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 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.
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 Pentelikon, 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 building is known for early examples of egg-and-dart, and guilloche ornamental moldings.
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 marks of Poseidon's trident and the salt water well (the "salt sea") that resulted from Poseidon's strike; the sacred olive tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear in her successful rivalry with Poseidon for the city; the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus; the sacred precincts of Cecrops' three daughters, Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus; and those of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes.
The temple itself was dedicated to Athena Polias 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 Eteoboutadae, the supposed descendants of the hero Boutes. The snake's occasional refusal to eat the cakes was thought a disastrous omen.
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 taken from the Parthenon). Athenian legend had it that at night the remaining five Caryatids could be heard wailing for their lost sister. Elgin attempted to remove a second Caryatid; when technical difficulties arose, he tried to have it sawn to pieces. The statue was smashed and its fragments were left behind. It was later reconstructed haphazardly with cement and iron rods. Nowadays the five original Caryatids are displayed in helium-filled glass cases in the Acropolis Museum and are replaced in situ by exact replicas.