Tag Archives: Religion

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.

Reconstructing Minoan Spirituality

x-evans-made-up-altar-shrine-scene

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.

Where love grows

As Robin pointed out in yesterday’s comments, when it comes to need, what most of us hunger for is relationship. We have a deep drive for intimate bonding with other humans, and without that we feel adrift. Perhaps at the heart of our obsession with things is a belief that owning the right things will turn us into attractive potential mates for others. Let’s face it, that’s the subtext in most advertising.

If hooking up was the answer, the world would be a much simpler place. But it isn’t. It may be the greatest need we have is for love, but answering that need is one of the hardest things to do. Even in a relationship it is entirely possible to feel lonely, miserable and unsatisfied, if the other cannot supply us with what we want. It takes more than ‘I love you’ to convince most people they are loved. In the shallows of romantic gestures, we don’t really find soul satisfaction.

I think some people get round this by turning to God. Once you style your deity as unconditional love personified, then so long as you can hold that belief, you have all the love you need for as long as you need it, and no call to fret over those difficult human interactions. God isn’t messy, won’t stain the sheets or abandon you for a friend. But at the same time, God will not lie next to you in the small hours and stroke your hair. There’s nothing physical about divine love. The religions of the book sidestep this by denigrating all things physical elevating the spiritual. Thus love of God is better. I guess if you can hold that belief, it may keep you going. I can’t and don’t. It’s the messy, complicated, sheet stained human reactions I’ve always hankered after. Which is one of the reasons I’m a pagan.

But if there’s one thing to be said for people, it’s that you can’t trust them. They can’t always be there when you need them, they don’t magically know how to fix everything. Sometimes they stop loving you back. Sometimes they die. Loving people is a risky sort of activity, a constant courting of betrayal and disappointment. And still we do it, and still we long for it above all else.

On the whole we’re under a lot of cultural pressure to pair-bond with one other human, and stick with that. A single, obsessive love that lasts us all our lives and fulfils our every need. Up until recently, that would have been specifically a heterosexual love as well. Can any one person be all things to another? Almost certainly not. Should we ask that of anyone? Hell no. It’s too much, a crippling degree of need and responsibility.

It’s in some ways easier to love another human deeply, and fearlessly, if we aren’t trying to make them ‘everything’. Some people get round this by being polyamorous. But for those who crave monogamy, there are still ways. We need to place our love for each other in the context of a wider care. The more openly, broadly and completely we love, the less fearful we need to be. What matters is the love that we feel, not what is returned to us. When you let go of seeking the return it all becomes a lot easier. Having my heart broken by other humans, I learned to love the sky and the land, the wind, sun and shifting seasons. I came to love the rhythm of my own feet upon the earth, and the deep darkness of night. Non-human loves, are a bit like divine love in that they don’t go away. They give back to us as we love them. They are not a substitute for human love, but they put it in a different, more manageable context.

People are flawed, unreliable, fickle, perplexing creatures. We seldom make much sense to each other. Accepting that, with patience and compassion, loving the essence of humanity whilst recognising the failings, we can be more peaceful with each other. That terrible, ravening hunger that demands you be all things to me, is lessened. We find acceptance. Learning to love people as they are, embracing the things I struggled with, and seeking nothing in return, got me through some very hard times. And then if you find someone who can do the same thing for you, whole new possibilities open up. While you’re looking, don’t drown voluntarily in the noise of modernity or bury yourself in gadgets, learn to love the stars, and the sound of your own heartbeat. Trust me, it helps.

Relationship with Divinity

There are people from all religions who have spiritual experiences and feel they have come into contact with their god, goddess, or another spiritual presence they find significant. Generally speaking, being a serious upholder of the given faith is deemed a good way of inviting that kind of experience. So, what is a Druid to do? How do we go about our lives in order to make contact with divinity?

For us, it’s a very different scenario. There’s no book of rules, no straightforward way of demonstrating power of faith or devotion that you can easily tap into. We talk a great deal about having nothing to mediate between us and the divine, but in practice what that also means is that we are entirely on our own.

What are we seeking, when we quest after direct knowledge of deity? Reassurance? Something to take us out of the realms of faith and into knowing and certainty, perhaps. We might seek validation, proof that we are heading the right way, doing the right things. We might just want the ego boost. While all of these things may be natural, they are about us, and not about relationship. If there is any rule at all for Druids in this context, it should probably be, to seek connection for its own sake and not for anything else. Don’t even assume it will mean insight and wisdom. It might just bring chaos, confusion and uncertainty. Are we looking for some clear moment, the booming voice from the Heavans? Or are we actually seeking to know and understand? Religious experience is not like the movies. There is seldom much certainty, but moments of beauty, wonder, awe and numinousness can enrich our lives and give us a sense of having encountered something other. Seek relationship for the beauty of it. That is enough.

The things that shape relationships between humans are just as valid when it comes to thinking about relationship with deity. What do we share? If we understand deity as manifest in nature, then when we are out, interacting with and relating to nature, we are also experiencing relationship with the divine. Watching it on the telly doesn’t count. If we are drawn to more human gods, the named figures of historical pantheons, then we might think about what they represent – and where we are exploring their focus, and the energy they embody, we are making relationship with them, or at the very least with concepts that exist externally to us.

To seek deity in the way I’ve described above, does not call for belief. It doesn’t need validation in the form of something obvious returning to you. It is experiencing sacredness in action, allowing perception to include that element of deity, and being open to that which moves us. It’s spending time with a river and the land, or writing poetry and recognising the sacred within that. As with all other kinds of relationship, the more you share, do and give, the deeper it becomes. No burning bushes actually required.

