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?

Find out all about Modern Minoan Paganism on our website: We're a welcoming tradition, open to all who share our love for the Minoan deities and respect for our fellow human beings.

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The Colors of Ancient Crete: Minoan Natural Dyes

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Minoan art is marvelously colorful, even 3500 years later. Was ancient Crete that colorful in real life? Probably.

Part of that color would have been due to the plant and animal substances used to dye the fabric that made the Minoans' clothing, household textiles, and temple decorations.

What kinds of dyes did the Minoans use? We have hard evidence of just a few. But the Mediterranean is home to many natural dye materials, and it's likely the Minoans took advantage of their availability.

Which ones do we know for certain the Minoans used?

The murex dye, a.k.a. royal purple or Tyrian purple, was a major commodity in the Bronze Age, just as valuable then as it was later when the Phoenicians traded it. It's made from the secretions of several different types of sea snails: Bolinus brandaris, Hexaplex trunculus, and Stramonita haemastoma. The Minoans manufactured this purple/blue/burgundy dye at Chrysi and Alatsomouri and probably a number of other sites that we haven't discovered yet. Murex pigment has also been identified in some of the frescoes from Akrotiri, but its primary use would have been for dyeing fabric.

The other two natural dye materials that we have hard evidence of, in the form of vessel residues from Alatsomouri, are madder root (Rubia tinctorum) and weld, a.k.a. dyer's rocket (Reseda luteola). Madder dyes a deep, darkish red, and weld produces a cool yellow.

But those weren't the only dyes the Minoans used. People have been dying textiles since the Paleolithic, so we can expect that the Minoans would have taken advantage of every natural dye material they could find, experimenting until they got the results they wanted.

Most natural dyes need a mordant - a substance such as vinegar, baking soda/natron, or alum that helps the dye set and become somewhat permanent (natural dyes, even mordanted ones, aren't as colorfast as modern chemical dyes). Sometimes mordants alter the color of the dye, a little or a lot. So natural dyeing ends up being quite a chemistry experiment, requiring a lot of knowledge to get exactly the shade you're looking for.

Here are some possibilities for Minoan natural dyes. These are all plants that are native to the Mediterranean and that were available in the Bronze Age, along with the colors they produce:

chamomile (Anthemis tinctoria) – soft yellow

chicory root (Cichorium intybus) – gentle brown

dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) – warm yellow 

elderberries (Sambucus nigra) – bluish purple

grapes – shades of bluish and reddish purple

Kermes (dried Kermes vermilio insect that lives on the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera) – bright crimson red

mulberries – purples 

nettles (Urtica dioica) – spring green

Persian berry berries and stem bark (Rhamnus saxatilis) – deep, warm yellow

pomegranate fruit skin (Punica granatum) – light yellow and dark grey

saffron (Crocus sativus) – deep warm yellow [Yes, it's clear the Minoans harvested saffron, and indeed they may have domesticated the saffron crocus, but as yet we have no hard evidence of its use by them as a dye.]

Sicilian sumac leaf (Rhus coriaria) – used as a tanning agent and also as a black dye

strawberry tree roots (Arbutus unedo) – rusty brick red

Walnut hulls (Juglans regia) – warm rusty brown

wild spinach a.k.a. lamb’s quarters (Chenopodium album) – bright yellow

The colors in Minoan art - the frescoes especially - had symbolic, sacred meanings. It's likely the colors in clothing did as well, at least in the clothing the priesthood wore and possibly in lay people's clothes as well.

So both the base color that the fabric was dyed and any additional colors in the decoration - woven in, embroidered on, or possibly painted or block printed on - may also have had meaning. And just like in the frescoes, this was probably a sacred "language" that most people could read whenever they saw the priesthood dressed in their ritual garb.

I like to imagine the riot of colors, from gentle to bright, that would have made an ancient Minoan crowd look marvelously cheerful. And some of those colors would have reminded the people of the presence of the divine among us. What's your favorite color? Do you associate it with a deity or other sacred symbolism?

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.

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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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