The Religion of Minoan Crete during the Bronze Age

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The Religion of Minoan Crete during the Bronze Age

Early Evidence.

The earliest Greek agriculturists are found in the north; at Nea Nikomedeia, north-west of Thessaloniki, there was a settlement of farmers as early as 6500 b.c.e. But it is further south, on Crete and on the Cyclades, the archipelago in the Aegean Sea grouped around the island of Delos, that one can find the first signs of civilization—a society complete with political structure, distinctive art forms, and religious rites. Islanders in the Cyclades were forging daggers and spear-heads of copper by 2750 b.c.e. The white island marble provided the raw material for a distinctive Cycladic sculpture that was geometric with flat planes, almost two-dimensional. One favorite subject was a harpist sitting on a chair and playing his instrument, perhaps for the dead in the afterlife. The most common subject is a nude woman with her arms folded over her stomach. She is probably a deity, very likely a goddess whose concern was pregnancy and childbirth.

The Prepalatial Period on Crete.

Crete follows a different pattern, even though there was interaction with the Cyclades islands. Bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, appears in Crete about 2700 b.c.e. probably introduced by immigrants from Asia Minor, where tin was mined. The immigrants were not numerous and quickly intermarried with the native Cretans. By 2500 b.c.e. monumental tombs appear, first in the fertile Mesarà plain in the southern part of central Crete where five of them have been found, circular in shape with entrances facing east. How they were roofed is uncertain for none have been found intact, but it is clear that they were burial places for entire clans over several generations. Paved dancing floors laid out next to the tombs indicate that these were places where the community gathered for religious rites; dancing in burial grounds renewed the will to live, and affirmed family solidarity in the face of death.

Sacred Caves in the Prepalatial Period

There is another clue to contemporary religious belief: sacred caves which were places of worship. On the hill above Amnisos on the north coast of Crete is a cave sacred to Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, which received worshippers as early as the New Stone Age, and continued in use until the Roman period. The earliest dedications that the pilgrims left behind were idols with large hips and plump buttocks, handmade pottery, and stone or bone tools. Eileithyia is a goddess known in the classical period, when she is closely associated with the Olympian goddess Artemis, and the fact that her cult persisted here is a remarkable example of continuity. Two other cave sanctuaries on Crete were important enough to survive as cult sites long after the Minoan civilization came to an end. One, in the mountains south of Malia, was—according to one tradition—the cave of Dicte where Zeus was born. His father, the Titan Cronus, learned from an oracle that his son would overthrow the rule of the Titans, and so he swallowed the infants which his wife, Rhea, bore, until at last she managed to give birth to Zeus deep in the cave of Dicte. A roughly-built altar, set against the cave wall, was found in the upper part of the cave, and it was within a sacred precinct which is marked off by a barrier. The Minoan worshipers who climbed up to this cave left offerings behind to win divine favor, for bronze weapons were found embedded in the stalactites of the cave, and other votives were discovered in a pool which is at the lowest point of the cave. The other cave is situated on Mt. Ida, and it is also connected with the infant Zeus, who was supposedly brought there and suckled by the nymph Amalthea who took the form of a goat. Around his cradle danced young warriors called Kouretes, leaping high into the air and beating their shields to drive away the evil spirits who might betray the child-god's presence. The cave was used from the end of the New Stone Age, but it seems to have reached the height of its importance as a cult center in the Early Palace period. The latest offerings were terracotta lamps left there in Roman times. Roman visitors—tourists, perhaps, motivated by a mixture of curiosity and piety—were still climbing up to this cave after Crete had become a province of the Roman Empire.

of the Bronze Age

Our knowledge of the religion of the prehistoric Bronze Age in Greece is dependent on archaeological excavations which have taken place within the last century and a half. The pioneer was Heinrich Schliemann, an amateur archaeologist from Germany who, in 1870, discovered the site of Troy that was made famous by the legend of the Trojan War. Four years later, he revealed the rich remains of an ancient kingdom at Mycenae. The Bronze Age civilization on mainland Greece that is now known from investigations at many archeological sites is called "Mycenaean" after Schliemann's discovery at Mycenae. Archaeologists now prefer the label "Helladic," since it is evident that Mycenaean culture was widespread in "Hellas," that is, Greece.

