Tag Archives: crete

The Minoan Controversy: Military or not?


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.

Reconstructing Minoan Spirituality


I often find myself telling people that Modern Minoan Paganism isn’t a reconstructionist tradition, but if I’m really honest, that isn’t strictly true. We do use a great many bits of reconstructionist technique. We examine the art and artifacts the Minoans have left us and we do our best to piece together the few garbled remnants of Minoan mythology that made it through to the classical writers.

But we don’t have any Minoan texts we can rely on (Linear A is sadly still untranslated and the Linear B tablets are mostly just inventory lists that can only tell us just so much). So instead, we place a great deal of emphasis on personal and ecstatic experience, perhaps more than on the archaeological stuff. The bits-and-pieces left in the ruins of ancient Crete are our starting point, but they can only get us so far. The rest of the journey is something we have to undertake ourselves. So how are we making that journey?

By doing it. I know that sounds kind of Zen, or Taoist, or something, but the only way to figure out how to practice Modern Minoan Paganism is to try things out and see how they work. That’s what I did with the rituals in both of my books, Ariadne’s Thread and Labrys and Horns, before I published them – I wrote the rituals and then I enacted them, often with the help of friends and members of my various Pagan groups.

I listened/felt/paid attention during those rituals. Sometimes the gods didn’t like what we were doing. I’ve had a ritual blade knocked out of my hand by invisible forces, been tripped by “nothing at all” while walking around a circle, had whole tables full of ritual tools tipped over when no one was standing near them. When that happens, I pay attention and ask what I should change, how I could do it better.

Quite a few of us also use mystical and ecstatic techniques, from simple meditation to ecstatic body postures to trance dancing. Once again, we try things out and see what happens, then we share our results with each other to build up a set of practices that work for us. I’ve written about my experiences with Minoan ecstatic body postures here, here, here, and here (yep, I’ve done this a lot!).

Ecstatic (a.k.a. shamanic) techniques appear to have been a major component of ancient Minoan religion. Though I certainly don’t condone the use of illegal substances (the Minoans, like other ancient people, used a lot of hallucinogens), I do think our modern spirituality can be enhanced by deep meditation, journeying, and trancework. In fact, I think our modern world is ecstasy deprived. Adding a bit of that back into our lives is probably a good thing, and it fits well with Modern Minoan Paganism.

A lot of what we’re doing falls under the category that Steven Posch calls Younger Lore. It’s the part of the spirituality that’s living, breathing, evolving. There was Younger Lore in ancient Crete just as there is now. This is nothing new, and I think it’s important that we keep pushing these boundaries, finding out more about this spirituality we practice.

There is one issue we need to keep in mind when we’re rebuilding ancient religions for the modern world: We have to be careful not to idealize the ancient culture. Crete was no utopia. But the Minoans did have a lot of positive things going for them. Their religion reflected the equality of the sexes, the reverence for nature, and the communion with the divine that permeated their society. Those are things that are definitely worth bringing forward into our lives.

So we’re forging this path one step at a time. We’re bridging a gap of thousands of years during which the Minoan gods and goddesses were lost, ignored, forgotten. I’m pretty sure they’re glad we’ve found them again.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Midwinter, Minoan Style


Minoan civilization lasted for a solid thousand years. As you might expect, their religion changed over that long period. Like their trading partners the Egyptians, the Minoans added new layers over time, creating an extensive and complex religious system that spanned the agricultural cycle and the calendar year. One of the sacred festivals that came later in Minoan times is the Winter Solstice.

In the earliest times, the Minoans celebrated the New Year around the Autumn Equinox, the beginning of the agricultural cycle in the Mediterranean – the time of plowing the fields and planting the crops, which grow throughout the mild winters in that region and are harvested in the spring. But eventually the Winter Solstice became its own kind of secondary New Year celebration. Instead of celebrating the cycle of the green growing things, it celebrated the ending and beginning of the solar year, which was embodied by Dionysus as the solar year-king who was annually reborn at Midwinter.

Yes, I know, Dionysus was originally an ecstatic vine-god, the spirit of the grape and the wine as well as a psychopomp for his people. But as I mentioned, the Minoans added layer upon layer to their religious beliefs and practices over the centuries. So the vine-god who died each year at the grape harvest in the late summer wasn’t considered to conflict with his face as the solar year-king who was born each year at the Winter Solstice. These were just two different aspects of a complex god.

Let’s not forget the other half of the Midwinter story. For a baby to be born, there must be a mother. For the Minoans, this was their great mother goddess Rhea, who was the sacred spirit of the island of Crete itself – their Mother Earth who rose up out of Grandmother Ocean at the beginning of time. Rhea has both a sacred birthing tree (a fir or pine tree beneath which she gave birth, with a star appearing in the sky above it as the infant Dionysus entered the world – this is also Dionysus’ sacred tree) as well as a sacred cave where she gave birth and where she hid her infant to keep him safe. Her sister, the goat-goddess Amalthea, nursed him while the Kouretes (probably originally a Minoan priesthood of Dionysus) guarded the cave, danced for the baby, and drowned out the sound of his cries with the clashing of their spears on their shields.

