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Dikteon Cave: The Legendary Birthplace of Zeus


The Dikteon Cave is one of the most important and famous cult places of Minoan Crete.  It is located in the high mountains on the island of Crete in Greece and is associated with the birthplace of the Greek god Zeus.  For centuries it was considered a sacred place of cult worship where offerings were made and few were allowed to enter.  The use of caves as cult places was one of the basic characteristics of the religion of the ancient Cretans, and Dikteon Cave was among the most important and sacred. 

The Dikteon Cave, also known as Psychro Cave (due to its vicinity to the village of Psychro) or Andron Cave, is situated at an altitude of 1025 meters (3360 feet) on the northern slopes of Mount Dicte, which dominates the Lassithi Plateau and the whole of Eastern Crete.  The Lassithi Plateau was inhabited as early as the Neolithic Period and is one of the few sites in the Mediterranean where settlements were at high altitude. 

Dikteon Cave, as it stands today, consists of five chambers with an upper and lower section.  The upper cave or Ano spileo, resembles a rocky cavern and is devoid of stalactites or stalagmites.  A trek down a steep set of stairs 100 meters into the mountainside reveals the lower cave or Kato Spileo.  There is a larger hall on the right, which has small stone basins filled with water that legend says was a drinking spot for the god Zeus.  The most impressive sight is a small lake which is surrounded by large stalactites and stalagmites along the stairwell.  There is also what is known as the “Mantle of Zeus” which is a stalactite that hangs over the lake similar to that of a chandelier.  At the back of the lake there is a small chamber, where it is said that Zeus was born.


The cave of Dikteon (Psychro cave), Crete, 2009. Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki (Wikimedia Commons)

To the ancient Greeks, Zeus was the all-knowing, all seeing deity associated with thunder, lightning, rain and the ruler of all other gods.  He was also the ruler of the sky, the earth and was regarded by the ancient Greeks as the personification of the laws of nature.  He headed a family of twelve other major gods and goddesses called the Olympians and lived on the mythical Mount Olympus, the highest peak in Greece.  In Greek Mythology, Zeus was said to have been born on the island of Crete.  Hesiod, the Greek epic poet who scholars believed lived during the 8th century BC, tells us that the birth of Zeus took place near the city of Lyktos in east-central Crete.  However, he does not specify the precise location of Zeus’s birthplace therefore, two caves, namely the Dikteon and Ideon, both located in the Cretan mountains have been put forward as his place of birth.

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The cave of Dikteon (Psychro cave), Crete, 2009. Credit: Jerzy Strzelecki (Wikimedia Commons)

According to the ancient tradition as described by Hesoid in Theogony, Cronus, the Titan god of time and ages, and Rhea, the Titan goddess of fertility and motherhood, had five children before Zeus, all of which ended up in the stomach of Cronus.  He ate his offspring out of fear they would take his throne.  When Rhea became pregnant with Zeus, she did not want him to share the same fate and asked her parents Uranus and Gaia for help.  In order to deceive her husband Cronus, Rhea gave him a stone wrapped in swaddling clothes instead of the baby.  He swallowed the supposed infant at once and relaxed certain that his throne was not at risk from his children.  Meanwhile, Zeus grew up in the cave where he remained hidden away in the mountains of Crete from his cannibalistic father. 


Saturn (Cronos) eating one of his children, painting by Rubens 1636-1638. (Wikimedia Commons)

As soon as Rhea gave birth to Zeus she gave him to the Curetes (gods of the wild mountainside) to look after.  So Cronus would not hear the cries of the infant Zeus, the Curetes drowned out his sounds with a frenzied dance of clashing spears and shields.  The goat nurse Amalthea and nymph Melissa also played an important role in his upbringing.  Amalthea, suckled the holy infant from her horn while Melissa nursed Zeus and looked after him, feeding him honey.  Several other myths surround the Dikteon cave, demonstrating its significance to both Crete and ancient Greece.  A lesser known story, speaks of the Harpies or mythical winged maidens that once lived there.

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Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Dikteon Cave was used by humans in antiquity.  Excavations to date show uninterrupted human presence in the Dikteon Cave from the end of the Neolithic period onwards or for about the last 6,000 years.  It operated as a cult center from the Minoan to the Archaic Period (2000-700 BC), while worship at the cave continued sporadically until Roman times (1st century BC – 1st century AD).  From the 16th century AD until 1883, the Dikteon Cave was used as a shelter by local shepherds and hunters.  In the late 1800s, some of the secrets of the cave and its cult significance were unearthed by chance. 


Minoan girl, c. 1600-1500 BCE, bronze, Minoan, Crete, Cleveland Museum of Art. Photo taken: 2012 by Wmpearl (Wikimedia Commons)

Joseph Chatzidakis and Italian archaeologist Federico Halbherr carried out the first, small-scale excavations of the site in 1886.  The first systematic excavation began in 1899 by British Archaeologist David Hogarth.  The findings of the cave were published in 1961 by art historian and archaeologist John Boardman.  The excavation found many artifacts such as small statues, tables, double axes, rings, and broaches.  Stone tablets inscribed with Linear A script were found at the site along with religious bronze and clay figurines.  In the antechamber of the Dikteon Cave the foundations of a built altar and the remains of offerings placed in rock crevices were discovered.  Pilgrims made offerings at the site, including olive oil, honey, wine, wheat and animal sacrifices, which were placed on the altar and burnt.  The numerous artifacts are on display at the Heraklion Museum in Heraklion Greece and Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England. Today, Diketeon Cave is a popular tourist attraction that impresses both physically and geologically, and for its rich and fascinating history.

Featured Image: “Zeus and Thetis” Painting by John Duncan, 1811. (Wikimedia Commons)


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