Monday, April 6, 2015

The Minoans: Religion

In the outset it would seem difficult, if not impossible, to delve into the belief system of an extinct culture. Whatever could be reconstructed would not be the substantive belief itself, but an inference from material. The task is made doubly difficult with the lack of an authoritative Linear A translation. What can be reconstructed is stitched together from parallel traditions in other cultures and gathered from scenes placed onto objects or walls. Seals contain a wealth of cultural information in this regard. Seals both explain and leave questions unanswered simultaneously. They show us a snapshot of a scene given at the artist's personal discretion, yet come with no written explanation for the action. Through this medium we can only gather information piecemeal, identifying the importance of individual objects but unable to grasp how the totality of the image describes a whole story.

Detail of a shrine at the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. In the scene a priestess places offerings in a bowl at a small shrine, with a larger shrine topped by sacred horns in front of her. A quadruple axe icon with a black bird perched on top stands between the two shrines, and a bowl of round objects (fruit?) and a Kamares ware pot are associated with the scene

Large social functions such as festivals would have existed, yet any details of these events are lost to time. In the classical period Greek city states had many festivals throughout the year: one was for men only, another for women only, various ones for each season, and one for the whole community. These varied by city and region. Such festivals were headed by priestesses, like on the Theran Naval fresco where a priestess stands on a balcony crowned by sacred horns overlooking the events. In this scene, a group of naked uninitiated youths lead sacrificial animals, which would have been a common part of festivals. The priestesses who led such grand events were elaborately dressed in fine clothing, unique enough to possibly have been reserved for their class/gender. Celebrants would also wear full robes, often in bright colors such as blue, orange, or white, and possibly with a belt. In classical Greece these large scale festivals existed side by side with small scale festivals which were private (usually initiations). If there were such an analog in Minoan society, the deep internal ritual areas of the palace-temple would have been an excellent spot for small private rituals. In the palanquin fresco at Knossos a white robed priestess is carried through the crowd. In another part of the labyrinth a model of a woman being born on a palanquin was found in a ritual context. These finds suggest the (presumed) somewhat common popularity of this form of celebration, where men would parade a woman (most likely a priestess) through the streets.

Detail from the Harvester Vase, showing celebrants with palm fronds or reeds. This scene is the only complete depiction of a large ritual procession. Although there are scenes of priestesses gathered (the Grandstand fresco), and scenes of a public ritual (the Sacred Grove fresco), the Harvester Vase is the only scene of a full procession

reconstructed public festival at Knossos including a procession in the inner city near the palace-temple. The celebrants wave sistrums and broom-like objects and surround a figure wearing a scaled outfit, a reconstruction of the scene on the Harvester Vase

Priestesses and nobles in a funerary procession, priestesses pour libations at a shrine as seen on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Before the temple came to dominate Cretan life, sacred spaces were only be found dispersed through nature. The religious pantheon of the MM period had developed naturally from the native traditions of neolithic Crete, and by happenstance specific areas were designated as sacred places by popular opinion. Such small shrines at local sites are called Tripartite shrines ,for their unique Minoan design. Tripartite shrines built on mountains, called peak sanctuaries, varied in architectural style but similarly often incorporated repeating sacred horns and various cult statues. There were common offerings left at these sites, giving us a tantalizing glimpse into their belief system. The items left at such sites show the dedication many Minoans had towards their beliefs, as well as the practical result of their belief systems. Even then, votive objects leave the question of why unresolved. Such common votive items were: sacrificial animals, grain, bronze statuettes of worshipers, thin (impractical) gold double or quadruple axes, and figurines of sacred horns. Many of the bronze votive statuettes were intentionally not made with aesthetics in mind: being were left not smoothed, unpainted, and with casting seams. These figurines are often found in dark caves or mountain crags, and after being offered they were meant for the gods never to be seen again by mere humans. They were intended as metal “sacrifices” to their deities, evidence of that artisan's material devotion (through a sacrifice/tithe in wealth/labor/time) to a deity. Ironically, when these pieces were found they were pull out of their dark holes and brought into museums, now they are widely seen by tourists and scientists.

The peak sanctuary at Petsopha, Crete

The Peak Sanctuary Rhyton, from Zakros, dated to 1,550-1,500 BCE

Image from the Peak Sanctuary Rhyton

A reconstruction of the tripartite shrine found on the Procession fresco at Knossos

A reproduction of a bronze votive statuette from Tylissos, made around 1920 by Emile Gillieron and his son

At shrines offering tables had depressions in the center, called a kernos, where offerings were made. These were either depressed spots or clay cups fused together, into which were placed panspermia offerings comprised of bits of grain and other farm produce. Kernoi are found in the EM period and were essentially an aspect of an early agricultural cult. This religious tradition continued into the Hellenic period, expanding to include a wide array of produce offerings: grains, beans, oil, milk, wine, honey, opium, and wool. In classical worship, these offerings were made in a clay cup or in multiple cups connected to one another. This Hellenic practice continued into the Christian period, and as Castleden suggests was seen in older Cretan monasteries (writing in 1994).

A Cycladic kernos used for panspermia offerings, 2,300-2,200 BCE

A Minoan stone kernos from the (NT period) palace-temple of Mallia

[about Christian ceremonies in Crete] The loaves to be blessed are placed in a basket on a table in the middle of the church, and the corn, wine, and oil in separate vessels. On the loaves are placed seven lights, by means of a metal object with small sockets for holding seven lighted candles. In some old monasteries and churches this sevenfold candlestick is furnished with special receptacles or little cups to hold the corn and wine and oil, and thus the whole arrangement with the candles and offerings bears an extraordinary resemblance to the kernos of ancient Greek religion.” - Stephanos Xanthoudides, writing in 1905-06

Minoan rituals generally involved libation vessels. During the EM period such vessels took unusual shapes, often female shapes, and included holes in the breasts for pouring (most likely milk). In the MM and LM period rhytons often took unusual shapes often being made with a conical bottom disallowing them to sit flat on the ground, for whatever reason. Rhyton manufacturers also continued experimenting life-like shapes, such as the common bull head rhyton. These bull head rhytons were used to hold and pour bull blood used in rituals, yet in their own right became works of artistic prestige. The famous Bull Head rhyton found in Knossos is the most famous and highly crafted object any Minoan produced (so far as we know).

