The mist clung to the effervescent sea at the feet of the twin islets. The first warm rays of the sun began to penetrate the soft veil over the stoic beauties. High above the morning clouds, two gods gazed down at the shimmering pool that indented into the nail of the world, the place the Egyptians would later call Keftiu. Then the crash of a thunderbolt broke the day. And a bright speck of light began to grow beneath the limestone rock peaks that jutted up out of the great gulf. The light was a sign and a reward, for it signified the birth of Artemis (Potnia Theron?), the eternal virgin.
As her light grew, she took form in the natural realm, manifesting to assist her Titaness mother in the birth of Apollo, her twin brother. The pair, bright replicas of their father Zeus and their mother Leto, had different names then, but no written history yet found reveals their true identities. This was the time before time, on the craggy peaks we now call Paximadia. The locals sometimes call the twin islets Elephantaki because from a distance their proximity to one another makes them appear as a baby elephant that is lying down, in the water, with its trunk facing west.
This is how legends live on, when and where the gods marked earth. Artemis saw Apollo born, and the suffering of Leto, which marked her for eternity. She vowed to remain a virgin, a vow recorded in an ancient song by Callimachus, where he writes about a request Artemis made to Zeus:
“Pray give me eternal virginity; as many names as my brother Apollo; a bow and arrow like his; the office of bringing light; a saffron hunting tunic with a red hem reaching to my knees; sixty young ocean nymphs, all of the same age, as my maids of honor; twenty river nymphs from Amnisus in Crete, to take care of my buskins [boots] and feed my hounds when I am not out shooting; all the mountains in the world; and, lastly, any city you care to choose for me, but one will be enough because I intend to live on the mountains most of the time.”
It was Artemis who slew Orion and placed him among the stars, for trying to steal her purity. She also faced, single-handedly, the Aloadae giants who tried to storm Olympus. It was Artemis who, with her mother Leto, moved Zeus, moved the king of the gods to send Heracles to free Prometheus. In later times, her temple at Ephesus would be considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Her purity, her ability in the hunt, and her relationship with the natural universe have been the subject of myth and veneration for countless centuries. Some say the descendants of the huntress’ hounds are still here on Crete, the ancient breed knows as Kritikos Lagonikos being still legendary for their loyalty and abilities in the field. According to the myth, the god Pan gave Artemis seven female and six male hunting dogs to accompany the huntress.
These mysterious small islands in the Gulf of Mesara, are about 12 kilometers due south of Agia Galini. Separated by a narrow strip of sea called Bogazi, they are as rugged and inaccessible as anyplace on Crete, owning to the gigantic cliffs the surround them. However, the westernmost of the two islands has one magnificent beach called Varkaki (35.003137, 24.584943) that runs west to east and the spooky cape of Sakouleva. This wild islet is also where you will find the majestic cave of Tzigounas, the largest of the several caves on these legendary islets.
Photo credit: Feature image Panegyrics of Granovetter