FROM SACRED CAVE TO MOUNTAIN SHRINE
Travels with the Goddess in Eastern Central Crete Part 1
by Cheryl Straffon
In the two previous GAs (GA6 & GA7) Jackie Dash and I wrote about lesser-known Goddess sites in the area of Eastern Crete. As a follow-up, this 2-part article features a 2 to 3 day Goddess pilgrimage around the area of Eastern Central Crete, made in the Summer of 2005 by Teresa Durrant and I. We went in search of Minoan sites of all kinds, including houses, settlements, towns, caves, ‘palaces’, temples and tholoses (burial sites). With the exception of Knossos and Gournia, we concentrated mainly on lesser-known places, where we were usually the only visitors and had the sites to ourselves.1 It was a deep and moving connection with the ancient Minoan people, their way of life and their love of the sacred, particularly the Goddess.
Vasiliki – Minoan houses at the beginning of the quest
We started the odyssey from Irepetra in the SE of the island (though one could join it at any point along the circular route), and took the road that leads north towards Agios Nikolaos. After passing through Kato Horio we turned off the road westwards to the small village of Vasiliki. On the outskirts of the village is the site of a small Minoan village dating from the Pre-palatial period of Early Minoan II (2900-2300 BCE), consisting of two separate buildings, named by the archaeologists West House and Red House (from the hard red lime plaster used in the construction of the walls).
Here was a good place to begin our quest, for this site was an early Minoan dwelling at the beginning of the civilisation that was to later flower and blossom so magnificently, and which contained in embryonic form many of the features that were later to become so widespread. These included: a paved courtyard area; multi-storied dwelling rooms with basements; and the craft work employed, such as pottery production (five sherds decorated with dolphins were found here, presaging the wall paintings at Knossos), wool working and the processing of grain. We made simple offerings to the Goddess here and asked for Her blessing on our quest.
Moving on, we returned to the main road which shortly joined the road from Sitia heading westwards towards Agios Nikolaos. Very soon we came to the major town site of Gournia, which is open to the public and lies just beside the road overlooking a sheltered cove of the bay of Mirabello. The earliest part of the site, dating from the Middle Minoan period (1900-1700 BCE) lies on top of the hill, with the houses spiralling down the hillside (originally down to where the harbour had been) from the Middle & Late Minoan periods. The pattern is thus the reverse of the Palace/Temple site of Zakros (where houses run down the hillside to the sacred area in the plain below), but in other respects it does resemble Zakros and other Palace/Temple sites. For example, Gournia also has a public courtyard area, palatial quarters and a cult area where bull leaping may have taken place (fragments of stylized bulls’ horns were found there).
There was a ritual area with a sacred stone near to a stone kernos (a cult vessel with a number of small receptacles) and a double-axe mason’s mark, and a cobbled ‘via sacra’ leading to a shrine room. It was to there that we walked and soon found the small room with its altar bench. In this room were found a wealth of Goddess artifacts, including Goddesses with raised arms and bell-shaped skirts [see front cover picture], clay tubes with snakes modelled in relief, a sherd with a double axe in relief, and bird figurines and serpents heads in terracotta – an abundant cornucopia of Goddess gifts! All these are now in the Heraklion Museum, but we placed our own figurines and offerings on the altar bench and once again gave thanks and honoured Her at Her special place. It was a good feeling to know that many hundreds of years of love for the Goddess here could be continued and re-awakened by Goddess-celebrating women today.
As we were leaving the shrine room we noticed that it aligned perfectly on to two low breast-shaped hills nearby, and we smiled a smile of recognition to ourselves!2
The road now led on to Agios Nikolaos, which has a Museum that houses a number of Goddess figurines, pottery and jewellery from sites in the east of Crete, including: the beautiful Goddess of Myrtos (from Phournia Koryphi); votive offerings from Peak Sanctuaries (including exquisite double horns of consecration from Petsophas); a sealstone, showing a Goddess worshipper, from Makriyalos; a large clay figurine of a Goddess with upraised arms from Kefala Vasilikis; and [below] a priestess in worship (from the Post-palatial cemetery at Myrsini).
North of Agios Nikolaos on the coast at Malia lies an important Palace/Temple site, that really requires a whole article in itself. It has all the features of the other major Palace/Temple sites such as Knossos, Phaestos and Zakros, with some interesting individual aspects of its own. For example, there was a shrine room and a room for Temple repositories, whose pillars were carved with double axes. And a circular limestone table was found with a hollow in its centre and 34 smaller ones around the circumference. Archaeologists think it may have played a part as a table for offerings in rituals associated with the Harvest Goddess, celebrating the first fruits of the harvest or the fertility of the seed.
It is easy to see why the Minoans honoured the Goddess in this way in this most fertile of islands. Today a huge variety of fruits and vegetables and grains are grown everywhere in ways that probably have changed little since those ancient times. Tomatoes and peppers are left out to ripen in the noonday sun; trees stand heavy with oranges, tangerines and lemons on their boughs; juicy and sweet melons and peaches are grown throughout this part of Crete and taste so luxuriant and intensely flavoursome; grapes and raisins can be found on trees and bushes in orchards just waiting to be picked. The land and its animals gives gifts of bread, olives, feta cheese, vegetables of all kinds, and the sweet honey of the bees. Wherever we walked we could smell the fragrant herbs – basil, thyme, oregano, mint – wafting in the air, and in the evenings ate our fill of it all. No wonder the Minoans loved and adored the Goddess who gave them all of this.
