The Great Goddess and the Priest-King

Minoan Religion in Flux

By: Polymnia Muhly

Originally Published in 1990

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The discussion of practically every aspect of Minoan civili­zation begins with the work of Sir Arthur Evans, who, almost half a century after his death, still casts a giant shadow over Aegean archaeology. Religion is certainly no exception: Evans’s ideas shaped much of the conceptual framework within which Minoan religious be­liefs and practices are still discussed.

In the massive volumes of The Palace of Minos and other studies by Evans, religion is presented as a powerful force that permeated both private and public life in Minoan Crete (1). A large part of the great palace at Knossos consisted of shrines; religious symbols such as `horns of consecration’ and double axes abounded, and the subjects of the paintings decorating the walls were concerned directly or in­directly with religion. The Linear A script, in use during the period of the second palaces (ca. 1700-1650/1425 B.C.), was ‘extensively’ used on reli­gious objects (2). Bull leaping, the favorite Minoan “sport,” had a reli­gious function and so did dancing (3).

Presiding over the palace was a Priest-King, who could be recog­nized in a figure restored from fragments of painted plaster relief (4). The king was the adopted son of the Great Goddess, the supreme divinity of the Minoan, who had many benign aspects but also a dark side, evident in representations such as the famous faience statuette from Knossos (5). The Goddess was some­times associated with a male figure, a youthful god, the Minoan equiva­lent of the oriental Adonis or Tam­muz, who died and was reborn, personifying the decay and revival of nature.

The Minoans worshiped in caves and on mountain peaks, where they dedicated clay figurines in ‘ash altars’ (the accumulated remains of car­bonized material). Evans himself explored the shrine on top of Mt. Juktas near Knossos in 1909 (8); other archaeologists had already ex­cavated another peak shrine on Mt. Petsophas in east Crete and the great Psychro cave on Mt. Dikte in central Crete, where the votive material of the Minoan period included bronze figurines and stone vessels. The latter were associated with deposits of ashes, carbonized material, and faunal remains.

For Evans these sites were more than sacred places. The peak of Mt. Juktas was the primary object of cult as the “indwelling place of the God­head,” while the caves “representing a visible access to the underworld” were provided with stalagmites, i.e., natural baetyls or sacred stones. In a special study, Evans (1901) dis­cussed various types of Minoan sym­bolic representations of the divine, ranging from pillars and free­standing columns to double axes, all of which represented the material form or the dwelling place of divin­ities. The same was true of the living trees, which in some representations were surrounded by built enclo­sures. From these images evolved gradually the anthropomorphic representations of deities, who might manifest themselves if in­voked in proper fashion, as in scenes depicted on sealstones and finger rings (7).

The work of Evans was continued by scholars from many countries, but only in the fields of ceramics and religion were his contributions re­assessed and further developed by scholars whose stature came to rival his own. Martin Nilsson’s study of Minoan-Mycenaean religion ap­peared in 1927; the second, revised edition, with preface signed in 1949, is still indispensable reading for both scholars and laymen interested in the subject.

The first part of Nilsson’s study was based on the archaeological evidence, which was examined sys­tematically in chapters devoted to “nature” and “house” sanctuaries, cult objects, symbols, idols, and representations (8). The second part was taken up with an examination of the evidence for continuity and sur­vival between Bronze Age and Greek religion (9), a subject that was of marginal interest for Evans but of great importance to historians of Greek religion.

Nilsson agreed with Evans’s ideas in many respects, but disagreed in others, and steadfastly refused to commit himself when the evidence seemed insufficient (10). He ac­cepted the concept of a goddess worshiped as a Nature divinity on peaks and perhaps also in caves, and of a domestic goddess whose associa­tion with snakes did not imply a connection with the Underworld. He refuted, however, the concept of a dying god and also rejected the idea of Minoan monotheism, opting in­stead for several female divinities.

Because of the intervening war years Nilsson had little more material than had been available to Evans, and his study appeared on the eve of a spate of new discoveries. He did not even take into account the de­cipherment of the Linear B script. The clay tablets written in this script that were found on the mainland and at Knossos in post-15th century B.C. contexts revealed the names of some Olympian gods (11).

For the study of Minoan religion, the archaeological evidence that accrued as the pace of investigation in Greece intensified after the war was of equal and even greater impor­tance. Already in 1951 a study of peak shrines listed 11 sites as op­posed to only 4 discussed by Nilsson. The impact of these discoveries was reflected in a decided shift of scho­larly interest that resulted in a series of studies written by archaeologists dealing exclusively with various types of cult places. Since the new evidence came from salvage excava­tions and surface surveys, and publi­cation did not keep pace with dis­covery, these works, including those reissued recently in new format, were essentially descriptive; in their pages echoes of Evans and Nilsson are all too frequent (12).

More recently and especially in the last decade, a definite change can be discerned in Aegean studies that can be traced mainly to the influence of anthropological theory on Aegean archaeology and studies of Greek religion (13). The recent proliferation of congresses devoted to all aspects of Aegean archaeology is symptomatic of the interaction between the old and the new. It would be an exaggeration to say that in the study of Aegean religion tradi­tional attitudes have been super-ceded, but this interchange has had a decided effect on the field. A com­parison between two volumes on the proceedings of symposia sponsored by the Swedish Institute in Athens is revealing. In the first (Hägg and Marinatos 1981), the 1970s style of the title—Sanctuaries and Cults in the Aegean Bronze Age—corres­ponds to the contents, which con­sisted primarily of presentations of material evidence; nevertheless, a concern about some basic questions, boldly articulated by Colin Renfrew, is also discernible in the discussions that followed the papers and in the final summation. The title and con­tents of the fourth volume—The Function of the Minoan Palaces (Hägg and Marinatos 1987)—reflect more clearly a growing interest in criticism and interpretation. Al­though this congress was not speci­fically devoted to religion, many of the papers were directly or indirectly concerned with religious and cultic matters.

