- Minoan Art and Religion
- Women and Minoan Culture
- Dress for the Minoans
- Nature and Minoan Art
- End of Minoan Culture
- Writing and Language of Minoan Culture
- Greek Gods and Goddesses with Minoan Roots
- Personages of Minoan Culture
- Life during Minoan Times
- Terms of Minoan Religion
- Images of Minoan Culture
- Resources for Minoan Culture
- Quiz Yourself on the Topic Dowries
- Ask a Question about Dowries in Ancient Greece
- Advertisements and General Resources
The Minoan culture was an ancient culture that survived on the island of Crete of what is now Greece for almost 2000 years until about 1450 BCE For about 3000 years until the early part of the Twentieth Century this culture was entirely unknown. Arthur Evans was interested in seals that he found in antique in Greece. He soon realized the best seals were found on Crete. He reviewed the site at Knossos and soon realized there was more to discover than seals, Arthur Evans began a systematic archeological excavation of Knossos, Crete in 1900 and he was surprised by what he found. A whole culture was revealed to him that was entirely unknown in the written record. But it was obvious to him that what he found had tremendous impact on the later culture of Greece.
An image on a pot of a labrys image by which Evans was able to connect to the Minoan Culture to ancient writing found by him on Crete.
There are a number of powerful reasons for studying the Minoan culture and its women including its obvious influence. There seems to have been a prominence of goddess worship that may relates to the myth of a peaceful culture that occurred in the pre-historic past and was later swallowed up by the sea. The story of Atlantis in Plato is just one reference to this myth. Also there are the stories of the Amazons. The Amazons were a culture of brave women warriors who were frequent antagonists of the Greeks of the heroic age. There are similarities between the priestesses of the Minoans and the Amazons. The Minoans may have been identified with their priestesses in the same way that a sports team is identified with their mascot. In this process the priestesses may have danced or paraded with weapons to encourage their warriors in a sympathetic way. The archaeology of Crete suggests that the Minoans achieved a high level of culture that is, in itself, worthy of further study. There is a suggestion that women had a higher level of respect and opportunity than was possible in almost any other culture.
The Romans and later European cultures knew nothing of a culture on Crete that predated the ancient Greeks. In fact the myths of ancient Greece mention only one single generation of Cretans that includes Europa, her sons including Minos, and their children including Ariadne and the Minotaur. What Arthur Evans discovered in the period from 1900 to 1931 was an unknown civilization. Why the ancient Greeks conspired to forget about this civilization is not known but it is believed that many later developments were attributable to it. What we now know is that the Minoan civilization developed in Greece on Crete for over 2000 years until about 1450 BCE. The Minoans were sea traders so they had contacts with many people and civilizations including Egypt. Many of the developments from the rest of the world came through the Minoan civilization to Greece. Though the culture was conquered by later cultures, many of their developments remained. Some of the artifacts inspired later stories and even some of their religion seems to have survived.
Evans named the culture he found Minoan after Minos the king that he thought was Minoan. Evidence for this is found in the Odyssey of Homer.
- Homer, Odyssey, 17.523: “and that he dwells in Crete, where is the race of Minos.”
- Homer, Odyssey, 11.321: “And Phaedra and Procris I saw, and fair Ariadne, the daughter of Minos of baneful mind, whom once Theseus was fain to bear from Crete to the hill of sacred Athens; but he had no joy of her, for ere that Artemis slew her  in sea-girt Dia because of the witness of Dionysus.”
- Homer, Odyssey, 11.567: “There then I saw Minos, the glorious son of Zeus, golden scepter in hand, giving judgment to the dead  from his seat, while they sat and stood about the king through the wide-gated house of Hades, and asked of him judgment.”
- Homer, Odyssey, 17.523: “and that he dwells in Crete, where is the race of Minos.”
- Homer, Odyssey, 19.173: “There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities.  They have not all the same speech, but their tongues are mixed. There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Cydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians. Among their cities is the great city Knossos, where Minos reigned and every nine years he that held converse with great Zeus,  and was father of my father, great-hearted Deucalion.”
The quotes suport that there was a culture of Minos with Knossos as its seat of government. It is possible that ‘minos’ was the Minoan word for king. The mention of Dionysus suggest that this god of wine was associated with this culture and the possibility that viniculture was the basis of the Minoan economy. The mention of gold suggests this metal was important to that culture. What is meant by “native Cretans” is not at all clear but this may be a reference to the Minoans that survived the eruption of the volcano on Thera.
