Lemnos has some of the most unusual landscapes of the northern Aegean islands – not only its mountainous west but also the grassy, rolling expanses of the east have a character not encountered elsewhere. The west is rugged and Aegean; while the east is more Anatolian in feel. The whole island is volcanic in nature and displays much of the geophysical torment of its formation. A reef, some way out to sea from its eastern shore may even be an island mentioned by both Homer and Sophocles which, according to Pausanias, had by his time disappeared under water in an earthquake. Given its appearance, it comes as no surprise that Lemnos was always held sacred to Hephaestus (Vulcan), the god of fire and of the forge – a fascinating divinity, born without the physical perfection of the other gods, and who was hurled down onto Lemnos from Mount Olympus during a dispute between his mother, Hera, and Zeus (Iliad, I. 590). Hephaestus remains the hard-working and artful outsider of the Olympian pantheon; but his cult on Lemnos at Hephaistia and his association with the sanctuary of the Cabeiri (whose father he was, according to Herodotus) substantially pre-dates Greek settlement on the island. Lemnos, with its volcanic fumaroles and its position on the routes to and from the mines and ore-deposits of the Black Sea and Anatolia, was well positioned to be one of the earliest centres of metal-working in the Aegean. As a result the island acquired importance very early on in prehistoric times. In 1930 what is generally considered to be the oldest organised city in Europe was uncovered by Italian archaeologists at Poliochni, on the island's east coast. And the links with Italian archaeology continue through the important ‘Lemnos stele' – a late 6th century BC inscription in the native Lemnian language, which bears extraordinary affinities with the Etruscan language and which has altered scholarly thinking on the question of the origins of the Etruscans. The stele is now in Athens.
The legends and mythology associated with Lemnos are particularly rich and important, and explain the complexity of the island's history. From Naxos, Dionysos brought Ariadne to Lemnos, where she gave birth to his sons, among them, Thoas. Not long after, Aphrodite punished the womenfolk of Lemnos – because they had purportedly impugned her virtue – with a lingering, unsavoury odour which prevented the men of the island from having intercourse with them. The men took Thracian concubines from the mainland instead. The women of Lemnos thereupon took revenge by murdering all the island's menfolk except for Thoas, now their king, who escaped through the compassion of his daughter, Hypsipyle. A year or so later when Jason and the Argonauts put in at Myrina on their voyage to Colchis the women feared a counter-attack; but on the advice of an old woman, they received the men with hospitality, sleeping with them so as to ensure the continuity of their tribe. Hypsipyle bore Jason twin sons, before he departed again for Colchis on his mission to find the Golden Fleece. Diodorus Siculus (Bibliotheke, III.55 ff) furthermore says that Myrina, the queen of the warlike, female tribe of Amazons from North Africa, on her campaigns conquering lands in the Eastern Mediterranean, founded many cities. Amongst them was “one which bore her own name” (there is another ancient Myrina on the coast of Asia Minor, north of Smyrna, in addition to the one on Lemnos); she also founded a city on Lesbos “named Mytilene, after her sister”. Women are of primary importance throughout the story of Lemnos and its neighbouring islands. An interesting epilogue is provided by another literary tradition. It was Hercules in the end who destroyed the Amazons. On his death he bequeathed his bow and arrows to the archer Philoctetes in gratitude for being the person designated to lighting his pyre. Philoctetes, who was among the Greek heroes who sailed to Troy, was bitten by a snake during a stop on the journey, and the ensuing wound became gangrenous and began to smell so badly that Odysseus, on the orders of Agamemnon, abandoned him on Lemnos or on nearby Chryse. Cured eventually of his affliction, he was later brought back to the Greek camp at Troy and was the warrior who killed Paris. Lemnos – which in earlier days of volcanic activity may well have been a place of bad, sulphurous odours – produced a kind of sacred, medicinal clay of volcanic origin, known throughout history as ‘Lemnian Earth' which was widely used for the curing of snake-bites. The dense and suggestive weave of themes, recurrences and cross-references in this combination of myth, history and geography is perhaps the richest of any of the islands' stories.
