The quad-bike ride from the waterfront of the Aegina Island to the Temple of Aphaea was heavenly. My nostrils sucked up the salty sea air as if I’d never breathed before, while my eyes feasted on the blue of the gulf and the green of the trees, as if I’d never seen nature before. After the Acropolis, I was sure I’d enjoy Aphaea just as much. But a slow and serene ride uphill later, all I found were pillars, columns and some rubble sitting peacefully amidst trees. No visitors. No guides. No sign of activity.
I found no statues or inscriptions dedicated to Goddess Aphaea. All I knew of her– thanks to travel brochures–was that she’s a fertility deity. Even the ruins were cordoned off. But my disappointment slowly dissipated as my eyes found the blue waters of Saronic Gulf far below the hill. Then, it was just me, the temple ruins, the trees, the blue waters far away, and the surprisingly gentle rays of the afternoon sun. I felt peaceful.
The Temple of Aphaea is a ruin, with little to show in architecture but plenty to tell in mythical story. The lone guard who let me in narrated Aphaea’s story to me, in broken English with a heavy accent. From what I gathered, this goddess was associated with a nymph named Britomartis, who jumped into the sea to escape Minos, the first King of Crete, who lusted after her. She was caught by some sailors’ fishing net, and taken on board their ship.
However, upon being taken aboard, she was pursued yet again by one of the sailors. Once more, she jumped into the sea and swam her way to the Aegina Island. Upon reaching there, she hid in a grove on the north-eastern part, where the temple ruin stands today. Impressed by Aphaea’s virtue, the Goddess Artemis blessed her with immortality.
Self-preservation and self-protection were clearly themes that were not only indicated in her myth, but also manifested in her temple.
It seemed Aphaea’s determination to preserve herself not only bestowed upon her an eternal life, but also refuge on an isolated hillock in a rather remote island, thus ensuring her safety to this day. Perhaps, this was why it was just me, the guard, the trees, the sea, and the temple ruins. Apparently, even explorers ceased excavating this site further, despite finding artefacts from the Bronze Age, for the fear of damaging what remained of the temple.
Until recently, the temple was mistaken to be dedicated to the warrior goddess Athena. After all, the temple did contain a statue of Athena within one of its chambers. However, archaeologists ruled out Athena as the presiding deity, when they found a more protected room with a wooden platform that might have housed a statue once. Apparently, it seemed like a secret place of worship for Goddess Aphaea. Self-preservation and self-protection were clearly themes that were not only indicated in her myth, but also manifested in her temple.
Experts are as yet unable to unearth any statues of Aphaea, although, a supposed potsherd inscription of the deity is preserved in the Temple of Apollo at Bassae today. Who knows? Perhaps, the immortal goddess remains buried as a statue within the hill her temple sits on. Maybe she continues to elude mankind, just so she may remain as pure as the nature that surrounds her temple.
It seemed as if Aphaea lived on in spirit, if not in sculpture. After all, I’d just listened to the deity’s story; I could sense her eternal determination to preserve and protect herself. Suddenly, I was very aware that the temple had remained naturally undisturbed by visitors, thanks to its strategic location. Even the setting sun seemed to usher me out of there, to let her be. As I descended the hill, I cast one last glance at the Temple of Aphaea in the rear-view mirror of my bike. The pillars and columns glowed pale gold, radiant with the deity’s virtue.