Goddess Sites of Eastern Crete – Part 2

by Cheryl Straffon & Jackie Dash

As well as the special Goddess sites in and around Makriyalos, that we wrote about in Part 1, the museums at Agios Nikolaos, Ierepetra and Sitia are also worth a visit. Although Heraklion Museum remains the greatest and most comprehensive museum of Goddess finds and artefacts in Crete, neverthe- less the small provincial museums also have their treasures, and are often more intimate, with some of the artefacts not contained in glass cases. For example, the museum at Irepetra has a 2nd CE Graeco-Roman marble statue of the Goddess Demeter (labelled “Perse- phone”) with an ear of corn in her left hand and snakes in her hair, that you can reach out and touch. It also houses a fine collection of larnaxes, clay coffins from the Late Minoan III period (1440- 1050 BCE) on open access. These larnaxes were discovered buried under a village street in Episkopi, a small village north of Ierapetra, and are very well preserved. They are covered with symbols of the Goddess, such as spirals, chevrons, labryses, bull’s heads, deers and octopus figures, all painted in earthy red, black, blue and yellow ochre colours.

Near to Episkopi at Pano Chorio was found a Minoan settlement, that yielded a beautiful figurine of a seated Goddess, now in Heraklion Museum [see photograph on this issue’s home page].

Painted Minoan lamax from Episkopi

Painted Minoan lamax from Episkopi

The Ierapetra Museum also houses two fine larger (about 2ft high) Goddess figurines with upraised arms in a worshipping stance, one light-coloured and one dark, each with plaited snake- like hair. These came from the Late Minoan IIIc (1200-1100 BCE) shrine at Vronda, a site behind Kavouski on the Agios Nikolaos road, high in the Thryptian upland valley, involving a long and arduous walk by dirt track. Also from this site were found six nearly complete snake tubes and seven kalathoi (vases in the shape of a basket), one decorated with horns of consecration, and another with snakes modelled inside it. A cornucopia of Goddess iconography!

The museum at Sitia is larger with more exhibits behind glass cabinets, although it does have on open display more larnaxes and a huge pythos (storage vessel) with two beautiful double-axe carvings on its sides. These double-axe carvings had a shape at the top as well, making them look like butterfly or insect wings, and it made us wonder whether the double-axe motif had arisen out of insect icon-ography (epiphany of the Goddess) and then become more stylized. Double-axe carvings are found ubiquitously throughout Crete. Several rooms at Knossos have representations of them, and in two cave sanctuaries a wealth of double-axe carvings have been found.

Beautiful gold double-axes from the Arkalochori Cave (Heraklion Museum)

Beautiful gold double-axes from the Arkalochori
Cave (Heraklion Museum)

These cave sanctuaries were at Psychro (the Dictaean cave on the Lasithi plateau) and Arkalokhori (to the west of the Dictaean cave). At Psycho tiny gold double axes were stuck into crevices of stalagmites and stalactites as offerings. Dr.Antonis sp.Vassilakis says: “At the beginning of the Prepalatial period it became a cult cave where the Mother Goddess was worshipped”. And in the cave of Prophitis Elias near Arkalokhori were found 26 exquisite double-axes of gold, 6 of silver and 19 of bronze. This was clearly a very sacred place to the Goddess.

In the glass cases in the Sitia Museum there were some more beautifully decorated pots, terracota figurines and two stylised Goddess figures from the on-going excavations at the sites of Petras and Ayia Photia, an early Minoan I – II necropolis with shaft graves and 250 chambered tombs which lie a few kilometres to the east of Sitia. There was also a delightful collection in the museum of votive terracottas, mainly small animals and fragments of Goddesses or women from the Minoan peak sanctuary shrine of Petsophas – and it was to there that we now headed.

The Minoan peak sanctuaries are especially found in eastern Crete, and lie high in the mountains. There is one at Traostalos on the Palekastro-Zakros road, and one near Xerakambos in the far south-eastern corner of the island, from whence came this figurine [below].

