One of the issues we face when reviving ancient spiritual practices is that we often don’t know exactly what the original people called their gods and goddesses. In the case of the Minoans, we don’t even know what language they spoke, and their deity names have come down to us only through the Greeks. Today I’m going to toss out some thoughts about some of the god and goddess names from ancient Crete. Maybe, if we put enough ideas into the pot, we can brew up some useful bits for modern Minoan Paganism. Let’s start with Rhea, the Minoan Earth Mother goddess.
First of all, there is no generally-accepted etymology for the name Rhea. It may be the Greek interpolation of the native Minoan name for their Earth Mother goddess. The Greeks often attempted to transliterate the names of foreign deities into their own language, but as so often happens in this kind of situation, the pronunciation changes to feel more comfortable to the speakers. Through this process we ended up with the Greek name Isis for the Egyptian Aset and Greek Osiris for Egyptian Ausar. The Greeks said Rhea was the Mother Goddess of Crete; even among the Olympians, she was still considered Cretan. I’ve always felt that her name, however it was originally pronounced, was the word the Minoans used for the island of Crete, which was the embodiment of their goddess.
In my last post I explored the Minoan sacral knot, a religious symbol from ancient Crete that consisted of a length of fabric knotted together with a loop at the top. But the sacral knot isn’t the only instance of knotwork in Minoan religious iconography. And while the sacral knot may be related to the Egyptian tyet (Isis’ symbol), these other knots are more closely allied with snakes.
When Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos more than a century ago, one of the objects he found was a figurine of a woman covered in snakes (photo at the top of this post). They twine around her hat, down her chest and arms, and around her belly. The snakes that cross her belly form a large knot that’s a prominent feature on the figurine. Evans was intrigued by this knot, even going as far as researching whether snakes in the wild ever tie themselves into knots. For the record, blindworms do, but they’re not true snakes, though the Minoans might not have been able to tell the difference.
Many symbols and images have held sacred meaning within religious traditions around the world and throughout time: the circle, the cross, the pillar, the pentagram. These symbols don’t necessarily mean the same thing in every tradition, and sometimes we can’t even be sure what the original significance was for each culture. One such symbol is the knot. You may be familiar with the tale of the Gordian knot from Greek and Roman mythology (the one Alexander the Great famously sliced with his sword) or the tyet of Isis from Egyptian mythology, often found in the form of amulets but also related to the knot on some Egyptian deities’ garments. But there’s another one you might not have heard of: the Minoan sacral knot. Let’s explore this symbol and see what we can discover about it.
The famed ‘snake goddess’ figurine from Knossos (in the photo at the top of this post) has an object that Sir Arthur Evans identified as a sacral knot between her breasts, at the top of the girdle that encircles her waist. A second ‘snake goddess’ figurine, also found at Knossos, has a similar, though larger, knot between the front edges of her top. I find it interesting that the snakes themselves form a large knot over her lower abdomen. I have to wonder if that has any significance. What do you think?
There is a certain kind of mindset that says that we, the current oh-so-modern inhabitants of the world, are the epitome of social and biological evolution, that we are an improvement over everything and everyone who has come before us. This concept was very popular in Victorian times thanks to Social Darwinism, a misapplication of the concept of evolution to social and cultural contexts. It was simply an easy way for well-off white Westerners to feel superior to non-whites, non-Westerners and pretty much every single culture that had come before them. So it came as quite a shock to Victorian society when Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the ruins of Minoan civilization and discovered complex architecture, beautiful naturalistic art and (gasp!) enclosed sewers and flush toilets. It turns out, ancient Crete wasn’t alone in this kind of ‘modernity.’ Almost every house in the ancient Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa had flush toilets attached to a sophisticated system of sewers.
The concept of linear cultural and social evolution, of simpler and cruder things leading to more complex and elegant things, derives from the Judeo-Christian worldview that offers a beginning (creation) and steady progress to an end (Judgment Day). This viewpoint colors our expectations of ancient cultures and our interpretations of what we find. But many cultures around the world, especially the ancient world, had a non-linear view of history. They did not see a straight path from beginning to end so much as an ever-spiraling cycle, like the seasons but on a larger, almost epic, scale. I think this circular/spiral mindset is more helpful than the linear one as a lens for viewing ancient cultures. It allows us to recognize the ups and downs of history and prehistory, the fact that people have always been intelligent, ingenious and adaptive.
We hear a lot about libations in various Pagan traditions. A libation is simply an offering of a liquid, poured out in either a casual or formal ritual setting. A casual example would be the nights my friends and family gather around the fire out in our orchard to celebrate the seasons. Once the fire is lit, I pour out the first bit of my drink (usually homemade mead) in thanks to the spirits of the land, my ancestors and the divine in general. A more formal example might be the pouring out of wine onto the ground or into a bowl during a Wiccan Sabbat ceremony as an offering to the Lord and Lady.
The word ‘libation’ often conjures up the image of an alcoholic beverage being offered – wine, mead, even beer in some contexts. But any liquid can be used for libations. I offer water to the land spirits where I live every morning. It is, after all, the liquid that is the base of life on Earth. We can be pretty sure the ancient Minoans offered wine and perhaps beer as well, in keeping with the spiritual and cultural traditions of the ancient world. But I think they also offered milk. Yes, you read that right. Milk.
It can be hard for us modern folks who have always lived in a patriarchal society to envision any other kind of culture. As Riane Eisler perceptively noted in her book The Chalice and the Blade, we come from a dominance hierarchy type society so we tend to assume that any other kind of society from history or prehistory must be similar. In other words, if the men aren’t in charge and disproportionately powerful compared to the women in a culture, then the reverse must be true: the women must hold all the power while the men are largely powerless and oppressed.
This unfortunate bias has spilled over into our interpretation of Minoan society. I can’t count how many times people have told me, “Oh, those Minoans, their art is all women. You don’t see men anywhere, so the women must have held all the power.” I’d like to dispel this myth, for myth it is, and it’s totally inaccurate. It’s based on the idea that all societies must be dominance hierarchy types and it fails to consider another type of society: the egalitarian culture, which is what the Minoans really had. That’s a society in which women and men are equals and all adults have the same standing regardless of gender. This myth is also based on a careful selection of Minoan art that in no way represents the enormous and beautiful collection we have from this ancient civilization. So let’s explore the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the women-in-charge myth by actually looking at the art of the ancient Minoans.
The modern Pagan world is awash in womb symbolism and I can’t say I mind. After all, the feminine side of the Divine has been almost entirely ignored by the major religions of the past few centuries. OK, millennia. But the ancients didn’t always focus on the womb as the central symbol of the feminine, either divine or mundane. Take, for instance, the Minoans and their reverence for the breast.
You’re probably familiar with the frescos and figurines from ancient Crete that depict well-endowed women in open-front tops that display their breasts for all to see. We may feel that the exposed breasts found throughout ancient Minoan art are provocative but the Minoans probably didn’t feel that way. Just as the Victorians found women’s legs to be terribly sexy simply because they were normally covered and hidden, we respond the same way to women’s breasts. But in Minoan society women frequently went topless, just as men did, so that would have been an ordinary sight, and of course ancient women nursed their babies so that would have been common and not provocative or controversial either. It would not have been sexy so much as normal. But when the priestesses of ancient Crete bared their breasts in a ritual setting, that had deeper meaning as well.