Travels with the Goddess in Eastern Central Crete Part 2

by Cheryl Straffon

In Part 1 of this article, Teresa Durrant and I started our quest for the Goddess in Eastern Central Crete by visiting a Minoan village at Vasiliki, a town at Gournia, the Museum at Agios Nikolaos, and the caves at Trapeza and Skoteino. Now we were to begin the second half of our journey to Knossos and down the valley of Arkhanes to our final destination on Mt. Juktas, the most sacred of Minoan Peak Sanctuaries.

Two Goddess figurines from Knossos. On the left is the second of the two Snake Goddesses (the other is illustrated on the front page). On the right is an  akourotrophos (nursing) Goddess holding an infant.

Two Goddess figurines from Knossos. On the left is the second of the two Snake
Goddesses (the other is illustrated on the front page). On the right is an
 akourotrophos (nursing) Goddess holding an infant.

Kossos is of course the most well-known and visited of all the Minoan palace- temples, and whole books have been written on its history and layout. We arrived early enough in the morning to avoid the coach loads and guided tours who would come later, and so were able to wander reasonably freely around the areas that are open to the public. This year (2006) marks the 100th anniversary of the excavations and reconstructions of Sir Arthur Evans at the site, and the visitor cannot help but be influenced by what he achieved, even if his interpretations of the site as the residential palace of a mythical ‘King Minos’ have now been discredited, and replaced with a view of it as a sacred temple with palatial quarters. It was developed and expanded by the Minoans from Middle Minoan IB to Middle Minoan II periods (1900-1650 BCE), destroyed by fire, rebuilt and occupied in the Late Minoan period (1650-1450 BCE) and finally occupied by mainland Myceneans in the Late Minoan ii-iiA (1450-1350 BCE) period. Even in Classical times (10thC BCE) the site continued to be the focus of worship with a sanctuary to Demeter, Goddess of the fruits of the earth, discovered on the lower slopes of the hill.

Many fine artifacts and ritual objects have been uncovered from Knossos, including the two famous Snake Goddesses or Priestesses, and there is a particular emphasis on double axe and horns of consecration inscriptions. Both of these motifs are found throughout Minoan art and buildings, and both were sacred symbols denoting aspects of Goddess worship and celebration. The horns of consecration were probably a sacred symbol to the Minoans of their bull cult, and are also often found in connection with nearby Peak Sanctuaries where the people went to worship the Goddess*. Here at Knossos there are some very fine horns in the central courtyard that align to the saddle hill of Mt. Jukt as in the distance, the place to where we were heading.

The Horns of Consecration at Knossos, looking towards Mt. Juktas

The Horns of Consecration at Knossos, looking towards Mt. Juktas

From Knossos we continued south towards the area of Arkhanes to visit a variety of other sites associated with the Minoan people. Firstly we followed signs to the cemetery site of Phourni on a hill NW of the village of Ano Arkhanes. The site was fenced and closed but we managed to find a way in, and were met by a well-excavated site of buildings and tombs that we explored with a growing sense of respect for the people who came here to lay their dead to rest. The tholos tombs, circular in form, were easily recognisable and have yielded some fascinating remains.

For example, Tholos Tomb A consisted of the burial of “a high ranking female who was also closely involved with cult practices”** which is a somewhat convoluted way of describing a Priestess! She was buried with pieces of gold jewellery, decorated bronze and clay vessels and the skull of a bull. In Tholos Tomb B several side chambers had been added, one with a pillar crypt, and finds included a spectacular gold ring depicting a Goddess and a griffin. In Tholos Tomb C were 45 burials (18 in the foetal position) and a rich array of grave goods, including 15 figurines of a Cycladic type, most of marble but also schist and quartz. Finds of pottery show that this tomb was in continual use for nearly 1000 years. Tholos Tomb D yielded evidence of one burial of a high-status woman with a bronze mirror near her face and other spectacular jewellery And Tholos Tomb E had a considerable number of burials and a great wealth of grave items.

Eastern Central Crete

We wandered around the site for some time, letting our minds connect with the spirits of the people who had come to use this site – ordinary people, Priestesses and perhaps Queens. It occurred to us that Phournia may have been the burial place for the people from Knossos, who would have walked along the valley floor from the Palace/Temple site in a sacred procession to lay their dead to rest here. There was certainly a very peaceful atmosphere here and we felt that the dead were very much revered and honoured at this place, as they were returned to the all-embracing, enfolding arms of the Goddess.

Cycladic style ivory Goddess figurine from Phournia cemetery

From Phournia we drove to the village of Kato Arkhanes and here had a strange experience, which by contrast was anything but peaceful. We were looking for the temple at Anemospilia but found unusually there were no signs to the site, but there were a large number of other signs everywhere in Greek with no English translation. By the time we had worked out the meaning of the Greek signs and taken several wrong turns, we were beginning to feel that perhaps the site did not want us to visit. However, while searching fruitlessly on one hillside, we met a couple from the Czech Republic, also searching for the site. So we put our heads together and with a little help from a Greek man at the nearby municipal rubbish tip, eventually located the site! It was situated on the side of a hill with dramatic views along the valley to the sea, but consisted of only three oblong rooms.