There can be no doubt about the importance of the sea and trade to the ancient Minoans. Artifacts of the Minoan culture support this, as well as likely references to the Minoan culture in ancient Egypt. Sea power suggests the reason that the Minoan sites show no evidence of fortifications. The importance of women may relate to the fact that while the men were at sea the women had to run the society at home.
Plato, Laws, 4.706a: “When Minos, once upon a time, reduced the people of Attica to a grievous payment of tribute, he was very powerful by sea, whereas they possessed no warships at that time such as they have now, nor was their country so rich in timber that they could easily supply themselves with a naval force.”
The Myth of the Minotaur may provide a clue to the suppression of the Minoan Civilization. One factor may have been the demand for human tribute that was then sacrificed. Another factor may have been the importance of women who may have controlled the culture as priestesses. Subjected peoples may have reacted negatively to the demand for human tribute that is expressed in the Minotaur Myth. The Myth of Theseus may also involve a comment on the then new understanding of the role of men in the production of babies. Before that time women were better regarded because that is where babies come from. But partial knowledge of the value of sperm led to upgrading of the status of men. In the Theseus myth the role of man is plain in this context and it is plain that he is the key to dynastic succession.
The volcano eruption on Thera (possibly 1627 BCE and 1600 BCE) is speculated by some to have caused the destruction of the Minoan Civilization, but the following suggests there were several other opportunities” Herodotus, The Histories, 7.171: “The Praesians say that when Crete was left desolate, it was populated especially by Greeks, among other peoples. Then, in the third generation after Minos, the events surrounding the Trojan War, in which the Cretans bore themselves as bravely as any in the cause of Menelaus, took place.  After this, when they returned from Troy, they and their flocks and herds were afflicted by famine and pestilence, until Crete was once more left desolate. Then came a third influx of Cretans, and it is they who, with those that were left, now dwell there.”
Minoan Art and Religion
Many authors have commented on the imagery of nature in Minoan Art. Jane Ellen Harrison has related this observation to the goal of primitive religion which is the conservation and promotion of life. This goal is served by getting rid of whatever is conceived to be hostile and enhancing whatever is conceived as favorable to life. The primary actions taken are mimetic dances. In this way the primitive person tries to get what he wants by doing it. The dances are generally of two sorts. One looks back to the ancestors and re-enacts their doings. The dances reinforce the tradition of the group. The other looks forward and attempts to simulate what is desired to sustain life. Another aspect of the art of the Minoans is the representation of dancing. So important is this expression that some have said that most of the time of the Minoans must have been spent in dancing processions.
The first concepts of primitive religion that Harrison considers are totem and taboo. In the concepts of totem and taboo the primitive defines the boundaries of his social modes of behavior. It can be seen that these ideas translate into the more contemporary concepts of sanctity, sacrament, and sin. The primitive concepts are more directly related to the goal so they seem less religious than the more contemporary concepts with their relation to the notion of a deity. What can be seen in the case of the Minoans is that the one gives rise to the other. So we see, in the case of the Minoans, a transition from a primitive religion to a more advanced state. The notion of taboo is not well illustrated in the Minoan record but there can be no doubt that social membership is well defined especially as illustrated by modes of dress, hair styles, and gestures. The concept of totem is well illustrated by the many references to tree worship. Snakes are another possibility. But the lack of totems is not surprising considering the ancient Greeks seem to have replaced these concepts by those of law. Instead of focusing on memberships in groups the ancient Greeks focused on the boundaries of groups. Since this a unique aspect of the Greek culture it is possible that this is a contribution of the Minoan Culture.
The next aspect of primitive religion which Harrison considers is initiation ceremonies. In these the initiate is brought from a state of uselessness to a state involving his competency as both a warrior and a father. The most dramatic aspect of this rite is the emphasis on the total destruction of the initiate in the old state and his literal rebirth in the new state. Often the rite takes on the character of a simulated death and rebirth that celebrates the transition from one stage of life to another. A number of aspects of Greek religion can be understood in this context. The sacrifice of an animal can be seen as a substitute for the initiate. This is consistent with the story of the sacrifice of Iphigenia where Artemis substitutes a deer for Iphigenia at the last moment. The role of blood and liquid libations is clarified. The purpose of the blood and liquids are to bring the initiate back to life by providing the initiate the liquid of life. Incense is used to provide the spirit portion for the initiate.