In 1899, the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating at Knossos on the island of Crete and found the foundations of a great sprawling structure which he believed was the legendary Palace of Minos where a king of Crete named Minos kept the Minotaur, a monster that was half-man, half-bull. Evans labeled this civilization "Minoan" after Minos, and he worked out a chronology for its development. He divided it into three phases: Early, Middle and Late Minoan, each of which is subdivided into three sub-phases denoted by Roman numerals. These divisions suit the site of Knossos well enough, but they are an awkward fit for the other palaces that have since been found on the island, and an easier sequence of periods has been worked out by the Greek archaeologist Nicholas Platon. It begins with the Pre-Palatial period before any palaces were built, corresponding to Early Minoan and Middle Minoan I (3500–1900 b.c.e.), then the Proto-Palatial period (Middle Minoan IB–Middle Minoan II—1900–1700 b.c.e.), then the Neo-Palatial Period (Middle Minoan III–Late Minoan I—1700–1450 b.c.e.), and finally Postpalatial.

All dates in prehistory that are based on archeological finds are approximate and some will no doubt be revised in the future. Platon's chronological system, however, gives a better development sequence than the old labels of Early, Middle, and Late Minoan.

The Awakening of Civilization.

Quite suddenly, about 1900 b.c.e., palaces were built at a number of sites on the island. The first to be discovered was at Knossos about three and a half miles south of Heraklion, the capital of present-day Crete, where the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began to excavate in 1899. Within three years he had uncovered a great sprawling building with a maze of rooms which he called the "Palace of Minos" after the legendary King Minos who lived at Knossos, according to Greek myth. He labeled the civilization that he had found "Minoan." Since then, similar "palaces" have been unearthed at six other sites on Crete: Phaistos directly south of Knossos, Malia along the northern coast, Gournia overlooking the Bay of Pseira, Galatas near Khania to the west of the island, and to the east, Petras and Kato Zakros. All were built around central courts roughly twice as long as they are wide. At other sites archaeologists have found the remains of great mansions, but they lack the central courts which seem to be the characteristic mark of a palace. Palaces imply kings, perhaps priest-kings, and the legend of King Minos shows that the Greek storytellers of a later age believed that a king once ruled at Knossos, where there was the largest palace on Crete and the only one that continued to be inhabited after the others were deserted. Except in the last phase of the Knossos palace's existence, however, there is no archaeological evidence that kings inhabited these palaces. They seem to have had two main functions. One was the storage of foodstuffs, the other was religious ritual.

Peak Sanctuaries.

The sudden appearance of these palaces on Crete postdates—though only by a brief period—a new religious development. At the very end of the Prepalatial period, "peak sanctuaries" appear, built on mountain tops. One example that can be easily visited is on Mount Juktas above the modern town of Arkhanes, where remains of a sprawling Minoan mansion—though without a central court—have been found. Just below the summit of Mount Juktas, a stepped altar was built across a natural cleft in the rock. There were two construction phases, the first dating to the Old Palace period, and the second to the New Palace period. The offerings and the remains of sacrifices found there show that worshipers frequented this shrine from before the palaces were built until after 1100 b.c.e. The only physical evidence that shows what peak sanctuaries looked like is a rhyton, that is a vessel for pouring ritual libations, decorated with a low relief of a peak sanctuary. The facade was divided into three sections. There was a great central gateway adorned with multiple spirals, and on either side, smaller wings, their eaves embellished with "horns of consecration"—stylized bulls' horns with some religious significance. The temple is shown built over a cleft in the rock, and—if allowances are made for the artist's ignorance of perspective—it rises above two altars decorated with more "horns of consecration." On the roof of the temple rest some agrimi, the Cretan wild goats which still survive on the island in limited numbers. They may be sacrificial victims, quietly awaiting their fate. The temple is situated on a rocky mountain top which the artist has indicated by a schematic sketch.

The Oriental Connection.

Peak sanctuaries have a connection to the Near East. The Canaanite gods, like the gods of Mt. Olympus worshipped by the classical Greeks, lived on mountain peaks. Texts found at the Canaanite site of Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra near the Mediterranean coast of Syria, tell of the storm god Baal going up the "Northern Mountain" to attend the assembly of the gods. Canaanite hilltop altars were the "high places" mentioned in the Old Testament, where the Canaanites propitiated Baal, who sent the rain and ruled the thunder and lightning. This is not to say that the Minoans worshipped Canaanite gods, but the evidence for Canaanite influence is strong. For instance, a statuette of a woman, probably a priestess, handling snakes was found at Knossos, a reminder of the Canaanite goddess Asherah, the Lady of the Serpent and Mother of the gods and all creatures. Though mountaintop gods were worshipped in Canaan, no peak sanctuary like those found on Crete has been found in the Levant except at one site in northern Israel where a hilltop shrine with a stepped altar has been discovered. It dates to the nineteenth century b.c.e. that is, the early Old Palace period on Crete. Later research may turn up more evidence for parallels between Canaan and Crete but for the time being caution must be taken: the Minoans were not Canaanites.

