Minoan (Cretan) Christmas
We all know the story of how Christ was born in a manger, with animals whose breath and bodies offered some warmth in the frozen cave, according to Orthodox tradition.
But how many of us know that this story is not original, but had also taken place many centuries earlier in ancient Greece, specifically on the island of Crete?
According to Greek mythology, Dias or Zeus, the father of the gods of Olympus, was born in a cave on Crete. No myth gives the precise location of the cave; Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, refers to a cave near the ancient city of Lyktos in south-central Crete.
This led to confusion and so today there are two contenders for the title of Zeus’s birthplace: the Ideon Cave on Mount Ida or Psiloritis near the village of Anoyia, and the Dikteon Cave on Mount Dicte, near the village of Psychro on the Lassithi Plateau.
In both caves, excavations have brought archaeological finds to light showing that these were important cult places, but there is not enough evidence to choose one of the two as the birthplace of Zeus.
Similarities between the stories of Christ and Zeus
Zeus was born in a cave on Crete - Christ was born in a cave in Israel
Zeus was the greatest of the gods of Olympus - Christ is the head of the Christian Church
Zeus was born in a cave to hide him from his father Cronus - Christ was born in a cave to hide him from Herod
The goat Amalthea and a swarm of bees accompanied the newborn god and offered him nourishment during his early years.
According to variations on the myth, other animals which helped Zeus were the eagle, pigeons, the dog and the sow.
Animals offered warmth to the baby Jesus in the cave
The Cretan myths, unlike those of the rest of Greece, relate that Zeus died and was reborn each year.
Zeus Cretagenes, the Cretan-born Zeus, is thought to have replaced an older deity, the Cretan god of vegetation, who died in Autumn and was reborn in Spring, following the eternal cycle of nature.
Christ was crucified, died and was resurrected.
From the cave of Zeus
to the manger of Christ
According to the experts, religions evolve down the ages, adapting to new conditions. However, they always cover basic human needs, needs which do not change significantly through history. Just as our ancestors, thousands of years ago, prayed to Zeus (the Hymn to the Dictaean Zeus) for their families, their crops, their flocks and their ships, for peace and prosperity in their societies, so too do we pray to God today for exactly the same things. The only difference is that most of us are no longer farmers or shepherds, but businesspeople, employees and scientists.
In Crete we also have a further example of ancient practices being carried over to the new religion. When the shepherds of Mount Psiloritis accuse each other of stealing sheep, they go to the monastery of Dioskourios and, before the holy icons, swear a solemn oath - not to Christ, as one would expect, but to Za (derived from the name of Zeus).
Especially concerning the births of Christ and Zeus, we see collective memories and universal truths which still apply, unchanged, despite the millennia separating the two stories.
Christ, according to Orthodox tradition, was born in a cave, like Zeus long before. Why a cave? Perhaps because caves were the first refuges for humans, offering shelter from bad weather and wild animals. Perhaps because caves are ancient symbols of the womb, the wombs of the Earth, Gaia, the Great Mother.
Animals were at the side of the newborn Zeus and Christ and helped them to survive at the beginning of their lives, just as animals have helped people survive for thousands of years, with their meat, milk, wool or companionship.
The exercise of power by cruel rulers has led to thousands of victims in every age. Both Cronus and Herod are expressions of the bottomless human thirst for power, a thirst which overcomes all law and conscience: Cronus swallowed his children alive, while Herod slaughtered all the male infants in his district. Both Zeus and Christ, in their first moments of life, faced these ruthless tyrants and were hidden in caves to survive.
PS: Just to make things clear: this article does not aim to equate Zeus with Christ. There are certainly similarities in their stories, but there are even more differences, particularly in their lives and personalities. This article was not written by an expert on religions, nor is it a scientific text. These are just some simple observations whose intention is more to entertain than to teach. I hope we have managed to do so.
Nikos Deja Vu