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For the butterfly genus, see Britomartis (butterfly).

Britomartis (Βριτόμαρτις) is among the Minoan goddess figures that passed through the Mycenaeans' culture into classical Greek mythology, with transformations that are unclear in both transferrals.[1] For the Greeks Britomartis (Cretan dialect[2] for "sweet maiden", "sweet virgin"[3]) or Diktynna (derived by Hellenistic writers as from diktya, "hunting nets")[4] was a mountain nymph (an oread) whom Greeks recognized also in Artemis and in Aphaea, the "invisible" patroness of Aegina.[5]

Britomartis ("sweet maid") is an epithet that does not reveal the goddess's name,[6] nor her character, for it has the ring of an apotropaic euphemism.[7] The goddess addressed as "Britomartis" was worshipped as the Minoan goddess of mountains and hunting, an aspect of Potnia, the "Mistress". The oldest aspect of the Cretan Goddess was as Mother of Mountains, who appears on Minoan seals with the demonic features of a Gorgon, accompanied by the double-axes of power and gripping divine snakes. Her terror-inspiring aspect was softened by calling her Britomartis, the "good virgin", a euphemism to allay her dangerous aspect.

Every element of the Classical myths that told of Britomartis served to reduce her power and scope, even literally to entrap her in nets (but only because she "wanted" to be entrapped). The traditional patriarchal bias of Greek writers even made her the "daughter" of Zeus (see below), rather than his patroness when he was an infant in her cave on Mount Dikte, and they made her own tamed, "evolved" and cultured Olympian aspect, the huntress Artemis, responsible for granting Britomartis status as a goddess, a mythic inversion. But the ancient goddess never quite disappeared and remained on the coins of Cretan cities, as herself or as Diktynna, the goddess of Mount Dikte, Zeus' birthplace. As Diktynna, winged and now represented with a human face, she stood on her ancient mountain, and grasped an animal in each hand, in the guise of Potnia Theron the Mistress of animals. The Greeks could only conceive of a mistress of animals as a huntress, but on the early seals she suckles griffons. Archaic representations of winged Artemis show that she evolved from Potnia theron, the Mistress of Animals.

By Hellenistic and Roman times, Britomartis was given a genealogical setting that fitted her into a Classical context:

"Britomartis, who is also called Diktynna, the myths relate, was born at Kaino in Crete of Zeus and Karme[8], the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter; she invented the nets [diktya] which are used in hunting."[9]

The third hymn to Artemis by Callimachus tells how she was pursued by Minos and, as Diktynna, "Lady of the Nets", threw herself into fishermen's nets to escape him; thus rescued, she was taken by the fishermen to mainland Greece. She was also known as Dicte. This myth element "explains" the spread of the Cretan goddess's cult to Greece. Didorus Siculus found it less than credible: "But those men who tell the tale that she has been named Diktynna because she fled into some fishermen’s nets when she was pursued by Minos, who would have ravished her, have missed the truth; for its 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."[10] Strabo notes that she was venerated as Diktynna only in western Crete, in the region of Cydonia, where there was a Diktynnaion , or temple of Diktynna.< "Oupis [Artemis], O queen, fairfaced Bringer of Light, thee too the Kretans name after that Nymph," Callimachus says. "She passed her time in the company of Artemis, this being the reason why some men think Diktynna and Artemis are one and the same goddess," Diodorus Siculus (5.76.3) suggested. The most extreme form of mythic inversion is expressed by the Romanized Greek Pausanias, in the second century CE: "She was made a goddess by Artemis," Pausanias asserts (2.30.3), "and she is worshipped, not only by the Cretans but also by the Aiginetans" (see Aphaea, below).

In Minoan art, and on coins, seals and rings and the like throughout Greece, Britomartis is depicted with demonic features, carrying a double-handed axe and accompanied by feral animals.


As Diktynna

A xoanon, a cult wooden statue, of Britomartis, made by Daedalus, sat in the temple of Olous. In Chersonesos and Olous, she was often portrayed on coins and was heavily worshipped in those cities; the festival Britomarpeia was held in her honor. As Diktynna, her face was pictured on Cretan coins of Kydonia, Polyrrhenia and Phalasarna as the nurse of Zeus. On Crete, she was connected with the mountain where Zeus was said to have been born--Mount Dikte. On some early Britomartis coins of Kydonia, the coin was manufactured as an overstrike of specimens manufactured by Aegina.[11] Temples existed to her in Athens, Sparta, Massalia and between Ambrosus and Anticyra in Phocis,[12] where, as Artemis Diktynna, her cult object was a black stone worked by Aeginetans,[13] but she was primarily a goddess of local importance in Western Crete, such as Lysos and West of Kydonia. Her temples were said to be guarded by vicious dogs stronger than bears. A temple dedicated to the goddess was erected in ancient times on Mount Tityros near Cydonia.[11]

As Aphaea

Britomartis was worshipped as Aphaea (Pausanias, 2.30.3) primarily on the island of Aegina in Mycenaean times, where the temple "Athena Aphaea"[14] was later located. With the coming of Athenian control over Aegina, a temple to her also existed on the outskirts of Athens, at the Aspropyrgos.

