Minoan religion

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"Snake Goddess" or a priestess performing a ritual

Minoan Religion was a religion of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization. A type of polytheism in a larger group of religions of the Ancient Near East, and a prehistoric religion, an interpretation of possible cult practice and mythology is based on evidence recovered archaeologically.

Postulated Minoan sacred symbols include the bull and its horns of consecration, the labrys (double-headed axe), and the serpent.

Cultic practice

The Minoans seem to have worshiped primarily goddesses, which has been described as a "matriarchal religion".[1] However, as the Minoan script is still a mystery we have no translated Minoan religious documents to work with. Professor Nanno Marinatos states that "The hierarchy and relationship of gods within the pantheon is difficult to decode from the images alone."[1] We can assume from the prevalence of female images in ritual contexts that the Minoans worshipped one or more Goddesses. We also know that animals played an important role in their rituals, particularly snakes and bulls. However, any attempt at this point to make definite statements about their mythology or spiritual practices is inferential at best. Some of these depictions of women are speculated to be images of worshipers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies as opposed to the deity herself, there seem to be several goddesses, including a Mother Goddess of fertility, a Mistress of the Animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld. They are often represented by serpents, birds, poppies, and a somewhat vague shape of an animal upon the head.

Some archaeologists[citation needed] suggest the goddess was linked to the "Earthshaker", a male represented by the bull and the sun, who would die each autumn and be reborn each spring. However, current perceptions are oriented towards a female solar goddess,[2][3] and in this light bull symbolism was most likely lunar in nature.[4]

Károly Kerényi believed that the most important goddess was Ariadne, daughter of King Minos and mistress of the labyrinth who is identified in Linear B (Mycenean Greek) tablets in Knossos. Though the notorious bull-headed Minotaur is a purely Greek depiction, seals and seal-impressions reveal bird-headed or masked deities.[citation needed]

The bull leaper from Knossos (Heraklion Archaeological Museum)

Retrieval of metal and clay votive figures, double axes, miniature vessels, models of artifacts, animals, and human figures has identified sites of cult, such as numerous small shrines in Minoan Crete, and mountain peaks and very numerous sacred caves over 300 have been explored were the centers for some cult, but temples, as the Greeks developed them, were unknown.[5] Within the palace complex, no central rooms devoted to a cult have been recognized other than the center court, where youths of both sexes would practice the bull-leaping ritual. There are no Minoan frescoes that depict any deities.[citation needed]

One of the cultic figures of ancient Crete and later of the Mycenaeans is known as the Minoan Genius. This was a fantastic creature with similarities both to the lion and the hippopotamus, which implies a connection with ancient Egypt. This deity played a role as a protector of children, and also in various fertility rituals.

Bull-leaping ritual

A major festive celebration was exemplified in the famous athletic Minoan bull dance, represented at large in the frescoes of Knossos[6] and inscribed in miniature seal stones.

There is significant debate among scholars as to whether the athletes actually vaulted over the bull. Sir Arthur Evans argued that the Bull-Leaping Fresco depicts acrobats literally seizing the bull by the horns and leaping over the creature’s back.[7] Others have asserted that the fresco more likely shows young Minoan people attempting to ride the bull and that the act of catching a charging bull and vaulting over it is unrealistic.[8]

Possibility of human sacrifice

Evidence that suggest the Minoans may have performed human sacrifice has been found at three sites: (1) Anemospilia, in a MMII building near Mt. Juktas, interpreted as a temple, (2) an EMII sanctuary complex at Fournou Korifi in south central Crete, and (3) Knossos, in an LMIB building known as the "North House." (explanation of abbreviations)

The temple at Anemospilia was destroyed by earthquake in the MMII period. The building seems to be a tripartite shrine, and terracotta feet and some carbonized wood were interpreted by the excavators as the remains of a cult statue. Four human skeletons were found in its ruins; one, belonging to a young man, was found in an unusually contracted position on a raised platform, suggesting that he had been trussed up for sacrifice, much like the bull in the sacrifice scene on the Mycenaean-era Agia Triadha sarcophagus. A bronze dagger was among his bones, and the discoloration of the bones on one side of his body suggests he died of blood loss. The bronze blade was fifteen inches long and had images of a boar on each side. The bones were on a raised platform at the center of the middle room, next to a pillar with a trough at its base.