Terracotta rhyton painted in Marine Style with murexes, from LM period Zakros, 1525/1500-1450 BCE

A clay rhyton goddess, 2,100-1,900 BCE

The Bull Head rhyton from Knossos

An unknown clay cult object from Knossos, depicting a honeycomb with a snake

We see rituals frozen in time in frescoes, or find objects used for an unknown purpose. Reconstructing rituals from the period is albeit impossible, yet the tripartite shrine at Anemospilia, near mount Juktas, offers an interesting snapshot of an unknown ritual frozen in time. It was for a long time thought to be the site of human sacrifice, although the evidence of such a ritual has been questioned by modern scholars. What is known is that four people were killed in the shrine. In the west room three people are sprawled on the floor, a 17 year old boy, an older man wearing a metal ring, and a woman. In the hallway a servant was killed while carrying a large rhyton with a yellow spotted bull painted on it. Castleden suggests that the boy was tied up on an altar table, and a weapon found nearby was the sacrificial knife. But Hughes and others suggest that the boy was not tied, there was no altar, and the weapon was a nearby spear. Most likely the four were involved in some ritual in the shrine when disaster struck. A severe earthquake rocked the building, destroying it and starting a fire. The ongoing ritual was subsequently entombed in a layer of earth for posterity. This earthquake was the same one which around 1,700 BCE had destroyed the old temple at Knossos and the other old temples across Crete. While cities by and large rebuilt after this calamity, this specific shrine was left untouched. Perhaps it was left as a reminder of the loss of life, or to remind viewers of its divine fate. Perhaps it was simply abandoned and forgotten.

The plan and locations of the bodies at Anemospilia. In this picture the room on the left was a cultic room. The center room was almost completely covered in pottery and held a bench altar. Most likely a wooden statue of a figure stood on the altar, the wooden statue had clay feet which survived in the rubble. The room on the right contained three people and is shown here inaccurately containing a raised altar and the sacrificial victim. The exterior hallway contains the servant carrying a painted rhyton, which most likely contained bull's blood

An architectural reconstruction of the peak sanctuary at Anemospilia

It is absolutely remarkable that a ritual would be frozen in time for 3,779 years. It is a strange thought that surely these practitioners could never have guessed that academics on an undiscovered continent would be arguing over their last minutes almost four thousand years later. What the structure and ritual of Anemospilia show us is that rural shrines were still places of importance even during the peak of palace-temple hegemony. These rural and hidden shrines continued the older traditions of cave sanctuaries, peak sanctuaries, and sacred groves, serving the spiritual needs of the local farmers and maybe even nearby elite villa owners. While sprawling villas often included small tripartite shrines for the first family of the residence, it is possible that larger celebrations required traveling to a rural (or urban) shrine.

The Minoan villa at Vathypetro today, it included a small tripartite shrine

Caves were also home to the sacred, and along with peak sanctuaries often held cult statues. Caves were associated with the goddess Eleuthia, and thus with the underworld and childbirth or deadly pain. Trees were often sacred, and while there may have been a tree deity there most certainly were tree-centered ceremonies and shrines. At shrines, a vast panoply of central objects were treated as idols, such as: statues of a deity, pillars, trees, or stalagmites. The tree, pillar, or stalagmite would have been walled off at such shrines. Sacred horns are found everywhere in Minoan culture. Large stone sacred horns line the roofs of buildings specifically shrines, but smaller clay figurines of sacred horns were commonly deposited at shrines themselves. They were painted on pottery or on wall frescoes, or engraved on bronze tablets, rings, or altars. They are also found on larnakes, or clay sarcophagi. What they represent we cannot know, but the common suggestions are bull horns, raised arms of a worshiper/goddess, or the rising sun between mountains (an Egyptian symbol for elysium).

The Arkhanes-Fourni ring, made between 1,600-1,480 BCE shows on the left a man embracing a rock, in the center a priestess possibly in epiphany, and on the right a tree pulling ceremony

A clay model of a sacred tree with birds perched on top, from Fortetsa Crete, LM period

A picture of larger sacred horns

A clay votive figurine from a sanctuary in eastern Crete

Regional styles of sacred horns. A: Minoan. B: Egyptian. C: Akkadian. D: Syrian

The double axe was also a potent symbol in Minoan life. Axes left at shrines are usually super thin bronze but are made in varying sizes and materials, ranging from average to elaborately ornamented. Some two more blades added to make a quadruple axe. The earliest evidence of this symbol is from Mochlos around 2,500 BCE. By the LM period at Knossos these objects were sometimes mounted on stone bases and scattered around the labyrinth. The symbol is associated with sacrifices, specifically bull sacrifices. In the classical era heifers were sacrificed to Dionysos at Tenedos with a double axe, and gods such as Zeus Labrandeus in Caria, Rhea, and Poseidon are associated with double axes. In Minoan frescoes only priestesses hold double axes.

