The Athenian state religion of the Classical period and later gave special prominence to a group of local heroes, whose primary characteristic was their autochthony. Their legitimacy and local origin was expressed literally--in myths of their birth from the soil, usually in a partly human and partly serpentine form. As first fathers, they embodied the genesis of the Athenian people and the legitimacy of their claim to the land of Attica, and, as the first kings, the origin of the social, political, legal, and religious order.
The religious mentality of the Greeks of this time characteristically projected historical realities back into a mythic Urzeit, in which the entire structure of civilized life came into being in an orderly sequence. These foundations were partly the work of the autochthonous heroes and partly the teaching of the gods, who passed through Attica as beneficial visitors, and who also established permanent residences in the form of their cult centers, placed at structurally significant locations around the city.
In this context the autochthons played the role of exalted representatives of the people as a whole in the presence of the gods. In myth their activity extended further as military leaders, or saviors of the polis--a function related to the tutelary role of the oikouros ophis. This found an expression on myths of self-sacrifice--a deed often transferred to the kings' daughters. Athenian religion possessed two original autochthons, both born from the soil and partly serpentine, Cecrops and Erechtheus. Both had daughters, basically in groups of three, whose suicide or self-sacrifice preserved the state and people or resulted in the foundation of major cults.
Although aspects of their myth and cult appear primitive and share functional and formal traits with unrelated cultures, the autochthons as we know them through the surviving evidence are products of a religious instauratio of the fifth century and later--a response to crises which created a need for the reaffirmation of tradition. This thesis shows the way in which political and intellectual forces determined the content and structure of this so-called tradition. The concept of autochthony was shaped by Sophistic rationalism. A fictitious king-list required by the chronicle-form of the Atthides determined the autochthons' number and interrelationship. Quasi-scientific anthropologies further recast them in the role of cultural heroes analogous to those put forward by the religious propaganda of the Ptolemies.