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How the Aegean Sea of Greece Got its Name: A Wonderful but Sad Greek Myth

The Aegean Sea View from Mykonos Photo: Dimitris Tamposis
The Aegean Sea
View from Mykonos
Photo: Dimitris Tamposis
If you look hard enough, there’s a story behind everything, especially when it relates to all things Greek.

 The ancient Greeks were admirable story-tellers.

 Take  Aesop, who understood, that in order for children to remember lessons for life, you had to make those lessons interesting.

 And that is exactly what Aesop did with his famed fables, using lovable animals, which became entangled in all sorts of predicaments, to acquaint children with the consequences of bad characteristics such as greed, insolence and deceit.

Aesops Fables, The Tortoise and the Hare,. Arthur Rackham.
Aesop's Fables, The Tortoise and the Hare,.
Arthur Rackham.

The purpose of ancient Greek myths, as with Aesop’s fables, was to teach or to entertain, through, stories, passed down by word of mouth, before they were written, but most importantly, the ancient myths were a means of worship to their gods.

My knowledge of Greek Mythology comes from school, of course, and through reading, but mostly it comes from my children’s school homework (and I could write a whole blog post on that!).

One myth I remember well, and my daughter’s favourite, of which she reminded me just the other day, is the story of how The Aegean Sea, located between mainland Greece and Turkey, came by its name.

Aegean Sea Greece Map Created by Norman Einstein, January 12, 2006.
Aegean Sea
Map Created by Norman Einstein, January 12, 2006.

To learn more about Greek Mythology, check out this best-selling book by Edith Hamilton:

("We follow the drama of the Trojan War and the wanderings of Odysseus. We hear the tales of Jason and the Golden Fleece, Cupid and Psyche, and mighty King Midas. We discover the origins of the names of the constellations. And we recognize reference points for countless works for art, literature and culture inquiry-from Freud's Oedipus complex to Wagner's Ring Cycle of operas to Eugene O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra

Mythology. Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. Edith Hamilton
Mythology:Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes
Edith Hamilton

As with most stories passed down through word of mouth, people add bits here and forget bits there, resulting in copious variations on a theme.

 Here is the wonderful tale of how the Aegean Sea got its name, the version which my daughter and I learnt together, many years ago.

Long, long ago, in the city of ancient Athens, there lived a king, Aegeus, who, after failing to produce a son and heir, with his first two wives, Meta and Chalciope, decided to consult the goddess Themis, one of the  the  oracles of Ancient Delphi, to see what he was doing wrong.

Themis, one of the oracles at  ancient Delphi Illustration: H D Johnson
Themis, one of the oracles at  ancient Delphi
Illustration: H D Johnson

The advice  received from Themis was rather confusing to Aegeus:

 "Do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief."

Pondering upon this conundrum, while on his way home to Athens, Aegeus dropped in on his old pal King Pittheus of Troezen (a small town in the northeastern Peloponnese).

  ”Pittheus is a wise old scoundrel" thought Aegeus, "he’ll work out the meaning of this riddle”.

Indeed Pittheus knew exactly what the cryptic prophecy from Themis was all about, and quickly proceeded to get Aegeus exceedingly drunk, and then, with a twinkle in his old eye, introduced Aegeus to his daughter, Aethra.

Aegeus consults with Themis, Oracle of Delphi. Circa 440–430 B.C.
Aegeus consults with Themis, Oracle of Delphi. Circa 440–430 B.C.

A Greek party, wine flowing plentifully, the  king of Athens and a nubile young girl, the inevitable happened:

 Aethra discovered she was pregnant!

Before the baby was born, Aegeus had to leave for Athens, where he was to marry his third wife, Medea.

 Before he left, Aegeus placed his sandals and his sword under a rock, and instructed Aethra, that when the child came of age, he was to retrieve the sandals and the sword and return them to Aegeus in Athens.

Time passed, Aethra gave birth to a baby boy, who she named Theseus.

  As instructed by Aegeus, on the boy’s coming of age, Aethra took him to the rock, presented him with the sandals and sword of Aegeus, and sent Theseus on his way to Athens.

Theseus and Aethra,  Laurent de La Hyre
Theseus and Aethra,
 Laurent de La Hyre

Now, if you remember, Aegus had returned from Troezen to Athens, in order to marry Medea, which he did, and the marriage had produced a son, Medus.

Medea, who had her contacts on the grapevine, learnt that Theseus, son of Aegeus and Aethra, legitimate heir to the throne of Athens, was on his way to throw a spanner in her plans to have Medus, her son, crowned king.

