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Minoan Dance: Channeling the Goddess
BY Ishtar

Published in Zarghareet USA 11/10/07

Minoan ImageLike Egypt, Crete was the site of a very early, very advanced society. The Minoan civilization were people who used to inhabit Crete till they were destroyed by natural and political means. These people have captured the imagination of many and remain in many ways an enigma. The Minoan civilization lasted over 1500 years, from 2600-1100 BC. It reached the height of its prosperity in the 18th - 16th centuries. Very little was known about Minoan Crete before the great excavations of Greek and foreign archaeologists that began about 1900, and the discovery of the palaces of Knossos and Mallia with their astonishing architecture and amazingly distinctive finds. Its history had passed into the realm of legend and remained a distant memory in Greek tradition and mythology.

Ishtar CreteWhen I visited Crete I found the preserved artworks of the Minoans to be exquisite and delightful. I was captivated by the romance and exuberance, the tasteful use of color the sheer artistry and clarity. The paintings and sculpture expressed the euphoria of the process of life and even death. What really intrigued me is how often the subject matter was dancing. In my imagination I could see from the images in the museum in Herakleion and in the archeological sites of Mallia and Knossos, how in particular the women moved. Circle type dancing as exists today was apparent, but I also was intrigued to discover images which suggested vigorous hip movements and trance moves sometimes depicted by solitary dancers that are not a part of contemporary traditional Cretan folk dance. I wanted to immerse my self in the surreal, civilized and beautiful world of the Minoans. The erotic spiral haired heavily made up and stylized women dancing, seemed to have a vibrancy which shone out and invited the willing to join them in their dance.

Minoan Dance

Clues to how the Minoans danced can be observed in the traditional art forms central to Minoan culture - ceramics, frescos and stone carvings. In the early period, the ceramics were characterized by linear patterns of spirals, triangles, curved lines, crosses, fishbone motives and such. In the middle Minoan period naturalistic designs such fish, squids, birds and lilies were common. The 'palace style' of the region around Knossos is characterized by strong geometric simplification of naturalistic shapes. Repeats are used, animal human composites are common themes as are highly symbolic and stylized human figures.

Ishtar Crete ColumnsAfter researching the temples and palaces of ancient Minoa I felt compelled to stitch together the images of dancing I saw on the freezes and three dimensional representations. I cut out scanned images and arranged them, using my intuition and studied the myths to create a dance style inspired and directed by the ancient artworks I had seen. Of all the cultures I have looked at the Minoans seem to have been the happiest and most joyful. What must it have felt like to dance like them? We can never truly know because Dance is always a response and in context with ones natural and social environment. However it is possible to obtain insights if one’s intention is clear and true.

Minoan DanceWe can gain insights of the subtle non-verbal nuances of any culture by observing their dance. art and mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that dancing was invented in Crete by the goddess. The Minoan civilization was the full flowering of a culture with a sacred female presence at its center. Crete, a Greek word, means "strong, or ruling, goddess". Of all the ancient civilizations, the Cretan goddess reigned the longest as a goddess who was one in herself, without losing all or part of her power to a divine husband.

When women occupy a low position in society it is usually correlated by a covering of the body and some times face. We can assume from images of Minoan women, as their sexuality is fully expressed, that women must have occupied a high position in society.

When one is attempting to rediscover or recreate a dance it is important to look at the culture and the psychology of a people. Minoan women were powerful leaders in religion and society. Their culture seemed to be peaceful feminine and artistic. There are so many images of people dancing it seems safe to assume that dance was a major part of spiritual, domestic and social cohesion and even altered consciousness.

Minoan Dancing WomenA great deal of knowledge of Minoan culture is based on 3,000 year old clay tablets and elaborate wall paintings and floor mosaics, suggesting much about Minoan social relationships and religion. Drawings, paintings, and small statues frequently describe dancers and musicians. Often the dancers are in a circle or line, often with a musician or musicians in the center. Some times they are alone. In some images dancing is a highly symbolic and surreal activity, strange creatures, human, plant and animal composites populate many of the art forms.

Minoan DanceI could see that the flowing ebbing and curved shapes of nature are replicated in the dance moves. The Minoans were inspired by what they saw around them. The patterns the bees make when they perform their in flight dance. The playful exuberance of the dolphin jumping out of the sea. The circambulation of the sun and the moon. The changing face of the night sky, the patterns that emanate from flowers, birds’ courtship rituals. The movements of snakes, and the shapes of the Cretan terrain. All these elements seem to be encapsulated in the dance.

Minoan DanceMinoan dances given in front of palace audiences, seems to have involved small companies dancing formal figures. We can see that dancers occasionally whirling at speed. Snake arms and vigorous hip movements were also in the Minoan dance vocabulary. Religious dancing in sacred groves and at alters is also depicted, which is less stylized and far more ecstatic and abandoned. There is much evidence to suggest that drugs were used to help elevate the proceedings. The poppy goddess is wearing seed heads cut for opium extraction. The Minoan culture must have been very well organized for its people to spend so much time in altered states of consciousness creating art and dancing. This is a world that seemed to me like a goddess inspired utopia.

