Mystery plays were a big part of life in the ancient world, when people’s seasonal work was punctuated throughout the year by sacred festivals of all sorts. What on earth is a mystery play? It’s not a whodunit, like a modern murder mystery. In the case of mystery plays, the word takes on an older meaning. My dictionary defines it as ‘a religious truth that man can know by revelation alone,’ in other words, something you have to experience yourself rather than just being told about it. And that’s what mystery plays are all about: letting you have the experience of the gods, the myths, the sacred, right there in your own life. A mystery isn’t just something you experience; it changes you from the inside out.
The modern world still has mystery plays of a sort. The ‘living nativity scene’ that some Christian churches put on around Christmas is a snapshot or tidbit of a mystery play and those huge Passion of Christ productions are the full-scale deal, a mystery play about the Christian festival of Easter.. But for most people these days, I suspect the movies largely take the place of the old mystery plays, allowing us to roll ourselves up emotionally in the stories that make up the mythology of the modern world: superheroes, science fiction, fantasy.
In my last post I explored the Minoan sacral knot, a religious symbol from ancient Crete that consisted of a length of fabric knotted together with a loop at the top. But the sacral knot isn’t the only instance of knotwork in Minoan religious iconography. And while the sacral knot may be related to the Egyptian tyet (Isis’ symbol), these other knots are more closely allied with snakes.
When Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos more than a century ago, one of the objects he found was a figurine of a woman covered in snakes (photo at the top of this post). They twine around her hat, down her chest and arms, and around her belly. The snakes that cross her belly form a large knot that’s a prominent feature on the figurine. Evans was intrigued by this knot, even going as far as researching whether snakes in the wild ever tie themselves into knots. For the record, blindworms do, but they’re not true snakes, though the Minoans might not have been able to tell the difference.
We hear a lot about libations in various Pagan traditions. A libation is simply an offering of a liquid, poured out in either a casual or formal ritual setting. A casual example would be the nights my friends and family gather around the fire out in our orchard to celebrate the seasons. Once the fire is lit, I pour out the first bit of my drink (usually homemade mead) in thanks to the spirits of the land, my ancestors and the divine in general. A more formal example might be the pouring out of wine onto the ground or into a bowl during a Wiccan Sabbat ceremony as an offering to the Lord and Lady.
The word ‘libation’ often conjures up the image of an alcoholic beverage being offered – wine, mead, even beer in some contexts. But any liquid can be used for libations. I offer water to the land spirits where I live every morning. It is, after all, the liquid that is the base of life on Earth. We can be pretty sure the ancient Minoans offered wine and perhaps beer as well, in keeping with the spiritual and cultural traditions of the ancient world. But I think they also offered milk. Yes, you read that right. Milk.
Recent headlines in the international press announced that the enigmatic language of the ancient Cretan “Phaistos Disk” has been translated—in part—by the Welch-Cretan scholar Gareth Owens. Owens states that the Phaistos Disk records an ancient hymn to a Mother Goddess. More specifically he claims that one side is dedicated to a Pregnant Goddess and the other to a Birth-Giving Goddess.
The Labyrinth may be the most well-known and widespread symbol to come out of ancient Minoan spirituality, but it is a static image. What if it were to come alive, to move, to dance? It did so on ancient Crete, and it still does today in Greek folk dances. And the motions of this sinuous dance have many layers of meaning. Let’s explore some of them. Maybe we’ll be inspired to set our own feet moving.
The Labyrinth-in-motion I’m talking about is known as the Crane Dance or Geranos Dance (the word geranos is Greek for ‘crane’ – the bird, not the construction equipment). The Greeks immortalized it in their version of the Theseus myth. You’ve probably heard the tale of Theseus traveling to Crete as one of the fourteen Athenian youths who were the tribute (that is, the sacrifice) to King Minos and his horrible monster, the Minotaur. The king’s daughter Ariadne gives him a ball of yarn by which he marks his path into the Labyrinth, then uses it to find his way out again after slaying the Minotaur. Having accomplished his heroic goal, he rescues the youths and returns home to Athens. That’s the short version, but it leaves out something Theseus does on the way home.
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.
Joy of Life in Ancient Crete w/Carol Christ& Matthew Fox on Meister Echhart
Scholar, author and foremother, Carol Christ joins us tonight to discuss The Goddess and the Joy of Life in Ancient Crete. We'll delve into new research on matriarchies, the difference from patriarchy, define "love is free" in matriarchal societies and chat about Crete being a "gift giving" society. We'll talk about ancient rituals on Crete, redefine patriarchal myths and discuss the "immanental turn" in feminist theologies - and more.....