Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan pantheon. Modern Minoan Paganism is an independent polytheist spiritual tradition that brings the gods and goddesses of the ancient Minoans alive in the modern world. We're a revivalist tradition, not a reconstructionist one; we rely heavily on sharedl gnosis and the practical realities of Paganism in the modern world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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Minoan Temple Complexes: Very Complex

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

When Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the large building at the center of the ancient Minoan city of Knossos, he dubbed it a palace. After all, the multi-story construction with its intricate stairways, beautiful artwork, and advanced plumbing looked to him like the sort of place a king would live, and he failed to notice the lack of monuments to any ruler, living or dead. In the century or so since Evans dug up the ruins of Knossos, we’ve learned that the big buildings from ancient Crete were actually multi-use complexes similar to the large temples in the Near East at the same time – Sumer and Babylon. (Check out this blog post for details about what was going on nearby and around the world while the Minoans were doing their thing.) These days, archaeologists usually refer to the big Minoan buildings as temple complexes.

Each temple complex centered on the buildings Evans called palaces, but there was more to them than just that. Each one included a set of surrounding buildings and processional ways within the temple grounds. And each temple also owned a great deal of land for crops, orchards, and livestock.

So who really lived in the temple complexes, who visited there, and what did they all do?

As the term ‘temple complex’ suggests, the Minoan priests and priestesses lived and worked in these buildings. The main temples were all constructed along a similar design, though no two are exactly the same. One feature they all have in common is the central courtyard, where rituals were probably performed. The courtyards, and the buildings as a whole, were all built with specific astronomical alignments in mind (more on this in an upcoming post). All the temples contain ritual rooms around the edge of the courtyard, in places easily accessible by visitors. But ritual and ceremony was only a small portion of what went on at the temple complexes. The priests and priestesses had more to do than just carry out ceremonies.

In addition to performing rituals at the shrines and other sacred sites within the temples, courtyards, and surrounding buildings, the priesthood was responsible for administration. The temple complexes were the administrative centers for their towns and the surrounding countryside. Bear in mind, each city in ancient Crete was independent (there was no island-wide government) but they all shared a common culture and religion. There were rooms for the scribes, who may have been priest and priestess specialists, where they worked at writing down inventory logs on clay tablets and where these tablets and possibly other records written on papyrus were stored.

The priesthood kept track of the donations people made to the temple: produce, cloth, livestock, precious metals, and more. They also administered the land the temples owned – farmland, orchards, and so on. And they organized the food storage that was so important that it took up a large portion of the ground floor in every temple. The grain, wine, and olive oil that was stored in huge jars (pithoi) in the temples was ‘emergency rations’ for times of natural disaster and may also have been distributed to the needy. The tidal wave that hit Crete after the eruption of the volcanic island Thera in about 1600 BCE wiped out the food stores, creating widespread famine and a drastic drop in the Minoan population for some time afterward.

In addition to the priesthood, a number of other people worked in the temple complexes. The big kitchens would have needed staff to prepare the meals, which were probably served communally. Other food-based activities would have required people to tend the orchards, work the fields, and take care of the herb and flower gardens, and of course people to maintain the storage areas for the big vats of wine, grain, and oil. Within the temple complexes there were also spaces for winemaking and oil pressing. As well as olive oil for cooking, the Minoans produced castor oil to burn in their lamps (candles wouldn’t be invented for many centuries yet).

In addition to the crops growing in the orchards and fields, the temples owned livestock: cattle, goats, sheep, hogs, and even partridges and peacocks. They would have needed people to tend these animals as well as those who could slaughter them and process the meat for storage, either salting or smoking it if it was not going to be used right away.

The temple complexes included artisans’ workshops for potters, stonecarvers, metalsmiths, and painters. There were also work spaces for people who processed the wool from the temple’s sheep and the linen from the flax fields. These people dyed, spun, and wove the fibers into cloth. While there were also many artisans in the towns who produced beautiful goods for sale, it’s likely the items produced in the temple complexes were considered ‘premium.’ If these goods weren’t used within the temple complex itself or sent as gifts to other nations – Egypt, for instance – they would have brought a high price at market. These artisan goods were probably responsible for a significant portion of the  temples’ income.

We know the Minoans exported foodstuffs such as wine, olive oil, olives, and dried figs. The temples probably took a large part in this trade, since they were able to produce so much more than any individual local farmer could. The biggest non-food products the Minoans sold were woolen cloth and bronze blades (daggers, swords, and spearheads). Again, the temples probably contributed a large percentage of the overall trade in these items simply because they had so many artisans working for them.

Archaeologists have found sleeping quarters in all the temple complexes, but it’s unclear who actually lived there and who came in on a daily basis to work. It’s pretty safe to assume the priesthood lived in the temples, but the artisans may not have. The people who tended the fields may have come to the temple’s property for their workday, but those who were responsible for the livestock probably lived in outbuildings near the animals so they could keep an eye on them day and night.

So it turns out that Sir Arthur Evans’ palaces are even more fascinating than he thought. Like their counterparts in the Near East, they were the administrative and religious centers for the towns that surrounded them. They were an integral part of the spiritual and economic lives of the ancient Minoans. And of course, they were quite beautiful as well.

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Wendilyn Emrys
    Wendilyn Emrys Tuesday, 24 November 2015

    We can only say each region was separately ruled if we take the Mycenaean Model as being the same way the Minoans functioned before the Theran Eruption. Many people base this concept of Wanexes and the like on both the Mycenaean political structure and that of the Dorian's who followed. Mythological evidence would lean toward other political structures during the Minoan Period.

    Frankly, I've never bought the connection of the architecture of Knossos and the other 'Palaces' as being reflective of contemporary Sumerian or later Babylonian structures. Ziggurats really have no reflection in the architecture of Kriti. Far closer in style would be the personal palaces of the Pharaohs in Egypt, but they were mostly made of mud brick and are slowly being brought to light. One could even look to Catal Huyuk as being a possible precursor. Perhaps they, the buildings on Kriti, might even be compared to far later Korean and Japanese Palace complexes in function and form. Complexes that have functions that are equal in both Administrative and Religious Function. If there were ruling Priestly Kings and Queens, as in Egypt, Korea and Japan, both functions would be expressed equally, and not one above the other. They are totally symbiotic in function. I think the physical evidence we have for the Minoan Periods may not lead to the same conclusions as those we think we have for the Mycenaean and Dorian Periods. Add to that, during the Mycenaean and Dorian periods Kriti became a bit of a backwater ruled by puppets and warlords who often looked to mainland rulers - the political structures utilizing the palace temple complexes would change over time and could never be reasonably thought of in a monolithic functional fashion throughout their entire existence.

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