The initiation provides an explanation for another common Greek image, the titanomachy. During the initiation the initiate is presented with the ghosts of his ancestors in the form of elders of his community. To become ghosts the elders rub themselves with gypsum and dance with spears and shields. Titan means gypsum, that white powdery substance that is often called chalk. The battle of the Titans seems to have begun as a dance of chalk-coated elders who were initiating the youthful Zeus into his Tribe. This concept also fits Dionysus and his band of dancing revelers. For some time I have thought that the generations of the gods before Zeus represents the conquest of one culture by another. The suggestion is that the gods of the victors replace the gods of the losers. But the information that Jane Harrison provides suggests it is rather illustrative of the steps in the development of primitive religion. In the beginning as with Gaia and Uranus sex was incestuous and the sons had to kill their father to take over. Then the father had to swallow his children to protect himself as with Cronus. Finally to preserve family harmony the mother, Rhea, saved the son so that a pact could be formed into which the son, Zeus was initiated. This is what the battle of the Titans symbolized. And from this came the rule of law, which began as a system of taboos. In this system the totem represents the father and the son together as one family. She suggests that in this system sacrifice of the totem replaces the killing that went before. Oddly the symbol of Zeus is the Gorgonion. It is interesting to consider that the killing of Medusa may actually represent the symbolic killing of the father by the son. Along the same path the Amazonomachy may represent the initiation of Zeus by women.
If we turn to the sexual aspect of the initiation Harrison claims there is a reference to the mother son pairing that is associated with the Adonis myth and many mid-eastern religions. She claims that the mating of the initiate with an older woman provides education of the initiate in the ways of sex and fertility for the older woman as an earth mother. This mimetic dance can be seen to fertilize the crops. Only later does the initiate get a wife from the younger women. This concept of relating the initiate with an older woman is not consistent with what is known of primitive cultures, but it is consistent with Minoan imagery and early Greek myth. There are a number of Minoan seals that show a young man relating to an older woman. That this woman is related to the concept of taboo seems likely because in the older Greek myths the concept of law is often related to women. Themis, the goddess of law, is female. The Furies, the pursuers of those who break the law, are all female. And I have this lovely quote about the Muses from the Theogony (line 63): “And they, uttering through their lips a lovely voice, sing the laws of all and the goodly ways of the immortals, …” Add to this the fact that a Bacchanalian rite, which no doubt began as an initiation ceremony of the same sort, consists of Dionysus, who no doubt, represents the initiate in his ecstatic state, is surrounded by a troupe of dancing Maenads, all female and very sexually oriented.
Every young male needs to be initiated perhaps but there is a question whether every male can serve in the fertility capacity. It is likewise with the women. The best needs to be chosen. Minoan art focuses on the initiation of the chosen woman. Greek myth provides a number of mechanisms of choice. Sometimes inheritance is used, but also a footrace, or a beauty contest. The Sphinx provided a contest of this sort. Ulysses had to best his father-in-law in a race. But sometimes Aphrodite arranges for love to provide the match. This happened to both Ariadne and Medea, but in neither case did this love-match prove adequate.
Women and Minoan Culture
An important feature of the Minoan culture is the status afforded to women. Not only were women respected, they were also given positions of authority. This is in stark contrast to the later Greeks who seemed to prefer women in more menial positions. The female deities of the Minoan religion even seem to be dominant. There are reasons that can be provided for this situation. One is that the culture was very dependent on the babies that the women provided and they may have been unaware of the contribution of men. The fact is that the relation between sex and birth is not obvious since the events are separated by a nine month gap. At any rate it can be documented that there was a time when this relation was unknown and that knowledge of it may have occurred during the Minoan period with customs set by the early situation and not changed when the facts became known.
Another fact relates to the nautical nature of the culture. The culture was not pacifistic as some claim. This claim is based on the lack of militaristic materials on land. The fact is that the culture was dominant on the sea. It is entirely possible that the culture was divided with the men at sea and the women on land. It makes sense that while the men were away the women would be required to perform many of the tasks of the men. And it also makes sense that any militarism was confined to the ships. Since the ships were made of wood any of their remains have long ago rotted away.
An image of the nautical nature of the culture:
Dress for the Minoans
Dress for the Minoan males was fairly light with males wearing little more than a loin cloth. Dress for the women was more elaborate. What are preserved in frescoes are dresses used for religious purposes. This includes a flounced skirt, a girdle and a vest-like garment that reveals the breasts. Some have stated that the Minoan clothes were fitted as are modern clothing. This is very unlikely. What is more likely is that the clothing resembles modern clothing but in reality is simpler than the clothing that follows it. One possibilty is that the Minoan clothing was not sewn of woven cloth, but was merely constructed of tied strings. This kind of clothing would not cover so well but early clothing was worn more for its spiritual value than its protection from the elements. In fact it might be assumed that in this culture clothing was optional even though it is consistently displayed in the art. Art has the advantage of displaying what is valued and it should be clear that the spiritual value of clothing is what causes it to be displayed.
