The Island of Crete and its Myths

Where the gods of Greece were born and lived: a walk on Crete

Gods of Olympus.

Long ago, when the gods walked among men and mighty heroes fought with no less mighty monsters, in the sea that would later be called the Mediterranean, there was the island of Crete, sacred to both gods and men. It was revered for one reason – it was this little piece of land, washed by four seas, that gave the world the first Greek deities, and was the place of their first great feats.

Let us plunge into the deep past, into the period when history itself was just being born, together with the gods who much later took their places in the Greek Pantheon and on Mount Olympus. Let’s turn over the myths we’ve known since childhood and walk through ancient Crete to see that the myths are not always just words.

Sit back and try to imagine the time when on the far continental Greece, on the top of the mountain Olympus there were golden thrones of great gods, when the brave and a little bit mad heroes fought the products of human vices and divine anger, the time when the Sun was a god, and the storm was the evidence of the rage of the greatest son of Crete. With him we begin.

The Cave of Dictea.

The Diktaean Cave of Crete.

This is only the first of many legends associated with Crete, but it is surprisingly good.

According to legend, the goddess Rhea could not give birth to her child on Olympus, for her husband, the titan Kronos (aka Saturn) was devouring his children – he was predicted that one of his sons would overthrow him and imprison him for eternity. The goddess fled in search of shelter, which she found in the Dicty Mountains of Crete.

In a web of deep caves she gave birth to little Zeus, but since Rhea knew her husband would find her everywhere, she returned to Olympus, leaving the baby and her nursing goat in the cave.

Rhea tricked her husband by slipping him a stone wrapped in diapers, and Zeus himself grew up on Crete and later came to Olympus to start the greatest war in the world, the Titanomachy, a war between the Titans and the first Gods that ended with the reign of the Gods on Olympus.

However, it did not help the first people – they were still tormented by the terrible cold and darkness, because Zeus, like his father, preferred to rule by fear rather than love, until the rebellion of the last free titan, Prometheus. But that is another story altogether.

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Rhea gives Cronus the wrapped stone

Of course, the birth of Zeus is only a legend, but there is some truth to the story. The network of caves in the Dikti Mountains is really extensive – this is where Greek rebels hid during the occupation of Greece by fascist Italy.

The cave of Zeus is also there, the truth is that it was so called only in XVIII century, when it was noticed that the cave, located near the village of Psiro is very similar to that described in the first legends.

The enterprising Greeks immediately organized excursions and this was one of the reasons for the subsequent blossoming of Crete as a tourist Mecca. The cave is located at an altitude of 1024 meters above sea level and you can climb down into it with a comfortable metal stairway from the top of the mountain. Thanks to the unique natural conditions and the very beautiful shape of the stone formations, it leaves an indescribable impression, no matter how you feel about the Greek gods, heroes and legends in general.

Prices for visits vary depending on the season, the world economic situation and the enterprising and/or professionalism of your chosen guide (everyone remember the saying “where the Greek has passed, the Jews have nothing to do”?), so it is quite difficult to predict the cost of the tour, but for the most part it is quite democratic – 5-6 euros.

Knossos Palace

The Palace of Knossos

The Palace of Knossos is the greatest mystery of Crete. This majestic structure, which either really was a legendary labyrinth, where the corridors roamed the unfortunate, but too bloodthirsty monster Minotaur, or was very much influenced by the legend of it. The architecture of the palace is simply amazing with its magnificence, and the fact that such beauty existed in the 15th century BC (and according to many archaeologists even earlier) makes us think about the legendary Atlantis and its identification with Crete.

The palace was abandoned by its inhabitants after the Santorin Volcano eruption, and the huge tsunami that followed destroyed it almost to the ground.

The Abduction of Europe

The story of the Minotaur itself is very symbolic, but to understand it you have to go back some time.

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When Zeus fell in love with the beautiful but rejecting Europa, he brought her to Crete to show her how beautiful his subject land was. The girl was enchanted and soon succumbed to the formidable god, who kidnapped her by turning her into a bull.

She lived all her life in Crete, giving birth to two sons, Minos and Radamante, who, by right of children of the god, became the rulers of the island.

Over the years, the differences between the brothers became more and more noticeable, and soon Radamante, as the more reasonable of the two, went on an expedition to the continent on several ships, where he founded a settlement, wisely ruled there and enlightened the surrounding barbarians. As the years passed, he grew more and more weary and finally retired to Boeotia, where he spent his last years with the widow of Amphitryon and the mother of Hercules, Alkmena.

The legendary king Minos

Minos, who remained to reign in Crete, was a great ruler, but a very poor family man. His marriage to Pasiphae failed and it resulted in the birth of a little monster, a man with the head of a bull. The boy was named Minotaur (translated as “Minos the Bull”) and when the boy grew up, he became more bloodthirsty than any monster and stronger than any hero.

Then King Minos locked the monster in a huge labyrinth built by a friend of the ruler – the architect Daedalus – and ordered all the surrounding land to be taxed in the form of their young, which were fed to the Minotaur.

When, many years later, Theseus – one of these sacrificial gifts – with the help of Minos’ daughter cut off the Minotaur’s head and got out of the labyrinth, the king ordered the labyrinth rebuilt into a palace, in which he and his descendants lived. Theseus returned home with a reward (and the daughter of Minos, whom he abandoned on one of the islands on the way), but about the builder of the labyrinth and the palace – Daedalus – we will talk more.

Remains of the labyrinth of the palace of Knossos

In the XIX and XX centuries the palace was partially restored by archaeologist Arthur Evans, who turned the palace site into a strange extravaganza of ruins and restored (from the drawings of Evans himself) buildings, which, however, gives us an idea of how this place looked like in its heyday.

