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?
One pagan spiritual activity that has remained a constant from ancient times to the present is the making of offerings. I’m not talking about sacrifice (animal, human, or otherwise) but about the giving of gifts to the gods as a way to represent your devotion to them. In the same way that someone who honors you might give you a special present, you can also honor the deities by offering them a little something special.
We can tell what the Minoans gave as offerings from Minoan art and from residues that archaeologists have studied in containers from ancient Crete. And it all looks surprisingly familiar: incense, fruit, flowers, bread, and libations of wine and milk.
These offerings were typically set out in special dishes on altars and in shrines in people’s homes and at other sacred sites: the temple complexes, peak sanctuaries, and cave shrines of Crete. Indoors, libations were poured into bowls or into special recesses in the floor. Outdoors, they were simply poured out onto the ground.
Making an offering is a simple way of paying attention to the gods and goddesses. This isn’t “vending machine spirituality” where you give something to a deity and expect a favor in return. This is a way to develop a relationship, to show that you’re paying attention to them. Whether you think of it as putting energy toward an archetype that you want to strengthen in your life or giving a gift to a being whom you revere and would like to grow closer to, making regular offerings is a good way to develop a simple spiritual practice.
I’ll admit that one of the most common offerings I make isn’t something the Minoans did, because they didn’t have candles (like all people of their time period, they used oil lamps). I like to light a candle as an offering, usually a tea light that I let burn down completely. Sometimes I add a pinch or two of herbs or powdered resin or a drop or two of essential oil to flesh out the “vibe” of my offering. And sometimes I just light a candle and quietly say, “Thank you for being there.” Because that’s something we all like to hear, isn’t it?
Some Pagan symbols are familiar and are easy to spot: the Wiccan pentagram, the Norse Thor’s hammer. But what about Minoan spirituality? The path of Modern Minoan Paganism has a name, so it should have some symbols, right?
Over in Ariadne’s Tribe we’ve discussed this issue a good bit. The labrys, the double-bladed ax that’s such a well-known symbol from ancient Crete, has already been claimed by several groups that have feminist and/or Minoan leanings. We didn’t think it was appropriate to use it as our ‘biggie’ symbol because we would be infringing on their territory. Plus, it would be confusing, since it’s already associated with other groups.
So what should we use?
A lot of people like the figurine at the top of this post. She’s usually called a Snake Goddess but she might represent a human priestess rather than a deity. And she’s a well-known symbol of ancient Crete, its culture and spirituality.
There’s also a similar figure that people like to use, from a fresco in the Corridor of the Processions at Knossos. She’s holding labryses instead of snakes:
But not everyone wants a female figure as the central symbol for their spirituality. Some people would rather have something a bit more abstract, a symbol that doesn’t involve human type figures. As I noted above, the labrys isn’t a good choice, at least not by itself. But the Minoans liked to combine the labrys with their Sacred Horns, and that makes for a beautiful, multi-layered symbol:
The labrys and horns both have multiple layers of meaning. The labrys is associated with the Minoan goddesses, especially Ariadne, whose Labyrinth means “house of the labrys.” It can be seen as a butterfly, an age-old symbol of the human soul, or a vulva, or even the type of hoe-ax the Minoans used to cultivate their fields.
The Sacred Horns remind us of the Horned Ones, the Minoan gods like the Minotaur whose power connects us with the animal world and our own inner strength. The Sacred Horns perched along the rooftops of the Minoan temple complexes, where the astronomers used them as sighting aids when they watched for the rising and setting of the moon, stars, and planets. So they also represent a doorway between the Upperworld and the Underworld, the place where the heavenly lights come up out of darkness to twinkle in the night sky.
That’s a lot of symbols! The thing is, Modern Minoan Paganism isn’t a monolithic tradition. There’s no set of rules and regulations, no Grand High Poobah to tell you what you have to do. It’s an individual path, unique to each person who walks it. Some people choose just one of these symbols and some use them all. And some don’t like any of them, opting for something entirely different that suits them.
Personally, I hope the labrys-and-horns combination becomes something of a standard representation for Modern Minoan Paganism. I like it so much, that’s what I called my latest book. I like that the combination of the labrys with the horns reflects the balance of masculine and feminine, Upperworld and Underworld, the physical and the spiritual. It’s not quite a yin-yang symbol (properly called a taijitu) but it represents a similar play between the two halves of the whole.
Do any of these symbols strike a chord with you? How would you use them in your spiritual practice – jewelry? Altar accoutrements? Artwork for your walls? Or would you pick something else, some other symbol that calls to you?
