Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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The Minoan Menagerie Part 1: Animals of the Land

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Minoan art is inspiring, full of movement and color. Minoan artists depicted the natural world just as often as they showed sacred or ritual scenes. And the art is full of animals, usually depicted with enough accuracy that we can identify the exact species. While some animals in Minoan art are associated with specific deities and act as part of their iconography, others have no sacred associations that we're aware of (yet). So here, we're just going to look at the animals themselves, without referencing the iconography. The art is inspiring enough as it is, if you ask me.

I'm going to organize our exploration of Minoan animals based on the threefold division of land, sky, and sea that we use in Ariadne's Tribe and that we think was important to the ancient Minoans. The three realms correspond to our three mother goddesses; the land is the domain of our Earth Mother goddess Rhea.

So let's have a look at some land animals.

NOTE: For reasons that are not yet clear (though we have some educated/inspired guesses), Minoan artists used the color blue to depict grey surfaces such as dolphin skin and monkey fur. They had grey pigment - it shows up in some fresco borders. But they chose to use blue instead.

We'll start with the famous Bull Leaper fresco, which you can see above. This one is clearly a bull - the "family jewels" below his abdomen make that clear. But in the ancient world (and indeed, all the way up to the 19th century) all cattle had horns - bulls and cows. Here, for instance, is a lovely cow rhyton from Gournia:

Bovine rhyton from Gournia
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, most  bovine critters with horns in Minoan art have been automatically labeled as bulls when many of them are, in fact, cows. For a quick primer about how to tell the difference between bulls and cows in Minoan art, check out this blog post.

How about some monkeys (probably baboons) gathering papyrus, from the House of the Frescoes at Knossos:

Monkeys gathering papyrus
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Or some other monkeys, probably grey vervets, frolicking on the walls of a house in Akrotiri:

Blue Monkeys from Akrotiri
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

We don't know for certain whether there were actually monkeys on Crete or Akrotiri, but it's possible. The Egyptians kept grey vervets in menageries, and they may have traded some to the Minoans. Monkeys on a sailing ship - that sounds like a recipe for disaster to me!

One animal that shows up in Minoan art but that has never lived on Crete is the lion. This alabaster lioness-head rhyton from Knossos is pretty amazing. The eyes and nose would originally have been inlaid with colored stones.

Alabaster lion rhyton from Knossos
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Here's one that there's some argument about. This is a fresco from Akrotiri that shows some sort of antelope or gazelle, but no one is quite sure exactly which type:

Antelope fresco Akrotiri
Image CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

It's possible, but unlikely, that these animals actually lived on Thera (the island where the city of Akrotiri is located). What's more likely is that a trader saw animals like this on their travels, perhaps to Egypt, and described them to the artist. That might be why we can't identify the exact species here - the artist had never seen the actual animal in real life.

One animal we can be sure the artist had seen is domestic goats, since the Minoans raised quite a few of them. Here are some sweet young goats in a nature setting in a fresco from Akrotiri:

Goats fresco from Akrotiri
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Minoans were also familiar with the ibex, a type of wild goat found around the Mediterranean. Here's a scene on a larnax (sarcophagus) of two ibexes, presumably a mother and her baby:

Ibexes on Minoan larnax
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In this closeup of one of the port in the Flotilla fresco from Akrotiri, you can see some red deer prancing in the hills near the top left of the image:

Flotilla fresco detail from Akrotiri
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Minoans were also fond of good doggos, as we can see from the one on this steatite pyxis lid from Mochlos that depicts a Cretan Hound:

Stone pyxis lid with dog
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

And finally, we mustn't forget the snakes:

Snake Goddess figurine
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This one is a bonus photo, since this figurine also has a cat on her headdress. There is argument as to whether or not that cat belongs there - the cat and headdress were found some distance from the fragmentary remains of the rest of the figurine - but the fact remains, there was indeed a tiny faience cat in the Knossos Temple Repositories.

I'm sure there are some land animals I've missed along the way, but that should do for a start. Next time, we'll have a look at the creatures of the sky in Minoan art.

Check out Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4 of this series, too!

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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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