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. Modern Minoan Paganism is not a purely reconstructionist tradition, but a journey 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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Sacred Saffron: A bit of autumn magic

The lovely young lady in the image above is picking the stigmas of the saffron crocus, also called the autumn crocus, to give as an offering to the goddess. We see this whole scene play out in a series of frescoes from Akrotiri, the ancient Minoan-era town on the Mediterranean island of Santorini. Saffron crocus blooms float in mid-air across the backgrounds of these frescoes, reminding us where our focus should lie. Below, we see a girl pouring her gathered saffron into a large basket while a monkey presents some to the enthroned goddess.

 

The Saffron Gatherers fresco

 

Saffron was an important herbal remedy, cooking herb, and sacred substance to the ancient Minoans. But you might not know how saffron really interlocks with the seasons in Minoan home territory (the eastern Mediterranean) and, hence, how it might play a role in one of the oldest seasonal stories known to mankind.

First, saffron is a flower, and most of us think of flowers as blooming in the spring. But saffron is unusual in this regard: It blooms in the autumn (that's why it's called the autumn crocus, to differentiate it from the types of crocus that bloom in early spring). This characteristic sets it apart from other flowers and may have been the beginning of its consideration as a sacred plant. But there's more to the seasonality than just this.

The Minoans lived on the island of Crete, off the southern coast of Greece in the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean has its own unique climate and set of seasons that are very different from those of the northern temperate zone where many of us live. In the northern temperate zone (most of North America, most of Europe, northern-central Asia, and parts of Australia) we have the four seasons most of us learned in school: spring, summer, autumn, winter. But the Mediterranean is different.

In Mediterranean climates (all around the Mediterranean Sea as well as southern California in the U.S., parts of Australia, and parts of southern Africa) there are really only two seasons: wet and dry. The Mediterranean climate is often called a dry-summer climate, and that name tells you how it works. The summer is a dry time, usually with no rain at all. In fact, on Crete, all the smaller creeks dry up entirely and many of the rivers are reduced to little more than a trickle. Plants dry up and turn crispy-brown. In Mediterranean climates, the summer is the "dead time," comparable to winter in the northern temperate zone.

Then, all around the Mediterranean, as summer ends, something magical happens: The rains come. Creeks and rivers fill, plants sprout green again, and the saffron crocus blooms.

The autumn is the beginning of the agricultural cycle in the Mediterranean, the oldest New Year on Crete. It's the time when farmers plow their fields (the soil is now soft after being hard and dry all summer) and plant their crops. Those crops grow throughout the mild, wet winter and are harvested in the spring - yes, this is backwards from the kind of seasonality most of us know. And it's backwards from the way a particular myth is usually told. I'm talking about the story of Demeter and Persephone, the mythical cycle that underpins the famed Eleusinian Mysteries, a series of sacred rites that appear to trace back to Minoan Crete.

The tale of Demeter and Persephone is usually told in terms of a northern temperate zone climate: Hades drags Persephone down to the Underworld during the winter, when the world goes dead as Demeter mourns the loss of her daughter. Then, when Persphone returns to the Upperworld in the spring, life blooms again.

The thing is, this story comes from the Mediterranean, where the seasons are reversed from the northern temperate zone. So if we're going to tell the tale accurately, we need to have Persephone in the Underworld during the summer (the Mediterranean "dead season"). Then she returns to the Upperworld in the autumn, when the rains come and life springs forth again. That version feels very different, doesn't it?

Then, of course, we need to name the characters differently, with Ariadne as the Underworld Queen and Rhea as her mother. In the pre-partriarchal culture of Minoan-era Crete, we can envision Ariadne descending voluntarily to the Underworld to guide and care for the ancestors. It's her job, after all: She's the Queen Bee, the head of the Melissae who are the ancestral bee-spirit goddesses. Of course, Rhea misses her during the summer, when everything is all dried up and dead, and rejoices when her daughter returns. There's a beautiful, poetic version of this tale in Charlene Spretnak's book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece.

 

Seal from Thisbe showing goddess rising from the Underworld

 

So our beloved Ariadne returns to the Upperworld, the dead season ends, and the rains begin. And the saffron crocus blooms. What more fitting way to thank and honor the goddess for her gift of returning life than to collect those beautiful red stigmas, the sacred herb that seasons food (maybe special saffron bread to offer to her?) and eases menstrual cramps. She has given us this gift, and many others. Let us cherish them.

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; one of my most recent works 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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