The mountaintop shrines of Mount Juctas in Archanes, Crete are situated on twin peaks, which may have symbolized breasts. Ancient shrines on the northern peak date from 2200 BCE until at least the end of the Ariadnian (Minoan) period in 1450 BCE. A crevice in the rock was filled with offerings of pottery, clay images of women and men in ritual dress, diseased bodies and body parts, sheep and cattle, and other objects. Excavations to a depth of 13 meters did not reach the bottom layers. Many offerings had been burned, suggesting that the objects were first thrown into fire and then dropped into the crevice. People who climbed the mountain for the festivals would have spilled over both peaks and there may have been shrines as well as fires on both of them.
With lack of imagination, archaeologists often write that worship in mountaintop shrines in Crete began when the king ascended the mountain to survey his realm. This ignores the fact that people are like goats and will climb anything if they can. Bones provide evidence of domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle in Crete long before there were kings. Surely shepherds climbed Mount Juctas before any kings did.
The idea that mountains are for kings also ignores the fact that there are no kings in Crete today, no realms to be surveyed, and yet the people of Archanes still ascend the mountain for the summer festival known as the Transfiguration of Christ on August 5th and 6th. A church called Afendis Christos or Christ the Lord on the southern peak of Juctas is the destination of current pilgrims. Today the uneven dirt road recently cut into the mountain is clogged with cars (only) during the festival.
In living memory, villagers of all ages—everyone who could walk—made the journey of an hour or two on foot along an ancient path in the late afternoon and early evening of the 5th of August. Their goal was to light a candle for health, healing, and a prosperous year in the church on the peak of the mountain. Only a few would have stayed in the church for the liturgy.
The rest settled on the mountaintop to enjoy the fresh air and take in the views of their village and the surrounding fields down to the sea, to chat with each other, to listen to the chiming of the sheep bells as the sun set. Many spent the night on the mountain, lighting a bonfire, and singing through the night. The end of the morning liturgy in the church and the rising sun were cues to make their way down the mountain before the heat of the midday sun would have made the journey unpleasant.
In her autobiography Unbowed, Wangari Maathai wrote:
Mount Kenya, known as Kirinyaga, or Place of Brightness, the second highest peak in Africa was a sacred place. Everything good came from it: abundant rains, rivers, streams, clean drinking water. … As long as the mountain stood, people believed that God was with them and that they would want for nothing. Clouds that regularly shrouded Mount Kenya were often followed by rain. As long as the rains fell, people had more than enough food for themselves, plentiful livestock, and peace.
This seems to me to be a more logical and reasonable explanation of why the Cretans—ancient and modern—climbed the mountain on festival days. Modern Cretans believe that God revealed Himself on the Mountain. The ancient Cretans more likely imagined the Mountain Mother to be the Source of Life, and the crevice into which they threw their offerings, Her womb.
In the more than two millennia between the end of Ariadnian Crete (c. 1450 BCE) and the last decades of the 20th century, the rhythms of the agricultural year were the rhythms of life in rural Crete. The rain that fell on the mountain to produce greens for the flocks to eat and the streams that flowed down from the mountains to water the fields were quite literally the source of life for the people who lived in the villages below the mountain.
Though most of us today are cut off from the rhythms of agricultural life that shaped the lives of our ancestors from the mists of time, we too are dependent on the mountains and the rains for our very lives. And though we are slow to understand the full implications of global climate change, it threatens our well-being. When I wrote in a recent blog that I am more interested in rituals that celebrate and attune us to our interdependence in the web of life than in magic, this is what I had in mind.
Carol P. Christ has just returned from the spring Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete which she leads through Ariadne Institute. Space available on the fall tour. Carol can be heard in a recent interviews on Goddess Alive Radio and Voices of Women. Carol is a founding voice in feminism and religion and Goddess spirituality. Her new book is Goddess and God in the World and her other books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Follow Carol on GoddessCrete on Twitter.
Categories: Climate Change, Earth-based spirituality, Eco-systems, Ecofeminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess Spirituality, Goddess Spirituality, Interdependence of Life, Mother Earth, Pilgrimage