Traveling Classroom Foundation
Monday March 27th 2023

Myth & History

It is often difficult to separate legend and myth from history. This is especially true on Naxos, because of the various groups of people who inhabited the island. Different peoples have diverse stories and legends, but these stories become entwined over the centuries.

In an earlier posting, I mentioned the myth recounting how the god Zeus was raised on Naxos. According to legend, Zeus fell in love with a mortal, Semele, daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes, and from their union sprang Dionysos, god of wine and revelry (also of death and rebirth). According to myth, he was born on the island of Naxos and reared by local nymphs (woodland spirits). Dionysos grew to love the island, and used his power to make it a fertile, happy place, giving it rich vineyards that produced good wines.

If we look at what history and archaeology tell us, we can begin to see some reason behind the myths. People have lived here since the Stone Age. Around 3200 BCE, the Cycladic civilization began to flourish on these islands, producing sophisticated sculptures in marble and many trade goods to sell throughout the Aegean. During this period Naxos supported a big population. At excavations near town, we found a developed city with square houses and tiled roofs.

The ancient Cycladic people never heard of Zeus or the Olympian gods. In fact, no one knew of these myths, because the religion connected with them did not exist. Their religion focused on the life-giving forces of the earth that sustained them (changing seasons, fertility of the land, abundance of herds, birth of children, and so on). Because these were thought to be feminine attributes, Nature was venerated in the form of a female figure. In many Greek museums are beautiful marble idols of a “Great Mother” goddess, who had many different names.

Cycladic mother goddess idol (circa 4000 BCE)

The children of Mother Earth met in the open air to acknowledge the bounties of the great deity and their dependence upon her gifts. The ceremonies observed at these festive seasons consisted for the most part in merry-making and in general thanksgiving, in which the gratitude of the worshipers found expression in song and dance, and in invocations to their deity for a return or continuance of her gifts.

Their world changed abruptly after the gigantic volcanic eruption of Thera (Santorini), at the southern end of the Cycladic group of islands. This eruption wrecked the island and caused tsunami waves that devastated cities and shipping ports hundreds of kilometers away on the Minoan island of Crete, ending their dominance in Aegean shipping and trade. Mycenaeans from mainland Greece seized this opportunity to take over Minoan trade routes and territory in the Aegean. The old civilization of the Cyclades faded away.

According to ancient historians, Naxos was first inhabited by Thracians, who dominated the island for centuries. Later, the Carians came from Asia Minor lead by King Naxos, who gave his name to the island. These peoples were displaced by invading Mycenaean warriors. In turn, centuries later, Mycenaeans were replaced by Dorians, and then came the Ionians (all part of the Hellenic or Greek people). Sorting out these different groups can be confusing, especially if you are reading legends and myths from those ancient times.

Perhaps we can try to unravel the myths. For example, Dionysos – who is closely associated with Naxian legend – is not one of the original gods of Olympus. Dionysos is a Thracian god (perhaps even imported from Asia Minor) who was adopted by the Greeks. His mother, Zamela (Semele in Greek), was worshipped as an earth goddess in Thrace. That same goddess also is associated with Demeter, the Greek goddess who influences the seasons and the crops of the earth. She is linked also with Ariadne, wife of Dionysos, whose death and resurrection symbolize the rebirth of nature in spring. Even more peculiar, Dionysos is sometimes identified with both Zeus and Apollo (a god introduced by the Dorians, who later ruled Greece).

So, with a very small cast of only two deities, we can see how the legends of one civilization might influence the next, and the next, over many centuries.

Finding evidence from the past involves some travel around the island. We drive through the village of Melanes, and then a short distance into the hills until we find a sign that directs us to the “kouros.” We descend into a small valley in which there is a farm with lush gardens, fruit trees and olive groves. Some of the gnarled olive trees here are centuries old (they can live 500 years), so it is a fitting place to search for ancient artifacts.


Ancient olive tree

On a hillside at the edge of the olive grove lies a giant, unfinished statue known as “The Ellinas.” This kouros (which means young man) began as a block of marble cut from the hillside quarry during the 7th century BCE. To reduce shipping weight to the sculptor, who planned to create a kouros, a quarry worker roughed out the shape. However, one leg was broken somehow and the stone became worthless to the sculptor, so it was abandoned where it lay.