Minoan Dancing WomenIn the Herakleion Archeological Museum I felt an energy and vibrancy that seemed to emanate from the goddess figures I looked at. They seemed to radiate an energy which a receptive person could easily connect with. The poppy goddess with her hands facing towards the viewer seemed to invite reciprocal connection. These figures often resided in domestic contexts. I am intrigued to how her obvious poppy antennae and blissed out look suggest a dreamy state of consciousness. This inspired me to create a dance piece that will affect the consciousness of the viewer and dancer alike.The tiny dancers on a gold ring (fig 1) suggest trance dances that I have observed in a variety of Middle Eastern cultures. The dancer in the middle seems to be creating an energy that the others are engaging in, either receiving or giving energy to the others. The strange creatures in the background are perhaps physical depictions of emanations from the dancers. I have recreated this dance scenario based on what I have observed and learnt from various middle eastern dances.

Minoan WomanOne of the most enigmatic and powerful of the Minoan goddesses is “the Snake Goddesses". This particular goddess is usually considered to be a household divinity. She looks fierce has bare breasts and holds a snake in each hand. To me she looks like she is performing a dance. She resembles a protecting goddess. Of course she is one of many goddesses whose emblem is the snake. The snake also inspires so many Middle Eastern and Indian dance moves.

Minoan culture shares many symbols with predynastic Egypt, including the ankh and Hathor-like images such as cows and suckling calves. Evans remarks that the Minoan snake goddess and her attributes show a remarkable resemblance to Wazet, a manifestation of Hathor who sometimes appears as a serpent and carries a papyrus scepter with a snake wound around it. Babylonian Ishtar is similar to the snake goddess as are other artistic, mythological and ritualistic emblems from ancient Mesopotamia. The Minoan mother goddess was often represented by snakes, and was linked to the Earth shaker, a male represented by the bull and the sun, which would die each fall and be reborn each spring. This is identical to Sumerian myths of the dying and resurrecting sun god the consort and son of Innana. The inclusions of lions with goddesses are also related to how Ishtar is visually depicted.

The Bull is featured as a central divine animal. Many Minoan murals portrayed athletic competitions, which youths performing daring acrobatics on the backs of charging bulls.

Minoan Chicken FiguresThe orientation of the palaces on Crete was determined in relation to Sirius, as was the position of Hathor's temple on the Nile. Like the Egyptians, the Cretans celebrated the New Year at the early rising of Sirius in July. Evans speculates that during the unsettling time of the military unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, refugees from Lower Egypt may have emigrated to Crete. Perhaps dance moves were shared from a variety of cultures that the Minoans traded with. The Minoans were thought not to be of Greek origin and spoke a different language. Perhaps they originated in Syria. Where the Minoans originally came from can only be speculated.

Minoan art suggests that the society was interested in the mythological and spiritual and ritualistic qualities of animals, harvests, and the underworld. Other illustrations have led to some theories that the Minoans also believed in animal-headed demons. Minoan art suggests an influx of West Asian imagery. In Anatolia, Cybele is the goddess of Mt. Ida; the Cretan Mt. Ida is a sacred mountain. Dikte is the name of sacred places in both areas. Remarkably similar Neolithic clay figures, mostly of women, are found in Crete as in Asia Minor. Symbols connected to the goddess and Cretan religion are the bull, the dove, the serpent, the sacred tree, her double axe and the labyrinth. The worship of the goddess is connected with mind altering states initiated presumably by opium, drums, music and dance.

Minoan Poppy GoddessDance/costume and music collude to create the experience of performance. It is fascinating that the Cretan woman’s costume is totally unique. The smooth form was fitted at the waist and flared gently to the ground. The ruffle style consisted of several succeeding layers of ruffles gradually increasing in circumference as it approached the ground. They were commonly decorated along the hem, sides and shoulder line with bands of woven tape or embroidery. Women wore bodices composed of smooth fitted lace that fastened beneath the breasts leaving them exposed.

Minoans liked to dance through a classic labyrinth in a single path meant for meditative circumambulation. It was originally a spiral, but slowly evolved into the maze of angular turns familiar to us today. To enter it is to experience a ritual death; to escape from it is to be resurrected. Our modern world separates reality into component parts and it is hard for us to grasp the holistic nature of ancient peoples. In the ancient world, prayer was an active, trance-inducing combination of chanting, music and dance. The danced line into the labyrinth was a sacred path into the inner realm of the goddess. Ancient labyrinths are almost always associated with caves, often appearing at the cave's mouth. Caves were the first Paleolithic temples, and the association of caves with sacred ceremonies consecrated to the goddess continued in Crete and Anatolia. And elsewhere. The labyrinth also represents descent into the unconscious structure of the mind, in search of wisdom and enlightenment. The Hindu mandalas are use for concentration in Yogic meditations, are often labyrinthine in design.

Minoan DanceWhen I was rehearsing and formulating the Minoan goddess choreography. I found a shiny silver Cretan coin in the middle of the floor. One of my rituals before dancing is to tidy the room and brush the floor. So I can only attribute metaphysical forces to its appearance. For me it is a sign that this dance vocabulary has a special otherworldly significance that does not fit into modern paradigms. Recreating dance moves from ancient Minoa can give us some insights into the psychological and spiritual feelings of the ancient dancers, as dance moves create emotions in their wake. However translating still images to movement sequences can only ever be a vague interpretation of the original. This is partially true as cultural, geographical, social and religious factors all affect the dance experience. The art of Crete is so focused on the aesthetic qualities and a very naturalistic pleasing of the senses. Their art has informed us of a culture who lived for the enjoyment of life, who connected the domestic to the spiritual and whose dance was a true celebration of being alive in a beautiful world.

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