Greece may be relatively young as a modern state, but it is millennia old as an entity, having forged a nation and a legacy which served as the basic influence for Western civilization as we know it. It’s only to be expected that Greek land is imbued with legends and myths that still inform names and culture in Greece today!
There are many places in Greece that are the locations or the result of famous myths regarding one of the most famous pantheons in the world: the 12 Olympian Greek gods. But none are more fascinating than the Greek islands. There are many that are mythological locations that you can visit today, and where often you can even take the same steps ancient Greeks would have taken when exploring or honoring the very same myths and legends.
Here are some of the most famous Greek islands that are big parts of ancient Greek myths and legends!
Best Islands for Greek Mythology
Unless you are extremely lucky and you visit Tinos during the few days a year when there is no wind, you will experience powerful winds (usually northern) that the locals measure by what can be swept away- chairs or tables.
Tinos is known as the “island of Aeolus”, the god of the winds. Myth has it that it wasn’t always so windy. Its highest mountain, called “Tsiknias” was the residence of the god of the North Wind, who had two children, winged twins called Ziti and Kalain. But the twins challenged Hercules when he was passing by the island with the Argonauts. Hercules chased them to the mountain, where he killed them. Out of grief, the North Wind began fiercely blowing and hasn’t stopped ever since.
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Before Zeus and the Olympians ascended to the throne of Olympus and the ruling of the world, before Cronos, there was the god Uranus (the sky) and the goddess Gaia (the earth). Fearful that the children he had with Gaia would end up dethroning him, he forced Gaia to keep them all within her, forever trapped. At some point, Gaia rebelled and called upon those very children to aid her against Uranus’ tyranny. Cronos, one of Gaia’s sons, took a sickle from her and attacked his father Uranus. He cut off Uranus’ genitals and tossed them in the sea.
From the sperm and the sea water and sea foam, Aphrodite was born, emerging from the sea into land. This land was said to be the island of Kythera, at least according to Hesiod. There are accounts naming Paphos, in Cyprus, as the location. In both islands, the cult of Aphrodite was very strong!
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Ikaria gets its name from Icarus, the son of Daedalus, the master craftsman who is credited with building the Labyrinth under the palace of King Minos in Crete, to keep the Minotaur in. Because he was such an asset, King Minos would not let Daedalus leave Crete. He shut him in a tower along with his son Icarus. To escape, Daedalus constructed wings made of feathers and wax on wooden frames. The wings were a success, and both Daedalus and Icarus flew away towards the north! Icarus was excited as soon as he felt confident flying and started gaining more and more altitude.
In his excitement, he disregarded Daedalus’ warning not to fly too close to the sun. When he did, the sun melted the wax away, and his wings were destroyed. Icarus fell into the sea and was killed. The island close to where it happened took his name and is since named Ikaria.
When Hephaestus was born, his mother Hera, the queen of the gods, found him to be so ugly that she couldn’t tolerate him. With disgust, she tossed him from Mt. Olympus and when Hephaestus landed in the sea, his leg was smashed irreparably. He eventually washed up on the shores of Lemnos, where the locals found him, crippled, abandoned, and injured. The dwellers took him in and raised him in Lemnos (both on land and under the sea!) and Hephaestus adorned the island with wondrous pieces of artwork and craftsmanship.
Even today, you can visit Lemnos’ mini desert, evidence of part of Hephaestus’ forge!
Delos is closely associated with Apollo and his twin sister Artemis. Their mother, Leto, was made pregnant by Zeus, which caused Hera’s intense rage. In her revenge, she made it so Leto could find nowhere to give birth due to a curse. According to the curse, she would not be welcome on any existing earth. That’s why Zeus asked Poseidon to help Leto.
So suddenly, a small island appeared, cruising around in the sea until Leto saw it, and rushed to it, finally welcome. As soon as she landed there, the island stopped moving and Leto could have her children on it. The island became sacred, and everything built on it held sacred character, from effigies to buildings.
Today, Delos is the only Greek island that is, in essence, a museum of ancient Greece all over its surface. Nobody is allowed to give birth or die on Delos, and nobody is allowed on Delos after dark. You can visit the island during the day on day-excursions from Mykonos or Tinos.
When Cronos was ruling the world, before the 12 Olympians, he was afraid he would be toppled by the children he had with Rhea, just like his father before him. So, he forced Rhea to bring him every child when it was born, and he swallowed it, keeping it within him. Rhea was devastated every time it happened so the last baby, Zeus, she decided to keep from Cronos. She disguised a large rock as an infant and gave it to Cronos to eat, and she rushed to Crete to hide her baby.
She chose two caves, Ideon and Dekteo Andro Cave, which you can still visit and marvel at their impressive stalagmite and stalactite formations (especially Dekteo Cave). Zeus grew up there under the protection of the Kourites, young warriors who danced and practiced noisily, covering the baby’s cries so Cronos wouldn’t hear, until Zeus was grown and ready to fight his father and topple him, exactly as Cronos had feared.
Crete is known for its proud stomping and leaping dances, so don’t miss out and watch at least one performance!
Santorini, also called Thera, is famous for its still-live volcano! Its creation is tied with the many legends around the Argonauts: when they were sailing to recover the Golden Fleece, they stopped for the night at a bay in Anaphe island. There, one of the Argonauts who was a demigod, Euphemus, dreamed of himself making love to a nymph. Soon, that nymph announced that she had become pregnant!
She demanded that Euphemus create a safe and calm place for her to carry to term and give birth. She gave him specific instructions, telling him to take a lump of earth from Anaphe and toss it in the sea as far as he could. Euphemus did, and as soon as the earth hit the sea, there was great shaking and groaning of the land, and Santorini emerged, breaking through the surface!
This emergence is, in a way, a description of the volcano rising above sea level. You can today walk to the caldera and enjoy the breathtaking views that Santorini is famous for!
Aphrodite had a mortal lover once, with whom she was in love. His name was Adonis. When Ares, Aphrodite’s official paramour, learned of her affair, he killed Adonis by sending a wild boar to gore him. But Adonis also had a best friend called Milos. They were closer than brothers, so when Milos learned that Adonis had been killed, he killed himself in grief. Milos’ wife, Pelia, followed, unable to live without her husband.
Milos and Pelia had a son, also called Milos, who survived them. Aphrodite took pity on Milos Jr. who became an orphan due to so much grief inspired from love. She took him under her wing and gave him an island to colonize, which she claimed as one of her favorites. Milos gave his name to the island, and you can go today to enjoy good food, great folklore, and crystal-clear beaches!