“I talk to my trees. I water them and give them what they need. This makes them happy, and they produce extraordinary olives as a result.” – Stelios Kanakis
Why isn’t there a University of Olive Oil on Crete? Spain has several, and the trees in Spain came from Greece! Who remembers that the Minoans traded in liquid gold when Italy and Spain were the backwaters of the world? How is it that the home of the world’s finest olive oil is no longer the center of everything about olive trees? Well, it should be. And Stelios Kanakis’ dream is to remake the Minoan tradition, the methods, and the rituals of excellence.
The story you are about to read may seem unbelievable. Tales of gods, myths, and ancient practices brought forth are often discounted, in an age of information overload. But a pandemic will serve to change all that. Here on Crete, a land resonating with countless myths, legends, and famous traditions, there’s a priceless lesson to relearn.
A Minoan Ritual Feast
Sir Arthur Evans, the famous excavator of the Knossos Minoan “temple”, believed that the Minoans practiced a form of animism or the belief that God exists in everything. Famous artifacts depict a kind of frenzied ritual, priestesses and worshippers practicing tree or stone worship, in which participants summon or are ordained by a central deity. In one such “scene” a priestess shakes a sacred tree is shaken, in much the same way olive tree rakers shake off the olives to this day. But, archaeologist Dr. Nanno Marinatos in her article “The Character of Minoan Epiphanies”, argues that these were not cults, but instead the means for mortals to communicate with the gods.
The archaeology and study of such things is too deep a subject for this story, but the point is that a peaceful empire thrived once, based largely on “methods” that enlivened a society. This is something that is utterly missing today on Crete, and everywhere else on Earth. This brings me to point out the “place” central to the story of any great society. In this case, a Minoan center II termed the “Lost Palace of Galatas” in a story at The Epoch Times. What I failed to mention in this report on the recently discovered “temple” in the center of the Heraklion Prefecture, is the fact that this special place was, in part, dedicated to agriculture and feasting. And I mean feasting on a level of festival only Marti Gras goers can imagine. So, a fantastic palace (temple) on a high hill overlooking a vast agricultural Eden, the site of ritual feasting and ceremony on an epic level, seems like a good vision for introducing my friend Stelios Kanakis.
The Son Also Shines
A Crete region official, Stelios is also an olive grower whose family has cultivated Galatas trees for decades now. His dream, which is the subject of this story, is truly a circular journey to recapture the very best of Crete’s past. Galatas, you see, was and is a central focal point essential to any possibility for this island to be sustained and for its people to prosper. This aspect is a subject for a separate paper, but for the reader, it’s important to view the Galatas Pediada from a ritual standpoint and an agricultural one.
To learn more, I suggest you read this most important report, to date, concerning the purposes of Galatas, is by world-renowned archaeologists Dr. Giorgos Rethemiotakis and Dr. Kostis Christakis, who’s the current curator at Knossos. Galatas, you see, was probably more of a ritual place and destination, than an administrative “palace”. At least this is my interpretation and based on pottery and animal bone finds near the palace, it seems reasonable to assume this monumental complex was a temple.
“We are culturally and linguistically blind to the world of forces and interconnections visible to those who have retained the Archaic relationship to nature.” – Terence McKenna, Food of the Gods
Ancient Wisdom: Timeless Excellence
Stelios, the man who talks to his olive trees, is like this father Manolis, who is in turn as his father, in their love and adherence to age-old traditions of olive oil growing. Naturally, Stelios absorbed the knowledge and traditions, out of necessity, love, and a special kind of Cretan dedication to the past. Though he’s sought out processes for more modern, cleaner, and more efficient production, this is a man inextricably linked to these trees, this land, and ideas as old as time. I was with him the other day, helping him and a curious gathering of “rakers” to harvest a magnificent grove beneath the famous Minoan center.
The drive up to Galatas is always a renewed feast for the eyes. This part of Crete is stunning in its fertile beauty, the hill upon hill of seemingly endless olive groves, it reminds me of what central Florida was like in the 60s, with its orange trees to the horizon. Just outside the tiny village, Stelios and other growers tend tens of thousands of olive trees, on the rocky ground farmed since pre-history. Today’s work, on a prominent hillside in the shadow of Galatas Palace, transported me directly to something in a theory of Dr. Marinatos’, about Minoan epiphanies. Seals and other artifacts suggested to the archaeologist that the ancient tree shakers
were not tree worshippers, but players in an ecstatic summoning ceremony. She also suggests that these participants did not see the gods or entities, but rather they seem to be represented as feeling or hearing their presence. Who would ever think, beating olives from trees could summon the presence of God?