A painted double axe and sacred horns

An elaborate double axe painted on a pithos jar

A large storage jug called a pithos jar, painted with double axe icons

Multiple votive double axes

A double axe icon from the Arkalochori cave, it is inscribed with 15 symbols, 2 of which are unique to the axe and 13 of which are found on other Linear A tablets or the Phaistos disk

Double axe icons from Knossos

Golden votive double axe from the Archeological Museum of Herakleion

A restored version of a quadruple axe from Zakros, West Wing, Room 25, made between 1,525-1,450 BCE

The quadruple axe from Zakros

A seal from Marinatos 2010, showing a bull being sacrificed

Detail from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus showing a bull tied up and prepared for sacrifice. Note the (most likely wooden) sacrificial table upon which the bull is sitting


Priestesses and priests were dressed in elaborate garments for ceremonies. Priestesses showed their breasts with a peculiar almost modern dress, made with a neckline cutting down to the navel. Priestesses wore over skirts tied at the waist, along with headdresses, necklaces, bracelets, and rings. It is not known whether the elaborate clothing priestesses wore was theirs, or the temples, or whether their use were commonplace, or uniquely religious. They certainly prepared for festivals in dressing rooms within the temple, and most likely ate (and lived) there too.

Detail of priestesses giving offerings to a shrine between two double axe icons, from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Three snake goddess figurines from Crete
A faience snake goddess figurine

The most fanciful snake goddess figurine

The images of priestesses raise numerous questions about their lives, responsibilities, and power within society. Besides these unanswered questions, a comparison can be made with nearby Mesopotamian society. Mesopotamian priestesses were certainly from the upper class, and since Minoan priestesses are only seen in an elite context, they too were probably a part of the elite. Kings and priestesses throughout near eastern cultures were deeply connected. In the CP myth of King Minos, he appointed his daughter Ariadne as a priestess. While the story more accurately reflects the social conventions and plot devices of iron age Greeks, it parallels the bronze age story of Sargon the Great and Enheduanna. When Sargon conquered Sumeria in the 2,300s BCE he appointed his daughter Enheduanna as the high priestess of Ur (the highest religious position in Sumer). The palace-temple civilization on Crete rose and fell between the telling of these two stories.

Detail of Enheduanna, from the Enheduanna disk made around 2,100 BCE. She was a prolific writer, musician, and poet, and the first artist to sign their name to their work

An analysis of an MM feasting deposit at Knossos reveals that there were a small amount of high quality dishes, and a large amount of low quality ones. This discrepency is most likely the result of a class divide between the priestesses and their orderlies. Castleden suggests a cultural metaphor between the powerful Priestesses and the central Minoan female deity of Potnia, in opposition to the lowly Wanax and weak main male deity of Velchanos. Such assertions are only metaphorical, but it is likely that priestesses sometimes held the real power in the city and at other times were eclipsed by someone else or another group. It is similarly unknown how the religious figure of the Klawiporos fits into the urban power structure of Crete.

A drawing of the scenes on two gold rings from House A at Zakros, on the top two priestesses are engaged in a cult scene, and on the bottom a long haired acrobat leaps over a bull

While the significance of the priestess' religious costume is unknown, another ritualized piece of clothing was even more mysterious. It is mainly seen on the Harvester Vase, a seemingly central figure (most likely a priestess) in the celebration wears a strange cuirass. It would have been made of either metal or leather scales, each of which point upwards. It would have been heavy and unwieldy, and its actual construction and purpose remain entirely unknown. The lower half of the figure on the Harvester Vase is broken off, but a figure wearing the cuirass is also seen on a seal from Agia Triadha showing its wearer's legs clothed in the usual hide robe. Its use and meaning are now lost, hopefully locked in some Linear A tablet.

Detail of the priestess with the scaled cuirass, from the Harvester Vase from Agia Triadha, 1,500-1,400 BCE
Detail of the celebrant with the scaled cuirass, from a reconstruction of the Harvester Vase
The Harvester Vase from Agia Triadha, 1,500-1,400 BCE

Two plaster and wood reproductions of the Harvester Vase by the Gillierons, on the left only the extant top half is reconstructed, and on the right the Gillierons imagined the bottom of the rhyton

A possible similar garment as seen on a Hittite figurine of a Mountain God, made in the mid 2nd millennium BCE

Male priests are not nearly as commonly depicted in frescoes and seals as female ones. One interesting example is from side A of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. A male lyre player wearing the standard priestess dress is seen behind two priestesses making offerings. The other men in the scene are wearing skirts and bring gifts to a robed male statuette. While they may be priests, they may also simply be citizen participants; the only (uncontroversial) depiction of a male priest is the lyre player in this scene. Male priests are found in neighboring Anatolia, serving the deities Cybele and Attis.

Detail from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus showing the male lyre player in the priestess dress

In the CP common rituals involved a priestess embodying a goddess, and similar scenes are seen in Minoan frescoes and seals. The CP Temple of Artemis at Ephesus featured a priestess who became a goddess and was shown to a crow from a special high window. This tradition was considered old even when the temple was built (around 600 BCE), and was common throughout near eastern religions (also seen in Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, and Mesopotamia). Called Windows of Appearance, such architectural features are seen on Thera, a Minoan colony. The designers of the Temple of Ephesus were themselves Knossian: Chersiphron, and his son Metagenis.

Priestesses were also paraded in ceremonies, possibly still representing a goddess. Dancing was a part of many ceremonies and naked female figures in frescoes could either be priestesses, attendants, or goddesses. Priestesses also conduct ceremonies, being the central focus in the Procession, Sacred Grove, and Grandstand frescoes. Priestesses are also seen at bull courts at Knossos and are often attended by griffins. Considering the placement of griffins around the throne at Knossos it is likely that a priestess would have used the seat in rituals.

The Ring of Minos also shows a priestess conducting some unknown action: she is in a strange boat which carries a miniature tripartite shrine. Castleden suggests it is being transported, although the seal's true meaning is entirely mysterious.