Whatever you decide, as long as it works for you, you’ve made the right choice.
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.
Ariadne. Dionysus. The Minotaur. The Labyrinth. You’ve probably heard of all of these, but did you know that they have relevance beyond the mythology books on the library shelves? They are, in fact, important aspects of Modern Minoan Paganism, a growing practice that connects ancient Crete with the modern world.
If you haven’t heard of modern Minoan Paganism (MMP), you’re not alone. MMP has no big-name organization that promotes it, no set of rules and regulations to copy from website to website, no secret initiatory rites for people to whisper about at Pagan festivals. In fact, MMP isn’t even a tradition in the formal sense of the term. Then what on earth is it? It’s an individualized Pagan path that focuses on the ancient Minoan pantheon, with each person practicing and worshiping in the way that works best for them.
Who were the Minoans? They lived on the island of Crete, just south of Greece in the Mediterranean Sea, about 4,000 years ago. Their culture flourished for centuries, centered in the big temple complexes of towns like Knossos but also at sacred sites in caves and on mountaintops across the island.
You’ve probably heard the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, how Theseus braved the confusing Labyrinth to slay the monster then found his way out again by following the thread Ariadne gave him. The thing is, this story was invented by the Greeks centuries after Minoan civilization had ceased to exist.
The Minoans weren’t Greek, even though Crete is a part of the modern nation of Greece. The Minoans were a pre-Indo-European culture that was part of Old Europe, the original inhabitants of the continent. They had never even heard of Theseus, who was a Hellenic culture hero designed to make the Greeks look good in contrast to the ‘primitive, monstrous’ Minoans. As you might have guessed, the Minoans weren’t primitive or monstrous at all.
At the head of their pantheon was the great mother goddess Rhea, who gives birth to her son Dionysus every year at Winter Solstice in her sacred cave. In addition to being a solar year-king, Dionysus is the ecstatic god of the vine. Rhea’s daughter Ariadne gives the people the gift of the Labyrinth: not a confusing maze but a spiraling design with one sure path to the center and back out again, a spiritual tool for self-discovery. And yes, the Minotaur stands at the center of the Labyrinth. He’s not a fearsome monster but a loving god whose job is to help each of us face our own darkness.
The Minoan pantheon is full of gods and goddesses who speak to every aspect of our lives: the Horned Ones in bovine, goat, and deer form (the Minotaur and Europa, the Minocapros and Amalthea, the Minelathos and Britomartis); the Melissae, ancestral bee-goddesses who help us connect with those who have gone before; Eileithyia, the divine midwife. Over the centuries, the Minoans added layer upon layer to their religion, very much like the Egyptians did. When we look back across time at Minoan spirituality, we can see all the layers that create such a rich tapestry of belief and practice.
Much of what we know about the ancient Minoans comes from archaeology. The ruins of the towns and villages across Crete speak to us across the ages. But MMP isn’t a reconstructionist tradition. It can’t be. There are simply too many gaps in our knowledge.
Most reconstructionist traditions base their practices on ancient texts that record the mythology and religion of the culture. But we can’t read Linear A, the writing system the Minoans used to record their language. The early (Mycenaean) Greeks modified Linear A to create Linear B, which they used to write their own language. We can read that, so we know a little bit about the very end of Minoan civilization. But inventory lists can only tell us so much. The rest we have to piece together from the garbled, fragmentary bits that made it down through the centuries to Hellenic Greece and its writers.
So no, MMP isn’t a reconstructionist tradition like Irish or Norse Paganism. But we do use the archaeology and the classical writings as a starting point. The rest we fill in, either individually or collectively, as we need it.
Each of us experiences the Minoan deities a little differently. But we also find a lot of commonality, places where our personal gnosis matches other people’s, where our impressions reinforce what the archaeological record tells us. We share and we discuss and MMP grows, slowly and steadily, one person at a time.
If you’d like to join the discussion about modern Minoan Paganism, please head on over to Ariadne’s Tribe on Facebook. Of course, stay tuned to this space for more posts about MMP. And if there’s something in particular you’d like to know about, please leave a comment and I’ll get right on it.
In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.
[NOTE: I end my Minoan-themed blog posts with Emily Dickinson’s little nature benediction that she wrote as a counterpart to the Christian “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, amen.” The bee and the butterfly were sacred creatures in ancient Crete and they still hold a special place in modern Minoan Paganism. I think they’re a fitting way to offer a blessing.]