Category Archives: Column: Modern Minoan Paganism

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, loving goddess of ancient Crete who lives on in the hearts and minds of the modern world. This is not a reconstructionist tradition, but a journey of modern Pagans in relationship with Minoan deities in the contemporary world. Ariadne’s thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

The Minoan Pantheon: Deities A-Plenty

La Pariesienne Evans

Most people have heard of Ariadne, Dionysus, and maybe the Minotaur, but there’s more to the Minoan pantheon than just those three. Here’s a quick rundown of the gods and goddesses we relate to in Modern Minoan Paganism.

Please note that, although Theseus is well known from the Greek version of the story of Ariadne, the Minotaur and the Labyrinth, he’s not a part of the Minoan pantheon. He’s a Greek culture hero (the Minoans weren’t Greek) whose purpose was to show the Minoans in a negative light. Many cultures have created this kind of propaganda via mythology. The Greeks aren’t alone by any means, and for all we know, the Minoans might have done it, too, though we can’t yet read their writings to be sure. Find out more about the origin and nature of the Theseus myth here.

Here’s the Minoan pantheon as we currently experience it within Modern Minoan Paganism. Some people focus on just one or two deities and some like a big party. 🙂 Whatever works for you is just fine.

Posidaeja – Grandmother Ocean who surrounds the beautiful island of Crete, one part of the Land/Sea/Sky goddess triplicity

Rhea – Mother Earth; her body is the island of Crete itself; her womb is the cave on Mt. Dikte (or maybe it’s the one on Mt. Ida – in fact, Ida may have been one of Rhea’s names). She’s the Land portion of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity.

Ourania – Great Cosmic Mother-of-All, embodied in the starry night sky. She’s the third member of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity.

Ariadne – Rhea’s daughter, Queen Bee, Lady of the Labyrinth. She figures prominently in the story behind the Minoan precursor to the Eleusinian Mysteries. You can find a lovely version of that tale in Charlene Spretnak’s book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.

Dionysus – shamanic god of wine and other intoxicants that allow communication with the Underworld. All types of fermentation and hallucinogens are sacred to him, as are ecstatic states.

Zagreus – “The Dismembered One.” Shamanic bull-god who may be an aspect of Dionysus.

Ananke/Arachne – goddess of fate and destiny; possibly an aspect or “job title” of Ariadne.

The Melissae – ancestral bee spirits; Ariadne is their Queen

The Horned Ones – three pairs of animal deities that may go back as far as Neolithic Crete.

Britomartis/Diktynna – deer goddess, connected with Mt. Dikte, later also associated with the sea thanks to some linguistic confusion

Minelathos – the sacred stag, consort to Britomartis

Amalthea – goat-goddess associated with Dionysus and the Minocapros; sometimes described as Rhea’s sister or twin

Minocapros – the sacred goat, associated with Dionysus, consort to Amalthea

Europa – the great Moon-Cow whose milk spurted to create the Milky Way; generally considered to be a doublet (pair or twin) of Pasiphae

Minotauros – the sacred moon-bull, consort to Europa; also associated with the Labyrinth (but I promise, he’s not a monster)

Aega – goddess of the Aegean Sea

Helice – willow goddess; sister or twin of Rhea

Eileithyia – divine midwife; you can still visit her sacred cave near the north coast of Crete

Minos – triple Moon god, judge and protector of souls in the afterlife, healer

Daedalus – smith god; the Minoans were a Bronze Age culture so he would have overseen the smithing of bronze, silver, and gold, but not iron.

Asterion – name meaning ‘starry one’ and applied to several related figures in Minoan mythology: Minos’ father or foster-father (if he’s the father – and the Hellenic Zeus isn’t – then Asterion may be another name for Dionysus); the Minotaur (Karl Kerenyi supported this view); Europa’s consort (but apparently not the same as the Minotaur). It’s not clear whether any or all of these were originally the same figure in the Minoan pantheon.

So there you have it: plenty of choices. Obviously, there’s way more to these deities than just the few sentences I’ve offered here. So if any of these gods and goddesses call to you, it’s worth your time to answer that call. Sure, you can do some research, but what’s equally important is connecting with them directly yourself. Invite them into your sacred space, your rituals, your life. You’ll be the richer for it.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

The Many Ways of Modern Minoan Paganism

Finger labyrinth

 

One of the interesting challenges I’ve found in practicing Modern Minoan Paganism is that my world is a bit different from ancient Crete. I’m not talking about technology so much (the Minoans didn’t have iPhones but they did have enclosed sewers, flushing toilets, and paved streets). What I mean is the religious facets of the culture I live in, as compared to a few thousand years ago.

