Aegean Religions

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AEGEAN RELIGIONS . The Aegean world is composed of three distinctive regions, all located at the Eastern edge of the Mediterranean: the island of Crete, the mainland of Greece, and the islands between the mainland and the coast of Anatolia. The people of the mainland, the Mycenaeans, were Greek-speaking. The inhabitants of the island of Crete were the Minoans, who spoke an as yet undeciphered language. The islanders were apparently non-Greek, and fell into the political and cultural orbit of the Minoans and later the Mycenaeans in the second millennium bce. The Aegeans shared many cultural traits with the Near East, but retained a distinctive regional character. The Minoans and Myceneans had palace cultures shortly after 2000 bce, but for the people of the islands, no such claim can be made.

Little is known about the religion of the islands north of Crete that are collectively called the Cyclades. Numerous marble figures and figurines have been found but most of them are without context. It is uncertain whether or not they were used for worship. Dearth of data makes a reconstruction of Cycladic religion next to impossible.

Minoan Religion

The religious beliefs of the Minoans are more accessible despite the absence of decipherable texts.

The myth of the great goddess and matriarchy

If Minoan religion is popular today, this is partly due to the great mother goddess (see figure 1). This is the legacy of the excavator of Knossos, Sir Arthur Evans (18511941), who may be said to have invented Minoan culture at the beginning of the twentieth century. For his interpretations he relied on images represented on wall paintings, rings, and seal stones. Most of all he was impressed by several faience statuettes of bare-breasted females handling snakes that he excavated in the palace of Knossos.

In his view, the snake goddess represented one aspect of a "Great Mother Nature Goddess." She was a patroness of kings and sailors alike; she embodied fertility and motherhood; and she ruled over sky, earth, and the underworld. There was one male divinity, but he was a subordinate boy god: the son or consort of the great mother goddess. Evans underplayed the fact that the so-called boy god was an armed mature young man. He was undoubtedly influenced by theories

of matriarchy that were fashionable at the turn of the century. His theories found fertile ground: one of the reasons that the concept of the mother goddess is alive today is that it appeals to contemporary feminist movements. Yet there are reasons to question the definition of matriarchy; all palace cultures of the Near East in the second millennium bce had potent female goddesses and mothers of gods, and none was a matriarchy. Evans's matriarchal society is perhaps best viewed as a modern myth.

It is thus perhaps wiser to view Minoan religion in the context of other kingdoms of the Near Eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium bce, all of which were theocracies with male kings and armies. All of them had young male warrior gods: Reshep, Baal, El, Adad, Sin, Ningirsu, and so on in the Mesopotamian and Levantine kingdoms. Egypt had its own warrior gods: Amon, Seth, Horus. All of these cultures also had powerful female deities. Some of these goddesses were even warrior-like and destructive: Anat, Ishtar, Sekhmet. Female deities could also have mother-goddess qualities: Asherah (Atrt) in Ugarit is called mother of gods; Hathor and Isis in Egypt were also mother goddesses. Most goddesses had in addition a strong sexual appeal that could be dangerous to males. The bare-breasted snake goddess of Minoan Crete (figure 1) would have been regarded as sexually alluring, but this dos not mean that she was the goddess. The Near Eastern frame makes it likely that Minoan Crete may have had a complex constellation of male and female deities, although the distinctive regional identity of Crete should not be lost sight of.

Yet it is difficult to go beyond theories when discussing Minoan religious mythology. This is because we lack narrative texts from the Minoan culture (Linear A is yet to be fully deciphered). On the other hand, many images exist, and they give information that is highly valuable, although it differs from the information we get from texts. An attempt to sort out the iconography and archaeological evidence was made by Martin P. Nilsson (18741967) in the 1920s. Although systematic, Nilsson fell into a methodological pitfall: he was more interested in Minoan religion as a precursor of Greek mythology than as a system in its own right. The striking parallels to the Near East were ignored. Thus, he was more eager to find the early forms of Athena, Rhea, and Artemis than to penetrate the nature of the deities themselves. His bias towards ancient Greek religion is evident in the title of his book: The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion (2d ed., 1950). It is worth noting, however, that he was unconvinced of Evans's view of the great mother goddess.