The “Lost Ring of Minos”, it has actually been found and asserted to be genuine, although its provenance and dating is unknown

Drawing of the scene on the Ring of Minos

A picture of the gold ring itself

The strange ship on the Ring of Minos is unusual and its true meaning unknown, although it is also seen on this gold ring from Mochlos

In the CP the goddess Athena Polis was veiled and robed, a yearly ceremony took the statue down, disrobed it, washed it, and then ceremonially re-robed it. The new robe was made by a special group of women called the Arrhephoroi. A similar practice existed for Ephesian Artemis, and the practice as a whole was considered ancient as book 6 of the Iliad mentions a procession of old women giving a robe to Trojan Athena. The Minoan religion certainly used large statuettes of male and female deities, and while no actual robes have been found various miniature faience models of robes have been found. These votive objects may have stood in for a robe offering, but its actual meaning is unknown. If the Homeric reference points to a genuine ceremony, its meaning or the meaning of its Minoan counterpart is unknown. It is only presumed that faience dresses are connected to this hypothetical ritual, they may be connected to another ritual entirely as well.

The Minoan religion was known internationally (in Egypt at least) for their skills with exorcisms, most notably in the London Medical Papyrus: an Egyptian document from the 14th century BCE which contains numerous foreign magical incantations. It specifically contains a Minoan exorcism spell which writes out the Minoan language in hieroglyphs. Perhaps foreigners interacted with Minoan priestesses when they personally conducted long distance trade deals, such as Egyptian priests occasionally did. Certainly priestesses would have had their hands full with their templar duties back on Crete, as they were central in (presumably organizing) public functions and allocating rations to workers (aided by scribal record keepers). They most likely held a multitude of functions throughout Minoan society.

A beautiful example of a votive faience dress

A reconstruction of two votive faience priestess/goddess figurines, the left one is from Petsophas, the right is from Knossos

Multiple snake goddess figurines and votive dresses found at the Snake Goddess sanctuary at Knossos

The Pantheon

The “head” of the Minoan pantheon was the goddess Potnia (spelled Potinija), translated as the Greek title meaning lady. Offerings at the Knossian temple-palace are often given to The Lady of the Labyrinth, and offerings at both Pylos and Knossos are simply to The Lady. An assortment of separate Potnias are seen in the variety of the phrase's application to LBA deities such as: Potinija Asiwija (The Lady of Asia/Lydia), Sito Potinija (The Lady of Grain), Potinija Iqeja (The Lady of the Horse), Dapuritojo Potinija (The Lady of the Labyrinth), and Atana Potinija (The Lady Athena). Many others are mentioned in Linear B texts. By the CP the deities to which the term referred to had switched, becoming a title held by various female goddesses. It had most strongly become associated with one of the names/forms of Artemis, Potnia Theron. A metaphor would be between the changing terms for powered transport: carriage and car. While the sound and meaning of the two words had changed, they continued to be used to describe similar objects. There is not a straight line between CP Potnia deities and Mycenaean Potnia deities.

The names of two other powerful CP goddesses are found in Linear B: Diktynna and Britomaris. Diktynna's belief lasted through the classical era but only in eastern Crete. Outside of that area she was simply an aspect of Artemis, Artemisian Diktynna, the “Lady of the Nets”. On Crete she was called the “Mountain Mother”, her worship was probably centered around the peak sanctuary at Mount Dikte. By the classical period she was worshiped at the Diktynnaion, a temple on a peninsula west of Kydonia, which was guarded by sacred dogs.

Britomaris is another female deity. By the classical era her Cretan worship was as an aspect of Artemis as well. On Crete she was called the “Sweet Virgin”, “Mistress of Animals”, or “Queen of Wild Beasts”. Artemisian Britomaris was a chaste hunter, and the earlier Minoan persona of Britomaris probably generated many aspects of the later Hellenic Artemis and Diana. Her worship involved mountain top fires, reminiscent of past peak sanctuaries. She had a male companion called the “Master of Animals”.

In Mycenaean culture but probably also in Minoan culture, Poseidon was a primary deity. Spelled Posedawone, he was connected to the sea and to earthquakes. Both were destructive and common forces in Minoan culture. One possible representation of Poseidon is on the “Master of the Sea” seal. On this seal, in the foreground a male figure holding a staff stands on top of a three story tower bedecked with sacred horns, the tower sits precariously on the top of a rocky peak. Below the tower, frothing waves crash down on the rocky outcropping. Behind the figure is a cityscape of similar multistory towers with sacred horns on their tops. It is hard to say whether these buildings are shrines, the city, or the palace-temple. Castleden interprets this seal as showing a tidal wave hitting a city, with Poseidon commanding its fury.

The “Master of the Sea” seal, and its sealing

Velchanos was the Greek name for an aspect of Zeus, and was worshiped at a Hellenistic shrine at the site of Minoan ruins at Agia Triadha. Zeus was born on Crete, and was often called Kouros (The Boy). It is possible that a central male god with a variation on the name Velchanos or Kouros existed in the Minoan period. Considering the Minoans were polytheistic they believed in an assortment of gods who held various powers over the natural world. Reconstructing any of these is difficult if not impossible, yet even skeptics such as Thomas and Wedde suggest possible deities for: war, shields, snakes, the sun, and double axes. Castleden suggests deities for fertility, procreation, agriculture, and a death/rebirth cycle. Doves are commonly found in a ritual context in Minoan art, perched on double axe icons or tripartite shrines. The meaning of the animal is unknown.

