Small wonder that the god Zeus spent most of his young life in the caves of Crete.
He certainly had plenty to choose from - over 3,000 caves of various sizes, about the same number as on the whole of the Greek mainland. Many of the Cretan caves are still unexplored, and even those that have been examined are often very inaccessible. They have been carved deep into the limestone by the karstic action – erosion - of water. Often subterranean streams and pools have gouged out a veritable labyrinth of cathedral –like chambers with spectacular stalagmite and stalactite formations. Expeditions by the Greek Speleological Society have brought to light the fossil remains of animals in some caves, dating from the era when Aegaeis was dry land.
Visit the Diktaean birth-cave of Zeus (Psychró) and you will be shown formations such as ‘Zeus’ cradle’, ‘Zeus’ cloak’.
Finds of cult objects were made there by local people from the 19th but detailed examination was impossible. The entrance was largely blocked by rubble and the Turkish authorities forbade any excavation there. The British archaeologist Hogarth was later able to explore the upper part of the cavern and made more finds, but the deep side cavern held the greatest surprise; a myriad of rich cult objects – Minoan double axes, statuettes etc – had been pushed into clefts in the stalactitic roof. This was the inner sanctuary of Zeus!
The late 19th century also saw the first finds from the other great cave, on Ida (Psiloritis), where according to mythology Zeus grew to maturity. In 1955 the archaeologist and speleologist Paul Faure carried out an investigation that revealed the rich cult deposits in the great side chamber, dating from the Minoan and archaic periods. Among these were the great bronze ‘shields of the Couretes’, mythical guardians of Zeus. The Greek archaeologist Sakellarákis began new excavations there in the early 1980s, which are still on-going. The bottom of the cave has not yet been reached.
Other caves on Crete have had a darker history. During the period of Turkish occupation they were used as places of refuge by Cretans, and were often the scene of a massacre. During the Second World War they provided a safe haven for many a Resistance fighter.