Symbols of the Minoan Goddess Religion

The earliest goddess figurines found on Crete date from Neolithic times and thus from its first settlers, who supposedly came from Anatolia. The figurines belong to the age-old ”fat woman” tradition that began during the Paleolithic. These goddess-figurines were found together with figurines of birds and other animals, all typical of the whole Eurasian region since the Ice Age. 

Labyris – the Double Axe (and the Butterfly Goddess)

The Labyris was as important, powerful and omnipresent a symbol to the Minoan religion as the Cross is to Christianity and the crescent to Islam.

The symbol itself is very ancient. Representations of it dated to the Paleolithic have been found in caves at Niaux in south-west France, and the Neolithic Halaf culture in Iraq The labyris was characteristic of Neolithic cultures of the Tarn and Garonne. It also occurred on Catalhöyuk wall-paintings.

The name labyris derives from Lydian labrys, meaning ”double axe”. It has given name to the word labyrinthos, which in Minoan and Greek meant”Home of the Double Axe”. Thus the Labyrinth of Knossos, the temple, was essentially related to the labyris.

Labyris have been found in every possible form on Crete, carved into stone,  painted on ceramics and frescoes, and many thousands cast in bronze, silver and gold. Labyris were made in sizes from an inch to over twenty feet tall. 

Large bronze labyris have been found together with offering tables and other ritual objects. Labyris set into Horns of Consecration were typical objects used in Cretan shrines, both at Knossos and at hilltop shrines. Huge amounts of labyris have been found in the sacred caves of Crete.

Marija Gimbutas believed that the labyris was a symbol of the Goddess as butterfly. The various stages of the life cycle of this insect can be seen as representing the cycle of life, death and rebirth – or resurrection.

The butterfly in itself frequents Minoan art both on Crete and the surrounding islands, and some places the connection with theGoddess seems obvious, such as this butterfly goddess.

The lily is also associated with the labyris, represented stylistically in sacred landscape paintings looking very much like labyris.

 The shape of cattle horns and the cresecent moon are also seen inthe labyris shape. It was extremely common to place the labyris between Horns of Consecration; most such horns had holes that would fit such a double axe. The labyris coming up from the head, between the horns of a bull or a cow is also common.

The double axe is often depicted as held by women. It is never depicted as held by men, not until about 600-400 BC, much afterthe decline of the Minoan civilization, when there are greek representations of bearded male gods having claimed the labyris and the trident for their own.

Many have believed that the double axe was the ritual instrument for the sacrifice of the bull, (meaning that only women sacrificed bulls), yet there are no proofs for this at all. The only (disputable)evidence that bull sacrifice even occurred is an image of a man stabbing a horned animal – with a knife. There is no evidence that bulls were ritually sacrificed in Minoan rituals.

In later Greek art and myth, the labyris were associated with the Amazons, and when Heracles killed the queen of the Amazons he stole the labyris from her. It was passed to Zeus, in whose hands it became a symbol of lightening.

Various ways of writing “labyris” are: labris, labrus, labrys

 The Snake Goddess

The Snake Goddess, or else the handling of snakes by priestesses, was extremely important in Minoan religion, as shown by the numerous figurines of snakes and women or goddesses handling them. The snake probably derived its symbolic importance from its ability to change its skin. The snake also moves between worlds in tombs and caves, and forms spirals with its body, and resembles the unbilicus, the life-giving cord which connects the new life with its source. Snakes are associated with venom that could be used for medicinal and trance inducing properties.

All over the world, the snake has been an important symbol. I will try to stick close to those cultures most likely to have been close to Minoan Crete or else influenced them. Malta does not seem to have much snake imagery, nor did Catalhöyuk as far as I have seen. Yet the so-called Sleeping Lady figurine found within the tomb of the Hypogeium in Malta was surrounded by the skeletons of snakes.

 

 

Ancient Mesopotamians and Semites believed that snakes were immortal because they could infinitely shed their skin and appear forever youthful, appearing in a fresh guise every time.