Theocracy, polytheism, and the character of Minoan gods

Nilsson argued that the Minoans had polytheism (1950, pp. 389425), and he was proven right. Recent evidence throws new light on the issue. A golden ring, excavated in a grave at Poros near modern Herakleion on Crete shows three gods together (Dimopoulou and Rethemiotakis, 2000). The center is taken up by an impressive male god holding a scepter. He faces an equally impressive seated goddess who is flanked by large birds. A third goddess is rendered as a minute figure descending from the air. There is only one mortal worshiper in the scene at the left edge of the ring's field. He is shaking a tree invoking the gods. The ring supplies firm evidence of polytheism: a divine gathering taking place in the vicinity of a tree. Such a congregation is echoed in the Hittite text about the god Telepinu: "The gods [were gathered] in assembly under the hatalkesnas tree. For the hatalkesnas tree I have fixed long years" (Pritchard, 1969, pp. 126128).

The characterization of the gods is important. The female goddess is seated on an invisible throne in midair; her power is expressed through enthronement. The male god, on the other hand, exudes bodily rigor by extending his arm in a gesture of command. A similar male god occurs on a ring impression found at Chania (figure 2). He looms large over a cluster of buildings, which may be conceived as a palace or town, establishing himself as the patron of this town.

Further information is supplied by another ring, the impression of which has survived in several examples found by Evans at Knossos (figure 3). Here the central figure is a goddess who stands on the top of a mountain.

She is saluted by a male figure, who is usually interpreted as a human worshiper but who may well be a king because the vision of ordinary humans would not be recorded visually on a ring in a theocratic society. Behind the goddess is a building, which can be identified as a palace because it has many stories. Here we have a sacred landscape, which includes a palace and a mountain.

The three rings discussed above show that there existed a multiplicity of divinities and that power was not centered only around one dominant goddess; there was also a male god whose bodily vigor was evident in his standing posture. The Minoan pantheon was probably complex and must have included one or several divine couples. Moreover, gods and goddesses were associated with a multistory building that can be best defined as a divine palace. This association of god and palace supports the view of Evans that Minoan Crete was a theocracy.

Patronage of Minoan gods and gender roles

The Minoan gods probably had different spheres of power, such as hunting, war, and fertility. Most likely they also had different domains: the sea, the underworld, or the sky (in which case they would appear as stellar bodies). They also had social spheres: one of their functions must have been supervision of the raising of young people. This gender-oriented patronage is illustrated in a scene from a stone chalice found at Hagia Triada, Crete (figure 4).

A young male with a commanding gesture receives a procession of young hunters (Evans, 19211936, vol. 2, pp. 790792). Although he is generally known as the "Chieftain" (thus named by Evans), his commanding gesture and posture rather suggest that he may be a god. Alternatively he is a king having assumed the identical appearance of the god. The ambiguity is revealing: gods and rulers were shown in a similar manner in Minoan art. At any rate, the god or his earthly representative acts as patron of the hunt.

In the female sphere we find the same relationship: the young female goddess supervises her protégées. On a painting from Thera (Santorini), a goddess is seated on a platform and receives offerings from young women (Doumas, 1992, fig. 122). The dress and hairstyles of the worshipers reflect the divine prototype. There are many other instances as well where a goddess receives a female procession (Marinatos, 1993, pp. 147165). This evidence suggests that there were gender specific roles for the Minoan deities. It also implies that the deities provided role models for the young. There is therefore an educational aspect to Minoan religion.

Although Minoan goddesses and gods are never depicted in the nude, the exposed breasts of the females (figure 1) and the pronounced phallus sheaths of the males (figures 2 and 4) suggest that sexuality was emphasized. The bare breasts of goddesses have a meaning equivalent to the complete nudity of Near Eastern goddesses. Female power is apparently expressed as sexuality in both cultural regions (Marinatos, 1993).

