March 13, 2013

Britomartis: Minoan Goddess of Nature and Hunting

Posted in Goddess Project, Goddess Things tagged , , , , , at 6:51 am by Babs

Early Crete had an elaborate and wealthy culture and based its worship on the female principle of nature.  When patriarchy overran the island, the theology of this culture was distorted and goddesses were demoted to heroines and their legends were grafted to those of Greek heroes.  Britomartis is one who has survived in this manner but some scholars suspect she may well be the greatest goddess of Minoan Crete.  She is traditionally depicted as a young, lithe and strong hunter, often carrying arrows.  This image was merged as a spoil of war, with the image of Artemis and has remained as Her image to this day.

Britomartis had as her companions, a suckling babe and a snake, two powerful symbols of the generative force.  Her name Britomartis means “sweet maiden”, “sweet girl”, “good maiden” or “sweet virgin”.  Britomartis was the daughter of Zeus and Carme, daughter of Eubulus.  She was born at Caeno on the island of Crete.  She was one of the Cretan nymphs.  Britomartis was also a huntress and a companion of Artemis.  Like the archer-goddess, Britomartis wanted to remain a virgin.

Minos expressed interest in the young woman but Britomartis didn’t want to have anything to do with the king, particularly considering that he was her half-brother (Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa).  Minos of Crete intended to rape the virginal goddess and chased her for nine months through forested land.  She eluded capture by throwing herself off a high cliff into the ocean.  There she was miraculously saved by Artemis who made her a goddess.  He caught her in the fish nets that she herself crafted and gave to humanity.  After this, in the western lands, she was called Dictynna (netted one).  Though, according to Diodorus Sicilus, she had already received this name, because Britomartis had invented the nets for hunting, called dictya.  It was this invention that she was named Dictynna.  While other people believed that she was named after Mounty Dicte, a mountain where she frequently hunted game with Artemis.  Dictynna was also possibly the Minoan Mountain Mother, where her sanctuaries were situated on mountaintops.  She retained the name Britomartis in the east.

The story that joins the two, with pursuit lasting nine months, the length of a human pregnancy, was a rebirth from the sea, suggests that this Goddess symbolizes the integrity of the feminine soul and rebirth.  Later Britomartis was also worshipped on Aegina where her temple, Aphaea, can still be seen.  Another version tells us she was Phoenician, and that she lived in Cephalonia, where she was worshipped as Laphria, before she went to Crete.

In Greek mythology, Britomartis was a mountain nymph (an oread) whom Greeks recognized also in Artemis, in Aphaea of Aegina, and in Kiktynna (derived by Hellenistic writers as from diktya, “hunting nets”).  She was worshipped as the Minoan goddess of mountains and hunting, an aspect of Potnia, the “mistress”.

The oldest aspect of the Cretan Goddess was as Mother of Mountains who appears on Minoan seals with the demonic features of a Gorgon, accompanied by the double axes of power and gripping divine snakes.  Her terror-inspiring aspect was softened by calling her Britomartis, a euphemism.  Every element of the classical myths that told of Britomartis served to reduce her power and scope, even literally to entrap her in nets (but only because she “wanted” to be entrapped): patriarchal writers even made her the “daughter” of Zeus, rather than his patroness when he was an infant in her cave on Mount Dikte, and they made her own tamed, “evolved” and cultured Olympian aspect, the huntress Artemis, responsible for granting Britomartis goddess status.  But the ancient goddess never disappeared and remained on the coins of Cretan cities, as herself or as Kiktynna, the goddess of Mount Dikte, Zeus’ birthplace.  As Diktynna, winged and now represented with a human face, she stood on her ancient mountain, and grasped an animal in each hand, in the guise of Potnia, the Mistress of animals. Later Greeks could only conceive of a mistress of animals as a huntress, but on the early seals she suckled griffon.  Archaic representations of winged Artemis show that she evolved from Potnia theron, the Mistress of Animals.

By Hellensitic and Roman times, Britomartis was given a genealogical setting that fitted her into a classical context:

Britomartis, who is also called Kiktynna, the myths relate, was born at Kaino in Crete of Zeus and Karme, the daughter of Euboulos who was the son of Demeter; she invented the nets [diktya] which are used in hunting.”  Diodorus Siculus 5.76.3.

In Minoan art, and on coins, seals and rings and the like throughout Greece, Britomartis is depicted with demonic features, carrying a double-handed axe and accompanied by feral animals.

As Diktynna

A xoanon, a cult wooden statue, of Britomartis, made by Daedalus, sat in the temple of Olous.  In Chersonesos and Olous, she was often portrayed on coins and was heavily worshipped in those cities; the festival Britomarpeia was held in her honor.  As Diktynna, her face was pictured  on Cretan coins of Kydonia, Polyrrhenia and Phalasarna as the nurse of Zeus.  On Crete, she was connected with the mountain where Zeus was said to have been born – Mt. Kikte.  Though temples existed to her in Athens and Sparta, she was primarily a goddess of local importance in Western Crete, such as Lysos and West of Kydonia.  Her temples were said to be guarded by vicious dogs stronger than bears.

As Aphaea

Britomartis was worshipped as Aphaea (Pausanias, 2.30.3) primarily on the island of Aegina in Mycenaean times, where the temple “Athena Aphaea” was later located.  With the coming of Athenian control over Aegina, a temple to her also existed on the outskirts of Athens, at the Aspropirgos.

As Britomart

Britomart figures in Edmund Spenser’s knightly epic The Faerie Queene, where she is an allegorical figure of the virgin Knight of Chastity, representing English virtue in particular English military power, through a newly coined etymology that associated Brit – as in Briton with Martis, here thought as of Mars, the Roman war-god).  In Spenser’s allegory, Britomart connotes the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I of England.

Britomartis was probably identical to or derived from the Bronze Age goddess Potniatheron, or the Mistress of Animals.  It seemed likely that Dictynna was called in PI-PI-TU-NA, a name found in the Linear B tablets, found in Knossos.  If this is true then Dictynna is an ancient Minoan goddess.  PI-PI-TU-NA, however, doesn’t appear in the tablets located in Pylos.

Britomartis has many of the attributes of Artemis but became the goddess of hunting, the earth, nature and wild animals.  Britomartis was a patron goddess of hunters, sailors and fishermen.  She may have originally being a Cretan moon goddess, as well.  Though Artemis also used this name as well, as Artemis Diktynna in her sanctuaries at Chania Bay and at Chersonesos; so some authors assumed that Diktynna was Artemis, not a separate goddess.

Besides the possibility that Orion was a potential lover for Artemis, there is ony one other person mentioned who caught the attention of the chaste goddess.  Bell insinuates that Artemis is in a homosexual relationship with a woman named Britomartis.  Artemis saved her from the sexual advances of Minos and then fell in love with her.

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