Goddess figurine

The one we wanted to visit, after having seen the delightful terracota figures in Sitia Museum, lay in the mountains to the east of Palekastro – in fact in the furthest east place in all of main Crete. After an afternoon relaxing on the palm-tree beach at Vai, we arrived in Palekastro in the early evening.

A signpost leading off the main road took us to the excavations at Rougolákos, a Middle Minoan III town and shrine near the beach. Miniature horns of consecration and two pyramidal double-axe stands have been found here, though the principal temple seems to have been later dedicated to the Dictaean Zeus. Clearly though, the town must have been placed there because of its relationship to the sacred hill lying above it.

So it was to the Goddess sanctuary on the hill of Petsophas above the town we were drawn. A wandering dirt track, waymarked by arrows led to a fence by the bottom of a low hill, but even then it was not obvious where the path was that led to the Sanctuary. After some tentative exploration of the various paths we could identify, we had to grasp the bull by the horns and take the steepest of them to our left and hope that it would eventually lead there.

We had done our homework on this area of Crete, inasmuch as anything much is published, it being very much a less exploited and less visited part of the island. We had found mention of this Peak sanctuary, but none of the authors of the guide books seem actually to have climbed up to the site, and as far as we are aware this is the first published account of it! So, we had no idea exactly how steep, arduous and exhausting a climb it was going to be to the summit of 215 metres/700 ft.

But it was well worth the ascent! The views over the bay of the Grandes Islands were superb, with the small islets of Grandes and the larger island of Elassa forming a stunning vista. We imagined the ancient Goddess/Giantess creatrix striding out across these islets as stepping stones on Her way to Kasos, Karpathos and Rhodes!

Below us, a herd of goats, their bells jangling in the still evening air, made their way to a farmstead to be milked, and as we watched from the vantage of the steep hillside we could see the excavations of Rougolakos below. Life in this part of Crete has changed little over the centuries, and as we listened and watched, the spirit of the ancestors felt very near and present.

The ochre-surfaced, blue limestone rang hard underfoot as we scrambled and climbed ever higher. This distinctive blue stone must have made the place seem very apt as a sanctuary for the Goddess. After several points at which we felt we must surely be nearing the top, Goddess always calling us higher, the path veered off to the right and took us westward along a ridge. A lone-black goat stared at us from a rocky outcrop, no doubt wondering just who these strange people were here on her hilltop! Then after about an hour’s climb, we started to find pieces of beautiful purple stone and tell-tale fragments of pottery. At last we were there!

Ahead we could see a stone structure, the remains of the sanctuary walls, and all around the most stunning mountainous landscape, with two distant conical peaks forming a perfect horns of consecration shape. Archaeologists have found numerous figurines, especially of animals, buried under the floor of the shrine, and scattered all around were fragments of jars, handles and parts of circular bases. It was a powerful experience to imagine the priest(esses) and people from the city below looking up to Her shrine and then, as we had done, climbing the hillside path to give thanks and make offerings to Her. A rhyton (ornamental jug) found at Knossos depicts this actually happening.


A deep sense of peace, tranquility and well-being filled our spirits as we gazed upon the beauty of this place, the surrounding vistas, and the intensity of colour heightened by the evening sun. Our hearts swelled with love of the Goddess, and the Sanctuary echoed with our voices expressing our love and celebration of Her. Here was a connection between earth and sky, the spiritual and the physical, then and now – all was as one. We sat for a time on the floor of the shrine, a good and grounded feeling, and gently touched the rocks, soil, herbs and flowers that surrounded us there. The healing warmth of Her love was everywhere, and we felt totally at one with Her in Her peak sanctuary.

As the sun began to set over the mountains, we gathered ourselves together and started to make our way back along the ridge to start our descent. We both simultaneously received a gift from the Goddess as we left the Sanctuary – Cheryl found a piece of purple stone with a naturally-formed image of the Goddess within it, and Jackie a blooming purple flower. As the setting sun streamed golden, and then rose-coloured, lighting the tops of the crags all around us, Jackie saw Her face in the sculptured rocks of the mountain side. Was this the face that the ancients had seen? We bade farewell to this most magical of mountains, and gave thanks for our blessed and sacred meeting with the Goddess, touched by Her boundless love in such a sacred place, as pure and unsullied today as it had been all those thousands of years ago.

