The Charioteer
The Tale of Auriga

"But I love you," Hephaestus said sadly to Aphrodite.

"You must be joking," she responded, waving her hand aside. "Surely you can't expect me to love you. You're so hideous I can barely tolerate looking at you, much less touching you. Besides, why would I go through the labor and agony of childbirth for you? Any child of yours would be a deformed little monster." Aphrodite fluffed her hair as she turned her back to him and continued buffing her nails.

Weeks had passed since his rejection, but still Hephaestus sat alone and embarrassed, and his forge was silent.

"Poor Hephaestus," Zeus said. "His heart is broken. What can we do to help?"

"He needs to work," Athena said. "I'll ask him to design new armor and weapons for me. That should cheer him up." She went to Hephaestus and asked him and soon he was absorbed in his new project.

"I don't need love," Hephaestus thought. "I have all the satisfaction I need in my work, after all, no one anywhere in the universe is as talented as me." He set to work to design the perfect armor. "I must be inspired to design Athena's armor," he thought, "for she is perfect and anything that touches her must also be perfect." He thought about Athena, daydreaming about how she might appear on the battlefield. "I must be sure that the design properly reflects the sun and moon, for day or night she must look stately and wise as well as beautiful." He thought of nothing but Athena and, as his design took form, so did his love for her.

He pounded gold into a wrist protector that looked more like an intricate decorative bracelet than the battle gear it really was. He held it up and turned it over in his hands. "This is very nice," he said proudly. "Athena will be impressed. Oh, how she will love me when she sees it. I'll adorn her with fabulous treasures that I alone can create, and her love for me will grow with every gift I give her for surely she will understand that there is no one else in the universe like me. We'll have marvelous children together, for they will be beautiful and wise like her and inventive and artistic like me. Ah," he sighed, "this is surely what must be." He was jarred from his daydream as the door opened and Athena walked in.

"How is my armor progressing?" she asked. "Can I try it on?"

Hephaestus heard nothing that she said. Instead, the lame and ugly artisan, unable to control himself, attacked her with a flurry of kisses.

"What's wrong with you? Stop that right now!" she commanded, but he didn't listen. "Get away from me!" she screamed, as she pushed him away.

The more he was rebuffed, the more excited he became until, in his excitement, he tore off his clothes. That stimulated him so much that his semen spurted out, hitting Athena on the thigh.

"Oh, no!" she yelled in disgust as she wiped her leg with a leaf and threw it on the ground. Kicking dirt over the leaf, she stepped back; then the patch of ground trembled and a crack appeared.

Hephaestus and Athena, on opposite sides of the shivering mound, stood frozen with curiosity as they watched a child's head break through the surface of the earth. Soon, like a little plant, a tiny body slithered snakelike through the fissure and into the open air.

The child twisted his neck and looked up into the eyes of his parents. He had Athena's alert blue gray eyes, but he also had a deformed spine and legs that were even more snakelike than his father's. Athena and Hephaestus stopped their fussing and looked with pity on the poor child.

"Don't feel sorry for me," he said. "I'm a miracle. I have my mother's wisdom and my father's creativity. The world will be a better place because I am here," the child said confidently.

Athena gently picked him up and cradled him close to her heart, while a warm tear ran down her cheek as she held his face next to hers.

"I'll name you Erichthonius," she whispered to him, "and I will give you the gift of immortality."

The parents immediately began to prepare their baby's gift. Hephaestus designed and constructed a magnificent golden chest. It was intricately carved and inlaid with emeralds, amethysts, rubies, sapphires and diamonds in a design of the tree of life. Then Athena took some wool from her father's nurses' magical goat and spun the soft hair into a wonderful blanket. She wrapped her baby in it and placed him in Hephaestus' golden trunk.

"Now I must find someone to care for my baby," Athena said. After finding something wrong with everyone she thought of, she finally chose the three daughters of another son of Hephaestus, the king of Athens.

King Cecrops and his three daughters, Pandrosos, Herse and Aglauros, were waiting when Athena arrived. Pandrosos stood next to her father and they listened carefully as Athena said, "This chest is the most important thing in the world to me. Keep it safe from harm but promise that you will never open it."

Pandrosos and King Cecrops nodded in agreement, but Herse and Aglauros paid attention only to the beautiful trunk.

"What could it be that's so important to have such a lovely box?" Aglauros whispered to her sister.

Pandrosos carefully picked up the chest and took it to her room to hide it safely, but her sisters were not so obedient. They sneaked behind her and watched as she hid the chest. The sisters waited until the next day when Pandrosos was gone. Then, checking that no one was looking, they let themselves into her room and pulled off the cloth that hid the golden chest.

The magical chest sparkled in the sunlight, its jewels casting a rainbow of light against the wall. Any one of the jewels was larger than anything they had ever seen, but all the jewels together were overwhelming.

