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The Mythology and History of Nisyros

The Dodecanese island of Nisyros is best known for its volcano, offering visitors the opportunity to walk in a potentially active volcanic crater. But this charming little island has a fascinating past too. There’s evidence of human habitation from the Neolithic age to the present day, and a mythology tied to its explosive beginnings. Here’s an overview of the mythology and history of Nisyros.

Explosive Beginnings

Stefanos, visit an active crater

Around 150,000 years ago, an underwater volcano began to emerge from the Aegean Sea. Over the next 135,000 years, a succession of mild and violent eruptions took place. Little by little, a volcanic cone emerged from layers of ash, lava currents and lava domes, topped with pyroclastic deposits and volcanic mud.

The island went through two explosive phases, around 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. These eruptions caused the top of the volcano to collapse into the magma chamber creating its caldera and large lava domes, eventually forming the island we know as Nisyros.

Subsequent eruptions were hydrothermal in nature. Such explosions created the volcanic craters we can see and explore today, including Polyvotis and Stefanos.  

Mythology of Nisyros

Greek mythology tells a different story. Poseidon, God of the Sea, created Nisyros during the war between the Olympian Gods and the Titans. Poseidon was chasing the Titan, Polyvotis. Upon reaching the island of Kos, Poseidon tore a chunk off Kos and hurled it at the giant, trapping him forever beneath the lump of rock.

The Ancient Greeks believed the tremors from volcanic activity to be the grumblings and groanings of Polyvotis as he sought to escape his rocky prison.

Prehistoric Nisyros

Despite its explosive past, Nisyros shows signs of human habitation dating from the Neolithic period around 5,000 years ago to the present day. The earliest settlers were probably Pelasgians, a pre-Hellenic population who spoke a ‘barbaric’ language.

Scant finds have been found from the Minoan and Mycenaean periods. The island was mentioned in Homer’s Iliad as part of the Greek delegation that fought in the Trojan War.

Ancient Nisyros

Pali beach

Built between the 6th and the 4th centuries BC, the ancient acropolis at Paleokastro is one of the best preserved in the Greek world, its cyclopean walls made from imposing blocks of black volcanic stone.

It was constructed at a time when the island was flourishing. According to historical sources, Nisyros, along with Kos and Kalymnos, pledged allegiance to Queen Artemisia of Halicarnassus during the Greco-Persian Wars, before switching sides to Greece. Switching sides was also a theme during the Peloponnesian Wars, where they initially joined the Athenian League, but alternated between Athens and Sparta as fortunes changed.

By the 4th century BC, Nisyros was an autonomous City State, minting its own coinage, until it became part of the Rhodian State in 200 BC. A few years later in 197 BC, Nisyros fell to the Romans who left their mark on the island, most notably in the Roman baths at Pali.

History of Nisyros from the Byzantine Period to the 20th Century

In AD 330, Nisyros became part of the Byzantine Empire, a period that can be seen from the ruins of several churches scattered around the island.

The fate of Nisyros during the Middle Ages reflects that of many other Dodecanese Islands, including Rhodes, Tilos and Halki. Control of the island passed between the Byzantines, Venetians and Genoese before falling under control of the Knights of St John in 1315 AD.

The five castles constructed by the Knights suggest an island under attack from pirates and Turks. In 1522, Nisyros was finally captured by the Ottomans under Suleiman the Great. While locals supported the 1821 Greek Revolution, the island remained under the control of the Ottomans until 1912 when it was handed to the Italians.

In 1948, Nisyros became part of the Greek State along with the other Dodecanese islands.

Modern Day Nisyros

Mandraki, the main town of Nisyros

The most recent eruption on Nisyros took place in 1888. While the island is constantly monitored for volcanic activity, it’s a safe place to live and visit, with around 1,000 permanent inhabitants living there today. Pumice and perlite mining are the island’s main trades, along with tourist activity. Thanks to the volcanic energy, it’s a magical place to visit and has been an inspiration to many artists and musicians.

Visit Nisyros with Nissia Holidays

If our guide to the mythology and history of Nisyros has inspired you to book a holiday to Nisyros to experience its volcanic craters, and explore the black stone acropolis and Roman baths, check out our fantastic range of Nisyros accommodation.

To find out more about the island, see our Ultimate Guide to Nisyros.

To book your holiday to Nisyros, contact Nissia Holidays on 01455 289421 or email us: info@nissiaholidays.com


Jo worked on Tilos in 2006, as the last Island Manager for Laskarina. She now runs a travel writing business and travel blog, The Wandering Wordsmith, and spends much of her year travelling. But Greece, especially Tilos, will always hold a special place in her heart.

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