When we consider Greek literature and culture, we can see that there has always been an association between an island setting and the pulls of lust and danger. This mixture is present in the roots of sexuality and love for the ancient Greeks – the birth of Aphrodite. According to Hesiod, she was born upon the island of Cyprus, emerging from the castrated genitals of Ouranos, thrown into the sea by Kronos:
‘As he had cut off the members […] and cast them from the land into the surging sea, they were swept away over the main a long time: and a white foam spread around them from the immortal flesh, and in it there grew a maiden […] and came forth an awful and lovely goddess.’ (Hes. Th. 189-194)
Emerging first near the island of Cythera before continuing to the larger island of Cyprus, Hesiod tells us that Aphrodite finally came ashore near the town of Paphos. Her place of birth is still marked today by the site of the Sanctuary of Aphrodite Paphia, as mentioned in the Odyssey (Od. 8. 362). So central to Aphrodite’s birth was the island setting that she was given multiple names and epithets derived from them, including Cypria, Cypris and Cytherea. Sappho in particular refers to her with these names in her works (see fr. 2.12, 5. 1, 15b. 1, 86. 3). It is with this version of the birth of Aphrodite (as opposed to the version of her birth in the Iliad where she is the child of Zeus and Dione) that perhaps the connection between the island, sexuality, and danger began – it is only through the violent castration of Ouranos that the goddess of sexuality came into being, born from the white foam of the island waves.
This association is further seen if we travel to other islands featured in Greek myth and literature. Travelling eastwards from Cyprus is Crete, where the Phoenician princess Europa was carried ashore upon the back of Zeus, having transformed himself into the form of a bull to violently seize her for himself. It was specifically to the island setting that Europa was taken to by Zeus to enact his violent assault due to his own lust. Their sons Minos, Sarpedon and Rhadamanthus were the result of this (Hes. Cat = P. Oxy 1358 fr. 1). The island Crete was also largely known as the location of the Labyrinth of King Minos, home and prison of the Minotaur, the unnatural offspring of Minos’ queen Pasiphaë and a white bull Minos promised to Poseidon but failed to be sacrificed (Apoll. 3.1.3-4). The danger that often accompanies lust is a common aspect of stories set upon the island and is shared by another inhabitant of Crete: Ariadne, the daughter of Pasiphaë and Minos, and sister of the Minotaur.
It is said that once Ariadne had seen the Athenian hero Theseus, she fell in love with him. In exchange for him promising to take her to Athens as his wife, she told him how to defeat the labyrinth through the gifts of a sword and ball of thread so he could retrace his route once entering its twisting corridors. Once Theseus had defeated the Minotaur, Ariadne fled with him to Crete, both resting to sleep on the island of Naxos. It is on this island that Ariadne is abandoned by Theseus despite his promises of marriage (Diod. 4.61.5). In many versions of the story, following this abandonment Ariadne is seen by Dionysus who weds and deifies her – in some, the reason she is deserted by Theseus is due to Dionysus’ claim on her (Diod. 5.51.4). In Homer’s Odyssey, however, we are informed that it is upon the island of Naxos (or Dia) that she dies, slain by Artemis ‘before Theseus could take pleasure in her because of the witness of Dionysus’ (Od. 11. 321-325). With the story of Ariadne, we once again see the intermingling of the dangers of the island and sexuality. It is upon an island that Ariadne was raised by her mother who was equally tormented by lust; Ariadne then abandons her family for a man who heartlessly leaves her to die on another island.
It should not be a surprise that some of the last vestiges of ancient culture that are immensely popular today are these ancient Mediterranean islands of love that were so interlinked with tales of sexuality and danger. The fantasy of an island romance is a common theme in modern culture – think ‘Mamma Mia!’, set upon a fictional Greek island with a fountain to Aphrodite. Or perhaps consider the reality television show ‘Love Island’, which in many ways also portrays the island setting as one pulled by the allures of sexuality and danger akin to the island within Greek literature and mythology.
Professor Tim Whitmarsh has made direct comparisons between the show and the dangerous sexual encounters of Odysseus on the Mediterranean islands in the Odyssey. The dangers and allure of these islands run parallel to the danger the women that reside upon them pose to Odysseus – upon the isolated and beautiful island Ogygia, the nymph Calypso enchants him into staying with her for seven years; before this, the witch Circe drugs and enchants his crew on the island of Aeaea. (Od. 7.259 and Od. 10.212). Just as Odysseus and other mortals are prey to the whims of gods and powerful beings upon the Mediterranean islands, Whitmarsh argues that the producers of Love Island work as gods punishing and rewarding mortals - the contestants - who fall prey to modern dangers. The show’s seventh season may have indicated this in a tongue in cheek way with a challenge which paid ode to the Greek myths named ‘Sex Gods’ which saw male contestants play the role of the hero tasked with scaling a make-shift Mount Olympus to win a kiss with their partner. But just as easily as the producer ‘gods’ can reward the contestants they are able to punish them, and many a time a contestant has found themselves in the position of Ariadne, heartbroken and seemingly abandoned on the island.
The ancient Greeks viewed the Mediterranean islands as alluring and beautiful settings with sexuality and danger going in hand in hand with one another. It is no wonder that these islands retain a place in our modern culture as hubs for romance or sex. It takes one search to find dozens of listicles ranking the most romantic islands of the Mediterranean, with multiple islands being dubbed the ‘Greek Island of Love’. Some would perhaps argue that these listicles and Love Island challenges are not the most dignified remnants of ancient Greek culture, which has provided us with the immensely important works discussed here such as Hesiod’s Theogony or Homer’s Odyssey. However, perhaps we should instead view them as fitting inheritors of a culture which tied lust and sexuality so deeply into their cultural view of the island setting from the moment Aphrodite stepped foot upon the sands of Paphos.
Carson, Anne. (2003) If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho. London.
Diodorus Siculus. (1935) Library of History. Translated by C. H. Goldfather.
Dunn, Daisy (2017) “Love Island 2017: What the Greek gods can teach us about summer trysts”. Evening Standard.
Hesiod. (1914) Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White.
Homer. (1919) The Odyssey. Translated by A.T. Murray.
Homer. (1924) The Iliad. Translated A.T. Murray.
Love Island. (2021) The boys turn into sexy heroes in the SEX GODS challenge! [Video]. Youtube. https://youtu.be/YqjGGW-xRlk.
Pseudo-Apollodorus. (1921) The Bibliotheca. Translated by Sir James George Frazer.
Stuttard, David. (2016) Greek Mythology: A Traveller's Guide from Mount Olympus to Troy. London.
Whitmarsh, Tim. (2018) “It has the allure of a Greek Drama” in ‘We're all hopelessly addicted - so can some of Britain’s top academics explain Love Island’s gruesome fascination?’. Daily Mail.
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