 Evelyn De Morgan
 Evelyn De Morgan

Medea put her devious mind in gear and reported to her husband, Aegeus, that local gossip had it; an impostor was on his way to Athens, about to declare himself to be Theseus, rightful heir to the throne of Athens.

 “Never fear husband” Medea said to Aegeus, “’I know exactly how to foil this young whippersnapper, leave things to me”

Upon his arrival in Athens, Theseus found an invitation awaiting him; he was requested to attend a banquet at the palace of King Aegeus, as this was exactly where he was heading, Theseus happily accepted the invite.

Meanwhile, back at the palace, Medea informed Aegeus of her evil plan; they would poison Theseus and be rid of him once and for all.

 Medea, Theseus and Aegeus,  William Russell Flint (1910)
  Medea, Theseus and Aegeus,
William Russell Flint (1910)

Aegeus, a kind man at heart, wasn’t too keen on killing a fellow human without out knowing all the ins and outs of his crime, but on the other hand, could he bear the wrath of Medea if he didn’t play along with her dastardly doings?

Against his better judgment, Aegeus agreed to poison Theseus, but, at the banquet, just as Medea was handing a cup of poisoned wine to the impostor, he recognized his sandals and sword, this was no impostor, this was his true son, Theseus!

Aegeus embraced his son, and with no further ado, had Medea and her son, Medus, banished from the city of Athens, but what had Theseus unwittingly gotten himself into?

Theseus Recognized by his Father   Hippolyte Flandrin (1832)
Theseus Recognized by his Father
 Hippolyte Flandrin (1832)

These were not peaceful times in Athens, Aegeus, and his brother, Minos, king of Crete, were engaged in ongoing sibling rivalry, and, to add insult to injury, Androgeus, son of king Minos of Crete, continuously won all events in the Panathenaic Games.

This made Androgeus the golden boy of Athens, much to the disgust of the Pallantidai, the fifty sons of Pallas, nobles of Athens, rivals of their uncle Aegeus and his son Theseus over the Athenian throne, who, green with jealousy and red with embarrassment, assassinated Androgeus, which, as you would expect, did not go down too well with Minos, who immediately attacked Athens.

Minos of Crete demanded his son’s assassins be handed over to him, and Athens would be spared, but, as Aegeus did not know the identity of the assassins, this, he could not do.

After much argy bargy, confrontations and negotiations, Minos finally agreed to peace between Athens and Crete on one condition.

Gustave Doré's illustration of King Minos for Dante Alighieri's Inferno.
Gustave Doré's illustration of King Minos for Dante Alighieri's Inferno.

The price Athens was to pay for peace with Crete, was that every nine years, Athens was to send seven male and seven female youths to Crete, who would then be sacrificed to the ferocious creature, with the head of a bull and body of a man, the Minotaur, which was imprisoned in a labyrinth (created by Daedalus of Icarus and Daedalus fame).

After the third time of shipping fourteen youths over to Crete, to be devoured by the dreadful Minotaur, Theseus had had enough, and decided to put an end to this barbaric carry on, he would go as one of the youths to be shipped out, and slay the Minotaur!

The Minotaur of Crete George Frederick Watts
The Minotaur of Crete
George Frederick Watts

On hearing of Theseus’ heroic stand, Aegeus, understandably, feared for his son’s life.

  To mollify his father’s fears, Theseus explained to him, that he would sail out with black sails, and, after slaying the Minotaur, to show that all was well, and that he was still alive, would make the return journey under white sails.

Theseus set sail for Crete, and, with his fears only slightly alleviated, Aegeus made for Cape Sounion, a good look out point, to wait anxiously for that first glimpse of, hopefully, white, homeward bound sails.

Temple of Poseidon, (God of the Sea), at Cape Sounion  South of Athens, Greece. Photo: National Geographic
Temple of Poseidon, (God of the Sea), at Cape Sounion
 South of Athens, Greece.
Photo: National Geographic

On landing in Crete, Theseus met up with Ariadne, his cousin and daughter of king Minos, and, as in all great Greek myths, they fell in love.

To help Theseus with his daunting task, Ariadne gave him a ball of string, telling him to unravel it as he made his way through the labyrinth, and to follow it, after slaying the Minotaur, so as to find his way back.

Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze.  Pelagio Palagi, 19th century
 Ariadne Giving Theseus a Ball of String to Find His Way Out of the Maze.
 Pelagio Palagi, 19th century

All went to plan.

