Ariadne's Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives

Ariadne's Thread: Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives

by Laura Perry


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The myths of ancient Crete, her people, and their gods twine through our minds like the snakes around the priestess's arms in those ancient temples. They call to us across the millennia, asking us to remember. In answer to that call, Ariadne’s Thread provides a window into the spirituality, culture and daily life of the Minoan people, and commemorates the richness of a world in which women and men worked and worshiped as equals. In these pages, the glory of Crete once again springs to life; the history, the culture, and most of all, the intense spirituality of these fascinating people and their gods can inspire and transform our modern ways of thinking, worshiping and being. The ruined temples and mansions of ancient Crete may crumble along the coastline of this tiny island, but Ariadne’s thread still leads us into the labyrinth and safely back out again.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781782791102
Publisher: Hunt, John Publishing
Publication date: 08/16/2013
Pages: 221
Product dimensions: 5.58(w) x 8.52(h) x 0.54(d)

About the Author

Laura Perry is a Wiccan priestess, longtime pagan and shamanic practitioner. She is also a Reiki master, herbalist, and naturopath (N.D.). She lives in Woodstock, Georgia, US.

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Ariadne's Thread

Awakening the Wonders of the Ancient Minoans in our Modern Lives

By Laura Perry

John Hunt Publishing Ltd.

Copyright © 2013 Laura Perry
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78279-110-2


A Brief History of Crete

For having made such a great impression on the ancient world, Crete is remarkably small. The island itself is only 150 miles long and barely 20 miles wide, resting in the blue-green Mediterranean Sea just southeast of Greece. It is almost equally distant from Europe, Asia and Africa, an ideal position from which to wield social as well as economic influence in the ancient world. The island is dramatic to behold. The rocky beaches and lowlands turn sharply upward toward a steep and craggy central mountain range. These sacred mountains reach an incredible 8,000 feet in altitude at their height, a truly spectacular home for Crete's goddesses and gods.

Although the mountainous highlands are too barren to plow and can only be used to graze sheep and goats, the area around the perimeter of the island has always been fertile, if somewhat rocky. The lowlands were heavily wooded at the height of Crete's glory (2000-1500 BCE) but have unfortunately been cleared in recent times. The temperate climate with its hot summers, mild winters and a constant sea breeze has long been responsible for the abundance of such traditional Mediterranean crops as grains, olives, beans and grapes. Since Crete is an island, it has its share of fog, damp and mist, but only high in the mountains does the wind come sharp and frigid in the winter.

Many people refer to those who lived on Crete in ancient times as Minoans. This name is derived from the title of the Minos, the bull-king or bull-god priest who presided at the temple at Knossos. Technically, the term Minoan refers only to the Bronze Age culture on Crete, from approximately the 27th to the 15th century BCE. But since it is such a well-known term, and since the word Cretan is often confused with the derogatory cretin, I will use Minoan in reference to the ancient people and their culture across the centuries.

Though archaeologists have found traces of early hominids dating back 130,000 years in southern Crete, most scholars agree that human settlement did not occur until about 9,000 years ago, in the Late Stone Age. These early farmers and herders probably came across the Mediterranean from Asia Minor. First they settled along the eastern tip of Crete, then slowly expanded westward over the island. They built small houses of stone or wattle-and-daub, and buried their dead in caves.

By 2,000 years later (about 5000 BCE), the islanders were practicing advanced agriculture and expanding their settlements. Over the following three millennia they developed a complex society with villages and towns populated by artisans, farmers and merchants.

By the beginning of the Bronze Age, about 3000 BCE, the Minoans had regular trade contact with the Cycladic Islands and Egypt. They built tombs rather than bury their dead in caves. And they began the creation of one of the most successful cultures in the ancient world.

For the next 2,000 years they flourished, building a society based not on military conquest but on mercantile activities. They traded the wares of their own talented artists and craftspeople as well as items they brought back from foreign lands. Minoan goods such as colorful painted pottery, delicate jewelry, carved stone vases and ornate jeweled daggers were popular with merchants throughout the known world.

