How the Aegean Sea took its name – the legend of Aegeus

How the Aegean Sea took its name – the legend of Aegeus

Marveling at the shimmering Aegean Sea from a panoramic cliffside terrace in Santorini is one of the most wonderful experiences one can witness in his lifetime. As the sun mirrors on the crystal waters its immense beauty fills you with serenity, a sense of calm you may have never felt before. The scenery is truly breathtaking. However, have you ever wondered how these vast cobalt waters got their name? Read on, and we will reveal the ancient tale behind it, which is linked to one of the most prominent kings in Greek mythology.

To unveil the secret, we have to go back to ancient times when the world was ruled by capricious Greek gods and goddesses, kings had complicated love affairs, and there were still occasional disputes breaking up between different parts of Greece. 

Long, long ago, in the ancient city of Athens, there lived the mythical king of Aegeus who governed the city and played an important role in the foundation of several Athenian institutions. As with most stories passed down through word of mouth, bits are changed and added, but according to many accounts, Aegeus was the son of Pandion (Pallas), the legendary predecessor of the Athenian throne, and was raised by the sea god Poseidon. In some versions of this enthralling tale, Aegeus is also referred to as “goat man” since he had the superpower to turn into a horned animal and repel any weapons with his shield during battles. 

Even though Aegeus was a powerful and widely respected ruler of Athens, he faced one big issue in his life. Despite having married two women, Meta and Chalciope, he still could not produce an heir. In his despair, he turned to the oracle at Delphi, a primary place of worship in the classical world, for advice. However, he failed to understand the oracle’s cryptic message which said ​​“do not loosen the bulging mouth of the wineskin until you have reached the height of Athens, lest you die of grief”. Luckily, his old friend Pittheus, king of Troezena, solved the puzzle and offered him Aethra, his daughter, while Aegeus was drunk so she could finally bear him a son. After they laid together, Aegeus had to return to Athens but before his departure, he hid his sandals, shield and sword under a massive rock with the instructions to Aethrea that the only way their son can inherit the throne is by being able to move that rock.

Fast forward many years, Theseus, their child, grew into a strong, brave man and stood up to his father’s challenge. He set out to Athens to claim his birthright but he chose not to reveal his true identity at first. At that time, Aegeus was already married to his third wife Medea who felt an instant hatred and jealousy towards Theseus without knowing who he actually was. She was guided by her motherly instincts to protect her son Medeus, who was also promised the throne, and thus, decided to wickedly poison the disguised guest. However, as Theseus was about to take his first sip of wine, Aegeus spotted the familiar sandals and abruptly knocked the glass out of his hands. 

Father and son were finally reunited, and Theseus faithfully stood by Aegeus’ side during all the trials and hardships even when the Cretan king Minos decided to declare war on Athens. Minos set the terms that if Aegeus wanted to maintain peace he had to send seven young men and seven young women to feed the Minotaur, the vicious monster living by the Palace of Knossos, which had the body of a man but the head of a bull. To save the lives of the youth of Athens, Theseus volunteered to fight the brute. He set out to Crete and eventually succeeded in killing the Minotaur with the help of Ariadne. But, amid all the joy and relief, he forgot one important thing he promised to his father upon his departure.

Aegeus was understandably scared of how the heroic act would turn out, so to mollify his fears, they agreed with Theseus that he would put up the white sails before approaching Athens on the way back. Aegeus waited anxiously at Cape Sounion, a good look outpoint, hoping for the first glimpse of that white homeward bound sail. However, in the middle of the celebration with his friends on board, Theseus forgot to change the black flag to white which his father interpreted as the way that his son was killed in the fight.

In the mistaken belief that Theseus had been slain, Aegeus threw himself off the rocks into the deep angry sea. To honor his heritage, Theseus rendered the sea to be named after Aegeus. And this is the sorrowful yet magnificent story of how the fatal mistake of a son that caused the death of his own father gave this sparkling, blue hellenic sea its name, Aegean. 

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