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How the Minoans got mixed up with Wicca

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Today I'm sharing a guest post from my dear friend Dana Corby (author of The Witches' Runes, which I heartily recommend). She has many years of experience in the Pagan community and has seen all sorts of theories and points of view come and go. Today, she has generously offered to share her knowledge about the way Minoan spirituality has intertwined with Wicca over the years and how that has sometimes led to misunderstandings about the Minoans, their culture, and their religion.

* * * * *

 Minoan What?

--Dana Corby, 2018*

In the early days of Modern Witchcraft, roughly the late 50s through early 70s, many of us believed that one of the most important ancestral origin-points of Witchcraft was ancient Crete. Lots of us had Minoan snake-goddesses on our altars, or wore Her image or the sacred labrys (double axe) as a pendant. Both non-fiction and fiction** books linked ancient Crete  the "Kheft" of the Egyptians  with modern Witchcraft, and the fledgling Pagan press, such as the Green Egg, often featured articles about it. While we cared a lot less back then about academic proof of Witchcraft’s origins, as we didn't believe we needed to justify our beliefs to anyone, we read archeology avidly. We especially devoured anything supporting the theory that the eruption of the volcanic island of Thera, a prosperous colony of Crete, was the origin of the legends of Atlantis. 

Atlantis, you see, was one of the main mythical origin-points for the magical heritage that would come to be called British Traditional Witchcraft. There had been legends in the British Isles of the island's having been settled by refugees from Atlantis, as documented in Doreen Valiente’s Where Witchcraft Lives and other sources, for at least a hundred years – much longer if you interpret the Book of Invasions in light of anthropology and (more recently) DNA. Gerald Gardner, the foremost modern proponent of Witchcraft, had a reproduction of the famous Minoan Snake Goddess on his altar. There is even a symbol scratched into one of the bluestones of Stonehenge that appears to be a labrys, the enigmatic symbol of Minoan religion. It was all so consistent. 

And then the lesbian feminist Witches came along, headed by Z Budapest. They claimed that Witchcraft was 'wimmins religion' and that Crete had not only been the last great matriarchy of the ancient world but that it had been a lesbian utopia. And that it belonged to them. Suddenly, it was Not-OK for Traditional Witches (what later came to be called Wicca) to hark back to Crete, to display the labrys or images of the snake goddess. It was only OK for lesbian separatist Witches. They reluctantly conceded that it might be possible for heterosexual women to be Witches but not men, and claimed the entire subject of Minoan Crete as theirs. They were quite aggressive about that. It became extremely uncomfortable for the rest of us to wear our Minoan talismans in public and if we talked about what had until then been the common mythology of our origins we were silenced with slogans like "Hands Off Wimmin's Religion." It was more than a slogan – it was a battle cry. And anyone who trod on what they considered ‘their turf’ got blasted. 

What’s more, it was a lie, based on the writings of a couple of woman historians who, fed up with male archeologists declaring every male grave that of a king but every female grave just that of a king’s consort, decided to interpret every female grave that of a queen whether or not the evidence warranted it. Or to put it more kindly, a wishful dream. Current archeology believes that while during the pre-palatial era society on Crete was governed by something like a committee, by what we’d consider the “classical” era of the great palaces, there were monarchs. The literature calls them kings but they could just as easily have been queens and more often than not probably were. Women had great power, but so did men. The primary Deities were goddesses, but gods were also worshipped, some of them near the top of the pantheon. Frescoes from the misnamed ‘palaces’ show almost as many male figures as females; that women seem to dominate is a function of our modern perception which views near-equal presence of women in a group as domination. Current archeology views Minoan society as simultaneously elitist, in that there was a definite social hierarchy, and egalitarian, in that neither men nor women dominated. 

There's nothing wrong with lesbian separatism or the idea of a women-only culture. Truth be told, a lot of women need a space that's free of men for at least part of their lives. I imagine many men need such a space, too  that used to be one of the reasons men joined the military, or the Freemasons. What's wrong is the appropriation – no other word for it  of a large chunk of our mythology by what was as least as much a political movement as a spiritual one. And what's wrong is what happened afterwards: instead of standing up for our right to hold on to our Minoan connection, we just let it go and replaced it with another myth.

