Cretan Musings

A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year in Crete, researching the Goddess there.  In this contribution she writes about the Diktynna Temple.

Many years ago (about 17 to be exact) I visited Crete with a friend and stayed in a place to the west of Chania, from where we could see the Rodopos peninsula, a long finger-like spur of land jutting out 22km to the north. This peninsula is remote and inaccessible, and, north of the small village of Rodopos, has only a very poor quality dirt track running north for 17km, with no dwellings or shelter anywhere along its length. Despite all the improvements to the Cretan road system in the intervening 17 years, the Rodopos peninsula remains as inaccessible today as it did then.

There is however one prize at the end of the track: the remains of a temple dedicated to the Goddess Diktynna, one of the most important religious sanctuaries in western Crete during the Roman period. Pat Cameron [Blue Guide to Crete, 2003] says that: “The cult of the Cretan Goddess Diktynna, related to that of Britomartis (a pre-Hellenic name meaning sweet maiden’), was to some extent a survival of the worship of the Minoan mother goddess. There were cult centres in Athens and the Peloponnese, but Diktynna was especially venerated in the west of Crete. The name may be connected with Mount Dikte, but the Greek historian Strabo proposed that diktyon was the fisherman’s net which is supposed to have saved the goddess when she leapt into the sea to escape the unwelcome attentions of Minos. Like the Greek goddess Artemis, Diktynna was a huntress and the deity of nature, the wild countryside and mountains. Her sanctuary was guarded by hounds which the Cretans claimed to be as strong as bears.

Diktynna statue

In 1997 I wrote a piece about the Goddess and the site of the Diktynna temple, entitled Diktynna, ancient Goddess of Crete, for MRRN Newsletter no.121, in which I said: “We tried to visit the site but with no success. It was tantalisingly close, and we could see the Rodopos peninsula from different places and perspectives, but we could not get there. It seems rather incredible that in the late 20th century anywhere in Europe could be virtually inaccessible, but the north of the peninsula has no villages, no settlements, no roads and not even a straight track. So disappointingly we did not manage to get to the site, though we shall return!”. And so it has taken 17 years to do so, but in the early summer of 2013, together with my partner Lana, we did at last manage to get there!

There are two possible ways of reaching it: one is by a boat from the villages either of Kolombari on the eastern side or Kissamos on the west. Although we enquired about this in both places, it seemed that no boats go there on a regular basis. In any case, as we discovered when we eventually did get there, there was nowhere for them to land or easily come ashore. The second way is by a four-wheeled drive vehicle by the dirt track from Rodopos. We did have such a vehicle, but were glad we did not attempt it by ourselves, as the track proved to be something that only an experienced driver with local knowledge should safely attempt. We were fortunate to be able to contact Stelios of Strata Tours in Kissamos, who knew the area and agreed to take us there.

And so, after a bone-shaking, white knuckle ride, we eventually arrived at Diktynna’s temple. It lay above a sheltered (SE facing) cove, on a high promontory to the south of the cove, in a beautiful setting, and would have been visible from far away. German archaeologists excavated here in 1943, only to find that the site had been systematically looted and robbed. Originally it must have been a magnificent structure, a temple built of limestone, surrounded by columns using both blue and white marble, standing in a court paved in marble with stoas (colonnaded porticos) on three sides. There was also a stepped altar of white marble, and beside this, at the southwest corner of the temple, there was a small circular building, where a statue of Diktynna with her hound was found. It can still be seen in the Chania Archaeological Museum. The temple was much visited by supplicants of Diktynna, and the rich offerings left to her were enough to fund the building of a Roman paved road that ran the length of the peninsula to the temple. Remains of this can be seen in places along the way, and a milestone from the road is still preserved in the village of Rodopos.

Reconstruction of Dictynna's Temple

We thought of the past glories of Diktynna and her magnificent temple as we explored the site. Now all that remains of this beautiful temple consists of some pieces of masonry and broken marble columns lying about. However, amongst the marble pieces we were to make a surprising find: on two or three pieces carvings could be made out, and one in particular had an unmistakeable outline of the legs of a deer, an animal sacred to Diktynna. We sat awhile at this spot and softly chanted her name, and told her that although her temple was ruined and people no longer thronged to honour her, nevertheless she would never be forgotten, and her name would continue to be spoken here as long as there were Goddess celebrating women alive in the world today. When we left her site, we went for a swim in the cool waters below and thanked the Goddess for finally leading us after all these years to Diktynna’s remote but lovely site.