The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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 connecting 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?

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Laura Perry

Laura Perry

As a Pagan artist and writer, Laura Perry aims to make ancient spiritual traditions relevant and powerful for the modern world. She has been fascinated by the Minoans of ancient Crete since her high school art history teacher introduced her to the colorful artwork of this amazing culture, and has even tried her hand at translating the ancient Cretan script, Linear A. And no, she didn't do any better than anyone else has.

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A few spokes shy of a wheel?

The Wiccan Wheel of the Year is a wonderful thing. The eight evenly-spaced sabbats provide a balanced, coherent view of the seasonal cycles over the course of a year. The Quarters and Cross-Quarters are a great way for modern pagans to connect with nature and to become more in tune with the shifts and changes of the natural world, particularly in temperate climates. But the Wheel of the Year is a recent invention, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Ancient cultures didn’t follow the Wheel, or at least, not all of it.

For instance, my Celtic reconstructionist friends tell me that their historical sources mention only the Cross-Quarters sabbats: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, often called Fire Festivals in their tradition. Hilda Ellis Davidson’s work on the ancient traditions of northern Europe suggests that some cultures celebrated the solstices but not necessarily the equinoxes, and harvest festivals fell whenever the crops were ready and not on a particular calendar date. The ancient Roman sacred calendar contained more festival dates than you can shake a stick at. So what about the ancient Minoans?

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Are we ecstasy deprived?

There are many aspects of the ancient world that I’m happy to do without: the danger of infection in an era before antibiotics; the difficulty of communicating over long distances at anything other than a snail’s pace; the lack of sanitation and running water in many places (though the cities of ancient Crete did have well-planned sewer systems). So yes, it’s good that we have left some things behind. But in our progress, we have also left behind something beneficial, something the human spirit needs: ecstasy.

I’ve recently been reading Belinda Gore’s book Ecstatic Body Postures and working with some of the postures she describes. This is an extension of the trancework I’ve done for years, and it relates to my activities with the Minoan salute and other gestures the Minoans used in ritual to induce trance states. (And yes, I recommend the book.) One thing that struck me as I was reading Ms. Gore’s book was her comment that the modern world is in a state of what she calls ‘ecstasy deprivation.’ If that’s true, it would explain an awful lot.

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Handling Henothism

In this post-Enlightenment world of science and rationality, we’re used to being able to label things cleanly and clearly, to separate them into distinct levels and groups and individual pigeonholes. And we tend to become uncomfortable when we can’t do that with any given subject. But the mindset in the ancient world wasn’t always so clear-cut. Both/and thinking was common, as opposed to the either/or thinking that dominates modern society. Sometimes it’s helpful to be able to hold several different ideas in your head at the same time, to accept the complexity of a situation as a positive rather than a negative. That’s the case with the ancient Minoan pantheon, thanks to the fact that the Minoans were henotheistic rather than cleanly polytheistic.

So what on earth does henotheism mean? It’s not a word you hear very often, even among the kinds of Pagans who like to get into academic discussions. The term was coined by the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling in the late 18th or early 19th century as a criticism of the versions of monotheism that included both a supreme deity and lesser forms of divinity such as saints or lower gods. His idea was that ‘pure’ monotheism, the kind that denies the existence of the divine except for the single focal deity, is superior to other types of religious belief. He criticized the Vedic religions (Hindu and its variants) for professing that all the lower gods emanated from The One (Atman) and were reflections of that original unity.

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Minos the Moon God?

We call the people of ancient Crete Minoans thanks to the whim of the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the man who excavated Knossos over a century ago. He knew the Hellenic Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, took it for historical fact, and named the civilization after the king: Minoan. The thing is, Minos is more likely a god than a historical king.

Of course, it’s possible that priests in ancient Crete took the name or title Minos when they took on certain governmental responsibilities. Some people call these men priest-kings, though I’m not sure the term is terribly accurate, since none of them ever ruled more than just a single Minoan city and its surrounding area; ancient Crete did not have a unified, island-wide government during Minoan times. And it’s probable that priestesses as well as priests took part in the governing of the temple complexes and the cities.

