Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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Minoan Ritual Shells: Toot Your Triton

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Tritons are a type of mollusk, a large (10-40 cm long) sea snail in the genus Charonia. That's a photo of one of their shells above. They live in tropical and temperate waters around the world, including in the Mediterranean. As you might guess, the Minoans knew about them.

In fact, the Minoans were kind of obsessed with them. I have some thoughts about that obsession.

Along with other kinds of seashells, triton shells have been found at Minoan sites. Some of them were cut on the end so they could be used as trumpets - something that coastal peoples around the world have long done with these gorgeous shells.

I'd be willing to bet the Minoans used them that way in ritual, as suggested by this stone seal found in the Idaean cave. Note that the human-like figure on the seal may be a nod to the Neolithic Bird Goddess, whose worship the Minoans appear to have carried on from their ancestors who migrated down to the Aegean from Anatolia. I haven't had a chance to look through the Arachne database of Minoan and Mycenaean seals for more triton images, but it's a good bet there are some, probably a lot, given that there are now more than 12,000 seals in the database.

Some real triton shells have also been found at Minoan sites covered in red ochre, a substance with strong Mountain Mother associations. That once again suggests ritual use.

But the Minoans didn't just collect the seashells. They also made copies of them in a variety of substances. Faience ones have been found at Akrotiri, but stone appears to have been the preferred medium. So, for instance, there's this lovely alabaster one from Knossos, ca 1650-1550 BCE:

Alabaster triton shell carving from Knossos
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

And this one from Malia, 1550-1500 BCE, carved of serpentine. It has intricate engravings all over it, including a couple of Minoan "genii" pouring libations:

Stone triton shell carved in serpentine from Malia
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Tritons also show up on Minoan marine ware ceramics like this bridge spouted jar from Nirou Chani, 1500-1450 BCE:

Minoan marine ware jar with tritons, coral, and seaweed
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

and this alabastron from Hagia Triada, 1500-1450 BCE. An alabastron is a small jar with a narrow opening, used to store perfume oils - for personal or sacred/ritual use:

Minoan marine ware alabastron from Hagia Triada with tritons and water wave pattern
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Minoans even made full-size ceramic copies of the shells, like this one from Akrotiri, ca 1625 BCE:]

Ceramic triton shell from Akrotiri
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Given that there are so many triton shells in artifact form and in the art, it's clear they were important. And given that many of them date to the era before the Thera eruption, I think it's safe to say that they were probably celebratory rather than propitiatory, at least in those earlier times. Some people think the images on Minoan marine ware, including the tritons, are propitiatory because they're from after the Thera eruption, a natural disaster that wiped out coastal cities around the Mediterranean, including on Crete. And maybe the tritons on the marine ware vessels are.

But I'd be willing to bet that the actual shells and the 3D copies of them are sacred items, meant to be used in ritual. Some have been found in clearly religious settings, while with others it's harder to identify exactly the nature of their surroundings.

How were they used? The modified real shells were probably used as ritual trumpets, since that kind of modification and use are attested worldwide going back millennia in areas where tritons are found.

The unmodified (no hole cut in the tip) real shells and the human-made stone and ceramic copies may have been rhytons - pitchers used for ritual libations. They may have been offerings, made with love and care and given to Grandmother Ocean as a gift. They may have been sacred decorations, set on altars to remind those who saw them of the exquisite beauty of sea life.

Maybe all of the above, plus some other uses we haven't thought of yet.

I've often wondered whether the Minoans connected the tritons with the murex in terms of symbology and sacred meaning. They're both types of sea snails. The murex - the source of the famed purple dye, which the Minoans made in great quantities - is smaller than the triton, but their shells are similar in style. For the time being, I'll have to keep wondering, since there's no art or artifact evidence that combines the two.

And honestly, all by themselves, tritons are pretty amazing.

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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.


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