“God changes his appearance every second. Blessed is the man who can recognize him in all his disguises.” – Nikos Kazantzakis
Imagine for a moment, executives, coaches, and engineers shaking olives to the ground beneath an epic and timeless monument to culture. Superimpose, in your mind, cultured and colorful Minoans begging and praising their eternal, for the continuation of the most peaceful empire the world has ever known! This is the kind of emotion and fantasy (reality) Crete evokes.
I’ll never forget the handsome smile of godlike Ioannis. The singing of the men, breaking bread and joking as if we’d all known each other for decades. And most strikingly, the mirror vision of Manolis Kanakis in the face of his son Stelios. Even a boy’s likeness to his bright-eyed father seems to tie Crete today with the Crete of Minos or Zeus. Ah, the recollection makes me forget “the dream” of Stelios Kanakis.
Olive Oil University
In Minoan times, civilization was refined to the point of almost total homogeneity. The rituals, the practice, the unified collection of unique humanity spread across the Crete island and the greater Minoan world was bound together by something. That something was, I believe, a unique kind of excellence. The Minoans lived in peace for over a thousand years, unlike patriarchal empires that pent their power upon militarism. Knowledge. The pursuit of harmony and the right way of doing things seems to be what archaeology of these ancient people indicates. Potters to civic planning, commerce to art and architecture, the ancient people of Crete found and refined something, something I believe few today have an inkling of.
Crete needs to return to this kind of pursuit. Stelios Kanakis has the vision to accomplish this, and he is not alone. All that the Cretans know of their sacred olive culture, needs to be documented, revised, homogenized, instilled, and standardized for export to the world. Just why this has not happened before, is for the same reason Greece is a footstool to central European powers still. But, it’s fitting that an olive grower in one of Crete’s most sacred historic places also produces perhaps the finest olives in Greece. And this year, the year a pandemic has struck down nations, his trees have produced oil that is legendary as the island itself. Homer called extra virgin olive oil like that produced in Crete “liquid gold”. Hippocrates referred to the oil as “the great healer”.
This is one reason why Stelios’ professional friends, all of them olive growers too, flocked to help with this year’s harvest. To put it bluntly, the Cretans are praying for such a deliverance. Now is the time, and everyone feels it. And why not at Galatas? We’ve talked for days, me and the Cretans, about the island’s villages, and rejuvenating the real value of paradise. The building is there. Stelios’ grandfather’s house, and property. The knowledge is right at hand, and not only from Stelios but from hundreds of growers across Crete. Let’s be real, even UC Davis in the U.S. has an olive oil center, as if California were a Minoan colony!
Saved by the Blood of God
Finally, the Spanish Olive Oil Agency (AAO) recently revealed that prices paid to olive growers have been so low that growers cannot even cover their production costs. And Cretan oil prices are the lowest of the low. The industry seems to have betrayed its source, in a very real and calloused way. The result, here on Crete, is more devastating than economic loss. The villages, the heart, and soul of the island are dying out one-by-one.
Soon, the oil tradition of Crete will suffer as central Florida did, only the loss will be like the fall from Eden. Conversely, if Stelios Kanakis’ dream comes to fruition, the workers will return, new factories and old ones will open, to produce the world’s finest liquid gold, once again. Galatas’ school will echo the laughter of small children in the play yard. My friend Grigoris’ taverna will serve lunch every day. And Crete officials will endeavor to gentrify such villages will take place.
And it can all be possible if for an instant we acknowledge how a native son can shine bright like the Cretan sun. Or hold up an ancient tradition like a Minoan column. After all, στέλιος, which in Greek means “pillar”, is my friend the kind and humble, super-intelligent Stelios. Living here with these people for years now, I know that the blood of God flows in every river and stream here. It courses in the sap of the olive and myrtle trees, runs through the veins of falcons and my Cretan hound, and is powered onward by every Cretan heart. The oil is the blood that can save Crete. The idea and the dream may even save the world.