by Cheryl Straffon & Jackie Dash
Many of the great Minoan centres of Crete are well known and much visited by Goddess lovers. The so-called ‘Palaces’ (or to be more accurate, Temple sites) of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia are popular and on many visitor trails, and even lesser-known post-Palatial shrines like Gournia and Ayia Triada have received much more attention in recent years. However, as we were to discover when we stayed in remote south-eastern Crete recently, there are many other fascinating smaller Minoan sites, hardly known or visited at all, where you can get a wonderful sense of the Goddess-celebrating people who lived and worshipped there and connect deeply with their spirit.
Much of Northern Crete has been blighted by the ravages of mass tourism in recent years, especially in the areas to the east and west of Heraklion, the prime example being the ‘lager-lout’ town of Ayios Nikolaos. With their ‘English pub’ and Guided Tours mentality, it is hard to get any sense of the ancient Minoan Goddess of the Land in these places. But travel to the far north-west or south of the island, as we did recently, and you discover a different world entirely. Here wild mountain ranges look down over small coves and beaches, and Minoan Goddess sites nestle in the mountain peaks or in the slopes of the hills, little-visited except for those determined to seek them out. And what a rich reward they proved to be! This article gives some details of sites hardly known about at all, so that other Goddess-loving women nd men may discover them too.
We stayed for a few weeks in the harbour area of Makriyalos, which made a good centre for visiting this remote area of eastern Crete. Travelling west from Makriyalos, after 42km you come to the unspoilt village of Myrtos. At Nea Myrtos, about 2km east of the village before you get there, there are two remote Minoan sites on two hilltops, overlooking the sea. The first easterly one, Phournia Koryphi is the more difficult of access; the second one Pyrgos just before Myrtos itself, is easier to find. It is signposted off the main road, and there is a lay-by for parking. Whitewashed stones mark a path that climbs the steep hillside, but the views at the top alone make it worthwhile. It is very close to the sea, and there is a wonderful panorama on one side of the whole coastline, and on the other of the mountain ranges.
We arrived in the heat of the day, but fortunately there was a cool breeze to make it tolerable. The site was an early Minoan I I settlement (2500-2000 BCE) which was destroyed by fire, but then rebuilt in the Middle Minoan and Late Minoan I periods (about 1900-1600 BCE). It then consisted of an elegant house with two or possibly three storeys the remains of the lower one being visible today. With the aid of a site plan from the Blue Guide to Crete we tried to make sense of the layout, which included a paved courtyard, a raised walk, a verandah, various rooms and a household shrine. Amongst the finds from this were clay sealings, 4 clay tubular stands for offerings, and a conch shell of pink faience, doubtless a treasured offering to the Goddess on Her altar.
There were some very beautiful features in the visible remains, including a paving of purple limestone stones. Outside the house were the remains of a two-storey communial tomb, and the whole place had the feel of a settled and peace-loving people, at one with the Goddess in their hilltop sanctuary by the sea and overlooked by the mountains.
After this visit, and an afternoon on the beach at Myrtos to cool off, we ventured back in the cooler evening to the other Minoan hilltop site at Phournou Koryphi. This too is signposted from the main road, but there is no obvious turning leading to it. The most direct way is to park in a small lay-by beside the main road by a gulley, and then scramble like a mountain goat up the sheer side of the gulley itself – not for the faint-hearted! With care however, the site soon comes into view. Our Blue Guide said it was fenced in and locked, and had very little information on the site itself, so we were not expecting much. However, Fortuna shone on us, and we found the gate into the site unlocked, and there discovered another hilltop settlement, intervisible with Pyrgos that we had visited earlier in the day.
The two sites would originally have been contemporary, from the early Minoan II period (2500-2000 BCE), but Phournou Koryphi was also destroyed by fire (perhaps as a result of the eruption of the volcanic island Thera), and, unlike Pyrgos, not rebuilt.
So the remains date from the earlier period, and consist of 90-100 small interlinked rooms. Finds included equipment for weaving and pottery, and for making wine and olive oil. What amazed us was what a wealth of original artefacts had still been left on the site ‘in situ’ (which presumably is why it is sometimes locked). We found pestle and mortars for grinding spices and herbs, decorated stones and a beautiful bowl and stone for refining other natural herbs. We both had a go with these utensils, and it brought us very close to our ‘grandmothers’ who lived and worked in this place, and perhaps sang songs to the Goddess as they worked with these very bowls and tools.
We knew that they honoured the Goddess here, for in the south-western corner of the site, archaeologists found a shrine, one of the earliest yet known to the Minoan Goddess. Here was found a clay figurine of a Goddess, holding a miniature jug, which now resides in the museum in Ayios Nikolaos [below].
We found what was probably this shrine room with its stone altar – and discovered someone had been there before us! An offering of coloured stones and pebbles had been placed on the altar, and it was exciting to think that perhaps other Goddess-celebrating people had been there to once again honour Her at her shrine. The site seemed to us so alive with the spirits of the people who had lived there, it was as if the last 4000 years had gone nowhere, and we kept half-expecting to see one of them coming around the corner with some grain for grinding, or with an offering for the Goddess at the shrine. As the sun set behind the mountains and twilight began to gather, we reluctantly said goodbye to our ancestors and left this powerful Goddess settlement.