It was very hard to drag ourselves away from Petsophas, but we needed to find somewhere to stay for the night, so we drove on south down to the furthest south-eastern corner of the island at a place called Ano (upper) Zakros. We had come here for the finalé of our pilgrimage to the Goddess sites of eastern Crete – a whole palace or temple complex dedicated to the Goddess.

Zakros temple site

Zakros temple site

The so-called ‘palace’ (or to be more accurate temple) sites of Knossos, Phaistos and Malia on Crete are well-known and much visited. But Zakros, perhaps because of its relative inaccessibility, is much less known. Although the smallest of the sites, it is nevertheless one of the most beautiful, and has a much more intimate and personal feel to it. The most ancient and powerful way of arriving at the site is by the gorge that runs all the way down through the mountains from outside Ano Zakros to Kato (lower) Zakros, emerging on the plains where the Temple itself stood. So, in the relative cool of the early morning, Jackie set off from the upper town in the footsteps of the ancestors who had walked this way.

The gorge is called in Greek ‘Pharange ton Nekron’, “the Gorge of the Dead”, in recognition of its use in Early & Middle Minoan times for the burying of the dead in caves in there. So it was that walking down the gorge towards the temple site became a journey through time. The track made its way down through the narrow and soaring canyon, following the riverbed as it went. The base of the canyon was full of vegetation, especially wild herbs such as bitter laurel, oregano, sage and savoury, while above in the numerous caves dotting the canyon walls, lay the ancient burial sites. The stillness of the journey and the rising heat of the day made it seem as if the past and the present were all as one, the dead and the living all part of the same continuum that spanned 4000 years of time. At the bottom of the gorge, the path levelled out, and Jackie was met by Cheryl, who had selflessly offered to drive the car down the hairpin bends to Kato Zakros and the temple site!

The houses of Zakros seen from the central courtyard

The houses of Zakros seen from
the central courtyard

 Zakros dates from the Late Minoan I period (around 1600 BCE), and consisted of a thriving town to the north and west of the palace or temple area. This site had some 250-300 rooms in two, or possibly three, storeys, all built around a huge central courtyard. Excavations have revealed remains of an earlier palace or temple, so it must have grown up during the early & middle Minoan periods, when the dead were being buried in the gorge above the site. In about 1450 BCE it experienced a sudden and drastic catastrophe, whichmay have been the result of an earthquake or perhaps linked to the great eruption of the volcano Thera and the resulting tsunami and fall-out of ash. In either case, the site was abandoned and then destroyed, but its contents remained intact and unplundered.

It was first excavated in 1901, and then subsequently in 1962, and a rich array of objects were found, including copper from Cyprus, ivory from Syria, and gold, alabaster, basalt and diorite from Egypt. A paved way led from the site to the harbour nearby, and Zakros was obviously a major port and trading centre in Minoan times. Over 10,000 individual items were found, including beautifully decorated pots and jugs, ivory and gold figurines, an exquisite rock crystal vase, bronze double axes and a stone bull’s head, all now in Heraklion and Sitia Museums. One special rhyton (ritual drinking vessel) depicted a mountain shrine scene with wild goats, altars and horns of consecration [Room VIII Heraklion Mus.]

It was fascinating to wander among the houses and rooms of the town and get a sense of the people who lived and worked here, and then to explore the palace temple site, with its central courtyard surrounded by buildings with labyrinthine corridors, apartments storerooms workshops and a shrine room.

Vase from Zakros site

Vase from Zakros site

In the central courtyard stood a flat stone, identified by the excavators as an altar stone, and it was to this stone that we were drawn. There was virtually no-one else at the site while we were there so we had the altar all to ourselves, and there placed an appropriately shaped stone in honour of the Goddess. She had been with us for all of us stay in eastern Crete, showing us places about which we knew very little, revealing Her sites and Herself to us in beautiful and sometimes unexpectedways. She had led us ever deeper into an understanding and appreciation of Her powerful presence in this sacred land, both in the past for the Minoan people, and still alive for us today.