Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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Topless Minoan Women: Not What You Think

The modern Pagan world is awash in womb symbolism and I can’t say I mind. After all, the feminine side of the Divine has been almost entirely ignored by the major religions of the past few centuries. OK, millennia. But the ancients didn’t always focus on the womb as the central symbol of the feminine, either divine or mundane. Take, for instance, the Minoans and their reverence for the breast.

You’re probably familiar with the frescoes and figurines from ancient Crete that depict women in open-front tops that display their breasts for all to see. We modern folks may feel that the exposed breasts found throughout ancient Minoan art are provocative, but the Minoans probably didn’t feel that way. Just as the Victorians found women’s legs to be terribly sexy simply because they were normally covered and hidden, we respond the same way to women’s breasts. But in Minoan society women frequently went topless, just as men did, so that would have been an ordinary sight, and of course ancient women nursed their babies so that would have been common and not provocative or controversial either. It would not have been sexy so much as normal.

But when the priestesses of ancient Crete bared their breasts in a ritual setting, that may have had deeper meaning as well. We think its purpose was to remind everyone of the role that human and animal mothers play in the nurturing of their offspring, and thus of the way in which the Great Mother nourishes us all.

Yes, the sacred caves on Crete can be thought of as the womb of the great Earth Mother Goddess Rhea. Dionysus, Orion, and other gods were born out of those caves. The caves were important enough that the later Greeks even claimed that their own god Zeus was born in one of them.

But we also have the Milky Way, that pale white spattery streak across the sky that's visible to those of us who are lucky enough not to be stuck in light-polluted areas. Many ancient cultures, including the Minoans, believed the Milky Way was formed when the Great Mother’s milk spurted in response to her baby’s crying (believe me, this actually happens in real life to nursing mothers). On Crete, that Great Mother was Rhea and her baby was the infant god Dionysus.

In addition to the topless female figures, Minoan art offers other representations of the nurturing of a nursing mother. There’s a lovely sculptured faience plaque of a goat suckling her kid; the artist depicted the animals with great precision and grace. On one level this is just a beautiful representation of mother-nurture in the natural world, but on another level it may be a depiction of the goat-goddess Amalthea, Rhea’s alter-ego who nursed the infant Dionysus.

faience plaque from Knossos goat mother and kid

One of my favorite ways Minoan artists portrayed the nurturing and nourishing qualities of the Great Mother was through some interesting pitchers called breast rhytons. These pitchers were made to look like women and were designed so the liquid poured out through the breasts on the front of the pitcher. These breast rhytons were likely used to pour ritual libations, both to ask Rhea for favors and to thank her for her generous gifts.

Rhyton from Mochlos

There’s another, equally important symbol in Minoan art that’s directly associated with the breast and nurturing, though the connection might not be immediately obvious to modern folks. When you think of the great temple-palace at Knossos, what kind of image do you see in your mind’s eye? What symbol decorates the tops of all the walls? That’s right, the giant sacred horns. Bear with me for a bit and I’ll explain.

Horns at Knossos

These days, when we envision cattle, we tend to think of bulls as having horns and cows as being hornless. But it hasn’t always been that way. All cattle – both male and female – originally had horns. In fact, that was the case until just over a century ago. When ranchers began crowding cattle together in small enclosures the horns became a danger so they began the practice of polling the cattle, either surgically removing the horns or breeding them out. But back in ancient Crete, horns symbolized the cow just as often as they did the bull.

The Minoans' neighbors to the south, the Egyptians, placed beautifully-curving cow horns (NOT bull horns) on Hathor’s head to show that she was a source of nurture and nourishment. The Minoans likewise created depictions of the Moon-Cow, whom the Greeks later called Europa or Pasiphae. The horns atop the shrines and temple walls in ancient Crete are just as likely to connote the Moon-Cow as they are the Moon-Bull (the famed and much-maligned Minotauros). The ancient Minoans created many rhytons (pitchers) shaped like horned bovine heads, designed so the liquid pours out the mouth. Some of these look like cow heads, and some look like bull heads; you'll find examples of both here. Some don't have enough distinctive features to allow us to determine whether they're meant to be male or female (or both or neither). The ones that look like cows, not bulls, bear obvious symbolism about nurturing and nourishing. If you had a pitcher that looked like a cow's head and someone poured milk out of it, what would that make you think of?

Bovine head rhyton

I really like the idea of the Great Mother nourishing us all and I find beauty in the images the ancient Minoans used to convey this idea. We all come from mothers and all of us – women and men both – can use Rhea’s example to inspire us so that we can nurture and nourish each other, both literally and figuratively, throughout our lives.

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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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