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Starry Night: Minoan Astronomy

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Like many other ancient cultures, the Minoans were accomplished astronomers. Their mythology, their artifacts, and their architecture reflect their fascination with the lights that moved through the night sky as well as the brightest sky-light of all, the Sun. As so many other societies around the world have done, they incorporated this astronomical knowledge into their mythology and thus their spiritual practice.

With the Great American Eclipse just a couple of days ago, I began thinking about the Minoans' ability to predict eclipses. There is some contention that this stone die found near Palaikastro is an eclipse calculator:

 

Minoan stone die found near Palaikastro

 

There's a very interesting paper about this possibility that was published in the International Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry. You can read it here. It's especially telling that the image of this piece, as published by Sir Arthur Evans, is slightly inaccurate. The authors of the paper used high-resolution photos of the object from the Heraklion Archaeological Museum to study it closely. This demonstrates how important it is to have accurate reproductions and images of artifacts if we're going to figure out how they were actually used.

The so-called stone kernos from Malia (a kernos is a receptacle for multiple poured liquid offerings) is also a possible eclipse predictor:

 

Stone kernos from Malia, Crete

 

The researchers who figured out that this object can be used to predict eclipses did so with simple math. I do, however, have to disagree with their opinion that since the kernos can be used to predict eclipses, it's not a religious or sacred object. Astronomy was part and parcel with religion throughout the ancient world, and the Minoans were no different.

There are also some interesting terracotta objects that rather obviously aren't frying pans, even though that's what archaeologists call them. Here's one that was found at Hagia Photia in far eastern Crete:

 

So-called frying pan from Hagia Photia

 

These objects have decorations that appear to be related to the celestial cycles of Venus, Saturn, and the Sun, among others and may very well have been used to calculate those cycles. A lot of this analysis has to do with the numbers of dots and other symbols on these objects, yet another example of why it's so very important to have accurate drawings and high-resolution photos to study.

The Minoans were great traders; they had contact with the Egyptians, the cultures of Mesopotamia and the Levant, and others around the Mediterranean and beyond. There's no question that they were familiar with the Egyptian and Sumerian star charts and constellation systems, though it's likely the Minoan had their own version that reflect their mythos in the same way that other cultures' constellations illustrated their particular mythologies.

For much more information about Minoan astronomy, particularly regarding the way Minoan temples, tombs, peak sanctuaries, and other buildings were aligned to the movements of the planets and stars, have a look at Mary Blomberg, Göran Henriksson, and Peter Blomberg's website: Minoan Astronomy. They're archaeoastronomers from Uppsala University and have spent years researching this stuff.

This is just a small sampling of the evidence of the Minoans' fascination with the "shinies" that move around the sky. Like people from the very beginning of time, they looked up at night with wonder and awe and saw something profound and sacred in the motion of the universe.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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