Rhea (the flow) is a little known Greek Goddess in spite of being described as mother of them all. Most famously she is the mother of Zeus, the boss God of Classical Greece. She was supposed to have hidden him from his father Cronos who wanted to eat him up like his other children. The hiding place was the Idean cave on Crete which gives us a clue as to her origins.
It is likely that Rhea is one name given by the later Greeks to the most sacred and mysterious flow of life itself revered by earlier peoples. She is described as one of the 14 Titans who were more ancient than Zeus and co. Rhea clearly belonged to a very ancient pre-Olympian time, yet I believe that out of all the Goddesses she has particular relevance for today.
In our go-getting, goal orientated, competitive world psychologists are talking more and more of the importance of being in the flow. In fact it is seen as the most satisfying and emotionally intelligent state of being. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously said ‘Panta Rhea’ meaning everything flows. Rhea is the form divine energy takes as it begins to manifest. She is the rhythm of life flowing between opposites at every level and in every dimension. As a mysterious and complex force, attuning to her is no easy task. ‘Going with the flow’ is not just about doing what you think you feel like at any moment. In classical Greece there were initiations into the mysteries of Rhea involving lengthy trainings and dramatic experiences centred on a cave in Mt.Ida on Crete. Pythagorus was a famous initiate. In those days science and mysticism were not divided. Initiates had to spend a night alone beside a river, face terrors in the cave, see visions and change from black to white garments amongst other activities. As we can’t all go to Crete I have developed what is known about these Mysteries into a 21st Century process described at the end.
I first discovered Rhea when on holiday in Crete, one gentle spring in 1986. I was with my 8yr old daughter rushing around the sites and museums on coach trips for tourists. This was hardly the best way of visiting a place that was to change my life. I was teaching a social anthropology course at the time, and just beginning to explore ancient goddess cultures. Little did I know what a big change was about to happen. Arriving at the site of Knossos (a temple complex 4,000 yrs old) I almost fainted with a powerful sense of having been here before. We walked up wide and worn-down steps that would once have come from the sea. Dark, brooding cypress trees and the clicking of cicadas accompanied our ascent. At the entrance stood a pair of massive reconstructed bull’s horns and to the left were the twin peaks of its protective mountain. They also looked like bulls’ horns.
In the frescoes inside were more horns. Everywhere I looked they challenged and excited me. I felt the pull of some primal masculine sexuality. And yet the art was flowing and equalizing. Their murals painted in soft blues and greens, earthy browns and reds seemed to actually move and dance as you looked. They exuded joy and freedom and a sense of attunement to nature. Female figures dominated the ritual scenes and were ever present in dignified poses, dancing and even leaping over bulls. Here it seemed as though male and female sexuality were part of everyday life, not split off and twisted into war or passivity. Rhea as the flow between opposites was everywhere. No statues, or even temples were needed. She was simply lived.
When I returned to London I read everything I could find about ancient Crete. (I prefer not to use the term Minoan as it is based on a male kingship that may have existed later). Although early Cretan writing has not yet been deciphered, later Greek myths describe Rhea as the mother of Zeus, living on Crete. I could feel in my bones that she was the closest we would get to the Cretan name for the divine flow of life that is behind everything. It is likely that their ancient culture revered her as a force in nature, perhaps even before she was personified with a name. She is fully present in the art until around 1,400 BCE when the more patriarchal Mycenaeans appear to have finally taken over. Then the art becomes much more rigid and geometric.
By Classical times actual temples were built for Rhea, for example in Olympia in the 4th Century BCE. It was called the Metroum, honouring her as the mother of the Gods. She had male companions (Consorts) called the Couretes who may have developed the sports in Crete that ended up in Olympia. These same men are described as guarding her baby Zeus by making a lot of noise when Cronus the father set out to devour him. They are described as ’companions of the mountain loving mother’ and bringers of fruit’. In earlier times they would have been the male initiates ’leaping’ and dancing in the spring to tune in with nature’s fertility. But this sexual energy was in the service of Rhea rather than there to dominate her.
