Ancient Minoan Religion

The peak sanctuary at Petsofas: reconstruction with a tripartite building and medium horns of consecration. / Wikimedia Commons

By Dr. Jeremy B. Rutter
Professor Emeritus of Classical Studies
Sherman Fairchild Professor Emeritus in the Humanities
Dartmouth College

The Nature of the Evidence

This consists of the following four broad classes, the last of which will not be dealt with in any detail in this course:

  1. Locations of cult activity.
  2. Representations of cult activity in Minoan art on such items as seals, signet rings, mural paintings, sarcophagi (larnakes), and pottery.
  3. The nature of cult “furniture” (i.e. figurines, “horns of consecration”, “baetylic pillars”, “libation” jugs, altars, tripod “tables of offerings”, etc.).
  4. Garbled memories of Minoan cult practice preserved in later Greek myth and ritual.

Since Linear A is as yet undeciphered, there is effectively no contemporary textual evidence regarding Minoan religion. Even if Linear A were deciphered, it is unlikely that much information regarding Minoan cult practices, much less Minoan religious ideology, would be forthcoming above and beyond the names of the divinities which the Minoans worshipped.

Places of Worship


Cave Of Eileithyia, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Caves were first used in Crete as dwellings or at least as habitation sites in the Neolithic period. Toward the end of the Neolithic, they also began to be used extensively as cemeteries, and such usage continued throughout the Early Minoan period and in some areas even longer. Caves appear to have first been used as cult places early in the Middle Minoan (Protopalatial) period, at more or less the same time when the first Cretan palaces were being constructed. There may very well be some connection between the establishment of powerful central authorities in the palaces and the institution of worship in caves. The evidence for the use of caves as cult places consists of pottery, animal figurines, and occasionally bronze objects. Such objects are found not only in caves which had previously served habitation or funerary purposes but also in caves which had as their earliest known function the housing of some religious activity. In addition to artifacts, some cult caves contain large quantities of animal bones, mostly from deer, oxen, and goats and no doubt derived from some form of animal sacrifice.

One of the better known cult caves is the “Cave Of Eileithyia” near Amnisos, associated with the divinity Eileithyia on the basis of a reference in Homer’s Odyssey. This cave is some 60 m. long, between 9 and 12 m. wide, and 2 to 3 m. high. Near the middle of the cave is a cylindrical stalagmite ca. 1.40 m. high which is enclosed by a roughly built wall 0.45 m. high. Within the enclosure and in front of the stalagmite is a roughly square stone, perhaps some form of altar.

The caves that have furnished by far the richest assortments of votive objects are: the Kamares Cave, on the south slope of Mt. Ida at about 6000 feet; the Dictaean or Psychro Cave, on the west side of the Lasithi Plain in the foot hills of Mt. Dikte; the Idaean Cave, on the west side of the Neda Plain and on the northern slopes of Mt. Ida; and the Arkalochori Cave, not far south of the newly discovered palace at Galatas (with which the cult at this cave must have been closely connected). The Arkalochori Cave in particular has produced an astonishingly rich array of bronze votives, principally in the form of weapons such as swords, daggers, and double axes.

Peak Sanctuaries

Karfi Peak Sanctuary, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

These are cult centers located at, or just below, the tops of prominent local hills, not necessarily “peaks” on true “mountains”. Such sites are characterized by deep layers of ash (without animal bones, hence interpreted as the remains of bonfires and not of blood sacrifices of some kind) and by large quantities of clay human and animal figurines. Like the cult caves discussed above, the earliest peak sanctuaries date from the MM I period and most of the two dozen or more confirmed examples of such cult locales have produced material of this date. Moreover, the cult caves and peak sanctuaries are virtually the only sites other than the palaces themselves to have produced certain artifactual types such as the finest Kamares pottery, “tables of offerings”, and objects inscribed in Linear A other than unbaked clay tablets. Thus a close connection between the palaces on the one hand and these extramural cult centers on the other is readily apparent, not simply in the dates of their respective appearances but also probably in the ideology behind them and in the human sponsors of that ideology, the palatial élite.

