From caves to ancient Minoan palaces, you can visit the sites immortalized in some of the world’s most well-known myths and legends on the Greek island of Crete.
Crete may be a holiday hotspot for sun-seekers, but mythology enthusiasts will find lots of interesting sites associated with the gods, from the birthplace of Zeus to King Minos’s famed labyrinth and much more.
Palace of Knossos
Knossos is perhaps Crete’s most renowned mythical site. Legend has it that this ancient Minoan palace was home to the famous labyrinth where Theseus battled the Minotaur. Knossos is also believed by some to be the ruins of the lost city of Atlantis. Located just outside of Heraklion, Knossos is one tourist attraction that is not to be missed.
There are approximately 3,000 caves on the island of Crete, but the Diktian Cave (or Dikteon Andron or Dictaean Cave, as it can sometimes be spelled) is the most famous. High up in the Dikti Mountains, above the Lasithi Plateau, the Diktian Cave is said to be the birthplace of Zeus. Profitis Ilias, another cave near the village of Arkalochori in central Crete, also claims to be the birthplace of Zeus.
According to myth, Zeus was raised by his mother Rhea in the Idaian Cave, an enormous cavern on Mount Idi. Several of the objects that have been found in the Idaian Cave are now on display in the Irakleio (Heraklion) Archaeological Museum.
Cave of Ilithia
The Cave of Ilithia is said to be the birthplace of Ilithia, goddess of birth. The ancient Greeks worshiped Ilithia in this cave, located near the ancient town of Amnissos, about seven kilometers east of Heraklion. Ancient idols of pregnant women or of women giving birth or nursing have been found in this cave. Ilithia was also worshiped in the grotto of Inatos, perched on a cliff above the small fishing village of Tsoutsouros on the south coast of Crete, and in the Kamares Cave in south central Crete.
The Skotino Cave is one of Crete’s largest caves, reaching a depth of 160 meters. The cave has religious significance, dedicated first to the virgin goddess Britomartis and later used to worship Artemis, goddess of the hunt. The Skotino Cave is located outside the village of Skotino, about 20 kilometers east of Heraklion.
Nereids (water nymphs who were the daughters of Zeus) are said to haunt the cave known as Dragolaki, or “Dragon’s Lair.” The cave is located near the village of Agios Ioannia in western Crete’s Sfakia region.
The Melidoni Cave was the mythical home of Talos, the bronze giant created by Zeus to protect Crete. Legend has it that Talos circled the island twice a day, but he lived in the Melidoni Cave, located above the village of Melidoni, about 28 kilometers east of Rethymno. The Melidoni Cave was used for cult worship during the Neolithic, Minoan, and Archaic periods.
The honeycomb cliffs of Matala conceal a sandy beach that, according to Homer, was the place where Helen of Troy’s husband, Menelaus, was shipwrecked on his way home from Troy. The Matala of today has been transformed into a lively resort full of hotels, bars and tavernas serving local specialties such as mousaka, souvlaki and ouzo.
Ruins of Gortys
The ancient city-state of Gortys dates back to the Minoan era. According to myth, it was here, under a huge plane tree, that Zeus ravished the goddess Europa in the form of a white bull. Europa became the first queen of Crete and gave birth to the kings Minos, Rhadamanthus, and Sarpedon. Today, the ruins of Gortys are a popular tourist destination, though not nearly as crowded as Knossos or Phaestos.