There was a time when clothing was not worn by humans. Likewise there was a time when beauty was not a concept for women. But shortly after the Minoan period clothing was standard and beauty was a very important concept. It is possible that both these concepts were worked out during the Minoan period. A concept like that of the girdle of Aphrodite seems related here. It seems as though women were beginning to realize the value of garments to the look of beauty and its benefits. Since the Minoan language remains untranslated we must depend upon imagery and the mythical references of the ancient Greeks to provide us with an interpretation. It seems likely that further study of the ancient Minoans is easily justified by and understanding of the developments of these concepts.
We think of weaving as important for clothing and we think of weaving as women’s work for this reason. In many cultures it is women’s work and for this reason it is suspected that weaving was invented by women. But the contribution of weaving to sailing must be considered. The sail gave a tremendous advantage to a ship so it would seem that weaving might have initially have been done to provide sails. Though there are leather clothes there are no leather sails. Weaving may have been first done to provide sails for ships and only later used to provide clothing. In fact the looms that were found in the palaces of the Minoan culture may have been entirely for sails.
Nature and Minoan Art
In contrast to the art of the ancient Greeks, Minoan art reflects a love of nature and the joy of life in nature. Charm and elegance were important even in the miniatures that were common. Motion is an important characteristic with figures seemingly animated in action. Figures appear in the context of a natural scene with natural objects forming the basic shapes.
End of Minoan Culture
The End of the Minoan culture may have come very quickly. In 1650 BCE the volcano on Thera erupted in what has been described as the largest volcanic eruption in the last 10,000 years. In addition to killing perhaps half of the Minoans, the blast may have destroyed the Minoan ships. This would have left the Minoans defenseless and vulnerable. There is evidence that the Minoans were soon conquered by the Mycenaeans who moved out to Crete from the mainland. The difference between Minoan and Mycenaean ships needs to be noted. Homer speaks of the Achaean(Mycenaean) ships as being beaked yet the images of the Minoan ships show no beaks. These beaked ships may have allowed the Mycenaeans to destroy the Minoan fleet. But the Mycenaeans assimilated much of the old culture into their own. Much of the Minoan culture was rebuilt by the Mycenaeans before, they, in turn, were conquered by an even more mysterious conqueror. The Mycenaeans seem to even have adopted the Minoan alphabet and phonetics. We know what the Minoan words sound like because the Mycenaeans preserved the phonetics of the language when they adopted the alphabet for their own which was a early form of Greek. So we can translate the few things the Mycenaeans wrote. And we can pronounce the few things the Minoans wrote, but we cannot translate them in general. Some of the Minoan words like ‘plinth’ were kept by the Mycenaeans. Also kept were many of the Gods and Goddesses. This seems to be why the names of some of the important gods and goddesses in ancient Greek are untranslatable. This is also why the Greeks thought they were native people when they were not.
Writing and Language of Minoan Culture
The writing and the language of the Minoans remains a mystery. The writing is difficult especially because there is no modern language whose syntax can be used to interpret the writings. Now there is some suggestion that the writing may be central African. This is hopeful. Other things can be explained in this way. The emphasis on Bulls and bull dancing is explained because Central Africa had been a cattle culture. The structure of religious worship is similar. There is even some hope that a central African language can be used to translate linear A. But the writing that did occur during the Minoan period was mainly for bookkeeping and business and only an elite knew it. Mainly it was used for making lists of supplies. There seems to be no history, myths, or descriptions.
In the Odyssey of Homer, Book 19, line 173:
“There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities.  They have not all the same speech, but their tongues are mixed. There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Cydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians. Among their cities is the great city Knossos, where Minos reigned when nine years old.”
In the Iliad of Homer, Book 2, line 645:
“And the Cretans had as leader Idomeneus, famed for his spear, even they that held Knossos and Gortys, famed for its walls, Lyctus and Miletus and Lycastus, white with chalk, and Phaestus and Rhytium, well-peopled cities; and all they beside that dwelt in Crete of the hundred cities.”
Greek Gods and Goddesses with Minoan Roots
Greek gods and goddesses with mostly untranslatable Names and thus possibly Minoan
- Ἀφροδίτης — Aphrodite
- Ἀπόλλων — Apollo — Ionian
- Ἄρηος — Ares – Thrace
- Άρτεμις — Artemis
- Ἀθηνᾶς — Athena
- Κρόνος — Cronus — Minoan (flight of a hawk?; crown is related to circle)
- Dionysus – Thrace
- Ἑρμάωυι(Hesiod),Ἑρμῆς(Liddell & Scott ) — Hermes
- Ῥέα — Rhea — Minoan (flowing stream?)
