I was recently asked, in the Ariadne’s Tribe group, about the apparent predominance of women and goddesses in ancient Minoan religion. After all, the labrys and the Snake Goddess figurines have been hallmarks of the feminist movement for decades. But I’m not sure Minoan spirituality was nearly as overwhelmingly female-centric as it might appear. Before you panic, let me reassure you that the Minoan pantheon was headed by a couple of ‘unmarried’ goddesses who stood alone – Rhea, the Earth Mother who embodied the island of Crete itself and Posidaeja, the Great Mother Ocean. From them descended all the goddesses and gods in the Minoan pantheon. But below their level the pantheon spread out into a collection of deities whose population resembled that of humanity – roughly half female and half male.
One of the reasons Minoan spirituality has an apparently goddess-centric vibe is that the most publicized pieces of art from ancient Crete involve female figures: the Snake Goddess figurines, the central priestess/goddess figure from the Corridor of the Processions fresco. I tend to think these images have captured the imagination of the general public largely because, even today, they’re a bit risque with their brazenly bare breasts. An image of a fully-robed man isn’t nearly as titillating. And of course, for decades it was the men within the archaeological community who decided what to study and what to publicize, hence the preponderance of topless female figures.
I’ve been thinking about the Ancestors a lot lately; it’s that time of year. In fact, they’ve even asserted themselves when I wasn’t seeking them, such as the day I experienced a vision of a Minoan priestess undertaking a rite of prophecy through the ancestral spirits. From the earliest times, the Minoans revered their ancestors. At the Autumn Equinox they held celebrations of the dearly departed, feasting and performing rituals in the shadows of the beehive-shaped tholos tombs where their ancestors’ remains were interred. Some of the tombs had pillar crypts beneath them, providing another place for offerings and communication with the dead.
My own experience with shamanic practice centering on the Ancestors and Minoan spirituality suggests a reason for the beehive shape of these tombs and the connection of the Ancestors with the Bee Goddess. Like many shamanic practitioners, I have experienced a particular sound when I connect with the ancestral spirits, a sort of multi-pitched buzzing that almost exactly reproduces the noise of a hive of swarming bees. And of course, honey being such a delicious prize in cultures that did not yet know how to refine sugar from beets or cane, I can totally relate to the idea of bees being sacred representatives of the Ancestors and, later on, the gods (or goddesses, to be precise). I keep a miniature beehive on my Minoan altar to remind me that the Ancestors were just as much a part of Minoan spirituality as the goddesses and gods.
As we search out a vocabulary of gesture—articulate action—with which to embody our old-new worship, we turn both to the ways of the ancestors and to our own experience.
A gesture of reverence that occurs again and again in the glyptic art of Minoan Crete is the gesture known to scholars as the “Minoan salute.” The worshiper stands before the deity with right fist raised to brow, elbow held high. Generally the left arm is held at the side.
The gesture is clearly a formal act of reverent attention, perhaps of greeting. Sometimes the fist is held with the thumb up, sometimes with the thumb to the brow. The standard reading of the gesture is that the worshiper is shielding his or her eyes from the radiance of the deity. Try it out and see what you think of this interpretation. I do not find it personally convincing because one shades one's eyes with an open hand. This, I suspect, is something else.
Up to now my blog posts here have been mostly about research I've done - information about Minoan deities and spiritual practices, with a few notes from my own practice thrown in for good measure. Today I'm sharing something very different with you. Something very personal.
I've spent a lot of time meditating and doing shamanic journeywork to piece together what I can of Minoan religious practice. Usually I get a few glimpses of something they might have done in the big temples or at the little shrines in their homes. A few days ago I got something I hadn't bargained for - a full-blown vision of an oracular priestess doing her thing. It has taken me some time to process this experience and reach the point that I can comfortably share it with you.
The Labyrinth may be the most well-known and widespread symbol to come out of ancient Minoan spirituality, but it is a static image. What if it were to come alive, to move, to dance? It did so on ancient Crete, and it still does today in Greek folk dances. And the motions of this sinuous dance have many layers of meaning. Let’s explore some of them. Maybe we’ll be inspired to set our own feet moving.
The Labyrinth-in-motion I’m talking about is known as the Crane Dance or Geranos Dance (the word geranos is Greek for ‘crane’ – the bird, not the construction equipment). The Greeks immortalized it in their version of the Theseus myth. You’ve probably heard the tale of Theseus traveling to Crete as one of the fourteen Athenian youths who were the tribute (that is, the sacrifice) to King Minos and his horrible monster, the Minotaur. The king’s daughter Ariadne gives him a ball of yarn by which he marks his path into the Labyrinth, then uses it to find his way out again after slaying the Minotaur. Having accomplished his heroic goal, he rescues the youths and returns home to Athens. That’s the short version, but it leaves out something Theseus does on the way home.
Have you ever tried to bake a cake from scratch? Not terribly difficult, right? But what if you didn’t have a recipe? That’s pretty much what we’re doing over at Ariadne’s Tribe these days. Bear with me here and I’ll do my best not to flog the metaphor too badly.
Reconstructionist traditions like Hellenism and Ásatru rely on written texts from earlier times for a lot of their information. The Hellenists have all the works that have come down to us from the classical writers, many of whom were devoted to the Hellenic deities themselves; the Ásatru folks have the eddas, the sagas and more. Though the ancient Minoans left us their writing in the form of Linear A, we can’t read it; in fact, we don’t even know what language the script records. So, essentially, we don’t have a recipe. But we’re good cooks, at least, I’d like to think so.
A few weeks ago I wrote about Dionysos, one of the major gods within the Minoan pantheon. Today I’m going to explore the character of Zagreus. He is sometimes considered an aspect of Dionysos and sometimes viewed as a separate deity. The tapestry of Minoan spirituality is a complicated thing, and it’s often difficult to tease out the individual threads, but I’ll give it a go and see what we can discover about this interesting, and ancient, deity.
In his seminal work Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life, Karl Kerenyi identified Zagreus with the ecstatic Dionysiac festivals in which wild animals were torn limb from limb by crazed worshipers. Kerenyi connected Zagreus’ name with the Greek term for a trapper – a hunter who catches live animals rather than killing them. But the etymology of the name can also be traced back to a root meaning torn or dismembered, another thread connecting this intriguing god with those Dionysiac rites. Just to be clear: Zagreus is not the same as the Hellenic god Zeus, even though their names look somewhat alike. In their effort to create an ancient ancestry for their deities, the Greeks made Zeus the son of the Minoan goddess Rhea and said he was born on Crete, but he is a later deity and not the same as Zagreus.