Pilgrimage Report from Anemospilla: Sacrifice is not the way

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For Seekers – Pilgrimage – Practices for Soul & Spirit

Any new landscape heightens our senses. Needing to orient ourselves in the unfamiliar we are called to see and smell, to hear and reach out in new ways. The energy within our very bodies may shift. 

Coming from Massachusetts, the landscape I know is relatively gentle. The land rises with hills rather than mountains. The word Massachusetts, in fact, translates roughly as “place of the great hill” from the Algonquin language and takes the name of the natives peoples from the eastern part of the state. A landmark hill near to my home has the gentle slope of what local native people identify as the back of a beaver. 

The landscape of Greece, especially on Crete, is sharper. Mountain ranges rise to points like great pins to pierce the sky. The light of sunrise and sunset is cut to gleam like gems, crimson at sunrise, silver at mid-day, and rose to red’s last thread at sunset. Some mountains do gently dip and cradle the light. The sea surrounds and at a distance is vast blue while turquoise green edges the coast when you come close. 

And inside the land, just below the surface and deeper down, are mysteries of the earth in crevices, caves, and ruins of an ancient culture showing itself in layers. The stones along the way are worn smooth by so many centuries of seekers and shepherds, princes and queens, the winemaker and the farmer passing along the way. As I followed in their steps, these are stories and lessons that the landscape stirred in me. 

Anemospilla: Sacrifice is not the way

The people of ancient Crete worshiped everywhere. They built what today are called palaces, which originally may not or may not have been the seat of kings but were certainly used for sacred purposes including worship, festivals, processions and performances like the gymnastic bull leaping undertaken by women and men over the backs of wild bulls lured in from the countryside. 

But sacred practices were not confined to these places. The pillar, representative of the Goddess, stood outside storerooms for the wine at country villas. Households had their own small shrines. Cemeteries and necropolis show signs of many offerings being made; places of the dead were filled with the living.

The palaces were sited between the sea and mountains. The ancient peoples may have processed toward the palaces from the sea and later processed out to make a pilgrimage to peak sanctuaries in mountains the palaces were oriented toward by sweeping views and ornamentation to direct to the eye.

The most famous palace today is Knossos; it is the second most visited site in Greece after the Acropolis. Partially reconstructed with the goal of giving us today a better understanding of the grandeur of the thousands-of-years-old original, Knossos seems to me to suffer from too much emphasis on the buildings. The many, many visitors wait in line to see a small room with paintings that are clearly reproductions and from there move to the next line to peer for a moment into a throne room before needing to keep moving. Follow the human flow and you just move from line to line. Meanwhile the mountains all around are if not ignored, seem to be regarded by most as just a backdrop.

But in ancient times the mountains beckoned from the buildings. 

Knossos is oriented to Mt Juktas, which means talking hill or mountain. When viewed from a certain angle, the mountain offers the profile of a man’s head with his mouth open. This could be Zeus, though not the dominating Zeus of later Greek myth, but rather a male deity who may have been the son or lover or probably both of the Great Goddess and who was born and died each year. This was a God of the cycles and vegetation and growth. 

On Mt. Juktas are both natural caves and constructed sanctuaries to which priestesses and priests certainly traveled. Perhaps any person could travel there to make a petition. The King is said to have come every 7 or 9 years (both are symbolically important numbers) to get a message from the God or Goddess.

Anemospilla is one of Mt. Juktas’ sanctuaries, located in its foothills with a view to the sea over vineyards. Constructed over 4000 years ago, the moment of its dramatic destruction by earthquake around 1700 BCE froze in motion a ritual whose meaning complexified understanding of this ancient culture and offers us a lesson for  today. 

In keeping with the importance of three in Minoan culture, Anemospilla’s sanctuary has a tripartite structure. The center room held a large statue of the Goddess. The statue was not found during excavations (begun in 1979 by archaeologist Giannis Sakelerakis), but two large clay feet surmised to be the base of a wooden statue were. The room was filled with shards of pottery likely from offerings made to the Goddess and a piece of hillside rock to serve as a symbol of earth. Seeing a reproduction of the Goddess’ feet at a one-room museum below the mountain, I thought, “The Goddess still walks with us.”

