A guest blog by Laura Perry
When Nimue suggested the idea of a guest blog post, I asked her what aspects of modern Minoan Paganism might interest her fellow Druids. Her response was enlightening:
“Probably the main point of commonality with Druidry is that this is a tradition with scant but tantalising evidence, parts of which was recorded by its oppressors.”
I hadn’t really thought about Druidry in that light before, but of course it’s true. Caesar wasn’t exactly a warm supporter of the Druids, was he? And the Hellenic Greeks weren’t terribly fond of the Minoans either, except when they could scrape up a few bits of Minoan mythology to give their own culture the patina of age.
Let’s start with the basics. The ancient Minoans were a civilization that spread across the island of Crete, just south of Greece in the Mediterranean, beginning in the Neolithic era, about 6000-5000 BCE. The main run of Minoan society flourished during the Bronze Age from about 3500 to 1400 BCE, with the heyday (the big temple complexes, colorful art, and so on) from about 1900 to 1400 BCE. This puts the Minoans contemporaneous with the New Kingdom of Egypt and the Mesopotamian cultures of Sumer, Akkad, and Babylon. The first stage of Stonehenge was built during the early phases of Minoan society and it was completed during the height of civilization on Crete. The Minoans were a wealthy mercantile society of accomplished seafarers, trading all across the Mediterranean and as far up the Atlantic coast as Cornwall, from where they brought back tin to make bronze blades.
One issue that confuses many people is the ethnicity of the ancient Minoans. In modern times, the island of Crete is part of the nation of Greece. However, the Minoans weren’t Greek. Their ancestors came from Anatolia in prehistoric times, a part of the westward wave of pre-Indo-European peoples that eventually spread across most of Europe. And while the people and culture are called Minoan after the mythical King Minos who purportedly ruled the island at one time, there is no such place as Minoa. The homeland of the Minoans is called Crete.
You’re probably familiar with the Minoans thanks to their art: the colorful frescoes of bull-leapers and priestesses, the figurines of the goddess with writhing snakes in her hands, the seal rings depicting complex ritual scenes. Much of Minoan art focuses on religious acts: sacred games, offerings, animal sacrifice, sacred dance. As with much of the ancient world, the Minoans felt no divide between everyday life and religion, the ordinary and the numinous.
So what was Minoan religion like and why would anyone be interested in reviving it, even in a modified form, in our times? The initial appeal for many people is the prominent place of the goddesses in the Minoan pantheon. Rhea, Ariadne, Diktynna, Eileithyia, and others may be familiar to most people from the Hellenic Greek pantheon, but they all were born, so to speak, among the Minoans. We can deduce a lot about Minoan religious practice from their artwork – the offerings, dances, sacrifices, and so on that I mentioned above. But we can only get just so far by looking at pictures.
The Minoans were a literate culture. In fact, they had two writing systems, a hieroglyphic system and a syllabary known as Linear A. The problem is, we can’t read either one. Now, the Mycenaean Greeks came into contact with Crete during the last few centuries of Minoan civilization. Either they or, more likely, some Minoan scribes altered Linear A to write Mycenaean Greek. The ensuing syllabary, known as Linear B, was translated in the 1950s and we can read it pretty well. That’s how we know so many of the Minoan deity and place names, what kinds of offerings the temples accepted, and the fact that women owned property. But we still can’t read the native Minoan language. And that’s a problem, because our main source of written information comes from the Mycenaeans, who weren’t exactly the Minoans’ best friends.
Though we can’t be sure of the Mycenaeans’ specific aims, it’s apparent that they did their best to take over Minoan society, first by infiltration and then by force. They may have wanted the island as a hub for naval activity or they may have coveted the Minoans’ wealth, gained from extensive trading activity. In the process, the Mycenaeans borrowed a great deal of Minoan religious practice, including large chunks of the Minoan pantheon. The Hellenic Greeks later incorporated the Minoan deities into their pantheon but altered the myths and even the characteristics of many of the deities to suit their own cultural values.
The main activity in Ariadne’s Tribe is figuring out how much of what we know about the Minoans (mostly through Greek mythology) was recorded accurately and how much was purposely changed. The Mycenaeans, like the later Hellenic Greeks, were a profoundly patriarchal society, in contrast to the egalitarian Minoans. So the Greeks ‘demoted’ many of the Minoan goddesses (Ariadne became a mere human, for instance) while they forced others, such as Rhea, to submit to husbands who ruled over them when these goddesses had been stand-alone, unmarried deities in Minoan religion. Then the Greeks invented Theseus, a culture hero, to show that they were superior to the backwards, human-sacrificing, Minotaur-worshiping Minoans.
So those of us who practice modern Minoan Paganism spend a lot of time teasing out the original myths from what amounts to a political smear campaign. There are some aspects of ancient Minoan religion we’re not likely to revive: huge mystery plays attended by hundreds or thousands; drug-induced shamanic journeys; animal sacrifice. But we use the same symbol set the ancient Minoans displayed in their temples, shrines, and homes: the labrys, the horns, seashells, the sacred serpent. We’ve taken a page from the modern Norse Pagans and are working with multiply-corroborated gnosis to fill in the blanks where necessary, along with a lot of ritual experimentation. And of course, we listen to the gods. They understand that life changes with the passage of time, and whatever we can do to help them remain relevant while respecting their underlying nature is a good thing.
Though I’m often wary of Wikipedia, the page about Minoan civilization contains generally undisputed information and is pretty comprehensive:
Max Dashu’s Suppressed Histories Archives has 5 pages of good examples of Minoan art, focusing on the religion of ancient Crete:
The writing systems mentioned above:
Cretan Hieroglyphs http://ancientscripts.com/cretan_hieroglyphs.html
Ariadne’s Tribe – Facebook discussion group for modern Minoan Paganism:
The Minoan Path blog, an exploration of modern Minoan paganism: