The Goddess on the throne: ecstatic epiphany rituals of ‘Minoan’ Crete
by Katinka Soetens
Have you ever tried to ‘time travel’ back to ancient Crete and Minoan times? Imagined yourself as a crafts person, perfume maker, a merchant or priestess, a Temple builder of farmer living and worshipping in those places we now visit as historical sites?
Have you wondered what it would have been like to live then, what it would have felt like?
For me it is of course especially the celebrants of the sacred, and their ritual practises, the intimacy of ecstatic epiphany-based relationship with the Divine in all of nature, that interests me in an exploration of this kind.
One of the things that most fascinates me is wondering what the obvious symbolic meanings would have been, of a mystery tradition we have lost the language to interpret, though it is present everywhere around us when we visit Crete’s ancient sites.
Crete, like other late Neolithic and early Bronze age cultures, is particularly fascinating in this context, due in parts to the unique and obvious Goddess-centric nature of this sophisticated culture.
If you’ve ever wondered why there are no large-scale Deity statues from Ariadean/Minoan Crete, in contrast to say Hellenistic Greek, Egyptian, Roman or indeed Christian cultures, one has to understand the nature of the ecstatic Epiphany based relationship people had with their Goddess, and with their ancestral Hero/Minotaur Deity.
The Ariadnean/Minoan spiritual experience was both in personal, intimate relationship to the Goddess through Her nature, and through the living embodiment facilitated by Her priestesses, held in epiphany ceremonial occasions. In an intimate and individually accessible spiritual relationship like these, there is no need for large scale deity statues to focus worship.
Equally, specific trees, rocks, mountain and cave, pillar and spring, all were experienced as sacred, or more correctly, as a part of the Divine, as living presence of the Goddess: you were never not in Her presence.
It is generally agreed that the Goddess’s epiphany was the focus of Minoan religion and it is depicted in a number of places, the most famous of which is the ‘Ring of Minos’.
“The Minoan Epiphany represents a series of images disclosing intimacy with the sacred through the (often idiosyncratic and ecstatic) depiction of an individual’s interaction with a deity (most commonly but not exclusively a Goddess) or symbolic representation thereof (such as a bird or insect) who appears from on high, and descends to greet the visionary”. (Bruce Rimell)
The living presence of Goddess was experienced in priestess embodiments, as well as in visionary epiphanies in certain sacred spaces such as within a temenos (sacred enclosure), while in physical connection to specific natural landscapes, such as specific trees or rocks.
For example the Bethyl stones that were also a personification of nature Deity, of Goddess, some of which we will visit during the Crete Pilgrimage this year.
What we see on the depictions of Epiphany ecstatic ritual worship from Crete, is a difference between visionary and embodiment versions, where insects and possibly birds represent or herald the Goddess as a vision, and small flying Goddess symbolising the descent of Her presence into embodiment.
The later of the two forms of Epiphanies as spiritual experience, gives us especially insight into the ‘intimacy with Goddess’ for, and of, women.
A wonderful example that shows us that the living embodiments of the Goddess did not just occur in the great Temple/palace centres of Crete, comes from recent excavations in Mochlos, (led by J.S.Soles) of a neo-palace area priestess house.
Not only was her jewellery box found, which offers us fascinating insight into her embodied role, but the very layout of her house is evidence of offerings clearly indicating the priestess living here was the embodiment of the Goddess, at least on ceremonial occasions and perhaps, as in the Kumari living Goddess tradition in Nepal, constantly for the duration of her term in that particular place.
On many of the seals, gold rings as well as on some fresco’s (the one from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri especially) and on the Mochlos priestess’s jewellery box, we see the embodied priestess as Goddess on the throne or seated on an elevated rock or platform, or within a sacred grove.
There are great similarities in these depictions of epiphany embodiment.
On the Mochlos jewellery box, (image below), we see her under a sacred (potted and so mobile) tree.
Above her, hair out-curved and with bent right arm, the Goddess descends.
The pose and costume of the seated embodied priestess as Goddess is also stylised and symbolic of this ceremonial epiphany. From here She is approached by ecstatic adorants,or interacting with her priestesses or the hero/ancestor.
The spiritual, cultural and ritual centres of Crete from the long ‘Minoan’ area throughout all its stages from (first settlers) Neolithic, to late Bronze- early Iron age (Mycenaean), are often called ‘Palaces’ but would be much better named ‘Temple-palaces’.
Here, the design obviously facilitated the experiencing of ritualised group- and community spiritual events: from dances and sacred enactments, epiphany embodiments and libation and smoke offerings, to ritual initiation tests and great ceremonial feasts.
