According to Hesiod’s myth, the Kytherian sea is the birthplace of goddess Aphrodite. When Gaia (Earth) decided to punish her husband Uranus for all the harm he had caused her, she called her children and asked them to kill their father. Kronos then took a scythe out of his mother’s womb and killed him by cutting off his genitals. These fell into the sea of Kythera and turned into small islands (perhaps Dragonares). When the dripping blood touched the sea, the union of these two elements gave birth to Urania Aphrodite, the goddess of love. She didn’t stay in Kythera though; she traveled in a large shell to Cyprus where she lived. The symbolism of Aphrodite and Kythera has influenced the arts through the centuries: it has been depicted in 18th century paintings such as Jean-Antoine Watteau’s “The Embarkation for Cythera”, recorded in Renaissance poetry, occupied the mind of Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century, carried through in the cinematography of Theo Angelopoulos and will never lose its meaning, as long as people crave for distant and desirable ideas.
The island of Kythera is the crossroads of Mediterranean cultures. It has always been a welcoming haven for pirates, colonists, ascetics and the persecuted. Kythera has been inhabited since the Neolithic era. Several potsherds from the Bronze Age, Early Greek and Early Minoan era are buried under the island’s soil, while others sit on the surface, watching the endless path of the sun and moon in the sky. Even before the 20th century BC, the Minoans had extended their domination on the island and used it to control the surrounding area. One of the earliest Minoan colonies is in Kastri, current Palaiopolis, with Skandia as its seaport. On the mountain of Agios Georgios archaeologists found traces of a Minoan sanctuary and libation vases, stone objects and bronze figurines. The Phoenicians maintained a colony on the island during the 15th century BC; they processed laver in order to give their garments a deep red color and had specific laboratories for that, called “porphyreia”. Ancient Kythera was also known as Porphyris or Porphyrousa at the time. According to Herodotus, the foundation of a temple dedicated to Aphrodite is due to the Phoenicians importing the worship of a similar goddess from the East. After the Minoans and the Phoenicians, the Mycenaeans dominate the island in the 14th century. Throughout Kythera’s occupation by the Spartans, from the 6th century BC until the classical years, the Athenians will claim the island several times, especially during the Peloponnesian wars. The constant change of possession between the Athenians and the Spartans will lead to peace after 421 BC. Many Athenian and Spartan vessel potsherds found in Kastri testify to the story. At the time Kytherians worshiped –apart from Aphrodite- the Dioscuri. The age of the Macedonians comes next, followed by the Roman Empire. In 365 AD an earthquake hit the island and drastically changed the geomorphology at the area of Skandia.
Since the 6th century AD Kythera, similar to the rest of the Mediterranean basin, belonged to the Byzantine Empire and the strong religious element left its mark on at least three hundred monuments and churches. In 1000 AD the island was deserted and it was only after one century that the Evdemonogiannis families from Monemvasia came to the island and remained the only dominants until 1204. It appears that the settlement of Agios Dimitrios in Paleochora was built by them. Legend has it that Paleochora had 365 churches, one for each day of the year. When the mighty Republic of Venice annexed Kythera, along with other islands and regions of Greece, it installed the Venieri family who ruled the island for many years. In 1238 Nicholas Evdemonogiannis, considering the Venetian domination in the region, weds his daughter to Marco Venier, the Venetian feudal lord of Crete. Kythera, however, remained nominally under the sovereignty of Venice. At the time of Emperor Michael Paleologos Kythera was reacquired by Constantinople. The Monemvasians, led by members of the Notaras family, imposed the emperor’s anti-Latin policy in 1275, restoring the Byzantine control on the island and banishing the Veniers. The Venetians however returned later, with the war in the Aegean and the Notaras family left. Throughout the Venetian governance in Kythera, the Orthodox faith was not oppressed, as Venetians respected the island’s religious tradition. By 1470 there were only 500 residents left living poorly. In the 16th century the population appears to have reached 4000 inhabitants. In order to protect themselves, the residents arranged the island in three clusters, using the castles of Chora, Agios Dimitrios (Paleochora) and Milopotamos as their shelters. In 1537 janissary Hayreddin Barbarossa, the most dreadful pirate of the Mediterranean sea, destroyed and looted Paleochora, massacring its inhabitants. During the 17th century many refugees from Crete came to the island, bringing along their customs, habits and culture. The Turks arrived to Kythera in 1715 but did not stay for more than three years. In the last years of Venetian rule the island’s population had reached 7500 people. The island remained Venetian until the republic’s demise in 1797.
In 1798, at the peak of their glory, the French arrived to Kythera, only to leave after a short time when the Russians and Turks joined forces to conquer the island and control the seas. Also in 1798, a major earthquake destroyed the area of Kastri in Skandia. In 1809 the British regenerated the island with dozens of infrastructure works, but were oppressive to the Greeks. By 1815 Kythera, along with all the Ionian islands, formed the United State of the Ionian Islands with Corfu as its capital. In 1864 the Ionian Islands were united with Greece. A devastating earthquake centered in Mitata flattened the area in 1903. For a short time in 1917 Kythera was an “Autonomous Administration “. During World War II Kytherians participated actively in the National Resistance; in the village of Potamos they organized a resistance Front to restrain the German control on the island. On September 4, 1944, Kythera became the first region of Greece to be liberated. It did end up deserted though, as most young people would emigrate to Australia and the USA.