As a beach getaway destination, the Greek island group known as the Cyclades is without parallel. But the spectacular island terrain of the Aegean Sea is also the fabled setting of some of the foundational myths of western civilization. From the birth of the wine god Dionysus to the murder of Adonis, god of beauty and desire, to the mountain where an eagle gave Zeus his thunder, here are the mythological backstories of some of our favorite vacation spots.
With its towering cliffs and volcanic black sand beaches, Santorini feels like a miracle of creation. Fitting, then, that its mythological origin story is one of immaculate conception. While the band of Greek mythical heroes known as the Argonauts were at sea in search of a magical Golden Fleece, one of them dreamed of making love to a nymph. In the dream, the nymph told the Argonaut to throw a chunk of earth into the sea near the island of Anafi. When he awoke, he followed her instructions and witnessed a miracle as the island of Santorini rose from the water.
The southwesternmost island in the Cyclades takes its name from a mythological character, Milos, who was sent to the island as its first inhabitant by Aphrodite, goddess of love, after a soap-operatic series of events that began when Aphrodite fell in love with Adonis, the god of beauty and desire. This led Ares, god of war, to murder Adonis out of jealousy, causing Adonis’ good friends, the parents of Milos, to commit suicide, leaving Milos an orphan. Today, the horseshoe-shaped island draws a steady stream of visitors to its spectacular beaches of white sand, volcanic rock, and emerald waters.
Known now for its pristine beaches, ecstatic gay-friendly nightlife and cultural scene, Mykonos is named for its ancient ruler, Mykons, said to descend from the sun god Apollo. Today the island is sunnier than ever, but long before it was considered one of Europe’s best loved travel destinations, it was supposedly the site of several mythological battles—between Zeus and the Titans, as well as Hercules and the Giants. The large rocks scattered throughout the rugged island are even said to be the petrified corpses of the Giants.
The largest of the Cyclades, Naxos looms large in Greek mythology. Legend holds that Zeus, the father of all gods, was raised here, and an eagle gave him his thunder on the island’s highest peak, now called Mt. Zeus. The people of Naxos built a temple, which still stands today, to his daughter, Demeter, the goddess of grain, and they worshiped his son, Dionysus, god of wine, who in turn blessed their island with lush vineyards. It was here on Naxos that the wine god fell in love with Ariadne, and on a clear night, you can look up and see the Corona Borealis—locals say it’s Dionysus using this constellation to wreath Ariadne’s beautiful head.
One of the most extravagantly beautiful Greek islands, Tinos is flush with villages of glimmering Venetian marble, tucked away in hidden bays, on terraced hillsides, and mountaintops haloed in mist. Its highest mountain is Tsikniàs, said to be the place where Hercules, son of Zeus and one of the strongest men on earth, killed the sons of Vorias, god of the north winds, for abandoning the Argonauts. Vorias’ revenge was to send a strong perennial northern wind over the island. You can still feel it today.