Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan pantheon. Modern Minoan Paganism is not a 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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Faking History: Minoan Spirituality on the Line

Figuring out ancient people's spiritual practices is hard. Even if we have written records that they've left us, they're not around any more to tell us how to interpret them. And in the case of the ancient Minoans, we can't read what they wrote, so all we have to go on is archaeological finds. And if those archaeological finds aren't genuine, then what we figure out about their spirituality may be wrong as well.

That beautiful ivory-and-gold snake goddess at the top of this post is probably a forgery. A century ago, when Sir Arthur Evans excavated the temple complex at Knossos, the world went "Minoan crazy." Museums clamored for items to display to bring in bigger and bigger crowds, and many unscrupulous folks were more than happy to oblige. This one's probably a forgery, too, based on carbon-14 dating:

 

Minoan ivory snake goddess

 

In the early 20th century, hundreds of fake Minoan artifacts circulated among museums and private collections. Even some of the archaeologists themselves got in on the act, which is a shame, but I understand the pressure to provide 'shiny' items for museums and to produce enough interesting finds to keep the funding coming so you don't risk having your dig shut down. Snake goddess figurines are so much more captivating than old stone blocks and bits of broken pottery, aren't they?

The problem is, all these fakes make it difficult to reconstruct exactly what a real Minoan shrine might have looked like - what the people actually put on the altars in their homes, in the cave and peak sanctuaries, and the temples. Since we don't have written records from the Minoans, we have to build up a picture of their religion from the artifacts, and that means sifting out the fakes, which can be incredibly difficult.

The snake goddess is iconic of Minoan civilization, but did you know that these are the only snake goddess figurines we can be sure are genuine?

 

Minoan snake goddesses at Iraklion Museum

 

We know these are the real thing because we know where they came from, what layer of the ruins at Knossos they were dug up from. That's called provenance - the record of where an item is from. A lot of forgeries have stories like "a local kid found it while playing in the ruins" or something of that sort, if they have any kind of background at all.

Even knowing the two snake goddess figurines above are genuine, we can't be sure how they were used. Maybe they were part of a formal ritual and cult practice in the temple complex where they were found. Or maybe they were personal items, owned by a priestess or a scribe or even one of the temple artisans. Many of us who practice modern Minoan Paganism use them to represent Ariadne, the central goddess of our practice. That has meaning for us in the contemporary world, but we can't honestly say we're sure that's how they were used four millennia ago. At least we know they were actually used by the ancient Minoans in one way or another, and maybe one day we'll find more ritual objects - or maybe translate Linear A - so we can better understand their original meaning and use.

I said there were a lot of forgeries floating around in the early 20th century, but the problem hasn't gone away. Many of the early fakes are still around in private collections, or even being auctioned off at Christie's (I feel sorry for whoever forked over $8000+ for this piece - I hope it was worth it to them). Most private owners can't afford expensive scientific dating procedures such as carbon-14 for organic materials like ivory and rehydroxylation dating for ceramics. And there isn't any kind of accurate dating method for metals like bronze, so those are still totally up for speculation. So the one from Christie's that I linked above and this probable forgery that's currently in the Walters Art Museum can't be dated:

 

Bronze snake goddess

 

It's hard enough trying to reconstruct spiritual practices from three or four thousand years ago without having to become an expert in archaeological forgeries. The general public relies on the professionals - the archaeologists and museum curators - to sift out the real from the fake for us. Unfortunately, due to a combination of lack of dating methods plus the pressure to have lots of 'pretties' on display, we're sometimes presented with fakes instead of the real thing. I don't think there's a magic solution to this problem, but it's definitely something to be aware of if you're basing your spirituality on an ancient culture.

I'll leave you with one more piece that's probably a forgery:

 

Terracotta Minoan statue

 

If you'd like to join the discussion about modern Minoan Paganism, head on over to Ariadne's Tribe, our welcoming community of spiritual adventurers.

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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