Theseus killed the beast, followed the string, made it back to Ariadne, and the two of them made a run for it, back to Athens,stopping off at the island of Naxos on the way, where a great celebration was held in their honour.

Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth. Edward Burne-Jones, 1861
Theseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth.
Edward Burne-Jones, 1861

Ariadne, not accustomed to flagons of Greek wine, fell asleep on the shore, and missed the boat to Athens (Some versions of the story have Theseus abandoning Ariadne purposely).

On discovering that Ariadne was not aboard the boat for Athens, Theseus, in his upset and panic, forgot to change the black sails for white ones.

 Ariadne in Naxos  Evelyn De Morgan (1877)
 Ariadne in Naxos
 Evelyn De Morgan (1877)

Back in Sounion, Aegeus, beside himself with worry, was devastated to spot his son’s returning ship, carried along by the winds which were filling its black sails.

 Illustration for the tales of two MusInt (Museo Interattivo) Panaiotis Kruklidis
  Illustration for the tales of two MusInt (Museo Interattivo)
Panaiotis Kruklidis

No, this could not be, the sails were meant to be white, and, in a rush of emotion, believing his son to be dead, Aegeus threw himself off the cliffs and perished in the sea below.

And this, my friends, is the sad, but wonderful story of how the magnificent, sparkling blue, Aegean Sea, came to be called just that!

  Through a window, Vaporia, Syros The Aegean sea Photo: Nais Athanasakou
Through a window, Vaporia, Syros
The Aegean sea
Photo: Nais Athanasakou

Is there a moral to this story, a lesson to be learnt?

20 Weird, Crazy and Incredible Facts About Greece and the Greeks

20 totally weird ways to be Greek
20 totally weird ways to be Greek
Illustration Dimitra Tzanos
Art Source Publishing

After forty years of living in Greece, I thought I knew all there was to know about Greece and the Greeks, but underneath every tidbit of information, there’s yet another story, and even more weird and crazy facts than before!

Here are just a few of the most bizarre, hard to believe, positively mind-blowing facts which I’ve recently come across.

1. Greeks love sex
(Confirmed by the condom giant Durex)

Hey, let's go for coffee! Sexy Greek
Hey, let's go for coffee!
Sexy Greek

Well, I had my suspicions about that, but now it’s official, according to the company “Durex”, Greeks have the most sex in the world, and have held that title for the last ten years!

2. Greeks were first to go “The Full Monty”

Apollon Marsyas and Loucy Matli   Daphnis kai Chloe (1931)
Apollon Marsyas and Loucy Matli
 Daphnis kai Chloe (1931)

Never ones to be shy, Greeks performed the first nude scene in the history of European cinema, which was aired in the film “Daphnis and Chloe”, shown in cinemas in 1931.

“Daphnis and Chloe” was the only work known by Longus, or Longos, a second century Greek novelist.

 The story goes like this; Lanonas, a Greek shepherd, finds an abandoned baby boy, and then along comes another shepherd; Dyaitas, who finds an abandoned baby girl.

The two babies grow up together and eventually, yes, you guessed it, fall in love.

3. Greeks stick together

Til death us do part
Til death us do part
Photo by Sarah
Saving With Sarah

With so much going on between the sheets (See fact number 1), it’s no surprise that Greece has the lowest divorce rate in Europe, on the other hand, they have the highest rate of abortion in Europe, this could be due to the next fact; read on!

4. Sneezing prevents you becoming pregnant

Atishoo atishoo We all fall down
Atishoo atishoo
We all fall down

Soranus, an ancient Greek physician, swore by sneezing as a form of contraception (The women’s responsibility, not much changed there then), after making love, women were told to; squat, sneeze and rinse; atchoo!

If this was not successful, the next time they were advised to use plan B;

Rub honey, or cedar resin over your privates; what a sticky mess, enough to put anyone off, maybe plan B worked!

5. Doctor knows best

Hippocrates Father of Western medicine
Father of Western medicine
Photo: Getty Images

Hippocrates, father of Western medicine, considered the human body to be just a bag of fluid, each fluid having its own special taste, urine, for example was  said to be akin to fig juice.

 To Hippocrates’ way of thinking, the best way to diagnose an ailment was to chew on a bit of earwax or sip a wee dram of vomit, to see if it was sweet or bitter, and rub  offending phlegm between thumb and forefinger, to check its consistency.

Now that’s called being dedicated to your profession!

