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. The myths of ancient Crete, her people, and their deities twine through our minds like the snakes around the priestess's arms in those ancient temples. 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 modern folks. 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 ancient 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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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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A Midsummer tipple, Minoan style

One of the aspects of archaeology that continues to amaze me is our ability to scrape tiny bits of residue out of ancient containers and figure out exactly what those containers held thousands of years ago. With this technique, we’ve been able to determine what the ancient Minoans ate and drank and even what kinds of cosmetics they used. Most people picture the people of the ancient world drinking wine, and they certainly did that, but the Minoans also drank mead. You might tend to think of this alcoholic beverage, brewed from honey rather than grapes, in connection with the Norse and the fabulous feasts at Valhalla, but mead was actually a popular drink all over the ancient world. Just be aware that it’s actually a wine, not a beer (honey beer/ale is a different beverage) so, unless you’re a god, don’t go quaffing it by the tankard-full. Today I’m sharing my recipe for mead so, if you like,  you can follow in the footsteps of the many people who have brewed and enjoyed this beverage for millennia.

My first foray into making mead – actually, brewing at all, since mead was the first brew I made – began in 1993. I was inspired by an article I read in the Lughnasadh issue of Keltria Journal. The author of the article, Steven of Prodea, outlined his method for brewing mead. Over the years I’ve refined my recipe but the process is really quite simple. You don’t need to go out and buy any kind of fancy equipment. I brewed my first batch using an empty gallon glass jug (from store-bought apple cider) and a balloon. The ingredients are simple, too: honey, water, and yeast. The only real requirement is that you make sure anything that touches the mead – your equipment, your hands – is scrupulously clean. You don’t want any unfriendly germs competing with the yeast in your brew. The results will likely be undrinkable. So wash everything with hot, soapy water or run it through the dishwasher before using. And wash your hands well, too.

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What's in a name?

One of the issues we face when reviving ancient spiritual practices is that we often don’t know exactly what the original people called their gods and goddesses. In the case of the Minoans, we don’t even know what language they spoke, and their deity names have come down to us only through the Greeks. Today I’m going to toss out some thoughts about some of the god and goddess names from ancient Crete. Maybe, if we put enough ideas into the pot, we can brew up some useful bits for modern Minoan Paganism. Let’s start with Rhea, the Minoan Earth Mother goddess.

First of all, there is no generally-accepted etymology for the name Rhea. It may be the Greek interpolation of the native Minoan name for their Earth Mother goddess. The Greeks often attempted to transliterate the names of foreign deities into their own language, but as so often happens in this kind of situation, the pronunciation changes to feel more comfortable to the speakers. Through this process we ended up with the Greek name  Isis for the Egyptian Aset and Greek Osiris for Egyptian Ausar. The Greeks said Rhea was the Mother Goddess of Crete; even among the Olympians, she was still considered Cretan. I’ve always felt that her name, however it was originally pronounced, was the word the Minoans used for the island of Crete, which was the embodiment of their goddess.

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  • Thesseli
    Thesseli says #
    I truly hope that someday Linear A will be translated.
  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry says #
    I hope so, too. The biggest obstacle right now is that the amount of Linear A text we have is really too small to do any kind of d

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Another Knotty Problem

In my last post I explored the Minoan sacral knot, a religious symbol from ancient Crete that consisted of a length of fabric knotted together with a loop at the top. But the sacral knot isn’t the only instance of knotwork in Minoan religious iconography. And while the sacral knot may be related to the Egyptian tyet (Isis’ symbol), these other knots are more closely allied with snakes.

When Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos more than a century ago, one of the objects he found was a figurine of a woman covered in snakes (photo at the top of this post). They twine around her hat, down her chest and arms, and around her belly. The snakes that cross her belly form a large knot that’s a prominent feature on the figurine. Evans was intrigued by this knot, even going as far as researching whether snakes in the wild ever tie themselves into knots. For the record, blindworms do, but they’re not true snakes, though the Minoans might not have been able to tell the difference.

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