I woke the other day with a strange dread of the name Cecrops. There in bed, in the early morning dark, I actually caught myself mouthing the words: ‘…slow-motion horror of a word like Cecrops.’
I had to refresh my memory, but it turns out that Cecrops was a mythical early king of Athens (half man and half fish or snake) who once refereed a contest between Athena and Poseidon to choose a patron god for the city. Each would offer the Athenians a gift, and Cecrops would select the winner. Facing off at the acropolis, Poseidon gave the Athenians a spring of brackish water. Athena struck a stone with her spear and up came an olive tree. Afraid Poseidon’s unpotable spring wouldn’t be much use (not realizing it symbolized naval power), Cecrops chose in favor of Athena. At least the olive tree would provide tangible benefits like food and fuel, he thought.
Goddess of the art of war, of cunning heroes and various crafts, Athena is also famously associated with wisdom. (“The owl of Minerva only spreads its wings in the falling dusk” said Hegel, suggesting we only understand anything from a bird’s eye view and after dark [clears throat].) Unable to penetrate the symbolism of the gods’ gifts, Cecrops appears to have nonetheless chosen wisely – since understanding was apparently what he lacked. But then again, if the gifts of Greeks are suspect, the gifts of their gods are doubly so.
In order, then, to exorcise the dread of ‘Cecrops’ from my mind, I penned the following lines, just for fun, to honor the ancient fish-king of Athens:
C E C R O P S
Old Cecrops chose the olive tree
for purely practical reasons
and handed false Minerva right
to exercise her treasons.
Unsightly scales and lacking legs
kept him from going to college
where, if he had, Cecrops had learned:
Woe drinks each night with Knowledge.