Last of the Pagans

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It is remote, yet not hard to find. Park at the end of the road on the tip of the Akrotiri Peninsula, in north-west Crete, and walk for ten minutes down the shallow Aviaki gorge. Then there it is, a yawning maw of black rock. I was the only visitor. With silence all about, apart from the soughing breeze and distant pulse of the sea, I experienced for the only time in my life a sense approaching the numinous.

Arkoudiotissa (‘She-bear’) Cave is so called because of a stalagmite shaped like a bear which overlooks a raised trough of stone. Inscriptions indicate that the large interior was used to worship the goddess Artemis. Later, it was the home of Christian ascetics. Hemmed in by the damp rock enclosing that brooding figure, which has witnessed so much that was so strange, I felt spooked. What really had gone on here?

I have always had a soft spot for the ancient gods. For well over 2,000 years they were a protean force adapted by their Greek and Roman worshippers to meet the needs of supplication, sanction and propitiation. In their mischievous and fickle ways they reflected the chaos of the world and made sense of its mystery. And what fun they suggest compared to the solemnities of ‘conventional’ religion. How thrilling to unravel the cryptic utterances of the Pythoness at the Oracle of Delphi. How awe-inspiring if a storm at sea signalled the wrath of Poseidon. And was that flitting shadow in a dappled glade the elusive figure of Pan?

Sadly, history dictated that the Immortals should not be so. From the time Christianity first appeared in the first century ad, paganism was doomed. It would be centuries before the sacrificial fires
flared their last. But the influence of the new monotheism was so great that by ad 380 it was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire.


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About the contributor

Patrick Welland is a retired journalist. He is thinking of buying a house snake to guide him in his future conduct.

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