It wasn’t until our group was riding the bus down from Mount Ida that the power of Crete slammed into me. I finally got it. For the Minoans (circa 3,500 BCE – 1,450 BCE) the divine was everywhere, in everything. Quite possibly, the whole of Crete is a sacred landscape.
This particular afternoon was the next to the last day of our Goddess Pilgrimage in Crete. As the bus leaned into the serpentine road, I was abruptly sad. Was it because the tour was almost over? Or something else?
Out the window, my view alternated between the distant sea, rocky precipices and, wherever planting was possible, olive trees. I tried to memorize the landscape, to imagine the men and women who, for thousands of years, had lived here in peace, treating each other and the land with respect. Inside the bus, we were a community of women who treated each other with respect and affection, led by scholar/theologian Dr. Carol Christ.
Unexpectedly, the bus pulled up next to a small complex of stone buildings shaded by plane trees. I got out and, with others, began exploring the little chapel filled with various images of the Madonna. Was this why we had stopped? When I emerged, I discovered that our bus driver, Babi, and his wife had set out treats for us: raki, wine, cheeses, olives and dried chick peas. This was his last day with us – we would spend the next walking in Heraklion – and the picnic was his typically generous Cretan way of saying good-bye.
We learned that the complex was a shepherds’ shrine (there were sheep in the adjacent pasture) used only rarely – for weddings, baptisms, and name days.
It wasn’t ancient but it felt Minoan – welcoming, peaceful, and somehow feminine.
The sixteen of us wandered and talked and ate and drank – comfortable with each other, savoring penultimate conversations, taking pictures.
We had been together for two weeks, in museums, on ancient ruins, in caves, under trees, alongside springs. And in tavernas – eating, drinking and, on occasion, dancing. In inns and hotels, we gathered almost every evening sharing what we had learned from what we had seen. And at each of the sites that had been sacred to the Minoans we read scripted rituals, often pouring libations over our respective goddess images.
My sadness dissipated in the gentle celebration. We climbed back onto the bus and descended the remaining miles into Heraklion, Crete’s capital.
It took me a while to figure out the sadness. I had come to Crete having read various books about ancient, egalitarian societies where women and all components of this planet were honored. It sounded nice but I wasn’t at all sure I believed that they ever existed.
The tour had changed that. We regularly gathered in a circle of sharing. We absorbed powerful images in archeological museums (like the Neolithic snake goddess from circa 4,500 BCE). We approached ancient ceremonial complexes with reverence and ritual. We followed the paths of Minoans into caves and around mountain streams and venerable trees. Every morning we repeated a blessing which ended with “As this day dawns in beauty, we pledge ourselves to repair the web.”
Eventually, we began to absorb the sense of community that vibrated up through the ruins even after 3,000 years. We began to understand there was/is a different way for humans to live with one another.
There’s a word for this other way (I picked it up from Nancy Vedder-Shults’ column in the last Sage Woman). The word is Matristic. I loved her definition, “a Matristic culture … does not reflect female power over subjects or female power to subjugate but female responsibility to conjugate – to knit and regenerate social ties in the here and now and in the hereafter. . . . [Where divinity is seen] as immanent – [pervading] all of life, and the whole world is sacred.”
The holy was most obviously honored at the vast sacred complexes. We went to four: Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros.
Each was built around courtyards, following similar patterns, but each was distinct. What I remember most about Phaistos, is not its many Minoan splendors rising on the brow of a hill overlooking a vast plain. Rather, a predecessor. After exploring the Minoan compound, we gathered around a small Neolithic ruin, evidently a family dwelling some 5,000 years ago. It was in a shaded area, away from tourist traffic patterns. I felt the presence of the ancients when later we sang:
“We are the old women, We are the young women/ We are the same women/ Stronger than before.”
To get to Kato Zakros (circa 1900 BCE) a ceremonial center on the east side of Crete, I walked through a grape arbor fluttering with small butterflies with black wings edged in yellow. Entering the complex, I was greeted by a scarlet damselfly and electric blue dragonfly. The age and silence of the place wrapped me in serenity. I walked the courtyard with its column stubs and held my hands over the unpretentious stone rectangle at its core. Turtles in the center’s cisterns, gazed unblinking. Leaving, I encountered a praying mantis, the color of straw — a benediction.