From the time of the earliest European civilization, Crete was a trade center not only for Europe but also for the Middle East and other areas as well. The Minoans traded closely with Egypt for centuries; Egyptian influence is evident in Minoan art and architecture. In fact, the artisans and merchants from Crete shipped their goods as far away as Spain. They traded and established colonies in Asia Minor and southern Palestine, including the town of Gaza, whose earlier name was Minoa.

On Crete itself four port towns along the north and east coasts of the island grew large and rich enough to become known throughout the ancient world. Crowned with expansive temples, these cities were the strength and glory of Minoan civilization. From Knossos and Malia on the north coast around to Zakros in the east and Phaistos in the south, they provided a focus for the flow of goods and wealth that gave the Minoans their lavish lifestyle. Each city ruled itself and the surrounding farmland, but they remained independent from each other, much like the later Greek city-states.

The people of Crete had their own writing systems, an earlier hieroglyphic script and a later syllabary called Linear A. We still do not understand the language that it symbolized, though many people have attempted to decipher it.

Nature herself appears to have caused the downfall of Minoan society. During the 17th century BCE the volcanic island of Thera (modern Santorini) in the eastern Mediterranean exploded violently. The resulting earthquakes, tidal wave and ash fallout did extensive damage to Crete and some buildings were abandoned at that time.

The Minoans managed to rebuild many of their most important structures, including the temples at Knossos, Phaistos and Malia. In fact, the new buildings grew to a far grander scale than the original ones. But just two centuries later another natural disaster occurred and all the temples except the one at Knossos were either abandoned or destroyed. Archaeologists and historians still argue over the exact nature of the catastrophe that occurred at that time, but general consensus leans toward another volcanic eruption with its attendant earthquake, tidal wave, ash cloud and resulting fires and crop failures.

Knossos remained a center of religious and economic activity for about a century after the widespread collapse, but during this time large numbers of mainland Greeks (Mycenaeans) immigrated to Crete. They introduced their own language and modified the Minoan Linear A script into Linear B to use for writing Mycenaean Greek. Under the influence of the Greeks and their foreign, male-dominated culture, by the 12th century BCE Minoan society had effectively ceased to exist.

Through this vast expanse of time, the population on Crete grew from a few small settlements to a network of sprawling towns. Minoan religious centers grew from a few scattered tombs and sanctuaries to a network of highly organized, complex temples, only to fall prey to the power of Mother Nature in the end. Now that we know something of their history, let's explore the culture and religious practices of this fascinating ancient people.


Daily Life in Ancient Crete

Two Sides of One Coin

We know from the archaeological record that the grand Minoan 'palaces' functioned as temples, housing the priestly class and providing a setting for rituals and ceremonies. But the temples had another function as well, one we tend to forget from our vantage point in a separation-of-church-and-state society. The temples also played a major role in the economic and political life of ancient Crete. We modern folk tend to think of people and institutions as belonging to either the religious sector of society or the economic/industrial sector but not both. On Crete, however, religion and commerce were intertwined to the point that we often cannot discern the boundaries. This was a common situation in the ancient world.

The priestly class, both women and men, who lived in the temples, wielded a great amount of power in Crete's society. The wealthy merchants who lived around the temples also exerted a certain amount of influence. For the Minoans, religion was an integral part of their daily lives. Craftsmen performed rituals in the process of creating their products. Most ordinary houses included shrines and altars. Grand public ceremonies and rituals displayed the Minoans' wealth to visiting merchants, further encouraging trade. Although we cannot call ancient Crete a full theocracy, since as far as we know the priestly class was not the sole ruling group on the island, there is truly no way to separate religion from any other aspect of life there.

How did so many facets of Minoan society and daily life revolve around the temples? First of all, we are well-acquainted with the temples' use as grain storage sites, a common function of religious centers in the ancient world. From the early granaries situated alongside the ceremonial courts to the later storage rooms filled with pottery jars of grain as tall as a robust adult, the temples were a repository for the island's surplus grain supply.

