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 sharedl 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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A few spokes shy of a wheel?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The Wiccan Wheel of the Year is a wonderful thing. The eight evenly-spaced sabbats provide a balanced, coherent view of the seasonal cycles over the course of a year. The Quarters and Cross-Quarters are a great way for modern pagans to connect with nature and to become more in tune with the shifts and changes of the natural world, particularly in temperate climates. But the Wheel of the Year is a recent invention, compiled from a wide variety of sources. Ancient cultures didn’t follow the Wheel, or at least, not all of it.

For instance, my Celtic reconstructionist friends tell me that their historical sources mention only the Cross-Quarters sabbats: Samhain, Imbolc, Beltaine, Lughnasadh, often called Fire Festivals in their tradition. Hilda Ellis Davidson’s work on the ancient traditions of northern Europe suggests that some cultures celebrated the solstices but not necessarily the equinoxes, and harvest festivals fell whenever the crops were ready and not on a particular calendar date. The ancient Roman sacred calendar contained more festival dates than you can shake a stick at. So what about the ancient Minoans?

First, we have to remember that we don’t have any written records from the Minoans themselves. Their language, recorded in both a hieroglyphic script and the Linear A syllabary, has yet to be deciphered. Linear B, the script used to record Mycenaean Greek during late Minoan times, offers few clues regarding the dates of sacred festivals, though the records do offer a nice collection of deity names. So how do we know (or think we know) what times of the year the Minoans held sacred? Largely through careful study of the orientations of buildings, including the big temple complexes in the Minoan towns as well as the mountaintop structures at the peak sanctuaries located all over Crete.

We also have some interesting calendar stones from ancient Crete. These are large round stones, flat on top except for rings of small depressions carved into them. Early archaeologists thought these stones were meant for libations (offerings of liquids such as wine or milk) so they called them kernoi, the Greek name for multi-cup offering containers. However, further study shows that these stones were used to keep track of calendar cycles. The most obvious set of cycles, based on the numbers of depressions in the calendar stones, is the octaeteris which syncs eight solar years, 99 lunar cycles, and five Venus cycles. This eight-year cycle may be the origin of the ‘every 9th year’ sacrifices from the Theseus-and-the-Minotaur tale.

As for the buildings, Mary Blomberg and Göran Henriksson have done a great deal of research about Minoan astronomy and the orientations of the structures from ancient Crete. Lucy Goodison has also shared fascinating information from her research about the orientations of the Knossos Throne Room. From these and other researchers we can build up a picture of the dates the Minoans found to be important.

So where to begin? How about the new year? Blomberg and Henriksson make a good case for the Autumn Equinox being the ancient Minoan new year. Many Minoan tombs are oriented to the Autumn Equinox sunrise, and autumn is the beginning of the agricultural season in the Mediterranean, just as spring is the beginning in the northern temperate zone (and for much of ancient and medieval Europe, Spring Equinox was the new year).

In fact, we have evidence of building orientations to sunrise at both equinoxes and both solstices throughout ancient Crete, in both the temples and the peak sanctuaries, but nothing at the Cross-Quarters. There is, however, a cluster of astronomical orientations in the weeks leading up to the Autumn Equinox. There’s the heliacal rise of the stars Arcturus and Spica, separated by about ten days; this is probably associated with the early version of the Eleusinian Mysteries, which appear to have begun on Crete. The grape harvest occurs around the same time – late August to early September – and was probably as much a time of sacred celebration as the grain harvest in the spring. (The Mediterranean agricultural cycle involves planting in the autumn at the beginning of the rainy season, growing through the mild winter, and harvest in the spring.) Since so many events occur so close together in the autumn, it’s likely the ancient Minoans had a multi-week holiday season leading up to their new year, in much the same way that we modern folks have a multi-week winter holiday season leading up to our new year.

The list so far includes sacred calendar points related to the sun and stars. What about the moon? Though it’s not as prominent, the moon does show up in several places. The central courts of the smaller Minoan temple complexes at Petras and Zakros are oriented to the northernmost and southernmost risings of the moon, respectively. This isn’t the full moon, but the extremes along the horizon where the moon rises (it shifts along the horizon over the course of its cycle in the same way the sun shifts along the horizon over the course of a year). The peak sanctuary at Petsofas also seems to have been associated with the moon in some way, and the ritual rooms in the west wing of the temple complex at Zakros appear to be oriented to the southernmost moonrise as well. We can’t tell for sure from this information whether the Minoans held any kind of ritual or ceremony at any particular point during the moon’s cycle, but it’s apparent the moon had meaning within their sacred calendar.

So what can we gather from this information? The temple complexes and peak sanctuary buildings were, essentially, giant calendars that marked particular points during the year, so these times must have been very important to the Minoans. The yearly calendar looks fairly straightforward: a big holiday season encompassing the grape harvest (the Feast of Grapes), the Mysteries and the Autumn Equinox; then the remaining solar points of Winter Solstice, Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice. These may have been interspersed with lunar rites at several points during the year as the moon moved along the horizon.

But something that also emerges from this set of information is that different regions on Crete focused on different times of the year and different celestial bodies. We’re accustomed to thinking of islands and countries as homogenous things: a single government, similar cultural celebrations throughout the nation. But that wasn’t the case in ancient Crete. There was no single government and no single religious practice. Each temple complex provided administrative services to its town and the surrounding area, but they were all independent from each other as far as both government (and I use the term loosely) and religion were concerned. The temples in eastern Crete focus more on the moon, while those farther west focus more on the sun and stars. It’s also important to note that Minoan civilization lasted for centuries, and during that time, religious practices shifted and changed. For instance, there is some evidence that, by the late palace period when the Mycenaeans were hanging around the island, the new year at Knossos was celebrated at the Winter Solstice rather than the Autumn Equinox.

So what’s the takeaway for modern Pagans? There’s only so much reconstruction we can do, given the lack of translated texts. But we can take what we do know and make it meaningful for us. The solar sabbats are familiar to most pagans, as are harvest celebrations and lunar rites. That’s a good place to start. From there, listen to the gods and to your heart.

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!

 

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. 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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