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 not a reconstructionist tradition, but a journey in relationship 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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The Many Faces of Minoan Dionysos

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 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.

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.

We don’t know whether the seafaring Minoans brought the new bits of their mythology back from their travels to foreign lands or whether they discovered them in moments of illumination at home. But we do know that by the later 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.)

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. So I’ve always tentatively associated Dionysus with the Sun but never really defined him clearly in that regard. As I was doing some research for one of my online courses in modern Minoan Paganism, 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 the big temples. 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!

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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 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, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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