Rituals of Minoan religion: Ceremonial banqueting, sacrifice, and invocation

There can be no religion without rituals of offerings to the gods. As has been stressed by sociologists and historians of religion, the social dimension of offering is feasting. Food is a way of exchange and redistribution of wealth, especially in highly stratified societies. There is plenty of evidence for Minoan feasting in extra-urban sanctuaries and cemeteries. But the open courts in front of the palaces could also have accommodated a large number of banqueters. Most interesting evidence has been unearthed in the newly excavated palace of Galatas on Crete, which included a hearth and baking dishes (Rethemiotakis, 1999). Hittite texts from the second millennium offer us detailed descriptions of the role of the king and the queen during offering ceremonies. The royalty entered the temple and performed elaborate rituals of offering. An interesting inscription mentions that the king and queen drank from the cup of the storm god (Alp, 1983, p. 221). In this way the king and queen shared a meal with the god.

The throne room in the palace of Knossos may have been used in a similar way. The throne, flanked by griffins and palm trees, has been viewed by some scholars as the seat of a female, a queen or a priestess, because only goddesses are flanked by griffins in Minoan art (Reusch, 1958; Hägg, 1986; Niemeier, 1986). It is less frequently noticed that there was a kitchen in the adjacent complex; this kitchen shows that ceremonial banqueting may be associated with the throne room.

Animal sacrifice is a prerequisite for banqueting, but it is also a rite of invocation: the gods are invited to participate in the feast. This aspect of sacrificial ritual is depicted on a terra-cotta coffin, known as the sarcophagus from Hagia Triada. One of the long sides of this sarcophagus shows a sacrificed bull tied on a table. A long-robed woman, who may be the queen, presides over the ritual, while a male plays the flute. To the right is a second separate scene involving a priestess dressed in a hide skirt. She stands before an altar, over which are a pitcher and a basket of fruit, which are bloodless offerings. The two panels show that the Minoans made a clear distinction between the two types of altars and the two types of offerings (compare with Exod. 25:2 and 27:1). This distinction between bloody and bloodless offerings is also made in Greek religion.

To whom are the offerings made on the Hagia Triada sarcophagus? The shrine in front of which the offerings are made stands to the right of the priestess in the hide skirt. It is a building with a gate surmounted by the so-called horns. Above the gate a sacred tree is protruding; it evidently was the focus of the cult, taking the function of a cult statue. If the viewer walks around the sarcophagus and looks at the short side, the gods will be found as well: there are two female deities arriving in a griffin-drawn chariot. Noteworthy are two facts: (1) The tree shrine has a function equivalent to a temple; namely, it is the house of god and it is the locus

of the epiphany; (2) The goddesses are arriving at their tree shrine to partake in the sacrifice.

The sacred tree of the god or goddess was evidently also used as a medium of invocation. On certain gold rings found on both Crete and the Mycenaean mainland, we see male or female worshipers shaking or bending a tree. It was perhaps thought that frenzied movement on the part of the worshiper mobilized the gods to come. Alternatively, the tree was imagined as the abode of the deity. The invocation of the gods is depicted only on gold rings. It seems that this ritual was associated with the monopolization of religion by the upper classes.

The symbols of Minoan religion: "horns" and double axes

The Minoans surely had aniconic cults, as Evans had already surmised in a fundamental article written in 1901. Aniconic symbols, such as the double axe, loom large in Minoan imagery, but it is uncertain what they mean. At any rate, it is worth noting that cult standards with the symbols of the gods they represent are common in religions of the Near East, especially animal cult standards and standards with astral symbols.

Also common is the sign of the "horns of consecration," which occurs both as a graphic design and as a cult object (figure 5a).