They ran their fingers across the sides, toying with the emeralds and rubies as their fingertips touched the gems. The branches of the jewel encrusted tree of life seemed move across the box, as if it were blowing in a gentle wind.

"This is the most magnificent box I've ever seen," Aglauros said. "Whatever is inside must be very valuable. Pandrosos is gone. Let's take a look."

"I don't know if we should," Herse said nervously. "Athena said, 'Do not open that box!' I think we should obey her."

"No. Athena told Pandrosos and Father never to open it," Aglauros said. "She didn't ask us."

Herse smiled, then nodded in agreement. They each grasped a corner of the trunk and raised its lid.

Inside a baby was wrapped in a blanket and a snake coiled around him. The girls screamed and the snake darted out of the chest, biting Aglauros first, and then her sister. Within seconds the poisonous venom drove them both mad and they saw themselves jumping off the Acropolis while Athena screamed, "you are driven mad by your curiosity and lack of principles. Fools; to most want what you are denied." Then the girls lost consciousness.

When Pandrosos returned to her room, she saw the open empty chest between the dead bodies of her sisters. Athena had already taken Erichthonius and she never again entrusted his care to anyone else.

Even at an early age, Erichthonius was clever and creative, and he had a cheery disposition despite his disability. His only concern was that his lack of mobility limited him.

"I must do something about this," he said to himself. "I'm sure there will be a perfect way to solve this; after all, there are unlimited solutions to every problem. It's just that some solutions are more elegant than others." So, after thinking long and hard about how to remedy his problem, he finally came up with an excellent idea.

He went to his father's workshop and, for weeks, watched as Hephaestus used his tools and worked the forge crafting item after magnificent item.

"Your work is beautiful," he said to Hephaestus. "How did you learn to make all these marvelous things?"

"I learned by doing," the god said. "The more you try, the more you can do. You must always be willing to try something new, and never be afraid of making a mistake. Learning what doesn't work is as important as learning what does work."

Hephaestus spoke while he deftly formed a bezel around a huge black pearl. The silver setting glowed, showing off the silver-gray pearl to perfection.

"Start with something small and simple. Then build up in complexity as your skills grow with you."

"I have a project already in mind," Erichthonius said to his father. "May I try it?"

"Of course," was his response. "What is it?"

Erichthonius smiled, "I can't tell you. It's a secret." So he set to work on his project without even telling his father.

He started with some sheets of bronze, heating and shaping them into a semicircle and adding embellishments for decoration. When Hephaestus said he would help, his son said, "No thank you, father. A big part of the learning process is finding solutions to my problems. I really don't mind."

He scrutinized every detail and, before very long, he had built a beautiful cart with two high wheels on the outside and with a long yoke between them. Then Erichthonius purchased four huge gray stallions. He tied them to the yoke and then sat upon the bench in the bronze cart.

"I'm calling this a chariot," he proudly told his father. Holding the reins loosely, he slapped them against his stallion's backs and then headed for Earth, where he practiced handling his new vehicle upon the bumpy roads to Athens.

"Who is that?" the people asked as they saw the regal young man in his bronze chariot as it was pulled by four strong gray high-stepping stallions. "He is very impressive," they said.

Erichthonius heard them and felt proud and powerful. He was grateful that at an early age he was able to understand an important truth; facing your limitations allows you to overcome them.

"Yes," said his mother, who had been listening to his thoughts. "True greatness cannot be achieved without it."

His style, and his chariot, found their imitators. Soon the streets of Athens were filled with the vehicles. People became so used to seeing them that everyone forgot that Erichthonius' lameness was his original reason to use it.

"There are so many chariots that we should have a contest," he suggested and the people of Athens responded enthusiastically. "As a matter of fact," he continued, "let's have contests for other activities as well. Everyone can participate in the event of their choice. We will hold the games in honor of Athena."

Preparations were begun immediately and, to the delight of the Athenians, the Panathenaic Games were begun. It should not have come as a surprise that Erichthonius won the chariot race.

Athena watched the games with interest. It was true that being held in her honor, they aroused her attention. But there was an even more important reason than that. During Erichthonius' infancy, good King Cecrops died, leaving no heir to rule her city. Opportunists struck and the tranquillity of Athens was gone as a power battle arose. Cranus declared himself king, then shortly after that Amphictyon raised an army and staged a coup. Now, although it had been twelve years since Amphictyon rose to power, volatile factions still jockeyed for control. The poor Athenians suffered from constant warfare, corrupt leadership and oppression. The games that were now being held were the people's first amusement in all those years of turmoil.

"It makes me angry to see these abuses of my city and my subjects," Athena bitterly complained to her father Zeus. "What can I do about it?"

