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The Aegean Myth And History


The Age of Blue Memory


Olive trees and vineyards as far as the sea
Red fishing smacks beyond, as far as memory
August's golden sheaves in midday slumber
With seaweed and shells. And that green boat,
Just launched, still blessing the water's peaceful breast with
"God will provide."


The years went by, leaves or pebbles,
I recall the young men, the sailors who left,
Their sails dyed the color of their hearts
Their songs telling of the four horizons
The north winds tattooted on their chests.


(From the collection “Orientations” by Odysseas Elytis)


In the History of the Peloponnesian War Thucydides records the ancient tradition according to which Minos was the first who acquired war fleet and dominated over the majority of the Aegean, which was called "Greek sea" at the time of the author. Minos conquered the Cyclades and founded colonies in most of them after having expelled the Carians who lived there. In fact, on the islands he assigned his sons as rulers who, according to Diodorus, were Alcaeus in Paros, Anius in Delos and Andreas in Andros. He also fought maritime piracy to ensure the unhindered access of the Minoans to the various products of the islands.

Herodotus writes in “Cleo” that the Carians had come to Asia Minor from the islands. He had heard the old stories which narrated that in the past the Carians were islanders called Leleges. They were under the authority of Minos without paying taxes, but they were forced to man his ships when needed. Minos acquired great power and with his victorious wars he subjugated many areas, he enslaved the Carians as well who at that time enjoyed great respect among other nations, since they were the inventors of the plume on the helmets and the fitment in the martial shields. Much later, always according to Herodotus, the Dorians and the Ionians drove the Carians out of the islands and the latter settled in Asia Minor. Of course, he does not fail to note that this is the version of the Cretans about the Carians, since they considered themselves indigenous of the Asia Minor land.
Indeed, as pointed out by archaeologists, the small islands of the Cyclades and the Aegean Sea with the little cultivatable land and the limited number of residents, were always bound to be under the influence of continental Greece and the larger land areas such as Crete. Thus since the prehistoric times the islanders had taken over the role of navigators and facilitators of transfer and exchange of merchandise.

The geographical area of ​​the Aegean with the Cyclades, the Dodecanese and Crete having a short distance between them and the coasts of continental Greece and Asia Minor, determined the fate and the historical evolution of the islands. As noted by the distinguished archaeologist and head of the excavation at the Prehistoric settlement of Akrotiri, in Santorini, Mr. Christos Ntoumas, the limitations of the natural environment forced the islanders to become resourceful and inventive. They discovered, mined and processed rocks such as obsidian, marble and emery. They developed the melting of minerals, metallurgy and of course the shipbuilding art and the navigation-particularly from the 3rd millennium BC.

From very early they showed a technology that allowed them to apply the knowledge of the natural laws they gained, the chemistry of the materials, meteorology and astrology. Archaeological evidence shows they preceded in technology compared to the landsmen. Utilizing their lead, with their ships they transported and exchanged goods from the mainland coasts. It is argued that the people from the Cyclades passed their nautical knowledge to the Minoans and later to the Mycenaeans, who in turn made use of it in their commercial activities throughout the southeastern Mediterranean.




Many mythological narratives of the ancient Greek world are connected to the navigation of the Aegean islands in the late Neolithic Age and at the beginning of the Early Bronze Age. The Argonaut and the Trojan campaigns refer to the movement of the first metallurgists in the Aegean, in order to find new sources of raw material and breeding markets as well. The myth of the Golden Fleece’s return from Colchis has a historic core that reflects the expansion of the Mycenaean trade with the aim of transporting metallurgical products and the search of extraction techniques and gold processing. In addition, the myth of Prometheus’s punishment chained to the Caucasus by Zeus refers to the beginnings of metallurgy in the Aegean associated with the introduction of technology and finished products from the Black Sea region.

Under the light of the relationships and the interactions between people in the Mediterranean region we must understand other Greek myths as well that suggest the path taken by the metallurgical art in the Bronze Age through the Aegean seaways.

Cadmus, the son of Agenor, seeking his sister Europe who was grabbed by Zeus disguised as a bull, went to the island of Rhodes with his mother Telephassa. He left some Phoenicians to guard the sanctuary of Poseidon that he built, and traveled to Thassos where he founded a colony and settled his brother Thasos, the first settler of the island whose name was given to the island. Desperately searching for his sister he arrived in Thrace and in ancient Idonida in the Pangaion region. According to Plinius, Cadmus who was of Phoenician origin was the one who first discovered the precious metals of Pangaion and taught people to extract the precious metal and use it to produce several masterpieces. To the suffering of Cadmus answer was given by Pythia’s oracle who told him to follow the first cow he would find in his way. Thus, following the cow which had broken out of the herd of Pelagon, he was building cities in the places it stopped to eventually end up in the land of Boeotia, where he founded Cadmeia, the ancient Thebes.

The numerous versions of the myth about Telchines are connected to the early metallurgy in the Aegean where he presents them as great craftsmen and inventors. The first discovery of metal processing, like copper and iron, is attributed to those by Strabo. Furthermore, their ancient mythographers, like the Sicilian Diodorus, regarded them as conceivers of many tools of the mining art that it was as if they were missing limbs when they carried those tools. They went to Cyprus from Crete where they lived to finally settle in Rhodes which was named Telchinis. They constructed the "harpe," the sickle-like sword with which Cronus castrated his father Uranus.  