Many of the human figurines from peak sanctuaries are in fact individual human limbs or parts of the body, separately modelled and pierced by a hole for suspension. It has been suggested that these separate limbs are comparable to terracotta parts of the body found in Classical shrines dedicated to healing divinities, and that by analogy the peak sanctuaries are also to be understood as those of healing divinities. However, the parts of the body represented in the Minoan sanctuaries (arms, legs, and heads primarily) are not exactly parallel to those found in Classical sanctuaries (which include numerous eyes, breasts, and genitalia as well as major limbs). Moreover, the large numbers of animal figurines found at the peak sanctuaries obviously cannot be explained in the same way, although these may have served as substitutes for genuine sacrificial animals or as votive pledges that such animals would be sacrificed elsewhere at some other time, since blood sacrifice does not seem to have been an acceptable practice at peak sanctuaries. It is likely that the detached human limbs from these sanctuaries originally formed parts of complete “dolls” held together by string inserted through the commonly found perforations. Metal artifacts are found only exceptionally (e.g. a hoard of non-functional double axes at Iuktas) and pottery, except for miniature vases, is equally rare. In both these respects, as well as with regard to animal bones, the finds from peak sanctuaries are quite different from those in cult caves.

The two major peak sanctuaries so far excavated and published are Petsofa in eastern Crete (elevation 215 m.; serving the town of Palaikastro) and Iuktas (elevation 811 m.; not far south of and hence presumably serving Knossos, this sanctuary is even closer to Archanes and almost certainly served this latter center as well). At both these peak sanctuaries, the earliest period of certifiable cult use is dated to the beginning of the MM period. In the earliest levels, there are no architectural remains, merely the ashy deposits and the figurines already discussed. In MM III, an imposing building was constructed on Mt. Iuktas consisting of three parallel terraces, oriented north-south, of which the upper two at the west were approached by an east-west ramp at the south. On the west side of the uppermost terrace, a long stepped altar (4.70 m. north-south by 0.50 m. high) overlies several cracks in the bedrock, one of which leads down to a natural chasm located between the two upper terraces which has so far been excavated to a depth of 10.50 m. without the bottom having been reached. The lowermost terrace at the east consists of a series of five or six roughly square rooms in a single row, all opening uphill toward the west. On the downhill, exterior side of this lowermost terrace to the east, the junction of wall foundation and wall proper leave a narrow bench 0.45 m. wide running north-south which evidently served as a display space for votive offerings. Both the finds and the architecture at this particular peak sanctuary are of unparalleled magnificence among cult locales of this class, as one might perhaps have expected of the sanctuary which served the site of Knossos. At Petsofa, a three-room building was first erected in MM III, again a long time after the sanctuary was first used. It is quite possible that these peak sanctuaries were visited only on special religious holidays, much as similar mountaintop chapels are today in Greece, since in many cases the sanctuaries are too remotely located to have served daily religious purposes. A peak sanctuary is portrayed in considerable detail on the famous Sanctuary Rhyton found in the LM IB destruction level of the palace at Zakro. It is likely that a peak sanctuary is also depicted in the northern section of the Fleet Fresco of LM IA date from Akrotiri on Thera.

Rutkowski has argued, on the basis of various possible connections between peak sanctuary cult and pastoral farming (e.g. location of peak sanctuaries in areas associated with summer transhumance of sheep and goat herds, frequency of terracotta animal figurines at peak sanctuaries) that “peak sanctuaries came into existence mainly to relieve the fears and cares of the shepherds and cattle breeders.” But the close links between palatial centers, peak sanctuaries, and cult caves suggest that Cherry’s view that peak and cave sanctuaries are evidence for the ideological manipulation of the ordinary Minoan by an emerging élite who also managed the palaces is likely to be closer to the truth. The appearance of permanent architecture at several peak sanctuaries other than Petsopha and Iuktas no earlier than MM III (Gonies, Kophinas, Modhi, Pyrgos, Traostalos, Vrysinas) has been connected with the appearance of villas throughout Neopalatial Crete and with what some feel to be the enhanced authority of Knossos at about the same time. Rutkowski has suggested that peak sanctuary cult became more institutionalized in the Neopalatial period under Knossian royal authority, perhaps with permanent priests in residence at the sites now boasting architecture. In this scenario, Iuktas is felt to have occupied the apex of a hierarchy of peak sanctuaries. much as Knossos did in one of villas and palaces. Peak sanctuaries appear to go into steep decline after the end of LM I, in contrast with cult caves which continue to be patronized frequently during the LM III period. The decline in peak sanctuaries, however, is probably limited to the east where in the period following LM IB there was a dramatic decline in population, whether due to the fallout from the Santorini eruption or to a Mycenaean invasion. In the center and west of the island where settlement was continuous from LM IB through LM II and into LM IIIA, there is good evidence for continuity of cult at peak sanctuaries such as Mt. Iuktas.