The designation "horns" is due to Evans, who saw a superficial resemblance to bull's horns. But many scholars observed that there is a striking resemblance between the Minoan sign and the Egyptian symbol of the "two mountains of the horizon," the sun disk rising between twin peaks (figure 5b).

The similarity between the two symbols is too striking to be ignored. In addition, the Minoan sign is similar to its Egyptian equivalent in its framing of an object: a tree or a double axe, or sometimes other implements of cult, such as libation vessels. In view of this, it is likely that the so-called horns represent a stylized landscape of two mountains that define the east and west axis of the universe. If the horns are mountains, this would explain why in real and represented architecture, the object is always placed on top of a building (figure 3). Its function in such a case would be to allude to mountain ranges in an abstract manner.

The double axe (figure 6) is more elusive, and there is no equivalent sign in the Near East or Egypt. Evans thought that it symbolized the great goddess (Evans, 1901, p. 106; see also Pötscher, 1990, pp. 143160).

Nilsson, who was more practically minded, considered it a simple sacrificial instrument (Nilsson, 1950, p. 226). Evans was probably more correct however: the double axe appears in contexts that suggest that it played a role in the cosmology of Minoan mythology. Noteworthy is its frequent occurrence on coffins. It seems unlikely in view of this that it was a mere tool of cult, especially since it never occurs as a sacrificial instrument in imagery. A clue may be that the axe can be conceived as a tree with sprouting leaves or even flowers. Was it a regenerative symbol as has sometimes been argued (Dietrich, 1974)? A second clue is that it occurs between the two tips of the mountain sign above (figure 5a, the so-called horns). This suggests that the double axe was perceived as an object that belonged between the edges of the two mountains of the horizon: is it a symbol of the sun or moon? This possibility is speculative but may explain the ubiquity of the sign and its centrality in Minoan religion better than the alternative theory that it is a sacrificial axe.

The palaces as cult centers

Whatever interpretation we give to the Minoan deities and their symbols the archaeological evidence is clear as to how society was organized. The cult centers were undoubtedly the palaces. They contained central courts with a multiplicity of modest shrine rooms arranged around them. Most palaces also had large west plazas where the public could gather. The walls were decorated with paintings that depicted (among other subjects) processional and ritual scenes. There is thus little doubt that they were the major cult centers of the community. To date no separate temples have been found (Rutkowski, 1986). The complete fusion of secular and religious authority points to a theocratic system.

Outside the town there were nature sanctuaries in caves or mountain peaks. These were the extra-urban sanctuaries of which Mount Juktas and Kato Syme have yielded the most impressive finds (Peatfield 1990; overview in Jones,

1999; Lebessi, 1985 and 2002). There is little doubt that the extra-urban sanctuaries were under palatial control in the middle of the second millennium bce. Many, however, survived the end of the palatial system.

The palaces were abandoned shortly after the middle of the second millennium bce, with the exception of Knossos that survived for another seventy-five years. The reasons are not yet completely understood, but they may have to do with social upheaval rather than a Mycenaean invasion. The end of the palaces certainly also meant the end of the theocracy.

The new era, termed post-palatial, takes us to the end of the second millennium. In this period, a new type of shrine was preferred: a modest room fitted with benches upon which were placed statues of goddesses, tables of offerings, and other cult implements. The type is common in the late Bronze Age and can be found on the mainland of Greece, as well as on the Levantine coast; we may speak of an East Mediterranean type of shrine or small temple. Typical of Crete are clay goddess statues with upraised arms and elaborate headdresses. Religious syncretism with the Mycenaean religion of the mainland certainly took place in all periods of Minoan Crete.

The end of the Minoan theocracy must have brought with it many changes of the social and religious structure, but the main symbols and (probably) the main gods survived into the end of the Bronze Age (c. 1200 bce). The Greeks of later times thought of the island as one of ninety languages, multiple ethnic groups, and ninety cities (Homer, Odyssey 19.172202).

Mycenaean Religion

Mycenaean religion is similar to Minoan in that it was also centered on the palaces and utilized the same symbols as Minoan Crete.

