The birthplace of Zeus?

The Psychro Cave in Crete

High in the Dicte mountain range along the Lasithi Plateau in Crete is the Psychro Cave, which may have been the place where, according to myth, the great god Zeus was raised.

Josho Brouwers

The gods of the ancient Greeks were immortal. But they didn’t spring into being out of nothing, with the important exception of the first primordial being, “Chaos”. M.L. West, in his translation of the Hesiodic poems (1988), renders Chaos as “the Chasm”, adding that “this is the literal meaning of the Greek name Chaos; it does not contain the idea of confusion and disorder” (p. 64). You could also translated it as “void”.

Chaos gave birth to primordial deities like Erebos and Night. These deities – many of which are little more than personifications – gave birth to other divinities, until finally Earth (Gaea) slept with Sky (Ouranus) and gave birth to a number of gods that included Cronus, “most fearsome of children” (Theogony 138). Cronus eventually castrated his father Ouranos, after which he and his brothers and sisters became known as the Titans.

A view of the Lasithi Plateau taken from the path that leads up to the Psychro Cave. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

Cronus married his sister Rhea, but theirs was not a happy marriage. As Hesiod explains, a prophecy had foretold Cronus that he, too, would be overthrown by his offspring. As a result, he swallowed whole every child that Rhea brought into the world. “Rhea”, as Hesiod writes, “suffered terrible grief.” When she was pregnant of Zeus, she went to her parents, Gaea and Ouranus, and asked them for advice. One can imagine that Ouranus was pleased to be offered a chance to get one over on Cronus. In any event, they told their daughter to go to Lyctus in Crete.

Rhea did as her parents advised. She gave birth to Zeus, passing the baby to Gaea to rear, hidden away in “a cave of hard access”. Returning to Cronus, she handed her husband a swaddled stone, which he swallowed whole without a moment’s thought. You’re probably familiar with the rest of the story: Zeus grew into a strong adult and, with the help of his mother Rhea, helped free his brothers and sisters from his father’s stomach. These younger gods then waged war against the Titans, and ultimately overthrew them.

A donkey train is available for those who prefer to have these equids do the walking. Donkeys are sure-footed and were already used in ancient times for transporting goods and people. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

The funny thing is that it’s possible to visit what may be the Diktaion Antron mentioned by Hesiod. Located in the Dicte mountain range, at an elevation of 1,025 metres above sea level, is the “Psychro Cave”. As one of the signs near the cave explains, it was discovered by local villagers in 1883 and soon drew the attention of a number of different archaeologists. Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, purchased some of the objects that had been unearthed in the cave.

The entrance of the cave is essentially a rock-shelter, about 35 metres wide and 16 metres deep. The front portion of the rock shelter was part of an ancient temenos or sacred precinct, and was paved in places, though that’s difficult to see nowadays. The cave extends quite far down into a lower area that consists of a number of different chambers and a small lake. Modern stairs and scaffolding allow visitors relatively easy access to the cool interior chambers, where water drips from stalactites.

The interior of the cave, with its stalactites and stalacmites. A bridge allows you access across the small lake here. Modern visitors toss in coins for good luck, despite the fact that it would be better if they didn’t. Photo: Josho Brouwers.

Various objects have been retrieved from the cave, with many of them now kept at the Archaeological Museum of Iraklion. The earliest objects date from the Middle Minoan period (first half of the second millennium BC; the site says ca. 1800 BC). With the exception of some objects of medieval date, the latest finds from the ancient world date to the seventh century BC, or the Archaic period. The objects include clay figurines, bronze statuettes, but also weapons.

Visiting the site today is not for the faint of heart. You have to climb up the mountain in order to reach the archaeological site. You can also hire a donkey if you prefer not to walk, but once on site, you’ll still have to descend the stairs to reach the cave’s inner chambers. The site is definitely worth it, though; aside from the splendours of the cave’s natural beauty, the walk up to the site offers some dramatic views of the Lasithi Plateau.