For instance, when the high points of the Minoan sacred year come around, I can’t just head down to the local temple to watch a Mystery play or participate in a public ritual. Even though I have a debit card and access to the Internet, it’s still pretty hard to find “Minoan bling” outside of museums and specialty shops in Crete – I can’t just stroll down to an ancient Minoan marketplace and pick up some goddess figurines, oil lamps, and offering stands. I don’t have a whole city full of people who practice Minoan spirituality. We are, in a sense, baking from scratch in Modern Minoan Paganism.

(As an aside, I think Modern Minoan Paganism is poised at about the place Druidry was maybe 20 or 30 years ago. It’s a small specialty field within Paganism, which is itself a small specialty section of world religions. Not many people know about the Minoan spiritual path yet, but that’s slowly changing. I’m looking forward to the day when we can put together a Minoan Pagan festival with a big Mystery play as the main ritual.)

(As another aside, Modern Minoan Paganism isn’t the only Minoan path out there. The Minoan Sisterhood and the Minoan Brotherhood have been around for several decades. I was recently asked why I didn’t mention them in my two Minoan spirituality books, Ariadne’s Thread and Labrys and Horns. The answer is simple: because they’re separate paths from Modern Minoan Paganism. To go back to the Druidry analogy, I wouldn’t expect a member of one Druid tradition to write a book that discussed the spiritual practices of a different tradition. Modern Minoan Paganism is its own path with its own evolving traditions and practices, open to people of all genders, sexual orientations, and ethnic backgrounds.)

So what’s a modern Pagan to do? Put the bits and pieces together in our own lives, one person and one day at a time. And get together when we can.

The photo at the top of this post is a finger labyrinth I made out of homemade spice clay (recipe and complete directions are in my book Labrys and Horns, or you can do an online search for “cinnamon clay recipe”). The labyrinth is a potent emblem of Minoan spirituality, one that has remained in the public eye and touched hearts and minds for millennia. Making the finger labyrinth was a slow, meditative process that I did in a ritualized sacred setting. Now it “lives” on my altar as both a powerful symbol of Minoan spirituality and a helpful meditative tool. Finger labyrinths are readily available online and in metaphysical shops, and you can always make your own.

I walk labyrinths whenever I can, in public parks and at the beach and even in churches. A lot of people enjoy labyrinth walking as a moving meditation or simply as a way to explore this symbol in a whole-body kind of way. If we’re really honest, we’re not entirely certain what the original Minoan labyrinth was. No one has ever found one in the ruins on Crete, though meander designs do figure prominently in Minoan art. What we do know is that the idea of the labyrinth was powerful enough to influence classical writers, who thought it was important enough to write about and pass on. People continue to be moved by this twisting, turning symbol of the human spiritual journey.

Like many modern Pagans, I have altars in my home. Below is a photo of the Minoan altar in my office/studio. I consider my writing and art to be sacred acts, so I like being able to light a candle and some incense and turn at least part of my workday into a ritual.

20170327_090056 2

 

The ancient Minoans, like many other Bronze Age people, also had altars and shrines in their homes. They did the same kinds of things that we modern Pagans do with those altars: make offerings, meditate, pray, burn incense, light oil lamps (candles hadn’t been invented yet, but you get the idea). Most of the time, I do these kinds of things alone, but it’s also lovely to have a quick/tiny ritual in front of the altar with my family or a friend or two. A lot of Pagans are perfectly willing to hang out with Minoan deities every now and then, even if it’s not something they do as their main path, so go ahead and ask your local Pagan friends. You never know who might offer to meet you in the park for a little labyrinth-walking, or bring the incense for an impromptu ritual.

Formal religion, like the Minoans practiced in their huge temple complexes with a professional priesthood, has a lot of rules and regulations. But everyday spirituality, the kind that ordinary people have practiced for millennia, doesn’t. To me, it’s mostly a matter of listening: to your intuition, to the gods, to the universe. Take the pieces that are meaningful to you and use them in a way that feels right as you’re doing it. This should be a mindful practice, of course; just tossing anything and everything together without thinking isn’t going to get you very far and might very well annoy any Powers you’re dealing with.

But ultimately, if you’re paying attention and intending for what you do to be sacred and respectful, whatever steps you take will lead you in the right direction.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

The Minoan Controversy: Military or not?

akrotiri-and-its-harbor-detail

We know a lot about the ancient Minoans: their religion, their daily lives, their trades, even their cooking. But one subject remains a source of controversy in spite of it all: whether or not the Minoans were a militarized culture.