But the sacred was honored everywhere — in caves, trees, springs, and in smaller settlements around the island.
For Minoans, caves were earth wombs where they worshiped and restored their souls. I navigated only one, Elitheia. The rock formation at its mouth looks like the belly of a pregnant woman. We placed an egg in her navel and poured libations over her before walking back into darkness where stalactites and stalagmites conjured images of mothers and children, accompanied by poetry read aloud.
One memorable tree was in Paliani Convent, obviously not Minoan but resonating with the Matristic. In its courtyard is a myrtle tree, thought to be at least 1,000 years old. Because the tree grew around an icon of the Madonna and child, the tree is venerated as the Holy Myrtle, dwelling place of Panagia Mirtidotissa (Virgin Mary of Myrtle).
For centuries, people have hung symbols of their prayers from its branches. Our group sat on an adjacent bench and each of us selected two pieces of ribbon. After a reading, we took turns tying one ribbon on the tree, saying a prayer aloud. The group responded to prayers singing: “(Name) shall be well/ We shall be well/ All manner of things shall be well.” When all our prayers were hung, we picked up myrtle twigs from the grounds and tied them with our second ribbons. My beribboned twig lies beside a reproduction of the Neolithic snake goddess sitting in a corner of my living room.
On another day, we transferred from our bus to pickups for the vertical ascent to a Minoan shrine, Kato Symi. We hiked up an ancient path to the site where a sacred spring watered a gnarled old tree (and goats literally gamboled on the surrounding rocks). We gathered in a circle, taking turns reading Sappho poetry. We were enveloped in magic.
Smaller settlements like Tylissos and Gournia had their own sacred centers. At Gournia, the center was on the summit of the ancient hill town. There we found a Kernos, sacred stone. We placed fruits on its perimeter, and after songs and readings, fed them to each other.
But on Crete, places don’t have to be Minoan to be sacred.
One morning, Mika and I got lost. After leaving the bus, the group was supposed to gather at Tholos, a Minoan tomb. Because of back problems, I walked so slowly that we lost sight of the others and wandered around for an hour before giving up. We decided to create our own little ritual on the side of a dirt road, in the middle of nowhere important.
Sitting in a patch of rocks, we set our goddess images on their mineral perches and poured our respective libations. Mika told how her name had evolved into a new identity. Spontaneously, I invoked my paternal grandmother, Edna Miriam, her mother (my great grandmother) Nell Miriam, and her mother, Frances Miriam. The ritual renewed the honor in which I hold my name (Miriam) and my feminine heritage. That private ceremony still reverberates in my memory.
It was not just the places, but also the living women with whom we shared stories that taught me the Matristic. Christina created a feast for us on the day we explored Skoteino cave, and the widow Maria and her daughter Stella served us tea in the patio of their traditional home.
What is most sacred about Crete is the honored feminine. On the bus descending the road from Mount Ida, I realized that I was about to leave a land saturated with the Matristic. And I mourned.
The next day, the last of our tour, we returned to Heraklion’s Archeological Museum. After revisiting the Minoan treasures, we wandered into other areas where we saw weapons and symbols of power and we could not stay.
After two weeks of sharing community and celebrating the feminine, we had no tolerance for the violence the other artifacts represented. Our hearts sank under the weight of Greek and Roman armor.
But once again, my sadness was dissolved by celebration – the day continued with an exchange of parting gifts and our last Cretan banquet.
The long trip home was just long and uncomfortable. I rejoiced in my cats and friends and photographs and memories yet, for a long time, deep sadness remained around the edges of my days.
For a while, all the magic of all the places we visited – all the things we experienced – dissolved in the headlines and attitude of a society permeated by power plays and violence.
But what I felt on Crete was real and enduring. Gradually, I began to hear other voices (both male and female) talking about equality and dignity and justice. About authentic dialogue and consensus.
I remembered Starhawk’s song: “She changes everything She touches/ And everything She touches changes. / We are the changers, we are the touchers/ Everything we touch can change.”
Every once in a while, sadness still threatens. But Matristic cultures existed and can exist again. “As this day dawns in beauty, I pledge myself to repair the web.”
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