Pithekoussai: Ancient Greek Colony of Nestor’s Cup

Pithekoussai: Ancient Greek Colony of Nestor’s Cup

Celebrated for its thermal springs and verdant landscapes, the volcanic island of Ischia, called Pithekoussai during its ancient Greek days —located in the Bay of Naples—harkens back to the Mycenaean era when it was part of a wide network of Tyrrhenian settlements that traded extensively with the Mycenean Greeks. It was the first Greek colony in all of Europe.  Enterprising pioneers primarily from the Greek city-state island of Euboea (present-day Evvia) founded the colony in the mid-eighth century BC naming it Pithekoussai.

Modern Ischia, with Castello Aragonese, Veduta (Francesco Brecciaroli / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Modern Ischia, with Castello Aragonese, Veduta (Francesco Brecciaroli / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Zeus’ Monkeys or Pithoi?

But how did the Greeks arrive at that name? In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder claims that Pithekoussai was named for its numerous pithoi (large terracotta amphoras) which were more common there than in neighboring Iron Age sites.  Others insist that the word was derived by the Greek pithekos meaning ape or monkey. Situated on what was then the western-most boundary of the Mediterranean, why was the island named after monkeys? To be sure, there are none nor have there ever been any monkeys in the area. But the notion of monkeys on a combustible island comes from Greek mythology when Zeus transformed naughty forest creatures into monkeys banishing them to a remote volcanic island.  Still others surmise that its name may come instead from the Greek word pithekizo which meant ‘to monkey around’ and may have been a term used derisively by mainlanders to refer to the speculative and profiteering Greeks, who originally hailed from the Athens environs, several hundred miles away.


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