Minoan clay figurine of a priestess (perhaps embodying a goddess) crowned by doves

Flat votive gold figurine of a tripartite shrine with doves perched on top, from grave circle A at Mycenae but most likely of Minoan craftsmanship

Many other LBA terms had continued use throughout the CP: Diwo (Zeus), Atana (Athena), Paiawon (Apollo), Posedawone (Poseidon), Diwonuso (Dionysus), Are (Ares), Enuwarijo (Enyalius), Apaitijo (Hephaestus), Atemito (Artemis), Era (Hera), and Ereutija (Eileithyia/Eleuthia). Eileithyia (or Cretan Eleuthia) was mentioned by Homer as the goddess of childbirth and was associated with the Cave of Eileithyia near Amnissos, Crete. The Mycenaean term Diwonuso had become applied to the Greek god Dionysus, who was worshiped at Pylos after the LM period. Since naked group dancing is seen in frescoes, it is possible that that aspect of Minoan religion was transferred to Dionysus (or held by Diwonuso during the LBA).

Poppies are also seen in numerous figurines called Poppy Goddesses. A woman/priestess/goddess wears a diadem ringed with cut poppies. Poppies were grown in Anatolia and had spread to Crete by the LM period, considering its importance in these figurines (and its depiction as being cut), it may have had a ritual use.

A Poppy Goddess figurine from Gazi, Crete, made around 1,350 BCE

In the Minoan worldview, gods were seen as associated with, inhabiting, or emanating from various sacred designated objects. A god could be found in a: stalagmite, tree, bird, snake, pillar, helmet, shield, or as a human priestess. While we are generally unsure of how Minoans felt about their gods, they must have had fanciful stories detailing their intrigues and histories. Contemporaneous and older religions in Mesopotamia developed elaborate detailed lives of heroes and deities, as did the later classical Greeks. Many Mycenaean era deities reference aspects of classical counterparts, yet the amalgam of forms and symbols make it impossible to trace a straight line from any classical deity to their Mycenaean ancestor. Names and titles were gained or certain properties were lost in translation, but the outlines of many deities stayed constant even through the supposed “dark age” of the EIA (early iron age).

Mythical Creatures

Fantastical half man half animal creatures called daemons are often seen in Minoan art. They represent a multitude of possible symbols: divine followers, guardians, attendants, or venerated objects? A dog headed creature has been noted multiple times, suggesting that the classical belief in cynocephaly stemmed from the Minoan period. The Tiryns signet ring is the largest known Mycenaean ring, made between 1,500-1,400 BCE, it shows a strange otherworldly scene of four daemons holding staves and jugs, presumably before a deity. The four daemons seen on the Tiryns ring are similar to ones seen on contemporaneous Babylonian and Assyrian amulets, although a near eastern analog is appealing it is truly impossible to understand what value these monsters held in the LBA Aegean mind.

The Tiryns signet ring, Mycenaean, 15th century BCE

The best depiction of daemons from the period, a fresco fragment from the Ramp House deposit, Mycenae

Other daemons are seen besides dog heads, such as boar heads, bull heads, and bird heads. It is unknown whether some depictions of daemons are the actual creatures or simply people wearing masks. Seals often show daemons in various scenes, one carries two animal carcasses on a pole, another shows a daemon with a wasp tail between two humans, and yet another shows a human standing between two daemons grasping their tongues. While the true meaning of the presence of daemons is unknown, they were closely related to cultic activities.

A daemon, a man, and a griffon on a seal from Kydonia Crete

Daemons on a seal from Vapheio

A terracotta figurine of a female bird headed daemon from Cyprus, made between 1,450-1,200 BCE

Griffons similarly played an important role in Minoan mythology, and are often depicted with complex rosette and geometric patterns. A curious example of a sphinx is shown on an ivory Mycenaean comb from around 1,400 BCE, one of the earliest depictions of such a mythological creature.

Griffons on a seal flanking a goddess

Detail of a griffon in the Throne Room at Knossos

A fresco of griffins tethered to columns, Great East Hall of Knossos, NT period, 1,600-1,450 BCE. Exactly what images like these meant to a Minoan is now impossible to discern

Reconstruction of the Xeste 3 fresco at Akrotiri, a priestess and a monkey give offerings to a goddess, note the elaborate griffon to the right of the seated figure

Detail of an ivory comb from Mycenae, made around 1,400 BCE, showing sphinxes and a rosette

By the LM and sub-Minoan periods other classically popular mythological creatures are shown, such as a terracotta centaur which was a funerary figurine from Lefkandi made around 900 BCE.

A terracotta figurine of a centaur, a funerary offering found in Lefkandi, Crete, and made around 900 BCE. This is the earliest depiction of a centaur and the mythology behind such a creature is already firmly established (having been given armor for some reason). This centaur figurine was created in a multiple step process, with the cylindrical body made on a wheel and the upper body and limbs molded by hand

The circumstantial evidence of opium-taking explains the vividness of the Minoans' religious experiences, their ecstatic and bizarre visions, their daemons...The Minoans were sensual aesthetes and visionaries...and possessed...a much fiercer, darker, grimmer, and more exotic beauty than we hitherto imagined.” - Rodney Castleden

The Divination or Game Board of Knossos

Board games involving dice, moving pieces, and racing on a sectioned track, have been found stretching back into the 3rd millennium BCE in Iran and Mesopotamia. The purpose of playing such games is unknown, but they were most likely a combination of a fun activity with religious symbolism. Many boards found in Iran or Mesopotamia include specifically religious scenes or are only found in cultic contexts. Structurally many near eastern games resemble abacuses and divination boards, and distinguishing between their uses is difficult if not impossible. The classical Greek board game “Game of Five Lanes” was both a game and a calculator, the two uses blended and unified. While some may have been played only in a religious context, other secular versions may have been widely popular and played only for enjoyment. It is likely that people who could not afford a board game played ones drawn in the sand. Each bronze age near eastern culture most likely had a unique use of game boards. The general design of these games is to compete against another for fun, it involves some luck (through rolling dice) but also can involve capturing the opponent's pieces and strategically racing your pieces off the board.