In the later Greek temple of Asklepios healing powers were attached to the snake´s ability to change skin, and snakes were associated with the oracles, such as the famous Pythia, the Oracle of Delphi. The Greek oracles were always women, and it was said that they were mediums for the Earth Goddess Gaia before they became the servants of Appollo. In Greek mythology, the gorgons were female monsters with snake skins and fangs. They were immortal. Among them is the snake-headed Medusa, the prototypical witch. Gorgons and snakes were depicted in the temples of the oracles, said to be their protectors. Other animals associated with the gorgons are the sphinxes and the lionesses, all animals considered feminine.

In Egyptian mythology, there were numerous snake goddesses, such as Renenutet, the goddess of  the true name a person received at birth. The true name was an aspect of the soul, granted by the Goddess. Her name meant ”Snake of Nourishment” or ”She Who Gives the True Name/Soul”. Other Egyptian snake goddesses were Wadjet, the protector of Egypt, who had the head of a cobra. The cobra of the crown of the pharaohs were portraits of Wadjet. Renenutet and Wadjet were often confused with each other, so that they might have been two names for the same goddess. The snake is always associated with a female deity in Egypt.

In India, the Great Goddess was seen to be incarnated within the soul of people as the Kundalini Shakti, the primal energy of creation that lies coiled like a serpent within the root chakra. When wakened, She moves like a snake, in spiral fashion, up the spine towards the crown, causing enlightenment as she meets her masculine counterpart.

The snake is an important symbol in many other cultures, and more often than not, it is associated with a female entity. In Scandinavia, the serpent was a being of the Underworld in which the souls were received after death, and from which all life emerges. The Scandinavian Goddess of the Underworld was depicted both in art and in myth as handling snakes, much like the Cretan Goddess. The snake is very often associated with primeval energy and creation.

The Bee

The bee and beehives frequent Minoan imagery. The bee was obviously associated with the Goddess, since she is often shown as half woman, half bee. Her sacred snakes coil themselves around beehives. It is interesting to note how the painted ceiling in the Malta hypogeium is a representation of a beehive. The Cretans cultivated bees and used a lot of honey, for eating, for medicines and for libation offerings and for making mead. Bees are also responsible for pollination. The bee hive was a popular architectural form on bronze Age Crete: tombs that took this shape were used on Crete and Mycenae, and the remnants of a beehive shaped storage silos has been found. The beehive form is still the standard shape for storage huts in moderen day Crete.

The Birds

The birds often sit perched on the shoulders of the Goddess, or else on top of her head.Goddess in bird-form is a very ancient and widespread symbol aspect of the Goddess of Old Europe.

 

 

Places of Worship

Although builders of temples and shrines, Cretans were quite late at it. While the Maltese people built enormous megalith temples from 3600 BC, Cretans did not start this practice until almost two millennia later. In fact, their first attempts at building temples started around the same time as the Maltese temple culture collapsed. However, before they started to perform rituals innside temples, they performed them in natural sanctuaries, such as caves, mountain peaks and groves. They continued to use these natural sanctuaries for the duration of the Minoan civilization, until its collapse around 1300 BC.

Caves – the Original Labyrinths.

Crete has more than 2000 caves, many of which are very large. Of  these, 35 are known to have been used for religious activities. Most of them are situated near to mountain peaks, which were also sanctuaries. These caves have dramatic rock formations and pools of water that were used for sacred purposes. The caves were, according to Susan Evasdaughter, the original labyrinths. A labyrinth is a meandering walkway associated with the sacred paths and corridors of the Temples at Knossos and other major sites. Yet these caves are also meandering walkways, and just like the temples they were full of labyris, double-axes, from which the word ”labyrinth” earned its name: ”The Home of the Labyris”. Hundreds of labyris, many made out of gold, were found within the sacred caves.

The cave represented an access to the underworld, perhaps the womb of the Goddess. People left offerings there – vessels, figurines, labyris, bowls. The lower levels of the Temple Labyrinth, many dark, windowless rooms set aside for ritual use, as well as many dark passages from which one would have emerged into to brilliant daylight of a lightwell or courtyard, may have been intended to recreate the atmosphere of the sacred caves. Many of the Temple passages are not straight or direct but of a meandering style. Sacred pillars symbolized great cave stalactites.