The positions of the other three skeletons suggest that an earthquake caught them by surprise—the skeleton of a twenty-eight-year-old woman was spread-eagled on the ground in the same room as the sacrificed male. Next to the sacrificial platform was the skeleton of a man in his late thirties, with broken legs. His arms were raised, as if to protect himself from falling debris, which suggests that his legs were broken by the collapse of the building in the earthquake. In the front hall of the building was the fourth skeleton, too poorly preserved to allow determination of age or gender. Nearby 105 fragments of a clay vase were discovered, scattered in a pattern that suggests it had been dropped by the person in the front hall when he was struck by debris from the collapsing building. The jar appears to have contained bull's blood.

Unfortunately, the excavators of this site have not published an official excavation report; the site is mainly known through a 1981 article in National Geographic (Sakellarakis and Sapouna-Sakellerakis 1981, see also Rutter[9]).

Not all agree that this was human sacrifice. Nanno Marinatos says the man supposedly sacrificed died in the earthquake that hit at the time he died. She notes that this earthquake destroyed the building, and killed the two Minoans who supposedly sacrificed him. She also argues that the building was not a temple and that the evidence for sacrifice "is far from ... conclusive."[10] Dennis Hughes concurs and argues that the platform where the man lay was not necessarily an altar, and the blade was probably a spearhead that may not have been placed on the young man, but could have fallen during the earthquake from shelves or an upper floor.[11]

At the sanctuary-complex of Fournou Korifi, fragments of a human skull were found in the same room as a small hearth, cooking-hole, and cooking-equipment. This skull has been interpreted as the remains of a sacrificed victim.[12]

In the "North House" at Knossos, the bones of at least four children (who had been in good health) were found which bore signs that "they were butchered in the same way the Minoans slaughtered their sheep and goats, suggesting that they had been sacrificed and eaten. The senior Cretan archaeologist Nicolas Platon was so horrified at this suggestion that he insisted the bones must be those of apes, not humans."[13]

The bones, found by Peter Warren, date to Late Minoan IB (1580-1490), before the Myceneans arrived (in LM IIIA, c. 1320-1200) according to Paul Rehak and John G. Younger.[14] Dennis Hughes and Rodney Castleden argue that these bones were deposited as a 'secondary burial'.[15] Secondary burial is the not-uncommon practice of burying the dead twice: immediately following death, and then again after the flesh is gone from the skeleton. The main weakness of this argument is that it does not explain the type of cuts and knife marks upon the bones.

Burial and mortuary practice

Like much of the archaeology of the Bronze Age, burial remains constitute much of the material and archaeological evidence for the period. By the end of the Second Palace Period Minoan burial practice is dominated by two broad forms: 'Circular Tombs', or Tholoi, (located in South Crete) and 'House Tombs', (located in the north and the east). Of course, there are many trends and patterns within Minoan mortuary practice that do not conform to this simple breakdown. Over all, inhumation was the most popular form of burial, cremation does not seem to have been a popular means of burial in Bronze Age Crete.[16] Throughout this period there is a trend towards individual burials, with some distinguished exceptions. These include the much-debated Chrysolakkos complex, Mallia, consisting of a number of buildings forming a complex. This is located in the centre of Mallia's burial area and may have been the focus for burial rituals, or the 'crypt' for a notable family.

These tombs often evidence group burial, where more than one body is deposited. These may represent the burial crypts for generations of a kin group, or of a particular settlement where the individuals are not closely related and shared in the construction of the tomb. The 'house tomb' at Gournia is a typical example, where the construction consisted of a clay and reed roof, topping a mud-brick and stone base. At Ayia Photia certain rock-cut chamber tombs may have been used solely for the burial of children, indicating complex burial patterns that differed from region to region. Mortuary furniture and grave goods varied widely, but could include storage jars, bronze articles such as tools and weapons, and beauty articles such as pendants. Little is known about mortuary rituals, or the stages through which the deceased passed before final burial, but it has been indicated that 'toasting rituals' may have formed a part of this, suggested by the prevalence of drinking vessels found at some tombs.[17]

In later periods (EM III) a trend towards singular burials, usually in clay Pithoi (large storage vessels), is observed throughout Crete, replacing the practice of built tombs. Equally, the introduction of Larnake or Larnax burials emerges, where the body was deposited in a clay or wooden sarcophagus. These coffins were often richly decorated with motifs and scenes similar to those of the earlier fresco and vase painting tradition.[18] However, rock-cut tombs and Tholoi remained in use even by the LM III period, including the site of Phylaki.