Two animals playing the Egyptian board game senet (another version of a racing game), from the Satirical Papyrus

The Knossian board game is elaborate and beautiful, it is covered in plaques of ivory, crystal and plated in gold. The plaques and plating are adhered onto the board with silver and blue paste. This piece of art was a combinatorial effort between gold smiths, ivory, and crystal carvers. This piece was most likely commissioned by someone high up within the temple hierarchy for a temple related purpose, but many boards found across the near east are not nearly as elaborate. Simple wooden boards or pottery boards may have been extremely popular among all classes of society, but would not have survived in the archeological record.

The similarities of the Knossos Board and the earlier Royal Game Board found at Ur are close enough to establish the identity of the Minoan artifact as a board game of the same family, and even to conjecture within fairly close limits how the game must have been played.” -Robert Brumbaugh

The Ur game board consists of a 3x2 square section and a 3x4 square section joined by a “bridge” of two single squares. Five specific tiles have rosettes which is a common convention among near eastern board games, possibly having a set function within the game (maybe safe zones?). Other specific tiles have miniature human eyes, and another group have five dots, but these vary across near eastern board games and may not have had determined features but were aesthetic flair. The Ur game board came with seven pieces per player and dice which rolled 0-4. The premise was a racing game, using your pieces to enter the board, move squares according to your rolls, and somehow capture enemy pieces. Eventually your pieces move off the board, and presumably the first person to get all their pieces off the board won. Some later versions of near eastern games require people to roll a specific number to leave the board. Lucky players could roll one 4 after another and keep their pieces only on rosettes, eventually exiting the map in safety.

The board game, pieces, and dice from the Royal Tombs at Ur, Mesopotamian, made around 2,500 BCE

A diagram of the movement of pieces in the common Mesopotamian racing game called “Game of 20”

The Knossian board game is more difficult to parse together. The basic format of the Ur board game is a larger section on which players start and move through, then they cross a bridge to a smaller section which is the final stretch. The larger section on the Knossian board obviously has two entrance squares, each one leading down a track (one track for each player). Then there is no bridge, but a gap. This may seem strange, but similar Akkadian games describe “jumping across” sections of the map, and this was probably determined by a special role or some other test allowing your pieces onto the final stretch. Both players then make their way through four very large squares (which have rosettes), and after that each person moves through two smaller squares to leave the map. Usually the final stretch section is where captures would occur in the Ur game, but the Knossian game's configuration is unique and confusing. Without any written rules it is impossible to determine exactly how this game was different, and how the final four rosettes mattered to players. Throughout the bronze age racing board games spread throughout many societies, each one organically manipulating the design and rules to create its own unique version. Lacking the rules and dice which we have for the Ur game, the Knossian game is an interesting analogue but ultimately unknowable.

Detail of the Knossian board game and pieces

The Knossian board game itself

A painted plaster reproduction of the Knossian game


Burials are good indicators of a society's social structure. One such example is at neolithic Catalhoyuk (6th millennium BCE Anatolia). Since burials were done underneath the floor of your house and each house was occupied for a long time, archeologists end up with stacks of burials. The burials above and below each other are not genetically related, showing that the property of the house was not passed down from one generation to their children. While this would discount close familial inheritance, property may have been passed down through your larger clan. If a single burial plot includes many people from the same family, it shows a society with its social roots wrapped around the clan system.

This is the type of society buried in the EM layer, one dominated by clans and extended families. Each collective tomb would be used by a single family over the course of many generations, suggesting the inheritance of wealth or power genetically. Knossos is ringed with such EM tombs. By the MM period this clan system had began to clash with the urban Wanax, eventually necessitating the position of the Guasileus. It is doubtful that a “representative” would always serve local clan interests, and the Guasileus as well as the Lawagetas vied for power against each other and the Wanax, probably using their respective household deputies.

The immediate family or the clan was obliged to provide extensive grave goods in Minoan tombs, as was common worldwide practice at the time. This suggests that the living needed to prepare the deceased for their afterlife. Grave goods left at a tomb in Katsamba Crete (between 1,600-1,500 BCE) include many diverse objects: pottery, cups, seals (even one from Syria), and gold rings. A wealthy woman's tomb at Phourni near Arkhanes included 140 pieces of gold jewelry and a sacrificed bull and horse.

What kind of afterlife was in store for the Minoans? The Homeric word (Anglicized as) psyche meant a person's breath or air, meaning their essential life force. While a hero's tholos (their physical life force) would fade away, their psyche would survive descending to Hades. The Hadean psyche was represented as an eidolon, which was a spectral winged version of their physical body. The ghostly fluttering eidolon is a common theme in Greek pottery in Greek vase painting, and was compared to a butterfly. Aristotle even used psyche in the sense of a butterfly or moth. In modern Crete the soul is still depicted as in folklore as a butterfly. All of this evidence points to one conclusion as to the symbolism of butterflies in Minoan graves, they most likely represented the soul or the eidolon. Butterflies are even seen on a gold weight from a Mycenaean grave, suggesting that the soul was weighed after death, and bronze scale pans are found in many LM tombs. A Mycenaean coffin from Tanagra shows a winged female figure with arms outstretched floating off the ground. If this figure is in fact a winged eidolon, it is the only depiction of someone in their ghostly state in the entirety of the Aegean bronze age. Sadly the majority of Minoan graves have been robbed in antiquity, so the majority of what people know about their funerary practices comes from the Agia Triadha sarcophagus.

