One of the many reasons to visit the beautiful island of Crete is to explore its rich history, something that has been highlighted recently with the discovery of two very well preserved figures of Artemis and Apollo, dating back to the first or second century AD and found within the ancient city of Aptera.
Apollo was particularly worshipped on Crete in the form of Apollo Delphinios; he is thought to have appeared to priests as a dolphin and carried them from Crete to Delphi, where the famous Oracle was based in his temple. His sister Artemis has some connections to the Minoan deity called Britomartis, their goddess of mountains and hunting.
Although we’ve touched on the history and myths of Crete a few times before on our blog, and our Crete villa holidays give you a great base for exploring the settings of these tales, many don’t realise just how many of the famous Greek myths are centred on the island.
The titan Cronos had learned that he was to be overthrown by his son, as he had overthrown his own father Uranus, and thus devoured each of his children whole at birth. However, when his youngest son, Zeus, was born on Crete he was hidden by his mother Rhea in a cave on Mount Ida.
Variations of the story say that he was raised by either a goat or a nymph, that he was dangled by a rope from a tree in order to be hidden not on the earth, in the sea or in the heavens (all of which were ruled by his father), and that he was protected by a company of soldiers called Kouretes, who danced, shouted and clashed their spears in order to disguise the baby’s cry. Zeus, of course, grew up to manhood, overthrew his father and released his siblings, and went on to become King of the Gods and father to many – including Artemis and Apollo.
One of the many conquests of Zeus was the princess Europa, daughter of a Phoenician king and the woman for whom the entire continent was named. Enamoured of her beauty, Zeus transformed himself into a white bull and placed himself in amongst the king’s herd. When Europa approached him, he allowed her to get up on his back – and then ran for the sea and swam, with her on board, to Crete. There he revealed his true identity, and she became the first queen of the island.
To protect her, Zeus gave Europa the giant bronze automaton Talos, who protected the island from pirates and invaders. It’s said that Talos patrolled the island three times daily; since the coastline is some 650 miles, this gives some idea of his size, as he would have needed to move at over 80mph in order to do so. Talos also appears in the story of Jason and the Argonauts, as they return with the Golden Fleece and are held at bay by the giant throwing stones. He is defeated by the arts of the sorceress Medea.
Minos & the Minotaur
From the union of Zeus and Europa, three sons were born. The eldest, Minos, banished his brothers and ruled over the island. The most famous tale concerning him is, of course, that of the Minotaur. When Minos refused to sacrifice a white bull to Poseidon, the God of the Sea took revenge by cursing Minos’ wife Pasiphae with an unnatural desire for the bull. She had a wooden cow built in order to satisfy that desire, and from their union a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature – the Minotaur – was born. King Minos had the Labyrinth built in order to hide the creature away, and ordered that seven young men and seven young maidens from Athens be sacrificed to it every year. This continued until Theseus happened to be amongst their number, and the hero defeated the Minotaur and led his companions out to safety.
The Flight of Icarus
The Labyrinth was designed for Minos by the inventor Daedalus – and to ensure that he didn’t reveal the secrets of the Minotaur’s prison, Daedalus and his son were imprisoned by the king. Such a cunning craftsman is not, however, easily incarcerated, and he constructed wings for himself and his son from wax and feathers, so that they might fly to safety. Icarus, as the familiar story goes, flew too close to the sun despite his father’s warnings, and the wax holding his wings together melted, sending him plunging into the sea.
As all things come to an end, so too did the Minoan civilisation that King Minos had created. This great civilisation came to an end at around the time of a great volcanic eruption on what is now Santorini, one of the largest eruptions in human history. It’s thought that this event caused an enormous tsunami, which would have washed over the Minoan settlements on Crete and caused devastation. An exceptionally advanced civilisation, lost beneath the waters of a great flood? To some, this is evidence that the lost civilisation of Atlantis was, in fact, on Crete.
This concludes our whistle-stop tour of the myths and history of this stunning island! To find out more – well, we suggest you pay Crete a visit!