“Mermaids are real,” I tell my son.
He raises an eyebrow and shakes his head. “Fairy tales are what you believe,” he says. I can understand his skepticism. All my legends are spooky and dark. Maybe mermaids are not what I think they are. Perhaps they are beautiful and kind. Still, it may be true that they drive sailors to their doom.
On Crete, we have Vritomartis (Britomartis – Βριτόμαρτις), an enigmatic nymph often associated with the Cretan Artemis, as she was a Minoan protector (or goddess) of mountains and hunting.
Legend has it that Vritomartis was born to the mighty god Zeus and a mortal woman named Carme.
Britomartis, who is also called Dictynna, the myths relate, was born at Caeno in Crete of Zeus and Carmê, the daughter of Eubulus who was the son of Demeter; she invented the nets (dictya) which are used in hunting, whence she has been called Dictynna, and she passed her time in the company of Artemis, this being the reason why some men think Dictynna and Artemis are one and the same goddess; and the Cretans have instituted sacrifices and built temples in honour of this goddess. But those men who tell the tale that she has been named Dictynna because she fled into some fishermen’s nets when she was pursued by Minos, who would have ravished her, have missed the truth; for it is not a probable story that the goddess should ever have got into so helpless a state that she would have required the aid that men can give, being as she is the daughter of the greatest one of the gods, nor is it right to ascribe such an impious deed to Minos, who tradition unanimously declares avowed just principles and strove to attain a manner of life which was approved by men.Diodorus Siculus, 5.76.3
From birth, she exhibited exceptional beauty, grace, and intelligence, earning her the gods’ favor. Impressed by her extraordinary qualities, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, took Vritomartis under her wing and bestowed upon her the title of “Nymph of Gortys.”
As the Nymph of Gortys, Vritomartis became known as a guardian of the wild and untamed places. She roamed the forests and mountains of Crete, ensuring the balance and harmony of nature. Vritomartis possessed unparalleled hunting skills, which she used to protect the innocent creatures of the wilderness from harm.
Vritomartis’s story also symbolizes female empowerment and independence. As a nymph, she defied societal expectations and chose to live a life free from the constraints of marriage or domestic responsibilities. Instead, she embraced her connection to nature and dedicated herself to preserving its beauty.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Vritomartis’s story is her encounter with the legendary King Minos of Crete. Fascinated by her beauty, Minos became infatuated with the nymph and relentlessly pursued her. However, Vritomartis, valuing her freedom above all else, skillfully evaded Minos’s advances, seeking refuge on the island of Aegina. There, she underwent a transformation and assumed a new identity, becoming Dictynna, the goddess of hunting and fishing. As Dictynna, she continued her role as a protector of nature and an emblem of female strength.
According to another legend, to escape King Minos, she leaped into the sea and transformed into a mermaid. Since that day, Vritomartis became the protector of sailors. She guides them safely through the dangerous waters and keeps them from harm.
My son listens to these stories with awe and wonder. He asks me if Vritomartis is real. I smile and tell him she is as real as we want her to be.
Vritomartis is the embodiment of strength, beauty, and protection. And even if she is just a legend, she is a legend worth believing in.
Today, the legacy of Vritomartis continues to captivate those who visit the ancient city of Gortys. The mythological tales surrounding this remarkable nymph serve as a reminder of the power and resilience of women throughout history. As we explore the ruins of Gortys and immerse ourselves in its rich history, we cannot help but feel a connection to the spirit of Vritomartis and her unwavering dedication to nature.
On Minoan seals, coins, and rings, Vritomaris is depicted as a goddess possessing a demonic essence. Depicted with an air of power and authority, she stands tall, her presence commanding attention. Her most distinctive attribute is the Cretan double-headed axe, symbolizing strength and might. Just as the axe can both construct and destroy, the goddess embodies both nurturing and destructive forces. She represents the cycle of life, fertility, and regeneration, as well as the power to protect and defend.
As we delve deeper into the imagery surrounding the goddess, we find her accompanied by a retinue of wild animals. These creatures symbolize her connection to the natural world and her ability to harness the raw energies of the animal kingdom. With her, they form a formidable force, ready to defend and nurture.
Her graven likeness was found on coins discovered in the drowned city of Olous, which is now in the Bay of Elounda. You can go snorkeling to see Olous, and who knows, maybe you’ll encounter a mermaid.
And, while on Crete, you can always visit Mermaid Dreams Hersonissos – the first mermaid and merboy school on the island to try on an outfit and become Vritomartis for a day.