Phytalus was a hero and king of Attica. He received Demeter in his home during her search for Persephone. In return for his hospitality, the goddess of agriculture gave him as a present the fig tree. The sacred fig became a fruit of great importance for the Athenians, who honoured Phytalus and his descendants. His tomb was located in the deme Laciadae near the river Cephissus, a short distance west of Athens, on the road to Eleusis. According to Pausanias, the inscription on the grave noted that:
Hero and king, Phytalus here welcome gave to Demeter,
August goddess, when first she created fruit of the harvest;
Sacred fig is the name which mortal men have assigned it.
Whence Phytalus and his race have gotten honours immortal.
Ceres and Phytalus, Salvator Rosa, 1662, engraving, LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art) © LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Members of the Phytalidae, a clan that claimed descent from Phytalus, cleansed Theseus from the murders of bandits and assassins he had committed on his way to Athens and received the right to serve as priests of his hero cult.
The sacred fig given to Phytalus by Demeter was allegedly still alive in the time of Pausanias. It stood near the Sacred Way and served as a temporary stop during the procession to Eleusis on 19 Boedromion. The Eleusinian priests of Demeter were entrusted with its care. They erected a structure to shield it and ensured its proper maintenance. According to a different tradition, Athena gave the fig to the Athenians to console them when they mourned the rape of Persephone by Hades.