Our journey now led us away westwards from Agios Nikolaos and up into the high mountains of the Lassithi range, travelling through remote Cretan villages and finally descending to the famed Lassithi plateau. We had come here to look for an early cave shrine at Tzermiado called the Trapeza or Kronio Cave. The cave was first used in the late Neolithic period (c4000 BCE) and then continued in use for communal burials throughout the Minoan period. A large quantity of grave goods has been discovered here from the early Minoan II period (2900-2300 BCE), including sealstones, rings and other jewellery, figurines, metalwork, stone vases and a glazed steatite scarab.
The cave is watched over by a guardian from the local village, and after we had climbed the steep path to the site, he appeared with some torches and led us into the dark cavern, a dramatic contrast to the intense heat and light of the summer afternoon outside. Pointing out the niches in the rocks where the dead had been laid to rest and the offerings made, he seemed to us a gentle and respectful descendant of those Minoan peoples who had come here to bury and honour their dead. This was reinforced afterwards when he asked us to wait, and, disappearing into a local orchard, returned with flowers and cherries for us picked straight off the vine. It was a touching reminder of the hospitality of old Crete and perhaps not that far removed from the notion of gifts freely given to the living and the dead in ancient times.
Neolithic grave offering of silver ornament
in the shape of a stylized figurine
From Tzermiodo we descended down towards the coastal plain that is the hinterland of Heraklion, and headed towards the second of the caves on our pilgrimage, the sacred cave of Skoteino It was getting rather late in the day when we arrived, and knowing that the site was fenced with a guardian, we did not hold out much hope that it would be accessible that day. But when we got there we found, much to our surprise, that the locked gate had been left open and there was no-one there to impinge on our experience of the place. It was as if the Goddess had been expecting our arrival and had arranged things accordingly!
In contrast to the small and intimate cave of Trapeza, Skoteino is a huge cavern of four different levels, that was one of the most important sanctuary sites on Crete throughout antiquity. From the Middle Minoan period onwards (c.2000 BCE) people have come to this site to worship and celebrate the Goddess. Finds include four votive offerings of males in poses of characteristic salutation to the Goddess. Continuity of belief up to the present day is shown by a small Christian church built near the mouth of the cave.
Carol Christ3 says of this site: “It is hard to imagine that people did not enact rituals in the caves’ shadowy depths. When people moved out of the caves, they continued to bring the dead there, no doubt feeling that they were returning them to the womb of the mother. Later still, people brought votive offerings. Called by archaeologists ‘simple gifts to the deity of fertility’, they also express a complex sense of the connection between the womb of earth; the understanding that all life comes forth from the darkness; and perhaps also the hope that what is dead – seeds, human bones, the human heart – can be transformed and reborn in the darkness.”
We descended into the cave, accompanied by the cooing of doves that nested there, to be met by a huge cavern with a large rock formation resembling a giantess. Behind her a rough path descended to the second level with another stalagmite, sometimes identified as the Cretan Goddess Vritomatis. A slithering over rocks brought us to the third level, where the light from the entrance had all but disappeared, and we gazed into a large black hole that was the entrance to the fourth and final level, the very heart of darkness itself. We began to softly chant:
Ancient Mother, I hear you calling;
Ancient Mother, I feel your womb;
Ancient Mother, I love your darkness;
Ancient Mother, I am reborn.
– and our voices echoed back to us from the Cave of the Mother.
When we emerged from the cave it felt as if we had been in another reality, an altered state of consciousness, and it was hard to adapt to the everyday world outside. There are a number of sacred caves in Crete which are known to have been visited in ancient times for rites of the dead and offerings to the Goddess. For example, south of the Trapeza cave mentioned above, is the Psychro or Diktian Cave I had previously visited, where a plethora of tiny gold double axes had been stuck into crevices in the rock. And closer to Heraklion at Amnisos is the Eilitheia Cave (now locked) which was dedicated to the Goddess of childbirth and contains two stalagmites, who were worshipped as the Mother seated and the Daughter standing, until their heads were chopped off by fanatical Christians. In the cave were found clay figurines invoking the blessing of children and women pregnant or giving birth.
The cave of Eileithyia at Amnisos showing the
sacred Mother and Daughter stalagmites
Antonis Vassilakis4 says of these cave sanctuaries; “They were cult places of the Minoan chthonic Mother Goddess together with the divine infant, who were worshipped on altars and in recesses, in cavities and fissures.” These caves were places for connection with the Goddess of the underworld in all her aspects of Birth, Death and Rebirth. Our pilgrimage had led us to these places of deep mystery in the womb of the Mother Goddess, and had prepared us for the Journey from the underworld to our final destination on the very top of Mount Jucktas, that we shall explore in Part 2 of this article.
1 Most of these smaller lesser-known sites are well signposted but if they have no on-site guardian they are usually padlocked with no official way in. The choice is to seek out the local key-holder (a lengthy and uncertain process) or to effect an illegal entry! Most people seem to choose the latter course.
2 This had been noticed too by Vincent Scully in “The Earth, the Temple and the Gods” (Yale UP, 1979) where he described the hills as”the uplifted breasts of the Goddess of the horizon”. He adds: “At Gournia one has the inescapable impression that human beings are conceived of as children who lie upon the mother’s body, enclosed by her arms and in the deep shadow of her breasts.”
3 “Odyssey with the Goddess: a spiritual quest in Crete” – Carol P. Christ [Continuum, 1995] p.45
4 “Minoan Crete” – Antonis Vassilakis (Adam Editions, 2001)