The Minoans didn’t have TV or movies, and most people probably didn’t own any kind of reading material, so their experience of religion came from public rituals and Mystery plays at the big temple complexes as well as their own private devotions at their home shrines. A few lucky people would have been invited to the Knossos temple complex to witness the Winter Solstice ritual there each year. It turns out, that chair in the “Throne Room” isn’t a throne at all, but a sacred seat where a priestess sat, playing the part of the goddess in rituals at Midsummer and Midwinter. At Midwinter, that seat (which was originally painted red) became Rhea’s birthing chair. The Midwinter sunrise cast a natural, magical spotlight on it as the infant Dionysus was born. That must have been an amazing experience, to be allowed to witness that ritual.

So each year, when I celebrate the Winter Solstice, I view our family’s Christmas tree also as Rhea’s birthing tree. And I look forward to the rebirth of the year-king with the first glimmers of sunrise on Midwinter Morning.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Women in Minoan Crete: Equals or more?

Ladies in Blue, a reconstructed fresco from the Knossos temple complex

One of people’s most common impressions about Minoan Crete is that the women were in charge, perhaps in the same way that men came to be in charge of later patriarchal societies. After all, that’s what most of Minoan art shows, right, women and goddesses? Well, that’s not exactly the case.

Sure, the most well-known pieces of Minoan art art the Snake Goddess figurines, but did you know those are actually pretty rare? There are only two of them. Yep, two. But they’re probably the most common, well-known emblem of the Minoans, so it feels like they’re everywhere. It doesn’t help that the Victorian-era archaeologists like Sir Arthur Evans found the topless Minoan women titillating (ahem) and took every opportunity to publicize any image they found of bare-breasted women from ancient Crete. So there’s a bit of a bias in terms of what the public sees compared to what’s really there.

If you actually look at the Minoan art we’ve found over the years, it turns out that women and men are represented pretty equally. I counted them up and shared that information in a blog post a while ago. And unlike art from the same time period in places like Egypt and Mesopotamia, Minoan art doesn’t show any single person, male or female, significantly larger than the others around them. There’s a certain equality in the art, no one lording over their fellow human beings, just people finding reverence and sacredness and joy in life.

A while back, a friend introduced me to the Smurfette Principle: The idea that women are “correctly” represented when there is a single token female in a large group of men. This is so common that most people don’t even notice it and generally consider that if there’s a single woman in the group, women are appropriately represented.

It turns out that this kind of social conditioning has interesting, if somewhat unpleasant, effects. When people are shown groups that are made up of exactly 50% women and 50% men, they interpret the groups as being mostly women. This is a cultural bias that most people don’t realize they have. Try it sometime – have a look at a photo of a crowd, guess for yourself how the male/female split goes, then actually count heads. I suspect you’ll be surprised at your response. I know I was at my own.

What I’m suggesting here is that our own social and cultural conditioning makes it hard for us to see what’s really there with the Minoans. When I actually counted up the representations of men and women in Minoan art, they came up roughly equal. That famous building in Akrotiri that has all the images of young women undergoing a puberty rite? The same building also has images of young men undergoing their own puberty rite, but those aren’t nearly as well known.

Boys participating in a puberty rite, from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri

I’ve long been a fan of Riane Eisler, especially her seminal work The Chalice and the Blade. I can’t say I support Marija Gimbutas’ ideas of a single Europe-wide goddess cult or the Kurgan invastion the way Dr. Eisler does, but I love her characterization of cultures as either dominator or egalitarian in nature (or somewhere along the spectrum between the two).

We live in a dominator society, with men above women (though that’s changing, thank the gods) and certain individuals (first kings, then other kinds of elected and non-elected rulers) above the rest of the population. This is the box we’re in, and it’s hard to wrap our minds around other kinds of paradigms.

Like Dr. Eisler, I believe the Minoans were a largely egalitarian culture, which is a totally different box altogether. They didn’t have Big Rulers (or if they did, they don’t show up in the art, which is quite odd). They didn’t have a centralized government – each of the Minoan cities ruled itself. And in both religion and daily life, women and men were equal. But to us modern folks who are used to a Smurfette Principle kind of lack-of-parity, equality looks like rulership because we’re not used to seeing a real balance of male and female.

It’s true, the Great Goddess Rhea was the head of the Minoan pantheon, but she wasn’t an iron-fisted ruler like the later Greek god Zeus. She was the mother of the Minoans – the people and the gods and goddesses of that island. I suspect the Minoans considered her to be their ultimate ancestor. That’s a far sight different from a thunderbolt-wielding god who rules with an iron fist.

So yes, the Goddess held a place of high regard in Minoan society, as did women. But that doesn’t mean they were the dominators in the same way that men came to dominate later societies. Consider the possibility of a different paradigm, one of peaceable egalitarianism: The Mother loves her children and lets them grow into their own power as soon as they’re ready.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.