- Γαλαξαύρη — Galaxaura
- Πετραίη — Petraea
- Τελεστώ — Telesto
- Ἀσίη — Asia
- Ἄλκυόνηυ — Alcyone — This name is related to the word for kingfisher.
- Nereids: The word Nereid — Νηρηίδες — ‘sea nymph’ seems not to be Indo-European.
- Γαλάτεια — Galatea — commonly translated ‘the milky white goddess’ yet the Indo-European word for milk is ‘mē̆lg̑-‘.
- Κῡμᾰτολήγη — Kymatolege — ‘Wave-stiller’
- Μαῖρα — Maera — ‘the dog star, the sparkler’
- Ὠρείθυια — Oreithuia — ‘mountain juniper’
Personages of Minoan Culture
- Crocus as Cretan All-mother Kar
- Potnia Theron — Mistress of the Animals. This suggests Artemis.
- Snake Goddess — Snakes are very important to Athena but the snake goddess
seems more related to Aphrodite because of the fertility role of snakes..
- A-ta-no-dju-wa-ja. This name means Sun Goddess – the prefix atano is related to Luwian astanus = sun. The Mycenaeans may have translated this as
A-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja (Mistress Athena)
- Earth Mother, later known as Demeter (Ida Mater may mean earth mother. There are two mountains named Ida, one near Troy and the other on Crete, so the name may also mean mountain mother.
- A-sa-sa-ra-me (or Ja-sa-sa-ra-me), my Lady
- Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth (Athena may mean Athe-anna)
- Bee goddess
- Britomartis (goddess of the mountains and hunting) Artemis?
- Diktynne – Persephone?
- Aphaea – Athena?
- Mortal mythical women
Life during Minoan Times
A Minoan priestess is tying the sacral knot on a Minoan girl. She might be the bride of a man or a god
The Sacral Knot. A large knot appears on the neck of some women in Minoan art. Perhaps this is a marriage knot. In this case the knot is interpreted as the sign a priestess is married to a god. The priestess is also decked in an outfit not so much to cover modesty as for its spiritual power. Wearing a garment for spiritual power is not unlike buying a stylish garment to promote oneself socially.
Some women were worshipped as goddesses or impersonators of goddesses. They dressed in a very provocative way, especially during festivals. They may have danced provocatively as well. Their emphasis on female breasts and their interest in liquid offerings may have been related to the belief that women were the source of things good. In art they are dressed as though they are very valuable. But clothes would have been very expensive for them and somewhat of a luxury. In actuality the higher the class the more and better the clothes that would have been available. Slaves were often unclothed to keep them from running away. Unfortunately we cannot translate their language so we have no verbal descriptions.
This image and the ones that follow are staged using 1/4 scale dolls. Not any doll will do. They should be accurate and poseable. Even so the result, though in sympathy with the women depicted in Minoan art, are not that accurate. The Minoan hairstyles, in particular, are quite elaborate, and difficult to model. And the dolls model a limited range of ages and body types. But nudity was probably very common among the Minoans and the dolls represent a productive way of dealing with this subject. Male Dolls of this size and type are rare but fortunately the women of the Minoan Society performed without the men quite frequently.
A labyrinth dance led by a Minoan priestess
We know the labyrinth as a maze. From the Theseus myth we know the labyrinth as a confining maze, almost like a trap. But the name comes from the symbol of the Minoan culture, the Labrys. This is a double axe that is used more often in a symbolic way as a staff or wand. The word ‘labyrinth’ means place of the Labrys and is believed to have been a courtyard where the labrys was displayed. In this courtyard processions and dances occurred. These are believed to have been line dances and the maze patterns are the paths that the dancers followed. These paths may have been marked out on the floor of the court. A priestess usually led these dances.
In the context of a dance it is easy to understand the spiritual power of clothing as items that complement the dance and make it more effective. Environmental protection is secondary to the swish and sway of the garment. Our impression is that these ancient outfits are very complex. This is the impression of the study of the visuals that are available. It is possible that the visuals reflect a simpler structure than we are aware of. I am proposing that the garments were not woven, but rather were made of piles of string. This would have been more consistent with the technology of the period.
They liked to dance in fancy dresses that exposed their breasts and the men worshipped them. They were small waisted with ample busts and hips. They wore ringlets and curls in their hair and gold jewelry. The men wore rings on their fingers with images of these women.
