Mastic trees on Chios island
Mastic trees on Chios island - Image credits: pinterest.co.uk

Discover the myths and history of the beautiful island of Chios, where gods and mortals exemplified through their actions, stories worth to be told.

Chios is one of the islands of the north Aegean Sea and the fifth largest island of Greece located close to the borders to Turkey. The island of Chios is nowadays known for its mastic production and it is home to the monument of Nea Moni, protected by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and as the most possible birthplace of the great poet Homer. For those that want to probe a bit deeper into the history of the island though, they will quickly realise that Chios as an integral part of Greek culture, had a leading role in Greek history and contributed greatly to the formation of the New Greek State. Follow us then to the island of Orion, and let’s scratch the surface of what Chios has to offer.

The tale of Orion

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Blind Orion searching for the Sun - Nicolas Poussin - Image credits: metmuseum.org

According to the legend, one day Zeus and Poseidon did what they always enjoyed to do the most, a walk on earth among mortals disguised as regular men. During one of their walks, they travelled the lands of Boeotia, where they were housed by Hyrieus, a local hero of the region. Hyrieus, oblivious to the fact that he was hosting gods, offered them whatever he could to make sure that his guests were satisfied enough. At that time, Hyrieus was an old man, and despite the fact that he led quite a fulfilling life, he disclosed to his guests his sole complaint. He did not have any offspring, a fact that made him feel miserable and unworthy. Once Zeus and Poseidon left, contemplating on the words of Hyrieus, they decided to grant him this one last wish. The next day, when Hyrieus opened his door to go to his fields, he found on his doorstep a baby wrapped in silk swathe, young Orion.

Chios-orion
Drawing of Orion constellation - Image credits: wikipedia.org

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Years passed and Orion grew up into a handsome young man, and a really talented hunter. By having divine origins, he surely stood out from the rest of the mortals. First, he was abnormally tall (some sources describe him as a giant), he had quite the looks and also, he had the ability to walk on the surface of the water, a gift granted to him by Poseidon. Since he was a young boy, he was thought to be the best hunter ever lived and he was even allowed to accompany the virgin goddess Artemis to her hunting campaigns. During one of his hunting trips, he walked from the island of Crete to Chios where he saw and fell in love immediately with a beautiful young maiden, Merope. She was the daughter of Oenopion, son of Dionysus and Ariadne, ruler of the island of Chios. Orion, madly in love with his daughter asked from Oenopion to allow him to marry her. The king eventually agreed in one condition; Orion had to hunt down the wild beasts that were roaming the plains of Chios and destroying their crops. Orion accepted the deal but when he showed himself again in front of the king he found out a surprise. Oenopion had changed his mind and refused to give his daughter to Orion as his wife. In addition, he forced him to drink a cup of poisonous wine (he was the son of Dionysus after all) that he had prepared earlier, turning Orion blind.

Chios-nebula
The nebula of Orion - Image credits: nasa.gov

Once poor Orion was blind, Oenopion captured him and threw him into the sea. Wandering blind, he was rescued by Hephaestus who accompanied by Artemis took him to Apollo asking him to cure him (other versions of the myth mention Cedalion and Helios). Once his vision was restored, Orion sought fruitlessly revenge from Oenopion because the king had hidden in an underground bronze chamber. Orion continued his life as the best hunter alive, but his greatest talent came to be his death sentence. The most common story was that Orion bragged he would hunt down and kill all the beasts of the earth, so Gaia (Mother Earth- the Titaness) sent a Scorpion to destroy him. Orion and the Scorpion after the request of Artemis were placed amongst the stars as opposing constellations, one rises as the other sets. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus saw Orion in the Underworld continuing doing what he knew best; hunting beasts with a bronze club.

Chios in antiquity

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The ruins of Athena Polias temple at Emporio, Chios - Image credits: pinterest.co.uk

Archaeological finds on the island, suggest that Chios is inhabited since Neolithic times. Ancient sources inform us that the first settlers were the famous Leleges, an ancient Greek tribe that were subjected to the mighty Minoans. After the invasion of the Ionians to the region, a shift of power is observed through the existence of prosperous Mycenaean settlements. The largest one is found at Emporio at the southernmost point of the island.

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In the coming centuries, the population of Chios gradually increased and the inhabitants started expanding their territories and interests by founding colonies to other islands and to the coast of Asia Minor. In the 7th century BC, Chios was included in the Ionian League, a political and religious confederation of twelve Ionian city-states. As a member of the league, Chios developed its trading and economy and it was one of the first city-states that minted coins. It seems that Chios had adopted a type of regiment that was based on the reformations that Solon introduced in Athens. Steadily, traders from Chios expanded their routes even more even beyond the Greek region since Chian amphoras have been found at locations in Russia and Egypt. During the early years of the 5th century, the Persian Empire invaded the island and subjected it until 479 BC when they revolted and gained their autonomy once again. Then, Chios joined the Delian League securing its protection from the Persian threat.

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A silver coin of Chios with a sphinx - Image credits: metmuseum.org

Generally, the island followed the course of Greek history, meaning that it participated in the Peloponnesian War, got under the influence of Alexander the Great and ultimately was included into the Roman Empire. During Byzantine times, the geographical significance of the island was put in the foreground and a huge defensive construction programme happened, now visible at the Castle of Chios. In 1042, the Emperor Constantine IX Monomachos, founds the Nea Moni, a monastery located approximately at the centre of the island. This monastery belongs to the UNESCO network of World Heritage Site as a fine example of Byzantine architecture with lavish decoration of exquisite mosaics and frescoes dating to the 11th century.

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The interior of the monastery with its spectacular mosaics - Image credits: explorechios.gr

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Even after the fall of the Byzantine empire and the coming of the Ottomans, Chios continued to be an important trading centre of the Aegean Sea. Notably, the 18th century is considered to be the golden age of the island. Vast amounts of money were accumulated on the island due to the trading activities of the people of Chios in the silk industry, textile trade and of course due to the cultivation of mastic resin. Because of its income, the island had special privileges during the Ottoman rule. Everything changed though after the Greek War of Independence. Chios joined the Revolution in 1822 and the reaction of the Sultan was immediate and brutal. He sent his fleet from Istanbul and 7.000 men to put an end to this revolt. The Ottoman army was burning everything to the ground for 40 days and had specific orders to kill every infant younger than 3 years old, every male person over 12 and every woman over 40 years old. More than 23.000 people were murdered, 10.000 died out of hardship and over 47.000 people were sold as slaves to different slave markets of the Mediterranean area. This event shook Europe deeply and the famous painter Eugene Delacroix created his masterpiece to honour the people of Chios, the massacre at Chios.

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Detail of the Massacre at Chios - Eugene Delacroix - Image credits: louvre.fr

Today the island has recovered demographically and the inhabitants make their living from the traditional cultivation of mastic trees and other activities such as trading, fishing and tourism. Chios is definitely a place of wonder with a vast history and monuments from every time-period. Therefore, those that want to find themselves in a destination off-the-beaten-path and experience a true taste of Greece, Chios is the place for you to be. Waste no more time, plan your own visit to the island of Orion or perhaps check out one of our Greece tours.