Telchines along with Kafeira, the daughter of Oceanus, nursed Neptune, when Rhea entrusted them with her baby. When he grew up, they made the terrible trident of the god of the sea. Additionally, the myth goes that Poseidon gets Alia as his wife, who was the sister of Telchines. With her he had six sons and one daughter, Rhodes, who gave her name to the island.

The ancient believed that Telchines were the first to built statues of gods, “Apollo Telchinis" in Lindos, Hera and the Nymphs in Ialyssos and "Hera Telhinia” in Kamiros. The construction of the necklace that Cadmus gave his wife, Harmonia, as a wedding gift, which was the cause of many evils to their offsprings, is attributed to them, in collaboration with the Cyclopes. Suetonius tells us that some of them were Chryson, Argyron and Chalkon.   

Telchines, the children of Pontus and Gaia were strange, demonic beings who had human form. They had no legs, but they had wings where the arms are and an ancient myth wants them charmers and causes of the evil eye. They have magical abilities and they altered the weather causing fogs while destroying animals and plants with sulfur and poisonous water from Styx. The legend shows them envious and ‘libelous’ holding jealously the secrets of their art exclusively for them. All these seem to have caused Zeus’s punishment who decided to destroy them with the deluge of Rhodes. Informed by Artemis, they left the island before the deluge and fled to Crete. Furthermore, some myths link Telchines to the Curetes and Idaean Dactyls. The last were born when Rhea, who was hidden from Saturn in a cave, had labor pains. To avoid the throes of childbirth being heard she plunged her fingers into the earth from where the ten Idaean Dactyls sprang. Some of them were called Kelmis (melting tool of iron), Acmon (anvil) and Damnamenefs (he who subdues the iron - hammer).

Maybe the reference to the specific and closed-organized group of metalworkers in the Bronze Age in the Aegean, who kept the secrets of their art cryptic, is hidden behind the myth of Idaean Dactyls and Telchines. The prestige gained in insular micro-societies led them to be treated as charmers with magical powers and great wisdom in natural sciences, just as the mythical Telchines. In addition, through the myths we see the interconnection of metal with the religious worship.



The myth of the largest labour of Theseus is the extermination of the Minotaur of course. The naming of the Aegean Sea seems to be associated with this. Taking the story from the beginning, the king of Athens, after many attempts with Aethra finally had Theseus by divine intervention, the desired son and heir of his throne. After many feats he finally arrived in Athens, which at that time was in a difficult situation because of the assassination of Androgeos son of Minos, while he was heading to Thebes. This caused the anger of Minos and together with his fleet he marched against Athens which suffered from the plague and famine, the result of Zeus’s fair punishment which was invoked by the inconsolable father in his pain.

The Oracle of Delphi advised the Athenians to accept the demand of Minos who forced them for nine successive years to sacrifice seven young men and seven maidens as food for the Minotaur. He was devouring them within the labyrinth, or they were condemned to wander until they die unable to find the exit. The third year when the time was for the Athenians to pay the death toll to Minos, Theseus volunteered to go to Crete without pulling a ballot. With the Aphrodite’s intervention Ariadne, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, fell in love with Theseus and helped him defeat the Minotaur. By giving, according to Plutarch, the famous "ball of thread" he successfully found the exit of the labyrinth. After he exterminated the monster, the hero boarded the ship back along with Ariadne. Arriving in Naxos, however, he was forced to be separated from Ariadne since Dionysus took her as his wife.

The ship Theseus had taken to Crete had black sails-sign for the certain loss of the young Athenians. Aegeus, however, had given the pilot another white sail to raise if his son returned unharmed. In the joy of the return they forgot to change the sail and Aegeus, according to Pausanias, when he saw black sails on the vessel committed suicide by falling into the sea.

As the archaeologist Christos Ntoumas writes, perhaps the origin of the name of the Aegean Sea from the mythical king of Athens is after all just a wrong etymology deliberately reinforced by the ancient Athenians. It seems that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur conceals the effort of ancient Athens to impose the consolidation of his own sovereignty in the entire Aegean through the assertion of the omnipotence of Minos. Thus, the myth, which wants Athens to permanently be exempted from the tribute to the Minoans, becomes a legitimizing element of its naval expansionism alongside.



Searching, however, the etymology of the name Aegean in the dictionaries we discover something extremely interesting. The large waves, according to lexicographer Hesychius, are called "aIges (goats)," while the Daldianian Artemidorus writes in his famous work «Oneirocritica»: “Large waves, in the common tongue, also epaigizo (I goat up), in place of 'I blow forcefully’.” In the full of tempests Aegean people’s imagination likens the foam of the large waves with white goats running delirious under the gusts of the strong winds to the "foreshore".

Although some linguists talk about a prehellenic native name, the old sailors called the wave-doused Aegean Sea White Sea as opposed to the difficult Black Sea which was renamed after Euxinus Pontus . The references of Kostis Palamas in The King's flute ‘Ki i attikia akrothalassia, kai xehorizei mesa stin Aspri thalassa…’ and Andreas Karkavitsas for the White Sea and Black Sea sailors testify once again the timeless Greek seamanship of the Aegean which is itself a myth.


Text: Antonios Dikaios, Theologist-Environmentalist


Co-financed by Greece and the European Union - European Regional Development Fund