Domestic Shrines

In her recent study of such cult places, Gesell distinguishes between three social contexts [town (fully public), palace (semi-private? for ruling class only?), and house (private)] and three architectural types [bench sanctuary, lustral basin, pillar crypt]. Only the bench sanctuary may be attested as early as the Prepalatial (EM) period (e.g. the supposed shrine at Myrtos in which the so-called “Goddess of Myrtos” was found), to survive throughout Minoan prehistory and into the Iron Age. Pillar crypts and lustral basins are forms which are restricted to the Protopalatial and Neopalatial periods. Four of the best known Minoan sanctuaries of the domestic class are briefly described below:

Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos (Gesell 1985: no.37, Plan 25, Pls. 46, 118)

Shrine of the Double Axes, Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Post-Palatial (LM IIIB) bench sanctuary located in the southeast quarter of the palace at Knossos. This tiny (1.5 m. x 1.5 m.) shrine was abandoned with its religious furniture in situ and is thus extremely valuable as a source for our understanding of Minoan religion at least toward the end of the Bronze Age. The room’s floor area is divided into three sections at different levels. In the front (lowest) part lie several large vases. In the middle area, a tripod “table of offerings” is embedded in the floor, and to either side of it are groups of small jugs and cups. At the back of the room is a raised bench ca. 0.60 m. high on which are fixed two stuccoed clay “horns of consecration”. In each case, between the “horns” is a round socket, presumably to hold a double axe such as the small one of steatite found resting against the left-hand pair of “horns”. (The evidence for such a reconstruction comes from the iconography of seals and vase-painting, in both of which a central double axe between the “horns” is common.) Between the two pairs of “horns” were found a bell-shaped female figurine and a smaller female statuette of Neolithic type, perhaps a treasured heirloom. To the left of the left-hand pair of “horns” was a male figurine holding out a dove, while to the right of the right-hand pair were two more bell-shaped female figurines, one with a bird perched on her head. The last is often considered to be a goddess while the remaining figures are identified as votaries.

Town Shrine at Gournia (Gesell 1985: no.10, Plan 4, Pl. 119)

Shrine room at Gournia, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Post-Palatial (LM IIIB) bench sanctuary located near highest point of settlement, close to its center. This small (3 m. x 3 m.) shrine belongs neither to a palace nor to any other large building, but is rather a self-contained architectural unit approached by a cobbled road leading up the hill from the west. It was in a rather poor state of preservation when excavated, but its floor was littered with a large amount of cult paraphernalia, some of it comparable to that from the roughly contemporary Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos. The lack of associated pottery makes the dating of this shrine somewhat uncertain, but it probably was last used in the LM IIIB period. There was a low bench along its right-hand (southern) wall. In the northeast corner was a plastered tripod “table of offerings” around which were placed four “snake-tubes”, the base of a fifth “snake-tube” resting on the tripod “table of offerings” itself. Found in the debris of the rooms was a bell-shaped female figurine, around whose body is twined a snake. Two snakes also twist around one of the “snake-tubes”. Fragments of other human figurines were found, as well as four terracotta birds and two terracotta snakes’ heads.

Sanctuary Complex to West of Central Court at Knossos (Gesell 1985: no.33a-f, Plan 19, Pl. 22)

Sanctuary complex at the Palace of Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Approached by a short and shallow flight of steps leading down from the central court, this complex has several distinct elements, all of which are accessible from a single stone-paved anteroom with a short stone bench against its north wall, the Lobby of the Stone Seat. To the west through a pier-and-door partition are two pillar crypts of similar size (3.5 m. x 5.3 m.), both with a central pillar liberally incised with double axes on all exposed faces of each block (including the top surface of the uppermost block in each pillar) except for the west faces of the blocks in the eastern pillar. Both crypts are of Neopalatial date, the eastern with two rectangular basins ca. 0.25 m. deep sunk into the floor to east and west of the rectangular central pillar (cf. the pillar crypts in the Royal Villa and Temple Tomb), the western with a depressed rectangular space in its paved floor all around the square central pillar. Two narrow storage rooms oriented north-south open off of the eastern pillar crypt and under the threshold leading into the eastern one was found a rich collection of fragmentary cult paraphernalia of MM IA date (the Vat Room Deposit: faïence figurine fragments, beads, and inlays; clay sealings; gold sheet; copper beads; shell inlays; etc.).

To the north of the Lobby of the Stone Seat, two storage chambers oriented east-west open off of each other in a fashion comparable to the organization of the pillar crypts just described. The southern (the Room of the Tall Pithos) is unremarkable, but under the floor of the second (Temple Repositories) were found two empty, shallow cists below which were two larger and considerably deeper cists filled with MM III pottery in the uppermost 1.10 m. of fill and with fragmentary cult paraphernalia and greasy earth containing carbonized botanical material and stag horns in the lowest 0.40-0.50 m. The cult items include three largely preserved “snake goddesses” of faïence as well as fragments of others, miniature votive robes in faïence, faïence plaques of a cow and a wild goat nursing their young, shells, crystal, ivory, and faïence inlays, stone “tables of offering”, a marble cross, scraps of gold foil, etc., etc.

