The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 7: Labyrinths of Crete

This series started on Oct. 15 and will continue every other Saturday. I’m taking a trip back in time to my 4-month backpacking rambles around Greece in the early 1980s, which planted the seed for my recent novel The Ariadne Connection. Now, as I work on the sequel, The Ariadne Disconnect, I’m reflecting on the ways a writer’s experience can be transformed into fiction. I hope you find the journey illuminating, or at least entertaining. Again, I apologize for the sketchiness of the few photos I’ve been able to recover from storage; most of these below are borrowed.

 When I set out to travel in Greece, I was pursuing my lifelong fascination with its Classical art, architecture, and mythology of around 700 to 150 BC. But spending several weeks on Crete, soaking up its layers of history, I became enthralled with the older Minoan (or Keftiu) culture that somehow resonated on a deeper, intuitive level. Historical records of the Minoans are sketchier than those of the later mainland Greeks, but excavations of the last 100 years keep adding to the picture. Now we know that the early Minoans of the Bronze Age were establishing their apparently peaceful, sea-trading civilization at the time of the first Egyptian Dynasty, around 3000 BC. And some of the Minoan mythology has remained alive for all those thousands of years. This vitality still seems to reside in the landscape itself, so it’s no wonder that when I began to write my novel, the heroine would be named Ariadne.

A brief summary of the story of Ariadne (above, with her sacred serpents) and the Labyrinth:

King Minos, a son of Zeus by a mortal woman, claimed the Cretan throne at Knossos, and prayed to Poseidon for a sign legitimizing his power. Poseidon sent a scared white bull from the sea so Minos could sacrifice it to honor the gods. Minos decided to keep the beautiful bull, angering Poseidon (not a wise move), who got revenge on this arrogant mortal (a common theme in these myths: punishing hubris) by making Minos’s wife fall in love with the bull. She became pregnant by the bull and gave birth to the Minotaur, a monster with the body of a man and head of a bull.

Minos kept the bull hidden at the dark heart of the labyrinth, and his daughter/priestess Ariadne knew the key to the secrets. When the Athenian Theseus arrived on the island, Ariadne gave him a magic sword and thread to find his way into the center, kill the Minotaur, and find his way out again.

There’s a lot more before and after that portion of the tale, but what resonated with me after visiting Knossos (above) and other ruins of mazelike palaces/ritual centers, was the apparently central role of women in the religion and civic life. The Minoan religion is believed to have been devoted to honoring the Earth Mother, and the decorative arts such as frescoes and pottery depict idyllic scenes of a fruitful landscape, graceful men and women, and athletic ritual bull-dancers.

The 99 fabled cities/palaces left no signs of fortifications or images of war (those images later appeared when the mainland Mycenaeans took control of the island, bringing their patriarchal sky gods to mingle with the female deities). That is, of course, a simplification, but most historians discuss the tensions between world views that finally produced the Classical Greek ideal of the human who honored reason, science, and control of sky gods such as Apollo, while integrating the earthy emotional, creative, and subconscious truths of the ancient chthonic (subterranean) deities. The passage into the labyrinth symbolized the journey into the inner self, acknowledging those sometimes frightening dreamlike powers and impulses that needed to be integrated for full development of humanity.

In my novel, Ariadne is a Greek scientist working on a cure for a new pandemic when she has to admit that her cures are not based on science but rather a channeling of ancient mythic powers. She must go within to tread the labyrinth and learn to embody and balance those polarities.

In her journey to safely channel the chaotic healing powers and escape various factions out to capture her, Ariadne encounters on Crete a crone in the “healing sisterhood” who takes her to a sacred cave:

“The mother, the Goddess. We’re in Her womb. I don’t need to tell you.”

“The earth’s womb.” Ariadne whispered, “Zeus was born in a cave in these mountains.”

The old woman gave her snorting laugh. “Men and their gods!  They’re all fools, don’t you listen to them. The wise-women have guarded the power of the Goddess for longer than men can remember. They thought they were so strong and smart when they brought in their angry gods with their thunderbolts and arrows and swords, always thirsty for blood!  But we pulled the wool over their eyes, pulled their great sky god down out of the clouds to be born in the dirt like any mortal man.”

She leaned closer, gripping Ariadne’s arm, her embroidered neckband glimmering its spiral with a third staring eye. “You’ve got to learn the secret ways, and guard them safe from the men. They’ve forgotten they’re meant to be consorts for the Goddess, help her keep the earth fertile. They keep trying to kill her. We can’t let them.”

