Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan pantheon. Modern Minoan Paganism is an independent polytheist spiritual tradition that brings the gods and goddesses of the ancient Minoans alive in the modern world. We're a revivalist tradition, not a reconstructionist one; we rely heavily on shared gnosis and the practical realities of Paganism in the modern world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

Find out all about Modern Minoan Paganism on our website: https://ariadnestribe.wordpress.com/. We're a welcoming tradition, open to all who share our love for the Minoan deities and respect for our fellow human beings.

  • Home
    Home This is where you can find all the blog posts throughout the site.
  • Tags
    Tags Displays a list of tags that have been used in the blog.
  • Bloggers
    Bloggers Search for your favorite blogger from this site.
  • Login
    Login Login form

The Many Faces of Minoan Dionysus

Most people are familiar with Dionysus 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 Dionysus 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 Dionysus 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. I've often likened the Minoan pantheon to a carnival fun house full of mirrors. This 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. Like the Egyptians, the Minoans were sort of "spiritual hoarders" - they didn't discard one set of beliefs and practices when another one showed up, even when the new layers were added by the Mycenaeans during their occupation of Minoan Crete.

For centuries, perhaps millennia, Dionysus was the Vine God, the bringer-of-ecstasy who died each year and was unfailingly reborn with the first new leaves in the vineyard. The wine made from his body brought joy to his people and helped them along in their ecstatic rites, in which they might also be symbolically resurrected like their god. His identity as a dying-and-reborn god was established. But then new ideas came to Crete.

By the final centuries of Minoan civilization, Dionysus was celebrated at the solstices as well as the time of the grape harvest. At Winter Solstice he was born from Rhea and hidden in her cave, safeguarded and nursed by Rhea’s sister/daughter/alter-ego Amalthea. And at Summer Solstice he emerged from the cave in his full splendor and glory, ready to undertake the hieros gamos – the sacred marriage – with Ariadne. These special days were commemorated at Knossos by special alignments of the solstice Sun with the Throne Room, so we know the ‘official’ Minoan religion, at least at Knossos, incorporated this set of mythology. (The focus of religious practice may have been on different deities in the different Minoan cities, since during Minoan times each city was a separate political and religious entity run by the temple or by a consortium of the temple clergy and the wealthy citizens.)

The divine child born at Midwinter in Rhea's sacred cave may originally have been her son, the Young God Tauros Asterion. For reasons that are still unclear, during the Mycenaean occupation, the Mycenaeans latched onto Dionysus as their "favorite" Minoan god and decided he should be at the top of the pantheon. They even called him "Cretan Zeus" to emphasize the fact that they thought he should have the top position in the pantheon. And they decided that he was Rhea's son, even though it's likely he was originally considered the son of Posidaeja, the Minoan sea goddess. So by late Minoan times, we end up with him being born to Rhea in her sacred cave at Midwinter.

Now, for a long time I thought the solstice events meant Dionysus was probably some kind of Sun god. I mean, born at Midwinter and at his height at Midsummer – that’s pretty obvious, right? But we’re fairly sure the Minoans worshiped the Sun as a goddess, not a god. As I was doing some research, I was reading some academic papers about the astronomical alignments of the temples and peak sanctuaries, and a bunch of bits and pieces suddenly fell into place in my mind (has that ever happened to you?). And then I understood: Dionysus isn’t exactly a Sun god.

He’s not the Sun. He’s the solar year. He's the year-king that we hear of throughout the mythological cycles of the ancient world, the embodiment of the turning of time and the movement of the seasons on Earth. He is born from Rhea, the Earth Mother goddess who is the island of Crete itself, at Winter Solstice. He grows to his peak at Summer Solstice, the height of the solar year. We don’t know whether the big temples celebrated his death at the grape harvest – the time we call the Feast of Grapes in modern Minoan Paganism – but it’s a pretty sure bet the people in the countryside held onto those old traditions, even as the practice grew and changed at Knossos under Mycenaean rule. In a very broad sense, Rhea is place and Dionysus is time. Rhea is existence and Dionysus is motion. They complement each other.

When he's with Rhea, Dionysus is the sacred son. When he's with Ariadne, who is another aspect of Rhea herself, he's the sacred groom. So we can see how he acts as the eternal dying-and-reborn god, the son of the widow, like so many other ancient gods from cultures around the world.

I find that these two layers, or aspects, of Dionysus dovetail well with each other: the dying-and-reborn vegetation god and the solar year-king. In both cases he represents the passage of the seasons, the visible movement of time through the living things on the Earth. He reminds us that  everything changes, everything dies, and that’s all right. Whether we see him as the Vine God or the Year-King, he helps us through the shifts and changes that occur throughout life, whether we want them to or not. And he can help us find ways to renew ourselves, to start again, as he does every year.

In the name of the Bee -
And of the Butterfly -
And of the Breeze - Amen!

[Updated 15 August 2020]

Last modified on
Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She is the founder and Temple Mom of Modern Minoan Paganism. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

Additional information