To the northeast of the Lobby of the Stone Seat and facing onto the central court are the foundations of a Neopalatial Tripartite Shrine, largely restorable on the basis of the painted representation of such a shrine in the miniature Grandstand Fresco. Finally, to the southwest of the Lobby of the Stone Seat, fallen from a room above christened the “Treasure Chamber”, was found a cache of twenty-four Neopalatial stone vases, twelve of them rhyta (including three in the form of lions’ heads) and several of them Egyptian imports.

Not all portions of this complex are restorable at any one moment in time, but together they reveal that this area of the palace was a focus of cult activity from the earliest days of the palace or even just before its construction (Vat Room Deposit of MM IA) down through the Neopalatial period and perhaps even into the Post-Palatial era, at which time pithoi and Linear B tablets show that the area in and around the Lobby of the Stone Seat was a central storage facility and point of disbursement for oil.

Throne Room Complex to West of Central Court at Knossos (Gesell 1985: no.34a-f, Plan 22, Pl. 10)

West wing Throne Room at the Palace at Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Located near the northeast corner of the west wing of the Knossian palace, the “Throne Room” proper is part of a larger four- or five-room block which was apparently devoted first and foremost to cult rather than to the display or exercising of political authority. The anteroom (6.0 m. x 5.7 m.) is entered through a pier-and-door partition and down three shallow steps from the central court (cf. a similar entrance to the “Men’s Hall” in the Little Palace from the peristyle court to its south). There may have been a wooden throne against the right-hand (northern) wall of the anteroom between two short lengths of a gypsum bench. A longer gypsum bench runs along the entire south side of the room and the floor is attractively paved with stone slabs. To the west and entered through an off-centered doorway is the Throne Room proper, named after the stone throne (Europe’s oldest) set against the north wall and flanked by stone benches which also extend along the west wall and in front of the parapet which separates the area around the throne from the Lustral Basin to the south. Flanking the throne, as well as the door leading out of the room to the west, are pairs of large, antithetical wingless griffins; the throne is also immediately bounded on both sides by a palm tree directly above an example of the so-called “triglyph-and-half-rosette” pattern, here possibly to be understood rather as an altar with incurved sides. The southern part of the room is occupied by a large Lustral Basin (the scene of the Minotaur’s murder by Theseus in Mary Renault’s The King Must Die). The floor of the room was attractively paved with a border of gypsum slabs framing a central rectangle of red-painted plaster. Near the east entrance, this floor was covered with an overturned pithos and five stone alabastra (normally stored in shallow sinkings on the west side of the north-south corridor immediately west of the Lustral Basin), a circumstance which suggested to Evans that a ritual may actually have been in progress when the palace burned down early in the LM IIIA2 period (ca. 1385 B.C.). Behind the Throne Room to the west are two small chambers or annexes which served to house cult paraphernalia and two more storage chambers also accessible from the Throne Room by means of a short north-south corridor lie to the south. In its present state, the Throne Room block dates from LM II-IIIA2 early, the period of the Mycenaean occupation of Knossos.

Minoan Cult Furniture

Double Axe

Head of a Minoan double-axe (labrys) from the tombs at Mesara, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Although some large bronze examples of the {double axe}, the most common of all Minoan religious symbols, were clearly used as tools, miniature specimens in unsuitable and sometimes precious materials (e.g. gold, silver, lead, steatite, terracotta), as well as very fragile bronze examples (e.g. the gigantic specimens from Nirou Khani), must have had a purely sumbolic function. The earliest examples date from the middle of the EM period. Double axes often appear in representational scenes, usually set in the top of stone bases or between “horns of consecration”. Their precise significance is disputed. In the Near East, axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to be symbols of the thunderbolt. Since in Crete the double axe is never held by a male divinity, an alternative view which ascribes its frequency in art to its popularity as a sacrificial instrument has considerable appeal. Miniature examples may have functioned as charms or amulets. Plutarch (Quaestiones Graecae 302A), a Greek author of the second century A.D., reports that the Carian (a southwest Anatolian population) word for double axe was labrys, a word likely to be connected with the mythological name for Minos’ palace and the Minotaur’s lair at Knossos, labyrinthos (= “place of the double axe”?).