A small Minoan boat filled with people, and a labrys symbol
There were few roads in the Minoan realm. Almost everything moved by boat. Many boats were large and ranged far and wide. These the men maintained. Most of the time the men were at sea and the women were at home. If women left the palace they might use a boat, or a sedan chair. In either case they probably used the muscle power of a slave. But few, if any, slaves were men.
For the ancient Greeks the butterfly was the symbol of the soul. For example consider
this quote regarding butterfly: “In the space before the youth’s face, nearly obliterated, is a small butterfly-like creature, an eidolon, representing the soul of the deceased, which buzzes around the tomb observing the rites and offerings in its behalf.” for the following image:
“It is interesting, however, that in the Minoan culture, a shield was used that had
a shape somewhat like that of the mammalian thyroid gland. The gland as seen from the front
is more nearly the shape of a butterfly.”
“….”The shape of a butterfly emerges on Catal Huyuk frescoes and is incised on European Neolithic pots… These schematic butterflies are the prototypes of the Minoan ‘double-axes’ which we find portrayed between the horns of a bull. The emblem of the Great Goddess in its origin has nothing to do with the axe; it antedates the appearance of metal axes by several thousand years.”
Butterfly image on a Minoan jug:
A Minoan priestess being carried in a Sedan chair by women and slaves
There are no pictures of Sedan chairs in Minoan Art but there are references to their use. The type of chair pictured here is simple enough to have been used by the Minoans.
A Minoan woman drawing water from a cistern
Some channels were found to deliver water to the Minoan palaces, but a lot of water was carried by women. In the classical Greek period this is one of the few times the woman left the home and so she was the most vulnerable. But in the Minoan culture the men were all on the boats and the women were left to themselves. The water carried by the women was placed in the homes and apartments. There it was used for drinking, cooking, and bathing.
An altar being carried by a Minoan priestess on a boat for a sacred purpose
Sacred items were frequently carried around and delivered from place to place.
A sacred tree around which Minoan women are dancing as a part of their worshipAfter text
Trees were important to the Minoan culture and many were sacred. Potted Trees occur in Minoan Art. Trees were often danced around as part of the ceremonies. A world tree seems to have been part of their religion as it was with the peoples of northern Europe.
A Minoan priestess officiates at a ceremony
Every aspect of life seems to have been directed by a ceremony and most aspects involved processions directed by a priestess.
A initiation ceremony involving Minoan women in a cave
Mountaintops and caves were both important to Minoan worshop. The cave as the womb of the earth seems like a meaningful image in this context. The fact that snakes live in caves seems important. White was the symbol of bleached bones and death while the black of a cave seemed to be symbolic of birth and renewal. Initiation ceremonies were common. This seems an initiation with a cave.
The classical Greeks believed that the deities resulted from the sexual union of Heaven and Earth. Humans were then created by the Gods. But these myths were probably not true of the Minoans. They had their own myths which were often not transmitted. Their writing, Linear A, has still not been deciphered. There is slight hope that the decipherment of their language, will bring to light some of their myths. In the meantime we are dependent upon archeological discoveries.
As an example of archeology I present the following passage from Gimbutus The Language of the Goddess, p 223, “A dark subterranean crypt with a square central pillar was a common feature of most Minoan settlements and temple-palaces. Inside these symbolic wombs, hundreds of cups–some still filled with the carbonized remains of vegetable matter–were found scattered among animal bones around the pillar. This verifies the focal position of the life-force pillar in religious ceremonies.
“In the western wing at Knossos, rooms above the crypts contain round columns. Pillars in the subterranean rooms and the related columns on the floors above are frequently marked with double axes (the horizontal hourglass or butterfly of resurrection) and sacral knots, emblems of the Goddess. It seems probable that pillar crypts symbolized the womb of the
Goddess Creatrix. The initiation rites were performed here. The participants returned to the womb–that, “died”–and after the ceremonies were reborn again.
“Analogues in the wild are sacred Minoan caves with stalagmites and stalactites. These include the Cave of Eileithyia (Goddess of Childbirth) east of Herakleion, and those at Psychro, Arkalokholi, and other localities where offerings, including double axes, were found. Like pillars, the the stalactites and stalagmites probably symbolized the embryonic, concentrated life force materializing in the womb of the goddess.”
A Minoan priestess dressed as the Snake goddess leads a dance ceremony
Two things are common to images of the snake goddess: The flounced skirt, and snakes. But there are other symbols as well especially spirals, zigzags, dots, nets, and dotted lines. The snake is a symbol of life force involving both birth and death. The wiggling nature of the snake is the important characteristic. Today the snake is often a phallus symbol but this was less important in ancient times. The energy of the phallus was important. But more important was the fact that snakes also came from the ground and returned there. This was symbolic of the struggle of life and death.
