Naxos history remains one of the most impressive and enviable of the Cyclades islands, with several major archaeological sites and ancient hillside villages. Cycladic culture was once centred on Naxos, while the mythological Greek god Zeus remains interweaved within the island’s heritage. Dionysus, Semele, Theseus, Ariadne, nymphs, Nereids, goddesses of the sea, tyrants, conquerors, pirates, noblemen and farmers and heroes have left their traces widely dispersed throughout the time and space of Naxos. Today, the island is a big draw for discerning tourists. A visit to the island’s many archaeological sites and museums provides a window into the history and mythology of Naxos.
NAXOS IN MYTHOLOGY
The threads which link mythology to the island of Naxos are many. Zeus (father of the gods), Semele, Dionysus, Ariadne, Demeter, Persephone, Iphimedeia, Pancratis, the giants Otus and Ephialtes are but a few of the names that figure in legends surrounding the island. The people of Naxos worshipped Zeus the Melosios, protector of the flocks, and a temple was erected by the faithful in his honour on Mount Zas, which took its name from Zeus. The inscription “Mountain of Zeus the Melosios” can be seen carved on a rock there.
According to Greek mythology, the young Zeus was raised in a cave on Mt. Zas (“Zas” meaning “Zeus”) hiding from his father Cronus’ violence. This is also where the god planned to win his Olympian throne.
According to the myth, Zeus Eubouleus, the protector of the Naxians, fell in love with Semele, who was the daughter of King Cadmus of Thebes. From their union, Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry, was born. It all began when Hera (Zeus’ wife) urged Semele to ask Zeus to appear in all his divine form. Since Semele was a mortal she was unable to withstand the volley of thunderbolts that emanated from Zeus, and this resulted in her death. She died before giving birth, whereupon Zeus took the fetus and placed it in his thigh. When the time came for him to be born, Dionysus emerged from Zeus, and he was raised on Naxos by the local nymphs. Dionysus understandably grew to love the island, and used his power to make the land fertile, filled with vineyards which produced the finest wines. The local people built a temple on the island in honour of Dionysus.
Naxos is also where Theseus took Ariadne, the daughter of Minos, the King of Crete, after killing the Minotaur. According to myth, Theseus saw the Greek god Dionysus in a dream, and the god told him to leave Naxos without Ariadne, since she was meant to stay there and become his wife. Dionysus and Ariadne had three children, Oinopion (“Wine Drinker”), Staphylos (“Grape”) and Evanthi (“Lovely Flower”). Eventually Ariadne, unable to bear her separation from Theseus, either killed herself (according to the Athenians), or ascended to heaven (as the older versions had it). The Naxos portion of the Ariadne myth is also told in the Richard Strauss opera ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’.
The giant brothers Otus and Ephialtes figure in at least two Naxos myths: in one, Artemis bought the abandonment of a siege they laid against the gods, by offering to live on Naxos as Otus’s lover; in another, the brothers had actually settled Naxos.
It is also said that the sea god Poseidon was passing by Naxos whilst driving his chariot on the sea surface and is where he first laid eyes on his future wife, the nereid Amphitrite as she was dancing there.
Naxos has a long and varied history with various known civilisations flourishing on the island since as far back as the 4th millennium BC. It is speculated that the first inhabitants came from Thraki (Thrace), the northeastern region of Greece. According to legend, while seeking women companions, King Voreas’s son Voutis, went to Thessaly in Central Greece where he pursued and abducted several of the Bacchae nymphs and brought them to Naxos. The nymphs included Koronis and Iphimedia.
The earliest settlements on the island date to the Neolithic era and Archaeological finds indicate a developed society toward the end of that period. For 200 years the Thracians dominated the island and were succeeded by the Carians who were led by Naxos who hailed from Asia Minor, and who the island is named after.
