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For the butterfly genus, see Britomartis (butterfly).
The Drowning of Britomartis, probably design by Jean Cousin the Elder, tapestry.

Britomartis (Greek: Βριτόμαρτις) was the Minoan goddess of mountains and hunting. She is among the Minoan goddess figures that passed through the Mycenaeans' culture into classical Greek mythology, with transformations that are unclear in both transferrals.[1] For the Greeks, Britomartis was a mountain nymph (an oread) whom Greeks recognized also in Artemis and in Aphaea, the "invisible" patroness of Aegina.[2]

The goddess addressed as "Britomartis" was worshipped in Crete as an aspect of Potnia, the "Mistress". The oldest aspect of the Cretan goddess was as Mother of Mountains, who appears on Minoan seals with the demonic features of a Gorgon, accompanied by the double-axes of power and gripping divine snakes. Her terror-inspiring aspect was softened by calling her Britomartis, the "good virgin", a euphemism to allay her dangerous aspect.

She is also known as Diktynna (Δίκτυννα; derived by Hellenistic writers as from δίκτυα [diktya], "hunting nets").[3]


According to Solinus, the name 'Britomartis' is not Greek but from a Cretan dialect; he also says that her name means virgo dulcis, or "sweet virgin".[4] Solinus also identifies her explicitly as the Cretan Artemis.[5]

Hesychius of Alexandria also equates the Cretan word βριτύ (brite) with Greek γλυκύ (glyke) 'sweet'.[6]

According to some other scholars, Britomartis ("sweet maid") is an epithet that does not reveal the goddess's name,[7] nor her character, for it has the ring of an apotropaic euphemism.[8]

In classical myths[edit]

Every element of the classical myths that told about Britomartis served to reduce her power and scope, even literally to entrap her in nets (but only because she "wanted" to be entrapped). The traditional patriarchal bias of Greek writers even made her the "daughter" of Zeus (see below), rather than his patroness when he was an infant in her cave on Mount Dikte, and they made her own tamed, "evolved" and cultured Olympian aspect, the huntress Artemis, responsible for granting Britomartis status as a goddess, a mythic inversion expressed by the Romanized Greek Pausanias, in the 2nd century CE: "She was made a goddess by Artemis," Pausanias asserts (2.30.3), "and she is worshipped, not only by the Cretans but also by the Aiginetans" (see Aphaea, below).

But the ancient goddess never quite disappeared and remained on the coins of Cretan cities, as herself or as Diktynna, the goddess of Mount Dikte, Zeus' birthplace. As Diktynna, winged and now represented with a human face, she stood on her ancient mountain, and grasped an animal in each hand, in the guise of Potnia Theron, the mistress of animals. The Greeks could only conceive a mistress of animals as a huntress, but on the early seals she suckles griffons. Archaic representations of winged Artemis show that she evolved from Potnia Theron.

Hellenistic and Roman period[edit]

By Hellenistic and Roman times, Britomartis was given a genealogical setting that fitted her into a Classical context:

"Britomartis, who is also called Diktynna, the myths relate, was born at Kaino in Crete of Zeus and Karme,[9] the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter; she invented the nets [diktya] which are used in hunting."[10]

The third hymn to Artemis by Callimachus tells how she was pursued by Minos and, as Diktynna, "Lady of the Nets", threw herself into fishermen's nets to escape him; thus rescued, she was taken by the fishermen to mainland Greece. She was also known as Dicte. This myth element "explains" the spread of the Cretan goddess's cult to Greece. Didorus Siculus found it less than credible:

"But those men who tell the tale that she has been named Diktynna because she fled into some fishermen’s nets when she was pursued by Minos, who would have ravished her, have missed the truth; for it is not a probable story that the goddess should ever have got into so helpless a state that she would have required the aid that men can give, being as she is the daughter of the greatest one of the gods."[11]

Strabo notes she was venerated as Diktynna only in western Crete, in the region of Cydonia, where there was a Diktynnaion , or temple of Diktynna. "Oupis [Artemis], O queen, fairfaced Bringer of Light, thee too the Kretans name after that Nymph," Callimachus says. "She passed her time in the company of Artemis, this being the reason why some men think Diktynna and Artemis are one and the same goddess," Diodorus Siculus (5.76.3) suggested.

In Minoan art, and on coins, seals and rings and the like throughout Greece, Britomartis is depicted with demonic features, carrying a double-handed axe and accompanied by feral animals.

