The Temple of Aphaia on Aegina

by Laura Shannon

Aphaía  (Αφαία / Ah-FAY-ah) was the key Goddess on the Greek island of Aegina, worshipped nowhere else under that name. She is linked with Britomartis and Diktynna of Crete, and with Artemis, virgin Goddess of the forest, wild animals and the moon. Like Artemis, Aphaía protected women in childbirth. Her temple was ‘a place principally of female cult’.

The Temple of Aphaia, Aegina

The Temple of Aphaia, Aegina

The Aphaía sanctuary occupies an exquisitely beautiful mountain setting. The views are stunning: sea and islands all around, Salamina to the north and Eleusis directly beyond, Athens and the Acropolis, Attica and the mountains of the Peloponnese. Aegina’s strategic location in the western Aegean made the island a formidable trade centre and sea power in classical Greece, and a significant early rival to Athens and Sparta. The Aphaía temple was a renowned place of pilgrimage in the ancient world.

Temple of Aphaia location atop the pine-covered hill

Temple of Aphaia location atop the pine-covered hill

Aphaía’s temple today is extremely well preserved, and crowns a peaceful hilltop forested with glowing pines which would not have looked very different in Pausanias’ time.

He wrote that: “On Aigina as one goes toward the mountain of Pan-Greek Zeus, the sanctuary of Aphaía comes up, for whom Pindar composed an ode at the behest of the Aeginetans. The Cretans say (the myths about her are native to Crete) that … she enjoyed races and hunts and was particularly dear to Artemis. While fleeing from Minos, who lusted after her, she cast herself into nets cast for a catch of fish. Artemis made her a goddess, and not only the Cretans but also the Aeginetans revere her. The Aeginetans say that Britomartis showed herself to them on their island. Her epithet among the Aeginetans is Aphaía, and it is Diktynna of the Nets on Crete.”

Other versions of the legend say that the nymph Aphaía, being chased by a god intent on rape, was made invisible in the thick forest surrounding what is now the temple site and so was saved. Kallimachos’ Hymn to Artemis tells how Britomartis, whose name means ‘sweet virgin,’ was similarly escaping pursuit when she fell into a net (or caught her dress on a myrtle).

Laura in Priestess House with Temple behind

Laura in Priestess House with Temple behind

Marguerite Rigoglioso contends that legends of nymphs were based on real women in the lineage of priestesses such as those who would have served at Aphaía’s temple in antiquity. In the photo on the right, I am standing in the remains of the priestess’s house, with the temple behind me.

Goddess Artemis Orthia in the usual stance of Potnia Theron, mistress of the animals. Ivory votive offering from the Archaic period [National Archaelogical Museum, Athens]. The original statue of Aphaia mid 6thC BCE was similar

Goddess Artemis Orthia in the usual stance of Potnia Theron, mistress of the animals.
Ivory votive offering from the Archaic period [National Archaelogical
Museum, Athens]. The original statue of Aphaia mid 6thC BCE was similar

There was a Cretan trading settlement on Aegina and traces of human presence on the Aphaía site since the 4th millenium BCE. Ritual activity with evidence of Minoan origin began in 2000 BCE and from 1500 BCE there began to be ‘large numbers of votive clay figurines representing the goddess and Her animals, as well as vases and carved gems of semi-precious stone’. These objects, including large numbers of female figurines, were offered to an earth-based goddess most likely originally named Evgonía/Ευγονία, ‘good fertility’. The temple was still a flourishing place of worship in the 7th century BCE.

The earliest temple structures from the 7th and 6th centuries BCE were destroyed by fire, and the temple we see today was built around 500 BCE over their ruins. Buried underground, the remains of the earlier buildings were remarkably well preserved, and retain clear traces of colourful paint.

The Goddess Athena (Glyptothek, Munich)

The Goddess Athena (Glyptothek, Munich)

As the Goddess Athena was the central figure on the pedimental sculptures, she also came to be associated with the site, which is sometimes referred to as ‘the temple of Athena Aphaía’. These pedimental sculptures, remarkably well-preserved, are now located in the Munich Glyptothek [photo right].

Goddess figures and other treasures from the site are housed variously at the temple museum, in the large archaeological museum in Aegina town, and in Athens.