Horns of Consecration

Horns of Consecration at Knossos, Crete / Wikimedia Commons

Examples of “{horns of consecration}” at various scales and occur both as three-dimensional objects of stone or terracotta (e.g. just south of the Theatral Area at Knossos or in a niche along one side of the court at Nirou Khani; twice on the bench in the Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos), often stuccoed, and as painted or sculpted representations on murals, altars, vases, seals, and larnakes. Typically they serve either as stands for a narrow range of other cult implements (double axes, libation jugs, branches) or as architectural crowning members (on both altars and roofs). The original significance of the “horns” is uncertain. It has been suggested that they are stylized bulls’ horns, a symbol of the moon’s crescent or of the rising sun, or simply an odd form of pot support.

Altars and Sacrificial Tables

Lion Gate at Mycenae / Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of types, perhaps the commonest of which are: (a) stepped (as on the Ayia Triadha sarcophagus) (b) rectangular, with a cap projecting all around at the top (c) round or rectangular in plan, with incurving sides in profile, and apparently portable. In scenes of animal sacrifice, a table rather than one of the above forms of altar is used as the surface on top of which the victim was bound and slaughtered (cf. Ayia Triadha sarcophagus). Altars of type (c) are often found in association with gates or major entranceways, as shown by M. Shaw, sometimes in multiples of two (Lion Gate at Mycenae) or four (main entrance to the Tourkogeitonia complex at Archanes)

“Table of Offerings”

Offering table at Malia, Crete / DreamsTime, Wikimedia Commons

In form, the “table of offerings” is basically a thick disc resting on three short legs and having a shallow depression in the top. Usually made of clay and occasionally stuccoed, these items may have served sometimes simply as portable hearths. Legless versions, rectangular in plan and made of stone rather than clay, are usually referred to as “libation tables”.

Kernos [kernoi, in the plural]

Terracotta Minoan kernos / Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

A kernos is simply a ceramic vessel consisting of multiple receptacles of the same shape. Vessels of this sort are a fairly prominent feature of the Phylakopi I culture in the Cyclades, but there need be no connection either typologically or functionally between the Minoan and Cycladic forms. The term “kernos” is that applied to similar vessels used in Classical mystery cults at Eleusis and elsewhere.

“Snake Tube”

Minoan snake tube / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

A “snake tube” is a tall, cylindrical ceramic vessel, sometimes lacking a bottom, with snakes occasionally modelled in relief on the exterior. Gesell has shown that such objects should probably be identified as stands designed to support shallow bowls and dishes which held either incense or offerings of some kind. That is, they were probably not intended to be “houses” for a domestic snake, as their name implies. Most examples date from LM IIIB-C, and they may therefore all be examples of an item associated with Post-Palatial Minoan cult.

Libation Jug

This is simply a specimen of a special form of ewer having a globular body, a tall neck, a beaked mouth, and a high-swung loop handle.

Pillar-shaped Stones (or baetyls)

Eileithyia Cave baetyl / Wikimedia Commons

An example of such a natural form at a cult location is the stalagmite in the Cave of Eileithyia at Amnisos. On seals, free-standing columns or pillars, both with and without capitals, are shown within small enclosures and in the presence of worshippers. Such columns or baetyls also appear flanked by antithetic animals (e.g. the relief on the Lion Gate at Mycenae). The place of the column may be taken by a human figure, arguably a god or goddess, in what is otherwise a closely comparable composition. The column or baetyl may therefore symbolize a deity or be a symbol for the palace of the king (as is often argued for the column in the Lion Gate relief) or for the shrine of a divinity. In this connection, the flanking animals are considered to be “protectors”, appropriately enough in that they are usually lions or griffins. In the pillar crypts of Minoan palaces and villas, square piers are often found incised with a variety of signs, including double axes, stars, and tridents. Although these piers serve a structural function, they may also have been considered sacred in some sense. Hence it has often been suggested that the signs incised on them constitute some form of divine invocation to secure the building in which they occur against the dangers of earthquake and fire.


On the Ayia Triadha sarcophagus, libations are being poured into a {krater}, or mixing bowl, set between the bases of two tall columns. Each of these columns is capped by a double axe on which sits a bird. The columns are covered with green projections and so may be intended to resemble trees (date palms?) or simply to be columns covered with leaves. Leaves in the form of lengths of the foliate band pattern sometimes substitute for the handles of double axes in vase-painting, while branches are often set up between “horns of consecration”. On seals, a tree often appears inside a small enclosure in the presence of worshippers and appears to have the same function in such a context as the columns or baetyls discussed above.

