Death of Zeus in Crete

written in 2004

How can an immortal god die? Especially Zeus who was not just a god but head of the Olympians, a new breed of gods that had replaced the Titans and their “despotic” ruler, Chronos. A Rome holding to Zeus/Jupiter perhaps rejected the Cretan tradition of the god’s death with the well-broadcast adage “All Cretans are liars”.

But we all should know that mythology uses contradictory, or at least inconsistent, versions of the same story, to express alternative perspectives and to transmit more knowledge in the process, rather than “a lie”.

The importance of the death of Zeus is that the story emerges exactly from that point in time and cultural transformation in which Zeus is also born and at that time it was familiar for a vegetative god, representing nature blooming in spring and dying in autumn, to die and be re-born within the immortality of the eternal round of the year or yearly daemon.

There were other norms too, including the birth of men and their world of form, out of the Earth and from within The Cave, as a natural sacred space created by the Mother or earth goddess. Directly symbolic of her womb, form emerges as shapes in formation like dreams, travelling towards the definite order found on the surface.

Figure 1 The Dictyan Cave, one of two in Crete claimed claimed to be Zeus’ Nursery 

It was a Cretan cave where Rhea, the sister and wife of Chronos, secretly gave birth to Zeus with the help of the earth goddess. This cave can be found on the plain of Lasithi, beneath the mass of mount Dikti (figure 1). Used since paleolithic times as a place of offerings, it is filled with impressive stalagtites and stalagmites that appear like emergent statues and friezes, exactly as if the earth were creating prototypes and narratives, a world coming into existence.

Another format of ancient observance was the very tops of mountains, elevated santuaries close to the workings of the celestial world and looking out over creation. It should not be too surprising then that through the south gate of the Minoan palace of Knossos, the mountain where Zeus “dies” can be seen, mount Yiouchtas(pron. “Yuktas”), upon which the Minoans had a small santuary (figure 2). From the west, this mountain is traditionally viewed as the reclining form of the dead god (figure 3) and this long, ridged mountain dominates the whole landscape south of the present city of Heraklion, attractively rich in olive groves and vineyards.

figure 2 Mt Yiouchtas from Knossos’ SouthPorch

At the northern descent ofthe Yiouchtas ridge a very unusual piece of archaeology has also beenachieved: A small Minoan temple in which human sacrifice was interrupted by anearthquake that killed the priest and two attendants with falling masonrythough the child was already and just dead. Was this a Minoan norm or was thisan extreme measure designed to forstall a series of such disasters destined todestroy the grip of this great maritime empire of the Minoans on theMediterranean? Whatever the motives were, the tradition of child sacrifice isnow firmly associated with Zeus’ death within this landscape by this discoveryat the head of the mountain, below its peak sanctuary.

In the semitic version, Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac is a story that tells us what made the evolving godhead of Jehova different from his Middle Eastern neighbours. Christianity has that god sacrifice his own son “for our sins” and Rome equates Jesus with God, but a death place for God himself is inconceivable.

figure 3 The form of Zeus on the sacred mountain Yiouchtas, where he dies

It seems that there is a direct confrontation here between the recurrence of Eternity, born out of observation of nature, and Historic narrative, contradictory to the essence of myth. This is seen when the classical commentators call the Cretan story of Zeus’ death “a myth”, which it is, when they mean by that “a lie”. The core meaning of myth is “Traditional narrative usually involving supernatural or imaginary persons and often embodying popular ideas or natural and social phenomena” [Oxford] whilst the usage “A fictitious person, thing or idea” has in practice come to mean “a lie”.

Cultural imperialism characterises all mythic narratives outside of its own as being a lie and its own as being a fact, and this has become a dominant phenomenon since the birth of Zeus, acting naturally against any past and present alternative myths. Thus the definition of myth above, as “embodying popular ideas or natural and social phenomena”  has been inverted where mythical stories are used to define what ideas are to be popular and which natural phenomena are to be studied and why. Therefore they act to control social phenomena.

No sooner does Zeus gain ascendancy over Chronos, his father, but the god gains ascendancy over his own death, that is, his own story, and becomes a system of belief not based on nature but rather upon the existence of the god within the minds of the people. Except, that is, in Crete, where he dies and the Cretans all become liars.

It is as if the role of myth has been subtly altered from being a mechanism of receptivity towards nature, which then becomes “superstitious fantasy”, into a mechanism of social action and belief, whose imperative is the mythos that must be believed as fact and the technos of manipulating nature and dominating others.

Therefore this new active mode of social action should be called Technos, whilst the old, receptive mode can be summed up as Cosmos. Within Technos, the powers of the male in particular are in the ascendant and the manifestation within the world at this time, the Bronze Age.

It is therefore not only the godhead who is transformed in Crete since the bronze age itself was born here and can be seen as the transformation of the ancient smiths or astronomers called the Cyclopes, who built only monuments to the Cosmos. It is they who were always being “locked up” in Tartarus, the celestial depths, by the preceeding godheads Uranos and Chronos and who wore the concentric rings of the Sun and inner planets or similar, upon their brow as a caste mark, hence their “one eyed” characterisation.

Zeus releases the Cyclopes to depose Chronos whereupon they become Hephaistos, the Olympian smith god, equivalent also to Prometheus, the Titan who stole the fire from the gods that would “smelt the bronze” of human invention. Other characters such as Daedelus and Talus invent all the innovations of their age in myth, and strange new symbols such as the labyrinth, within which a half-Taurus, half-man is imprisoned. Hephaistos may be bottom of the heap in Mt Olympus but he is also head boffin in the research and development of the bronze age.

Cult Adherent,
figurine of a Cult Adherent,
figurine of the Bronze Age

Perhaps it is the mythos of an interpenetrating Cosmos that died in the birth of Zeus but became represented as his death, so near his birth place, in Crete. It is the old ways that were dead.