Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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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 (after local archaeologist Minos Kalokairinos identified the site and began the first excavations), Evans 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 Bronze Age temples in Mesopotamia. (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 and surrounding 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 clergy lived and worked in these buildings. There may also have been part-time clergy who lived elsewhere but only came to the temple for their sacred responsibilities.

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, lengthwise north-south-oriented rectangles where rituals were probably performed. The courtyards, and the buildings as a whole, were all built with specific astronomical alignments. 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 clergy had more to do than just carry out ceremonies. And they weren't the only people who came and went in the temples.

In addition to performing rituals at the shrines and other sacred sites within the temples, courtyards, and surrounding buildings, the clergy were responsible for administration. The temple complexes were the administrative centers for their towns and the surrounding countryside.

Each city in ancient Crete was independent (there was no island-wide government, at least not until the Mycenaeans tried to take over) but all the Minoan cities shared a common culture and religion. There were rooms for the scribes, who may have been clergy specialists, where they worked at writing down inventory logs on clay tablets and where these tablets and possibly other records written on papyrus and other perishable substrates were probably stored.

The clergy 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, fields, orchards. 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 in the temples was ‘emergency rations’ for times of natural disaster and may also have been distributed to the needy and used in large communal sacred feasts. 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 clergy, 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 maybe 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, stone carvers, metalsmiths, and painters. There were also work spaces for people who processed the wool from the temples' sheep and the linen from the flax fields. These people dyed, spun, and wove the fibers into cloth. See here for a list of typical Minoan occupations, many of which would have been connected with the temples in one way or another.

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.

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 probably safe to assume the clergy 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.

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Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She's the founder and Temple Mom of Ariadne's Tribe, an inclusive Minoan spiritual tradition. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.


  • 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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