Crete, the largest of all Greek islands, is without any doubt one of the world’s most enchanting places, thanks to its exceptional landscapes, imposing mountains, steep valleys, mysterious caves, fertile lands, luxurious vegetation, bountiful olive orchards and vineyards, calm seas and gentle climate. The very foundations of the Greek civilization, the cradle of European culture, were laid five millenniums ago in Crete. According to legends and myths, the island also has the honor of being the birthplace of Zeus.
The Cave of Zeus
Kalimera, Crete! (“Good day, Crete!”) We arrived early in the morning in the Iraklion harbor, tired after a long night on the ferry, and immediately set off toward Dikteon Andron Cave, also known as Psychro Cave, located on the Lassithi Plateau, a fertile place in the heart of the Dikte Mountains. Rising 900 meters above sea level, surrounded by peaks that can reach up to 2200 meters in height, the landscape is of a rare beauty, thoroughly Mediterranean, with its distinctive arid vegetation and lively colors. The Lassithi Plateau is very fertile thanks to the many streams and precipitations, making it suitable for growing cereals and fruit trees otherwise impossible to grow throughout the rest of Crete.
The road seems to encircle the plateau like a giant ring, passing through modest Cretan villages, with their iconic one-storey houses and the customary benches for old ladies dressed in black to sit, and taverns where unshaven mustached men gather at the break of day. Small monasteries and hermitages lay hidden in the rock cliffs, trying to go unnoticed. Just before reaching the plateau, the winding uphill road becomes dangerously narrow, a good pace to put your driving skills to the test and see whether you’ll make it without crashing the car into the houses in those tight turns.
It was still early when we reached the cave and we had to wait for a minor malfunction at the lighting system to be remedied. Meanwhile, we had breakfast at a nearby guesthouse. It was the worst we had our entire trip to Greece, in all aspects – price, quality, service.
The Cave of Zeus lies at an elevation of roughly 1,000 meters on Mount Dikte and can be reached either by foot or by riding one of the donkeys they have for rent. The rocky path takes us along oak trees, while the smell of fresh thyme and sage delights our senses. At the end of the steep 15-minute climb to the cave, a splendid panoramic view opens up over the Lassithi Plateau. We actually walked to the cave and back several times to check whether it opened. Finally, just as we were giving up all hope, we were announced the lighting system malfunction had been fixed. So we climbed the steep path one more time and entered Dikteon Andron Cave. It was well worth the wait and anxiety.
There are two parts to the cave and five chambers in total. A flat antechamber welcomes us inside, where an altar with tables for offerings were found. The main cave slopes down to four chambers, the most impressive part, the place where the magic happens. The abrupt stairs carry us into the depths of a mythical world, where bizarre-shaped rocks appear to come alive and legends no longer seem the product of fantasy.
To the left, a small chamber is known as the Cradle of Zeus. Legend has it this is where the mighty god was born. On the right, a game of lights and shadows highlights the impressive karst formations that divide the hall in two. Here, we reach the centerpiece of the cave, a lake guarded by massive stalactites and stalagmites. In the back, the Mantle of Zeus hangs over our heads like a majestic chandelier, a stalactite that does indeed resemble a cloak and therefore sparked the imagination of locals throughout the centuries.
The Legend of Zeus
I was grateful the mighty Zeus allowed us to visit his home. According to legend, Zeus, the youngest of Kronos and Rhea’s children, was heading towards the same fate as his brothers and sisters, Demeter, Hestia, Hera, Hades, and Poseidon, who had been swallowed by their father at birth to avoid losing his kingdom. Zeus was rescued by Rhea, who gave Kronos a stone covered in the baby’s clothes to eat instead. The divine child was taken to Crete, in a cave on the Dikte Mountains, where he was nurtured by Amalthia the goat, whose horn produced all kinds of goodies, including ambrosia. Five Cretans known as Kuretes protected the baby and banged their drums and shields to mask the baby’s cries. When he grew up, Zeus forced his father to throw up his children. Together with his brothers and sisters, he started the rebellion against Kronos’ dynasty of titans. Ten years later, it ended with the victory of the Olympians. Zeus became the master of the Universe.
The Dikteon Cave worshiped the Diktaean Zeus, depicted as a beardless young man who would die and and be reborn each year from a spectacular fire that rose from the depths of the cave.
We said goodbye to Zeus’s home and went down the path back to the car. The image of the fantastic show of lights and shadows, as well as the legends of the cave are still as much alive in my heart today as they were that day.
On the way back, we visited the convent dedicated to St. Varvara, with its 11th century church and 14th century miracle icon of Maiden Mary. We sat on a bench, just like those old Greek ladies use to, and just listened to the silence.