Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Minoan Salute

As we search out a vocabulary of gesture—articulate action—with which to embody our old-new worship, we turn both to the ways of the ancestors and to our own experience.

A gesture of reverence that occurs again and again in the glyptic art of Minoan Crete is the gesture known to scholars as the “Minoan salute.” The worshiper stands before the deity with right fist raised to brow, elbow held high. Generally the left arm is held at the side.

The gesture is clearly a formal act of reverent attention, perhaps of greeting. Sometimes the fist is held with the thumb up, sometimes with the thumb to the brow. The standard reading of the gesture is that the worshiper is shielding his or her eyes from the radiance of the deity. Try it out and see what you think of this interpretation. I do not find it personally convincing because one shades one's eyes with an open hand. This, I suspect, is something else.

Raising the clenched hand to touch the brow is not an everyday gesture, so its non-ordinary nature—like pouring out good drink onto the ground—gives its maker entry into the realm of the non-ordinary, the realm of symbolic action. Certainly to raise one's right hand thus is to show that one is unarmed: I come in peace.


But I think there's more to it than that. The gathering of fingers and thumb into a clench unifies and concentrates. The hand, like the pentagram, stands for the whole body (hence chiromancy). The center of the brow is a vulnerable and intimate part of the body, and in a sense could be said to represent the entire self. With my whole being, body and mind, I see you and I greet you, the gesture says.

That salutes remain culturally current for us today gives the gesture contemporary contextual resonance, but the different form of the fisted salute distinguishes it from the open-handed military version.

Minneapolis, old flour-milling town that it is, sits on both banks of the Mississippi River. (The standard expression would have it that “The Mississippi flows through Minneapolis,” but this is surely a perverse perspective.) Frequently in the course of everyday life I find myself driving on one of our many bridges to cross the Father of Waters.

The Mississippi is one of the great Powers of this landscape; in fact, at the end of the last Ice Age, the Mississippi created this landscape. In the divine economy of the ancestors, rivers were gods, and this River—great among its kind—is surely a very great god indeed. To pass by so mighty a being with neither acknowledgment nor greeting seems uncouth—one might even say, unpagan—but there's a limit to what one can do reverentially while driving a car.

The basis of all ritual is meaningful action paired with meaningful speech.

Now when I cross the Mississippi, I raise my gathered fingers to my forehead and say, “Father of Waters, I touch my brow to you.”

And if I'm feeling particularly pious that day, I chant it.

For more on Rivers as gods:

M. L. West, Indo-European Poetry and Myth (2007). Oxford, pp. 274-9.

Harry Brewster, The River Gods of Greece: Myths and Mountain Waters in the Hellenic World (1997). London.


For more on the Minoan salute:

Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine (2010). Springfield, pp. 83, 210n17.




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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • T-Roy
    T-Roy Monday, 06 October 2014

    Before trying it I Googled it to see several examples. I noted several things: the arched back, one hand up, one down, the fist not always centered, often above the right eyebrow.

    When I stand both hands down and lift the right hand it feels natural to take a deep breath, square my shoulders, lift my chin and look up.

    My first thought is that it shows respect without submission or respectful to both deity and self or perhaps akin the respect a self confident child shows an adult.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Tuesday, 07 October 2014

    You've nailed it, T. "Respect without submission": that's absolutely right. Function follows form. I can't remember who it was that suggested that assuming the positions we see in ancient art can potentially illuminate ancient thought, but she was absolutely right, as you show in your analysis here.

    I occurred to me to wonder while I was writing this whether we may not also be seeing here a declaration of ritual purity/cleanness/worthiness. Marinatos' most recent book (cited above) makes a case for reading the Minoan world in the context of a larger Mediterranean cultural sphere (what she calls the "Koine"). Here we see a strong right/left duality where right = clean (the hand one eats with) and left = unclean (the hand one cleans one's butt with).

    It's an intriguing possibility; as for whether the data (such as it is) would bear such a reading, well...To be determined.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Tuesday, 07 October 2014

    I love the way you're working with this gesture. I can't say I agree with many of Nanno Marinatos' assumptions in the kingship book (she has a bad tendency to say whatever will keep her in good standing with the academics upon whom her career depends) but she does have some excellent insights about the salute. Using it as gesture of respect for a natural Power feels right.

