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Life-sized Minoan cult statues have not survived, but they have left some traces.  Bronze curls from one such statue, or xoanon, were found in the basement of the Great Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos, and other sites, such as Chania and Anemospilia, have yielded clay feet.  Minoan cult xoana were made of wood, probably cypress, as it was very durable.  Oftentimes the xoana were little more than a dressmaker’s dummy with a carved and painted head, with hair made from fine bronze or gold wires, and clay feet peeping out from under the sacral robes.  Incidentally, this tradition of dressing the deity in new robes carried on into later, Classical times.

Below is an illustration of the Anemospilia xoanon as it might have looked, surrounded by artifacts in the positions in which they were found; as you can see, the fringed robes are draped around the wooden body, concealing it. 

The ragged-looking mound to the lower right of the illustration is bare rock, and part of the altar.  Bronze Age Aegean altars often incorporated living rock, possibly for the worship of chthonic deities, the earth-mother goddess, or the earthquake god, Poseidon.


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One of the scenes on one side of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus.  A priest and priestesses make offerings.  Yes, a priest.  Like the Egyptians, the Minoans color-coded their genders.  So that woman with the dark skin playing the lyre is actually a man.  From this and other evidence, we know that Minoan priests wore women’s vestments during some rituals.  Perhaps it was to be able to participate in women’s rites to honor a goddess, who demanded that men cross-dress in her honor, or some other religious reason.  Without written evidence, we can’t know for sure.

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In the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, people often left votive limbs at sanctuaries as thank-offerings to the gods for healing the afflicted body part.  The votives in the photograph are Minoan.

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The Snake Goddess, the ubiquitous pin-up girl of Minoan Crete.  She, along with another figurine, was discovered during the first excavation of Knossos, lying broken in pieces under the floor of one of the many cult rooms of the West Wing.

But she is actually the smaller of the two figurines, and known in expert circles as the Votary.  Assuming the Minoans intended to render a “Snake Goddess,” then that label properly belongs to the larger figurine.  I suspect she may be a representation of the Minoan goddess Diktynna in her aspect as the Mistress of the Animals--she who would later become Artemis.  Then again, there is much about religion in the Bronze Age Aegean that we simply do not know.

The Votary and Goddess are the only two authentic “Snake Goddesses” that have ever been discovered.  All the others are modern forgeries.

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Fresco from one of the rooms inside the Cult House at Mycenae.  A princess and/or priestess offers wheat ears to two goddesses, probably Hera and Athena; the blank area under the goddesses would have been the altar.  The griffin with the princess/priestess signifies the presence of a divinity, but I can’t say with any certainty what the two naked men between the goddesses represent.

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This charming pair of women with a young child is an ivory piece discovered on the palace mount at Mycenae.  It’s been speculated that the women might be goddesses, perhaps Hera and Athena, the patron goddesses of Argolis, and the child squirming between them a divine child.  The clothing detail is so exquisite that experts use the piece as part of their studies to determine what Mycenaean ladies wore, and how they wore it.  The back of the carving has the women (goddesses?) sharing a patterned shawl (possibly Athena’s tasseled aegis referred to in the legends?)

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Back in June, I mentioned kourotrophoi. These ceramic mother-child figures have turned up at Mycenaean sites all over the Aegean, particularly in children’s graves. Kourotrophoi were not exclusive to the Bronze Age; the practice continued into later times.

The kourotrophos might have represented a divine Mother Goddess and Child, like the Christian Madonna and Child, or it could simply have been a form of sympathetic magic. Mycenaean and Minoan Goddess and Divine Child representations have been found elsewhere, and my next post will be devoted to a very special such artifact.

I mention kourotrophoi in my books. Here is a passage from Helen’s Daughter in which Hermione reflects on childbearing and the talismans that accompany it.

As high priestess in Sparta, I had seen women die in childbirth. Sometimes, they asked for me, to give them my blessings, and perhaps avert disaster by it, but though I held their hands, wiped the sweat from their brows, and said the prayers, they died, anyway.

