The Curetes and the Idaean Dactyls, benevolent mythical figures of Crete, are often identified with each other and are shrouded in mystery. The many different versions and confused information do not give us a clear picture of them. Nevertheless, some myths describing them stand out.
The Curetes were five brothers:
- Heracles (no relation to the famous hero and son of Zeus)
Legend has it that they were not born but sprang from the earth when it was wet by the first tears of the infant Zeus. This symbolises that they were native sons of the earth. This is why tradition speaks of the Curetes as the first inhabitants of Crete and even, through folk etymology, that the words Crete and Cretan are derived from the word Curetes (C-u-retes).
The word Curetas (the singular of Curetes) is also very similar to the word Kouros, which meant “young man” in Ancient Greek, while Kore meant “young woman” (cf. modern Greek “kori”, meaning “daughter”).
Curetes, the first Cretans
The Curetes are said to have been the first inhabitants of Crete and the founders of the first civilisation on the island. According to the myths, the Curetes were responsible for every discovery of the time, and helped in the organisation of social life in Crete.
The Curetes played an important part in the birth and upbringing of Zeus, the greatest of the Twelve Gods of Olympus. When the time came for Rhea to give birth, she chose a cave on Crete and asked the native Curetes for help.
The Curetes guarded the entrance to the cave so no-one could approach, and undertook to look after the infant Zeus until he came of age. Sleepless guardians, the Curetes danced when the baby cried, stamping their feet, or, in another version, beat drums and clashed their metal shields to cover the wails with their noise. Cronus, the father of Zeus, had received a prophecy that one of his children would overthrow him, so it was vital that he did not know that Zeus was alive, or the holy infant would be in danger.
Curetes and their inventions
It was in the cave that the Curetes discovered their first invention. They made a hanging cradle for the infant Zeus. Cronus was the lord of earth, sea and sky. Zeus’s cradle, although underground, did not touch the earth, the sea or of course the sky, hidden as it was in the depths of the earth.
The Curetes’s first invention was followed by many others. They were the first to teach humans to hunt, making the first bow; they also taught people animal husbandry by domesticating animals, beekeeping, metalworking and dancing. It is said that the traditional Cretan dances, still kept alive to this day (Pentozalis, Malevisiotikos Pidichtos) have their roots in the Pyrrichios war-dance of the Curetes.
The Curetes also made the first drum, which they gave to Rhea, by stretching an animal skin.
Curetes, the founders of the Olympic Games
Legend has it that the Curetes were the founders of the Olympic Games. On a trip to the forests of the Peloponnese, the five brothers stopped to rest. To pass the time they raced each other. The winner was Paeonaeus, and the Idaean Herakles crowned him with a branch of wild olive, which he is supposed to have introduced himself from the north.
Similar games were held in remembrance of this event every five years, in honour of the five brothers. The games stopped due to a flood, but fifty years later, Clymenus, a descendant of the Curete Herakles, set up an altar in Olympia in honour of the precursors of the Olympic Games.
In effect, he established the famous Panhellenic games as a continuation of athletic events held in Crete as early as the 2nd millennium BC.
The Idaean Dactyls have many features in common with the Curetes, sharing the same names, characteristics and legends. One point of difference is the myth of their birth. It is said that when Rhea was gripped by the pangs of childbirth, she stifled her screams by sinking her fingers into the earth, from which sprang the ten Idaean Dactyls (“fingers”).
The names of some of the Dactyls that have come down to us today are Celmis, Acmon, Damnameneus and Acesidas. These names are connected to metalwork.
- The celmis is a tool used in casting metal
- The acmon is the anvil
- The damnameneus is the hammer
So it is no coincidence that the Dactyls are a symbol of the development of metalworking and that they are supposed to have discovered iron.
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