As Diktynna[edit]

A xoanon, a cult wooden statue, of Britomartis, made by Daedalus, sat in the temple of Olous. In Chersonesos and Olous, she was often portrayed on coins, showing that she was worshipped in those cities; the festival Britomarpeia was held in her honor. As Diktynna, her face was pictured on Cretan coins of Kydonia, Polyrrhenia and Phalasarna as the nurse of Zeus. On Crete, she was connected with the mountain where Zeus was said to have been born--Mount Dikte. On some early Britomartis coins of Kydonia, the coin was manufactured as an overstrike of specimens manufactured by Aegina.[12] Temples dedicated to her existed in Athens, Sparta, Massalia and between Ambrosus and Anticyra in Phocis,[13] where, as Artemis Diktynna, her cult object was a black stone worked by Aeginetans,[14] but she was primarily a goddess of local importance in Western Crete, such as Lysos and West of Kydonia. Her temples were said to be guarded by vicious dogs stronger than bears.[15] A temple dedicated to the goddess was erected in ancient times on Mount Tityros near Cydonia.[12] Another name, Pipituna, found on Linear B may be another form of Diktynna.[16]

As Aphaea[edit]

Britomartis was worshipped as Aphaea (Pausanias, 2.30.3) primarily on the island of Aegina in Mycenaean times, where the temple "Athena Aphaea"[17] was later located. With the coming of Athenian control over Aegina, a temple to her also existed on the outskirts of Athens, at the Aspropyrgos.

Spenser's "Britomart"[edit]

Britomart figures in Edmund Spenser's knightly epic The Faerie Queene, where she is an allegorical figure of the virgin Knight of Chastity, representing English virtue—in particular, English military power—through a folk etymology that associated Brit-, as in Briton, with Martis, here thought of as "of Mars", the Roman war god. In Spenser's allegory, Britomart connotes the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I of England.

In his retelling of the King Arthur legends, Arthur Rex, author Thomas Berger suggests that Queen Guinevere may have become a powerful female knight known as Britomart after the death of the King.

In popular culture[edit]

A warrior version of Britomart appears alongside Robin Hood and his men in "The Last Castle," an installment of the Eisner-award-winning graphic novel Fables.

She is mentioned in the beginning of A S Byatt's novel The Virgin in the Garden where the Poet-Playwright character Alexander Wedderburn likens Lady Antonia Fraser to Belphoebe and the heroine of the Quartet (consisting of the novels The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower & A Whistling Woman) Frederica Potter to "Britomart".

Lady Britomart Undershaft (née' Stevenage) is a character in George Bernard Shaw's Play Major Barbara.


  1. ^ Other Minoan/Greek goddess figures -- that the scant archaeological evidence and speculative reading of literary sources suggest made the transition to classical Hellenic culture -- can be detected in aspects of the Olympian goddesses Hera, Demeter and Artemis, and in Europa, Eileithyia, Leto, Leucothea, Rhea, Pasiphaë, Ariadne, and even Helen. The subject is examined in detail in Martin P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion 2nd ed. (Lund) 1950, which is presented in two sections, "The Minoan-Mycenaean religion according to the monuments" and "Minoan-Mycenaean religion in its relations to Greek religion". See also Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, 1985:10-47.
  2. ^ K. Pilafidis-Williams, The Sanctuary of Aphaia on Aigina in the Bronze Age (Munich: Hirmer) 1998, describes the distinctive local cult but is cautious in retrojecting the later cult of Aphaia to describe Britomartis at Aigina; the explicit identification of Britomartis and Aphaea is in Pausanias, ii.30.3 and in Diodorus Siculus, v.76.3.
  3. ^ For example, "...all but caught, she leapt into the sea from the top of a cliff and fell into the nets of fishermen which saved her. Whence in after days the Kydonians call the Nymphe Diktyna (Lady of the Nets) and the hill whence the Nymphe leaped they call the hill of Nets (Diktaion)," (Callimachus, Ode 3 to Artemis, 188ff.
  4. ^ Solinus, ix.8.
  5. ^ Noted by H. J. Rose, A Handbook of Greek Mythology (New York) 1959:117, citing Theodor Mommsen's edition, 1864.
  6. ^ "A deeper source of Cretan Britomartis"
  7. ^ A Christian parallel may render this observation even clearer: Mater dolens, "grieving mother", identifies the Blessed Virgin, but none of the four attributes—"grieving, mother, blessed, virgin"— gives her name, Mary.
  8. ^ "Her name is supposed to mean the 'Good Maiden' — which like Aristaios and Kalliste, may be a euphemism for its opposite, the Maiden of Death." (Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth [Carolina Academic Press], 1994:113).
  9. ^ who was a grain-harvest sprite.
  10. ^ Diodorus Siculus, 5.76.3.
  11. ^ Diodorus Siculus 5.76.3.
  12. ^ a b C. Michael Hogan, Cydonia, The Modern Antiquarian, Jan. 23, 2008
  13. ^ RE, s.v. “Diktynna”, col. 584-588.
  14. ^ Pausanias (.36) saw on the high ground between the two cities "a temple of Dictynnaean Artemis, who is held in the highest honour by the people of Ambrosus; her statue is of Aeginetan workmanship in black stone."
  15. ^ Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, 8. 30.
  16. ^ "The Minoan Deities Named: An Archaeologist Gleans Goddesses and Gods from Linear A". Retrieved January 8, 2012. 
  17. ^ The Olympian assimilates the older goddess as an epithet. As Athens assumed control of Aegina, there are clear socio-political implications.