people started to cheer and hands plucked at the leaves and the olives of the tree, celebrating Athena’s gift.
“QUIET DOWN PLEASE,” Cecrops shouted. The people, hands slathered with olive oil and lips full of olive flesh, quieted down the best they could. But it was still hard to mistake the happiness and elation written across their faces. Poseidon knew this most of all - and his expression darkened as Cecrops approached Athena.
“Athena, you have given us a gift which will create an insurmountable impact upon the world.” Cecrops gestured for a boy to come forth and took the laurel wreath from the boy’s hands. “You will be the patron of this city and we will build a temple right here to honor your name. From now on, this city will be known as Athens and we will be the Athenians.”
“ATHENS! ATHENS! ATHENS!” The people chanted.
Cecrops placed the laurel wreath atop Athena’s head and she smiled graciously. “Thank you, Cecrops. I will ensure that Athens and its people live in glory-”
“I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS!” Poseidon roared.
Athena turned her grey eyes upon the god of the sea. “You have lost. You are not worthy of this city. Now go back to the sea you crawled from.”
Poseidon ignored Athena’s words and plunged his trident into the ground. This time, there was no crack but a tremendous sound, like the sizzling of fire emitting from the earth. “I curse the city of Athens to never have enough water for the offense you have dealt me.”
With that, the furious god of the seas yanked his trident out of the ground and disappeared in a swirl of sea mist and frothing waves.
Cecrops shifted uneasily at Poseidon’s curse but Athena was quick to reassure him. “Poseidon’s curse will hold but it will not prevent your city from fulfilling its potential. You will become the most powerful naval force in the world, a hub for scholars and philosophers, and you will leave a legacy far into the future that will transform the politics of the modern world. You will be the symbol of Western Civilization.”
“Thank you, grey-eyed Athena.” Cecrops bowed and the newly-named Athenians echoed his gesture.
Athena gazed at her city, her people - and smiled.
Though this a myth from Ancient Greece, we can still see elements of it in modern day. The modern-day city of Athens, capital of Greece, does suffer from water shortages - whether this is from Poseidon’s curse or simple geography, it’s up to each person to decide. On the other hand, Athena’s gift, the olive tree, has become the national tree of Greece and olive oil remains one of Greece’s main exports. Finally, Athens did leave a great legacy that has impacted every aspect of modern-day life - democracy. It is the system of government we use to run nearly every country in the world, ushering in an age where every voice is heard, technological advancements skyrocket, and peace reigns. In some ways, we have this little city in Greece to thank for almost everything today.
And it all started with a simple contest.