For us modern folks, it can be hard to understand the worldview of ancient people. They didn't know about outer space or the heliocentric view of the solar system, but they did their best to understand the world given the information they had at hand. In fact, the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Europe didn't even think of the sky as a separate realm the way Indo-European cultures did. So what does that mean in terms of the way the Minoans viewed the cosmos?
You're probably familiar with the three-worlds cosmos that many pre-Christian Indo-European cultures had. The Norse version is especially popular, given that J.R.R. Tolkien adapted it for his own imaginary world. In the three-worlds view, the 'top' or upper world is the sky; the middle realm is the Earth and the area right above it where people and animals live; and the lower realm is beneath the Earth - the Underworld.
The ancient Minoans had a lot of opportunities for what I like to call Big Ritual. The priesthood of the temples at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakro put on Mystery plays for the public, enacting stories from Minoan mythology at the solstice and equinoxes as well as at other festival dates. The cave shrines and peak sanctuaries were staffed by priestesses and priests who provided ceremonies for the public at the sacred times throughout the year. The more important inhabitants of the towns even had the prospect of attending large rituals within the temples themselves. But we modern folks don’t generally have access to that sort of event.
Sure, we have our altars and shrines at home, just as the Minoans and other ancient peoples did. But sitting in meditation with an altar is its own special kind of activity and doesn’t push the same buttons, if you see what I mean, as Big Ritual does.
When I tell people I follow a Minoan spiritual path, one comment that regularly comes up involves “those massive double-axe weapons.” Sometimes Wiccans will compare the labrys to the athame or the coven sword – a strong, sharp weapon that’s meant to signify the practitioner’s will, strength, passion and so on. But that’s not an accurate comparison. Yes, there have been cultures that used double-bladed axes as weapons, and very effective ones at that. And we know the Minoans made all sorts of bronze weapons for export; they may have been the world’s first major arms dealers, even though they probably had no military of their own.
But if you look carefully at the actual labyrses found in the ruins on Crete, the first thing you notice is that they’re incredibly flimsy. They are made of sheet metal, either gold or gold-plated, that’s not much thicker than tinfoil. Honestly, you could crumple most of them with your bare hands. That doesn’t strike me as a way to make a weapon.
We like to think of the gods as having always existed, time out of mind. In one sense they are timeless, of course, but in another sense they are closely linked to the cultures and societies of specific eras. It’s important to know when each deity ‘showed up’ and in what culture they did so, in order to understand which versions of the myths are the original ones and which are later alterations.
That’s right, later cultures came along and changed the earlier versions of myths, in most cases because they were taking over a society and wanted to downplay or even demonize its deities in favor of their own. You may be familiar with the way the writers of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) depicted Asherah, Ba’al and other Middle Eastern deities as evil demons. You may also have heard about the ways the medieval Christian church condemned the European Pagan gods as evil spirits in the cases where they couldn’t manage to transform them into local saints. Well, these kinds of propaganda weren’t invented by the Judeo-Christian world; they’ve been going on as long as there have been people and pantheons.
A few weeks back I had a lovely chat with Goddess Spirituality leader Karen Tate on her radio show. We talked about Minoan Paganism in particular and the ancient Minoans in general. One issue that came up in the conversation was where, in the timeline of the ancient world, the Minoans fit. Many people seem to think they came after the Greeks and copied much of the Greek pantheon, but the truth is actually the other way around. All those ancient cultures are so far removed from us in time that it can be difficult to get a mental picture of how they all fit together. So I thought I’d tease out some of the details and help you picture the world of the ancient Minoans – not just Crete but all the cultures and civilizations that were alive and kicking at that time.
I apologize for going all History Teacher on you here, but I’m going to start with some dates, just for reference. I promise I won’t throw too many numbers at you. Though the island of Crete has been inhabited since prehistoric times, what we think of as Minoan civilization didn’t arise until around 3500 BCE; at that point the people had farms, towns and tombs but no big buildings. The heyday of the Minoans with the big temples, the fancy tech (enclosed sewers, flushing commodes, multi-story buildings) and the beautiful artwork ran for just a few centuries, from about 1900 to 1400 BCE. After that, the culture declined, the Mycenaean Greeks took over the political arena and the civilization that we think of as Minoan pretty much ceased to exist. You can thank a combination of natural disasters, encroaching Greeks and pure bad luck for their cultural demise.
You’ve probably seen those memes that depict the many deities whose birthdays coincide with Christmas and whose attributes are startlingly similar to Jesus’. Please understand, I have no quarrel with Jesus, though I could do without some of his followers. He is one of a long line of gods who remind us that there is light within the darkness, that all cycles turn and renew, and that mindfulness and compassion go a long way toward curing the ills of this world. But he’s not the only one with those attributes, and in fact, he’s not the only one celebrated at this time of year, either, as you might have guessed.
Let me introduce you to another god who is born at Midwinter; perhaps you will enjoy his company as much as I do. He has much to teach, for those who have the patience to listen.
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.