To the left/east, a second room was discovered filled with vessels, some still holding traces of milk, honey, grains, and peas were found. Over and over again we see offerings being made as a central part of ritual life in this culture. 

To the right/west, the final room was empty except for three human skeletons presumed to be enacting a ritual interrupted by an earthquake. A woman lay face down with arms outstretched  in a corner. A tall man lying on his back wore a bracelet with a seal, which were used  like signatures so marked the man as someone with authority. And on top of what appeared to be an altar was a young man in a position that indicated he was bound and an ornate knife was close by his bones. These appear to be a priestess, priest, and a human offering frozen in the moments of enacting their ritual. 

Archanes little museum at the base of Mt. Juktas has a display that describes the meaning made of these skeletons: 

“After study of this unique discovery by not only archaeologists but also other specialists, forensic experts, anthropologists etc., it is most likely that the priesthood, forewarned by pre-seismic shocks, resorted to the ultimate sacrifice, that is human sacrifice in order to placate the deity and avoid the terrible earthquake in the first half of the 17th century BC which, nonetheless, finally destroyed the old palaces of Crete and this Minoan shrine at Anemospilia.”

Our excellent guide Marilina Paters of Elissos Traveling Philosophy described this sacrifice as an act of despair. The ancient Creteans knew the devastating impact of earthquake and the upheaval that its destruction would wreck on society’s functioning. Human power, however, has no control over an earthquake, not thousands of years ago and not today. The priest and priestess turned to Divine power in their desperation to save their culture, choosing the most extreme of sacrifices.

The answer to their sacrifice was immediate: No! 

The earth shook and the walls fell. A fire was ignited. They died knowing their sacrifice provoked exactly what they wanted to avoid.

If they could speak today to share their lesson learned so dramatically and definitively, I hear them say, “Sacrifice is not the way.” 

Are we listening to their counsel? 

We certainly do not bring humans to altars and put knives into their chest, but the sacrifices offered today may be more heinous.

We live today with not just the sacrifice of individuals but sacrifice zones holding whole communities. 

To feed the need for the energy that fuels our growth-focused capitalist society, we have dug radioactive elements out of the earth, dumped radioactive waste back into the earth, created pollution causing plants, and sited all of these in areas where those with the least income and mostly likely to be black, brown, or native people live. The environmental justice movement in the US calls our attention to the imbalance and injustice of these practices by naming these areas sacrifice zones. 

As the global temperature rises, climate chaos with its floods and droughts and sea levels rise impacts those who have contributed the least to creating the problem the most severely affected. Pakistan’s summer floods are a dramatic and devastating current example. These places are our global sacrifice zones for inaction to address climate change and maintenance of energy-intensive lifestyles.

We sacrifice the lives of others everyday.

I imagine the priest and priestess of Anemospilla shaking their heads. They know this is not the way. Not only because of the harm caused to others, but because everyone will suffer. They couldn’t escape their earthquake. We can’t escape the effects of climate change that we unleash with our choices and actions.

But unlike with an earthquake, sacrifice zones and climate change are human caused and so we can act to shift them. We have been slow to do so, but I sense that just within the last few months an acceleration in action and even an understanding that sacrifice is not the way. 

I made the connection between ancient and contemporary sacrifice because on the day I was learning about Anemospilia, my nephew’s social media feed included the call to fight the sacrifice zones made possible by a deal between US congressional leaders with Senator Joe Manchin allowing the fast-tracking of oil and gas infrastructure development. 

But a week later the deal was dead—at least for now—because of the outcry and effective organizing of grassroots groups. There were beneficial aspects of the bill supporting renewable energy, but the fast-tracked projects would have negatively impacted communities along the way of a proposed pipeline. Organizers said no to this sacrifice. 

This success is one small step but it shows a way forward—without sacrifice. 