One cave in Kato Pervolakia featured a cave painting dating from 1400 BC. The painting is of a crouching woman with her arms upraised, holding a bow and arrow. Her dog stands close by. Beneath this woman three people are seen in boats, casting nets into the sea, in which we see octopus, dolphin and starfish.

Peak sanctuaries – the Mountain Goddess

Many a Cretan mountain peak was a small Temple. The natural site was built into to make miniature temples, shrines or sanctuaries part natural, part artificial. Numerous depictions of worship at the peak sanctuaries have been engraved and painted. Large numbers of clay and bronzevotive figures have been found in the peak sanctuaries, offerings to the Goddess, as well as labyris. Usually, the peak sanctuaries are close to the sacred caves.

Groves

Groves of olive, fig and pomgranate were sacred spaces for dance and ceremony. Low walls formed enclosures around the sacred groves. Artifacts suggest that altars and labyris stood just outside these enclosures. Libations were poured over sacred boughs and onto the trees themselves. Frescoes and engravings show that these celebrations took place in spring.

Ritual and Sacred Postures

 The upraised arms

Even in Catalhöyuk do we see reliefs of figures that appear with upraised arms. Mellaart and Gimbutas believed they were goddesses, since they perceived that there were traces of breasts and circular patterns on their bellies. Hodder, however, believes that these reliefs represent animals, such as leopards.

The Cretan imagery of goddesses and priestesses with upraised arms clearly show a ritual display of reverence or invocation. Paintings and engravings showing rituals where the participants have upraised arms are numerous. According to some writers, the upraised arms are held in a position that imitate the female reproductive organs. Personally I find the gesture almost obviously imitative of the revered cattle horns of consecration that were such an important symbol both in Crete, Catalhöyuk and many other Old European civilization. (However, according to Gimbutas the horns themselves imitate the uterus.) The arms may also imitate the labyris, the double axe.

Another possibility is that the upraised arms have a function in their own right. If you have ever tried something like Qi Gong or Yoga, you would probably know the sense of power and focus derived from certain gestures, the sense of leading physical energy in a particular manner. I believe that many ritual gestures had such a function and that some symbols may very well be derived from these gestures and not the other way around, if there is such a connection in the first place.

Dance – Spring Dances

According to Greek legend, dancing originated on Crete. The goddess Rhea taught the Kouret to dance and clash their shields in order to protect the infant Zeus from his father Kronos. The importance of dance to the religious life of Knossos is recorded in the Iliad where Homer describes the dancing area that Daedalus built for Ariadne. This myth may have recalled the original dance floor in the Theatral area. In the myth, Theseus saw Cretan maidens dance. It seems that dance was performed in a maze form. There are many surviving ceramic representations of women performing a sacred round dance, surrounded by Horns of Consecration. Beside small circle dances, frescoes show larger groups of women dancing, as well as individual dancers.

It has been suggested that opium or even a derirative of snake venom may have been used in these ecstatic dances in order to induce an altered consciousness in the dancers, yet the power of dance itself may have ecstatic effects.

Just as men are never depicted holding the labyris, so men are never depicted dancing. Sacred dance was a female endeavour.

Harvest Rituals

Minoan imagery shows festivals associated with the harvest. This was a time of great celebration. We know that in later classical rituals the festivals were associated with the first fruits of the harvest. Within the harvested ear of corn both death (of the plant) and the germ of new life (the seed) are present. Nanno Marinatos has suggested that a harvest ritual was celebrated in the Temple Labyrinth where raised walkways meet to form a triangle next to the corn silos. At Knossos a passage leads from this walkway into the Labyrinth along the Processional Corridor. Harvest rituals were performed in Crete up to moderen times, as were circular and maze dances.

”Fertility” or Salvation?

A clue to the type of rituals the Cretan priestesses performed may be found in the Eleusian mysteries, which are said to have been brought by settlers from crete. Ears of wheat, torches, the chalice, the Cretan rosette, a poppy and pomegranate were carved on the external temple walls at Elephsus. We know little of the rites because the initiates were sworn to secrecy, but we do know that a great fire burned in the temple which was shared by the initiates who each carried a flaming torch. There was also a sacred cave where a priestess representing Persephone reappeared from the Underworld and an ear of wheat was reaped and displayed to the assembled crowd in silence. The dancing which would have formed part of the proceedings continued to be performed by torchlight in the name of the Goddess right up to the 1930´s.