The hijacking of Wicca's mythology about roots in Crete happened to take place around the same time Irish folk music  real Irish folk music, not Irish-American pub ditties  hit the US music scene. Suddenly, here was this other pre-Christian island culture about which little was known, allowing us to build our own fantasies around it. Suddenly, Wicca became ‘Celtic.’ Granted, Gardner had called it that, but he'd meant only that it appealed to what in his day was called the ‘Celtic temperament’  artistic, extroverted, and mystical  as opposed to the supposedly stolid and practical Saxon British temperament. To Gardner and most Britons, ‘Celtic’ meant Welsh. But this new ‘Celtic’ Wicca looked awfully Irish, despite the fact that the vast majority of its practitioners knew nothing about preChristian Ireland except that it was polytheistic and had cool art. Ritual accessories lost their astrological or classical décor and were slathered with Irish interlace (which by the way was originally Norse.) New initiates began taking Irish names in preference to almost any others, including other Celtic names. And Mediterranean icons, including the Minoan Snake Goddess and the Minotaur, vanished from our altars. 

Within ten years, few Wiccan practitioners had any idea there had ever been any connection between British Witchcraft  Wicca  and ancient Crete. In fact, among most British Traditional Wiccans (Gardnerians and their kin) in America, and despite Gardner's frequent mentions of Pan and Diana as the patron Deities of Wicca, ancient Mediterranean Paganism became an unacceptable topic.  (The reconstructionist polytheists arising now, such as Hellenismos or Coru Cathobodua, are most adamantly not Witches.) It simply wasn't done to invoke any but Celtic deities or to acknowledge that there might have been any influences into the formation of Traditional Wicca outside the British Isles. But Mediterranean Paganism and magic have been part of British Isles culture since the Roman army brought their many religions with them to the Isles, where they took root nicely. A thousand years later the Renaissance, with its rediscovery and romanticization of Classical art and culture, created an atmosphere ripe for a resurgence of Paganism, and resurge it did. Any exploration of all the threads making up that weave must wait for another time. Suffice it to say, Gardner was far from the only person called to the service of the Old Gods, and until comparatively recently most were drawn to Mediterranean and/or Egyptian pantheons. And we believed we’d come from Atlantis. 

Except for a rare few of us Old FartsTM, the Minoan/Atlantean connection to Wicca is gone forever. A Gay Minoan Brotherhood and Lesbian Minoan Sisterhood still exist, but not being qualified for membership in either I know little about them. I hope they’re preserving what were once our common myths.

Maybe Thera wasn’t the origin of the Atlantis myth, after all. And maybe British Traditional Witchcraft didn’t arrive with magicians fleeing the fall of Atlantis. But Crete did fall. And all those refugees had to go somewhere, right? 

 

)--( 

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(Postscript: Since I first wrote this I’ve become active in a group of Modern Minoan Pagans on Facebook called Ariadne’s Tribe. It’s wonderful to finally have others to talk with about my life-long fascination. They have developed a Minoan-based seasonal cycle and liturgy which relies on both archeology and personal gnosis.)

*adapted from an earlier article that appeared on the Patheos Pagan Agora

** such as

      The Dancer from Atlantis, Poul Anderson

      Sign of the Labrys, Margaret St. Claire

* * * * *

You can find Dana on FB here. Her Amazon author page has a great bio if you'd like to learn more about her, and of course it includes The Witches' Runes, her book about a fascinating divination system.

Ariadne's Tribe is a welcoming group and Modern Minoan Paganism is a welcoming path, happily open to people of any race, ethnicity, gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, age, ability level, disability, geographic location, language, education, or socio-economic status. We're all in this together.

Image: Minoan Snake Goddess by John Duncan, public domain (one of his illustrations from Donald A. Mackenzie's 1917 book Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe, which is interesting but not necessarily accurate)

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Mark Green
    Mark Green Wednesday, 05 December 2018

    While I don't really buy that modern Witchcraft and Paganism has any lineal relationship with ancient traditions, I really appreciate this post for its analysis and courage. I suspect the author will get considerable blowback about parts of it.

  • Hearth M Rising
    Hearth M Rising Wednesday, 05 December 2018

    Yes! Crete was a great neighborhood before those nasty lesbians moved in with their lying feminism. They appropriated what had been rightfully colonized by British traditional witches. Of course, they deserve their own spaces...somewhere...but not anywhere close to "Minoan" Crete.

  • Carmen Beaudry
    Carmen Beaudry Wednesday, 05 December 2018

    One of the lovely things about having little to no involvement in the more public side of Wicca is that I never felt the need to tailor my practice to anyone else’s idea of what was appropriate. The Snake Lady and her associates have never left my altars and while I’m sure Ireland is a lovely country, my heart home is further south and east.

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