Minoan Midsummer: Layers of Religion
Religion isn’t a static thing. We don’t invent a religion once and leave it as is for centuries. Cultures change, people change, and spiritual practice changes, too.
Minoan civilization lasted for centuries. Just the “palace” periods, the times when the big temple complexes were being built and rebuilt, lasted about 500 years. Minoan civilization as a whole lasted more than two millennia. And during that time, the spiritual practice in ancient Crete changed and grew.
We can tell which times of year, which sacred days and festivals, were important to the Minoans during different eras because they built their tombs, temples, and peak sanctuaries with special alignments. So we can see that they added new dates to their sacred calendar as time progressed. The interesting thing is, they didn’t remove the old dates, just added the new ones on.
We see this same kind of “layering” in ancient Egyptian religion as well. Instead of replacing old gods or holy days with new ones, the Egyptians simply added on new layers, creating a very complex set of deities, festivals, and religious practices over time. Like the Egyptian “layered religion,” there It turns out, the Minoans did the same thing. And it also turns out that Summer Solstice is one of the later layers.
One of the earliest sacred festivals took place in the early autumn. In modern Minoan Paganism, we call this festival the Feast of Grapes, and we celebrate it on August 31. But the Minoans would have held their celebrations during the actual grape harvest. That date would have varied from year to year, depending on exactly when the grapes were ripe and ready to pick.
The Feast of Grapes centers around Dionysus, the god of the vine. His death and dismemberment at harvest time allows him to travel to the Underworld and provide blessings to his followers. He’s a very early dying-and-reborn god, a shamanic journeyer who gives his life for his people, so they can have not only food and drink but also ecstasy and communion with the divine.
In later Minoan times, Dionysus picked up a couple more festivals, becoming a central figure in Minoan religion. He’s born to the Great Mother Goddess Rhea at Winter Solstice, then she hides him in her cave to keep him safe. And at Summer Solstice he comes of age, emerging from his cave in triumph and joining with Ariadne in the sacred marriage.
The astronomical alignments in the Throne Room at Knossos suggest that a priest played the part of Dionysus on Summer Solstice morning, emerging from the adyton (a sunken section of the room that amounts to a man-made cave) to be illuminated by the first rays of the Midsummer sunrise. It must have been a dramatic ritual, with the people standing in the courtyard, watching and waiting for those first sunbeams.
I guess gods don’t have to follow the usual laws of physics, because the Minoans apparently thought it made sense for Dionysus to be born at Midwinter, married at Midsummer, die as a harvest sacrifice in the early autumn, and be born again the following Midwinter.
Now, I should be clear about one thing: Minoan religion wasn’t a monolithic, all-the-same-everywhere kind of thing. Just like in Egypt, the Minoans had different favorite deities and festivals in different locations. During Minoan times, there was never a central government on Crete, much as some historians would like to paint Knossos as the capital. Each city was run independently, but they cooperated across the island because they shared a common culture and spirituality.
The Feast of Grapes was celebrated all over Crete, on farms large and small as well as in the temple vineyards. Summer Solstice, however, appears to have been an “official” holiday, one that was celebrated at the temples and possibly some of the peak sanctuaries, places where the local government (that is, the priesthood) ran things.
Still, the Minoan Summer Solstice celebration should look familiar to modern Pagans: The god appears and participates in the sacred marriage with the goddess, the hieros gamos that’s still a major part of many modern Pagan rites, even if it’s only symbolic in the form of a cup and a blade.
In the name of the bee, And of the butterfly, And of the breeze, amen!