My purpose today is not to argue one way or another (though I do have an opinion). My purpose is to examine why so many people feel compelled to try to prove that the Minoans were a militaristic society. I think this issue says at least as much about us as it does about the people of ancient Crete.

This issue is related to the need many people have to prove that the Minoans had a monarchy instead of being ruled by councils or collectives of leaders. Sir Arthur Evans, the Victorian-era archaeologist who first unearthed the Minoan city of Knossos and revealed it to the modern world, was just sure that the Minoans had a king who ruled over them, just as his beloved British Empire had a monarch. Otherwise, he reasoned, how could they possibly have become such an advanced civilization? So he named the parts of the Knossos temple complex with terms like Throne Room and Queen’s Megaron. Those names have stuck even though we’ve figured out since Evans’ time that the huge building was an administrative and religious temple complex and not some monarch’s palace. But Evans couldn’t envision a world in which successful cultures arose with cooperative or  oligarchic structures instead of monarchies. And many modern people can’t envision a thriving civilization that doesn’t have a military and a desire for conquest.

When modern people look at ancient Crete, they see a successful society: wealthy, vibrant, worldly. And it makes many people profoundly uncomfortable to think that a culture like that could flourish without a military, without the thirst for blood and conquest. After all, in the millennia since the Minoan cities fell, human culture has been all about armies and conquest, generals and battles and taking what you want. Why should the Minoans be any different?

The thing is, if ancient Crete was different, if the Minoans managed to create their incredible civilization without a military, or with nothing more than a simple merchant marine to protect their trading ships, that means it’s possible to be successful without being a militarized dominator society. That means that militarization, institutionalized violence, and domination are choices, not inevitabilities. And that makes us accountable for the misery, hardship, and atrocities we’ve perpetrated in our own militarized societies.

This is why, every few years, someone comes out with a paper purporting to show that the Minoans had a military and were a warrior culture: We need to justify our own horrors. We need to show that we can’t help it, that wanting to dominate and take and kill is an ingrained part of the human condition and not a choice. We’re mirroring our own shadows in the history we’re trying to write.

Ancient Crete was no utopia, but it was an egalitarian society with a deep sense of the sacred. Instead of trying to make excuses for our own horrible behavior, how about we look to ancient Crete for ways we can do better instead?

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

A picture is worth 1000 words, maybe more

evans-sacred-grove-fresco-complete

The ancient Minoans were a literate society but we can’t read what they wrote. Their script, Linear A, has yet to be deciphered. So how on earth can we tell how they practiced their religion? We may not have words, but we sure have a lot of pictures.

The Minoans were consummate artists. Their art style was more naturalistic and softer than the art of their contemporaries in Egypt and Mesopotamia. One of their favorite painting methods was the fresco: The artist paints the picture directly onto wet plaster on a wall or other surface, so when the plaster dries, the paint is locked into it. Frescoes are incredibly durable, which is a good thing, because most of the Minoan ones are nearly 4000 years old!

The image at the top of this post is the Sacred Grove fresco. It’s a small piece (usually labeled as a miniature) that was found in the temple complex at Knossos. And it depicts, of all things, a ritual being performed before a large audience on the west plaza at Knossos. Those stone sidewalks you can see angling behind the priestesses? They’re still there – you can walk on them today. It’s from artwork like this that we know the Minoans put on large public rituals, possibly mystery plays, for the public in addition to the private ceremonies they conducted within the walls of the temple complex. Unfortunately, we don’t know for certain what the ritual in the Sacred Grove fresco involved beyond what we can see in the picture. But we have other sources for even more detail, like this one:

This is the Hagia Triada sarcophagus, a rectangular box that was used for burial in late Minoan times. What’s so amazing about it is that Minoan funeral activities were painted on the sides. So we know all kinds of things about this aspect of Minoan spirituality: what kinds of offerings and sacrifices were made, what the priesthood wore, how the musicians accompanied the activities. That’s a lot of information from a painted box.

From Akrotiri, a Minoan city on the island of Thera (modern name = Santorini) we have a bunch of frescoes that show the puberty coming-of-age rites for both girls and boys. Here are some of the more famous ones:

We can see the kinds of symbols and objects that were important in these rites: saffron (picking it and offering it to the goddess), the goddess with her attendant monkey and griffin. Other frescoes from this same building show that blood was an important aspect of the girls’ rites (obviously) and some kind of ritual bathing was apparently important for the boys’ rites.

So even though we can’t read what the Minoans wrote (yet – I refuse to give up hope), we still know an awful lot about how they practiced their religion. When I look at these beautiful frescoes, I feel like I could reach through and touch the living, breathing people. Maybe that’s what the Minoan artists intended, to keep their culture alive forever.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.