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Britomartis

by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee Ph.D.

The temple of Aphaia (Britomartis) on Aegina. Britomartis was the Minoan goddess of the mountains and hunting, in close relation to Diktynna and Aphaea, forerunner of Potnia theron (Mistress of Animals) and Artemis, partly identified with them.

The name Sweet Maid or Sweet Virgin is connected with the mythical story of Britomartis, the same as her later names - Diktynna in Crete and Aphaea (Aphaia) in Aegina (Aigina). According to a late myth, (1) Britomartis was the daughter of Zeus and Carme, daughter of Euboulos. A virgin was pursued by Minos, she was running away from him, finally she threw herself into the nets. Artemis made her a goddess with the name Diktynna. She became the goddess of the mountains and the shores and ports, sometimes she is called the goddess of nets. In another version of the myth Britomartis escaped into the island Aegina, where she was worshipped as Aphaea, the protectoress of the island.

On the Minoan seals and rings the goddess of mountains and hunting is depicted with demonic features, wearing a typical local cloth, often accompanied by animals and divine symbols - double axes and snakes. From some sources it is known, that the Archaic cult wooden statue (xoanon) of Britomartis, made by the great Minoan craftsman Daedalus, existed in the temple of Olous.(2) In the Greek Classical period Britomartis was represented on the coins of the cities Chersonesos and Olous (Elounda) , where she became the main divinity. Also as Diktynna she was portrayed on the Cretan coins of the cities Kydonia, Polyrrhenia and perhaps Phalasarna. She represented a mountain mother, connected with the Mount Dikte, where, according one version of the myth, Zeus was born. Most of the time she was depicted as a nurse of Zeus.

It may be that the goddess of mountains was worshipped during the Minoan times at the peak sanctuaries, which are visible at the relief of some stone vases. Later the temples of Britomartis were built at Chersonesos and at Olous, where the festival Britomarpeia were performed for her. In many cities, including Athens and Sparta, temples and altars were built and dedicated to Diktynna, but she was venerated mainly in Western Crete at Lisos and west of Kydonia, at Diktynnaion. (3) The sanctuary was a major center of Diktynna worship in the Classical period and the cult continued during the Roman times too. According to a story, the place was guarded by hounds, stronger as bears. The temple stood inside a large court, surrounded by porticoes. Several Ionian and Corinthian columns and marble sima are visible until today.

The sanctuary dedicated to Aphaea existed during the Mycenaean times on a hill, on the island Aegina , where later on the important Archaic temple "Athena Aphaea" was constructed. From the first shrine only the foundations of the altar survived, the temple we see today was built between 515-480 BCE. Another small temple of Aphaea at Aspropirgos in the outskirts of Athens, not far a way from Aegina, demonstrates, that the cult of Aphaea was known in the Mainland too.

Some authors suggest that the cults of Britomartis and Diktynne were related to each other in the same way as the later Demeter and Persephone.(4) I think we can see some development of this myth during the centuries and its transfer to a local theme. The Minoan goddess of mountains , Britomartis was worshipped in Crete, as Aphaea in Aegina, during the Archaic period as Potnia theron in the Greek Mainland, and during the Classical age as Diktynna in Western Crete and somewhere else too. Later the cult was local , because the main role took over Artemis, while Diktynna turned into one of the nymphs accompanying her . Aphaea was called by second name Athena, because this goddess became the most important deity in Attica and also in Aegina.


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