Echoes of the Minoans still heard in the remnants of Greek antiquity

Have you ever gone to a place and felt like you’ve been there before? Can a place hold the memory of events long past? Call it deja vu, call it imagination. I’m not sure. This is a story about a wonderful experience I had some years ago travelling in Greece and looking back, I felt like I had been taken inexorably on a journey that had propelled me into a time long ago.

It all began on our first visit to Santorini. Happy to get away from the heat and crowds of the tourist shops around the rim of the caldera, my husband and I caught a local bus to the small beach side hamlet of Akrotiri on the southern side of the island. On the way, the bus passed an extensive archaeological site called Ancient Akrotiri. It didn’t mean much to me at the time but later we saw a documentary on TV about this place and how it had been a thriving Minoan community until Santorini had been devastated by an enormous volcanic explosion around 1600 BC. After the eruption, the island that had once been called ancient Thera, had mostly disappeared leaving the spectacular crater-like caldera for which Santorini is so famous today.

The explosion must have killed everyone on the island, leaving ancient Akrotiri destroyed and covered by metres of volcanic ash until it was recently rediscovered and excavations begun some 3,600 years later. The massive blast sent shock waves, tidal waves and super heated clouds of ash racing across the Mediterranean for hundreds of miles decimating much of the Minoan civilisation which was then mainly centred around Crete.

READ MORE: New evidence puts the eruption of Thera between 1600 and 1525 BC

Houses clinging to the edge of the caldera, Santorini.

Akrotiri-Herakleion

The day after our visit to Akrotiri our stay in Santorini had come to an end and we found ourselves on one of the big ferries steaming south towards Heraklion, the Cretan capital, about four hours away.

On arrival in Heraklion we went through the usual tourist routine of trying to get your bearings in a new city and lugging our backpacks around in the midday heat trying to find reasonably priced accommodation.

Having settled into our room, and with the air-conditioner rattling noisily in the wall, I wanted to visit the Palace of Knossos, the ancient Minoan capital, one of the tourist must-see sights when in Heraklion. Using our guide book we located the bus terminal at Plateia Eleftherias and climbed aboard a suburban bus for the crowded, sweaty half-hour ride to Knossos.

Of course, along the way my husband had to make the obligatory comment which had become a running joke between us: “Not more bloody ruins!”

The Palace of Knossos had been the seat of power of the legendary King Minos until it was largely destroyed by the massive tidal wave that followed the eruption of Santorini. At the height of the Minoan period it is estimated that 100,000 people lived in and around the palace environs. Beneath the palace was reputed to be the site of the Labyrinth where the mythical Minotaur (half bull, half man) lurked, waiting to devour unfortunate human sacrifices until it was finally slain by the hero Theseus.

READ MORE: DNA reveals origin of Greece’s ancient Minoan culture

Knossos was rediscovered in the late 1800’s and excavations were begun by the British archaeologist, Arthur Evans around 1900. Evans spent 35 years of his life excavating and restoring the palace and although some have criticised his gaudy decorations as not being authentic enough, you still have to admire his dogged determination spending much of his life trying to bring this place back to a remnant of its former glory.

Knossos was for me the first hint of a stirring of echoes from the past. The beautifully coloured frescoes of dolphins, ceremonial rituals and the sport of bull-leaping (tavrokathapsia) were stunning. We spent several hours exploring the palace, trying to visualise what it would have looked like in its heyday. I felt enchanted by the place as though being transported back in time to a distant lifetime.

After a night in Heraklion we boarded a coach to the north eastern Cretan city of Sitia and after that a local bus onto our final destination the small coastal village of Kato Zakros.

Heraklion-Kato Zakros

Kato Zakros is a natural harbour at the very eastern tip of Crete. As such it was used in ancient times by Minoan traders as a midway point on the route between Egypt and ports further north. Even today, its sheltered bay is often used as a stopping off place for pleasure yachts traversing the Mediterranean.

In ancient times, the bay extended further inland than today and there was an extensive wharf and port area where the Minoan ships would dock loaded with goods from far flung ports. The wharf area has long since silted over and the coastline with its pebbly beach now lies a few hundreds metres to the east.

