The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe
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Meet the Minoans: Eileithyia
Though she is not as well-known as some of the other Minoan deities who made their way into the later Olympian pantheon, Eileithyia, the divine midwife and goddess of childbirth, was profoundly important to the ancient Cretans. There is some speculation that Eileithyia is actually her Minoan/pre-Greek name, which is unusual among the deities from Crete; we know most of them only from their later Greek epithets. In the Cretan dialect her name is Eleuthia (e-re-u-ti-ja in Linear B), which may connect her to Eleusis and the mystery religion celebrated there. A goddess of birth could certainly have a place in the transformational ceremonies of a mystery religion. The meaning of her name is disputed, though it may have its roots in the term ‘to bring’ or ‘to deliver,’ which would make sense for a goddess of childbirth, or possibly in the word for ‘to aid or relieve.’ She is sometimes depicted as multiples – the Eileithyias – rather than a single goddess, and sometimes as a dual goddess, one who either slows labor or speeds it, depending on her attitude toward the laboring woman. To me, her multiplicity links her to the oldest female deities such as the Fates and the Mothers (Meteres or Matrones).
The Minoans worshiped Eileithyia at a cave near Amnisos, the ancient port that served the city of Knossos. Archaeologists have found evidence of her continuous worship in that cave beginning in Neolithic times, so she is one of the oldest Minoan deities. According to legend, she was born in that cave, making her a part of the living landscape of the island, much like Rhea. In the cave archaeologists have found figurines of women in childbirth, nursing babies and in prayer postures. These votive offerings women made to this goddess tell us what they wanted from Eileithyia, which is pretty much the same thing pregnant women have always desired and still hope for: a safe and fast delivery of a healthy child who nurses strongly and grows well. In this way, Eileithyia ties us to our ancestors going back through the generations and the millennia.
As with the other Minoan deities who migrated to Olympus with the expansion of Hellenic culture, the Greeks acknowledged that Eileithyia originally came from Crete. They called her the daughter of Zeus and Hera, placing her firmly in the middle of their Olympian family tree, but the evidence of her ancient worship suggests she is much older than either of her ‘parents.’ It is possible that the Minoans considered her to be a daughter of Rhea, the Great Mother of the Minoans, and the Greeks shifted her position, the better to control her (they insisted she obey Zeus and Hera). Remember, Hera is Rhea’s younger alter-ego, the two names being anagrams of each other in both Greek and English.
In classical Greek art Eleithyia is depicted carrying torches in order to bring children out of the darkness of the womb and into the light of life. Some people interpret the torches as representing the burning pains of childbirth, but it seems to me that, in her role as the helper of women in childbed, her symbols would focus on the positive aspects of labor rather than the suffering. Women sought her aid to make a timely labor go by swiftly and effectively. Apparently the stalagmites and stalactites in her cave were ritual focuses for this goal, and one of them may have been viewed as an emanation of the goddess herself, in place of a statue or other representation. If labor was slow, unusually painful or difficult, it was thought that Eileithyia was choosing not to help the woman or was perhaps angry with her.
Interestingly, Eileithyia herself is never depicted as having a husband or children. She is a single woman under her own power, like Artemis and other ‘virgin’ goddesses. From a practical standpoint, it makes sense for a midwife to have no family ties so she is not pulled in multiple directions when she is needed at odd hours or for long periods of time. But her independence also suggests that, to the Minoans, childbirth was under the power of the women and not the men. The later Greeks depicted Eileithyia as a daughter of Hera and Zeus and accountable to them for her actions – she was, for instance, supposed to make labor difficult for ‘unchaste maidens’ – but I suspect this is a later Greek attribute intended to frighten young women into chastity, and not an original aspect of the goddess.
Eileithyia is mentioned in a clay tablet from Amnisos, written in Linear B:
Amnisos: One jar of honey to Eileithyia,
One jar of honey to all [of] the gods. . . .
This particular tablet was one of the keys that helped Michael Ventris decipher Linear B. Perhaps he had help from the goddess; after all, he was ‘birthing’ an ancient language into the modern world. She is also mentioned as receiving offerings of wool. It strikes me that honey and wool are particularly womanly offerings; women tended bees (they were sacred to several goddesses) and spun wool. Women did not usually work in the fields, so the agricultural products that were the most common offerings in ancient Crete – grain, wine and oil – are less appropriate as gifts to the goddess who provides such intimate help to women.
In some myths Eileithyia is called ‘the clever spinner,’ an epithet of a fate goddess. It makes sense that a deity who presides over childbirth would have, as part of her being, a fate aspect. This also suggests she is far older than other gods – the Fates are among the most ancient of deities.
The Greeks depicted her as being present at the birth of many of their gods and heroes, so she continued to be important as time went on, midwifing a large portion of the Olympian pantheon into existence as well as aiding mortal women during labor. She was worshiped well into the Christian era in many places.
The Greek writer Aelian and the Roman writer Ovid attributed the European polecat (a member of the same family as otters, weasels, ferrets and minks) to Eileithyia as her animal symbol; Greek households kept polecats in much the same way that other peoples kept cats, to hold down the snake and rodent population. There is no evidence that the ancient Cretans associated her with any animal except possibly the bee. In fact, I’m not entirely sure there were polecats on Crete in ancient times; there are none today.
As Greek culture spread, so did Eileithyia’s cult. After all, women have babies everywhere, not just on Crete, and calling on an ancient power during childbirth is comforting and reassuring. She is still accessible today, ready to help with the process of bringing new life into the world. I also like to think she’s helping with a different kind of birth, or rebirth, if you will: the rediscovery of ancient Minoan spirituality as it is born into the world once again.
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