The skirt of the snake goddess was a sacred garment. The symbols on it represented the sacred energy, but the skirt enhanced the female power. The apron which covers the pubic area focuses that power. The skirt was so powerful that special rituals were required to make it, and it made the person who wore it appear as the goddess.
Underneath the palace of Knossos secret rites might have been held
Mysteries have often been favored with the dark being associated with the mystery. From caves and holes in the ground come snakes, bugs, and all sorts of creepy-crawly creatures. We know little of the nature of this ancient civilization, but the little that we know is interesting.
A Minoan priestess is telling an story to the women workers as they relax at the end of the day
Each day was probably fully ritualized. There was probably a morning meal and an evening meal with work in between. The day began with the water being carried from a well or fountain to the dwelling. Then a washing period followed and food was eaten. Next a march proceeded to the daily tasks. When daylight started failing workers returned to their home. There they gathered for food and entertainment. Storytelling was the main entertainment. Here the priestess is the storyteller. In other cultures there were special men who performed this task. We know that the men in the ancient Greek cultures wrote dramas, which were involved stories. Women did not write dramas, nor did they perform in them. But the art of the ancient Minoans did seem to represent women in what are likely dramatizations. This suggests
the women were also storytellers. The practice of dramatizing the deity seems to have been the source of drama.
A bull dancer awaits the rush of the bull. She had to dance away, or leap, so as not to get gored. But if she was gored, as the other dancer seems to have been, it was no tragedy. It was considered a sacrifice to the goddess.
Little is known about the bull dancing of the ancient Minoan culture. The ancient frescoes show acrobats leaping over the bulls. But the dance may have been little different from the movements of a matador in a bull-ring. Another possibility is that there was activity to tire the bull and the dancing commenced after he was subdued. Homer mentions dancing in the ring where the bulls were leaped and later where the Minotaur was slaughtered. The ring was called a labyrinth because the sacred labrys decorated it. How labyrinth came to mean maze is the mystery. But it may have something to do with the
dance. If the dance put people into a trance, then the maze might relate to the process of coming out. The maze might also refer to the pattern of the dance steps.
The myth of Theseus refers to the sacrifice of humans to the Minotaur. Even though bull dancing could be a very dangerous sport it seems unlikely that captives were sacrificed to the bull by having them dance in this way. It seems more likely that the victim is tied to the bull and the bulls wears himself out trying to get the victim off. In the process the victim is destroyed. Later, when the bull is tired the dancing takes place. But in Spain today at Pamplona there is the running of the bulls. There people take the chance of running in front of the bulls and dancing just for fun and every once in a while one gets gored.
A bound victim is carried by boat to the site of her sacrifice
The Minoans performed human sacrifices; there is little doubt of this. And there can be little doubt that the sacrifice was meant to assist the survivors. But the idea that killing someone is a help is hard to understand. Of course, today, in capital crimes where a victim is killed, it is often thought that putting the killer to death is a good idea. It seems like the ancients used other victims as well. Rene Girard points out that the sacrifice might be successful if violence is diverted and a larger conflict avoided. You let the community vent its violence on a suitable victim. Such a victim would be someone expendable that has no close attachment to a number of vengeful people. Kings are most usually the cause of violence but virgin girls are usually the most expendable. There are many stories of kings being killed but many also where virgin girls are substituted.
In the Minoan culture it was the priestesses that held sway. Since they were the ones likely to cause trouble it would be convenient to put them up for sacrifice. Then like the scapegoat the trouble would follow them. They might also be willing victims if they had the chance to rule.
A sacrificial victim is stabbed in the throat to obtain the blood needed to fertilize the crops in the spring and her life drains away with the blood
A sacrifice in the Spring seems most timely because the blood of the sacrifice can be used to fertilize the crops. It seems as though the ancients were careful to collect the blood and use it in some way. We do know that it is an excellent fertilizer. At any rate the victims were pierced in the throat and their blood drained away. The victims were also specially dressed and often bound. The survivors were happy because they believed the sacrifice would bring them to the deities and bring the deities to their family. In Greek myth Persephone is raped. Whether this goddess dies is debatable but she then confined in the place of the dead. Her mother arranges for her to return to earth in a cyclic manner so she rises each spring and dies again in the fall. That way she spends half the time in death with her husband Hades and the other half in life with her mother Demeter.
Terms of Minoan Religion
- altar – An elevated platform upon which offerings are placed and before
which religious ceremonies are performed.
- baetyl – A sacred rock that locates a sacred place or deity.
