Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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Minoan Coming of Age: The Akrotiri Frescoes

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

One of the ways we can puzzle out how the  Minoans practiced their religion is by looking at their art. Much of their art - frescoes, seal stones and rings, carved vases - contains ritual scenes that give us a glimpse into their spiritual life. And some of the most famous frescoes are from the Minoan town of Akrotiri on the island of Santorini (it was called Thera in the ancient world).

One of the buildings in Akrotiri, called Xeste 3, appears to have been a ritual building where coming-of-age rites were held for girls and boys. How do we know that's what happened there? The frescoes show us!

One section of the building (two rooms, one upstairs from the other) was decorated with frescoes of girls participating in some interesting activities. Up top you can see one of these frescoes, usually titled The Saffron Gatherers. Two girls are outdoors in the rocky landscape of Thera, plucking the stigmas and styles from saffron crocuses. The background of this image is "wallpapered" with saffron crocus plants, the artist's way of showing us that the girls are in an expansive field of the flowers.

Saffron, and the crocus it comes from, was as valuable in ancient times as it is today because it has to be carefully harvested by hand (yes, even now). But to the Minoans, it was also sacred, the emblem of the Sun Goddess whom we call Therasia. One interesting aspect that connects saffron to coming-of-age rites for girls is that, in addition to being used as a dye and a food flavoring, saffron is an herbal remedy for menstrual cramps, albeit a very expensive one.

So first the girls gather the saffron (above), then they bring it as an offering to the goddess. We can tell this is the goddess Therasia because she has a griffin with her - one of her symbolic animals.


Offering Saffron to the Minoan Goddess


On another wall is the image of a young woman holding a necklace with 28 beads, perhaps to count the days of her menstrual cycle:


Minoan girl with beaded necklace


On the same wall is a young woman who has injured her foot, which is bleeding:


Minoan girl with injured foot


The imagery of blood carries through to an altar on another wall. It's topped by the Sacred Horns which are dripping with blood. You can see it on the right in this depiction of the rooms with their frescoes:


Xeste 3 Akrotiri girls puberty rites


Blood is a theme, then, which makes sense if this is a coming-of-age ritual for Minoan girls. Even the saffron stamens are blood red.

What we don't know is exactly how these frescoes were used. Are they depictions of the actual coming-of-age rites? Did the girls actually travel out into the countryside and pick saffron? I think it's more likely that these images illustrate a story, a myth or legend that was told to the girls as part of their initiation into womanhood that took place in that building.

It's interesting to note the ages of the different girls and young women in the frescoes. Like the Egyptians and other Bronze Age cultures around the Mediterranean, the Minoans shaved children's heads, both for ease of care and to help cut down on problems with lice.

You can see in the picture at the top of this blog post that the girl on the right has a shaved head with just a single lock left long, and the girl on the left has short hair that has just begun to grow out from being shaved. The girl who is offering saffron to the goddess has also just begun to grow her hair out. But the young woman holding the beads and the one who has injured her foot both have long hair. Being allowed to grow your hair out was one of the signals of adulthood, then, part of the coming of age.

These frescoes are pretty famous; I find them all over the Internet and in lots of different books.

But what a lot of people don't know is that boys also had coming-of-age rites in Akrotiri, complete with their own frescoes, in a different part of the same building as the girls' rites. Unfortunately, fewer of the boys' frescoes have survived due to the eruption of Thera damaging the building in about 1625 BCE. But we do have some of them, painstakingly pieced back together by dedicated archaeologists. Here are two of them:


Boys puberty rites in Akrotiri


Though these two frescoes are displayed side by side in the museum, they were actually on opposite walls in the original building, as you can see here:


Xeste 3 boys puberty rites


We don't know for certain what the boys' rites entailed, any more than we know about the girls', but given these frescoes, it looks like bathing may have played a role in the boys' coming of age ceremonies, or at least in the stories that were told to them at that time.

Again here, you can see age differences in the images. If you look at the color photo, you can see that the young man on the left, carrying the bowl, has his hair grown out some, while the two on the right have shaved heads. Minoan men often wore their hair long, so the young man on the left must have recently reached the age of adulthood, since his hair hasn't grown out very much.

Coming of age was an important rite of passage in the ancient world. It's a practice that we've let fall away as time went by, and I think that's unfortunate. We can look to the Minoans and other ancient cultures to help us bring back some of these rituals to help our young people transition from childhood to adulthood.

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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.


  • Arwen Lynch
    Arwen Lynch Wednesday, 01 February 2017

    Fascinating. I really enjoyed this piece. :D

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Thursday, 02 February 2017

    Thank you! I'm doing my best to bring the world of the ancient Minoans to life for modern people. :-)

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