There is a cave under the northeastern corner of the Aphaía temple, in which Mycenaean terracotta Goddess figurines and other objects have been found.

As in Eleusis, the cave seems to indicate an entrance or connection to the underworld. Both the story of the disappearance of the maiden Goddess, and Aphaía’s orginal identity as a Goddess of the agricultural year, link her to the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone.

Both Pausanias and Herodotus describe how the mother-daughter pair Auxesia and Damia, Goddesses ‘of the fertility of the earth’ equivalent to Demeter and Persephone, were worshipped on Aegina. Their olive-wood images were famous in the ancient world, having been stolen from Epidauros and the cause of a war between Athens and Aegina. Pausanias reports that “I have seen these statues and sacrificed to them with the same rites as are used for sacrifices at Eleusis.”

Central to the Eleusinian mysteries were ‘the things shown’ but also the things not shown, mysterious symbols of life, fertility and rebirth carried in covered baskets of which initiates were forbidden to speak openly. The name Aphaía means ‘she who is invisible’, ‘she who is unseen’ or ‘she who does not show herself’. This name could also relate to the dark phase of the moon, through Aphaía’s connection to the Moon Goddess Artemis.  The story of the Goddess becoming invisible is of course the story of the overthrow of feminine deities by patriarchal culture in the ancient world – and also the Goddess’ survival in hidden, encoded forms.

In the late 4th century CE, when imperial decrees outlawed pre-Christian practices and ordered the sanctuaries destroyed, the priestesses would have taken their practices underground, but I believe the worship continued in an invisible way. Like Aphaía herself, the Goddess in Greece has survived from ancient times to the present day, hidden in continuously recurring symbols such as the mountain and the net.

Mountains with a symmetrical conical peak, like those with a cleft or double summit, were particularly sacred in the landscape of ancient Greece. Both Mount Oros, Aegina’s central mountain, and Mount Dikte on Crete have this form. The triangular mountain shape is often stylised in ancient art to represent the body of the Goddess, frequently in conjunction with net motifs. Pausanius and other commentators translate ‘Diktynna’ as ‘Goddess of the Nets’, from the Greek word ‘δίχτυ’, but Carol Christ correctly reminds us that Dicte or Dikte is the Cretan mountain Goddess, so her name could well be pre-Greek with an entirely different original meaning. Still, even if it is not the first origin of the name, nets have been associated with Diktynna for well over two thousand years, and the net motif continues to provides an intriguing link to the past.

Mountain Goddess with net skirt on bridal belt buckle.[Aegina, early 20thC]

Mountain Goddess with net skirt on bridal belt buckle. [Aegina, early 20thC]

My main work in Greece is to research surviving Goddess images in traditional women’s songs, dances and clothing. I have been interested to discover that women’s ritual dance songs from Eleusis, Megara, Salamina (and other parts of Attica where woman-centred ritual practices were strong) refer to mountains, nets and boats; streams and rain clouds, signs of fertility representing the nymphs; as well as swallows, spring flowers and other symbols of Persephone. Women’s festive costumes from these places feature Goddess embroideries, mountain motifs, and the yordan, a remarkable ceremonial adornment which protects the throat and breast with a dikti, a beaded net.

Mountain Goddess figure incised on decorative gourd. [Aegina, early 20th C]

Mountain Goddess figure incised on decorative gourd. [Aegina, early 20th C]

By chance, I discovered the Mountain Goddess again in a dusty antique shop near the Aegina port. On a bridal belt buckle, the triangular, net-patterned Goddess figure – reminiscent of some in the archaeological museum of Aegina – sits over the woman’s belly, bestowing blessings of power and fertility. Similar figures are incised on a decorative gourd Through items like these, the apparently vanished Goddess remains present for those who have My winter visit to Aphaía’s temple was blessed by sun breaking through the clouds and a strong cold wind which kept other visitors away and gave us time and tranquillity to attune in meditation. In Aphaía’s unseen presence, I felt a sense of all that is wise and strong yet invisible to the eye. I felt connected to the women of the past, and to all of us in the present who are doing what we can to cherish the sacred flame of women’s wisdom, and to keep it alive for the women of the future.