Of course, one can argue about the historical accuracy of the restorations…

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And you can simply walk through the old, mossy ruins, see the frescoes restored by Evans in a unique “Knossos” style and feel the greatness of the people who created this splendor.

Entrance to the territory of the palace is paid, costs 6 euros, which for the average European tourist is a symbolic amount, in addition the children are allowed free of charge.

Island of Icaria

Caves of Icaria

This small island, where no more than ten thousand people live, is a true Mecca for spelunkers and lovers of ancient legends.

Speleologists come here to explore the island’s multi-level caves, which even after more than fifty years of work by scientists, keep their secrets, but another part of the visitors come to take a look at the last resting place of the first balloonist.

Daedalus was not just a great architect, he was also a famous sculptor and inventor who invented things like the drill and the waterpipe.

The Legendary Daedalus

Of course, his talent as a sculptor is controversial because, on the one hand, the statues of monsters he created were so real that even the hero Hercules mistook them for enemies and started throwing stones at them (although the winner of the Lernaean Hydra was dead drunk at the time).

On the other hand, a few centuries later, they began to arouse only laughter among the Greeks, and they were so ridiculous that practically all the statues were hidden or destroyed.

In any case, Daedalus was an acknowledged scientist and that is why he was invited by King Minos, to whom Daedalus presented his inventions.

Years went by and Daedalus, who had married, become a father and widowed in Crete, asked Minos to let him go back as he was homesick. Minos was surprised by the request – Daedalus was his confidant and knew too many secrets, but he was also his friend, whom the king could not kill. In the end, Minos forbade the great Greek to leave the island and closed the harbors.

Monument to Daedalus and Icarus in Agia Galini on Crete

Daedalus then carried out his greatest and most tragic plan – by waxing the feathers of mighty albatrosses and eagles, he obtained enormous wings capable of keeping a man in the air. Together with his son Icarus, the architect jumped off a cliff facing Sicily, but before he did so he warned Icarus that the wings would disintegrate from the heat if he flew high, and would get wet from sea water if he flew too low.

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But Icarus, enchanted by the beauty of the sun, flew high into the sky and collapsed like a stone’s throw onto a small island off Crete. The grieved father came down to get him, but all he could do was to bury his son on the island, which would later be called Icaria, and the surrounding sea, Icarusian (in Russian-speaking countries, Aegean). Daedalus himself successfully reached Sicily and even caused a war between the two states, but he never returned to Crete.

To get to Icarius you can either by plane – on the island there is a small airport for private jets – or by ship, which takes about 20 hours if you sail from Crete. Ticket prices vary depending on the season.

Apthera

Ruins of Aptera

Aptera is the most powerful slave city of Crete from the 11th-10th centuries BC.

It was independent and was situated on a high hill above the southern shore of the Gulf of Sudan. The name of the city comes from the legend that once upon a time in the former Temple of the Muses (now the Church of St. John the Theologian) there was a creative duel between the best singers of Greece – the Sirens and the Muses. The sirens lost the musical battle and lost their wings in grief, then threw themselves into the sea, where the feathers from their crumbling wings formed islands. Hence the city’s name, “Wingless.” It is worth noting that legend has not preserved the name of the judge, but he or she showed great fortitude in not being seduced by the singing of the sirens.

Another version of the origin of the name of the city is related to King Peter, who ruled it around the time of the Trojan War. From the king only a few testimonies remained, interpreted in two ways, but this version is supported by some eminent scientists.

The old majesty of Aptera

Nowadays the ruins of Aptera are one of the most popular tourist routes in Crete and excavations are still being done there.

A large part of the city stands mothballed – there are not many archaeologists, especially in recent years, when archaeology, like other not particularly profitable sciences, suffered from the crisis.

For tourists, subject to certain rules, the entire already explored part of Apthera is open, which is enough to get stuck there for a few hours – the territory of this old town is truly huge.

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Sights of Crete

We also read about other places of interest on the island of Crete.

About the goddess of love in ancient Greece, Aphrodite, myths and places that are associated with her you will learn from this article.

Read more about the weather in Crete here.

The Tomb of Zeus

The supposed tomb of Zeus

It seems rather symbolic that the era of the gods ended where it began. And the tomb of the greatest of them is not too far from where he was born.

In fact, this tomb originally belonged to the Cretan Olympus, who raised Zeus and taught the supreme god the art of warfare.

But Olympus betrayed his adopted son and formed an alliance with the Titans who were to kill Zeus.

The attempt failed and the god destroyed his adopted father a few years before the Titanomachy began, but he did not want to deny the man’s influence on his life and ended up giving his name to the tomb, burying Olympus personally.

Later sources claim that his human essence died inside Zeus that day (though where would it come from?), which is why the place is called “Zeus’ Tomb,” but the earlier sources simply state that Zeus dug a grave in this place.

Mount Yuchtas in Greece

The tomb is located on Mount Yuhtas and is open to tourists, and around constantly circling the local guides, who will be happy to tell you about Olympus, Zeus and the Titans in all languages they know.

The Titanomachy has long ago died down and the ancient gods, even if they existed, have left this world, leaving us only beautiful legends about the heroes of the past – their greatest descendants.

The children of Zeus led Greece into its golden age, gave the country a culture that later conquered the whole world, and engraved their names in history forever.

Nothing vanishes without a trace. Greek culture is still alive! This is especially visible in Crete, which has escaped the madness of the mainland. If you want to feel yourself as a part of that wonderful history, as an heir of the past centuries, come to Crete and you will see, that despite the past millennia, the island keeps the traces of the people, gods and titans that lived here. And it will be preserved until the memory of those who ruled this world before us.

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