Places of worship

Mycenaean places of worship are different from those of Minoan Crete, however, the variations being detectable in the archaeological evidence (Hägg, 1998). One extra-urban mountain peak sanctuary was excavated on Mount Kinortion near classical Epidaurus, but mountain sanctuaries are not as common as on Crete. There were Minoan-type offerings there, including double axes and figurines (Lambrinoudakis, 1981).

On the whole, the similarities between Minoan and Mycenaean religion are striking. Both cultures had theocracies with palaces as centers. The Mycenaean palace seems to have played a major ceremonial role. Instead of an open central court, however, we find a roofed hall or megaron with a hearth. At Pylos, the wall paintings from the throne room are similar to those of Knossos (Lang, 1966, pl. 124, no. 44aH6) depicting griffins and lions flanking the throne. In addition, some of the Pylos throne room paintings show banqueting, which is compatible with the ritual inferred through the kitchen near the Knossos throne room.

In both cultures, the religious role of the king and queen is confirmed by the written records: in the Linear B tablets the word wa-na-ka (king) appears frequently. The queen may have been designated as pot-ni-ja, namely "mistress" (Laffineur and Hägg, 2001). The takeover of Minoan royal and religious symbols by the Mycenaean dynasts is here very evident. We find in the Mycenaean kingdom double axes and the mountain sign (figures 5a, 6).

Small shrines existed in addition to the palatial megaron. They had benches with statues on top, and hearths for offerings. Some were incorporated into the palace; others were physically independent and spread throughout the town, as in Tiryns (Kilian, 1988) and Methana (Konsolaki, 1999; Whittaker, 1997).

One shrine within the citadel of Mycenae is revealing because it included paintings above and around the bench (figure 7).

Above the bench two goddesses were painted facing each other. Between them hover two small sketchily rendered figures that probably represent souls of the dead (Marinatos, 1988). These may be two of the goddesses of Mycenaean religion. Below, on the side of the bench, is probably the queen identifiable by her tall headdress with a plume (or a minor goddess accompanied by a griffin). Although the iconography of this fresco is nowhere matched exactly on Crete, the visual vocabulary is familiar from the latter culture. The Mycenaeans borrowed the visual vocabulary of the Minoan palace culture to express their own theocratic institution.

Data from the tablets

The decipherment of the Linear B script in 1953 by Michael Ventris as a form of Greek threw a new light on Mycenaean religion by revealing a pantheon that included many names of the later Greek gods.

The tablets were made of unbaked clay and were used as scrapbooks. They were accidentally preserved because they were baked after a conflagration. They record lists and provide economic documents. Indications about religious rituals and gods are only incidental in the form of offering. Still, it is clear that a multiplicity of male and female deities are present, among whom is a male god who bears the name of the

great god of the classical Greeks: Zeus. There was also a pantheon that we recognize as the later Olympian Greek divinities: Po-si-da-jo (Poseidon), He-ra (Hera), A-ta-na Po-ti-ni-ja (Athena), Erma (Hermes), Enyalios (Ares), and Di-wo-nu-so (Dionysos). Yet the hierarchy and articulation that define the Greek divine family do not seem to characterize the Mycenaean gods. It is to be noted that Po-si-da-jo (Poseidon) played a preeminent role at Pylos, whereas A-ta-na (Athena) is attested only at Knossos. There are also gods unknown to the later Greek pantheon, such as Ma-ri-neu and Ma-ka (Palaima et al., 2001).

The Mycenaean gods constituted a divine family, although relations between them were not necessarily the same as those of later Greek religion. For example, one god, Di-ri-mi-jo, is listed on a tablet from Pylos on the Greek mainland as being the son of Zeus and Hera. This god dropped out of the later Greek pantheon. But Di-wo-nu-so (Dionysos) seems to have been a son of Zeus both in the Creto-Mycenaean tablets (attested by a tablet found at Chania, Crete, KH. Gq 5) and in Greek times.

