Crete is at the heart of Greek mythology. Some of the most famous story lines of Greek mythology relate directly to Crete, including the head of the Olympian gods – Zeus.
The Birth of a God – Zeus and Cronus
Crete is credited as the birthplace of Zeus. But it was not an easy and glorious childhood that he had; in fact, it was fraught with grave peril.
His father and mother were among the twelve Titans – the children of Uranus (the Heavens) and Gaia (Earth). His mother was Rhea, and his father was Cronus. Very unfortunately, Cronus heard a prophecy: he would eventually be overthrown by his own son. His solution was simple – he devoured his children as soon as they were born. Rhea managed to save her youngest child, and tricked Cronus, feeding him a stone wrapped in a blanket instead. What to do with the real child? She hid him on the island of Crete.
Zeus’ Cretan Infancy
And where in Crete? In a cave. But which cave is still debated – two claim the honor. One is the Ideon Andron Cave, high on the slopes of Mt. Psiloritis (Mt. Ida) – Crete’s highest mountain, at 2,456 m, in the center of the island. The other cave that claims to be the birthplace of Zeus is the Diktaion Andron – the Psychro Cave, which was a sacred cave from the Minoan era. The Diktaion Andron is in the Lasithi Plateau, in Crete’s easternmost province.
Zeus was nursed by his foster mother Amalthea. This beautiful name means “tender goddess”. But who Amalthea was exactly depends on interpretation. Sometimes, she is depicted as a shepherdess, feeding the infant Zeus with goats’ milk from her herd. But other times, she’s depicted as a goat herself.
The Cretans themselves also protected the infant god. The Korybantes – or sometimes called Kouretes – were a band of warriors and followers of Rhea who helped to protect the baby Zeus by remaining close to the mouth of the cave so that they could bang loudly on their shields in case Cronus were to approach. This loud clamouring was intended to mask the sound of the mighty infant’s cries.
Zeus and Crete
Zeus had a great affection for Crete. And a great affection for women; of his many, many trysts, one of the most famous occurred in Crete.
Zeus was taken with the beauty of Europa, the Phoenician princess originally from the Argolid. He abducted her. Famously though, he took the form of a bull to abduct her, and carted her off to – of course – Crete. We often see Europa depicted on the back of a bull as she is being abducted. He took her to Gortyn – near Matala – and seduced her under a plane tree – the fabled tree (or one so honored) still stands beside the archeological site of Gortyn.
Of the gifts Zeus bestowed upon Europa was said to be Talos, the giant bronze protector of the island.
King Minos, who gives his name to the Minoans, Crete’s magnificent Bronze-Age culture, was the result of Zeus’ union with Europa. And this is not the only time that a bull – a symbol frequently appearing in Minoan culture – plays a significant role.
Minos is associated with some of the best known of Greek myths – the labyrinth and the Minotaur. Minos was in competition with his brothers for the throne, and he sought divine intervention, praying to Poseidon to send him a sign – a splendid white bull – that the throne was his. The bull appeared, Minos took the throne, but he did not follow through on the rest of the agreement – to sacrifice the bull in Poseidon’s honor. Poseidon was enraged, and he devised a creative and awful punishment.
He bewitched the wife of King Minos – Queen Pasiphae – to fall in love with the bull. And not a chaste sort of love, either. And here another famous figure from mythology – Daedalus – enters the tale. Daedalus is the famous engineer best known for the myth of Icarus and the wings held on with wax. Pasiphae had him build for her a cow for her to crawl inside and so deceive the splendid white bull, enticing him to mate with her.
From this union of Queen Pasiphae and the bull came one of the most famous beasts of Mythology – the Minotaur. The name of this half-man / half-bull hybrid comes from Minos and the Greek word for bull – Tavros (Taurus – like the astrological sign). King Minos needed to protect him, and protect others from his voracious hunger. Again, the engineer Deadalus was pressed into service – he designed the famous labyrinth to hide the Minotaur.
A son of Minos and Pasiphae – Androgeos – was a skilled competitor, winning every prize at the Panathenaic games. This prompted the jealous Athenian king to have him murdered. In retribution, the Cretan King, Minos, demanded seven youths and seven maidens of Athens to be sent to Crete (how often – whether annually, every seven years, or every nine years – is uncertain). Their fate was an awful one – they were sent into the maze to either to be eaten by the Minotaur or to perish, lost in the maze.
Finally, the third time a group of young Athenians is to be sent to Crete, the son of King Aegis, Theseus, decides to put an end to this brutal custom. Joining the chosen youths incognito, he would enter the maze and slay the Minotaur.
Of course, he’d need some help, if only to escape from the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. This came from none other than Ariadne – the daughter of King Minos, who was completely smitten with Theseus. According to most stories, she gave him a ball of thread so he could trace his way back, leading the young Athenians out of danger with him. Theseus fled the island with Ariadne afterward.
But there was not a so-called happily ever after. First, en route to Athens, they stopped during their journey on the Cycladic island of Naxos. There, Theseus had a dream: Dionysus came to him in his sleep and convinced him to leave the island at once, abandoning Ariadne. This worked out fine for her though because she ended up marrying Dionysos: the god of the wine harvest, of fertility, of orchards, and of theatre, among many things. Dionysus had persuaded Theseus to leave so he could claim Ariadne for himself.
Then, the return of Theseus, which ought to have been triumphant, brought tragedy instead. King Aegeus searched the horizon for his return. And they had agreed upon a signal ahead of time – if Theseus were triumphant, he’d change the black sails on his ship to white ones. But he forgot. King Aegeus saw the black sails on the horizon, and, believing Theseus to have been killed by the Minotaur, flung himself into the sea in grief. We call the sea after him still: the Aegean.