The potential of new discoveries and publications to revitalize a field of study must also be taken into account. In this case, recent finds from the Cyclades and mainland Greece have provided a wealth of information about religion and cult. The rich imagery of the wall paint­ings from Thera (Marinatos 1984; Morgan 1988), the large terracotta statues from Kea (Caskey 1986), and the shrines and idols from Mycenae, Tiryns, and Phylakopi on Melos (Renfrew 1985) have redressed to a considerable extent the lack of bal­ance between the archaeological evidence from Crete and that from other areas of the Aegean that Nilsson and other scholars had to contend with. The renewed discus­sion of religious and cult inter­connections within the Aegean has led to a condemnation of Nilsson’s unified and largely synchronic ap­proach (14), but so far appraisals of the new evidence have been cautious and, in general, aware of the pitfalls awaiting hasty assessments.

In Crete the investigation of new cult sites has slackened considerably. The three excavations currently sponsored by the Greek Archaeologi­cal Society—at the Idaean Cave, at the peak shrine of Mt. Juktas, and at the Kato Syme sanctuary—are long-range, systematic projects. The great cave on Mt. Ida has so far produced mainly post-Minoan material that is unstratified, as is to be expected from a site that had been unsys­tematically explored and looted for generations. Juktas did not escape unscathed; nevertheless, the new ex­cavations have revealed remains of monumental Minoan architecture within a completely different layout from that presented by Evans ( 15; cf. 6), as well as much material with `palatial’ associations (Karetsou in Hägg and Marinatos 1981:137-153).

The Syme sanctuary, discovered accidentally on the southern slopes of Mt. Dikte in central Crete in 1972, has some similarities with Juktas, but does not really fit into any ‘type’ of Minoan cult place. While various Minoan sanctuaries were reused in Greek and Roman times, Syme is the only one that has so far provided architectural and artifactual evi­dence of continuous occupation from the Minoan through the Greek and Roman periods, when it was dedicated to Hermes and Aphrodite (Lebessi 1975-76; Lebessi and Muhly 1987). During the period between the late 8th to the 5th century B.C., ceremonies connected with matura­tion rituals and carried out in the open left deep deposits of carbon­ized material mixed with animal bones and horns, pottery, and votive objects. In recent seasons the in­vestigation of Minoan levels has brought to light extensive buildings of that period, including an open-air precinct that was surrounded by a massive wall flanked by a paved road. It may very well be that this complex is the first actual example of a Sacred Enclosure, the type of outdoor shrine depicted in the repre­sentations that Evans connected with a tree cult. Within the precinct car­bonized deposits with faunal re­mains and Minoan votive objects (18) underlay those of the Greek period, showing that most of the enclosure area had been used for similar rituals for about a millen­nium (Lebessi and Muhly 1990). Continuity of place, ritual, and archi­tectural plan, and reuse and even rededication of older votive objects are all aspects of the cult at Lyme that have to be explained.

Although Juktas and Lyme are still under investigation, they have be­come central in discussions of some basic problems. Nilsson’s assump­tions regarding continuity between Aegean and Greek religion have been repeatedly challenged; the ap­praisal of the Lyme sanctuary in this respect has ranged from enthusiastic to cautious, as the very concept of religious continuity is seemingly in the process of being redefined (17).

The relationship between religion and state is another problem that is being currently addressed from various points of view; the connec­tion between peak shrines and palaces has become a particularly popular theme. Originally formu­lated as an inverse relationship (i.e., peak shrines were established when palaces were at their initial stage of development, but declined when the palaces became dominant), it has recently been revised (18), especially in the light of the obvious impor­tance of Mt. Juktas during the period of the greatest expansion of palatial authority and power. Other scholars are attempting to come to grips with the same problem by investigating the spatial organization of the palaces themselves, or through the examination of representational art, especially frescoes (19a; cf. 3), finger rings, sealstones, and stone vases decorated in relief (19b).

Whatever the approach, it is clear that currently religion and cult are not only being discussed in the context of the political, social, and economic organization of Minoan Crete, but are also becoming an important venue for approaching these constructs. It is no wonder that methodology is a prime concern, especially in the discussion of peren­nial problems, such as the identifica­tion of cult places, the proper application of comparanda from other cultural contexts, and the pos­sibility of decoding the ideology of the past through archaeological or art historical analysis (20). Nor is it strange that there is general agree­ment that more data are needed to flesh out theories and to support interpretations (21).

The consensus over these points underlies a great diversity of opinion on practically every aspect of Minoan religion and cult. The wind (or rather breeze) of change has certainly swept away some past assumptions, but does this mean that the field is moving decidedly away from the tenets of Evans and Nils­son? This does not seem to be the case at present, nor is it likely that drastic changes of direction will come in the near future: great gaps in the archaeological evidence re­main to be filled, theory and method­ology must be more firmly grasped as well as more widely applied, and the scholarly past has to be viewed in perspective. The Priest-King may well be dead, but it is not yet clear who will succeed him.

Cite This Article

Muhly, Polymnia. "The Great Goddess and the Priest-King." Expedition Magazine 32, no. 3 (November, 1990): -. Accessed February 22, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-great-goddess-and-the-priest-king/


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