"When I was young the Titans ruled," Zeus said. "I went to the oracle for advice and was told, 'If you wish to beat them, you must appear invincible. Protect yourself with the skin of a goat and the head of the Gorgon. You will call this your Aegis.' My dear daughter, to end this conflict in Athens you must choose a champion and cloak him in your Aegis." And so, Athena watched the games closely so she could select her champion.

"Of course!" she exclaimed, "I should have known. My own son, Erichthonius, is the most fit to rule."

Once again she hurried to see her father Zeus' childhood nurse. "Dear Amalthea, years ago you gave me the hair of your goat for a blanket to protect my baby Erichthonius. Now I need the skin of a goat to protect him again. Will you help me?"

Amalthea's goat, Capella, had given birth to two kids. The nymph went to Capella and, begging her forgiveness, sacrificed the kids and gave their skins to Athena.

The goddess cut and sewed the skins and made a cloak. She took snakes and stitched them to it as a border. Then she took the stone head of the Gorgon Medusa, the one that Perseus gave her, and fastened it to the center of the cloak with Medusa's scary face looking out. Finally she summoned her magic and surrounded the cloak with the forces of Fear and War, Power and Pursuit. She called her son and, when he came, she handed him the mantle of power.

"I am giving you this to cloak to protect you," she said to Erichthonius. "You must be my champion and free Athens from the tyrant Amphictyon. Also take these two vials of blood from the head of the Gorgon Medusa. This one will kill and this one will heal," she said and placed them in his hands.

"They will be useful both to conquer our enemies and to justly rule my city. Now go, and remember, I will always be with you."

It was as though the people of Athens had heard Athena's plan for, as they saw Erichthonius riding through the streets high in his chariot with his magical cape flapping in the breeze, they followed behind him. Young and old, men, women and even the children followed him walking, marching or riding their own chariots. As Erichthonius pulled up to the gates of Amphictyon's palace it looked as though the entire population of the city stood behind him. Even Amphictyon's guards decided to defect for they saw their own mothers and wives in the company of Athena's son. It was a bloodless revolution and Erichthonius became the fourth king of Athens.

Years of peace accompanied his rule and Erichthonius married the Naiad nymph Praxithea and they had three daughters and a son. All went well for the people of Athens until a threat emerged from outside the city's walls. It's was caused by Poseidon, who still brooded over the loss of the city.

Many years earlier, Poseidon and Athena had competed for the city. Poseidon, to show what a great benefactor he would be, stood at the Acropolis and struck his trident hard against the rock. It split, spewing salt water in a waterfall which ended in a majestic pool. The people of Athens applauded.

Then Athena walked up to stand beside the pool. She kissed her fingertips and pointed to the rock by the pool. In front of their eyes an olive tree grew and flowered and bore fruit. Athena picked the ripe olives and passed them out among the crowd.

"These are very good to eat," she said simply. Then taking what was left she pressed them until a golden oil came out. "You may use this to cook, to preserve food and to lubricate," she said. Then she took all the seeds and planted them on the stone terraced hills and as the olive trees grew, the people cheered.

It had been King Cecrops duty, as ruler of the city, to judge which god should control it. The king did not hesitate at all. He immediately not only gave the city to Athena, but he named it 'Athens' in her honor as well.

Though time had passed, Poseidon had never forgotten. He waited for his revenge.

"It's an insult!" he said, stamping his trident on the floor as the earth shook in response. "I will have that city back."

He sent high winds to stir up the sea. Wave upon mammoth wave battered the shoreline. Still the walls of Athens stood firm. Then he called into service his barbarous son, Eumolpus the Thracian.

"Do whatever it takes to reclaim my city," Poseidon said. Eumolpus did as he was told and collected a murderous crew and a mighty armada and they sailed to Athens to enslave the citizens.

The walls of Athens held against the onslaught, but King Erichthonius knew they could not hold forever. In the night, he sent a messenger to consult the oracle at Delphi. The messenger returned with a dreaded response.

"The only way to save your city is to sacrifice one of your daughters," the oracle decreed.

Erichthonius paled. How could he do such a barbarous thing? Queen Praxithea and their children also heard the news. It was his daughter Cithonia who broke the silence.

"I will volunteer," she said. "If I don't, we will all die. That would bring disaster to the entire city. Really, father, there is no other choice."

Cithonia was sacrificed and her body was given to Poseidon, who withdrew his storm and sent his son Eumolpus back to Thrace. Erichthonius built a temple for Athena and dedicated it to his daughter, Cithonia, in honor of her courage.

When Erichthonius died, Zeus placed him in the stars as Auriga the Charioteer. The Aegis was draped across his left side, held by Amalthea's goat Capella at his shoulder and her kids were against his wrist. In his right hand he held the whip of the charioteer and upon his lips were the words, "we are not limited by who we are, but by what we think."

Myth Index

Tales of the Immortal Night ©2003, J.J. Kuhl


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