The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe
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Meet the Minoans: Zagreus
A few weeks ago I wrote about Dionysos, one of the major gods within the Minoan pantheon. Today I’m going to explore the character of Zagreus. He is sometimes considered an aspect of Dionysos and sometimes viewed as a separate deity. The tapestry of Minoan spirituality is a complicated thing, and it’s often difficult to tease out the individual threads, but I’ll give it a go and see what we can discover about this interesting, and ancient, deity.
In his seminal work Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Karl Kerenyi identified Zagreus with the ecstatic Dionysiac festivals in which wild animals were torn limb from limb by crazed worshipers. Kerenyi connected Zagreus’ name with the Greek term for a trapper – a hunter who catches live animals rather than killing them. But the etymology of the name can also be traced back to a root meaning torn or dismembered, another thread connecting this intriguing god with those Dionysiac rites. Just to be clear: Zagreus is not the same as the Hellenic god Zeus, even though their names look somewhat alike. In their effort to create an ancient ancestry for their deities, the Greeks made Zeus the son of the Minoan goddess Rhea and said he was born on Crete, but he is a later deity and not the same as Zagreus.
Much of what we know about Zagreus comes from the Orphic mysteries, a spiritual practice that was widespread in the Hellenic world. Unfortunately, Orphism appeared far later than classical Minoan culture, and Zagreus’ mythos had shifted considerably by the time the Orphic hymns were written down. Let’s go back to what we know about him from Crete, and see what we can piece together.
I’ll start at the beginning: his birth. Like his alter-ego Dionysos, Zagreus was born to the Great Mother Goddess Rhea at midwinter in a cave on Mt. Dikte in Crete. Rhea hid him in the cave and chose as his wet-nurse the goat-goddess Amalthea, thus identifying Zagreus with the goat and establishing it as the animal totem of the Minoans of that period in much the same way that the legend of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf established the wolf as the totem of Rome. In fact, Zagreus is probably the earliest dateable instance of the worship of a divine child born in a cave at midwinter and attended by animals. Think about that this December when you see those nativity scenes that pop up everywhere for the holidays.
Amalthea is the animal form of the goddess Aega, after whom the Aegean civilizations named themselves, so we can see that Zagreus is one of the oldest, ‘founder’ deities of Minoan spirituality. One fun bit of legend associated with Zagreus’ birth is that, once he was born, Rhea’s milk spurted into the sky and created the Milky Way. If you think about it, this suggests that the Minoans identified her as not just the Earth Mother (the divine force within the island of Crete itself) but also the Great Cosmic Mother-of-All.
As the dismembered sacrifice, Zagreus is a regenerative deity; he dies and is reborn on a predetermined schedule. Since he is referred to as ‘the dismembered one’ and his rites included the tearing apart of animals that were, essentially, stand-ins for the god, I tend to believe he was a shamanic deity. One of the hallmarks of shamanic practice is that, during the Otherworld journeys, the shaman is ‘disassembled’ in one way or another – torn limb from limb, boiled in a pot until s/he falls apart, hacked to pieces or something similar – and then put back together again. As a shamanic practitioner I can tell you that this is a truly profound experience, life-changing to say the least, and I can understand how it would be enshrined in myth in order to preserve the information. Bear in mind that shamanism is one of the oldest types of spiritual practice, making Zagreus a very early god indeed.
But the times changed, and the gods shifted along with the culture. Eventually Zagreus was identified, not with the goat, but with the bull, and his birth story was transferred to his alter ego the Moon-Bull, a.k.a. the Minotauros. Like the original goat-god, the Minotauros was cyclically sacrificed and reborn. His original goat form didn’t disappear entirely, though, because Dionysos has all those goat-y satyrs hanging around, and he is credited as being either the father or the alter-ego of the goat-god Pan. But the bull-form of the god eventually became the centerpiece of Minoan religious practice and, I suspect, calcified somewhat as the focus of the official state religion.
I find it interesting that, in the later Orphic tradition, Zagreus is associated with the Underworld. In keeping with the tangled character of the web of Minoan spirituality, the Moon-Bull had an Underworld counterpart whose form was that of a serpent. In other words, he was a bull while ‘alive’ and then became a serpent while he was ‘dead’ and regenerating, reminding us of the cyclical shedding of snakeskin that, the world over, represents rebirth. I believe the famous Minoan figurines that depict women holding snakes are actually the goddess with her consort, the Underworld serpent-form of Zagreus. Perhaps, during their seasonal mystery plays, the Minoans acted out this part of their mythology, with priestesses appearing on stage as snakes twined around them, reassuring the people that their gods still lived.
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