Birds, Bulls, Agrimia, and Snakes

Birds appear frequently in religious scenes (e.g. the Ayia Triadha sarcophagus). An individual bird is usually identified as a “{divine epiphany}” – that is, as the manifestation of a divine being (in this instance, in non-human form) – although sometimes a bird appears to be an identifying attribute of a divinity rather than an alternative form of one. Other frequently occurring animals are bulls, {agrimi}a (Cretan ibexes or mountain goats), and snakes. The first two often occur in the form of votive figurines and probably figured importantly as sacrificial animals. The last may have been a prominent symbol in earth (orchthonic) cults, just as birds may have been in sky (or atmospheric) cults.

Demons [sometimes called Minoan genii]

At first glance, this animal-headed figure wearing what appears to be a loose skin over its back and commonly carrying a libation jug, looks like a man in costume, but its legs and feet are those of an animal. Occasionally portrayed in the pose of the “Master of Animals”, this {demon} or {Minoan genius} is a corruption of the Egyptian goddess Ta-wrt, who occurs in the form of a hippotamus. In Egypt, Ta-wrt is a beneficent spirit but not a major divinity. In Crete, demons often appear in multiples of between two and four (when the pictorial field in question provides sufficient space to accommodate them) and to function as divine servants. On the so-called Genius Rhyton from Mallia, the two sizes of genius depicted suggest that the Minoans may have conceived of them as a category of being that could somehow be ranked by age or status.

The Ayia Triadha Sarcophagus

The sarcophagus was found in a looted tomb of the early 14th century B.C. (LM IIIA) at Ayia Triadha. The form of the tomb was unusual, but its few remaining contents, aside from the sarcophagus itself, were unremarkable. The sarcophagus is unusual in that it is a rare stone version of the otherwise common enough terracotta burial chest or larnax. The scenes on the sarcophagus, painted on lime plaster applied over the limestone body of the chest, are unique in Aegean funerary art. Quotations in the descriptions below are taken from C. Long, The Ayia Triadha Sarcophagus (Göteborg 1974).

Front Side

Ayia Triadha sarcophagus front side / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

“The pouring scene represents the mixing of liquids, probably wine and water, in a krater in honor of a goddess or goddesses symbolized by the double axes mounted on either side of the krater. The birds perched on the double axes probably indicate the arrival of the deity(-ies) and have been summoned by the music of the lyre….” The ceremony takes place outside the tomb. “The Minoan funerary libation would not require the quantity of liquid being prepared in the krater, and the scene might better be regarded as the preparation for the Mycenaean funerary toast.”

“The recipient in the presentation scene probably represents the spirit of the deceased observing that his obsequies are being performed with all proper dignity and beginning to sink beneath the ground on his way to the afterworld, as does the ghost of Patroklos in the Iliad. His motionless stance with arms concealed indicates he is neither deity nor living human, nor is he wrapped like an Egyptian mummy or laid out like the corpses on the Tanagra larnakes. The rite being performed may have been intended to secure for the deceased a happy life after death in addition to admission to the afterworld….The building behind the recipient can be equated with the tomb in which the sarcophagus was found…. The boat might provide transportation for the journey to the afterworld, and the cattle might represent either sustenance for the journey or the bulls supplied for funeral games in honor of the deceased. The absence of parallels for the gifts in cult presentation scenes may be evidence that they are funerary.”

West Side

Ayia Triadha sarcophagus west side / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

In the upper register is a fragmentary male processional scene (something being brought to the tomb?), while a chariot drawn by two Agrimia and carrying two women fills the lower register.Agrimia appear to have had religious connotations in a good deal of Minoan art, and it is possible that the two women in the lower register are as a consequence both goddesses. If they are indeed goddesses, they seem to have no connection with the mortal scene above but may indicate by their participation in the procession that they are favorably disposed toward the dead.

Back Side

Ayia Triadha sarcophagus back side / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

At the right is a shrine with a tree at its center. To the left of the shrine is an altar, above which is a libation jug and a basket-shaped vase (kalathos) full of fruit (?). A woman stands in front of the altar with her hands held palms down above it. Behind her is a sacrificial table on which a bull is strapped down for sacrifice. Below the table and fixed in the ground is a conical rhyton into which the bull’s blood will drain and thus seep into the earth. Next to the rhyton and perhaps held in reserve for a second stage of the sacrifice are twoagrimia. Behind the table is a flute player. Further to the left is a procession of female figures, only the first of whom is well preserved. This figure advances to the right with her arms outstretched and palms down. The indication of the hands’ position and the arrangements for the blood to drip into the ground indicate that the sacrifice is to an earth (“chthonic”) or underworld figure. It is probable that this sacrifice is part of the funerary rites on behalf of the deceased on the opposite side.