What makes this site so curious is that it seems to have been a real anomaly or ‘breakaway’ site in Minoan times. When it was excavated, human skeletons were found in the debris, and from the forensic evidence the archaeologists concluded that there were three people there who died together. One had been a youth, who appeared to have been sacrificed on the altar by two other people, a man and a woman. This human sacrifice is a very rare find, and something that is not found elsewhere at Minoan sites. At the moment of the sacrifice, a large earthquake struck the site (the same earthquake that had destroyed the old palace at Knossos) and it collapsed, killing the man and the woman as well! You could not have more dramatic evidence that the Goddess was displeased with the ritual of human sacrifice than that!

The peaceful cemetery at Phournia

Perhaps it was auto-suggestion, but as we had entered the site I had a most uneasy feeling, and when we got to the rooms, it developed into the most physical gut- wrenching reaction you could imagine. Teresa took one look at me and said “Let’s get out of here”, so we quickly left the site to the Czech couple to make of it what they would! Later, I did some more research into the aspect of human sacrifice, and it does not appear in the literature until much later in Olympian times, when the Gods of Greece had usurped the Goddess. Interestingly, there are references to Zeus receiving human sacrifice on Mount Likaion, a conical peak that rises above the plain of Megalopolis in central Arcadia. On Crete, Anemospilia similarly lies in the valley leading to Mount Jucktas which later also became known as the abode of Zeus. Could it be that the holy mountain peaks that were originally known as the place of the nurturing Goddess later became twisted under patriarchal belief into the place of the God Zeus who required human sacrifice?

Mt. Jucktas

The final destination of Mt. Jucktas

Somewhat shaken by our experience at Anemospilia, we drove on towards our final destination – the mountain top sanctuary of Mt. Jucktas that we had glimpsed through the horns of consecration at Knossos. Mt. Jucktas was a place of pilgrimage for the Minoan people for more than a thousand years (from Early Minoan II to Early Minoan IIIB – 2500-1450 BCE). They must have walked here along the valley floor from Knossos carrying their gifts for the Goddess, and then made the climb up and up the side of the mountain to the Peak Sanctuary at the very top.

Today we drove part of the way and then walked the last section to the Shrine itself. Here we were ‘on top of the world’ at 2635ft/811 meters high, with stunning views across this eastern central part of the island. We entered the site, which consisted of slate rocks with many fissures in them. One of these fissures was a natural cave-like chasm, opening 30ft or so into the rock. It was here that the Minoan people had come to throw or pour their offerings to the Goddess. Nearby were the remains of buildings and enclosures linked to the site: on the west side of the cleft a stepped altar had been constructed, and next to it a large stone kernos, a cult vessel with depressions in it, used for offerings. A hoard of bronze double axes was found nearby, as well as rich finds of offerings and vessels for libations.

Cleft for ritual offerings on the top of Mt. Jucktas...

We each of us took it in turns to stand at the chasm, make our prayer and dedication to the Goddess, and then throw down into the cleft our offerings in the time-honoured way. It was a moment of intense peace and ecstasy. This was the culmination of our journey that had taken us from the depths of the deepest sacred caves to the height of the highest Peak Sanctuary. Here we stood at the place that linked the two worlds together – the upper world of light and air, and the chasm leading down to the deep world of inner darkness, both realms the complementary and complete world of the Goddess. We had seen Her in the houses, the towns and the palaces of the Minoan peoples, and had experienced Her in the temples and sacred areas and in the caves and dark places, where She had taken back the dead and given love and hope to the living. Now on this highest point of Mt. Jucktas in the late afternoon light at the end of our pilgrimage, we reaffirmed our love for Her, and gave thanks for all Her sacred places of Crete that are still there for Goddess-celebrating people to find, and where we can all meet with Her once again, thousands of years after She was first celebrated here.

... and the throwing down of sacred gifts to the Goddess

Our journey back took us south from Mt. Jucktas across the central plain towards Myrtos, and from there back to Irepetra, completing the circuit. Just to the east of Myrtos are two other Minoan sites, Pyrgos and Phournia Koryphi, that were featured and illustrated in Goddess Sites of Eastern Crete Pt 1 in GA6.

* See for example the one at Petsophas in far-eastern Crete
**The Blue Guide to Crete – Pat Cameron (A&C Black, 2003) p.126


Ritual in the Bronze Age Aegean: the Minoan Peak Sanctuaries – Evengelos Kyriakdis (Duckworth 2005)
Minoan Religion – Nanno Marinatos (U of S. Carolina Press, 1975)
The Minoan Pantheon – Marina Moss (Bar International 1343, 2005)