Part 1 was posted yesterday. You can read it here.
Arriving in Heraklion on Crete, I was enlivened by the sea air and the informal “island” vibration. My sister and I made our way through its labyrinthine streets, following Daedalus, a pedestrian street named after the legendary creator of the labyrinth at Knossos, the prototype of the artist, who Joyce names as his stand-in in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Our hotel was on Theotokopolous Street. (They’d call you El Greco too if your name was Domenikus Theotokopolous.) Nikos Kazantzakis was also from Heraklion, a city noted for its artists.
Knossos was a small, contained place circled by pine trees, unlike the sprawling sun-drenched expanse of a typical archeological site. There were restored ocher columns, four storeys to the palace, open courtyards for bull leaping, and cisterns that had been used for self-purification. Its red clay and turquoise frescoes were so familiar to me, with their vivid colors and playful lines that Matisse could have envied. No wonder it was the prototype of a work of art!
I listened to the din of the cicadas and took it all in.
Sir Arthur Evans began digging there in 1900, to console himself after the death of his wife, and soon uncovered the palace complex. Although there is little written record, just linear A and linear B, the archeological record shows a preponderance of Goddess figurines, and Goddesses, priestesses, and women of rank appear repeatedly in the frescoes. Because of the lack of fortification, Evans considered it a pacifist culture with a matriarchal religion.
Due to its isolation in the Aegean and support from its lucrative trade with Egypt, Crete was not conquered by patriarchal Indo-Aryan forces for a full thousand years after its neighbors. Since it survived the longest into the historic period, it represents matriarchal culture at its most advanced and refined, with sophisticated plumbing, and advances not seen elsewhere for another thousand years. By 1450 BCE, though, this society came to an end, weakened by the eruption of Thera, fires, earthquakes, possible insurrection from within, and fell to the Mycenaean war lords, progenitors of Agamemnon and Menelaus, the aggressors in the Trojan Wars.
The Greeks trace their paradise lost to the reign of Rhea and Cronus, which ended when Zeus overthrew his parents and established the Olympian pantheon (1). Zeus was born on Crete and there are two caves both claiming to be his birthplace. The snake Goddess of Knossos has been identified as Rhea (2), Zeus’ mother, who birthed him either in the caves of Mt. Dikte, or on the slopes of Mt. Ida, a mountain sacred to her.
I wanted to see the place where this mythic transition took place, the changing of the gods. We engaged a driver at Malia, another palace archeological site, to take us there. The barren mountains rising from the sea gave way to the patchwork quilt of the agrarian Lesithi Plateau, and on up Mt. Dikte. The hike up to the cave’s entrance was rigorous, though not very long.
Once inside, the view was vertiginous—a sheer drop, covered with stalactites and stalagmites, and a staircase’s steep descent into the dark. Already weak in the knees from the climb up, I had no real desire to descend into it. I stood at the precipice and gazed down, trying to absorb the import of the place and its history, before turning back to the Lesithi Plateau.
The explosion of the volcanic island of Thera/Santorini in 1600 or 1700 BCE is thought to be the origin of the Legend of the Lost Atlantis, come down to us from Plato’s Republic, of a superior island civilization destroyed in a single day. Our little studio at Maria’s Place was in Oia, at the top of the caldera. Looking down into it, I thought of the values of the lost matriarchies, destroyed by the Indo Aryans, the patriarchal conquerors–the Yamnaya, as they are now called–over the millennia.
Santorini (Thera) with its breathtaking views was our place to recharge and regroup after tramping through museums and ancient sites. We swam in the kidney shaped turquoise pool, gazing out at the views of the Aegean beyond. We hiked along the caldera towards Fira, and down the 300 steps to the port of Amoudi for a seafood dinner.
In spite of the changing of the gods, and women in ruins, you can’t take the Goddess out of Greece. Even in its Golden Age, 1,000 years after the fall of Knossos, Athena still presided on the Acropolis, over the city that bore her name. And now, in the Greek orthodox churches, the image of the virgin was often dominant, either as the monolithic figure of a mother holding her infant son, or an all-encompassing figure that contains him. One can imagine Paul in the Agora, and his followers, telling the populace that the Goddess of old that they revere, Ma (mother) Rhea, is also the mother of his god, Maria.
As we left the country after our ten day visit, I was replenished by these sites so rich in symbolism and mythology. Greece was full of natural beauty as well as a repository of history and art. Its people were easy-going and friendly, continually helping us. Their food was delicious and healthy. While I saw no real prosperity, I was gratified not to see any real poverty either. It seemed the right balance. They impressed me as a warm, intelligent people who have been here for thousands of years, justly proud of their culture, and eager to show it to their many visitors.
- Hays, Gregory, “The Last Reversal” in the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS, August 18, 2022, pp. 67-70, p. 68.
- Smith, Betty, (author of GREEK DIALOGUES), Lecture at the San Francisco Jung Institute, 1987.
Cotterell, Arthur, THE MINOAN WORLD; Doumas, Christos, THERA; Edey, Maitland, LOST WORLD OF THE AEGEAN; Hood, Sinclair, THE MINOANS: CRETE IN THE BRONZE AGE.
Sally Mansfield Abbott is the author of MIAMI IN VIRGO, a mystical feminist coming-of-age novel. She has taught classes on Goddess Worship in Prehistory at several colleges in the Bay Area. She is a poet and peace activist.