East Side

Ayia Triadha sarcophagus east side / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

A pair of females ride in a chariot drawn by two winged griffins, above which flies a single bird. The two females must be divinities because of the supernatural form of the griffins. Like the females on the opposite end, these figures are probably to be interpreted as escorts for the deceased on his way to the Underworld.


Are all the scenes to be interpreted as having a single focus or theme? Or are the scenes on the front (pretty obviously indicative of a cult of the dead) to be separated from those on the back (arguably some kind of divine cult, perhaps connected with a deity of vegetation)? Some authorities are so impressed by the evidence for divine cult in these scenes that they deny any connection at all with a cult of the dead and identify the figure of the “dead man” as a god or as the image of a god. Others maintain that all the scenes are connected with a cult of the dead: the double axes should be understood as cult objects which can serve in both divine and mortuary cults, while the birds may as well represent the soul of the dead as the epiphany of a deity.

Nilsson felt that both divine and mortuary cults were involved and saw only one way in which to resolve this dichotomy, namely to assume that the dead man was deified and worshipped after his death. He associated this “heroization” of the dead man with the notion that the dead individual was in fact a Mycenaean overlord of Ayia Triadha and not a Minoan. The mixture of the two forms of cult (mortuary and divine) on the sarcophagus thus became for him a Minoan response to the demands of their Mycenaean overlords. But there is no evidence from the tomb for any cult associated with the dead man. In fact, the sarcophagus was re-used, which suggests that no special veneration was accorded either the corpse or its tomb. Moreover, there is very little evidence from Greek Mainland sites for a Mycenaean cult of the dead persisting for any appreciable length of time after an individual’s burial.

Minoan Divinities

A survey of the representational art which illustrates Minoan religious activities clearly indicates that those figures which are plausibly to be identified as divinities rather than as mortals are overwhelmingly of the female sex. In addition, it is clear that, if individual divinities are to be identified on the basis of different sets of attributes associated with particular figures, several distinct Minoan goddesses existed.

The Snake Goddess

Minoan snake goddess statuette / Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, Crete

Represented by the MM III “Snake Goddesses” of the Temple Repositories at Knossos as well as by some of the later bell-shaped terracotta figurines of the LM III period, this particular goddess is usually considered to be a household divinity and interestingly does not appear on seals.

Mistress of Animals (or of the Mountain)

A famous seal impression from Knossos (Nilsson 1950: Pl.18:1; Gesell 1985: Fig.114) shows a female figure holding a staff and standing on top of a cairn or rocky hill. She is flanked by antithetic lions, beyond which are a shrine on one side and a saluting male on the other. A second seal from Knossos (Nilsson 1950: Pl.18:4) shows a capped female with a staff walking next to a lion, another pose of the same Mistress of Animals figure.

Goddess of Vegetation

Dominating female figures on a number of seals (e.g. Nilsson 1950: Pl.17:1) are often identified as deities.

Male Divinity

Male figures identifiable as divinities are rare and are often represented on a smaller scale than female figures, not necessarily deities themselves, in the same scene.

(a) Seal showing a male with a spear (?) descending through the air in front of a large pillar with a pillar-shrine further behind. The female in front of him is usually considered to be saluting or “adoring” him (Nilsson 1950: Pl. 13:4).

(b) A youthful (i.e. beardless) male is occasionally depicted on seals standing between “horns of consecration” or posing as a Master of Animals (Nilsson 1950: Pls. 19:4, 20:4).

(c) A tiny figure standing behind a figure-of-eight shield in the air above a series of much larger female figures is sometimes identified as a male divinity (Nilsson 1950: Pl.17:1).

Evidence for Human Sacrifice

Two fairly recent discoveries strongly suggest that the Minoans indulged in this “barbaric” form of blood sacrifice.