It is possible that this excess was saved for ritual feasting, although some of it was certainly held back as insurance in case of famine, as was common in the ancient world. The grain storage areas in the temples, as well as in some of the surrounding mansions, are full of ritual artwork and symbology. We find religious symbols such as double axes and Linear A writing on the walls of the storerooms. A number of the storage areas also encompass shrines or lead directly to shrine or ritual areas. Thus we can imagine a ritual blessing or protection of this basic foodstuff, either when it was first stockpiled or as it was later distributed to buyers or ritual participants.

The temples also provided workspace for artists and craftspeople who produced jewelry, pottery, sculpture, paintings and many other fine wares. Some of the most intricately worked, valuable pieces of jewelry and pottery have been found in the shrines, sanctuaries and public areas of the temple complexes. It is probable that temple-produced goods commanded a high price due to their association with the sacred center. Of course, many artisans also lived and worked in the towns, selling their wares in the lively, well-traveled markets. But it must have been quite an honor to earn a place in the workrooms of one of the temples.

There is one aspect of the Minoan temples which is not obvious at first, perhaps because it is characterized by the absence of something rather than its presence. Unlike so many of the great religious complexes built by other ancient civilizations, the temples on Crete were not monuments to any particular rulers or leaders. We find no portraits of kings, or queens for that matter. We find no lists of battles won or conquests made, no depictions of conquered peoples being enslaved or killed. The Minoan temples are remarkably bare of depictions of violence or domination of any kind.

The temples, in fact, appear to have been built with aesthetic rather than monumental purposes in mind. They were designed for the worship of the deities and ancestors of this world, to reinforce the connection between the human and the divine. And, unlike the Christian cathedrals which sought to dwarf and intimidate people and make them feel inferior to the great Christian God, the Minoan temples sought to draw people into the order of being and make them feel a part of the divine that surrounded and penetrated them.

Life in Town

When we talk about ancient Crete we often focus on the temples due to their imposing presence and architectural beauty. But we must remember that most of the Minoan population lived outside the temple grounds, in the towns and nearby farming areas. Their lives would not be as foreign to us as we might think.

The developed areas of Crete ringed the eastern half of the coastline, with the towns sloping up from low-lying harbors towards the villas and temples. We often think of wealthy ancient civilizations in terms of highly stratified societies such as Egypt and Rome. In those empires, though the upper echelons enjoyed great wealth and luxury, the poorer people labored long and hard in subhuman living conditions. Crete, however, grew out of a different paradigm. The Minoans, more than perhaps any other early society, shared the accumulated wealth of their trading empire among all the island's inhabitants. Yes, there were poor people and there were vastly rich people, but even the poorest Minoans still lived in a clean, relatively safe environment along paved, well-drained streets.

The poorest families lived near the harbors in simple, small plaster houses built close together. These houses often had only one main room, with little furniture and few cooking implements. Built along a design familiar to modern Americans from the pioneer days, these houses included a sleeping loft above the main living area. Though the people who lived in these houses were poor, they had plenty of food from the island's harbors. They had a clean supply of water from town cisterns and viaducts and they lived in what was likely the safest of the ancient civilizations, street crime being largely unknown on the island.

The people who lived down by the harbors were the manual labor so necessary for Crete's vast trade empire. These people carried merchandise from the many ships up to the markets, cared for the merchants' pack animals, and occasionally sold trade goods themselves. They were probably not literate, for only those who could afford temple schooling or private tutors learned to read and write.

In contrast to the illiterate manual laborers, some Minoans could afford to pay for schooling. These were the more successful merchants and artisans who lived farther into the towns, away from the harbors (and the smell of fish). These people held jobs we would probably find familiar. Some of them were traders and merchants who had permanent shops or stalls in the marketplaces. They traded in foodstuffs from nearby and faraway lands – dates, fruit, wines, nuts. They bought and sold the basic necessities as well as the luxuries the Minoans so desired. Through the harbors and marketplaces of ancient Crete flowed shipments of cooking pots and dishes, decorative pottery, lumber, perfume oil, raw gold, silver and precious stones, tools for woodworking and metalsmithing, in short, many of the sorts of things we buy and sell in our world today.

