The Minoan Sacred Year

x faience snake goddess vignette
Faience snake goddess figurine from Knossos

After people find out what modern Minoan Paganism is, their next question usually has something to do with the wheel of the year. The Minoan sacred year is a little different from the more well-known Wiccan-based eightfold calendar.

You may be familiar with the eight sabbats that many modern Pagan paths have as the basis for their calendar: Imbolc, Spring Equinox, Beltane, Summer Solstice, Lammas, Autumn Equinox, Samhain, and Winter Solstice. Under various names and guises, this set of festivals has become the standard for a wide variety of traditions. But it’s a modern calendar, constructed from several different sets of older European sacred days. The Minoan sacred year isn’t nearly this neat-and-tidy, but it still holds a range of interesting festivals that date back to the second millennium BCE or earlier. And they’re based on the seasonal cycle unique to the area where the Minoans lived.

The ancient Minoans lived on the island of Crete, which lies in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Greece. Like all the lands and islands in and around this body of water, Crete has a unique environment that’s called the Mediterranean climate. Those of us who live in the northern temperate zone (most of Europe and North America) are used to four seasons in a year: spring, summer, autumn, winter. But the Mediterranean really only has two seasons: rainy and dry. The dry season is their dead time, corresponding to winter in the temperate areas. But guess when the Mediterranean dry season happens? Summer.

So summer is the ‘dead time’ on Crete. The rain stops—really stops. All the creeks and all but the largest rivers dry up. Everything turns crispy-dry and brown and it’s HOT. Before the advent of air conditioning, people used to sleep through the hottest part of the day and stay up later at night, when it was cooler, to get things done. And they were very, very happy when the rains started again in the autumn. That’s when they celebrated the new year, because that’s when their agricultural cycle started again.

The rain softened the soil so the Minoans could plow their fields and plant their crops. The wheat, rye, barley, and other field crops grew happily throughout the mild winter and were harvested in the spring. So the Mediterranean growing cycle is pretty much the opposite of what I’m used to here in North America. In Crete, even today, the farmers plant their crops in the autumn and harvest them in the spring. So let’s have a look at what this special climate means for the Minoan sacred calendar.

The Minoan wheel of the year includes a series of holidays that come one right after another, lasting for several weeks and leading up to the New Year’s celebration at Autumn Equinox. This is similar to our modern winter holiday season, but it takes place in the autumn instead of the winter. It begins with the Feast of Grapes on August 31. This is the celebration of the grape harvest and the death of Dionysus, the god of the vine. This is very similar to the grain gods of northern Europe being sacrificed at harvest time. (Please note: In modern Minoan Paganism we have chosen calendar dates for many of these agricultural festivals, but in ancient times they would have been celebrated whenever the crops were actually ready to harvest, which may have varied by quite a few days.)

Following the Feast of Grapes, we have the Mysteries—the Minoan precursor to the Eleusinian Mysteries. The Minoans based these holy days on the rising dates of certain stars. For modern purposes, we set this ten-day-long festival from September 1 through 10. For some excellent reconstructions of the Minoan versions of the Demeter and Persephone myths that were central to the Mysteries, I recommend Charlene Spretnak’s book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece: A Collection of Pre-Hellenic Myths.

Then we come to the end of the Minoan ‘holiday season,’ the beginning of the rains. Obviously this would have happened on varying dates in ancient times, just like it still does, but in modern Minoan Paganism we celebrate the New Year at the Autumn Equinox. This is the time of fresh green growth, renewal, time to plant seeds and start new projects.

Next up is Winter Solstice, the time of the divine birth. The Great Mother Goddess Rhea gives birth to Dionysus in her sacred cave on Mt. Dikte. Or Mt. Ida. Or one of the other caves across Crete that vied for prominence throughout Minoan times. (I never said Minoan religion was apolitical.) The Minoan Midwinter birth story is the oldest version we have of the familiar tale: A sacred child born on the Winter Solstice to a holy mother but with no father, in a cave or grotto surrounded by friendly animals, then hidden away for safety. One of my favorite stories.

A few months later we come to the Spring Equinox, which is harvest time in the Mediterranean. The ancient Minoans celebrated with dancing, feasting, and offerings to the ancestors. That’s a fine way to do it in modern times, too.

Then we come to the Summer Solstice, which is paired with the Winter Solstice. The baby Dionysus was born at Midwinter and hidden away in his mother’s cave. Now he comes of age, emerging from the cave to take part in the Sacred Marriage with Ariadne. This was probably also a time for boys to have their coming-of-age ceremonies in ancient Crete.

Then we’re back to the Feast of Grapes and a new year starts again.

There were many other celebrations that we know about based on the archaeological discoveries from Crete, but they aren’t as easy to fit into a prefab modern calendar. For instance, several of the peak sanctuaries celebrated the major and minor lunar standstills, each of which happens once in a roughly 19-year cycle. The Minoans, who were obviously great astronomers, also celebrated certain times when the cycles of the Moon, the Sun, and Venus coincided over an eight-year cycle (that’s eight solar years, five Venus cycles, and 99 lunations). And they also revered the local nature spirits, some of which probably had their own festivals and sacred days.

Now, part of Paganism is about respecting the cycles of the seasons wherever you happen to live. And obviously, if you live somewhere that doesn’t have a Mediterranean climate, it would be kind of weird to celebrate planting in the autumn and harvesting in the spring. I’m pretty sure the gods understand that the environment varies from place to place, so I have no problem switching those two festivals to match the climate where I live in North America. It’s also good to remember that the Minoans sailed all over the place, even out into the Atlantic and probably up the western coast of India as well, so they had a clue that there are different seasons in different places.

So there you have it, the Minoan sacred year. How will you choose to celebrate?

If you’d like to join the conversation about modern Minoan Paganism, please feel free to check out Ariadne’s Tribe, our welcoming community on Facebook.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.

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