READ MORE: Malia, a Minoan palace of rare significance

Adjacent to where the wharf once stood are the remnants of another Minoan settlement – the Palace of Kato Zakros. Not quite on the scale of Knossos but extensive nonetheless, this place had also been devastated by the massive tidal wave that followed the explosion of Santorini.
Kato Zakros itself is a small fertile alluvial delta, only a couple of square kilometres in size, and is surrounded on three sides by high limestone mountains and cliffs. As you look towards the north, from the ancient palace ruins, there is a cliff face with an arched cave entrance which looks like it has been deliberately carved out of the solid rock and seems too regular to be a natural formation. None of the locals we spoke to had any knowledge of who made this cave or why it was there. On making the tricky climb up to the cave we found that today its only use is as a shelter for the local mountain goats. However around the entrance to the cave we found numerous shards of ancient pottery that looked like they belonged in a museum.

A view of the ruins of the Palace of Kato Zakros with the cave entrance visible high up on the right of picture. The ancient port area is in the foreground

On returning to explore the ruins of the Minoan Palace, down below, I began to envisage what daily life must have been like here for the inhabitants of this place all those thousands of years ago. I could imagine the busy port and bustling market place, the royal apartments, the gardens, and the temple and living quarters of the priestesses who venerated the mother goddess. How suddenly and shockingly must this have all ended when the tidal wave, hundreds of feet high, struck without warning on that fateful day.

READ MORE: Travelling to Gavdos, the remote southernmost Greek island paradise

So, it was it was here in the ruins of the Minoan Palace that I felt inspired to put pen to paper imagining what life must have been like for one small girl so long ago.

The story of Elena

I made my way to a far corner of the area and found a quiet spot on a limestone block in the shade of some pencil pines. Before long I felt myself slip into a deep meditative state and I let my mind wander back to those ancient times. I felt myself being transported back to a long forgotten lifetime in this very place I imagined myself as a young girl called Elena who was training to be a priestess in the royal court.

Here now is her story:

My name is Elena. It’s the day after my big initiation following in my sister Elektra’s footsteps as she is being prepared to become one of the priestesses of the royal court. Yesterday I went into one of these caves that everyone can see in the distance but only if you are following a spiritual path are you allowed to enter.

Yesterday it was my birthday and I turned 12. My teacher is a high priestess and I don’t go to school like other children. My teacher has been preparing me with many months of learning how to control my thoughts so that when I grow up I can give counsel to the King and Queen of Crete.

As of today, I now live away from my parents because I have to have concentrated study so that I can fulfil my destiny. In the cave which was all lit with candles on the ground and in the walls stood a magnificently large statue of the Mother Goddess holding a snake in her right hand. When I first saw her as I entered the cave I was awestruck by her beauty for we are taught that everything that is fertile has come from her and is naturally beautiful.

I was wearing a long white dress and a snake shaped arm bangle that was especially fashioned for this initiation. On my head I wore a wreath of flowers that I had made earlier.

I walked up to the cave with my teacher being shown the way by full moon that had lit up the whole sky. No words were spoken by either of us. I was very nervous as we walked up together, not knowing what to expect. I had been prepared by my teacher to understand that my initiation goal must be to offer my soul and heart to the Mother Goddess and to renounce all of my own needs and desires. I would have to sleep on the cave floor in front of her alone as now my life is given over to her.

My teacher has left me now and as I softly speak the words that I have been taught to recite for this initiation a dreamy sleep state descends over my whole body. The aromatic scents of lavender and myrrh in the cave placed by my teacher also help my mind and body stop. I remember my teacher telling me that the Mother Goddess will send me a dream which would be an insight into my future. I feel deep inside of me that I am being transported somewhere else…

I always felt nervous upon hearing that I would receive a prophetic type dream because I dream vividly and have ever since I was little. It is often the same dream that recurs and it always begins the same way. I am watching the scenes unfold before me and I cannot see myself or anyone in it. I am flying over an ocean that is blue and sparkling with the light of the sun. I can see as I’m flying that there is land in the distance. I do not know where I am. I feel happy and free. Then in one moment the sky has turned black. I feel the air around me heat up and the waves of water have pulled me down from the sky and the dream abruptly ends. I always wake up with an ominous foreboding. I have only ever revealed my dream to my mother but I am sure that my teacher who has been with me for a long time must know that I have this dream continually.

Last night, in the cave, I had the same dream but this time instead of flying over the ocean, I am flying over a mountainous landscape that I recognise is exactly where I live. I can see my parent’s house and our small farm with the garden. I see my favourite tree so clearly and then the dream continues like it always has except for this one difference. I awoke sweating and my heart beating furiously, crying, asking the Mother Goddess to take this prophecy from me because I feel burdened to think that this is yet to come.

