Minoan Mystery Theater


Most of the people I know who practice Modern Minoan Paganism are solitaries. There aren’t any Minoan temple complexes we can go to anymore to experience big seasonal rituals (unless you count a tour through the ruins of Knossos or Malia as a ritual, which I suppose it could be). Of course, the Minoans had their own solitary practices; we’ve found plenty of personal shrines and altars in the ruins of homes from ancient Crete. But they also had something pretty amazing that I really wish I could experience myself: big public ceremonies that enacted parts of the Minoan mythology. In other words, they had Mystery plays.

You may have heard the term Mystery play used to refer to theatrical enactments of Christian biblical stories during the Middle Ages in Europe. But the concept was not new to that time or place. In fact, the “living nativity scenes” that many Christian churches put on around Christmas are the modern remnants of those Mystery plays.

Many ancient cultures included reenactments of mythological tales as part of their religious practice. Sometimes these plays were meant for just a small audience, like the one that probably took place at Winter Solstice in Knossos. But many others were meant for the general public.

At the top of this post you can see an image of the Sacred Grove fresco from the temple complex at Knossos. It’s an ancient Minoan painting that depicts a big ritual being performed in the theatral area on the plaza west of the temple complex. Here’s an image of that area as it looks now, nearly four thousand years after that ritual was performed:


You can see the paved walkways and the stepped areas where the audience (congregation?) would have stood to watch.

I’ve often wondered exactly what the Sacred Grove ritual entailed, what kinds of things that audience would have seen and heard – and felt. Was there music and drumming? Incense? Which portion of the Minoan mythology did this ritual enact? Were there offerings, maybe libations made as part of the process? I’ve always thought the women in those matching blue-and-gold outfits look like they’re performing some kind of sacred dance. Is this a depiction of the famed Crane Dance? There’s really now way to know, from this far away in time. But it’s fascinating to think about.

We modern Pagans don’t often get to participate in big rituals, especially not as big as the one in the Sacred Grove fresco. And even when we’re lucky enough to take part in a large public rite like the ones that take place at many Pagan gatherings, it’s rare to find one that’s Minoan in flavor. I suspect the movies take the place of Mystery plays for many people in the modern world. After all, they’re huge public spectacles where you get wrapped up in the story that’s being told, as if it were happening live right before your eyes (Lord of the Rings, anyone?).

Is this something that’s missing from our modern spirituality? Sometimes I feel like there’s an empty space where there should be Minoan Mystery plays. Maybe one day there will be enough of us to have a big Minoan gathering somewhere, with enough people to put on our own Mystery play. Yes, that’s just a dream, but it’s a nice one, isn’t it?

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.