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The Mythology & History of Tilos

Like all Greek islands, magical little Tilos has a fascinating history – and a good ole dose of mythology! From dwarf elephants and ancient poets to becoming the most eco-friendly island in the Mediterranean, here’s an overview of the mythology and history of Tilos.

The Mythology of Tilos

Although the name Telos (an ancient spelling of Tilos) doesn’t actually appear in Greek mythology, it hasn’t stopped myths about the origins of the island’s name. It’s said that Telos, son of Helios (the sun), visited the island in search of medicinal herbs to heal his mother, Helia, a Telchine (the Telchines were children of the Titans and the original inhabitants of Rhodes).

Telos returned to Tilos to erect a temple to Apollo and Poseidon in thanks for the herbs that saved his mother’s life. This also explains how the island became known for the healing power of its herbs – if you’ve ever visited Tilos, you’ll be familiar with their fragrant scent wafting across the island.

Pliny the Elder states that the island was known as Agathussa during ancient times, which puts this story into dispute. But we all love a good origin tale, so it’s staying!

The History of Tilos

The Dodecanese islands have a rich and complex history, thanks to their location at the crossroads of East and West amid a variety of civilisations and cultures. Tilos is no different, having suffered various plunderings and invasions throughout its history. As we look at the history of this incredible island, let’s look first at Tilos’s prehistory, through the classical period and onwards to Tilos in the 20th century.

Prehistory in Tilos

dwarf elephant tilos
The Dwarf Elephant of Tilos

Much of what we know about Tilos’s ancient past comes from the intriguing Harkadio Cave, located in the centre of the island close to Megalo Horio. Pottery and stone tools found here date from the Early Neolithic period (around 8000 to 7000 BC). Other finds show that Tilos was settled by the Minoans and Mycenaeans during the Aegean Bronze Age followed by the Dorians, who swept in shortly before Greece was plunged into the Dark Ages.

However, the most fascinating discovery from Harkadio is the fossilised bones of dwarf elephants, found in 1971. The last living elephants in Europe, it’s believed the animals became trapped on the island when it separated from the coast of Asia Minor, forcing them to adjust their size to fit their living space. Standing between 1.2 and 1.5 metres high, these mini elephants became extinct around 4,000 years ago.

Tilos During the Classical Period

The Greek historian Herodotus describes Tilos as undergoing a golden age during the 7th century BC. Colonists from Tilos and Lindos (Rhodes) set sail for Sicily at this time, where they founded the city of Gelas.

In the 5th century BC, Tilos joined the first Delian League under the leadership of Athens, and the island retained its independence until the end of the Peloponnesian War. During this time Tilos flourished, minting its own coinage and developing a reputation for fine clothing and perfume.

It’s believed that the Greek poet, Erinna, was born on Tilos during the 4th century BC. Despite only living until she was 19, her poems are said to rival those of Homer. Only a fragment of her poetry remains, four lines of The Distaff, a 300-line lament for her friend, a female singer named Baucis.

Tilos was conquered by the Romans in 42BC and remained prosperous until 551AD, when it was badly damaged by an earthquake.

Tilos During the Middle Ages & Ottoman Rule

Control of Tilos changed hands several times during the Middle Ages, first becoming part of the Byzantine Empire, then taken over by the Knights of St John in 1309. The seven hilltop castles dotted around the island’s vantage points suggest an island frequently under attack.

In 1523, Tilos was captured by the Ottoman Empire, which retained control until 1912. Throughout this period, it frequently came under attack from Christian raiders seeking revenge.

Tilos in the 20th Century

The Italians were the next to take over Tilos, sailing into Eristos Bay in 1912 and occupying the island until the German occupation of 1943. Tilos officially became part of Greece in 1948, along with the rest of the Dodecanese.

However, this tiny, remote island offered a harsh life for its inhabitants and many islanders emigrated to America and Australia in subsequent years. The population of Tilos fell dramatically and the settlement of Mikro Horio was abandoned and left to fall into ruin.

Despite it small stature, Tilos continues to make a name for itself as a progressive island, initially under the leadership of the mayor, Anastassios Aliferis. In 2003, the Tilos Park Association was established to preserve the superb natural landscape and unique flora and fauna that reside here – a move that led to an island-wide hunting ban. And in 2008, Aliferis performed the first same-sex marriage in Greece, contravening Greek law.

Tilos’s current mayor, Maria Kamma-Aliferi, has continued to push the boundaries, welcoming refugees displaced by the Syrian crisis and leading the way in the green revolution.

Visit Modern Tilos with Nissia Holidays

If you’ve been inspired to book a holiday to Tilos to see the cave of dwarf elephants, wander round the ruins of crusader castles, explore the abandoned village of Mikro Horio, or inspect the island’s green credentials, check out our fantastic range of Tilos accommodation.

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

To book your holiday to Tilos, 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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