THE SHIP OF THE PLAINS
E was the first real flesh-and-blood horse of which we
have any account. Some men say that he was the first
animal of the kind that ever lived, but this is
doubtful. Snowy white, without spot or blemish, from
the tips of his ears to the tips of his amber hoofs,
how he must have astonished the simple-minded folk of
Cecropia when he leaped into their midst right out of
the earth at their feet! If you should ever go to
Athens and climb to the top of that wonderful hill
called the Acropolis, look around you. You may see the
very spot where it all happened. But to the story.
Did I say that the people who lived there at that time
were simple-minded? Rather childlike they were in some
ways, and not so worldly-wise as they might have been
had they lived several thousand years later; but they
were neither simpletons nor altogether savages. They
were the foremost people in Greece. It was all owing to
 their king, wise old Cecrops, that they had risen to a
station superior to that of the half-wild tribes around
them. He had shown them how to sow barley and wheat and
to plant vineyards; and he had taught them to depend
upon these and their flocks and herds for food, rather
than upon the wild beasts of the chase. He had
persuaded them to lay aside many of their old cruel
customs, had set them in families with each its own
home, and had instructed them in the worship of the
gods. On the top of the Acropolis they had built a
little city, and surrounded it with walls as a
protection against attacks from their warlike
neighbors; and from this point as a center they had,
little by little, extended their influence to the sea
on one side and to the mountains on the other. But,
strange to say, they had not yet given a name to their
city, nor had they decided which one of the gods should
be its protector. They had been so busy, learning and
doing, that they had had no time to think about such
On a certain day in autumn, after the grain had been
harvested and the grapes had been gathered and made
into wine, two strangers suddenly appeared in the
market-place. Nobody knew whence they came, nor how
 climbed the steep pathways and entered within
the walls unseen by the guards. The man, dark haired,
huge-limbed and strong, bore as his only weapon a
trident, or three-pronged harpoon, made of bronze. The
woman was tall and stately, with large, round eyes and
long hair that fell in ringlets about her shoulders,
and she wore a gleaming helmet upon her head, and
carried a bright, round shield upon her arm.
"What is the name of this city?" asked the man,
speaking to the wondering people in the market-place.
"It has no name," answered one of the wisest among
them; "but we sometimes call it Cecropia, or the city
of Cecrops, the king who founded it and is its ruler.
The country round about us is called Attica, because it
is bounded on three sides by the sea."
"But where is your temple?" asked the woman. "And which
of the gods is your city's patron and guardian?"
"Truly, we have but lately learned that there are any
gods," was the answer; "and we render homage unto them
all. If we knew which one of them would bless our
people with the richest gifts, that one should be our
patron and guardian,
 and to that one we would rear a
temple. But how shall we know?"
"Do but lead us into the presence of the king," said
the strange man, "and the matter shall be decided at
It happened that at that very moment King Cecrops was
seated in his chair of state at the gate of the
market-place, where he was wont every morning to listen
to the petitions of his people and to dispense justice
to rich and poor alike. When the two strangers were led
into his presence he was so struck by their majestic
appearance that he arose and received them standing,
and in tones of humility and respect bade them make
known their names and their errand.
"My name," said the woman, "is Athena, and it is I who
give men wisdom and skill, and teach them the arts of
peace and instruct them in all manner of handicraft.
Make me the patron and guardian of this beautiful new
city that you have builded, and its fame and that of
the people who dwell therein shall be remembered to the
end of time."
"Not so!" cried her companion. "I am Poseidon, the
strong, the ruler of the sea, the shaker of the earth,
and I claim this city for my own.
 Would you be rich and
powerful, with fleet ships upon the sea and great
armies upon the land? Would you make yourselves feared
by all the nations of the earth? Then accept me as your
patron, and build me a temple here upon your
"Which shall it be, my people?" asked King Cecrops of
the multitude that had gathered around. "Which shall we
choose for our city's heritage, "Wisdom or Strength?"