Spenser's "Britomart"

Britomart figures in Edmund Spenser's knightly epic The Faerie Queene, where she is an allegorical figure of the virgin Knight of Chastity, representing English virtue--in particular, English military power--through a folk etymology that associated Brit-, as in Briton, with Martis, here thought of as "of Mars", the Roman war god. In Spenser's allegory, Britomart connotes the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I of England.

In his retelling of the King Arthur legends, Arthur Rex, author Thomas Berger suggests that Queen Guinevere may have become a powerful female knight known as Britomart after the death of the King.


  1. ^ Other Minoan/Greek goddess figures that the scant archaeological evidence and speculative reading of literary sources suggest made the transition to classical Hellenic culture can be detected in aspects of the Olympian goddesses Hera, Demeter and Artemis, and in Europa, Eileithyia, Leto, Leucothea, Rhea, Pasiphaë, Ariadne, and even Helen. The subject is examined in detail in Martin P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion 2nd ed. (Lund) 1950, which is presented in two sections, "The Minoan-Mycenaean religion according to the monuments" and "Minoan-Mycenaean religion in its relations to Greek religion". See also Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985:10-47.
  2. ^ Cretan dialect: according to Solinus, Polyhistor, 2.8; the word is not Greek; Solinus says explicitly that Britomartis is the Cretan Artemis. Noted by H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York) 1959:117, citing Theodor Mommsen's edition, 1864.
  3. ^ Solinus, ix.8.
  4. ^ For example, "...all but caught, she leapt into the sea from the top of a cliff and fell into the nets of fishermen which saved her. Whence in after days the Kydonians call the Nymphe Diktyna (Lady of the Nets) and the hill whence the Nymphe leaped they call the hill of Nets (Diktaion)," (Callimachus, Ode 3 to Artemis, 188ff.
  5. ^ K. Pilafidis-Williams, The Sanctuary of Aphaia on Aigina in the Bronze Age (Munich: Hirmer) 1998, describes the distinctive local cult but is cautious in retrojecting the later cult of Aphaia to describe Britomartis at Aigina; the explicit identification of Britomartis and Aphaea is in Pausanias, ii.30.3 and in Diodorus Siculus, v.76.3.
  6. ^ A Christian parallel may render this even clearer: Mater dolens, "grieving mother", identifies the Blessed Virgin, but none of the four attributes—"grieving, mother, blessed, virgin"— gives her name, Mary.
  7. ^ "Her name is supposed to mean the 'Good Maiden'—which like Aristaios and Kalliste, is probably a euphemism for its opposite, the Maiden of Death." (Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth [Carolina Academic Press], 1994:113).
  8. ^ Karme was a grain-harvest sprite.
  9. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 5.76.3.
  10. ^ Diodorus Siculus 5.76.3.
  11. ^ a b C. Michael Hogan, Cydonia, The Modern Antiquarian, Jan. 23, 2008
  12. ^ RE, s.v. “Diktynna”, col. 584-588.
  13. ^ Pausanias (.36) saw on the high ground between the two cities "a temple of Dictynnaean Artemis, who is held in the highest honour by the people of Ambrosus; her statue is of Aeginetan workmanship in black stone."
  14. ^ The Olympian assimilates the older goddess as an epithet. As Athens assumed control of Aegina, there are clear socio-political implications.


1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

BRITOMARTIS (" sweet maiden"), an old Cretan goddess, later identified with Artemis. According to Callimachus (Hymn to Diana, 190), she was a nymph, the daughter of Zeus and Carme, and a favourite companion of Artemis. Being pursued by Minos, king of Crete, who was enamoured of her, she sprang from a rock into the sea, but was saved from drowning by falling into some fishermen's nets. She was afterwards made a goddess by Artemis under the name of Dictynna (Blktvov, " a net"). She was the patroness of hunters, fishermen and sailors, and also a goddess of birth and health. The centre of her worship was Cydonia, whence it extended to Sparta and Aegina (where she was known as Aphaea) and the islands of the Mediterranean. By some she is considered to have been a moon-goddess, her flight from Minos and her leap into the sea signifying the revolution and disappearance of the moon (Pausanias ii. 30, iii. 14; Antoninus Liberalis 40).

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