Druidry and relationship

In an earlier post on relationship I mentioned that relationship is a central concept in Druidry. I was asked in what sense I meant that as being specifically a feature of Druidry, and not religion as a whole. So today’s post is a proper attempt at answering that. (And, if you spot things I’ve skated over and need talking about properly, poke me, I am always appreciative of the pointers and inspiration.)

I think it is fair to say that relationship is a feature of every religion – relationship with the divine, and the world, which are usually viewed as two separate things. The book religions tend to specify very clearly how those relationships should be manifested. There are ways of praying, times to pray, songs to sing. There are people specifically responsible for mediating between divinity and the rest of us. There are prescribed forms of relationship that are ‘good’ – monogamous, permanent heterosexual marriage usually, and there are forms of relationship that are not allowed – gay relationships, plural relationships, sex outside marriage, etc. Where many religions are concerned, part of the shape of the religion is the way it defines our relationships for us and tells us how we ought to go about them.

When it comes to Pagan religions, some do more to define our relationships than others. Druidry very specifically does not pin down how we should relate to our gods or how we should express that. Druid ritual tends to be vague about naming deities a lot of the time, respecting that you might not all follow the same gods. The web of connection, the sense that all things inter-relate and are affected by each other, is very much part of a Druidic understanding of the cosmos. We don’t see ourselves as separate from nature, nor do we see gods as entirely separate from nature. We tend towards an environmental consciousness that recognises interdependence and unity. We have no rules about who you can love or how you should love them, beyond the requirement for honour. Druidry requires us to form our own relationships.

By encouraging our awareness of relationship, Druidry takes us towards conscious, engaged, thoughtful connections. But it doesn’t tell us how to do it. That would create dogma and would take away responsibility. It is crucial that we, as Druids, fully own our own relationships, are conscious of them, enter them mindfully and act based upon our own sense of honour and our own insight. This enables us to create relationships that are unique, intense, deeply felt and part of our spiritual experience. There is no room for complacency or taking for granted. I can talk about what makes good relationship, what it feels like and what it does, but I can’t tell you how to go out there, find someone or something to do this with and make it work.

Gender Politics for Pagans

I do not think that 2000 odd years of monotheism has done a great deal for human relationships. No doubt there were plenty of issues with the pre-Christians as well, but society in the west owes a lot to the Judeo-Christian traditions, and what they have taught us about love, relationships, gender and sex hasn’t been any kind of helpful. When sex is sin, a culture of guilt, shame, and silence follows. You can’t talk about it, or educate people, or deal with problems. Monotheism frowns upon same sex relationship, discourages contraception (some branches more vehemently than others, some are grasping that unlimited growth is not clever) and you can forget anything group based or casual. You aren’t supposed to do adultery or divorce either.

The trouble is that for a great many people marrying one person of the opposite gender and only getting to have sex with them for the purposes of bearing children, for as long as you both shall live, isn’t the answer.

Anyone who has so much as peeked at paganism will know that it is a sex-positive spirituality, embracing all the honourable permutations of human sexuality. An it harm none, do what you will. Anything consenting between adults is fair enough. We honour sex as sacred, and we favour responsible attitudes to human fertility.

But we still have to contend with the cultural legacy of 2000 years of monotheistic patriarchy and gender politics. I think one of the things that draws so many women towards paganism is that we have Goddesses. There are Gods too, there is balance, there is no absolute male authority. There is no suggestion that the female body is sinful, secondary, corrupt or otherwise unacceptable.

I’ve encountered men, and heard stories of others, for whom the notion of masculine gender identity, is rooted very much in the idea of being the one in charge, physically powerful, financially and politically dominant. Men who detest the rise of women in the workplace, and resent feminine power of any kind. They see women earning as a threat to masculine identity. Their power is based solely on the idea that they should have it and that society has appeared to approve of this for some time. I think that’s why they get so angry about feminists, because they are in fact very threatened. When your power is derived from a flimsy social construct, it’s very fragile indeed. Once people stop going along with it, your power has gone.

Power should be derived from what you can do. Status, influence and importance should not be about what you happen to have in your trousers, but should be earned through skill, determination, creativity, genius, dedication or some other pagan virtue. When your power is based on that which you do, not the accident of your birth, the scope for having it taken from you is much reduced. Yes, you may have to compete with others, if your nature is competitive, but there should be no rights without responsibility, and what we do should be the only measure that counts.

As pagans, we stand as equals in circle. There’s no formal hierarchy, no pews to sit in while authority talks down from the front. There’s no requirement for anyone to mediate between us and our deities. People come to paganism in part because they are tired of patriarchal, authoritarian religions that have no place for them.

The kind of dominant male we’ve aspired to in western culture does not, I think, do much for most men either. The alpha male, tall, strong, muscular, lantern jawed, rugged – not everyone is born to look that way. The alpha male is cold and distant too, he can’t show tenderness or vulnerability, he can’t drop his defences, and he certainly can’t let a woman get the better of him. He has to be top male and he has to fight for dominance there, too. Of course, only one man can be top of any social group, which means the majority can never attain the ideal. I’m not quite sure where he comes from. He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus.

Oddly enough, your modern pagan man probably does look more like Jesus (jokes about beards and sandals aside) than the ideal of the alpha male our Christian-derived culture has come up with. Strength tempered by compassion. Courage that manifests as a willingness to sacrifice, not a desire to take. Respect for women.

Paganism teaches us to see the divine in each other. There is a touch of Goddess power in every woman. There is spark of Godhood in every man. We are equal, but different – each human being unique. Gender is one part of that, but we honour our complexity and diversity. Now we just need to persuade everyone that empowering one person does not mean taking power away from someone else.