The Role of the Palaces.

Evidence for the religious rites that went on in the palaces is almost entirely dependent on archaeology. At Knossos, clay tablets with writing in "Linear B" have been unearthed, dating perhaps as early as 1450 b.c.e. though many scholars date them later. "Linear B" was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 and shown to be an early form of Greek. "Linear B" has been found at a number of Bronze Age sites in mainland Greece, but on Crete, it has been found only at Knossos. It was preceded on Crete by an earlier linear script that is labeled "Linear A," and it has been found not only at Knossos but at other places on the island as well; a particularly large cache was discovered at the site known as Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity), so-called from a church nearby, for its ancient name is unknown. "Linear A" has not been deciphered, nor has the hieroglyphic script that was used on Crete before "Linear A" became common. Therefore, the clues these documents might provide as to what early Minoan religion was like are inaccessible. The study of pre-Greek words that have survived as place names or the names of gods, however, has provided a few tantalizing clues. For instance, a goddess with the pre-Greek name of Britomartis survived into the classical period; she is probably the same goddess as Aphaia, who had a temple on the island of Aigina, a short boat ride south from Piraeus, the port of Athens. Britomartis seems to have been a Minoan word meaning "sweet virgin."

The Double-Ax.

The archaeological evidence—wall-paintings, statuettes, votive offerings—raises as many questions as it answers. Double-axes have a religious significance of some sort, for scholars find them in connection with shrines that they seem to mark as holy places. They come in various sizes, made of bronze, bone, or ivory. Some are highly ornate. They seem to be symbols of power, but they are never associated with a male figure. It is always a woman—probably a goddess—who wields the ax, swinging it above her head with two raised arms. The axes can have had no practical purpose, for their blades are too thin and fragile to chop wood or even slit the throat of a sacrificial animal. In Asia Minor double-axes are found symbolizing thunder-bolts, but they are associated with a male god, and it would be hard to show a connection between them and the Minoan double-ax. Yet the double-ax has left behind one tantalizing folk-memory: there is a rarely-used word in classical Greek, labrys meaning a "battle-ax" or a "double-ax," which seems to be connected with the word labyrinthos, a building with a maze of corridors from which it was almost impossible to extricate oneself. The myth of King Minos of Crete told that he built a labyrinthos to house a monster called the Minotaur, which was half-man, half-bull. Greek words ending in –inthos betray a non-Greek origin, and it is tempting to believe that the "labyrinth" of the Minos–myth was the sprawling palace at Knossos with its multitude of rooms and winding hallways, and that labyrinthos means something like the "House of the Double-Ax."

The Long-Horned Bulls.

The word "Minotaur" means simply the "bull of Minos," and whatever the monster may have been, it is clear that long-horned bulls had a special place in Minoan religious rites. Terracotta figurines of bulls were left as votive offerings in holy places. Rhytons, which are vessels for pouring libations, were frequently made in the shape of bulls' heads. Stylized bull horns, called "horns of consecration" are found in sacred contexts and have some unexplained religious significance. One fresco from Knossos depicts a bull charging with a flying gallop, both front and rear legs extended to show that the beast is traveling at speed, and toreadors, both male and female, are shown vaulting over his back. This kind of bull-fight, if that is what it was, is too risky to be mere sport. The toreadors are pitting their skill and athleticism against the power and speed of the bull, and those that lost the contest—as some must have done—would perish, impaled on the bull's horns, sacrificing their lives for the good of the community. The toreadors represented the strength and courage of the youthful hero who faces death unflinching, for he knows that the passing years will soon slow his reflexes, and someday he will fail to leap clear of the bull's deadly charge.


Two miniature frescos which depict religious ceremonies were found in fragments just west of the north entrance hallway of the Knossos palace, where they had probably fallen from an upper floor. One shows a scene set in the countryside, where a fence surrounds a precinct with a sacred tree and a small building, possibly a shrine. It is probably a holy space consecrated to a matriarchal goddess, for Minoan gold rings often have engravings of a goddess seated under a tree or in front of a shrine, receiving worshippers. The second fresco shows a scene in the central court of the palace. Against one wall there is the familiar Minoan shrine with tripartite facade, and double axes attached to it. A crowd has gathered there to watch a ceremony that included dancing. From this it is possible to infer that the central courts of the palaces were places where crowds gathered for religious ceremonies.

