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 an independent polytheist spiritual tradition that brings the gods and goddesses of the ancient Minoans alive in the modern world. We're a revivalist tradition, not a reconstructionist one; we rely heavily on shared gnosis and the practical realities of Paganism in the modern world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

Find out all about Modern Minoan Paganism on our website: https://ariadnestribe.wordpress.com/. We're a welcoming tradition, open to all who share our love for the Minoan deities and respect for our fellow human beings.

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The Mysteries of Minoan Writing

One of the reasons we call Modern Minoan Paganism a revivalist tradition instead of a reconstructionist one is that, unlike many reconstructionist Pagan traditions, we don't have any ancient texts to work from. Yes, the ancient Minoans were a literate society, but so far all of their scripts and writing systems are untranslated.

Take, for instance, the cup pictured at the top of this post. This is a photo from Sir Arthur Evans' monumental multi-volume work Palace of Minos, a record of his excavations at Knossos (now in the public domain). The artifact in the photo is a terracotta cup with writing on the interior in what may very well be squid ink. That writing is in the script rather unimaginatively known as Linear A, and it's still undeciphered.

We find Linear A writing not just on objects like cups, ladles, and libation tables (in which case the writing may be sacred and/or magical) but also on clay tablets that were used to keep accounting records at the Minoan temples. They look like this one, which is from the Archaeological Museum of Sitia, Crete:

Linear A Tablet
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Linear A writing dates from 1800 to 1450 BCE, so it was in use for several centuries. But around 1450 BCE it suddenly disappeared and was replaced by Linear B, which we can read. But Linear B doesn't record the Minoan language. Instead, it records Mycenaean Greek. In fact, it looks very much like the Mycenaeans took Linear A and adapted it to their own language - or perhaps they had Minoan scribes do the job for them. Either way, Linear B came into use when Linear A disappeared and kept on, both on Crete and at several sites in mainland Greece, until around 1200 BCE. At that point, the chaos of the Bronze Age collapse led to the end of literacy (for the time being) in Crete and mainland Greece.

As you can see, Linear B looks very much like Linear A. The relationship between them is similar to the relationship between the Cyrillic script (used to write Russian) and the Greek alphabet, from which the Cyrillic alphabet was developed. This Linear B tablet is from the Archaeological Museum of Mycenae:

Linear B Tablet
Image CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We can read Linear B (more or less - there's still argument over the translation of some words), but it dates to the Mycenaean occupation of Crete: not a pretty time - it ended in the wholesale destruction of all the major cities in Crete except Knossos. So while the Linear B tablets tell us something about how the temples at Knossos and a few sites in mainland Greece received offerings and kept livestock and land, they don't tell us what went on in the rest of Crete, or what life in the temples was like under purely Minoan direction.

Interestingly, none of the Linear A or Linear B tablets were meant to be permanent records. They were accidentally fired when the cities burned down. But for ordinary use, it looks very much like the tablets were written on, then wiped clean and re-used, probably many times. The Minoans also wrote on papyrus; clay nodule type seals have been found with impressions of folded papyrus on them. But obviously papyrus doesn't survive fire, and it doesn't tend to survive millennia in a damp environment either, so we'll probably never know the extent of Minoan writings on that substrate. The tablets are clearly accounting and inventory records, but it's possible there was actual literature written on papyrus.

But wait - it gets even more complicated: Linear A isn't the only Minoan script! There are at least three more attested writing systems from Minoan Crete. But we can't read any of them. Don't believe any outlandish claims you might find online - no one has miraculously translated any of them, I promise.

What are these mysterious scripts?

To me, the most interesting one is Cretan hieroglyphs. In use from about 2100 to 1700 BCE (overlapping with Linear A for a century or so), Cretan hieroglyphs appear to have been inspired at least in part by Egyptian hieroglyphs. So far, over 100 individual signs have been identified.

Cretan hieroglyphs show up on clay tags and bars that were used for inventory purposes in the Minoan temples. Here are some from Knossos:

Cretan hieroglyphs
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

They also appear carved into stone seals like this green jasper one, now in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum:

Minoan stone seal
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The two remaining writing systems are a bit more tentative and unusual, but that's mainly because we only have one example of each. If some lucky archaeologist eventually turns up more artifacts with these signs on them, then we'll be onto something. But for now, there's just one Phaistos disc:

Phaistos Disc
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This fascinating one-of-a-kind artifact was once thought to be a forgery, and there's still argument about its age: it could date to anywhere from 1850 to 1200 BCE. Both sides of this purposely-fired clay disc were stamped with symbols carved in some kind of hard substance like stone or wood. There are 45 unique symbols stamped in spiraling patterns for a total of 242 imprints.

There are lots of theories about the nature of the disc (I have my own, of course), but until we find more of this symbol set, we're stuck. There's a hard mathematical limit to decipherment, and until and unless we have the minimum amount of text, not even a computer program can tell us what the disc says. However, I have hope that we will find more discs. It must have taken a very long time to carve all those tiny stamps, so I can't imagine that effort was used to make just one measly disc (it's really quite small, not much bigger than the palm of my hand). The disc was fired on purpose to preserve it, so I bet there are more of them out there, just waiting to be discovered.

The other bit of unique script we have comes from the Minoan-era votive offerings in the Arkalochori cave on Crete. Among the hundreds of bronze blades and gold and silver labryses, there was also a large bronze labrys dubbed the Arkalochori Axe. It has an inscription running vertically along the center:

Arkalochori Axe
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Though a few of the symbols on the Arkalochori Axe look similar to ones on the Phaistos disc, others don't match at all. And since these are one-of-a-kind objects, we really can't tell whether the signs on them are part of a larger script system that was used for actual writing, or whether they're meant as magical symbols like some of the Renaissance-era magical alphabets. It's a mystery - and a fascinating one, at that.

So there you have it: a literate society whose writing we can't read, and a revivalist Pagan tradition that has to rely on anything and everything except text to build our spiritual practice. It's a challenge, but it's one we think is worth it.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.

 

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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