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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Minoan Shields: Shamanic Tool of the Kouretes?

The figure-eight shield that shows up in Minoan and Mycenaean art is endlessly fascinating and has inspired a broad range of theories as to its religious and military significance. You can see above part of the reconstructed Shield fresco from the Minoan temple complex at Knossos; the figure-eight shield also appears on Minoan seals and seal impressions as well as a fresco from the Mycenaean palace at Tiryns. The seals and seal impressions combine the figure-eight shield with other images from Minoan religion and nature, like these:

 

Minoan seal impression with sacral scarves and shields

Seal impression with goat and figure eight shield

 

I'm not going to speculate about the shield's military use, but about its possible spiritual significance for the worshipers of Dionysus. The shield has often been associated with Athena, who may have Minoan origins, and possibly the Egyptian goddess Neith (though Neith's shield is usually depicted as oval or rectangular, so I don't see a strong connection there). But something I read the other day gave me pause and made me consider ways these shields might have been used in a religious setting having to do with Dionysus.

In the Lokasenna of the Poetic Edda, a collection of Old Norse poems written by unknown author(s), the Norse god Loki taunts Odin, calling him essentially a pussy (pardon my language). He does this by saying that Odin practices seiðr, the Norse shamanic tradition that appears to have involved mostly or only female practitioners. He also says that Odin beats on a shield like a völva, a female seer or shaman in the Norse tradition.

So why on earth would a shaman want to beat on a shield? The same reason shamans worldwide use drums and rattles: to induce trance.

Allow me to draw your attention to the Kouretes, who may also be the same as the Dactyls, both being groups of male figures associated with the Minoan goddess Rhea. When she gives birth to Dionysus at Winter Solstice, she hides him in her sacred cave. The Kouretes were said to guard this cave, standing just outside it and beating their swords on their shields as they danced. Sometimes they're said to be entertaining the infant Dionysus and sometimes they're said to be drowning out the sound of his cries so he won't be discovered. But the important thing is that they're dancing while they beat their swords on their shields.

Over in Ariadne's Tribe, we've considered the possibility that, like the Melissae, the Kouretes were also a priesthood as well as a group of mythical beings. What if the Kouretes were a priesthood of Dionysus at Mt. Ida, where her sacred cave (well, one of them, anyway) is located? Dionysus was, after all, called the Greatest Kouros, so it makes sense that the Kouretes were his priesthood. And given Dionysus' nature as an ecstatic/shamanic god, it makes sense that his priests would practice trance techniques as part of their spirituality.

Back to the shields: The figure-eight shields appear to have been framed of wood and/or wicker and covered tightly in cowhide. This would have made them very effective as drums. Rhythmic dancing to a thumping drumbeat is one of the simplest methods of entering trance, used around the world and across time to bridge the worlds.

So the next time you look at an image of a figure-eight shield, in addition to thinking about Bronze Age warriors, consider the shield's use for Bronze Age priests as well.

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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