What the Myths Tell Us.

Greek mythology connected Minoan Crete with the cycle of myths which centered around the Athenian hero, Theseus, a prince of Athens. Each year the king of Crete, Minos, required Athens to send him twelve adolescent boys and twelve young girls to be fed to the Minotaur who lived in the labyrinth at Knossos. Theseus volunteered as one of the youths destined for this sacrifice, but once he reached Knossos, he won the heart of Minos' daughter, Ariadne, who provided him with a sword to defend himself, and a spool of woolen thread to mark his path when he entered the labyrinth so that he could retrace his footsteps. Theseus slew the Minotaur, escaped from the labyrinth and fled Crete, taking with him Ariadne, whom he soon abandoned. The youths destined as food for the Minotaur sounds like an indistinct memory of a cannibalistic rite, and students of Greek religion often wonder if there is any evidence of cannibalism or human sacrifice on Crete. Sir Arthur Evans did, in fact, discover a cache of children's bones in the palace of Minos at Knossos that showed what looked like knife marks, which might be evidence of cannibalism, and at a Minoan shrine discovered in 1979 at Anemóspilia near Phourni, an altar was found in one of the rooms with the bones of a young man still on it. Two other skeletons were found nearby. The shrine was destroyed by the great earthquake which brought the Old Palace Period on Crete to an end, and the excavators concluded that the youth on the altar had been sacrificed just before the earthquake, perhaps in an effort to avert it.

The Minotaur.

The figure of the Minotaur also has possible connections to Minoan religion. He sounds like a therioanthropic god, that is, a god that is half-man, half-beast, and therioanthropic figures do appear on Minoan seals used to make impressions on clay. Another possibility is that the Minotaur was really the priest-king of Knossos, who wore a bull's head mask as part of the sacrificial ritual. Masks made from real bull skulls have been unearthed in sanctuaries on Cyprus, and terracotta figurines wearing such masks have also been found. It seems likely that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur reflects a dim recollection of human sacrifice to a god that was half-man, half-bull, since there is sound evidence that human sacrifices did take place. The evidence for cannibalism, on the other hand, is shaky.

The Evidence for Greek Gods.

In the last phase of habitation in the palace at Knossos—but not elsewhere—clay tablets with "Linear B" writing were found, which indicates that there, at least, Greek-speaking invaders took over. "Linear B" has yielded the names of all the Olympian gods which are most familiar in classical Greek literature, except for Aphrodite, the goddess of love-making. One "Linear B" tablet from Knossos assigns an offering of honey to the Cave of Eilytheia at Amnisos, showing that the Greek-speaking immigrants adopted this ancient shrine. Another "Linear B" tablet from Knossos mentions the Potnia, that is, the Mistress, of the Labyrinth. But what does the tablet mean by the word "labyrinth"? Can it mean the same as the English word "labyrinth"? Or does it mean something like the "Holy House of the Double-Ax"?

The Singularity of Cretan Religion.

Long after the Greek-speakers had taken over Crete, Cretan religion retained some unique features that marked it as different from the rest of Greece. The god Zeus, the king of the Olympian gods, was immortal in the rest of Greece. But the Cretans believed not only that their Zeus was born in the Cave of Dicte, but also that he died and was reborn. The Cretan Zeus seems to have been the result of a merger of the Olympian Zeus of the Greeks with an earlier vegetation god, who died and was reborn with the changes of the seasons. The importance of bulls in Minoan religious life may also be reflected in the fact that the Zeus of the Greeks was also associated with the bull, as was his brother, Poseidon, the god of the sea. On Crete, the religion of the Olympian gods overlaid an earlier religion, which seems to have had Asian and perhaps also some Egyptian connections.


Robert Drews, The Coming of the Greeks; Indo-European Conquests in the Aegean and the Near East (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988).

Reynold Alleyne Higgins, The Archaeology of Minoan Crete (London, England: Bodley Head, 1973).

Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Sacrificial Ritual: Cult Practices and Symbolism (Stockholm, Sweden: Göteborg, 1986).

Nicolas Platon, Crete (London, England: Frederick Muller Ltd., 1966).

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The Religion of Minoan Crete during the Bronze Age

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