The sacred island of Delos
I spent a few hours on soil that has seen millennia of fascinating human history. It’s well worth reflecting on it
The story goes that one day Zeus seduced and impregnated yet another mortal woman, Leto. Hera, Zeus wife, was royally pissed off. As usual. So Hera banished Leto from earth. Zeus then implored his brother, Poseidon, to raise from the underwater world an island in the middle of the Aegean, changing it from invisible (Adelos) to visible (Delos), and allowing Leto to give birth there to the twins Apollo (the Sun) and Artemis (the Moon).
At the least, such is the legend. The history of Delos, which I was lucky to visit a few weeks ago, is just as fascinating. And it tells us much more about the human condition than yet another tale about the philandering Zeus.
Delos is located near the center of the archipelago of the Cyclades, a half-hour boat ride from the nearby party island of Mykonos. The Cyclades have been populated for a long, long time, and sure enough archeologists have discovered stone huts on Delos that date back to the third millennium BCE.
According to Thucydides, the original inhabitants of the island were known as the Carians, originally from western Anatolia, in modern day Turkey. They were pirates, and got allegedly kicked out of Delos by King Minos of Crete. The story is doubtful, considering that Minos was yet another illegitimate son of Zeus, this time with the Phoenician princess Europa. That particular godly “seduction,” incidentally, wasn’t exactly an instance of what we would today call consent. Look it up.
Be that as it may, Delos’ fame as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis was already secured by the time the Odyssey had been written down. But the well documented history of the place begins around 900 BCE, when the island became a pilgrimage destination for Ionian peoples, among whose eventual descendants we count the Athenians. (One of the other three major ethnic groups of ancient Greece was the Dorians, who founded Athens’ chief rival, Sparta.)
And it is the Athenians who will play a major role in the fate of Delos from the 6th century BCE until the Romans took over four centuries later…