Exploits of the sexes appear once again in the fore in a story from historic times which gave rise according to Herodotus (Hist. VI, 138) to the expression “Lemnian deeds”, meaning ‘atrocities'. During the Persian Wars the Lemnians, in an act of revenge, carried off Athenian women from the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron in Attica and took them back to be concubines in Lemnos. The resulting children borne by the women soon began to look down on their local half-brothers – whereupon the Lemnians slaughtered both the upstart children and their Athenian mothers. Crops failed thereafter on the island. When in desperation the islanders consulted the Delphic Oracle, its recommendations led eventually to the island's submission to the Athenian yoke.
Homer mentions that the people of Lemnos were the (‘wild-voiced') Sintians; Herodotus and Thucydides mention that they were Pelasgians or Tyrrhenians, indicating perhaps different stages of pre-Greek history. Whatever their identity, they were not of Greek stock in earliest times and had come to the island from the Thracian or Anatolian mainlands: the earliest Greek inscription from the island is dated to c. 500 BC.
Archaeology has shown that Lemnos had an advanced Neolithic civilisation and a Bronze Age culture of Minoan-Mycenaean type, connected with Troy and Lesbos, which continued without a sharp break into the Geometric period. The island fell to Persia in 513 BC and changed hands more than once before the end of the Persian wars. Hippias is said to have died here after Marathon. From 477 BC the island formed part of the Delian League, paying an annual tribute of nine talents; it later had a clerurchy imposed by Athens. It was these clerurchs who dedicated the famous Lemnian Athena of Pheidias on the Athenian Acropolis. Lemnian troops fought for Athens at Sphacteria (425 BC), at Amphipolis (422 BC) and at Syracuse (413 BC). Apart from brief periods of domination by Sparta (404-393 BC), by the Macedonians, and by Antiochus the Great, Lemnos remained principally under Athenian influence, and was her advance-base in the northern Aegean, along with Imbros and Skyros: although the immediate governance may have been Athenian, ultimate control was latterly exercised by Rome, until independence for the island was granted by Septimius Severus. Both Theophrastus in the 4th century BC and Galen in the 2nd century AD visited and were interested in the properties of the island's renowned ‘Lemnian earth'.
The island was plundered by the Germanic tribe of the Heruli in the late 3rd century AD, and later passed under Byzantine rule. In 325 a bishop, Strategios, of Lemnos was present at the 1st Council of Nicaea, and the island was raised to a metropolitan see under Leo VI (886-912). In 924 the Saracen fleet under Leo of Tripoli was defeated by a Byzantine naval force in the waters off Lemnos. In 1136 the Venetians officially obtained their first foothold on the island at Kotsinas, and from 1207 Lemnos became the fief of the Venetian, Navigajoso family. In the 13th to 15th centuries the island was disputed between Venice, Genoa and Byzantium – the subsequent, brief Genoese rule from 1453-5 being so harsh that the inhabitants pled with Sultan Mehmet II to liberate and rule them instead. A papal force landed, however, the following year as part of a crusade under Callixtus III to repossess Constantinople. A new religious order of Knights was founded on the island, along the lines of the Knight Hospitallers of St John, by Pius II; but Lemnos finally fell, following a series of disputes with the Venetians, to the Ottoman Sultanate in 1479 which later used it as a place of exile for disgraced notables. Count Orloff's Russian force occupied the island in the war of 1770, but was driven out by the Ottoman naval commander, Hassan Bey. For a few months in 1829 Lemnos became part of free Greece before being given back to Turkey in exchange for Euboea. In 1912 the island was liberated by the Greek admiral, Koundouriotis. The Gulf of Moudros was the base in 1914 for the disastrous Dardanelles expedition. Under the terms of the Treaties of Sèvres (1920) and of Lausanne (1923), Lemnos became an internationally recognised part of the Greek State.
Info: McGilchrist's Greek Islands
(From McGilchrist’s Greek Islands, © Nigel McGilchrist 2010, excerpted with his gracious permission. Click for the books)