    I and several friends have tried out this gesture during Minoan-themed ritual, both as clergy and as lay people (congregation, if you will), and it doesn't feel right in that setting, at least not to us. My next step is to try working with it in an individual-attending-a-shrine context. It may have been used that way by the many people who made offerings at shrines in their own homes, or in the caves and on the mountaintops of Crete.

    I'm not sure the extent to which the arched back is a portrayal of a component of the gesture, and the extent to which it is simply a facet of Minoan art style. The figures on the Chieftain's Cup, for instance, both stand with arched backs, but neither of them is making the salute gesture. But then there is this female figure making the salute: who appears to be leaning back as if looking up at something above her. A celestial object? Is this a Sun salute? We know the Minoans revered a number of different celestial objects and incorporated their risings and settings into the architecture of their temples as well as the location of shrines. Do the male figurines also lean backward and look upward? It's hard to tell from the angles of the photos I've seen.

    Please bear in mind, I'm not a reconstructionist in the usual sense. Most reconstructionist traditions lean heavily on texts for their information, but for ancient Crete we have none. Even if we could translate Linear A, it would be difficult to base a spiritual tradition on inventory lists. and of course, the interpretation of archaeological finds is a highly subject activity. I and the other folks of Ariadne's Tribe are relying to a great extent on our own experiences as we work our way toward a modern Minoan liturgy, and we love to hear other people's insights as they touch on the same path.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 08 October 2014

    I find the salute increasingly natural when greeting Sun, Moon, River...even geese in flight, a tree in full, flaming color, or (situation permitting) a person that I respect. Regardless of what it may or have not meant in the Bronze Age, it's entered my own kinetic vocabulary.

    Marinatos is one of my heroes, and I think her decision to view Minoan Crete through the lens of contemporary Levantine-Egyptian culture (in preference to non-contemporary Greek culture) has much to commend it. If nothing else, it shifts the focus of our seeing, which is likely to give us some fresh perspectives.

    That said, in Kingship she seems to me to be skirting reductionism. Pretty much every symbol represents the Sun. Female = queen = goddess = Sun. Male = king = god = Storm. Are things really likely to have been that simple? In a polytheist culture in particular, this seems to me unlikely.

    In particular, her readings of Bronze Age Canaanite culture strike me as tenuous at best. To take only one example, reading the goddess Ashera as a solar goddess is a minority position among specialists. (In the city-state of Ugarit, Shapshu was a separate goddess who had her own cultus).

    That said, it's refreshing to see her examination of evidence for uncomfortable items like monarchy and military aggression in Minoan culture. (I was looking just the other day at a beautifully-stylized seal of a knife-fight on the Heidelberg Corpus:, March 2014.) It's so easy to project our own visions of the ideal culture onto the past, but in the long run that's unfair both to ourselves and to the ancients.

    Anyway, thanks Laura: may your work prosper.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 08 October 2014

    So where do you draw the line between 'accurate reconstruction' and 'projecting our own visions of the ideal culture onto the past'? You say you are now using the Minoan salute in whatever way you feel is right, regardless of how the Minoans may have used it, yet you become upset at the thought that people might be incorrectly interpreting the archaeological information from ancient Crete. I'm not sure I can see where those two attitudes mesh. It's not possible to know exactly how the ancients thought, and it's not possible to view the ancient world without bias. Do you believe otherwise?

    I admire Marinatos for the groundbreaking work she has done, but I can't say she is one of my heroes. Having spent a few years in academia myself, I'm well aware of the incredible pressure to conform to the status quo. The papers she presents at conferences are well within the 'acceptable range' of subjects - she has no choice if she wants to keep her funding and her job.

    I agree that comparing Crete to contemporary cultures in the region makes much more sense than comparing it to later Greek society; I think that Helleno-centric tendency comes from the 18th-19th century insistence that all of Western culture derives from Greece. But, as you note, her kingship theory becomes a one-trick pony, and in particular, one that won't rock the establishment boat.

