Aegina’s Temple of Aphaia – A Greek Gem

The stone blocks that enclose this sanctuary may look unattractive at first glance, but they’re among the few surviving proofs of antiquity. They were used to build a temple to Aphaia, the mountain and hunting goddess who also protected shipping, important for Aegina’s economic prosperity.

Aphaea was also known as Britomartis – Diktynna, the Cretan daughter of Zeus and Carme. She was pursued by the king of Crete and, in order to escape him, flung herself into the sea. She landed in fishing nets and found herself on Aegina.

1. The Sanctuary

The Temple of Aphaia is one of the most impressive and intriguing buildings to have survived ancient Greece. It is an architectural wonder, a place of beauty and awe, a source of inspiration for artists including J.M.W Turner and a place where ancient worshippers gathered to celebrate the goddess.

The surviving temple is a Doric limestone building, erected in c. 570 BC. It was the center of a sanctuary that included an altar and a complex of other buildings, including a residence for the priests.

Votive offerings and other finds indicate that the sanctuary was prosperous in the Archaic period. A number of votives depicting ships have been found, perhaps reflecting the association of Aphaia with the sea. A bronze statue of a woman holding her breasts has also been discovered, which is interpreted as evidence of a kourotrophic (breast-loving) deity.

Later, the temple’s importance waned as Athens became more dominant and the site was abandoned. The pediments of the temple were originally decorated with spectacular Trojan War sculptures, most of which were stolen in the 19th century and now decorate Munich’s Glyptothek. The sanctuary’s remaining carved marble remains are impressive and well-preserved. The temple is located 10km east of Aegina town, and is easily reachable by public bus which passes the Temple site several times a day.

2. The Temple

The Temple of Aphaia is located on a pine covered hill over 500 feet high. It was dedicated to the goddess Aphaia who is associated with mountain and hunting deities. It is also a kourotrophis goddess (one who cares for mothers, children and those growing up). Votive offerings found at the sanctuary show that Aphaia was a popular choice among Aeginetians.

The pediments (triangular shaped roofs at the ends of the temple) were decorated with sculptures and inscriptions. These are considered to be a milestone for the development of Greek sculpture because they bridge the transition between Archaic and Early Classical techniques. Many of the sculptures have been removed to museums, particularly in the Glyptothek of Munich although fragments can still be seen at the site itself.

Aphaia was a local goddess worshiped almost exclusively at this temple on Aegina. She is associated with Artemis, a companion goddess for whom she enjoyed hunting. Her legend is similar to that of the nymph Britomartis, who was raped by Zeus and gave birth to Aiakos, the first king of Aegina. The nymph later fled from the sexual advances of Minos of Crete and threw herself into the sea off the island.

Pausanias reports that Aphaia was identified with Athena by the 2nd century BCE when the Athenians dominated Aegina. Earlier, she may have been a goddess of fertility and agriculture.

3. The Archaeological Museum

During the Middle Bronze Age (14th Century BCE) Aegina developed into a strong naval power, exporting goods to the Cyclades, Crete and mainland Greece. It was during this period that the Temple of Aphaia was constructed. It is dedicated to the goddess Aphaia, a mountain and hunting goddess who also protected shipping. Votive offerings have been found which suggest that she was also worshipped as a kourotrophos (nurse).

It is thought that the temple was built to mark the beginning of the Archaic Period and thus provide a bridge between this phase and the more advanced Classical Period. Its pediments are highly significant as they show that the artistry was rapidly developing and advancing during this time.

The temple had one of the first double-stacked colonnades and this design became a standard feature for Greek temples. There was a cella, or small room behind the opisthodomos which was closed off with grilles and was probably used for cult practices.

It has been suggested that the temple’s east pediment was built in the late Archaic and that its west pediment may have been partially completed during the Persian Wars, but never installed. The sculptures on the pediments were plundered for Ludwig I in the 19th Century, and many of them now reside at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek in Munich, Germany.

4. The View

The pedimental sculptures are evocative, although many are now missing. Those remaining offer a fascinating insight into how the temple’s design was adapted to reflect changing social conditions and attitudes.

A prominent sculptural theme is the Aeginetan response to the Trojan War. Pindar’s Isthmian ode to Phylakidas mentions both the sack of Troy and Aegina’s role in it through Telamon, Peleus and Achilles – descendants of the nymph Aegina (Stewart 2008a, 597; 2008b, p. 56). In addition, the Aeginetans had won the prize for valour at Salamis and may have used Persian loot to fund their new temple.

The Aphaia was dedicated to the cult of the goddess Aphaia, an Aeginetan mountain and hunting god, as well as the protector of shipping – important on Aegina given its maritime prosperity. The later incarnation of the sanctuary also incorporated the goddess Athena, which is depicted on the east and west pediments in the midst of conflict between Aeginetians and Trojans. This association of Athena with Aphaia suggests that she had been assimilated into the Aeginetans’ beliefs and was now worshipped in tandem with Aphaia.

The two-story interior Doric colonnades are remarkable for their grandeur, demonstrating how sophisticated the use of proportion was in Greek architecture at this time. In a rare example of a surviving temple-building technique, the columns have been capped with marble volutes.