The distribution of burial sites varies in time and space. Some functional demands may have influenced the decision to locate a cemetery: the Late Minoan rock-cut tombs at Armeni utilise the geography of the area for structural support, where chambers are dug deep into the rock. Generally, cemeteries tend to cluster in regions close to settled areas. The Mochlos cemetery, for example, would have served the inhabitants of that island who settled in the south of the area. The cemetery itself has been interpreted to indicate a visible hierarchy, perhaps indicating social differentiation within the local population;[19] larger, monumental tombs for the 'èlite', and smaller tombs, including some early Pithoi burials, for the larger part of the population.

The German geologist Hans Georg Wunderlich argued that the Palace of Knossos itself was a mortuary temple.[20] This interpretation is strongly rejected by mainstream archaeology.[21]

Legacy in Mycenaean and classical Greek tradition

Walter Burkert warns, "To what extent one can and must differentiate between Minoan and Mycenaean religion is a question which has not yet found a conclusive answer".[22] Burkert suggests that useful parallels will be found in the relations between Etruscan and Archaic Greek culture and religion, or between Roman and Hellenistic culture. Minoan religion has not been transmitted in its own language, and the uses literate Greeks later made of surviving Cretan mythemes, after centuries of purely oral transmission, have transformed the meager sources: consider the Athenian point of view of the Theseus legend. A few Cretan names are preserved in Greek mythology, but there is no way to connect a name with an existing Minoan icon such as the familiar serpent-goddess.

However Μ. Nilsson [23] proposed that the origin of the Greek goddess Athena was the Minoan snake-goddess, citing that Athena was closely related with snakes.

Plutarch (The Intelligence of Animals 983) mentions the horn altar (keraton) associated with Theseus, which survived on Delos: "I saw, the Altar of Horn, celebrated as one of the Seven Wonders of the World because it needs no glue or any other binding, but is joined and fastened together, made entirely of horns taken from the right side of the head."[24]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Nanno Marinatos (2004). "Minoan and Mycenaean Civilizations". In Sarah Isles Johnston (ed.). Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Harvard University Press. pp. 206–207. ISBN 978-0674015173.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  2. Evidence of Minoan Astronomy and Calendrical Practises
  3. Marinatos, Nanno. Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine (2013).
  4. [1]
  5. Kerenyi 1976, p. 18; Burkert 1985, p. 24ff.
  6. In the small courtyard of the east wing of the palace of Knossos.
  7. Callender, 1987, p. 81
  8. Marinatos, 1993, p. 219
  9. Lesson 15 of The Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean accessed March 17, 2006
  10. Marinatos 1993, p. 114.
  11. Hughes 1991, pp. 16-17, 47.
  12. Gessell 1983.
  13. MacGillivray 2000, Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth" p.312-13
  14. "Review of Aegean Prehistory VII: Neopalatial, Final Palatial, and Postpalatial Crete," American Journal of Archaeology 102 (1998), pp. 91-173.
  15. Hughes 1991; Castleden 1991
  16. Sinclair Hood (1971) "The Minoans; the story of Bronze Age Crete" pp. 140
  17. Dickinson, O (1994) pg. 219
  18. L. Vance Watrous (1991) pg.285-307
  19. Soles, Jeffrey. S, (1992) pg. 41
  20. The Secret of Crete, 1974
  21. Keith Branigan, review of The Secret of Crete, The Geographical Journal 144:3:502, November, 1978. at JSTOR
  22. Burkert 1985, p. 21.
  23. Nilsson, M. (1967). Die Geschichte der Griechischen Religion. München, DE: C.F. Beck Verlag.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. "Plutarch – On the Intelligence of Animals (De sollertia animalium): 975C–985C".<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • Callender, Gae 1987, "Antiquity: The Minoans", Shakespeare Head Press, Sydney
  • Marinatos, Nanno 1993, "Minoan Religion", University of South Carolina, Columbia