Riding the wave


Myth comes from the need of Ancient peoples to solve the mystery of existence. When the Greek civilization reaches a rational philosophical orientation, it also tries to give the myth a rational explanation and therefore a historical reliability. Legends and traditions are thus populated by gods, demigods, nymphs, heroes and various monsters, most of them being located on the island of Crete , in the midlle of the entire Greek civilization.

To the island is bound Zeus, supreme god, and his son Dionysus , whose link with Crete is enhanced by its union with Ariadne , daughter of Minos. He was the son of Zeus and Europe , while his brother Rhadamanthus married Alcmene, mother of Heracles, the greek hero par excellence, then risen to the dignity of Heaven.

Minos was the king of Crete and founder of the capital Knossos, while Rhadamanthus was the custodian of the wise legislation of Crete, thus a symbol of social order. Minos married Pasiphae, daughter of Helios the Sun, sorceress, sister of Calypso and Circe, and aunt of Medea. He claimed his sovereignty over the entire island, saying that the gods had ensured to him the fulfillment of any desire. He dedicated an altar to Poseidon , god of the sea and his "uncle", and asked a bull for the sacrificial ceremony; received a white animal, but, as this seemed too good-looking to be sacrificed, he replaced it. The God punished him of the sacrilege by inspiring a mad passion for the beautiful bull to Pasiphae, who asked Daedalus to make a large wooden cow, into which the bull could join her. The result of that love was the Minotaur, half man and half bull.

Pasiphae with the kid Minotaur Pasiphae, with a cist hanging at her side, with the infant Minotaur. Hydria , Sec.V B.C. (Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale)

In the labyrinth built for him at Knossos by Daedalus - artist, architect, inventor, creator of the sails; symbol of the technological progress of the Minoan civilization - the Minotaur ate human flesh and received the "toll" of Athenian youth. He was finally killed with the help of Ariadne by Theseus, who so succeeded in freeing his country from the terrible scourge.

In other versions, Pasiphae had only wanted to avenge the infidelity of her husband, and to punish him properly, he made sure that his semen was fatal for his many lovers, until he fell in love with the Athenian Procris, who, according to the legend, invented the condom.

Minos is, among the characters of mythology, the one that better suits "history" for its political and social initiatives: the ancient authors attributed to him a sort of divine revelation - much like Moses - by Zeus, who suggested just laws and institutions held in high esteem; by conquering the Aegean islands and Asia Minor, he encouraged the spread of cretan civilization, and Crete became the first naval power in the Mediterranean.

The basic cretan myths concern then Zeus as a bull and Ariadne; their sons Minos, Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon; Minos' wife Pasiphae; the bronze guardian Talos ; Daedalus and Icarus, the Bull of Crete, the Minotaur, Ariadne and the loves of Theseus; the children born from the loves of Minos and their descendants.

Zeus, the pivot of Greek civilization, destined to become the master of the world then known, was born in Crete in a cave on Mount Ida (or Dikti), where his mother Rhea had taken refuge on the advice of her parents Uranus and Gaea : she wanted in fact to rescue the unborn from the voracity of her husband Kronos , who devoured his children, because - according to a prophecy of Gaea - they were going to apprpriate his kingdom.

Curetes play Zeus The Curetes play to protect Zeus suckling from the goat Amaltheia, under the eyes of a female figure, perhaps the personification of Crete (Rome, Capitoline Museums)

Rhea presented then to her husband a stone wrapped in cloth, so that Cronus believed to have swallowed the child in swaddling clothes, but he was instead given to the goat (nymph?) Amalthea, under the protection of the Curetes. These were young warriors and benevolent demons, perhaps the children of Gaea or of the nymph Crete, and lived in the Knossos area; they danced noisily with their music to cover the cries of little Zeus, so that Cronus did not discover him.

Besides the Curetes, in the childhood of Zeus there are also the Dactyls, also benevolent demons, magicians, fortune-tellers and inventors of metallurgy - thus initiators of civilization - and also the Telchines, mainly located in Rhodes but also closely linked to Crete, also magicians, however less positive than the former.

In his homeland Zeus loved the nymph Crete, from which the name of the island; they had Karas, founder of Carians, who inhabited the lands of the Aegean. Sons of Zeus, according to different versions of the myth, were also the Curetes and the Dactyls, and Kretas, that he had from the nymph Ida, who was the parent of the Cretans.

Artemis and the Giants Artemis and the Giants, Pergamon Altar, frieze (det.), c. IV. B.C. (Staatliche Museen , Berlin)

Equally significant is his relationship with Europe, that gave the name to the continent where she lived. The girl was originally an Oceanine, like Asia, the continent being also named after her, while from another Cretan love of the god with nymph Carme was born Britomart, virgin nymph, huntress and companion of Artemis, then identified with her.

Amethyst with Artemis Artemis, amethyst, I cent. B.C. (Naples, National Archaeological Museum)

The name of Europe and of her female offspring is related to Selene, the moon. Europe means "luminous forehead", while his mother Telephassa is "the one that lights from a distance", the nymph Pasiphae "that lights everywhere", Phaedra "illuminating" and Aerope "that illuminates in the air". To Selene are also linked Artemis and Ariadne, the Cretan heroines. The latter is connected with Europe, to which Zeus had given a hunting dog and an unerring dart, symbols of the goddess of the hunt and mistress of animals.

From the stories of Zeus are deduced the fact that he was ancestor of peoples, and also the concept of the centrality of Rhea and the nymphs - symbols of a matriarchal society - in the cycle of life and survival. The myth of his birth in a cave also explains the religious cults in the caves to celebrate the regeneration of vegetation and therefore of life itself.

The myth, therefore, beyond the narrated episodes and the characters of which celebrates the exploits, can be interpreted as being connected to the history and culture of the country of origin.

The images of the section are mainly drawn from:
Donati and Pasini
Pierre Grimal,
Aeolian Museum of Lipari
Readers Digest
Antonis Vassilakis

The University of North Carolina Press has published A genealogical chart of Greek mythology,
Harold and Jon O. Newman (UNC Press 2003, 272 pp., Fig., Appendices and index)
attempting to reconstruct the whole intricate genealogy of Greek mythology