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  • Corvia Blackthorn
    Corvia Blackthorn says #
    Very interesting indeed, thank you!
  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    Very interesting!

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The Many Faces of Minoan Dionysos

Most people are familiar with Dionysos as a vegetation god. In fact, that’s how he started life (so to speak) among humans, dying each year at the time of the grape harvest. In the Mediterranean, where Crete is located, that happens most years in late August or early September. So in many ways Dionysos is similar to the other dying-and-reborn vegetation gods we’re familiar with from the Near East, Europe and other regions. But as so often happens, cultures change over time, inventing or importing new ideas and layering them onto what’s already there. Something like that happened with Dionysos in ancient Crete.

Before we get to his details, though, let me explain a bit about how the Minoan pantheon works. Rather than having a particular slot in a human-style family tree, the Minoan gods and goddesses unfold out of each other in a multi-faceted fashion. In a way, all the deities within the Minoan pantheon can be considered reflections or facets of the Great Mother Goddess Rhea. But for practical purposes, they behave as individual deities with their own personalities and qualities. This henotheistic setup can make it difficult to tease out exactly which aspects go with which deity name, and to sort out whether two different names belong to two different gods or a single one. In addition, as Minoan society changed over time, more layers were added onto those already-complicated facets, and some of the deity names only come down to us in later forms, from languages and cultures foreign to the Minoans. I’ll do my best to untangle some of the bits about Dionysos today. I’ve worked with him for a long time and as far as I can tell, these aspects of him manage to work well together in spite of their apparent differences.

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Dionysos, Bulls and Funerals

Over at Ariadne’s Tribe we’ve been developing a liturgy for modern Minoan Paganism – a yearly calendar of sacred events and their meanings, along with tidbits about the deities who are involved with each one. Throughout the year, Dionysos plays a big part in Minoan spirituality. In fact, he’s the most prominent god, to the point that the Greeks compared him to their Zeus. In addition to his well-known associations with wine, Dionysos also figures as the dying-and-reborn god of the solar year, an aspect that adds quite a few layers to his presence. Lately I’ve been thinking about how his different festivals and annual milestones dovetail together, and what that might mean in terms of some of the well-known bits of life in ancient Crete, bull-leaping in particular.

Before we dive into this subject, it’s important to realize that Minoan civilization, in the form we’re accustomed to think of it, lasted for a solid 15 centuries, from roughly 3000 to 1500 BCE. During that time, the religious practices of the island shifted and changed, from fairly simple ancestor-based activities all the way to an official state religion run by the big temples. Alongside the official religion, the people always had their own home-based practices, which echoed the state religion in some ways and diverged from it in others. But throughout this time, Dionysos played a prominent role.

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  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch says #
    Funny, I'd just written up a piece on bull-leaping myself. Must be something in the air.
  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    Very nice!

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Mystery at Midsummer, Minoan Style

Mystery plays were a big part of life in the ancient world, when people’s seasonal work was punctuated throughout the year by sacred festivals of all sorts. What on earth is a mystery play? It’s not a whodunit, like a modern murder mystery. In the case of mystery plays, the word takes on an older meaning. My dictionary defines it as ‘a religious truth that man can know by revelation alone,’ in other words, something you have to experience yourself rather than just being told about it. And that’s what mystery plays are all about: letting you have the experience of the gods, the myths, the sacred, right there in your own life. A mystery isn’t just something you experience; it changes you from the inside out.

The modern world still has mystery plays of a sort. The ‘living nativity scene’ that some Christian churches put on around Christmas is a snapshot or tidbit of a mystery play and those huge Passion of Christ productions are the full-scale deal, a mystery play about the Christian festival of Easter.. But for most people these days, I suspect the movies largely take the place of the old mystery plays, allowing us to roll ourselves up emotionally in the stories that make up the mythology of the modern world: superheroes, science fiction, fantasy.

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  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    Beautiful!

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