The island was named after its southern cape, Leucatas. There are quite a few legends about where the name came from.
One of them states that the name derived from Leucadius, brother of Penelope, son of Icarius and Polycaste.
Some say that it came from Leucus, a companion of Ulysses from Zakynthos, who founded the temple of Apollo at this cape.
The ruins of the temple (or altar) were discovered by W. Dörpfeld in 1905, a few metres southeast of the lighthouse. This temple of Apollo Leucatas was the most famous of the island. It was a place of sanctuary for those under prosecution, even if they were actually guilty.
Scientists have not yet concluded about when the shrine was built. If the legend about Leucus is true then it must have been erected before the beginning of the Trojan War. It is more likely that it was built in the 7th century BC by the Corinthians, according to an inscription that was discovered in 1753 and translated by Petritsopoulos: “I, Pheron, son of Mnesicrates from Corinth, have built a shrine at the site of Leucatas, out of reverence, and I have dedicated it to the god Apollo”. But this epigraph is believed to be fake by some German archaeologists.
Each year there were games held at the site of the temple, in honour of the god.
Furthermore, coins were cut, bearing the image of the temporary commander of the island on one side and the harp of god Apollo on the other side.
The temple and the rocks of the cape are connected with Apollo’s purgatorial force. An old tradition claims that each year the residents of Lefkada used to throw a convict off the cliffs in order to ritually cleanse the whole island and to prevent any possible punishments by the gods. The human sacrifices were quite often in the area of Greece and were later on substituted by animal sacrifices.
According to the tradition, another legend reports that the name of the island came from a young man called Leucatas, who fell off the rocks of the cape to save himself from Apollo’s amorous intentions. By the way, the rock of Leucatas is also famous for the suicides that took place there because of emotional frustration. The first, according to legend, who fell of the cape (ironically, after the advise of Apollo himself) was Aphrodite who wanted desperately to redeem herself from her love for Adonis. However, because she was a goddess, she just came out of the sea, perfectly healed.
The most famous suicide was the one of Sappho, the poetess of love from Lesbos. It was because of her that the cape was named “the Lady’s Point” and “the Lady’s Jump”
It is said that the poetess fell upon the sharp rocks of the sea out of despair of Phaon’s love while others say that this love is unhistorical, a mere misinterpretation, and that the legend was based on Sappho’s love poems.
Let us now return to the origins of the island’s name. The name is more likely to have derived from Homer who calls it “Lefki Petra” (White Rock) because of the white colour that the grey steep rocks seem to have when the sunlight falls upon them. This is also shat Strabo reports: “I think they renamed it Lefkada because of Leucatas. Because it is a rock, white in colour, that stands out of Lefkada into the sea”.
Let it be noted that the name was initially given to the town that was founded by the Corinthians in the last quarter of the 7th century BC and then it went on to describe the whole of the island. The same thing was done again in the 14th century AD when the town was renamed “Santa Maura” and the name was used for the island as well. That was the period of western dominance over the island (Orsini, Angevins, Tocci), when the capital was moved into the homonymous castle of Santa Maura.
Santa Maura (or Sainte Maure in French) is a small town in France and the hometown of Angevin ruler Walter Vryennius. He gave the name of his birthplace to the island and he built a small Roman Catholic temple inside the castle which he dedicated to “Sainte Maure”.
However, there is also a theory that claims that the name “Santa Maura” pre-existed the coming of the Angevins.