Lemnos (Greek: Λήμνος, Limnos) is an island of Greece in the northern part of the Aegean Sea. Administratively the island forms a separate municipality within the Lemnos regional unit, which is part of the North Aegean region. The principal town of the island and seat of the municipality is Myrina.
For ancient Greeks, the island was sacred to Hephaestus, god of metallurgy, who—as he tells himself in Iliad I.590ff—fell on Lemnos when Zeus hurled him headlong out of Olympus. There, he was cared for by the Sinties, according to Iliad or by Thetis (Apollodorus, Bibliotheke I:3.5), and there with a Thracian nymph Cabiro (a daughter of Proteus) he fathered a tribe called the Kaberoi. Sacred initiatory rites dedicated to them were performed in the island.
Hephaestus’ forge, which was located on Lemnos, as well as the name Aethaleia, sometimes applied to it, points to its volcanic character. It is said that fire occasionally blazed forth from Mosychlos, one of its mountains. The ancient geographer Pausanias relates that a small island called Chryse, off the Lemnian coast, was swallowed up by the sea. All volcanic action is now extinct.
The earliest inhabitants are said to have been a Thracian tribe, whom the Greeks called Sintians, “robbers”. The name Lemnos is said by Hecataeus to have been applied in the form of a title to Cybele among the Thracians. The worship of Cybele was characteristic of Thrace, where it had spread from Asia Minor at a very early period. Hypsipyle and Myrina (the name of one of the chief towns) are Amazon names, which are always connected with Asiatic Cybele-worship.
According to the epitome of the Bibliotheke traditionally attributed to Apollodorus (Epitome I:9), when Dionysus found Ariadne abandoned on Naxos, he brought her to Lemnos and there fathered Thoas, Staphylus, Oenopion, and Peparethus. Pliny the Elder in his Natural History (xxxvi. 13) speaks of a remarkable labyrinth in Lemnos, which has not been identified in modern times.
According to a Hellenic legend, the women were all deserted by their husbands for Thracian women, and in revenge they murdered every man on the island. From this barbarous act, the expression Lemnian deeds became proverbial among the Hellenes. According to Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica the Argonauts landing soon after found only women in the island, ruled by Hypsipyle, daughter of the old king Thoas. From the Argonauts and the Lemnian women were descended the race called Minyans, whose king Euneus, son of Jason and Hypsipyle, sent wine and provisions to the Achaeans at Troy. According to later Greek historians, the Minyans were expelled by a Pelasgian tribe who came from Attica.
The historical element underlying these traditions is probably that the original Thracian people were gradually brought into communication with the Greeks as navigation began to unite the scattered islands of the Aegean; the Thracian inhabitants were technologically primitive in comparison with the Greek mariners.
In another legend, Philoctetes was left on Lemnos by the Greeks on their way to Troy; and there he suffered ten years’ agony from his wounded foot, until Odysseus and Neoptolemus induced him to accompany them to Troy. According to Sophocles, he lived beside Mount Hermaeus, which Aeschylus makes one of the beacon points to flash the news of Troy’s downfall home to Argos.
The ruins of the oldest human settlement in the Aegean Islands found so far have been unearthed in archaeological excavations on Lemnos by a team of Greek, Italian and American archaeologists at the Ouriakos site on the Louri coast of Fyssini in Moudros municipality. The excavation began in early June 2009 and the finds brought to light, consisting mainly of high quality stone tools, are from the Epipaleolithic Period, indicating a settlement of hunters and gatherers and fishermen of the 12th millennium BC.
A rectangular building with a double row of stepped seats on the long sides, at the southwest side of the hill of Poliochne, dates back to the Early Bronze Age and was possibly used as a kind of Bouleuterion.
In August and September 1926, members of the Italian School of Archaeology at Athens conducted trial excavations on the island. The overall purpose of the excavations was to shed light on the island’s “Etrusco-Pelasgian” civilization. The excavations were conducted on the site of the city of Hephaistia (i. e., Palaiopolis) where the Pelasgians, according to Herodotus, surrendered to Miltiades of Athens. There, a necropolis (ca. 9th–8th centuries BC) was discovered, revealing bronze objects, pots, and over 130 ossuaries. The ossuaries contained distinctly male and female funeral ornaments. Male ossuaries contained knives and axes whereas female ossuaries contained earrings, bronze pins, necklaces, gold-diadems, and bracelets. The decorations on some of the gold objects contained spirals of Mycenaean origin, but had no Geometric forms. According to their ornamentation, the pots discovered at the site were from the Geometric period. However, the pots also preserved spirals indicative of Mycenaean art. The results of the excavations indicate that the Early Iron Age inhabitants of Lemnos could be a remnant of a Mycenaean population and, in addition, the earliest attested reference to Lemnos is the Mycenaean Greek ra-mi-ni-ja, “Lemnian woman”, written in Linear B syllabic script. Professor Della Seta reports:
The lack of weapons of bronze, the abundance of weapons of iron, and the type of the pots and the pins gives the impression that the necropolis belongs to the ninth or eighth century B.C. That it did not belong to a Greek population, but to a population which, in the eyes of the Hellenes, appeared barbarous, is shown by the weapons. The Greek weapon, dagger or spear, is lacking: the weapons of the barbarians, the axe and the knife, are common. Since, however, this population … preserves so many elements of Mycenaean art, the Tyrrhenians or Pelasgians of Lemnos may be recognized as a remnant of a Mycenaean population.
Homer speaks as if there were one town in the island called Lemnos. In Classical times there were two towns, Myrina (also called Kastro) and Hephaistia, which was the chief town. Coins from Hephaestia are found in considerable number, and various types including the goddess Athena with her owl, native religious symbols, the caps of the Dioscuri, Apollo, etc. Few coins of Myrina are known. They belong to the period of Attic occupation, and bear Athenian types. A few coins are also known which bear the name of the whole island, rather than of either city.
A trace of the Lemnian language is found on a 6th-century inscription on a funerary stele, the Lemnos stele. Lemnos later adopted the Attic dialect of Athens.
Coming down to a better authenticated period, we find that Lemnos was conquered by Otanes, a general of Darius Hystaspis. But soon (510 BC) it was reconquered by Miltiades the Younger, the tyrant of the Thracian Chersonese. Miltiades later returned to Athens and Lemnos was an Athenian possession until the Macedonian empire absorbed it.
In 197 BC, the Romans declared it free, but in 166 BC gave it over to Athens which retained nominal possession of it until the whole of Greece was made a province of the Roman Republic in 146 BC. After the division of the Roman Empire in 395, Lemnos passed to the Byzantine Empire.