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The Erechtheum, or Erechtheion, is an ancient Greek temple on the north side of the Acropolis of Athens in Greece, notable for a design that is both elegant and unusual.

The temple as seen today was built between 421 BC and 407 BC. Its architect may have been Mnesicles or possibly Kallikrates, and it derived its name from a shrine dedicated to the legendary Greek hero Erichthonius. Some have suggested that it may have been built in honour of the legendary king Erechtheus, who is said to have been buried nearby. It is believed to have been a replacement for an older temple destroyed by the Persians around 480 BC.

The Erectheum was associated with some of the most ancient and holy relics of the Athenians:

  • the Palladion, which was a xoanon (defined as a wooden effigy fallen from heaven - not man-made) of Athena Polias (Protectress of the City)
  • the tomb of Cecrops
  • the tomb of Erechtheus
  • the marks of Poseidon's trident and the salt water well (the "salt sea") that resulted from Poseidon's strike, the sacred olive tree planted by Athena in her successful rivalry with Poseidon for the city, and
  • the precincts of Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus (the three daughters of Cecrops)where CeCrops'grave and Athena's olive tree were located (adjacent to the erechtheion) and of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes.

The temple itself was dedicated to Athena and Poseidon Erechtheus. Within the foundations lived the sacred snake of the temple, which represented the spirit of Cecrops and whose well-being was thought essential for the safety of the city. The snake was fed honey-cakes by Canephorae, the priestesses of Athena Polias, by custom the women of the ancient family of the Eteoboutadae. Their name was The snake's occasional refusal to eat the cakes was thought a disastrous omen.

The need to preserve multiple adjacent sacred precincts likely explains the complex design. The main structure consists of up to four compartments, the largest being the east cella, with an Ionic portico on its east end. Other current thinking (Lesk, A Diachronic Examination of the Erechtheion and Its Reception 2004 would have the entire interior at the lower level and the East porch used for access to the great altar of Athena Polias via a balcony and stair and also as a public viewing platform.

On the north side, there is another large porch with columns, and on the south, the famous "porch of the maidens", with six draped female figures (Caryatids) as supporting columns. One of the Caryatids was removed by Lord Elgin in order to decorate his Scottish mansion, and was later sold to the British Museum (along with the pedimental and frieze sculpture plundered from the Parthenon). Athenian legend had it that at night the remaining five Caryatids could be heard wailing for their lost sister. Nowadays the five original Caryatids are displayed in helium-filled glass cases in the Acropolis Museum and are replaced in situ by exact replicas. The porch was built to conceal the giant 15-ft beam needed to support the southwest corner over the Kekropion after the building was drastically reduced in size and budget following the onset of the Peloponnesian War.

The entire temple is on a slope, so the west and north sides are about 3 m (9 ft) lower than the south and east sides. It was built entirely of marble from Mount Pentelikos, with friezes of black limestone from Eleusis which bore sculptures executed in relief in white marble. It had elaborately carved doorways and windows, and its columns were ornately decorated (far more so than is visible today); they were painted, gilded and highlighted with gilt bronze and multi-colored inset glass beads.

The intact Erechtheum was extensively described by the Roman geographer Pausanias (1.26.5 - 27.3), writing a century after it had been restored in the 1st century AD. The internal layout has since been obscured by the temple's later use as a church and possibly as a Turkish harem.

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  • Pausanias
  • Charles Weller, Athens and Its Monuments (Macmillan, 1913)
  • G. P. Stevens and J. M. Paton, The Erechtheum (1927)
  • I. T. Hill, The Ancient City of Athens (1953)