One of the dangers of having an ancient civilization as the focus of our spirituality is the tendency to view that culture through rose-colored glasses. That’s especially tempting when it comes to ancient Crete and the Minoan civilization that flourished there in the third and second millennium BCE.
There are so many positive aspects of Minoan culture: Women had high status and the Goddess was revered. Minoan cities and towns had paved streets, enclosed sewers, and flush toilets. The Minoans appear not to have had any sort of military, choosing instead to invest all their energy and wealth into what was probably the largest merchant fleet in the Mediterranean at the time, so their society was prosperous and relatively peaceful.
A couple of weeks ago I started exploring some of the ritual postures we find in Minoan art, mostly in the form of bronze and terracotta figurines. I began with the famous Minoan Salute and then had a look at the posture I call Shading the Eyes (and no, that’s not an ancient Minoan Weeping Angel, I promise! LOL).
This week I’ve done some experimentation with a posture that’s most common in Cycladic art, one that appears to link the user to the Realm of the Dead. You can see an example of it in the photo at the top of this post. These figurines, usually made of marble, show a person (most often a woman) with their arms across their abdomen, the left arm above the right.
One aspect of ancient religious practice that’s not terribly familiar to modern Pagans is ecstatic postures. No, I'm not talking about what you do at the local nightclub when your favorite music is playing! But ecstatic postures are kinda-sorta related to that kind of experience. These are poses or positions of the body and arms that are designed to produce specific experiences during shamanic trance work. At least a dozen different Minoan ecstatic postures appear in the form of little bronze and terracotta figurines from ancient Crete. Many of these were votive offerings at peak sanctuaries and cave shrines, but some have been found in the temple complexes as well.
A while back I reviewed Belinda Goodman’s excellent book Ecstatic Body Postures which includes a couple of poses that are found in ancient Crete. Reading that book was the inspiration for the shamanic work I’ve done since then that centers around the Minoan postures. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share with you my experiences using these poses. I encourage you to try them out on your own and let me know what you experience.
Religion isn’t a static thing. We don’t invent a religion once and leave it as is for centuries. Cultures change, people change, and spiritual practice changes, too.
Minoan civilization lasted for centuries. Just the “palace” periods, the times when the big temple complexes were being built and rebuilt, lasted about 500 years. Minoan civilization as a whole lasted more than two millennia. And during that time, the spiritual practice in ancient Crete changed and grew.
The Minoans loved color. The vibrant colors are usually the first thing people notice about Minoan art; the second thing they notice is how natural and realistic much of it is. That naturalism and realism might lead people to wonder about some of the color conventions in Minoan art. So much of Minoan art is realistic, it's kind of jarring when something is the wrong color.
If you have a look at the Bull Leaper fresco at the top of this post, you'll see that the two athletes to the right and left have white skin (not a natural Caucasian peachy color or a natural light tan, but literally white). The central bull leaper is a deep reddish tan, like a bad sunburn. This is due to a set of rules in Minoan art that says women always have white skin and men always have reddish tan skin. If you've ever had a look at Egyptian art, you'll see something similar there: The men always have reddish tan skin and the women always have yellow skin (with a few special exceptions like Osiris, who occasionally appears green because mythology).
When I tell people I follow a Minoan spiritual path, one of the first things they ask about is the labyrinth. Often, all they know about the labyrinth is what they've heard from the Theseus-and-the-Minotaur story. The thing is, the Greeks invented Theseus as a culture hero centuries after Minoan civilization had ceased to exist, so the Minoans never even knew about him. In Theseus' tale, the labyrinth is a deadly maze full of confusing twists and turns, impossible to escape with the help of Ariadne's thread. In reality, the labyrinth is very different from that.
If you have a look at the labyrinth design at the top of this post, you'll see that it has a single path that leads unerringly to the center. Sure, there are twists and turns. These are designed to disorient the person walking the labyrinth so they can enter altered states of consciousness and reach their own inner spiritual understanding. But there's only one way in and the same way back out. This is called a unicursal (one-route) maze. And it's not a tricky trap. It's a spiritual tool.
Figuring out ancient people's spiritual practices is hard. Even if we have written records that they've left us, they're not around any more to tell us how to interpret them. And in the case of the ancient Minoans, we can't read what they wrote, so all we have to go on is archaeological finds. And if those archaeological finds aren't genuine, then what we figure out about their spirituality may be wrong as well.
That beautiful ivory-and-gold snake goddess at the top of this post is probably a forgery. A century ago, when Sir Arthur Evans excavated the temple complex at Knossos, the world went "Minoan crazy." Museums clamored for items to display to bring in bigger and bigger crowds, and many unscrupulous folks were more than happy to oblige. This one's probably a forgery, too, based on carbon-14 dating: