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 connecting 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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Meet the Minoans: The Great Goddess Rhea
I decided I wanted to begin a series of posts about the gods and goddesses of ancient Crete, and I figured I’d start with Ariadne, since she is the deity most strongly associated with the Minoans in popular culture. But I just couldn’t manage to get going with the writing; then Rhea asserted herself, popping up online and in conversations, and I realized she should be first. She was the Great Mother Goddess who presided over the Minoan pantheon in much the same way that my maternal grandmother was the matriarch of my extended family. So it’s appropriate to begin with Rhea. We’ll be starting at the top, so to speak.
Please bear in mind that our knowledge of the Minoan deities comes down to us from the later Greeks, and is filtered through their religious and cultural perceptions, which were different from the Minoan worldview. In order to understand any Minoan god or goddess, we have to dig underneath the writings of Greeks such as Homer and Diodorus Siculus to find our way back to the earlier levels.
Of course, we don’t know what the Minoans actually called Rhea. Her name probably derives from the Greek word for flow or discharge, hence her role as the mythical creator of the Milky Way, that beautiful white band of stars that looks as if it might have been created by a spray of milk from the goddess’ breasts. While modern Pagans often think of cups and other vessels as womb-symbolic, the Minoans frequently conceptualized containers of liquid as breast-symbolic. Nanno Marinatos’ classic work Minoan Religion pictures several rhytons (libation pitchers) in the shape of female figures arranged so the liquid pours out the breasts. Another possibility is that Rhea’s name derives from the word for pomegranate, a fruit sacred to the goddess since ancient times. The Greeks called her Great Mother, Mother of the Gods and Mother of All, and so she was (and still is).
Though in later Greek mythology Rhea is described as having several children fathered by the god Cronos, he is not necessarily depicted as her constant husband-consort; in other words, she was probably not originally part of a god-goddess pair, but stood on her own. That is likely the way the Minoans viewed her, much like her Phrygian counterpart Cybele, and unlike the later Greeks, who insisted on giving most goddesses ‘husbands.’ The Greeks classified her as one of the Titans, the primordial gods born directly from the union of the sky (Ouranos) and the earth (Ge). To them, she was ancient, far older than the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympos.
Rhea’s sacred place on Crete is Mount Ida, the island’s highest peak. In the sacred cave on this mountain, Rhea bore her son, the infant Zeus, and hid him so Cronos would not devour him as he had done to her other offspring. Across the ancient world, caves symbolized the womb of the Earth Mother; the Idian Cave was a site of religious pilgrimage in ancient times and is still accessible today. This same myth is also associated with a cave on Mount Dikti as well as one on Mount Aegaeon, two more peaks in the mountain range that rises from the center of the island of Crete. If the mountain cave is her womb, then Rhea can be considered to embody not just the earth in general, but specifically the island of Crete. An interesting note: Mount Ida is visible from the ancient Minoan town of Phaistos, so the temple there likely included a focus on Rhea alongside other deities.
Later writers, especially Roman ones, conflated Rhea with Cybele, Ops and Magna Mater (mother goddesses of the Mediterranean world) so it can be difficult to tease out the qualities the Minoans saw in her. All these deities have a few qualities in common, so that’s probably a good place to start. They were all considered to be the mother, or ancestress, of many gods or whole pantheons, and also of certain people, including ruling dynasties of various states. She was the head of the Minoan pantheon, but for the later Greeks she receded into the background with the rest of the Titans, who were considered to be ‘of the past’ (unfashionably old-fashioned, if you will) and her place as the ‘head goddess’ was taken over by her daughter and alter-ego Hera, whose name in Greek as well as English is an anagram of Rhea. It was her son Zeus, whose attributes I’ll address in a separate post, who took over the Greek pantheon. The Greeks said that Rhea never moved to Mount Olympos with the rest of the gods, but stayed on Crete to be near the sacred cave where she had birthed Zeus, again suggesting that the ancients associated her specifically with the island and not the earth in general.
Though later writers often referred to her as a fertility goddess, to the Minoans her focus was more on the land itself, the earth as a sacred, living thing, a source of life, both physical and metaphysical, more than a dispenser of resources to be used or sold. In post-Minoan cultures she is often depicted accompanied by lions. This may be a bleed-over from her association with Cybele, but it is more likely to be one of her original Minoan characteristics. A seal impression found at Knossos shows a goddess on a mountaintop, flanked by a pair of lions and worshiped by a male adorant who stands at the foot of the mountain.
The Greeks said that, while Rhea chose to live on Crete, she occasionally journeyed to Mount Olympos for special occasions. On those occasions, she traveled in a chariot pulled by a pair of lions. Herodotus said lions lived in northern Greece in historic times, so it’s not inconceivable that the Minoans were familiar with the animal on a local level.
I have worked with Rhea a good bit over the years, and I have found her to be far more complex than I originally expected an earth mother type goddess to be. She has a dark side that we modern Pagans are often uncomfortable approaching. It’s reassuring to think of an all-embracing mother goddess who gives life to us all; it’s not so comforting to think about her as the ‘eater of the dead,’ the one to whom every living thing must return when its time on earth is used up. The darkness of the womb is also the darkness of the grave.
One of the first rituals I ever performed involving Rhea was an autumn equinox harvest ceremony (it eventually evolved into the Autumn Harvest Festival in my book, Ariadne’s Thread). I was already familiar with harvest-king sacrifice rituals, having participated in John Barleycorn type ceremonies on several occasions. But this was different. Instead of the people ‘reaping’ the grain god, this was Rhea, Mother Time herself - the feminine version of Cronos - drawing our attention to the mortality of every living thing, including (and perhaps especially) us. The Grim Reaper was the goddess herself, forcing us to face the reality of the cycles of life and death on the Earth, the living world she embodies. Here is how the ritual put this concept, in the words spoken by the High Priestess:
What has been given, we have taken in gratitude and love. Let us give thanks for the bounty of the god and goddess as we enjoy the harvest throughout the winter months. Let us remember what is given up, that we may have what we need.
We may think of the ancients as being obsessed with death – witness the extensive tombs and pillar crypts of the Minoans, not to mention the funereal buildings and accessories of other Bronze Age societies – but what Rhea taught me is that it’s not so much an obsession as an acceptance. Like it or not, death comes to everyone. The Great Mother assures us that, whenever it comes, she will welcome each of us back into her arms just as joyfully as she led us into this world.
To me, that’s Rhea – steady as a rock, grounded as the Earth itself. She helps keep me steady and grounded no matter which part of the cycle of life and death I’m facing at the moment. Her voice echoed in my head as my five-year-old daughter died in my arms. I can’t honestly say her presence made the event any easier to deal with as it happened, but it did help me keep perspective as I worked my way through the stages of grieving. At that time she also reminded me that one of her titles is Pandora, the All-Giver.
You’re probably familiar with the later Greek version of her story, in which her box contains all the bad things of the world with only hope for redemption. There is a lesson here: Rhea Pandora’s vase (pithos – a large storage jar) did originally contain all the bad things, but it also contained all the good things as well. Pandora is the giver of all – birth, death, and everything between and beyond. It’s not all pretty but it’s all a natural part of the system, and I’m grateful for it - all of it.
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