6. We’ve run out of pebbles

“Three stones are enough to wipe”
“Three stones are enough to wipe”
Those smiles will soon be wiped off their faces!

Before the invention of loo paper, before yesterday’s newspapers, what was one to do after morning ablutions?

Ancient Greeks, not people to waste natural resources, used sea sponges tied to a stick (I could say something about something on a stick here, but, I’ll refrain), lesser mortals, without access to sponges, or the ones who lived inland, gathered pebbles.

Pebbles were kept in piles, next to wherever the lavatory was located, and, always ones to save a drachma here and there, the saying went as follows;

“Three stones are enough to wipe”

If someone had really got your goat; literally, to wreak revenge, pots were smashed, the enemies name written on the shards, and used as were the pebbles.

7. Will the real Santa Claus please stand up

Saint Nicholas Santa Claus
Saint Nicholas
Santa Claus

The original Santa Claus; Saint Nicholas, was born a Greek, on the fifteenth of March 270, in Patara in Lycia (Modern day Turkey)

He died, on the sixth of December 343, which is now celebrated as the feast day of Saint Nicholas.

His reputation for generosity was boundless; his giving of gifts was usually done secretly, such as putting coins in the shoes of those who left them out for him.

Today, we are more likely to hang up our stockings!

8. Hands off our columns

Marble columns of the Parthenon Acropolis, Athens Greece
Marble columns of the Parthenon
Acropolis, Athens

One day, on the Acropolis, whilst fighting for their independence from the Turks, the Greeks succeeded in surrounding the Turkish stronghold, which caused a panic amongst the Turks; they were running low on ammunition.

In desperation the Turks began to smash the marble columns to smithereens, so as to get to the lead inside, and use it for bullets.

On witnessing the desecration of their sacred Parthenon, the Greeks yelled out;

“Here are bullets, don’t touch our columns”

And they directly sent ammunition over to the Turks.

9. No women allowed

Greek Orthodox Monk Greek Orthodox cats Mount Athos
Greek Orthodox Monk
Greek Orthodox cats
Mount Athos

Women and even female animals are prohibited from setting foot in any of  the twenty monasteries of Mount Athos, (A mountain and peninsula in Halkidiki, Northern Greece) which house more than one thousand four hundred monks.

This is not an actual written law, but is the “Avaton” a monastic principle, which is respected.

There is a legislation which prohibits eunuchs and beardless youths from entering the monasteries.

10. People forget to die

Ikaria Where people forget to die
Where people forget to die

In the North Aegean Sea is the island of Ikaria, the island of longevity, where people, so they say, forget to die.

Ikaria is one of the five “Blue Zones” (places where the highest number of people live to a hundred), the other four being; the  Barbagia region in Sardinia, the Nycoya Peninsula, Costa Rica, The Seventh Day Adventists of Loma Linda , California and Okinawa, Japan.

On Ikaria people sleep late, get up late, take frequent naps, wear no watches and pay no heed to time.

They live off the land; herbs for flavour, and also medication, goat’s milk, fresh fruit and vegetables, beans, lentils, honey; a type found only on Ikaria, very little meat, plenty of  local wine, the true “Mediterranean Diet”.

Not only do the inhabitants of Ikaria live up to a hundred, but they are healthy with it, many working in the fields up to their nineties, and here’s a thing, most of the men smoke; heavily!

11. Vrontados - the rocket wars

Every Easter Saturday two rival churches in Vrondados, Greece engage in a “rocket war” with the aim to hit the other’s belltower; they use up to 80,000 fireworks in the display.
Every Easter Saturday two rival churches in Vrondatos, Greece engage in a “rocket war” with the aim to hit the other’s bell tower; they use up to 80,000 fireworks in the display.

The rocket wars; the “Rouketopolemos” of the island of Chios, give Guy Fawkes Night in England, a run for its money!

Each Easter Saturday, at midnight, all hell is let loose, thousands of homemade rockets are fired, between two rival churches, Saint Marks and Panagias Ereithani, located on hilltops about four hundred meters apart, the object is to hit the bell tower of the rival church.

Days beforehand, all properties within the vicinity, are boarded up and protected with metal sheets and mesh.

The origin of this wild custom goes back to the Ottoman era, and, up until 1889, when it was banned by the Ottomans, real canons were used!

12. Sweat it out

Pills, potions and oinment
Pills, potions and oinment

In ancient Greece, athletes performed naked, their bodies slathered with glistening olive oil.

