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Minos the Moon God?

We call the people of ancient Crete Minoans thanks to the whim of the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, the man who excavated Knossos over a century ago. He knew the Hellenic Greek myth of King Minos of Crete, took it for historical fact, and named the civilization after the king: Minoan. The thing is, Minos was originally a god, not a historical king.

Of course, it’s possible that priests in ancient Crete took the name or title Minos when they took on certain sacred and/or administrative responsibilities. Some people call these men priest-kings, though I’m not sure the term is terribly accurate, since none of them ever "ruled" (if they did such a thing) more than just a single Minoan city and its surrounding area; ancient Crete didn't have a unified, island-wide government during Minoan times. And it’s probable that priestesses as well as priests took part in the governing of the temple complexes and the cities.

So let's back up a bit. Minos was a god in Minoan times. His fame endured for centuries after Minoan civilization died out, to the point that writers like Thucydides, Homer, Pausanias, Herodotus, Strabo and Virgil felt his story was worth telling. And the story was of a god, though it was couched in the same kinds of quasi-historical terms that many myths are. I suspect one aspect that people found confusing, as to whether Minos was a mortal or a god, is that he was depicted as dying in most of these stories. But this is nothing new: Dionysos also dies each year and is reborn. The cyclical resurrection of gods and goddesses is a commonplace in mythology and isn't meant to be taken in the same way as human death (more on that issue here).

So what’s Minos’ story? It’s a little confusing, but I’ll do my best to tease it out from the multiple versions that have come down to us from different sources and cultures, each with its own agenda. It’s also helpful to keep in mind that the relationships within the Minoan pantheon isn't a clear-cut as, say, the Greek or Roman ones. The Minoan deities don’t fit neatly into a human-style family tree, much as we might like them to.

There are two main aspects to Minos’ story that appear to go all the way back to Crete (as opposed to the Theseus bits, and possibly also the Daedalus portions of the story, that were added centuries later by the mainland Greeks). 1: Minos was a lawgiver and  2: he periodically died and descended to the Underworld. These two aspects – lawgiver and cyclical death and resurrection – are parts of the same process in the tale of Minos.

The basic story says that Minos lived or reigned at Knossos for 9 years, then returned to Rhea’s cave or the Underworld (they’re effectively the same thing in symbolic terms), where he received the laws he used as the Lawgiver. Some versions of the myth say that these were the laws used to govern ancient Crete, which were subsequently bequeathed to the Greeks as their governing laws. But other versions of the tale say that the laws were the ones Minos used while in the Underworld, to judge the souls of the dead. I suspect this Underworld version is the original story. In this account, on his death Minos returns specifically to the cave on Mt. Ida, which we know was sacred to the Minoan mother goddess Rhea a.k.a. Ida. Strabo said Minos got his laws from Zeus in that cave, but I suspect that originally, those laws came from Rhea herself. And by Zeus, the Greeks meant the Cretan Dionysus. They called him Zeus because he was the top male figure in the Minoan pantheon. They did this consistently with foreign pantheons, equating foreign deities with their own and subbing their own names.

The thing I find most interesting is that Minos is linked with the moon in several different ways. The first is the length of his death-and-rebirth cycle: 9 years. Every 9th year, he descended to the Underworld, and in the later Greek version, every 9th year he demanded 14 youth from Athens as a sacrifice. This 9 year cycle is an example of inclusive counting, a technique used across the ancient world that causes confusion for those of us who count beginning at zero. If Minos returned to the Underworld every 9th year, this means his cycle was 8 years long. So what’s the significance of that?

We know the Minoans were efficient astronomers, keeping track of the cycles of the sun, moon, planets, and a number of different stars. They oriented their temples, shrines, and peak sanctuaries to particular astronomical events and they created stone calendars (called kernoi by archaeologists who thought they were intended for receiving libations) to keep track of the complex relationships of the different astronomical cycles. One of the most important cycle sets the Minoans kept track of was the solar/lunar/Venus cycle: 8 solar years = 99 lunations = 5 complete Venus cycles. Every 9th solar year, this important cycle begins again. The 9th-year issue suggests Minos is associated with the Minoan sacred calendar. But why is he linked to the moon and not the sun?

Many people, from scholars and academics to mystics and practicing Pagans, believe the ancient Minoans had a sun goddess and a moon good, just like other ancient Mediterranean cultures of the time. [UPDATE: We've reconnected with the Minoan sun goddess as Therasia.] One of the most ancient symbols used to represent the moon is horns, which look like the crescent phases of the moon. Horned animals have been sacred to the moon since the Paleolithic era. And Minos is, obviously, associated with a specific type of horned animal: cattle.

Some versions of his story say that he's the son of Zeus (Dionysus) and Europa, the Moon-Cow goddess. The Greeks said Zeus captured Europa and carried her off to Crete, but we know that Dionysus started out on Crete, and if Europa wasn't originally from Crete, she was certainly from the eastern Mediterranean cultural sphere. Minos was also said to have been raised by Asterion (funny how the gods so often foist their children off on others to raise). Now, Asterion is considered by many people to be another name for the Minotaur, the Moon-Bull, so there’s yet another connection between Minos and the Horned Ones. (A few thoughts about who Asterion really is here.)

And then there’s this interesting bit about Minos: He had two brothers, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon (or in some versions, Aeacus). They all have pretty much the same characteristics (children of Dionysus and Europa, became judges in the Underworld every 9th year) so it looks like they’re not so much individual characters as a triplicity. This makes sense for a moon god, who has three main aspects: waxing, full, and waning (the new moon is an empty space – no moon, no face). And of course, it looks like the moon disappears into the Underworld, or into a cave, once a lunation. But every 9th year, something really special happens – the interlocking of three different astronomical cycles that determined part of the Minoan sacred calendar. It makes sense that Minos would be viewed as a lawgiver if he was part of that sacred cycle, that sequence of motions in the heavens that the Minoans counted on to determine when to time the holiest of days in their religious calendar.

I have to wonder about his role in the Underworld, too. I suspect there’s a connection between his function there and Ariadne’s yearly return around the autumn equinox, bringing the rains with her so the Minoans could begin their agricultural year (the Mediterranean ‘dead time’ is the summer, not the winter – grain crops grow during the mild, wet winter). There's probably a link there with the Eleusinian Mysteries, which may have begun on Crete, and hence a link between Minos and the Greek god Hades. But that’s another post, for another time.

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.

Comments

  • Thesseli
    Thesseli Wednesday, 22 July 2015

    Very interesting!

  • Corvia Blackthorn
    Corvia Blackthorn Thursday, 23 July 2015

    Very interesting indeed, thank you!

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