Balance as a value in ancient Crete was a theme that came up over and over again as our guide Marilina led us through landscape and sacred sites. The people lived in balance with the natural world and their Deities. The Great Goddess contained everything from the smallest bee to the highest mountains and even beyond to hold the sun and moon and stars. All balanced within Her.

We humans, especially in the West, have arrived at our current crisis in no small part because we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from nature, from each other, and from the Divine. An insidious off-shoot of this division is the belief, conscious or unconscious, that those with resources will somehow survive even as others perish and the planet burns. But climate change is a global “earthquake” no one will entirely escape. 

We are in this together. 

So we must keep vigilant to prevent policies and practices that would create sacrifice zones. But while we are working on these short term preventive measures, we can also seek a deeper transformation. 

To ensure that we move into a sustainable future and not just put bandaids on a broken system we can uphold and reclaim a consciousness of connection. 

Indigenous communities today have preserved this connective consciousness for millenia. We can heed their calls to protect water, land, and air, and follow their leadership. A recent New York Time opinion piece calls the indigenous peoples and communities working in together in the Americas, Indonesia and Africa, Guardians of the Future and amplifies their voices and demands for support for their climate solutions:

“We hope that society as a whole can rethink its attitudes. Simple, everyday acts can go a long way. Rethink your rampant consumption. Rethink this capitalist way of living — relentless development. We want this philosophy of life to become part of everyday habits.” — João Víctor Gomes de Oliveira, the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil, Brazil.

A philosophy oriented toward life and connection rather than dependent on sacrifice and consumerism may seem like a far away dream to many of today, perhaps particularly those of us not indigenous to the place where we now live. But this consciousness is the heritage of us all. Some of us just have to dig deeper and make more repair as we reclaim an orientation toward balance and connection.

Those of us of European descent, for example, carry the continent’s legacy as the birthplace of capitalism as we know it today and the violent practices of settler colonialism practiced across the globe. Go further back into history, however, and you encounter Crete’s peaceful, prosperous, and artistic culture. Said to be the first European culture, the archeologist Marija Gimbutas identifies Crete as one of the last to express the worldview of Old Europe-you could call this indigenous European culture-with its religion guided by the Goddess of birth, growth, death, and regeneration manifest in the cycles of the year and creatures such as bird, snake, toad, and bear. Her companion is the young God who wakes the Goddess from winter’s sleep to call forth crops and passes away at the end of the season. The enduring Goddess and the changing God connect and cooperate and abundance is the reward.

This understanding of the Goddess, God, and their collaborative relationship have been suppressed—the attempts to do so even violent—but in a sign of their resilience, they have not been erased. The Catholic Church, for example, that most patriarchal institution, continues to offer us images of the Madonna (i.e. Great Mother) holding Her Son to keep the thread of the older religion woven into our lives. It may be a thin thread but it is still there.

To encounter this Goddess and God is to move through obscuring veils of current conditioning, past religious indoctrination, contested history, or doubting of one’s own intuition–or all of this combined. My outer pilgrimage in Greece moved me through these inner veils seeking such an encounter and you shall hear more about this in the stories to come. For now I leave you with an image of the Goddess from the Heraklion Archeological Museum that captured my attention utterly and centered me fully in the mystery of the Great Goddess waiting to be revealed. 

If you do want to hear me talk about the trip—plus see more photos—I have tentatively scheduled a Greek Pilgrimage Report Back for Sunday, October 30th at 4pm ET (time zone converter) on Zoom. Register to get the zoom in details and so I can gauge interest for that time slot.

Note on Sources and Resources: Marilina Paters’s talks as we toured Crete were filled with information and insights. She made the history and ancient sites come alive! I double checked dates and details on Wikipedia. Rachel Pollack’s The Body of the Goddess was my prep reading for the trip and informed the connections I made to the landscape. I read Marija Gimbutas’s The Language of the Goddess before the trip and am reading her The Living Goddess now. The connections made to and conclusions drawn about the pasts teaching us about the present are my own—as well as any factual or interpretive errors. My purpose is to share the stories and lessons the trip stirred in me rather than be a comprehensive historical or archaeological review. Feel free to let me know what this piece sparks for you and any errors you spot.

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