Opening my eyes, I gazed at the kourotrophos standing on the table nearest the bed. She was very old, crafted in an outmoded Cretan style. Her scarlet and black paint was fading, but she had faithfully watched over the confinements of my foremothers for eleven generations, and had not lost a single woman in childbirth.

Purchase Helen's Daughter on Amazon Kindle or at Smashwords.
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While there is much that we still don't understand about Minoan religion, from the physical evidence it appears that the Minoans had a tripartite belief system. A tripartite altar was found on the western end of the Central Court at Knossos, near the Throne Room, and fresco fragments from the palace's north quarter depict what is probably that same altar as priestesses and other spectators sit on the surrounding terraces presumably waiting for the Bull Dance or some other spectacle.


Below is an artist's rendering of what a tripartite shrine might have looked like. It is not known exactly what the tripartite elements of Minoan religion were, but some have reasonably speculated that the Minoans worshipped the heavens, earth/sea, and the underworld, about which I will discuss in greater detail in a future post. 

Imagery of the tripartite shrine made it as far as Mycenae, where a delicate golden piece was found among the burials of Grave Circle A (circa 1500 B.C.).  If you saw the program The Exodus Decoded, then you saw journalist Simcha Jakobovici present this little appliqué as evidence that the Ark of the Covenant was made by Mycenaean goldsmiths, and that the piece itself is a view of the Ark with the doves, with the Tabernacle's high altar behind.  Sadly, no.  Jakobovici does not know his Aegean archaeology.  The gold work represents a Minoan tripartite shrine, with sacred doves and the horns of consecration. 


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This enigmatic female head was found in the Cult House at Mycenae.  Is she a goddess, or a priestess?  Was the head attached to a wooden cult statue that didn't survive?

The face gives a good three dimensional example, though, of what a Mycenaean priestess might have looked like when painted for a ritual.  In Helen's Daughter, when Hermione refers to putting on the "moon-mask," this is what she's talking about.

Cult Idols

May. 11th, 2011 11:55 pm
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Excavations in Mycenae's lower citadel area turned up an extensive network of cult buildings, containing ritual objects such as idols, vessels, a clay bathtub which might have been used in purification rites, and coiled clay snakes.

The idols themselves look crude and strange to eyes more accustomed to Classical Greek art.  In the below picture, the painted figure cupping her breasts is probably a goddess, and the girl/woman with upraised arms a devotee.  Based on Mycenaean and Minoan iconography, it appears that worshippers raised both arms or sometimes shielded their eyes, as if witnessing the epiphany of the deity.  Likewise, a fertility goddess would clasp her breasts to signify her abundance.

That's just conjecture, though.  We know very little about religious beliefs or worship in the Late Bronze Age Aegean, and it's very hard to put names to the idols because certain deities which existed in those times didn't survive to a later period.

Cult idols would have been displayed on a shelf or altar, of which traces were discovered in Mycenae's Cult House.  During rituals, the gods might have been taken down, placed by the hearth, offered food and wine, and prayed to.  Larger cult statues were probably adorned with real garments and jewelry, as this practice continued on into later times. 

As for the snake sculptures, serpents were considered divine in the ancient Mediterranean, and there may have been real snakes in the Cult House in addition to the clay models.  We don't know this for certain, though.  All we can say is that snakes had some sort of ritual importance.

The Labrys

May. 5th, 2011 12:20 pm
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The labrys, or butterfly-shaped double axe, has come to be associated with Minoan Crete, but was actually used in bull worship throughout the Near East.  In Minoan artwork, the labrys is painted or engraved as a sacred symbol, perhaps of fertility or protection, and more often than not, it is the priestesses who are depicted wielding the labrys during sacrifices.  It appears those elegant painted women shown on fresco walls did engage in bloodletting rituals.

The Mycenaeans, who adopted Minoan fashions and iconography, also employed the labrys symbol in their artwork.  Notice the labrys in the middle of this seal stone.  What does it mean?  Among the iconography are also a figure-of-eight shield, a sun, and a moon.

Nowadays, the labrys is a symbol of female empowerment, perhaps harkening back to those ancient days when goddesses were more prominent, and priestesses exercised great spiritual and, possibly, political power.

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