Symbols of Minoan Religion

The following research notes are a part of my ongoing Minoan/early Mycenaean religion reconstruction project. For more of these posts, visit The Ancient Labyrinth category of my musings. Research sources below; all artwork by me.

Horns of Consecration

  • Horn-shaped object, “perhaps the most ubiquitous symbol of Minoan religion.”
  • These horns were mounted on altars or buildings (shrines?). When found on altars, the double axe was usually found between them (inserted into a hole between the two horn projections). It could be that the horns were permanent altar symbols, and the axes were inserted during special time periods (festivals).
  • Symbolic meaning unknown, though the similarity with bull horns should not go unnoticed. Some kind of bull God?

Double Axe

  • It was assumed to have been a sacrificial axe, but it is never shown in such a context. On the contrary, seals show it was carried by women. It seems ancient Minoan religion had priestesses in some capacity.
  • The most common depiction shows the double axe being set up as a symbol in places where ritual would take place.
  • Symbolic significant is unknown, but it obviously denoted power of some kind, and was often seen alongside the horns of consecration. Symbol of a bull God?

Libation Vessels

  • The Minoans had many types of vessels for liquid offerings
  • There were both open and closed shapes, the common denominator being the high quality of material – cheapest was clay, most expensive was stone, metal, or faience.
  • Sometimes the vessels were decorated with elaborate figurative scenes
  • The most interesting of all libation vessels was the animal-shaped rhyton. There were bulls, bull heads, lion heads, boar heads, goat heads, etc. The objects are hollow and the liquid is filled from an opening in the bottom or top, then poured out from a hole on the snout.
  • Conch shells were also used as libation vessels, as well as possibly musical instruments
  • The cheapest and handiest type of offering vessel was the conical cup, smaller than a teacup. Because they have been found upside-down in shrines, it can be inferred that libations were poured out onto the Earth (either as part of, or after, a ritual / ceremony). However, the conical cup was likely also a mass-produced vessel to be used in the household for consumption of food, therefore not every conical cup was an offering vessel (but those found at shrines can help us infer that they could have been used that way, too).

Altars & Tables

  • Libations were sometimes poured on small stone tables which were hollow on top to receive the liquid. Many of these tables have been found in sanctuaries.
  • Incurved altars have been found, made of stone; these objects are quite portable. They have a characteristic shape, curving inward in the center. They appear most often as a symbol in religious iconography. One of their main functions was to form the substructure or support for a throne / platform on which a goddess would sit.
  • Other tripod, circular tables may have been used as altars. They were often painted clay. Food offerings such as fruit were likely placed on these tables.
  • Stone altars are rare in Crete, but one is depicted on the stone rhyton from Zakros.
  • tables attested only in the iconography, where they are always shown in connection with a sacrificial animal on top. It is thus certain that they were used for sacrifice. The elaborately carved legs suggest that they were made of wood; they thus must have been portable.

Stone Maces

  • Instruments consisting of a wooden shaft ending in a stone ball.
  • Found in palatial and burial contexts.
  • Only held by male priests in the iconography. May have denoted power, or have been a practical tool used for stunning animals during sacrifices.

Kernoi

  • Composite vessels or kernoi: kernos refers to any kind of vessel which comprises several smaller receptacles. They were presumably used for multiple offerings.
  • There were also tubular vessels with several handles, often decorated with snakes. They were likely stands on which offering bowls were to be placed.

Sources

  • Marinatos, Nanno. Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol. University of South Carolina Press, 1993.
  • Nilson, Martin P. Minoan-Mycenaean Religion, and its Survival in Greek Religion. Biblo and Tannen, 1971.

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