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Aptera is mentioned (A-pa-ta-wa) in 'Linear B' tablets from the 14th-13th centuries BC. With its highly fortunate geographical situation, the city-state was powerful from Minoan through Hellenistic times, when it gradually declined. However, the Minoan settlement of the Bronze Age was located about 1.5 km away from Aptera, at the place of the modern Stylos settlement.

In Greek mythology, Aptera was the site of the legendary contest between the Sirens and the Muses, when after the victory of the Muses, the Sirens lost the feathers of their wings from their shoulders, and having thus become white, cast themselves into the sea. The name of the city literally means "without wings", and the neighbouring islands Leucae means "white".