A gold medallion with a butterfly, Mycenaean, 1,600-1,500 BCE

A gold scale from a tomb, one scale pan has an inscribed image of a butterfly, Mycenaean, 1,600-1,500 BCE

The Agia Triadha sarcophagus is by far the most important piece of information regarding Minoan religious beliefs, especially surrounding their funerary traditions and imagery. Made around 1,400 BCE the stone sarcophagus (built to resemble a clay boxy sarcophagus called a larnax) was covered in plaster and elaborately painted. It shows a rich funeral procession covering both sides, as well as divine imagery on the edges of the piece. It most likely depicts the funerary procession of the person buried inside.

Side A of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Side B of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Side A shows priestesses followed by a male lyre player wearing a priestess dress bringing libations to be poured into a vessel at an altar. The altar is flanked by two double axe icons mounted on pyramidal bases. On the other half of side A are three men bearing offerings to a robed male statuette. Two of the celebrants hold goats (?), while the other bears a model reed boat. While all the women on side A are priestesses, the men are another story. The robed male statuette wears a robe drawn unlike priestess robes, and it is marked with the same sheepskin pattern as the three mens' skirts who bear gifts. The other half of side A shows a male wearing a priestess' robe. Considering the male gift givers are wearing clothing unusual for the period (around 1,400 BCE) they may even be priests themselves.

A photograph of priestesses pouring libations on side A of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

A clearer image of the priestesses pouring libations on side A of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus
The untreated, untrimmed, unadorned sheepskin was probably the first human garment and may therefore have been associated in the Minoan mind with the distant and primeval past.” - Rodney Castleden

Detail of the three men in sheepskin skirts bearing gifts on side A of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

Side B shows priestesses bringing offerings to a shrine, along with a male flute player. At the shrine proper is a priestess with her hands at a bowl (giving offerings?). In front of this shrine is a tied up ox on a wooden sacrificial table, along with two goats underneath the table (also probably to be sacrificed).

A photograph of the priestess at an altar by the bull sacrifice on side B of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

A clearer image of the priestess at an altar on side B of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus

The edges of the sarcophagus are also elaborately painted with miniature scenes, each end shows a goddess in a plumed headdress riding in a chariot. One side has the goddess' chariot driven by griffons, and the other side has the chariot driven by goats. The sarcophagus was made of stone and covered with plaster.

A goddess in a chariot led by a griffon

A reconstruction of the sarcophagus by Gillieron the father, 1909-10

A photo of side A of the sarcophagus in full

Cremations do occur on Crete which was the norm in nearby Anatolia, but the usual Cretan funeral was a burial. There are occasionally strange burials, such as a pillar crypt at Gypsades Hill at Knossos. This pillar crypt included 200 conical vessels (rhytons?) all which contained vegetable matter. Practices such as these slip out of the hands of interpreters. It would be equivalent to explaining the philosophical beliefs behind a CP mystery cult by examining its ritual spaces, nigh impossible. While the Agia Triadha sarcophagus itself seems more intelligible, the full meaning behind its symbols is still hidden. Artifacts such as these truly require translated documentation to be made sensible.

Most Cretan burials were much more straightforward. The body was bound in a fetal position and laid on the tomb floor, but later innovations included burial in large sideways jars and eventually burial in clay sarcophagi (called a larnax). The earliest are from the EM period, but larnakes were popularized in the LM period. They are great indicators of the Minoan social structure, as the opulence of your class was drawn on your sarcophagus. Elaborate ones such as the Agia Triadha sarcophagus show detailed funerary processions, yet often larnakes are hastily painted or not painted at all. Many larnakes have clustered geometric designs, incorporating motifs from vases such as papyrus plants, birds, bulls, horses, goats, octopi, fish, and nautiluses. Some larnakes were even designed to look like ships, and a model boat is shown being brought as an offering to the deceased on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. It is unknown how ships and sailing were connected to an otherworldly journey, but the motif was common in Egyptian funerary practices during the bronze age, such as the Royal Ship-Grave burial area at Abydos. It is reasonable to assume that not everyone could afford a lavish ceremony as seen on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus. It is unknown where the idea to use such burial object came from, whether they were a foreign development or a native innovation. It depends on what they were originally intended to represent, were they originally based off wooden sarcophagi or were they originally wooden chests (common in MM life)? The question remains unanswered, although the prevailing opinion is that it was a uniquely native tradition.

An elaborately painted Minoan larnax, now at the Museum at Herakleion

A relatively undecorated larnax from Vorou near Megara on Crete

A simple and straightforward burial process is not always represented in the material record. About 100 meters from the Bull's Head Sanctuary at Knossos, a mass grave of child bones was found interred in a regular house. While this was originally considered to be a result of child sacrifice, later inspection of the bones reveal knife marks which suggest ritual defleshing. Such a process is similar to the preparation of bodies during sky burial, and is evidence of such practices en mass at Minoan Knossos. Even with a nuanced interpretation of the site, the house is still called, “The House of the Sacrificed Children”.

Just beside P574...lay the strangest find from the site, fragments (about a quarter in all) of a human skull. Like the pots the bone was burnt by the destruction fire, but the pieces were identifiable as those of a young adult male...No other bones, human or animal, were found. How is this skull to be interpreted? It was certainly not the remains of a burial, nor could it be a last inhabitant who had failed to escape at the moment of destruction; in both cases other bones would have survived. The skull can only have been an object as such, deliberately situated near the tripartite structure with central hearth. Thus the possibilities of ancestor worship (cf. The plastered skulls of Neolithic Jericho) or even human sacrifice cannot be ruled out.” - Peter Warren

In this process, bodies are left out to be scavenged by animals, then later cleaned and buried, keeping and dressing up the skull as a household ancestor shrine. Castleden mentions that only 100 years ago the village of Leonidi in the Peloponnese practiced sky burial, with similar cleaning and defleshing for the body's second internment. Castleden also remarks that it is a common practice in modern Greece to leave the body for 3-7 years then re-inter the relative in a family ossuary. If this is the case, then the practice of sky burial reaches back quite some time in the eastern Mediterranean, still ongoing in the 20th century CE as it was in the 10th millennium BCE in Jericho.

