Cecrops (in Greek, Κέκρωψ, Kékrōps) was a mythical king of Athens. The name means 'face with a tail': it is said that, born from the earth itself, he had his top half shaped like a man and the bottom half in serpent or fish-tail form. He was the founder and the first king of Athens itself, though preceded in the region by the earth-born king Actaeus of Attica. Cecrops is said to have ruled Athens 1556–1506 BCE. Cecrops was a culture hero, teaching the Athenians marriage, reading and writing, and ceremonial burial.
During his reign, Athena became the patron goddess of the city of Athens in a competition with Poseidon which Cecrops judged. They agreed that each would give the Athenians one gift, and Cecrops would choose whichever gift they preferred. Poseidon struck the rock of the Acropolis with his trident and a spring sprang up; the water was salty and was not thought very useful, whereas Athena struck the rock with her lance and an olive tree sprung up. Cecrops judged the olive tree to be the superior gift, for the olive tree brought wood, oil and food, and consequently accepted Athena as their patron. Poseidon, in a rare show of magnanimity, decided to grant his gift regardless, although its nature was initially misunderstood: it was meant to represent sea power, which Athens was to exercise gloriously in the future.
The Acropolis was also known as the Cecropia in his honor.
Cecrops I was the father of three daughters: Herse, Pandrosus and Aglaurus. To them was given a box or jar containing the infant Erichthonius to guard unseen. They looked, and terrified by the two serpents Athena had set within to guard the child, they fled in terror and lept from the Acropolis to their deaths. Some accounts say one of the sisters was turned to stone instead.
Apparently Cecrops married Aglaurus, the daughter of Actaeus (former king of the region). It is unknown if this woman was the mother of Cecrops's son Erysichthon. Erysichthon predeceased him, and he was succeeded by Cranaus.
A fictional version of Cecrops I was portrayed by the actor Tony Todd in an episode of the popular TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, in which Gabrielle encounters Cecrops who was cursed by Poseidon to travel the seas for choosing Athena over him. The curse was said to last until "love has redeemed him" and was granted immortality by Athena which he regrets, until Poseidon tries to claim his ship after realizing that Cecrops' curse is soon to end.