Let us not forget the rural islanders who lived in the foothills of the jagged central mountain range. These people farmed the rocky soil, producing the staple foods of Minoan society. They also herded goats and sheep, animals that can easily adapt to rugged, mountainous terrain. The crops, the animals and the people all benefited from the extensive irrigation system whose canals carried water across the island's farmlands.

One class of people we would not find in ancient Crete is the military. Crete had no army or navy of its own and, until the Mycenaean incursions toward the end of the empire, did not hire mercenaries or guards from other lands. The Minoans preferred to concentrate their energies and capital on trade rather than warfare. They wanted no land other than their own small island and thus posed no threat to the surrounding nations.

One interesting outgrowth of this lack of military is a sort of warrior cult that grew up among the young men of Crete. Having no other outlet for their competitive or aggressive energy, they developed a subculture within Minoan society. These young men participated in ritualized displays of hunting skill, flaunting their prowess with weapons such as the spear and dagger. They often included hunting forays as part of initiation rituals, proving their manliness by their skill with their chosen weapons.

This subsection of Minoan culture looked to the young god as their role model. They depicted him as a muscular, handsome youth who carried a tall spear and wore a dagger at his belt. The young men who worshiped this god often wore ornately decorated daggers as part of their dress as well, emphasizing their economic and spiritual stature with such weapons. Interestingly enough, though, the young men of Crete limited their aggression to the animals they hunted rather than warring on each other or neighboring peoples.

The Minoans had no centralized government. Each town ruled itself through the guidance of the priestly class and the wealthiest merchants. There was enough trade and wealth flowing through the harbors of Crete that the towns' inhabitants had no desire to take over anyone else's territory. By concentrating on the flow of trade rather than spending money on a destructive and unnecessary military, the Minoans built up the strongest, farthest-reaching mercantile empire of the classical world.

Many of the raw materials that were shipped into Crete's harbors made their way to the island's artisans. By the time of the great temples and the height of Crete's renown, the island was heavily populated with expert architects, engineers, engravers, weavers, metalsmiths, fresco painters, faience workers, potters and all manner of other artisans. They ran a thriving trade in everything from the most expensive, precious handmade items commissioned by the rich merchants and temple residents to mass-produced commercial jewelry and cooking pots. Their metalsmiths worked copper, bronze, silver and gold, fashioning it into jewelry, decorative containers, knives and daggers. Minoan potters crafted vases, jugs, bowls and cups of fine ceramic, intricately painted with beautiful, brightly colored scenes and designs.

Excerpted from Ariadne's Thread by Laura Perry. Copyright © 2013 Laura Perry. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Preface viii

Introduction 1

Part 1 Work, Play and Worship in Ancient Crete 5

Chapter 1 A Brief History of Crete 6

Chapter 2 Daily Life in Ancient Crete 10

Two Sides of One Coin

Life in Town 12

High Style 17

Chapter 3 Minoan Spirituality: From Caves to Temples to Caves 21

In the Beginning…

Building Up to Gather Together 25

Following the Sacred Path 32

Divine Shrines 36

Into the Lap of the Mother 39

Chapter 4 The House of the Double Axe 43

Ariadne's Thread

Descendants of the Sacred Maze 48

Chapter 5 Ariadne's Tribe: The Minoan Pantheon 50

The Family Tree

Symbols and Images 54

The Gods (and Goddesses) Themselves 63

Chapter 6 Ritual Overview: The Wheel of the Year and Rites of Passage 88

The Collection

The Details 89

Performing the Rituals 92

Part 2 The Wheel of the Year: Moon Rites and Seasonal Festivals 99

Full Moon Ritual 101

New Moon Ritual 107

Spring Sun Festival 113

Summer Fertility Festival 119

Autumn Harvest Festival 125

Midwinter Festival 133

Part 3 Rites of Passage: From Birth to Death and Beyond 139

The Blessing of a New Child 141

Rite of First Blood 147

Rite of Manhood 157

Initiation 163

Rite of Betrothal 171

Ceremony of Marriage 179

Rite of Parting 185

Memorial Rite 191

Ceremony to Honor the Ancestors 197

Bibliography 203

Index 208

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