What would happen if we take an archaeological focus to allow artefacts and sites to speak to us directly, and experience the ‘embodied’ perspectives from the point of view of a ceremonial priestess of the Goddess, who is well aware of ritual and sacred enactment alive today, in which the ecstatic capabilities of ceremony is taken as intimate touchstone in interpreting finds and sites.
To approach historic sites and finds from this point of experiential archaeology, is for me is powerful practise, a reaching out; to touch the hands of our ancestor-selves.
For example, how would it feel to enter the ‘Embodiment space’ of Knossos rather than the ‘Throne room’, where the small delicate ‘throne’ would most probably have been occupied by a priestess who embodied the Goddess?
In this context, we can travel through time, and in doing so, perhaps also bring new insight to our understanding of Aegean Bronze Age ritual practices and spiritual belief systems.
When we connect to ancestral memory and see with the eye of the ceremonial priestess of the Goddess. This offers a different insight into the sacred ancient sites, and makes sense of what we are seeing in their layout and what we are feeling in their ritual spaces.
To re-enter the Temple grounds consciously, with reverence, and in the company of like-minded Goddess loving pilgrims, is a life changing experience: once undertaken, we are never the same again.
To stand in Priestess graves or dwellings, to gaze upon their jewellery or libation vessels in the museums, takes on a far more personal meaning when on pilgrimage together than when seen as mere ‘historical items of value’.
Our ancestors of the prehistoric Aegean, left us tantalising evidence in their symbolic ritual art, that is dominant with images of the natural world, giving us a window through the eye of experiential archaeology, into a sentient world view in which people were an intimate part of-, and were not separate from-, the sacred.
Plants and animals appear to have been an indispensable part of the cultural identities of prehistoric societies by playing a significant role in the development of early belief systems, that, combined with ancestor worship common to all pagan-shamanic systems, were at the root of Minoan spirituality.
There is good evidence for the existence of ancestor worship in Minoan Crete, which included the retention of skulls or other bone parts of the dead, offerings made to the dead, as well as feasting with the dead, on ceremonial significant occasions.
Jan Driessen, archaeologist working at the newly excavated site of Sissi, argues that the Minoans believed in a single composite ancestor, not unlike the Japanese belief that the dead loses their individual identity after a period of time to be merged into a single entity.
This Hero ancestor, who appears on many depictions as masculine in direct communication with the Goddess, approaching Her and had ‘specific access’ to Her.
Sometimes seen as intermediate between Goddess and people, sometimes as devoted companion, this Hero ancestor was, in my opinion, and forerunner of the Divine Beloved, the young God, later perhaps named as Hermes (in Kato Syme’s sanctuary for example).
In all depictions, He was clearly involved in ritual, in adoration and in worship. In some cases wearing the ‘hide skirt’ that, together with his bull horn or snake frame staff, could well mark him as ‘Minotaur’, the initiating ‘priest’ of the Minoan Goddess.
The hide skirt, associated with male celebrants of sacrifice ceremony and of initiation rites, is particularly obvious on the ‘Runner Ring’ from Kato Syme.
I believe this name ‘Minotaur’, like ‘the Merlin’ of the Celtic Arthurian myths, to have been a sacred title, a role, and embodiment to represent the hero/ancestor/god-initiator. The Labyrinth, representing the Great Earth Goddess Herself, then also becomes a temenos for sacred union with Divine/Goddess into which we can journey and through which we are transformed.
As Moon Bull consort to the Great Goddess, (who Nanno Marinotas recognises as a Solar Goddess on the ‘Divine Couple’ ring) this Divine companion of the Goddess mythologically appears first as son of the Goddess and develops into Her beloved consort. And She, as Goddess, is Lady of the beasts who dwells in the mountains or sacred grove with Her Beloved, the hero-ancestor, who She communicates intimately with.
In this way, both end up symbolising an outer form of inner Sacred Union, the embodied meaning of the mysteries of the Labyrinth, and perhaps become Aphrodite and Hermes in a later framing of these two ancient forms of Divine presence in partnership in Crete.
Steeped in myth and echoing in our psyche, the great labyrinth that is in part symbolic of the manifestation of Divine Unio. It speaks to us of an intimate and individually accessible spiritual relationship in which we can re-imagine what sacred partnership and intimate connection to the Goddess may have been like for our ancestors, and what it therefore could be again for men and women today.
The Bronze Age Ariadnean civilisation of Crete was the last pre – patriarchal culture in Europe, honouring life, beauty, women and men, and the living ways of Goddess.
Riane Eisler writes in The Chalice and the Blade: “In Crete, for the last time in recorded history, a spirit of harmony between women and men as joyful and equal participants in life appears to pervade.”
It is time to remember the ways of Goddess loving people in harmony with nature and each other that our ancestors knew here.