The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, loving goddess of ancient Crete who lives on in the hearts and minds of the modern world. This is not a reconstructionist tradition, but a journey of modern Pagans in relationship with Minoan deities in the contemporary world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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Dividing the Minoan World

We divide our world into all sorts of segments based on time and space: day and night; the four seasons; the ground, the air, and space. Organizing the world into understandable parts is a natural human inclination, and the Minoans did it, just like everyone else. So how did they divide their world?

I have a few ideas. The most obvious is the seasons. Crete lies in the sea just south of Greece and has a Mediterranean climate. That means that, instead of the spring-summer-autumn-winter cadence we're used to in most of North America and Europe, the year flows from the rainy season to the dry season and back again: only two major seasonal divisions. In Mediterranean climates, the dry season lasts from what we might call late spring, through summer, and into early autumn. On Crete, plant life turns crispy-brown and dry. All but the largest creeks dry up, and even the rivers diminish to a flow much smaller than their wet season. This is the dead time of year, the counterpart to winter in the northern temperate zone.

Then the rains come.

The world springs to life again in the autumn, the soil softens under the falling rain, and farmers plant their crops. On Crete, field crops such as grains and vegetables grow through the mild winter and are harvested in the spring. So the wet season, what we might call autumn through spring, is the living-and-growing season in the Mediterranean. If you live in southern California or certain parts of Australia, you might have firsthand knowledge of this rhythm of wet and dry seasons, the dance between green growth and brown death.

This wet-and-dry-season cycle is the original seasonal component of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, the powerful tale from the Eleusinian Mysteries that probably goes back to late Minoan-era Crete. We've edited the story so those of us who live in the four-season world can relate to it, but originally, it wasn't the wintertime when the young goddess descended to the Underworld; it was the dead, dry summer.

There are other ways to divide the world as well: divisions of space as well as time. Since Crete is an island, the most obvious division to start with is the triplicity of land, sea, and sky. This is a common one around the world and across time. It's easy to see how people who live on an island might feel like the island itself is their anchor in the world, while they're surrounded and embraced by Grandmother Ocean and the wide, wide sky.

Crete has some pretty dramatic geography, smooth beaches that roll up into foothills that climb to tall, craggy mountain peaks. There's a strong sense of the vertical thanks to those mountains, many of which the Minoans held to be sacred. They built sanctuaries near the tops of their holy mountains and shrines in the caves lower down (though some of the caves are actually pretty high up, requiring some serious effort to reach them - quite the pilgrimage). The peak sanctuaries touch the sky where certain deities abide and the cave shrines are portals to the Underworld. So this is another division: the Upperworld, the place from which the goddess descends; the Underworld, the abode of the ancestors, the Melissae, and the deities with shamanic and psychopomp powers (Ariadne, Dionysus, Minos); and the Middle World, where the humans live, that narrow space that separates the two great sacred regions.

There's one final division I want to talk about, but it doesn't really fall under the rubric of either space or time. Instead, it's a division of type, of sense, of being: the pairing of domestic and wild. We can see this way of organizing the world in the Bull Leapers fresco above, with the "wild" animal (probably a well-trained domesticated one, actually, but it's the symbol that counts) and the "civilized" athlete. But there's not always such a clear division between domesticated and wild; instead, there's something of a continuum. Take the Horned Ones, for instance.

The most famous of the Minoan horned gods are the Minotaur and Europa/Pasiphae. Setting aside for a moment the Hellenic Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur, which isn't Minoan at all but is centuries later, we can see that cattle were a fully domesticated animal in Minoan times. From the huge herds that the temple complexes owned to the handful of head belonging to the small farmer out in the countryside, domesticated cattle were a familiar component of Minoan life.

Then there are the goats. The goat-y horned gods are the Moon-Goat, also called Minocapros (yes, I know, that's a clumsy set of word roots but I didn't make it up - go blame the Victorians) and the goat goddess Amalthea. Goats are the mid-point between domestic and wild on Crete. As my farmer-grandmother used to say, goats have ambition... they'll get loose and go wandering any time they can figure out how. So all over Crete, in Minoan times and now, there are feral goats wandering the hills. But in ancient times, just like now, there were also domesticated goats that provided milk and meat for the people. So in a sense, the goat is a liminal Horned One, straddling the border between domestic and wild.

Then we have the deer-gods, the Minelathos (see note above about awkward word roots) and Britomartis. Deer are wild, part of the natural backdrop on Crete. The Minoans hunted them with spears and appear to have occasionally captured them live for sacrificial purposes. In an era before rifles and antibiotics, hunting a large wild animal in the mountains could easily be a life-threatening activity. So the buck and the doe and their offspring fall fully onto the wild side of the spectrum, reminding us that nature by and large isn't tame at all.

The wet and dry seasons; land, sea, and sky; the Three Worlds; domestic and wild. How do you divide your world?

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

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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; my most recent work 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.

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