As I mentioned earlier, you can hardly escape the concept of the labyrinth on Crete, as most of the ruins have a mazelike structure. The footings and reconstructions at Knossos are the most famous of the palace/ritual sites, but others such as Phaestos have a similar structure.

Even ancient Greek coins (at start of blog post)  portray the labyrinth, an image echoed by other cultures such as this Hopi design.

I often find inspiration in wild places, and where I felt the deep pull of the labyrinth most profoundly was on the relatively deserted west coast of the island, at the site of the ancient city of Falassarna. At the time Jim and I hiked to its beautiful seaside setting and camped at the foot of rugged cliffs, we saw only a goat herder who politely asked us to move our tent from his patch of grazing grass and onto a sheltered, sandy spot among the boulders. We were free to wander the ruins exposed by a French archeological project that apparently had run out of funds to continue.

Here is Jim among the ruins:

This ancient settlement of weathered white stone seemed almost to be carved from the bones of the rugged crags rising from the sea: encircling walls, empty rooms, courtyards with the circular forms of dry fountains, stairways climbing to nowhere but sky. At its feet, an endless stretch of white sand and the brilliant turquoise shallows shading to deep blue sea. I took many  purifying swims in the bracing, cold water, so clear that it felt like I was floating in air.

Later, meditating in the ruins beside the fountain gone dry, I felt the ghosts of ancient inhabitants stirring around me and heard the faint song of a flute. Here is a scene from The Ariadne Connection that tried to capture that feeling:

They dropped lower, down a narrow cut, then suddenly out onto an open plateau looking over the distant sea. Peter caught a sharp breath. Before him a white stone maze glimmered under the rising moon—an expanse of twisting curves, convoluted angles, tortuous spirals carved into the rocky earth. A labyrinth of silver and shadow.

He blinked. It was the ruins of an ancient town, broken walls and twisting alleys and fragments of stairways climbing toward the stars, all hacked seemingly of one piece from the white stone.

She led him in silence down the deserted narrow passages between walls, threading the shadowy maze inward. A whisper surged and ebbed in his ears—voice of the sea echoing in an empty spiral shell. Peter was lost, wondering if he’d wander the twisting paths forever.

Ariadne ducked through a dark gap, climbed the stairs carved into the side of a wall, and sat atop it. He sat beside her, looking out from the center over the glimmering stone tracery.

“What is this place?” It came out a whisper.

She lifted her palms. “No one knows. We think one of the ninety-nine fabled cities of the ancient Minoans.”

“And Ariadne. Her labyrinth?”

“Who can say?  There is power here.”

Ariadne must find a way to harmonize the opposing forces, including male and female energies, new technology and ancient ways. Fearing the oppression of men, including her tyrant father, she finally learns to trust former smuggler Peter, who reminds her of the concept of Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. It posits a field of consciousness of all living beings on earth, like the voice of the Earth Mother whispering from the labyrinth, and Peter suggests that perhaps the crimes against life perpetrated by those drunk on power may be due to the fact that those people are trapped in static and can’t hear the voice of the noosphere. And now, at the dawn of 2017 and a new political regime that promises unnerving similarities to the dystopia of my novel, I’m hearing echoes. I’ll do my best to listen.

*****

You will find The Rambling Writer’s blog posts here on alternate Saturdays. Sara’s newest novel from Book View Cafe was recently released in print and ebook: The Ariadne Connection.  It’s a near-future thriller set in the Greek islands. “Technology triggers a deadly new plague. Can a healer find the cure?”  The novel has received the Cygnus Award for Speculative Fiction.

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The Rambling Writer’s Greek Travels, Part 7: Labyrinths of Crete — 8 Comments

  1. This is really interesting. It is fascinating and strange that you can find the same maze symbol in both Minoan and Hopi cultures.

  2. Yes, there are many parallels in spiritual practices throughout the world–including some archetypal images. When I was researching for the novel, trying to understand spiritual healers, I studied with a shamanic practitioner and learned that the techniques were similar in traditional cultures worldwide.

  3. I just had to trace my way through that maze. As I tried to keep my finger and eyes trained on the right path I perceived a subtle shift in shape. For me the labyrinth became a womb.

    Am I the only one with this perception?

  4. Sara – I spent so much time, many years ago, exploring the labyrinths on Crete at Knossos and Phaestos. The past came alive there and you certainly have captured that in your excellent novel THE ARIADNE CONNECTION. Hurry up on the sequel! Thanks for this wonderful post too!

    • Thanks, Mary Alice! I’m working away on the sequel, THE ARIADNE DISCONNECT (with another labyrinth), and most excited about my return trip to Greece in September.