The coldness of the cave’s floor and the stillness of the outside world becomes part of her answer to me that she is in control and wasn’t I meant to be handing over my will to her. My tears have become big sobs and now the snake that she is holding in her hand becomes more real to me and I can see its eye staring into my soul. The statue of the Mother Goddess is nearly the height of the cave. I cannot help but be overwhelmed at the power and wisdom of something bigger than me. What do I know? And, with this thought a deep sleep enfolded me where I had no more dreams, just a rest, and it is the sound of an owl that woke me still under the moonlight that showed itself on the cave floor entrance. I knew that I must prepare to descend back to my awaiting teacher’s arms down below. I must not be seen by anyone else as this is a sacred ceremony and what awaits is a hot spring where I can wash myself before I begin my new life serving the Mother Goddess.

My new home is in the summer palace on the edge of the water, at a major port with refreshing summer breezes in the afternoon. My room is next to the living quarters of other girls older than me. My bedroom window overlooks an expansive olive grove that seems ancient in itself. Our living quarters are separated by the rest of the royal palace by a very large garden that has flowering plants and palm trees. Large ornate columns painted blue and gold fringe this serene and tranquil garden. I have only been to this place once with my teacher and now it is my new home. As I walk around absorbing the atmosphere I can hear melodic voices singing songs of praise and love for the royal guests. I smell the sweet scents of jasmine and rose within the garden as I begin to relax in my new home.

I spend most of my time in this royal garden just outside our living quarters watching nature unfold set against the backdrop of the fountain water rhythmically flowing into a lily pond that has been lovingly created for our own pleasure.

It is a few weeks now since my initiation and I cannot hold my secret any longer regarding my Mother Goddess dream. One morning I share it with my teacher blurting the words and details out with my head bent low. As I speak I only see her long slender hand as she lifts up my chin and kisses my forehead. Her kind dark eyes only show love for me as she speaks these words: “I cannot tell you when this event will happen. All I can do is agree with your dream for it is also a dream that has been given to me at your age too. I have been waiting for you to unburden your heart. Now you must stop your worry and continue on in your studies. Go now and meditate on the butterflies and the flowers outside your window.”
With a smile, she gracefully held my hand as she led me out of my room. I no longer thought of the significance of my dream because I needed to concentrate on growing up into the priestess that I was being groomed to be.

I am now twenty one years old and I have travelled widely performing duties with my King and Queen. My life has been purposeful as I have been carrying on this path of generations connecting the female to the Mother Goddess deity.

I have been called back to the summer palace to await further instructions from my teacher. She has been away also on a retreat in a secret place only known to us. It is mid morning and I have a sense that I am reliving this moment. I cannot explain it anymore than that. I am sitting on a cushion beside the now familiar lily pond meditating as the sun heats up my body. I can hear the small birds flit around the garden chatting among themselves. There is a warm flow of air today, quite welcome from the colder days that we have had. I try to send a message to my teacher to tell her that I have arrived.

I have my eyes closed and then suddenly a noise that is so great overwhelms me. My eyes open and all I see is a blackened sky. I have no idea what is happening other than the flash of my dream image before me as a thundering wall of water immerses me.

It is over and I am floating above this ocean that is wild and as far as I can see nothing of the surrounds has been spared. White light and a wave of peace enfold me and I know that there is no more of this earthly life that I once knew.”

 

I suppose you could call it a dream, a vision or perhaps just my imagination. It doesn’t matter. But, when I ‘woke up’ so to speak I quickly took out my notebook and wrote down everything that I had just experienced.

I felt exhilarated and uplifted, but also deeply saddened. Tears ran down my cheeks as I thought of this young life being cut tragically short.
It made me think about the history of this ancient land of Greece. So many generations have come and gone, people who lived lives just like us today with all the same human emotions, triumphs and tragedies, now long gone and forgotten.

A view of Kato Zakros Bay from the northern headland looking south.

I have visited many ancient sites in Greece over the years, places such as Olympia, Delphi, Epivadros, Thermopylae and of course the Acropolis and I realise now that behind all these places are very real life human stories.

So next time you visit Greece you too might touch the essence of the history still permeating these ancient ruins. After all isn’t that why we are drawn there in the first place.