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Where Do the Names of Greek Islands Come From?

Greek islands names
Santorini or Thira is believed to have been named after the ancient Spartan Thiran who first colonized the island. Credit: Greek Reporter

Many Greek islands derive their names from mythical heroes, ancient gods and kings, or from geological features.

The Greek territory is composed of 6,000 islands and islets scattered in the Aegean and the Ionian Sea, a truly unique phenomenon of the European continent. Every Greek island is different, each with its own qualities, making them unique in the world.

Santorini (Thira): The name comes from the ancient Spartan Thiran who first colonized the island. It was used by passing crusaders, who stopped for refueling near the Church of St. Irene, which already existed on the island.

Corfu (Kerkyra or Korkyra) is related to two powerful water symbols: Poseidon, god of the sea, and Asopos, an important Greek mainland river. According to myth, Poseidon fell in love with the beautiful nymph Korkyra, daughter of Asopus and river nymph Metope, and abducted her. Poseidon brought Korkyra to the unnamed island and, in marital bliss, offered her name to the place–Korkyra gradually evolved to Kerkyra. Together, they had a child they called Phaiax, after whom the inhabitants of the island were named Phaiakes. This term was transliterated via Latin to Phaeacians. Corfu’s nickname is the island of the Phaeacians.

Crete: Kriti was the name of one of the nymphs who guarded the golden apples of the Hesperides garden, the garden of the gods, and according to mythology the nymph named the island. Another theory suggests that it derives from the ancient Greek word “κραταιή” (krataie̅), meaning strong or powerful, the reasoning being that Crete was the strongest thalassocracy during ancient times.

Names of Greek islands derive from mythology

Anafi: According to Greek mythology, the Argonauts as they were returning home from Colchis were caught in a storm and begged ancient Greek god Apollo to save them. Apollo responded to their calls and saw and island pop up in front of them; it became their refuge. The locals claim that the island is so named because it has no snakes.

Folegandros: For the origin of the name of Folegandros there are two versions. According to the first one, the name comes from the Phoenician word phelekgundari (helekgundari) which means rocky land. In the second version, the island received its name from the mythological first settler, Folegandros, son of King Minos.

Naxos: There are two main theories about the island’s name. The first is that it was named in honor of Naxos, the ruler of the first settlers of the island; the second, that the name derives from the ancient Greek word naxai, meaning thysai, because of the many sacrifices that took place there in honor of the gods.

Skiathos: According to rumors, the name of Skiathos has origins in the words ‘shadow’ and ‘Athos’ as  the island is geographically in the shadow of Agion Oros.

Mykonos: The Island’s name is inspired by the hero Mykonos, a descendant of the legendary king of Delos Anius.

Skyros: The island got its name from the wild rocky terrain; skiron or skyros means stone debris.

Leros: Most of Leros is flat with low mountains, thus the island got its name from the ancient Greek word ‘leros’ which means smooth and flat.

Aegina: Tradition derives the name from Aegina, the mother of the hero Aeacus, who was born on the island and became its king.

Hydra: In ancient times, the island was known as Hydrea (Ὑδρέα, derived from the Greek word for “water”), a reference to the natural springs on the island.

Spetses:  The name “Spetses” came from the Venetians who used to call it “Isola di Spezzie” meaning the island of aromas (spices).

Amorgos: The name possibly comes from the word amorgά, which is the Greek word for the long roof beam of a building. The island’s long, narrow configuration could be likened to a roof beam. Another possible name origin is that the island grew flax, which was used to make robes called “amorgos.”

Chios: The ancient writer Pausanias tells us that the poet Ion of Chios believed the island received its name from Chios, the son of Poseidon by a nymph of the island, who was born amidst snowfall (Ancient Greek χιών chiōn “snow”).


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