The offerings listed were sent from the palace to the sanctuaries. This proves that the religious organization was interwoven with the palace administration. This is typical of theocracies. Offered were animalscattle, sheep, and pigsas well as objects of value.

One term has been variously interpreted: wa-na-ka. It is undeniable that it constitutes the prototype of the word wanax, which in the Homeric poems is usually applied to the king.

The Minoan and Mycenaean Pantheon and the Near East

Despite their differences it is a priori likely that Minoan and Mycenaean religions had many similarities in the mythologies and the personae of their gods. Both were palatial cultures that maintained close contacts with each other and with the Near East. The Mycenaean presence in Crete (whether to be explained by dynastic links and intermarriages or by conquest) is securely attested by the presence of tablets written in Linear B shortly after 1400 bce. After that time, there was a pool of common gods, such as Poseidon, Zeus, Athena, Dionysos, Diwija, and Hermes, all of whom are attested on both Crete and the Mycenaean mainland (Palaima et al., 2001). A religious synthesis between Minoan and Mycenaean religion in the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries bce is thus certain. It is perhaps not correct to speak of a Mycenaean religion on Crete in the post-palatial period, but rather of a synthesis of the two systems. This synthesis may be pushed back into the sixteenth century bce, however. This is the time when Crete was at the peak of its power, and spread its influence in the Aegean. The Mycenaeans (who were developing their own palatial system) readily adopted Minoan symbols and images of gods. The adoption of such symbols as the double axes and the mountain signs (horns) implies that there were already common elements in the two religions, and it was this commonality that enabled the transmission of the Minoan religious vocabulary to the Mycenaeans. The picture that emerges is a complex one, with influences flowing in both directions at different times.

We know, moreover, that such religious equivocations between deities took place between cultural groups in the Aegean and the Near East: Akkadian Ishtar was likened to Ugaritic Astarte and Sumerian Inanna; later on she was fused with the Greek Aphrodite. The Egyptian Seth was likened to Ugaritic Baal, both being young warrior gods. Anat and Baal, a famous couple in Ugaritic myth, resemble Isis and Osiris of Egypt. It is likely that the Minoan divine couple had properties similar to its Egyptian and Near Eastern counterparts. The religious translation of one god into another in cultures of the Near East makes it a priori likely that the same happened between Minoan Crete and the mainland Mycenaean religion. It is possible to go even further and suggest that the East Mediterranean was a melting pot of religious syncretism.

The following points may be established about the Minoan-Mycenaean pantheon. The prevalent idea that there was a dominant mother goddess in Minoan Crete (figure 1) must be revised. Both Minoan and Mycenaean religions had important deities of both genders. Even the Mycenaeans, who are considered a typical patriarchal society, had female deities that are referred to in the Linear B tablets as "mistress" (pot-ni-ja ). This word undoubtedly represents a title (compare with the epithet "st lady" given to Anat or Ishtar in the Near East, the Akkadian "Belet-ili" given to the mother goddess in the Atramchasis epic, or the Ugaritic "ra-ba-tu" given to the great goddess of the sun [Wyatt, 1998, 224]).

The divine couple is attested iconographically in both Minoan and Mycenaean art, and textually in the Linear B tablets. It can be further established that the gods were conceived as members of a divine family. In a Linear B tablet from Pylos the triad Zeus, Hera, and Di-ri-mi-jo are attested (Tn 316). At Chania, Di-wo-nu-so is associated with Zeus, who is presumably his father.

The points above suggest that the Minoan and Mycenaean pantheons were (1) similar (although not identical) to one another and (2) similar to those of the Near East. It is tempting to postulate that myths that are common to the Near East and Egypt may also have been shared by the Minoans and Mycenaeans. There are many uncertainties about Minoan and Mycenaean myths, but they obviously did exist and they were more rich and complex than the Frazerian theories of the dying god and the fertility goddess would suggest.

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