A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon, who spends part of her time each year at her home in Crete, researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there. In this contribution she writes about – Syme: Goddess shrine for 3,000 years & Temple to Aphrodite.
Syme is one of the little-known Goddess shrines or temples in Crete, and yet it is perhaps the most enduring and long-lasting of any. It lies high in the mountains of Eastern Crete to the NW of Myrtos, far away from any Minoan settlement. And yet it was to this place, which must have involved several days travel for any pilgrims, that people went to honour the Goddess and give Her offerings, for a period of nearly 3000 years, through all the changes in the rise and fall of the main Palace and Temple sites.
I first went to look for the Sanctuary site in 2006 with my friend Sally. We journeyed up into the mountains beyond Myrtos to the small village of Kato Symi, nestling in the lower slopes. From there we took a track that wound it way ever upwards by a series of bends until we came to a small waterfall beside the track. Suddenly we felt we were in the middle of the M4! From all directions, trucks and cars descended on us, and local people got out to drink the waters of the fountain and fill their bottles. Someone explained to us that it was the Feast Day of the Holy Spirit and they had been to the monastry above for a service, which was traditionally followed by the drinking of the waters.
As we knew that we were somewhere near the Sanctuary, which was renowned for its clear flowing waters, this seemed very auspicious to us. However, it was clearly not the day to continue exploring to find the site or to have any quiet time there.
So a year later I returned (this time not on the Feast Day!) with my friend Geraldine, and this time we returned to the waterfall site, and then went on for another 1 km, where we found the site on the side of the mountain not far from the track. We had a look at it from above but when we got closer we were disappointed to discover that a high fence with barbed wire and locked gates had been erected around the site. I have some experience of getting into Minoan sites through protective wire fences (!) but this one seemed completely impregnable. However, we walked around the edge and eventually came to what was a delightful grotto-like place in the rocks. Here, a spring of cold water (the Kyra Vrysi spring) issued forth from a low rock niche, continued into a channel and tumbled down over the hillside, eventually reaching the very waterfall I had visited the previous year.
This seemed the perfect place to call in the Goddess. Presumably, to the authorities it had no great significance so wasn’t worth enclosing in with the site, but to us it spoke of the Goddess and Her source of all life. To the people who came to this site, it must also have been part of the sacred experience to perhaps wash or cleanse or bless themselves in the waters before making offerings to the Goddess at the shrine. So we called gently to Aphrodite, for in later times the site was dedicated to Aphrodite and Hermes, and felt Her presence immediately with us – not surprising in a place where the Goddess had been honoured continually through all the changes of society for nearly 3000 years. We bathed bare-breasted in Her waters and gave thanks to Her for all the love and beauty in our lives. Then we fashioned little Goddess figurines out of clay that Geraldine had brought from Cornwall and placed them in the alcove, with its tiny purple bell-shaped flowers by the flowing water. Finally, we poured honey over them and gave them as a dedication to the Goddess, just as our forebears had honoured Her for thousands of years before.
We felt very replete after this and were just completing our circuit of the site ready to leave, when I noticed a possible gap in the fence, which, with a little deft manoevering, allowed us into the site itself. It covers quite an extensive area, with shrine rooms and open air space for ceremonies, and has yielded evidence of worship right from the Bronze Age protopalatial period (2500 BCE) through Minoan and post-Minoan times, to the Hellenistic and Roman periods (50 CE). Great quantities of votive offerings were brought to the Sanctuary over the centuries, including stone vases, inscriptions in Linear A script, clay and bronze figurines (both human and animal, including bulls and a monkey), and bronze-cut plaques. A large number of small double axes were found, and three large bronze ones as well. Many cups and chalices were discovered, indicative of a shrine of votive offerings, as well as over 600 sea pebbles brought deliberately to the site. Described by Evangelos Kyriakides [Ritual in the Bronze Age Aegean – the Minoan Peak Sanctuaries, Duckworth 2006] as a long-lasting ritual site, the fact that it continued so long into historical times, where it became a Sanctuary of Aphrodite and Hermes, is indicative of its power to continue to attract worshippers and celebrants.
We stood in the space in silence, soaking up the atmosphere and connecting deeply to the Goddess. A storm burst over us and the warm rains came, soaking us with the essence of the life force of Her waters. Above us the mountain walls sheltered eagles and vultures. Around us the deciduous trees were alive with song birds. Below us, the waters of Aphrodite tumbled in terraces down the hillside, continuing to refresh the land and all its creatures. I thought of the villagers who came to drink Her waters on their Feast Day, and before them, all the Minoan and later peoples who came to Honour Her in this magical place, where She is still alive today as she has been for thousands of years.