The connection between so-called ”fertility rituals” of ancient Goddess cultures and deeper spiritual mysteries becomes clear when seen in the light of the Mystery Cults that were a continuation of the Cretan religion: Despite its use of ”fertility symbols” such as grains, the great concern of the Mystery Cults was the fate of the soul in death and its resurrection, its salvation, through the grace of the Great Goddess. The Cretan religion, again, was a continuation of the ancient traditions of Goddess worship in Old Europe.

Bull Leaping

Bull leaping was a sacred activity at Knossos, shown in frescoes and other depictions. It seems to have been a very common activity. An ivory box found in a Late Minoan tomb close to Knossos shows a woman leaping over bull´s horns in the midst of a rocky landscape. Other depictions, like that on the Vaphio cups shows the dangers of trying to capture a bull: A man has fallen beneath the bull while a woman is trying to tame it by wrapping her legs and arms around its horns.

Both women and men attended the bull games. Female athletes wore the same garments as the males, even the penis futteral sheath. One can almost only distinguish them as females from the color they are paitned with: the Minoans always painted the women white, whereas the men were red. This is true even when they were ”cross-dressing”. In other depictions, the female athletes stand out because of their ornaments and headdresses.

It seems that the bulls were captured alive.

Ritual Cleansing

Rituals baths seem to have been central to religious practice. Many ritual cleansing areas have been found that were clearly not used for conventional bathing. There are no plugs, they are made of pouros material, they are inaccessible to the causal visiots, and some are decorated with altars and Horns of Consecration. The baths at Knossos and Zakro suggest that they formed part of the preparation for those wishing to enter the sacred confined of the Labyrinths. Other such baths are surrounded by a series of sanctuaries, and may have been reserved for initiates.

Libation

Within the dark inner sanctuaries of the most sacred areas of the Temple Labyrinths and other large religious houses, small, perhaps private rituals took place incolving the pouring of foils, milk, mead and liquid honey, libation offerings kept in hundreds of spesifically designed vases.

The three Pillars

The many small crypts are filled with pillars, often three pillars. I am thrilled to note that such triple pillars also show up both in Malta and in Catalhöyuk.

Altar Rituals

An important part of Cretan religious practice involved the placing of Goddess figurines on a plaster bench, together with ritual vases, smaller altars and Horns of Consecration. These small shrines may have been used by only a few people. Many bench altars have been found at Knossos, and are often mistaken with seating benches by tourists!

Sacrifice

There are few traces of sacrifice in Minoan Crete. Libations and votive offerings seem to have been the order of the day. But there are a few images that appear to be concerned with sacrifice, such as the Agia Thriada sarcophage, which seems to depict the sacrifice of a bull. er

 Article by Maria Kvilhaug based mainly on, on Susan Evansdaughter: A Feminist Exploration of Bronze Age Crete, other sources are Rodney Castleden: Knossos- Temple of the Goddess, and Sir Arthur Evan´s six volume work with countless photographs of the first excavations of Knossos in the early 20th century.

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to Symbols of the Minoan Goddess Religion

  1. rosemary parsons says:

    I have a bronze snake priestess she is holding snake in each hand with arms raised. She is only approximatey two an half inches tall and i got her some 30 years ago from a trader in an antique market. I have never seen another bronze of her type and only discovered imageslike her after much research. I di not believe copies in bronze were ever made. Could you tell me if this is the case? She is covered in much verdigris of course and i think she may be authentic. Could you let me know how i go about verifying this. Mant thanks. R parsons

  2. Ingrid Gilbert says:

    To rosemary parsons: There was a company named Nirvana that sold replicas like that in the 80s, I do not know if they did so any earlier or if they are still around now but that might be a place to start. Perhaps they were replicating an earlier version, the ones they made were pewter, often with bronze plating but I too have one in brass or bronze that is very slightly different and not sure where it came from, maybe the same place or maybe another.

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