Travel with me, across the world and back in time, to a Winter Solstice morning in ancient Crete. We are among the special guests, the important members of the community who have been invited to join the priests and priestesses of Knossos to witness a most sacred event. The gathering begins in the darkness before dawn.
The air is crisp and cold as we join the others waiting in silence in the great plaza at the center of the temple. We stand in the dark, pressed close together, listening for that special sound – the blast of the conch shell that announces the first glimmer of the Winter Solstice sunrise over the land to the east. Our breathing generates tiny clouds of steam that are barely visible as the sky begins to lighten from deep black to dark blue. Then, as the first rosy fingers of light stretch up from the horizon, the triton sounds, its call echoing around the stone-paved plaza. Though we are still surrounded by dimness and cannot see the Sun over the tall temple walls, we feel its presence as the process of dawning begins.
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.
I was recently asked, in the Ariadne’s Tribe group, about the apparent predominance of women and goddesses in ancient Minoan religion. After all, the labrys and the Snake Goddess figurines have been hallmarks of the feminist movement for decades. But I’m not sure Minoan spirituality was nearly as overwhelmingly female-centric as it might appear. Before you panic, let me reassure you that the Minoan pantheon was headed by a couple of ‘unmarried’ goddesses who stood alone – Rhea, the Earth Mother who embodied the island of Crete itself and Posidaeja, the Great Mother Ocean. From them descended all the goddesses and gods in the Minoan pantheon. But below their level the pantheon spread out into a collection of deities whose population resembled that of humanity – roughly half female and half male.
One of the reasons Minoan spirituality has an apparently goddess-centric vibe is that the most publicized pieces of art from ancient Crete involve female figures: the Snake Goddess figurines, the central priestess/goddess figure from the Corridor of the Processions fresco. I tend to think these images have captured the imagination of the general public largely because, even today, they’re a bit risque with their brazenly bare breasts. An image of a fully-robed man isn’t nearly as titillating. And of course, for decades it was the men within the archaeological community who decided what to study and what to publicize, hence the preponderance of topless female figures.
I’ve been thinking about the Ancestors a lot lately; it’s that time of year. In fact, they’ve even asserted themselves when I wasn’t seeking them, such as the day I experienced a vision of a Minoan priestess undertaking a rite of prophecy through the ancestral spirits. From the earliest times, the Minoans revered their ancestors. At the Autumn Equinox they held celebrations of the dearly departed, feasting and performing rituals in the shadows of the beehive-shaped tholos tombs where their ancestors’ remains were interred. Some of the tombs had pillar crypts beneath them, providing another place for offerings and communication with the dead.
My own experience with shamanic practice centering on the Ancestors and Minoan spirituality suggests a reason for the beehive shape of these tombs and the connection of the Ancestors with the Bee Goddess. Like many shamanic practitioners, I have experienced a particular sound when I connect with the ancestral spirits, a sort of multi-pitched buzzing that almost exactly reproduces the noise of a hive of swarming bees. And of course, honey being such a delicious prize in cultures that did not yet know how to refine sugar from beets or cane, I can totally relate to the idea of bees being sacred representatives of the Ancestors and, later on, the gods (or goddesses, to be precise). I keep a miniature beehive on my Minoan altar to remind me that the Ancestors were just as much a part of Minoan spirituality as the goddesses and gods.
As we search out a vocabulary of gesture—articulate action—with which to embody our old-new worship, we turn both to the ways of the ancestors and to our own experience.
A gesture of reverence that occurs again and again in the glyptic art of Minoan Crete is the gesture known to scholars as the “Minoan salute.” The worshiper stands before the deity with right fist raised to brow, elbow held high. Generally the left arm is held at the side.
The gesture is clearly a formal act of reverent attention, perhaps of greeting. Sometimes the fist is held with the thumb up, sometimes with the thumb to the brow. The standard reading of the gesture is that the worshiper is shielding his or her eyes from the radiance of the deity. Try it out and see what you think of this interpretation. I do not find it personally convincing because one shades one's eyes with an open hand. This, I suspect, is something else.
Up to now my blog posts here have been mostly about research I've done - information about Minoan deities and spiritual practices, with a few notes from my own practice thrown in for good measure. Today I'm sharing something very different with you. Something very personal.
I've spent a lot of time meditating and doing shamanic journeywork to piece together what I can of Minoan religious practice. Usually I get a few glimpses of something they might have done in the big temples or at the little shrines in their homes. A few days ago I got something I hadn't bargained for - a full-blown vision of an oracular priestess doing her thing. It has taken me some time to process this experience and reach the point that I can comfortably share it with you.
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.