BRIEF HISTORICAL TIMELINE
STONE AGE: Archaeological finds attest to the existence of a developed society as early as the fourth millennium B.C.; Naxos has been inhabited continuously since. Zas Cave, inhabited during the Neolithic era, contained objects of stone from Melos and copper objects including a dagger and gold sheet. The presence of gold and other objects within the cave indicated to researchers the status of the inhabitant
BRONZE AGE: (3200-1100 B.C.). Naxos is a strong presence in the Aegean during the third millennium B.C. as it emerges as an important centre of the Cycladic culture. Excavation finds from this period are exhibited at the Archaeological Museum of Naxos in Chora (Naxos town) and in the archaeological museum in the village of Apeiranthos.
At the dawn of the second millennium B.C., the Minoans are the dominant maritime power in the Aegean, and later control of the seas passes to the Mycenaeans. The centres of power shift to the Mycenaean centres on the Greek mainland which use the Cyclades as bridges in their expansion to the east. One section of the Mycenaean capital of Naxos (1300 B.C.) was uncovered beneath the square of the cathedral in Chora at the archaeological site of Grotta.
GEOMETRIC ERA: (1100-700 B.C.). Naxos is colonised by the Ionians, and their arrival marks the start of a period of tremendous growth.
ARCHAIC ERA: (700-480 B.C.). The island reaches its peak in the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., a period during which the arts – especially sculpture and architecture – flourish thanks in part, to the abundance of marble on the island. Typical of the island’s sculptures are the two larger-than-life, half-completed kouroi founded at the villages of Melanes and Apollonas. Excavations have also unearthed important works from this period, notably the temple of Yria, south of Hora at Livadi, and the sanctuary of Yiroula near Sangri. The temple of Apollon, or Portara on Palataki islet at the port’s edge, also dates from this period. In 490 B.C., Naxos is destroyed by the Persians.
CLASSICAL ERA: (480-323 B.C.). Following the Persians’ defeat, Naxos becomes a member of the Athenian League.
HELLENISTIC ERA: (323-41 B.C.). One of the island’s most important monuments, the Himarros tower, dates from this period. The tower is located near the village of Filoti; another ancient tower is Palaiopyrgos, located between Tripodes and Plaka beach.
ROMAN ERA: (41 B.C.-A.D. 330). In 41 B.C. Naxos becomes a Roman province and is used as a place of exile.
BYZANTINE ERA: (330-1207). The advent of Christianity in the fourth century leads to the construction of many churches over ancient temples. Today, there are more than 500 churches on the island. Panayia Drosiani near Moni and Panayia Protothroni near Halki are two important monuments of the Early Christian period. The fortified monastery of Fotodotis Christos on the outskirts of Danakis also dates from this period. The Byzantines also built castles or fortifications on the island. One example is the Kalogeros Kastro which is built atop a low but inaccessible hill on the island’s northern end. Apano Kastro is located west of the Tragea plain. The Apalirou Castle in central Naxos is built atop a sheer slope; the island’s Byzantine capital was located at its foothills.
VENETIA RULE: (1207-1537). In 1207, Marco Sanudo lands with his men at Ayiassos and after a siege conquers the island. He subsequently conquers 18 more islands in the Aegean, then founds the Duchy of Naxos, with the island as its seat, and creates a small feud. The capital is moved from Apaliros to Chora, whose hill forms a natural acropolis. On this site, Sanudo built Chora’s fortified castle using materials from the ancient city. The island’s rulers built their towers around and outside it for protection or for summer housing. There are also a number of more recent towers on the island’s northern coast, such as the Ayia Pyrgos which dates from the 17th century but was destroyed by fire, and the fortified monastery of Panayia Ypsilotera on the outskirts of the village of Galini.
TURKISH RULE: (1537-1829). Naxos remained under the Turkish yoke until 1829 when it joined the modern Greek state.
MODERN TIMES: The emery mines on the island’s eastern section, along the road to Liona, are one of the island’s modern monuments. Today, the island’s farm products provide it with economic self-sufficiency. Tourism has been developed since the 1980s.