The next day, having spent a lazy day basking in the Cretan heat and cooling in the azure Libyan sea, we journeyed into the mountains late in the afternoon. Winding our way ever higher, the narrow, twisting road snaked its way past olive groves, terraced fields and hilltop villages. The higher we climbed, the more abundantly fertile the land appeared to become. We came at last to a dusty limestone track, which would take us the final two kilometres to the three-hilltop settlement and sacred C3rd BCE temple of Presos that we were seeking.
This is a fascinating site, for it appears that after the disasters that beset the Minoan people (eruption of Thera and invasion of the Myceneans) the remnants of that once-great civilisation retreated into this mountain fastness, where they constructed this first Eteocretan city. Here they preserved their language and culture into the Greek period, and have been considered as the first or original Cretans.
To find the site, we had little to go on – its location is only scantily and somewhat cryptically described in the Guidebooks, but following our instinct and intuition we arrived at the foot of the first of the three hills (called First Acropolis). We were immediately struck by the richness of the place, alive with bird song, the constant humming buzz of bees and a heady fragrance of many wild and flowering herbs. As we climbed over ancient stone terraces, the energy of the Sun, stored in the earth, radiated all around us. The welcome shade of an olive tree gave some respite as we reached the entrance to the remains of the sacred temple.
Many exotic creatures and unfamiliar plants inhabited this place: a snake, basking on the stones of the fallen ruins, slid away to ground as we approached; a lime-green spider hung motionless in the stillness of the air; a perfectly camouflaged cicada disguised herself amongst the yellowed grasses; and buzzards wheeled overhead.
Surrounded by the craggy ridges of the blue-grey mountains, we sat and talked of the ancient ones, and the relationship between what the first people saw and experienced here and the presence of the Goddess. We felt Her very strongly in the spiral pathways of the bees, the song of the birds, the healing properties of the herbs and the nourishment provided by the land, the waters and the living spirit of this sacred place. The stunning setting of the hills which greeted the people when they first arrived here must have been awe-inspiring – a rich, fertile land in which to establish a settlement, and a natural hilltop on which to honour the Goddess who blessed them with such abundance. Cradled in the shelter of the mountains, the hills formed an idyllic and magical homeland for them.
We sat for a long time speculating as to the actual layout of the three hills. There was a saddle between the two peaks where the ancient city stood, and on the second hill (Acropolis) houses were built into the slope. The third hill contained an altar with rock-cut steps, marking a sanctuary that had been in use from the C8th-5th BCE and later became a small temple.
We recognised and identified what we thought were the first two hills, but the third remained elusive, and we thought we would have to leave it, since we needed to return down the winding mountain roads before the light faded. But the Goddess had not yet revealed herself totally to us. In fact she took us on a figure-of-eight detour, higher up the mountain road to Nea Pressos, and then back by a different route to the site, where suddenly the whole picture fell into place, and we could clearly see the three hills.
The daylight was fading as we set off on our return journey, excited at our discoveries and delighting in the ways She had spoken to us. But She had not finished yet! As we left the mountain track and met with the main road, we looked back across to the silhouetted mountain range and there was the beautiful light of the full moon rising rapidly over the temple hill top. We stood in spontaneous ritual and in awe and reverence at Her beauty, thanking Her for all Her amazing gifts that we had experienced that day, once again connecting with the Goddess in this land where She had so long been honoured and celebrated for Her power and grace.
The next evening we were sitting in a Taverna at Makriyalos at the water’s edge having our evening meal, when suddenly the moon rose out of the sea, still very full and coloured a deep red. It was a most magical sight and we decided that once our meal was over we would go and celebrate Her. Our choice of site was the Minoan Villa that lay just up the road, 400 metres west of the harbour. We had visited the site earlier in the day, when we discovered that it had been constructed to a plan similar to the Minoan temple sites of Knossos, etc, though of course on a much smaller scale.
The site was readily accessible and open at all times, so we were able to walk up to it and have it all to ourselves for our ritual. Its location was beautiful, with two breast-shaped hills, directly visible from the site. We identified the room where there had been an altar and a bench shrine and set up for our ceremony there. It was incredible to be able to do a ritual to the Goddess at the very altar where the Minoan peoples had done their own rituals to Her! The wonderful thing about these Minoan sites is that we don’t have to speculate or wonder whether Goddess was celebrated there – we know for sure that She was.
“At this particular site (Makriyalos Villa) was discovered a remarkable sealstone, carved with a scene of a ship carrying an altar, flanked by a palm tree and an adoring female worshipper, suggesting marine associations for the Minoan goddess”. [Blue Guide to Crete]. This sealstone can now be seen in Agios Nikolaos Museum (Room III).
So, at this very altar, we placed our offerings of flowers, blessed each other with water infused by the light of the full moon, and gave thanks to Her, and celebrated Her, chanting “The Goddess is alive and magic is afoot”. It was indeed a most magical night and a magical place, so sacred to Her. This visit to Crete was proving to be an incredible and very deep experience for us – and more was to come!
Knossos – temple of the Goddess – Rodney Castleden (Efstathiadis Group, 1997)
Blue Guide to Crete – Pat Cameron (A & C Black, 2003)
Crete – Dr. Antonis Sp. Vassilakis (I.Mathioulakis & Co,)
Crete Reclaimed – Susan Evasdaughter (Heart of Albion Press, 1996)
A Cultural Guide to Ayios Stephahos & Makry Yialos – Nikos P. Papadakis (1986)
In Part 2 of this feature, in the next GA!, we climb high into the mountains to a Goddess Peak Sanctuary and walk down a sacred ravine to a Goddess temple site.