    Given your comment about monarchy and military aggression in Crete, I get the feeling you're making an assumption about me, that since I don't hold up Marinatos as the be-all-end-all that I must be one of those New Age fluffy bunny types. That's an incorrect assumption, but one that's made all too often simply because my focus is on Minoan spirituality. I have my own ideas about Minoan society based on actually looking at the archaeological finds (and largely ignoring academic interpretation of them) combined with past life memories from Crete, many of which are pretty horrific. So please don't make assumptions about my beliefs or worldview. I enjoy open discussion, but it's hard to answer unasked questions, if you see what I mean.

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Wednesday, 08 October 2014

    No offense intended, Laura. If anything, my critique was directed both at myself and what I perceive as a general tendency to idealize the past that I see a lot of among pagans. I'd be a fool if I thought that anyone with your vision of the pillar-crypt oracle was a sweetness-and-light type.

    Re. reconstruction and projection: I think that for the sake of intellectual honesty we need to distinguish between historic history and mythic history, and the former--as you say--needs to be driven by evidence. Having said that, it does seem to me that as pagans in active conversation with the past we have some experiential insight to offer. Those who, for instance, practice regular ritual are more likely to have insights into ancient ritual than those who don't. Creative extrapolation is a useful method indeed.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 08 October 2014

    No offense taken, Steven. I'm just so used to people assuming I'm a fluffy bunny that I tend to take comments that way. Sorry I misunderstood.

    Personally, I love to imagine an idealized past - it's a lot of fun. But it's not very instructive, is it? Sadly, reality always intrudes, one way or another, and we discover that people have always been human, for better or for worse. Sometimes I wonder that we've managed to survive this long.

    I like your concept of historic history versus mythic history. It's often difficult to tease out the distinction between the two since, pre-twentieth century, it was considered valid to idealize, fill in the blanks as you like, and make it up to suit your latest patron. But at the very least we can look at the hard evidence - architectural ruins, handmade objects, artwork - and see what's there. I'm finding that harder and harder to do for Minoan history, though, as I discover more and more 'touchups' done by the early archaeologists. One of the more famous examples is the Minoan 'snake goddess' figurine: Not only was she in several pieces when Evans found her, but in addition to putting her back together and filling in a few holes with plaster, he glued that cat to her head when there was no indication anything was missing from the headdress, and I've recently learned that the snakes in her hands were so incomplete that they could easily have been rods or pieces of rope instead. Apparently he decided they were snakes and reconstructed the serpents out of whole cloth (or plaster, as it were). All the other snake priestess/goddess figurines show the snakes actually twined around the woman's body, not just in her hands. So what are we to make of that? It's very frustrating. I do my best just to look at the physical items and not allow my ideas to be colored by academic interpretation, but that's hard, and I'm certainly not without bias myself, but then when reconstructions are done with the same sort of intent with which the King James version of the Bible was translated, I have to just shake my head.

    I do a fair amount of extrapolating in terms of actual ritual/worship/etc. because I have to. But I dream of someone one day not only translating Linear A but finding a cache of written myth tablets that tell us what the Minoans really believed. I do have to wonder how different the official interpretations would be if the people doing the interpreting were practicing Pagans.

    Oh, that reminds me, there is a study done by an experimental archaeologist that involves the Minoan salute along with several other postures shown on various seal rings from Crete. I've only read the abstract - the blasted thing has been on my to-read list for ages and I keep not getting around to it - but apparently the volunteers she enlisted undertook the various positions and experienced visions and aural hallucinations of various sorts. Here's the reference: Erin Ruth McGowan, ‘Experiencing and experimenting with embodied archaeology: Re-embodying the sacred gestures of Neopalatial Minoan Crete’, in Archaeological Review of Cambridge: Issue 21.6: Embodied Identities, November 2006. The ARC is pretty easy to find online. I guess our best bet, ultimately, is just to try stuff and see how it works, like you've done with the Minoan salute. BTW, I tried it this morning at sunrise (during the lunar eclipse). I got an incredible rush. Very...epiphanic. :-)

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