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The Blessing of the Ships: A Minoan celebration

Minoan culture centered on the island of Crete, which lies in the Mediterranean Sea just south of Greece. The Minoans were a seagoing people: they fished, they traded, and they traveled in boats and ships. So it makes sense that they would have incorporated these major facets of their lives into their spiritual practice.

We don't know for certain what the Minoans did to bless ships before a voyage. But tidbits that made it through the Bronze Age collapse and ended up in the works of later writers, combined with archaeoastronomy research, suggest that the Minoan sailing season had a definite beginning and ending: the heliacal rising of the Pleiades in May and the acronychal rising of that constellation in October or November.* This makes sense, given that the winds during the wintertime would have made sailing in that era quite hazardous (not that it's a whole lot easier today, but at least we have modern gadgetry and gas-powered engines to help).

Since the position of the stars shifts over time (you did read my footnote in the previous paragraph, didn't you?) we can't really use the heliacal rising of the Pleiades anymore to set the date for our Blessing of the Ships. Instead, it's easier to pick an appropriate calendar day: May 14. That's about where the heliacal rising of the Pleiades was by the end of Minoan times. And of course, the way our modern lives work, the date is likely to slide around to the nearest available weekend, unless you have a really understanding employer who'll let you take a day off for religious reasons.

Like I said, we don't really know what the Minoans did about their sailing season, in spiritual terms. But we can make educated guesses, and use our imaginations, and from there we can create a rite that has meaning for us as modern Pagans. We did that when we created the Blessing of the Waters, a part of our living, growing tradition.

What to do for the Blessing of the Ships?

Libations were a major activity in Minoan religion and they're prominent in Modern Minoan Paganism. Calling on Grandmother Ocean (we call her Posidaeja or Thalassa) and pouring offerings to her is a good start. Believe it or not, she likes pure water best as a libation. After all, she is the Mother-of-All-Waters. You could also pour a libation of wine - in my experience, she prefers white wine rather than red, if you're going that route.

Making an offering to the water to keep you safe is another option: choose something you value but that won't do any harm to the sea (or lake or river, if you're doing this at an inland body of water - Posidaeja is still there, I promise you; all waters are ultimately hers. But you might also want to make offerings specifically to the individual body of water as well, in that case). A semiprecious stone, a small figurine, even a handful of coins. If it feels like you're losing something when you toss it into the water, it will work.

Some traditions in various parts of the world involve making garlands or wreaths out of fresh flowers as an act of celebration, then giving these to the sea. If this idea inspires you, you could include it in your activities.

Blessing the ship: Sprinkling your boat or ship with herb-infused water will work nicely. Herbs traditionally used for purification and protection (and that we're pretty sure the Minoans had) include rosemary, rue, sage, and myrtle. You could also dip up some seawater and bless your boat with that.

Divination: I've always imagined that the Minoans set seven doves loose on the docks at their Blessing of the Ships, reading divinations for the upcoming sailing season in their flight (seven doves = the seven stars of the Pleiades). You probably don't have seven doves handy for such an activity, but you could try casting stones or bones on the dock, or doing airborne divination with a handful of seeds or even a dandelion fluffball.

Celebration: Decorate your boat with garlands and streamers. Wear bright colors. Sing sea shanties and play drums. And if you're doing this with friends who also have boats, you could form a flotilla and have a ceremonial procession around the bay or down to the next inlet.

So scrub your boat down, shine it up, and have a blessing rite!

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

*Due to precession, these dates slowly drift over time. Over the 1500 years or so of the height of Minoan civilization, the dates drifted about two weeks - not enough to significantly impact the timing of their sailing season. In early Minoan times, the heliacal rising of the Pleiades was around May 1. By the time the cities fell, it hit about mid-May. Now, in 2019, it's around Summer Solstice. So the actual heliacal rising no longer coincides with the beginning of sailing season, and we've chosen a calendar date for our celebration instead. During Minoan times, the acronychal rising drifted from late October to early November; now it's closer to Winter Solstice.

 

Image: Detail of a fresco from Akrotiri showing Minoan ships in city's harbor, surrounded by leaping dolphins

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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