"Wisdom!" cried some. "Strength!" cried others. And
there was great confusion. Finally, an old man with
white hair and very long white beard made himself
"It seems to me, O King," he said, "that we should
choose that one for our patron and guardian who can
give us the most substantial blessings. We are a new
people, and as yet we know so little of either Wisdom
or Strength that we are not qualified to judge which is
best. But let Athena and Poseidon each give us
something, now and here, as a sample of the blessings
which they promise us, and do you, O King, with your
twelve councilors, decide which has offered the better
gift; and then we will choose that one to be the patron
and guardian of our city, and to
 that one we will build
a temple here on our Acropolis."
"It is well!" cried the king.
"It is well!" cried Athena and Poseidon.
"It is well!" echoed the people.
"And do you agree?" asked the king, addressing the
"We agree," said they both. "We submit to the trial at
once; and do you and your councilors decide which of
our gifts is the more acceptable."
Then Poseidon strode haughtily forward and smote the
bare rock with his trident. So heavy was his stroke
that the entire hill trembled beneath it, and a deep,
narrow cleft was opened in the solid limestone. Then
out of the fissure there leaped a snow-white horse with
flashing eyes and arching neck and impatient feet. It
was the most wonderful creature that the people had
ever seen, and they were terribly frightened by his
"Behold the horse!" said Poseidon. "Behold the noblest
of all beasts, man's best friend, the emblem of power
and strength and of your own glorious future with me as
your patron and protector."
Then Athena touched the ground with her
 shield, and
forthwith there sprang out two tiny green leaves; and
to these two other leaves were added, and then others
and others, until a slender twig appeared. Then the
twig grew into a spreading tree, with clusters of
flowers and rich, oil-producing fruit; and birds built
their nests among the branches, and children gamboled
in the shade beneath.
"Behold the olive tree!" said Athena. "It is my gift to
you, and the emblem of the blessings that I will confer
upon your city."
The king and his councilors sat for a long time in
silence, looking now upon the beautiful but terrible
animal, and now upon the tree with its fruit and
flowers and inviting shade. The horse was by far the
most attractive object that they had ever seen, and the
longer they looked upon him the more their wonder grew.
"What will we do with him now that we have him?" asked
"Will he feed the hungry?" asked another.
"Truly, he will be but an expensive luxury to us," said
a third, "and not nearly so great a blessing to our
people as the olive tree."
And so they rendered their decision. Poseidon's gift,
they said, was a noble one, a wonderful
 one; but
Athena's was preferable because it promised the most
substantial blessings to all the people.
"Athena shall be our patron and protector!" cried they.
"And the name of our city shall be Athens, and we are
henceforth Athenians!" cried all the people. And they
forthwith began to clear the ground for the erection of
that world-renowned temple, the ruins of which still
crown the summit of the Acropolis. And Athena took up
her abode with them.
As for Poseidon, he strode out of the gates in great
rage, and the hill shook again under his heavy
footsteps as he descended to the plain. He loosed all
the winds and sent them hurtling against the walls of
Athens, and for twelve days there were storms on sea
and land the fiercest that men had ever seen. But what
had those to fear who had chosen Wisdom for their
protector and friend?
The wonderful steed which Poseidon had brought out of
the rock was a greater terror than the storm, and the
good people were glad to open the city gate and allow
him to depart. Having descended into the fields, he
tossed his head
 proudly, kicked his heels high into the
air, and set off at great speed toward distant Thessaly
and the vast pasture lands of the North. The men of
Athens watched him in his flight across the plain.
Swift as the whirlwind, with his long mane floating
gracefully over his back, he looked not unlike some
white-sailed vessel scudding before the wind across the
ruffled surface of the sea.
The people had been at a loss to find a name for the
strange creature, but they caught eagerly at the
suggestion that now offered itself.
"Swift as the whirlwind."
"See!" cried one, "is he not a ship, a skiff with
"He is the Ship of the Plains!" said another.
"Yes, we will call him Skyphios, or the Ship of the
Plains!" cried they all.
And men afterward said that it was from Skyphios that
the wild horses of the Scythian desert—nay, of all the
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