Protopalatial Sanctuary at Anemospilia (Archanes)

Sanctuary at Archanes / Wikimedia Commons

Excavated in the summer of 1979, this four-room building set within a low enclosure (temenos) wall serves as a reminder that our views about a past culture may be subject to sudden and drastic change as the result of a single new discovery. The building, oriented roughly to the cardinal points and entered from the north, lies on the northern slopes of Mt. Iuktas some seven kilometers south of Knossos. In plan, it consists of an east-west corridor at the front off of which open three non-connecting rectangular rooms oriented north-south. In the east room were found large numbers of clay vessels containing agricultural produce, many of them arranged on a series of three steps, perhaps an altar, at the back (south) end of the room. In the central room, more vases containing agricultural produce were found. These too tended to be located toward the south (rear) end of the room, in the vicinity of a raised platform on which were found two terracotta feet, all that remained, in the excavators’ opinion, of a cult statue made mostly of wood, only the carbonized remains of which were actually discovered. Near the statue and its base, part of the limestone bedrock was left exposed above floor level rather than being cut down and the excavators identify this outcrop as a “sacred stone” over which blood offerings may have been poured. In the west room, three skeletons were found in positions which indicated that all three had met a violent end: (1) An 18-year-old male, the skeleton so tightly contracted that he is considered to have been trussed in a fashion comparable to that of the sacrificial bull on the Ayia Triadha sarcophagus, was found lying on his right side on a platform in the center of the room. Among his bones was a bronze dagger 0.40 m. long, on each side of which was incised the frontal head of a boar. Close beside the platform (or sacrificial altar) had stood a pillar with a trough around its base, the trough probably designed to catch the blood from animal (and human) sacrifices. The dead youth’s bones were discolored in such a way (those on his upper/left side being white, those on his lower/right side being black) as to suggest to a visiting physical anthropologist that the youth, estimated to have been 5′ 5″ tall, had died from loss of blood. (2) A 28-year-old female of medium build was found spreadeagled in the southwest corner of the room. (3) A male in his late thirties, 6′ tall, was found on his back near the sacrificial platform, his hands raised as though to protect his face, his legs broken by fallen building debris. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a ring of silver and iron. On a thong around his wrist he wore a stone seal on which the intaglio device was a boat.

In the corridor constituting the front room of the building, aside from rows of still more vessels containing agricultural produce, was found a fourth skeleton, too poorly preserved for sex and age to be determinable. Scattered widely around this body were found 105 joining fragments of a bucket-shaped clay vessel bearing a red-spotted bull in relief as decoration on one side. This was the only vase of the roughly four hundred vessels recovered from the building to be found littered over such a wide area, and the excavators theorize that it was dropped in the corridor by the fourth person when (s)he was felled by the collapsing debris of the building.

The sanctuary was destroyed by fire, probably as the result of an earthquake, at the end of MM II, possibly in the same earthquake which destroyed the Old Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos at this time. The collapsing roof and masonry of the upper walls killed three of the four individuals found within the structure, but the eighteen-year-old was probably already dead. A somewhat similar isolated shrine of the same period, although lacking the dramatic artifactual and human finds of the Anemospilia sanctuary, was excavated in the 1960’s at Mallia (Gesell 1985: no.76).

Site of Western Extension to Stratigraphical Museum at Knossos

In a LM IB context in excavations just to one side of the Royal Road some distance northwest of the Little Palace at Knossos, 327 children’s bones were found in a burnt deposit in the basement of a building christened the North House. Originally attributed to between eight and eleven children provisionally aged between ten and fifteen years old, between 21% and 35% of these bones, which included skull fragments as well as other bones, all found in an unarticulated heap, exhibited “fine knife marks, exactly comparable to butchery marks on animal bones, resulting from the removal of meat. Cannibalism seems clearly indicated. Among possible interpretations are ritual usage (otherwise unexampled in the open town of Knossos) and lack of all other food because of poisoning or other deleterious effect of gases or fall out from intense activity of the volcano of Thera.” Subsequent analysis has revealed that the bones in fact need belong to no more than four individuals, two of whom can be quite precisely aged by means of their teeth to eight and twelve years. Some phalanges (finger or toe bones) from young humans, a human vertebra with a knife cut, some marine shells, some shells of edible snails, and burnt earth were found filling a pithos in the “Cult Room Basement”, a room across a corridor from the “Room of the Children’s Bones” in which the cache of 327 children’s bones were found. The context within the pithos suggests that some portions of young children were cooked together with a variety of other edible substances. Together with the major concentration of children’s bones were also found some sheep bones including articulated vertebrae. One of the latter had a cut mark in a position indicating that the beast’s throat had been slit, so that sheep sacrifice may have been connected with the death and dismemberment of the children, whom forensic experts have established to have been in perfect health at the time of their deaths. There is unfortunately no method by which these skeletons can be accurately sexed, so we remain ignorant as to whether they belonged to boys, girls, or both. Could there be some connection between these butchered children, the youths and maidens who jump bulls in Minoan representational art, and the tribute of Athenian boys and girls paid to the legendary king Minos to which Theseus, the heroic Athenian prince, put a stop with the loving help of Minos’ daughter Ariadne by killing the monstrous Minotaur?



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