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?

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Gods and Men in Ancient Minoan Spirituality

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

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.

For many years Nanno Marinatos’ book Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image and Symbol was the best reference in its field. It is now out of print but Ms. Marinatos has generously posted the PDF of the book online; simply register for a free account and you’ll have access to read it online or download it. There are nearly 250 illustrations in Minoan Religion depicting just as many male figures as female ones. I find it interesting that Ms. Marinatos interprets most female images from ancient Minoan art as goddesses but she thinks most male images are human priests. In other words, she assumes the Minoans had a goddess-centric religion and applies that assumption to the artwork she’s looking at. I beg to differ.

Minoan religion centered around the practice of trance possession – the deity entering into the body of the priest or priestess so they became the living vessel for the divine during the sacred ceremony. Opium and other hallucinogens aided this process. So when the Minoans thought about their deities, they pictured them in human form, the way they appeared in the great public ceremonies and mystery plays. And that’s how they depicted them in art – as humans. So when you see the image of a man in a robe carrying a mace, you can’t assume it’s a priest; it may be a god portraying one particular aspect of the myths and legends of ancient Crete. We simply can’t be sure. But we can avoid too much bias by viewing the artwork with an open mind.

I understand the desire to discover a perfectly peaceful, egalitarian, woman-run society in the ancient world. Given the sad results of the unbalanced, male-centric worldview that has damaged women, men and the Earth alike over the past couple of millennia, it’s a natural reaction to want to swing widely in the other direction. But we do both ourselves and the ancient Minoans a disservice if we walk into their world full of preconceived notions.

Their culture wasn’t perfect. The Minoans owned slaves. There were both rich and poor on the island; the difference in size and quality of the houses in various parts of the ancient towns on Crete suggests a distinct class divide, though it may not have been quite as pronounced as we experience in modern times. The Minoans certainly practiced animal sacrifice and probably practiced human sacrifice as well.

What we can do is seek out the positive aspects of Minoan culture and spirituality and examine them with an open mind. The high regard for the Goddess reflected a high regard for women in ancient Crete; they held priestly office, running the temples alongside the men and probably doing business in the marketplace on equal footing with their male colleagues. I suspect that, during classical Minoan times, the highest office in the temples was held by a priestess in reflection of the fact that the Great Mother Rhea presided over the pantheon. In addition, much of the farmland was held in common, the crops being stored in the temple and shared out among the population as needed, with some held in reserve in case of famine or natural disaster. And in spite of periodic attempts by male scholars to detect a Minoan military in some of the artwork and other records, there is no proof of any sort of army, navy or other military body during classical Minoan times; only with the coming of the Mycenaean Greeks can we find evidence of military activity. Before that, all the Minoans’ energy and wealth poured back into their own economy.

Rather than viewing the ancient Minoans and their religion through a rosy lens, we can add value to our own spirituality by accepting them as the human beings they were. We can embrace the concept of equality and allow it to flow out into not just our spiritual practice but our outer lives as well. No culture is perfect, but the Minoans can teach us a few things, if we are willing to listen with open minds.

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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.


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