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Thanksgiving - Minoan Style

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Thursday is the holiday of Thanksgiving where I live in the U.S. As these things go, it’s a relatively modern one, instituted in the nineteenth century to help bring the nation back together after the Civil War (and please, let’s set aside the horrid historical revisionism about the Pilgrims and the native North American nations for the moment – I’m aware that many people choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving because of this issue). But the concepts on which Thanksgiving is founded are ancient. Essentially, it is the American harvest festival. And some of us find sacredness in that fact.

Across the world and throughout time, virtually every agrarian society instituted some sort of religious festival to celebrate the completion of the harvest. In many cases, these celebrations included the honoring of the Ancestors, both those recently deceased and those long gone. The Minoans were no different from any other ancient culture in this regard.

The ancient Minoans lived on the island of Crete, just south of Greece, where they experienced a Mediterranean climate. This meant that their ‘dead season’ happened in the heat of Summer, which amounts to practically a drought in much of the area bordering the Mediterranean Sea. The plants in the region turned crispy-brown and mostly-dead (though it didn’t take a pill from Miracle Max to revive them). The rains came, as they still do, in the early Autumn and refreshed the countryside. At this point the people prepared their fields and planted their crops.

Many of us in the northern temperate zones (North America and northern Europe) think of Winter as the dead time, but around the Mediterranean this is actually the growing season for many people. The crops do their thing throughout the Winter months and come Spring they’re ready for harvest. That’s right, the ancient Minoans held their harvest festival in the Spring. At Spring Equinox, to be exact. In fact, this particular celebration is one of the earliest activities we’re able to date on Crete.

From the time of the fourth millennium BCE, possibly earlier, the Minoans held great feasts at harvest time. After all, when you have all that food freshly brought in from the fields, what else are you going to do? They also took this time to honor their Ancestors, so they held the feasts on the plazas in front of the beehive-shaped tholos tombs that housed the bones of the dead. I suspect they considered the deceased to have returned to the Earth after death, thus being in a position to help the living grow successful crops. This sort of animistic view was widespread in the ancient world.

What did the Minoans eat at their harvest festival? Not turkey and stuffing, that’s for certain; the turkey is native to the Americas and wouldn’t enter the European diet for centuries yet. But they had grain – barley and early forms of wheat – and made loaves of bread from it in a variety of shapes. They ate lentils and other pulses (seeds from the pea part of the legume family) as well as the meat of the goats they raised. Over the years they built orchards and added olives, grapes and other fruits to their feast. When their livestock expanded to include sheep, cattle and hogs, those meats were added into the menu. They seasoned their food with salt from the sea and herbs native to the Mediterranean – thyme, oregano, basil. In spite of their proximity to the sea, the Minoans don’t seem to have included fish or other seafood in their harvest feasts, though they ate it in abundance for ordinary meals. And of course, they drank wine, lots of wine, toasting the success of the harvest and thanking the Ancestors for their assistance with the year’s crops.

What started as a casual gathering around the tombs when the early settlements were sparse eventually grew into a formal ritual held in special shrines by the people who lived in the towns. The temples and the larger private homes had special rooms called dining shrines where they ate the specially-prepared meals at harvest-time and perhaps other times of year as well. The image at the top of this blog post is my line drawing of a figurine that represents one of these dining shrines. Made of pottery, it was placed in a Minoan grave near the town of Kamilari in southern Crete many centuries ago, perhaps as a way of included the deceased in the festivities.

Much like we do with our Thanksgiving dinners, the Minoans brought out their special-occasion cups and bowls and cooked foods reserved for this particular event. Using recipes and dishes that are kept separate for the harvest festival, whether it’s modern Thanksgiving or the ancient Minoan feast, is what helps make it feel sacred. Just as your grandmother might make her secret dressing recipe just for Thanksgiving, the Minoans baked special loaves for their harvest festival. In fact, they even commemorated this act in the form of a figurine buried in the same cemetery as the dining shrine figurine pictured above.

Kamilari bread maker

Whether or not you celebrate Thanksgiving, you might consider serving a special meal, a modern harvest festival of sorts. You don’t have to wield a scythe in the wheat fields or dig potatoes with your bare hands to appreciate the effort that goes into the growing of your food. Likewise, you don’t have to visit the tomb of your ancestors in order to recognize that we wouldn’t have such plenty if it weren’t for the efforts and struggles of thousands of generations before us. If you wanted to cook a meal that represented that effort and those struggles, what dishes would you prepare? Who would you invite to share it with you? To whom would you give thanks?

When you have answered those questions, you have already begun to connect with the worldview of the Minoans all those centuries ago. We are all connected – the living, the dead, the plants, the animals – through the Earth, whom the Minoans revered as the Great Mother Rhea. We are one. We give thanks.

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 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, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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