- bucranium – An icon resembling the head of a bull.
- cupule stone – A flat stone with depressions around the perimeter probably for holding libations.
- epiphany – Appearance of a god or goddess. A number of artifacts in Minoan
art seem to record this. One goal of Minoan dancing and other cult activity
seems to be an epiphany.
- horns of consecration – A sculptural piece in the form of a “U” that seems
to represent the horns of a bull. It serves as a marker for religious places.
- labyrinth – Literally the place of the labrys. A court where dances and
other ceremonies are held. The maze patterns symbolizing the labyrinth
probably represent dance patterns. Like incantations the dances had to be
performed in a certain way to bring about a desired result.
- labrys – An icon representing a butterfly in the shape of a double bit ax.
The ax could also serve as a sacrificial implement.
- libation – A liquid gift or offering to a deity.
- lustral basin – A low place near a temple entrance that facilitates washing and purification.
- peak sanctuary – A site on a mountain chosen for its view at which a ceremony is performed.
- pillar crypt – A room with a central pillar that does not necessarily hold up
the roof. The floor is often supplied with grooves to carry away liquids that have been applied to the pillar.
- propylon – A gate marked by two columns, one on either side of the opening. It typically includes a small chamber behind it. This can form a ritual entryway to a room in which a ceremony of entry is performed.
- tree shaking – A potted tree is handled as part of an initiation ceremony.
Initiates may have been required to gnaw on the tree with their hands behind their backs.
- votive object – A ceremonial object placed on an altar to represent a
request to a deity by a worshipper.
Images of Minoan Culture
- Reproduction of the stone ‘Harvester’s Vase’
- Reproduction of a jar with lilies
- Reproduction of a gold signet ring with engraved bezel
- Reproduction of a bronze votive statuettte of a man
- Reproduction of the ‘Throne of Minos’
- Reproduction of the Bull Leapers Fresco
- Reproduction of ‘La Parisienne’ fresco
- Reproduction of the ‘Ladies in Blue’ fresco
- Reproduction of the ‘Priest-King’ from Knossos
- Reproduction of the ‘Grandstand’ fresco
- Reproduction of ‘Sacred Grove and Dance’ fresco
- Reproduction of the ‘Saffron-Gatherer’ fresco
- Reproduction of the “Cupbearer” fresco
- Reproduction of the ‘Agia Triadha Sarcophagus’
- Reproduction of the ‘Phaistos Disk’
- Reproduction of a terracotta figure of a girl on a swing
- Reproduction of a Marine-style, terracotta stirrup jar
- Reproduction of the Boxer Rhyton
- Bronze female figure
Resources for Minoan Culture
- Dietrich, Bernard C., “Cult Practice and Belief in Minoan Crete : Reconstructing an Aegean Religion (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche Und Vorarbeiten,
46)”, ISBN: 3110156466.
- Hamilakis, Yannis (Edt), “Labyrinth Revisited : Rethinking ‘Minoan’
Archaeology”, ISBN: 1842170619.
- Higgins, Reynold, “Minoan and Mycenaean Art (World of Art)”, Thames &
Hudson, November 1997, Dimensions: 8.3″ x 5.9″ x 0.59″, Paperback,
Category: Art/History – Ancient/Classical, ISBN: 0500203032
- Jones, Donald W., “Peak Sanctuaries and Sacred Caves in Minoan Crete :
Comparison of Artifacts (Studies in Mediterranean Archaeology and Literature –
Pocket-Book, 156)”, ISBN: 9170811539
- Marinatos, Nanno, “Minoan Religion”, The University of South Carolina
Press, ISBN 0-87249-744-5
- Rodney Castleden, Rodney Castledon,”Minoans : Life in Bronze Age
Crete” / Paperback / Published 1993
- Dietrich, Bernard C., “Cult Practice and Belief in Minoan Crete : Reconstructing an Aegean Religion (Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche Und Vorarbeiten,
- Web Sites:
- THE MINOAN EPIPHANY – A Bronze Age Visionary Culture
- Minoan Frescoes
- Consciousness-Related Issues in Minoan Archaeology
- Minoan Religion
- Minoan Archaeology: Minoan Crete
- Mysteries of the Minoans
- Space and Perspective in Minoan Art
- The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean
- Bronze Age Architecture of the Minoan Culture
- PaleoBotany: Crops and Flora of Crete
- Cretian Goddesses
- Art History: Research Project on Minoan Civilization
- Museum Without Walls – Crete and Mycenae VHS
Quiz Yourself on the Topic Minoan Culture
Questions about Minoan Culture
To ask a question about this topic note the topic (Minoan) and