Considered to be the strongest and healthiest of Greeks by their fellow man, the sweat which they produced during competitions, was thought to have magical healing powers.

Slaves hung around the gymnasiums, where these highly-regarded athletes showed of their prowess, waiting for the events to come to an end, when they would rush to scrape, with special metal tools called “strigil”, the sweaty, oily mixture, known as “gloios’ from the skin of the worn out competitors.

The “gloios” was bottled and sold as ointment, which when rubbed on the limbs or torso, calmed and relieved aches and pains.

13. The curious story of how potatoes were introduced to Greece

Potatoes Photographic Print by David Aubrey
Photographic Print by David Aubrey

After four hundred years of Turkish occupation, Greece’s first Prime Minister, in 1928, Ioannis Kapodistrias, wanted to do something for his country; he would introduce them to the potato.

What a letdown for him then, when, on arrival of the shipment, the Greeks showed no interest whatsoever in the potatoes.

After a big think, Kapodistrias, who knew the Greek mentality well, positioned a wall of armed guards around the potatoes, the Greeks, presuming this must mean the potatoes were of great value, began to steal them, and crops of potatoes gradually spread through Greece.

14. All is not what it seems

In all their glorious colour
In all their glorious colour

The pristine, gleaming white, marble monuments, temples and statues of Greece, which we see today, didn’t start out that way.

Originally, when they were created, thousands of years ago, in ancient Greece, they were decorated with the brightest colours imaginable.

Time and the weather has taken its toll, slowly eating away at the bright paint work, leaving us with the pure white we see today.

15. Grounds for divorce

Spinalonga Crete

The terrible disease, leprosy, was contained in Greece, within the leper colony of Spinalonga, a tiny island off the coast of Crete, which was  established in 1903 and closed in 1957.

Even though a cure was discovered, available in the 1950s, and the disease has been eradicated in Greece, Leprosy was grounds for divorce in Greece up until 1983.

16. Watered down wine

Water with the wine
Water with the wine

Ancient Greeks considered drinking undiluted wine a barbaric habit indeed, no Greek of any standing would ever drink wine as it came, straight from the barrel.

Wine was to be appreciated and savoured, not used as a means to become intoxicated and lose all self-esteem.

The usual ratio was three parts water to one part wine, rather like wine with your water than water with your wine!

17. Wine on tap

Let it flow Custom Tapped Wine Tower by TappedBeer
Let it flow
Custom Tapped Wine Tower by TappedBeer

It is said, that in the ancient Greek city of Sybaris, a wealthy city with a busy port and fertile lands, located in Magna Graecia, Southern Italy, Greeks were known for their hedonistic, luxurious and opulent lifestyle.

They went as far as to have pipelines,leading from the country vineyards, bringing wine straight into their homes.

From this decadent, ancient city of Sybaris, originate the words “Sybarite” and “Sybaritic”

18. Bring on the oxen

Ancient Greek Olympic Athletes
Ancient Greek Olympic Athletes

In ancient Greece, the Olympic Games were held in honour to Zeus, king of Greek gods.

After a splendid opening ceremony, and the competing of athletes, the climax was the closing ceremony, where a hundred oxen were sacrificed to Zeus.

After repetitive sacrifice, of so many oxen, the sacrificial alter was built from neither stone nor wood, but was a mass of dried blood, flesh and fat.

19. No speaka de lingo

Greek Alphabet
Greek Alphabet

Many thousands of years ago, in ancient times, when Greek was the most common language spoken, to the Greeks, who thought themselves a cut above others, any other language, to them, sounded like “bar bar bar”.

And so, to these heathens, to anyone who did not speak Greek, they gave the name barbarians, because they were just so, well, just so barbaric!

And that is where we get the word barbarian, originally meaning anyone who did not speak Greek.

20. Stupid is as stupid does

El Loco The Fool Picasso
El Loco
The Fool

In ancient Athens, among the wise old men, the philosophers, top army men and revered statesmen, it was considered “not the done thing old chap”, to keep to yourself, not be present in public affairs, not to be a political animal, not a politician.

It was not correct to be a private person, an “Idiotes” (ΙΔΙΩΤΕΣ), a civilian, outside of public life.

So, if you were not interested in politics or not a politician, you were an idiot!

 “Idiotes” (ΙΔΙΩΤΕΣ), in English means idiot, to my thinking; I should think it is rather the other way around today!

Aren’t there some gems in the above twenty facts?

I shall keep on searching for more, any contributions welcome, I surely need to do a part two, Greeks never fail to amaze!

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