Tombs were often multiple room buildings, with entrances facing east toward the rising sun. A tomb at Apesokari had multiple burials in outer chambers, and a rectangular cult room in the center. The room had a bench altar and in an inner chamber a stalactite idol. By the entrance to the tomb was a rectangular altar, possibly for sacrifices. Most tombs were built to resemble contemporaneous houses, but the Minoans (at Mesara) built circular tombs and lived in rectangular houses. At Mochlos only the wealthy could afford rectangular tombs. Castleden suggests that earlier circular houses had become associated with burials while their practical use was disregarded. Circular tombs first appear around 3,000 BCE. At Phourni above Arkhanes a large tomb complex was used for over 1,000 years (from 2,500-1,250 BCE). This complex included multiple tholos tombs, a grandiose style mainland Mycenaean tomb which may have been inspired by Minoan tholos tombs (or may have been a native invention from the region of Messenia, south-west Peloponnese).

The “Temple Tomb” on the southern edge of Knossos was relatively small and cut into the hillside. Its walls and floor were covered in gypsum slabs, and the ceiling was painted blue. It featured a gypsum column as well. The first burials at the Temple Tomb (around 1,550 BCE) were robbed in antiquity, but the tomb does contain its last burial, a hasty one of an old man and a child. This LM burial has been dated to around 1,380 directly prior to the abandonment of the Knossian labyrinth. A pillar crypt, many cult rooms, a courtyard, and a portico were built on to the Temple Tomb (during its original construction in the 16th century BCE). These elaborate structures indicate the status of the original burials, and that by the middle of the MM period one's tomb had become much more than just an isolated resting place. The “Great Tomb at Chrysolakkos” was also spectacular, most likely connected to nobility from nearby Mallia.

A reconstruction of a grave site and offerings from tholos tomb A at Phourni Arkhanes, Crete

Strangely there are a tiny fraction of burials from the New Temple period. By the end of the NT period, many larnakes contained images of sea creatures, possibly referencing the novel practice of sea burial. Certainly Crete and the world were changing through the MM period. By the LM period tombs were still built but became smaller and less elaborate. Many of the tombs which were themselves entombed by the Theran eruption of 1,470 BCE were small, usually hold four people of a family. The LM period was a tumultuous time for Crete as the general temple system fell apart and Mycenaean culture (and language) flooded the island. Novel developments in funerary practices, such as close-family tombs and the popularization of larnakes, point to larger changes in culture. While the use of larnakes was known in the EM period, it is unknown why exactly it became widespread by this time. Since the larnax was a native development, it is possible that rich funerary practices of the EM and MM had become democratized in the upheaval of the LM period. As some things changed others stayed the same, and much of the LBA funerary tradition regarding libations and animal sacrifice remained unchanged into the classical period.

The actions of tending the dead, laying out of the corpse (prothesis), signs of mourning and so on remained very similar, apart from 'technical' differences of burial and cremation. Minoan terracottas of mourning women in black dress, with hands clasped over their heads, are virtually identical to their Mycenaean and Greek counterparts. The characteristic gesture of mourning is repeated on Mycenaean coffins, and it is quite familiar in geometric and archaic Greek art.” - Bernard C. Dietrich

Tombs may have lasted for thousands of years hidden from view, but once uncovered suffered the consequences of Crete's strategic placement in the Mediterranean. The “Royal Tomb” of Isopata was built between 1,450-1,400 BCE after the Theran eruption, but was destroyed in 1941-42 when the British shelled a German gun emplacement which had set up by the tomb.


The Minoans, by Rodney Castleden
Greek Mythology Originating in Mycenae/Minoa?
Ring of Minos is genuine
LBA Reconstructions by the Gillierons
Minoan Cult Objects, from Cretan Thematic Park
Cretan Kernoi, by Stephanos Xanthoudides (pg 21)
Minoan Deities in an Egyptian Medical Text
Desperately Seeking Potnia, by Thomas and Wedde

Peter Warren quote in the Introduction


  1. Replies
    1. What have you to say about the griffin warrior at pylos?

    2. It's awesome! Those ivory combs are outstanding. It's just another burial of an elite warrior who has tons of Minoan imports. That would honestly have been quite expected, and the reports in casual media that it "overturns everything" are clickbait. I have not read in detail the excavation reports, but I'd assume it will be even better than the burials at Mycenae. It has been a long time since such a complete elite burial has been excavated, I think, and none have been done to 21st century standards.

  2. As much as I have read and watched about ancient Crete, this is some of the best information I have found. I wondered why you refer to the birds as "doves", when in frescos they are black. I've thought of them as ravens, crows or another type of black bird. This is the first time I've seen a depiction of musical instruments from ancient Crete, although of course they must have had music. Another interesting thing is that the boat on one of the gold seals has the head of a bird, turned inward toward the boat, the same as on a depiction of the "people of the sea" at war with Egypt. Others have said there are no other depictions known of this type of boat. So that's interesting. It's all very interesting. Thank you for posting this!

    1. Thank you so much. But yes, all iconography is fully up to interpretation! The use of "doves" here is based off of Rodney Castleden's book, which was written in the 90's and has many flaws. There has been much done since then. I can't think of a fresco with black birds in it? Do you mean the Spring fresco room at Akrotiri? If you could send me a link that would be appreciated.

      And yes, that strange ritualistic boat on the gold ring is outstanding. Although I hate to say it, I don't think it's a bird? I was thinking it was mythological, or maybe even a sea horse? It is similar to the Sea Peoples' boats but I don't think they're directly related. I think the Minoan depiction of that ritual boat is entirely within the Minoan mind.