Cretan Musings

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: Caves of the Goddess.

During a recent Goddess in Crete tour, which I co-facilitated with Anique Radiant Heart, the Group visited several caves that were known to have been used as sacred or ‘cult’ centres in the proto-Palatial & neo-Palatial periods (2000-1000 BCE). These included Skotino, Psychro and the Eileithyia cave at Amnisos, all in Eastern Crete. [see article in GA8 p.15-16]. In addition I had previously visited the Trapeza cave on the Lasithi plateau and the Bear Cave in Western Crete. Other important ‘cult’ caves are Melidoni (west of Heraklion), Kamares (visible from Phaistos), the Idean Cave (on Mt.Ida) and Arkalochori – the cave of Profitas Elias, which had deposits of bronze, silver and gold double axes. At all these caves, Minoan people came, either to deposit their dead or to give votive offerings. In Diachronic changes in Minoan cave cult, E.L.Tyree comments: “The caves are often large, and contain a principle ritual area deep within the cave. Approaching and entering the caves is normally a physical ordeal and an intense sensory experience. The descent into the cave can be both steep and rugged. The air is cool and the cave is dark. Within, there is an aura of suspense, intensified by the smell of dense, earthy moisture”.

Tyree goes on to make the point that the most important area within the cave is usually stalagmatic. Stalagmites are sometimes deliberately ‘marked’ to signify the ritual area. At Melidoni, they frame the entrance to the ritual chamber, the north recess. At Psychro, double axes were inserted into the stalagmite. As the double axe is the most important Minoan symbol, it seems plausible that they ‘marked’ the stalagmites as places for the deposition of offerings and for rituals. This argument is strengthened by the placement of the largest and finest double axe from Psychro in a niche within the adjacent side chamber. Many caves, such as Psychro and Skotino, have also yielded a quantity of anthropomorphic figures that may represent supplicants coming to offer reverence or entreaties to the Goddess.

In some caves. the stalagmite itself became the focus of worship and veneration. In Western Crete at a cave near Gouverneto there is a huge stalagmite in the form of a bear that was thought to represent Artemis.* The stalagmite was worshipped from time immemorial, and even under Christianity a chapel was built in the cave entrance and dedicated to Panayia Arkoudiotissa, which simply means ‘Our Lady of the Bear’! At Amnisos near Heraklion there is the Eileithyia Cave (there is another at Inatos on the south coast, now sealed up). Eileithyia was the matron Goddess of childbirth, and her name is not Indo-European, which strengthens the assumption of a direct descent from a Minoan Goddess of childbirth. The cave at Amnisos contains two stalagmites, which were thought to be representations of the Goddess and Her daughter (Demeter and Kore in later mythology), and from ancient times until quite recently, women would come to give offerings to them. A small shrine was built around the stalagmites, where women would kneel to rub the figures and ask for help in childbirth. When I first visited the cave with Geraldine McCarthy in 2007, she was awaiting the birth of her first grandchild, so the blessings we asked for in the cave had special significance for her.

Caves were thus perceived as places where people could have intimate and close contact with the Goddess, a liminal space at the juncture between this mundane world and the other spirit world. E.L.Tyree has suggested that the caves were used for ritual trances and altered states of consciousness, the basis of shamanic journeying. The experience of travelling into the cave from light to dark and then out again to light, would have conveyed the presence of divine radiance. Many of the figurines recovered from these caves show gestures indicative of trance experiences and/or communion with the divine presence of the Goddess.

We can attest to this through our Group’s experiences at the caves of Skotino and Psychro. At Skotino we entered the cool gloom of the cave from a hot and sunny day outside. We gathered at a huge stalagmite resembling an Old Crone and made a circle and prepared to descend. Anique remained here while the rest of us began the descent. Some stopped at the second or third levels to quietly commune with the Goddess, but one of our number made it all the way to the fourth level at the bottom in complete darkness. Then we began the ascent back out as Anique started chanting “Returning, Returning, from the Mother of us all”, which became louder and more powerful as we climbed up back to the Crone stalagmite. We truly touched the presence of the Goddess there.

Psychro cave is more touristy, but we had arrived early in the morning before the coaches and many of the people came. So we had the cave comparitively empty. We followed the path down to the bottom where there is – and was in Minoan times – a sacred pool and stalagmite formations. I was given a brief moment when no-one else was there at all to throw my offering into the pool and say my prayer to the Goddess. At that precise moment Anique, who was further back up the cave, felt moved to sing praises to the Goddess, which echoed around the mighty cavern. How much more powerful and experience even that cave would have been for the Minoan people, who would have entered it, perhaps in a state of altered consciousness to give their double-axe offerings to the Goddess, the source of all their life and well-being.

These caves were for the Minoan people an interface with the underworld, the chthonic Mother Goddess and the womb of the Earth Mother. They were places of transformation and connection with Her in all Her aspects of birth, death and rebirth. They were powerful places of ritual, trance and experience of the divine, and they remain so today.

* see ‘Daughters of the Earth’ by Cheryl Straffon [O Books, 2007] p.26-28 for more details of this cave.