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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The Minoan Threefold Goddess: The Great Mothers

The Triple Goddess is a major component of modern Paganism, but the Maiden-Mother-Crone triplicity doesn't appear in ancient Crete. The closest we can come to that kind of "life phases" division is a Younger and Elder Goddess, exemplified by Rhea (the Great Mother) and Ariadne (the daughter). This mother-daughter duo is the possible origin of the Eleusinian Mysteries, whose sacred pair of Demeter and Persephone are well known in the modern Pagan world (check out Charlene Spretnak's inspired book Lost Goddesses of Early Greece for more on this subject). I like to think of this twofold goddess as Maiden and Matriarch, the two stages of womanhood in a society in which women's ability to birth children for men wasn't their primary function in life.

But there is a Minoan triplicity associated with the Goddess. It doesn't have to do with the life stages and fertility functions of women, but with the world around us and how the Sacred Feminine manifests in it. It's the ancient threefold division of Land/Sea/Sky. This triplicity unfolds around each and every one of us every day of our lives.

The Land portion of this trio is Rhea, the Earth Mother Goddess of the ancient Minoans. Like Earth Mother goddesses from other cultures, she is the land itself - her body is the island of Crete - the Earth from which all life springs. If you think about it, the landscape "parents" each and every one of us in many ways. As our bodies renew our cells one by one, the material of our physical being is replaced by the material of the landscape in which we live: We become one with the Mother.

I've always loved what medieval visionary Hildegard of Bingen wrote about the Earth as Sacred Mother. I use these lines sometimes in ritual that focuses on Rhea:

Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthly...

The earth is at the same time mother,

She is the mother of all that is natural,

mother of all that is human.

She is the mother of all,

for contained in her

are the seeds of all.

 

The Sea is a natural focus for the people who live on an island like Crete. It's the second part of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity. The Minoans built their civilization on trade, sailing their ships all around the Mediterranean and to points beyond, asking the goddess Posidaeja for her blessing as they rode the waves. Posidaeja's name is attested in the Linear B tablets. We can't know for certain whether that particular name goes all the way back to the beginnings of Minoan society, but it's a good bet the sea was always important in Minoan spirituality. It does look very much like the Greeks gave Posidaeja a mythological sex change operation and ended up with their sea-god Poseidon.

The sea penetrated all aspects of Minoan life and art. I love the squiggly octopi and other sea life on Minoan marine style pottery - the realism of Minoan art always takes my breath away. Throughout the ruins of Minoan temples, cities, and towns, archaeologists have found shrines and altars filled with real seashells as well as reproductions made from stone and ceramic. We even find triton shells depicted on Minoan seals.

 

The third aspect of the triplicity is Sky, but here's where things get a little fuzzy. The Minoans don't appear to have had a sky deity in the same the way that the Indo-Europeans, Mongolians, and other plains-dwelling people did. Or at least, if they had a sky goddess, we haven't found her yet. The same goes for a sun goddess. The Minoans traded with people who had sun goddesses: the Egyptians, the Hittites. But we have yet to find the name of a Minoan sun goddess, if there was one, or find any clear indication of her in Minoan art.

What we do have, though, is goddesses coming down from above (from the sky or perhaps from a mountaintop, the place where the Earth meets the sky) . These "floating figures" show up on Minoan seal rings, in pictures where people are performing rituals, usually in front of a shrine.

And we also have a name: Ourania. Like other deities from the Minoan pantheon (Ariadne, Minos, and so on), Ourania was "demoted" in later Greek mythology. Ariadne, Minos, and others became mere mortals. Ourania dropped from goddess to simple muse. But her function among the muses betrays her original position: She's the muse of astronomy. And we think she was originally something far greater, the Great Cosmic Mother.

Ourania's name is also related to Uranus, one of the primal gods of mainland Greece. He's the father of the Titans, the deities of the indigenous inhabitants of Greece (often called Pelasgians) who lived there before the Indo-European Greeks arrived. The Minoans were also a pre-Indo-European people, so it's possible that their Ourania and the Pelasgians' Uranus come from some Neolithic precursor deity. Personally, I'd guess that if there were an original, it would have been a goddess and not a god: The goddess self-creating all of existence without the need for a mate is an ancient and powerful paradigm.

[UPDATE: In the months since I originally wrote this post, we have discovered (rediscovered?) the Minoan sun goddess Therasia. She fits neatly and happily into the sky portion of the Land/Sea/Sky triplicity and is now the goddess we call on in that capacity. You can see how we address these goddesses in Modern Minoan Paganism ritual in this blog post.]

The members of the Minoan pantheon don't fit neatly into a human-style family tree the way some pantheons do. Still, in order to relate to them, it's helpful to anthropomorphize them a bit (or gynopomorphize, I suppose, in the case of goddesses!). I've often thought of the Minoan Land/Sea/Sky triplicity in terms of generations or emanations. If I had to enter the names in a family tree, I'd say Rhea is Mother Earth, Posidaeja is Grandmother Ocean, and Ourania is Grandmother of the Grandmothers, Great Cosmic Mother-of-All.

But I've recently come to another way of thinking about them and relating to them. Land, sea, and sky exist all at once, together, timeless... and so the goddesses as well. I often think of my own ancestors as the Mothers or the Grandmothers, the Ones out of whom all the people arose. And so I've begun to think about the Minoan Triplicity in a similar fashion. Mother Earth. Mother Ocean. Mother Cosmos.

The Mothers.

 

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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