The island of Kythera, known also by its older Venetian name Tsirigo or Cerigo, is reputed in Greek mythology to be the birthplace of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Kythera lies at the southernmost tip of the Peloponnese, past the island of Elafonisos and Cape Maleas. An all-year ferry schedule connects the island to the ports of Piraeus and Kastelli on Crete. Other destinations include Kalamata, Gytheio and Neapoli (Laconia). Kythera has one airport, with flights to Athens operated by Olympic Air.
The name Kythera can be traced far back in history. Homer mentions the island in his epic work “The Iliad”, where the goddess of love Aphrodite takes on the name Kythereia (Akytheros being the person devoid of charm or attraction). However, the name Kythera appears in the works of several other important writers of ancient times; Herodotus, Dionysis, Xenofon (who uses the term Kytherian land in his work “Hellenica”), and even Aristotles – who remarks that the island was also known as Porphyrousa, after the purple dye produced from the marine rock snail Murex.
An alternative theory was supported by the geographer Isidoros (1st century A.D.), who believed that the island was named after the deity Kythereia (Aphrodite) and not the other way around. He was the first to illustrate the meaning of the verb “kefto” (to hide one’s love) and it’s relationship to both the goddess and the island. The verb “kefto” translates as “to hide one’s love”; according to Isidores’ rationale, those who make love on the island (Kythera) discover the hidden passion of love. The name “Kythera”, which in Greek is used in the plural form, could have be extended to include the population of neighbouring Antikytherians.
What, however, is the connection between the two names, Kythera and Tsirigo? Several studies suggest a relationship between the two: either both names were synonymous or one developed from the other.
Interestingly enough, a region exists on Cyprus (Aphrodite’s other island) called Kythraia or Kythra, where several statues of the goddess Aphrodite have been found. The larger area goes by the name of Tzirka.
Firmly anchored in Greek mythology, Kythera’s role as the birthplace of goddess Aprodite has strongly shaped the past and future identity of the island. According to Hesiod’s “Theogeny”, Aphrodite rose from the crest of sea foam that formed where Uranus’ dismembered genitals fell, thrown into the waters by his vengeful son Kronos. The resulting waves carried the goddess further to Pafos on Cyprus, where she was worshipped as the island’s patroness.
Aphrodite’s alternate name Kythereia also points to a connection with the island of Kythera. In ancient times, the goddess was worshipped in three forms: as Urania, patron goddess of pure and selfless love (with main site of worship on Kythera); as Pandimos, patron goddess of carnal love and reproduction (with main site of worship on Cyprus); and finally, as the lesser-known Apostrofia, patron goddess of moral integrity and protector of the family and children, reported to have been worshipped in Thebes and elsewhere. The early Kytherian temples dedicated to Aphrodite gave the island the Homeric characterisation of zathea, meaning “most holy”.
Aphrodites’ mythological birth from the waves has been interpreted by palaeontologists as an allegorical attempt by the ancients to explain the emergence of island itself from the sea. This theory is supported by a large number of palaeontological findings of marine fossils across extensive areas on Kythera, Mitata and Viaradika.
Climate of Kythira
Kythera is characterised by a temperate Mediterranean climate. Mean annual temperatures lie around 20°C with an average annual rainfall of 600 mm (approx. 60 days of rainfall) with an average cloud coverage of four (scale 1-10). Average measured wind strength lies around 3-4 beauforts, with prevaling northeastern and westerly winds. During springtime, the southwestern wind “Proventsa” commonly brings low clouds and fog and requires special attention by fishermen and mariners. Snow is rare, with temperatures seldomly dropping below -4°C.
Demographics of Kythira
In 2001, the population of Kythera counted a total of 3,354 inhabitants. The most people live in the island’s capital Chora with 579 inhabitants, followed by the central villages Livadi with 370 and Potamos with 400 residents. The remaining islanders are spread over 60 smaller villages across the island. Administratively, Kythera and its smaller neighbouring island of Antikythera constitute their own municipality under the Province of Kythera, which falls under the Prefecture of Piraeus. Historically, Kythera and Antikythera belong to the Ionian islands.
Administration of Kythira
Kythera became part of Greece with the cession of the Ionian Islands (to which Kythera then belonged) to the new King George I of Greece.
From 1867 until 1929, Kythera belonged administratively to the Argolid-Korinthian prefecture and judicially to the Court of Gytheio. In 1929 the area fell under the administration of the Attican-Boeotian county and the jurisdiction of the Court of Piraeus. Finally, with the establishment of the Prefecture of Piraeus, the islands came under the latter.
On Kythera there is also a Justice of the Peace and a Magistrates’ court. Previously a deputy police department resided in the island’s capital, with one station in Potamos and one on Antikythera. The Port Authorities of Gytheio excercised port control on Kythera and Antikythera until 1986, with stations in Agia Pelagia and Kapsali. As of 1987 both came under the Port Authority of Neapolis Vion, while the Gytheio Port Authority became a subdivision.
There are two Customs Inspection stations, one in Agia Pelagia and one in Kapsali, which both fall under Gytheio Customs Service.
By the end of 1928 there were 22 schools operating on Kythera (and one on Antikythera): 15 boy’s schools and 8 girl’s schools. In 1929 they were merged into 15 mixed-gender institutions, with approx. 1500 students enrolled. The first proper mixed-gender high school was founded in 1921 in the island’s capital of Chora, with approx. 150 enrolled pupils. In 1964, under the government of George Papandreou, the school system was divided into 3-year middle school (Gymnasio) and three-year high school (Lykeio). Under the military junta in 1967, the high school (Lykeio) was abolished and the 6-year Gymnasio introduced, by which time the island’s population had already started to shrink due to urbanization.
The island’s population is made up mostly of farmers and employess – however, the increase in tourism and the arrival of semi-permanent settlers has shifted the focus of income to tourism enterprises and rental accomodation. The island’s main agricultural products are olive oil and honey. A positive factor in the growth of the tourism sector is the fact that residential development is proceeding at a controlled rate that does not seem to affect local rates. Ecumenically, Kythera constitutes its own metropolitan bishopric, which is seated in Chora.
Salt harvest on Kythera– “alatares”.
According to a 1983 report by the Port Authority of Gytheio, 18 of the 25 saltflats that existed before the war were used to extract table salt from seawater, sufficient to cover the island’s needs. Rather than give up the island’s harvest to the monopoly of state-controlled warehouses (which still exist today), the saltflats, in Kytherian ownership, are rented out to salt-collectors or “alatares” at an annual rent.
A crossroad of the seas with its interwoven blend of cultures, history and mythology, the island of Kythera holds many a mystery for its visitor. Offering a wide assortment of attractions, beaches as well as a truly unique variation of natural landscapes, it is certain that the journey to Kythera will be a memorable one.