Ramblin’ Man: The Birthplace of Zeus
It’s not every day that you get to visit the birthplace of a god. Because gods are so rarely born these days, and those places which do boast a deity’s origin tend to be in out-of-the-way locales. Like the island of Crete, for instance—where, tucked into its inland mountains, there is a deep, dank, dark cave which is womb-like in the extreme and well worth visiting if you have any interest at all in religion, mythology, or classical literature. Or caves.
If we think of ancient Greece as the father of western civilization, then this cave must be the cradle of western civilization.
Actually, Crete boasts not one but two birthplaces of Zeus: two caves, alike in dignity, which have vied for millennia as the true site of the god’s inception. Since gods are by definition omnipotent, Zeus could easily have been born in two places at the same time—but the motivation and logic of such a feat remain murky. Maybe to support the tourist trade.
The two rivals are the Ideon Cave, which is nestled in Mount Ida in central Crete, and the Dikteon Cave, which lies a little more to the east on Mount Dicte. I for one favor the Dikteon Cave simply because that’s the only one I was able to enter. I made a stab at the Ideon Cave, but I went there in April, and alas, snow was still piled up over its entrance. Obviously it was the will of Zeus and his way of directing me towards his true birthplace.
For those of you not in the know, Zeus is/was the king of the Greek pantheon, famous for his hurled bolts of lightning, infamous for his amours. Back when gods were even more anthropomorphic than our current ones, he overthrew his father Cronus, who had heard word of a prophecy that his son would one day supplant him—so he plotted to kill him directly out of the womb.
Zeus’s wily mother Rhea, however, handed Cronus a rock in lieu of the baby after giving birth, and Cronus—so simple-minded deities were back then—swallowed it, thinking it was his son. Meanwhile the real baby Zeus hid out in the cave in Crete where he was born and eventually ripened into the overthrower of his father.
This supplantation of the father by the son is a theme that has reverberated throughout the ages down to our present day in Freud and Star Wars and the Bible. For the supplanting of the angry, authoritarian God of the Old Testament by the loving, radical Son of God of the New Testament is but a variation on this same theme.
Anyway, if you want to go back to the heart of things, go back to the ancient Greeks. This same desire to go back to the heart of things is what led me to Crete. Before the Greece of Socrates and Herodotus, before even the Greece of Achilles and Agamemnon, there was the Greece of Crete.
Before the Bronze Age, which is when the heroes of Homer most likely lived, there was the prosperous, powerful civilization of Minoan Crete, so named after the keeper of the mythical Minotaur and labyrinth. The legend of Theseus—with mainland Greece paying tribute in gold and innocent youth to Minos—no doubt has its origin in real history.
If, like me, you’re really into ruins, Crete is a choice destination. Faded glory and ghosts of history and large chiseled stones scattered amongst Nature are very seductive to me, and Crete is a goldmine for all that. Knossos (the seat of pre-historic power and probable location of the original labyrinth) is worth seeing, but the ruins of Phaestos and Matala Beach are more rewarding.
As is the Dikteon Cave—also known as the Psychro/Psihro/Psyro Cave. Romanization of Greek names tends to be variable. Here’s how to get there:
1. From Heraklion (which is where you’ll probably fly into), take Highway 90 east towards Agios Nikolaos.
2. Before Malia, you’re going to see a sign for either Chersonisou to the north or Lasithi to the south. You’re gonna want to go south toward Lasithi.
3. The road will lead you up, up, up into the mountains. You’ll pass a very chintzy, touristy site purporting to be a “Cro-Magnon Museum.” Just keep going.
4. You’ll pass through the town of Lasithi and eventually end up in Psychro/Psihro/Psyro. From the town you can hike up to the cave.
5. Don’t sue me if the above directions aren’t entirely accurate. It’s been a few years since I’ve been there and my exact path is a bit hazy.
Like I said, the cave is very womb-like—also very gullet-like. As you enter the mouth of the cave, you feel as if you’re slowly passing down the throat of an ancient, malevolent giant. There are both stalactites and stalagmites, and they greatly resemble teeth. There are also pools of water formed by water dripping from the said stalactites and they are like saliva. The intermittent dripping of this metaphorical saliva only lends extra eeriness to the place.
I went there on the off-season, and so I was the only one there. Just the way I like it. I took my time making my way down to the bottom of the cave, till the mouth appeared to be but a small circle of bright light far above me. As I stood pensively at the bottom of the cave, I thought about origins—not just Zeus’s, but western civilization’s.
If we think of ancient Greece as the father of western civilization, then this cave must be the cradle of western civilization. For Minoan Crete was the first Grecian civilization of note—and if this was the place where the head god of the ancient Greek pantheon was purported to have been born, here I was standing in a spot whose historical slash cultural significance could only be rivaled by Mount Sinai or maybe the Mahabodhi Temple in India.
A feeling of holy dread came over me. I no longer consider myself a superstitious person—though I once was. I’m even prone to flaunt my lack of superstition by consciously walking under ladders when I encounter them. But I had an odd, uncomfortable feeling in the Dicteon Cave. Like I wasn’t supposed to be there—like I was trespassing and that ancient, inhuman spirits were taking note. Caves can do that to a man.
Anyway, I didn’t feel like lingering too long, so I left. On my way down the hill, a telltale pressure in my bowels communicated to me the need to visit a restroom. Luckily there was a small complex of shops and a cafe at the bottom of the hill around the exit. Maybe during the peak season the place would be bustling, but it now appeared abandoned except for one woman behind the counter in the cafe.
Stepping up to her, I inquired, “Pu ine i tualeta?” Where’s the toilet? Whatever country you’re traveling to—after “thank you,” of course—this is the phrase you must learn. Take time to memorize it on the plane.
She directed me downstairs. I did my business and ascended the stairs. The woman behind the counter had disappeared, and instead there was a rather sullen man sitting at one of the tables smoking. By his general air and posture I could tell he was the proprietor of the place—the Zeus of this tiny touristic Olympus, if you will: an imposing, regal figure who seemed wrapped up in his own glory.
Not wanting to disturb him or call any unnecessary attention to myself, I quietly headed for the exit.
“You’re welcome,” the man sarcastically, passive-aggressively said, obviously perturbed that I had the temerity to use his facilities without buying anything. Can’t say as I blame him any, the Greek economy being what it is.
“Thanks,” I muttered, utterly abashed.
And thank you, Crete.