I’ve written before about the astronomical alignments of the Minoan temple complexes, but the big temples that were the centerpieces of the towns in ancient Crete weren’t the only places the Minoans went for worship. The island of Crete is ringed by lovely flat beaches, but the center is filled with mountains that rise more than a mile high. Some of these mountain peaks were sacred places to the ancient Minoans. They built pilgrimage roads up the mountainsides to shrines and sanctuary buildings at the peaks.
These peak sanctuaries were popular places for sacred pilgrimages as well as official religious celebrations. Some of them were built with purposeful astronomical alignments as well, mostly due east, the direction of sunrise on the equinoxes. But their pattern of use changed over the centuries that they were active sacred sites and some of the sanctuaries fell out of use altogether while others continued to be the focus of religious activities.
These days when we consult an architect to create a new building, we generally orient it with the front toward the street that will access the building, for convenience and practicality. But in much of the ancient world, each new building was carefully oriented toward one or more cardinal directions or astronomical alignments. Ancient Crete was no different. The temple complexes at Knossos, Phaistos, Zakros, and other Minoan cities and towns were built to align to a variety of related astronomical events.
For the most part, the celestial events the Minoan buildings align to are risings of various sorts: sunrise, moonrise, the rising of the planet Venus, and the heliacal rising of certain stars. These astronomical events held a special place in Minoan religion, marking sacred times of the year, and also helped to maintain the Minoans’ complicated lunisolar calendar.
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.
Ancient Minoan civilization was part of a widespread Bronze Age cultural group that encompassed much of the Mediterranean. This included the Cyclades, a large group of islands off the southeast coast of Greece, just north of Crete. At the center of the Cyclades is the island of Delos, which was sacred to a number of the Aegean Bronze Age societies, including the Minoans. In fact, it figures prominently in the Theseus-and-Ariadne myth.
The Cyclades had their own culture that included a unique art style: small figurines carved out of white marble, with a simplistic style that looks almost post-modern. The photo above shows the most widespread type of figurine, a female figure with her arms crossed over her abdomen, the left above the right. Some male carvings in a similar posture have been found, but by far the majority are female. The interesting thing is, they all come from Cycladic graves.
It’s terribly frustrating trying to figure out what the ancient Minoans did in terms of religion – what they believed, how they practiced – because we can’t read anything they wrote. They were a literate culture, to be sure. They had both a hieroglyphic script and a syllabary. But we can’t read either one of them. There are clues, though.
The Cretan syllabary is commonly known as Linear A. It was used to write the native language of the ancient Minoans, which probably died out with the collapse of Minoan civilization in the second millennium BCE. However, there is a possibility that Eteocretan, which is attested as late as the 3rd century BCE, is either the native Minoan language or a direct descendant of it.
And no, I don’t have a faulty calendar. Let me explain.
The Mediterranean region is lovely: a marvelous sea surrounded by sun-kissed lands all the way around in a huge oval that reaches from the Atlantic to the Levant. But one thing this area doesn’t have is four seasons. Those of us who live in the temperate zones are so used to spring, summer, autumn, and winter that we often forget there are other climates, other seasonal cycles. The Mediterranean has a very interesting set of seasons, and this cycle had a powerful influence on Minoan religion since the island of Crete lies in the middle of the wine-dark sea.
Today I’m reviewing an unusual book: Ecstatic Body Postures: An Alternate Reality Workbook by Belinda Gore. What on earth does a book like that have to do with Minoan spirituality? Well, the Minoans left us a wide array of artwork that depicts ritual postures, from the one-armed ‘Minoan salute’ to a woman who shades her eyes with her hands to the Poppy Goddess who holds her arms up in an ‘American football touchdown’ type of gesture. Over the years I’ve often wondered if these postures were meant to do more than just symbolize certain aspects of Minoan religion. In fact, like many other ritual postures from around the world, they appear to be designed to induce particular states of mind, especially trance states in which we can receive healing, learn about ourselves and the divine, and undergo spiritual changes for the better.
The introduction to this fascinating book was written by the late Dr. Felicitas Goodman, who founded the Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico. The institute is dedicated to exploring the effects and practical uses of ritual body postures that are evidenced in figurines that go back in time as far as the Stone Age. The book is essentially a collection of the institute’s work over the years in a well-organized, easy to comprehend format. It details 39 different postures, including several that are attested in Minoan art, so I was particularly interested in trying them out.