Rhea is also associated with Dionysus who was said to have been initiated into her mysteries. And he is a flexible, wild vegetation god, flowing rather than controlling. Eros the god of love is said to have lived in her cave as she beat out the relentless rhythms of life and death on her drum outside. She can also be seen as a kind of mother time personifying the flow of life into death and rebirth. In classical myth she is a Titan married to Cronos (father time).
Training in the Mysteries of the Flow
But how can we play with her today? I have used the descriptions of her mysteries by Xenophanes of Colophon writing about Pythagorus and created a modern 7-stage process. This can be done alone or with others, in a weekend workshop or over a life time. The intention is to increase our ability to tune into Rhea as the balancing flow of life.
1. Emptying. As in the mysteries of old, it starts with a ’purification’. However, to get away from the dualistic hierarchy between pure and impure, we will look at it as letting go what is not needed for the journey. It can include physical washing, emptying the mind of thoughts and emotionally letting go of attachments.
Exercise: Experience feeling newly born every time you emerge from a bath or shower. Remember to focus on the rhythm of breathing with the name of Rhe-aaaaa to go with the in and out breath. Write down all the things in your life you want to let go of. Burn the paper.
2. Trusting. Move into a sacred space. It may not be possible to find a cave! Being blindfolded and led by another can create the trust and surrender needed. Black clothes may be worn.
Exercise: Find a quiet space to sit down and close your eyes. Imagine you are in a cave, sitting on a black cushion. It is completely dark. You have no sense of direction or time. Let the darkness enfold you and let go of any thoughts. Let go of your identity. Become nothing.
3. Facing fears. This is a time to allow all your worst fears to come up and be stayed with and faced. It can be terrifying and the task is to stay centred throughout their appearance. Sometimes they appear as actual visions. Loud noises such as beating drums, screams and growls can be used. Or life may just offer you opportunities in its own time.
Exercise: Sit down close your eyes. Imagine the things or situations you are most afraid of. Picture them vividly with colours, sounds, smells. Be aware of the separate centredness of your own body. Wipe the images out with an imaginary brush. Recreate them and wipe them out again. Draw and paint them and look at them till they no longer hold the fear.
4. Gathering the Opposites. Rhea is essentially the flow between opposites. So it is vital for us to explore exactly what our main opposites within are. There can be the acceptable side and the shadow side, the strong side and the vulnerable side etc. This stage involves honest self-examination. One opposite is usually pushed down. By opening to it and acting it out we can bring it into play with the other side. Then we can flow over time from one to the other in tune with the needs of the moment.
Exercise: Take a sheet of paper, draw a line down the middle and write down on one side all the characteristics that you normally feel identified with. Then on the other side write down the opposites. Try for an hour, or a day, being the opposites. Dress up, act it out with friends if they let you.
5. The Sacred Marriage: Interconnection of Opposites. This is the stage of fully accepting them all and dissolving the hierarchical structures within.
Exercise: Devise a ceremony to ‘marry’ your own opposites. Use a chair, a tree or another person to represent them. Then go and ‘be’ them. Let the love energy flow between you.
6. Love under Will. Now you have the freedom to practice sending love energy to whomever or whatever you choose.
Exercise: Visualise people you love and those you have difficulty with and imagine your heart to be a door opening to send them loving energy. Send it to yourself. Remember to be grateful every day, if only simply for being alive!
7. Commitment to living in the flow of Rhea’s Rhythms: Special new clothes are worn to symbolize a new start. In ancient times these were white. Promises are made to keep practicing the techniques and to continue honouring Rhea in everyday life.
Exercise: Devise a ceremony alone or with others to make the commitments out loud.
Meenee, Harita, The Women's Olympics and the Great Goddess, Eleusis Press, 2004
Guthrie. W.K.C., A History of Greek Philosophy, Cambridge University Press, 1964
Graves. R., The Greek Myths, Penguin. Harmondsworth. UK, 1955