The ancient Minoans lived during the Bronze Age; you've probably heard that somewhere. But what, exactly, was the Bronze Age and why is it a big deal?
You may have noticed that periods of history (and prehistory) are denoted by the main substance with which the people of the time made their tools: the Old and New Stone Age (that's the Paleolithic and Neolithic), the Copper-Stone Age (that's the Chalcolithic Age, if you're looking it up in a history book), the Bronze Age, the Iron Age. We still use iron tools - those knives in your kitchen are stainless steel, a form of iron - though some people have tried to style us modern folks as the Silicon Age. Personally, I'd have a hard time making a sandwich with a silicon chip.
While the labrys (the double-bladed axe) is certainly iconic of Minoan civilization, so is another symbol-cum-ritual-object: the sacred horns. (See the image at the top of this blog post.) Found on the rooftops of the temple complexes and peak sanctuaries of ancient Crete as well as in the frescoes and other art, this unique symbol was christened the Horns of Consecration by Sir Arthur Evans a century ago. But are they really horns? And even if they are, what do they stand for and how were they used?
Over in Ariadne’s Tribe, we’ve been discussing this issue for quite a while. One issue we’ve noticed is that the sacred horns don’t look at all like real cow or bull horns.
Many people in the ancient world used cosmetics: lotions, oils, and creams to moisturize the skin; perfumed oils for their scent; and color cosmetics (makeup) for lips, cheeks, and eyes. You’ve probably seen the colorful images of the ancient Egyptians with their black eyeliner, and they weren’t alone in wanting a little personal adornment. The Minoans were no different. Residues found in containers from a number of ancient sites in Crete give us an intimate look into the personal habits of the Minoans and can allow us to make our own cosmetics in very much the same way as they did.
It’s always tricky, reconstructing ancient religious practices. We may or may not have reliable sources of information and from a distance of centuries, it’s hard to tell what really happened way back then. It’s especially tricky when the only written records we have were recorded by people who weren’t exactly friendly to our chosen culture, as I discussed in a recent guest post on a friend’s blog. This is the case with the ancient Minoans. Most of the mythology we know about from ancient Crete comes down to us from the Hellenic Greeks, who lived a thousand years after the collapse of Minoan civilization and whose male-centric culture held radically different values from the egalitarian Minoans.
So how can we connect with the spirituality of a people who lived so long ago and about whom we have little reliable information? We take what we have and build on it using our own experience of the numinous – the divine. This is one case in which we must simply say, if it works for you, then do it. But we must also remember that what works for one person may not besatisfying for another, so respect for a diversity of views needs to hold high priority. My friend Nimue put this especially well in a recent blog post.
The world is a complicated place, and it’s tempting to divide it up into good guys and bad guys to simplify things, make life a little easier to digest. A good example of this kind of simplification is the Minoans of ancient Crete.
I’ll admit, when I first discovered this fascinating Bronze Age civilization, I felt like they were practically a utopia: equality for women, no military, a beautiful religion based around nature. Heck, they even had paved streets and flush toilets.
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.