The giant unfinished kouros at Melanes

A curious thing about kouroi (plural of kouros) is that they all look about the same. These are not representations of any gods. They are statues of an idealized young man in a stiff pose, with arms held straight down next to the body. There is one exception to this rule, and it is here on the island of Naxos. At the northern tip of the island, near the village of Apollonas, is the unfinished statue of a bearded god with one arm bent at the elbow and hand extended. It is ten meters tall and is widely considered to be a statue of the god Dionysos.

Apollon Kouros

Dionysos Statue of Apollonas

These kouroi were made at a time when Naxian society was rich, and an acropolis crowned the hill where the Venetian castle now stands. The people lived well on the profits from agriculture, cattle, fishing and commerce. In 734 BCE, Naxos loaned its fleet to another kingdom for transporting settlers. In addition to getting paid, the island named one of the new settlements. This settlement is now the Sicilian town of Naxos in Italy.

By this time in history the religion and myths of the Olympian gods were established, and wealthy lands like Naxos could afford to build larger monuments and temples to the gods. One of that is most obvious to people arriving at Naxos is the huge marble gate – the Portara – on a small island in the harbor. This was the entrance of a large temple that Venetian conquerors disassembled and used for building materials in their castle. The 20-ton blocks of the Portara were just too big and heavy to move.

The Portara is part of a temple built in the 6th century BCE

Because this gate faces Delos, the island dedicated to the worship of Apollo, some have called it the Delion (temple of Delian Apollo), but other scholars believe it was a temple of Dionysos, patron god of the island. Before the Venetians tore it down, native islanders used the temple as a Christian church.

It is impossible to say how many of the old ways continued into the Christian era. However, in the mountain villages of Naxos some elements of Dionysiac worship survive, especially during the period of carnival before Easter, when costumed young men with bells around their waists (the “koudounatoi”) dance through the hills, singing and making merry.

One of the most important finds in recent years is the temple dedicated to Demeter (or Damater – which means “mother”), who is often connected with Dionysos. We drive there on a tractor path from the farming town of Ano Sagri. The brilliant white temple stands on a hill overlooking the Tragaia, the great central valley of rich farming land. Experts consider it one of the finest Ionic monuments in the country. I can see why.

Temple of Demeter was built in farming area

Although the temple is not intact, the missing parts were found nearby and are carefully numbered and stacked in neat rows. Specialists are now in the process of reassembling the temple. Walking around the building, we can see how the pieces are fitted together, and where new marble has been used.

This temple is built over a much older temple. Excavations around the site reveal the foundation of the earlier structure, as well as stone pits used for offerings to the goddess. The celebrations honoring Demeter were especially large at harvest time, when the farmers would bring offerings of produce from their fields and place these in the pits in front of the temple.

Offering pit in front of the temple

One of the most intriguing features of this temple is its construction. It is made entirely of marble, which is an amazing feat. Most of Greek architects through the Golden Age used a variety of building materials, focusing on marble in the visible walls and columns, and using red clay tiles for the roof. However, a Naxian stone worker discovered a way to produce roof tiles using marble. So the entire temple, including the roof, was built using glowing white marble. At the nearby museum we are pleased to see samples of the white roof tiles, as well as a wonderful full-scale model (using real marble parts), which demonstrates how the roof system was made.

Scale model shows how the temple was built

On our return through Ano Sagri, we see a small sign pointing the way to the Byzantine church of Ayii Apostoloi (Sainted Apostles). Because it is one of the oldest churches with iconic wall paintings, we decide to visit. We park along the road without considering how far we might have to walk. It turns out to be about a kilometer down a steep path, and then along a goat trail to a hay field overlooking the valley. We climb over a rock wall at the rear of the tiny church and walk around to the front. Before going inside the church, we turn to look out across the valley. To our surprise, we are looking down on the temple of Demeter far below.

The church of Ayii Apostoloi on a hillside in Ano Sagri

Inside the church, we find candles lighted by farmers, and small glasses filled with home-made wine – offerings from the harvest given with prayers for a better crop this year. The ages pass by and new temples are built above the old, but people are the same.

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One Comment for “Myth & History”

  • Mary says:

    Why did the ancient Greeks build everything out of marble? Some of the other buildings you show don’t look like they are made of marble. Mary

    Answer: Marble was used because it was available. Marble is more plentiful than any other building material on some of the Cycladic islands. Naxos, for example, is made up of limestone, schist and (mostly) marble. Because of its beauty, marble was selected for temples and other important buildings. However, many homes are also built with marble. Cheryl

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