Sunday, 16 December 2012

Goddesses of Crete

The famous quotation by Heraklion born author of "Zorba the Greek", Nikos Kazantzakis, which is repeated innumerably in hotels' advertisements, captures the essence of Crete:

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"Crete's mystery is extremely deep. Whoever sets foot on this island senses a mysterious force branching warmly and beneficently through his veins, senses his soul begin to grow."

The "Snake Goddess" is today regarded as a particularly important manifestation of Minoan religion, art, and society. Crete's wealth of archaeological heritage and Minoan history, its dramatic ending in the times of earthquakes, volcano eruptions and Mycenaean attacks, bronze age clay statuettes of "worshippers in ceremonial postures" in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum all add to the wonder of Crete.

Goddess statues found in the museum.

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Famous faïence bare-breasted and proud Snake Goddesses or colourful and fine-detailed depictions of Minoan life can be seen in this "palace frescoes".

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The goddess a prevailing and beloved deity of the Minoans, as a priestess, as life giver, as the Lady of Nature and Animals, as receiver of worship of "adorants". She was nature embodied herself. Caves were (and of course still are) her wombs - and tombs, where death was probably seen as a meaningful transition of the soul into the afterlife. The ancient groves of sacred trees her original temples, twin-peaked mountains often related to the axis of some of the Palaces (like Youchtas for Knossos or Idi for Festos) her nurturing breasts. The mythical labyrinth, an allegory of Crete's multitude of caverns reflected then in the palace complexes, being perhaps the analogy of the sinuous interior of female body as well as the meandering, nonlinear nature of the Life's Mystery. She stood for reverence for life - in all its wild beauty and natural processes and passion for self expression. She reminds us of the sacredness and uniqueness of our day-to-day experience amongst human beings, animals, natural world, with its rhythms, birth, life cycles and transitions, death, its emotions, creativity and unknown mystery. She births all creation from within herself, and then she nurtures what she birthed, throughout its cycles, to finally take it back into her comforting body when its journey is over - humans, plants, thoughts, cultures, galaxies. The nature of the Goddess is growth, movement and transformation...interlaced with periods of dissolution, gestation and regeneration...and acceptance and understanding of these as part of life. Ancient cretan people left us a wealth of record of her many forms and expressions.

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M. Gimbutas said "The main theme of Goddess symbolism is the mystery of birth and death and the renewal of life, not only human but all life on earth and indeed in cosmos. Symbols and images cluster around the parthenogenetic (self-regenerating) Goddess and her basic functions as Giver of Life, Wielder of Death, and, not less importantly, as regeneratrix, and around the Earth Mother, the Fertility Goddess young and old, rising and dying with plant life. She was the single source of life who took her energy from the springs and wells, from the sun, moon and moist earth. This symbolic system represents cyclical, not liner, mythical time. In art this is manifested by the signs of dynamic motion: whirling and twisting spirals, winding and coiling snakes, circles, crescents, horns, sprouting seeds and shoots. The snake was a symbol of life energy and regeneration, a most benevolent, not an evil, creature. Even the colours had different meaning than in the Indo-European symbolic system. Black did not mean death or the underworld; it was the colour of fertility, the colour of damp caves and rich soil, of the womb of the Goddess where the life begins..."

The website offers the following information.

The most apparent characteristic of Minoan religion was that it was polytheistic and matriarchal, that is, a goddess religion; the gods were all female, not a single male god has been identified until later periods.
It is not easy to describe the nature of the mother-goddess of Crete. There are numerous representations of goddesses, which leads to the conclusion that the Cretans were polytheistic, while others argue that these represent manifestations of the one goddess.

In Crete women played an important if not dominant role: They served as priestesses, as functionaries and administrators.

They also participated in all the sports that Cretan males participated in. The most popular sports in Crete were incredibly violent and dangerous: boxing and bull-jumping. In bull-jumping, as near as we can tell from the representations of it, a bull would charge headlong into a line of jumpers. Each jumper, when the bull was right on top of them, would grab the horns of the bull and vault over the bull in a somersault to land feet first behind the bull. All the representations of this sport show young women participating as well as men.

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Women also seem to have participated in every occupation and trade available to men. The rapid growth of industry on Crete included skilled craftswomen and entrepreneurs, and the large, top-heavy bureaucracy and priesthood seems to have been equally staffed with women. In fact, the priesthood was dominated by women. Although the palace kings were male, the society itself does not seem to have been patriarchal.

Evidence from Cretan-derived settlements on Asia Minor suggest that Cretan society was matrilineal, that is, kinship descent was reckoned through the mother.

Since their are only ruins and other remains from Minoan culture, we can only guess at their religious practices.

There are no scriptures, no prayers, no books of ritual; all we have are objects and fragments all of which only hint at a rich and complex religious life and symbolic system behind their broken exteriors.

The Cretans do not seem to have evolved either gender inequality nor adapted their religion to a male-centred universe. The legacy of the goddess religion seems to still be alive today. Both Greece and Crete are Greek Orthodox Christian. In Greece, however, only women regularly swear by the name of the Virgin Mary, while in Crete both men and women swear by her name, particularly the epithet, "Panagia," or "All-Holy."

It is somewhat surprising that none of the goddesses which are generally considered to be "old Aegean powers" as various forms of Mother Goddess (e.g. Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, Hekate, Britomartis) are found mentioned in later Mycenaean texts.

There is no figure which can be convincingly connected with the dove or snake goddesses familiar to us from Minoan art, nor is there any mention on the religious tablets of bulls, horns of consecration, double axes, or other common objects of Minoan cult apparatus. Part of the reason for this must be that the remaining texts are products of Mycenaean rule at Knossos, and Minoan cult may have been partially suppressed by the official religion of the invading Greek rulers.

It's difficult to assess the nature of the mother-goddess of Crete. There are numerous representations of goddesses, which leads to the conclusion that the Cretans were polytheistic, while others argue that these represent manifestations of the one goddess.

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Seals are an important source.
There are several goddesses which can be distinguish, though. The first one we call "The Lady of the Beasts," or the "Huntress"; this goddess is represented as mastering or overcoming animals. In a later incarnation, she becomes "The Mountain Mother," who is standing on a mountain and apparently protects the animals and the natural world.

The most popular goddess seems to be the "Snake Goddess," who has snakes entwined on her body or in her hands. Since the figurine is only found in houses and in small shrines in the palaces, we believe that she is some sort of domestic goddess or goddess of the house (a kind of guardian angel–in many regions of the world, including Greece, the household snake is worshipped and fed as a domestic guardian angel).

Represented by the MM III "Snake Goddesses" of the Temple Repositories at Knossos as well as by some of the later bell-shaped terracotta figurines of the LM III period, this particular goddess is usually considered to be a household divinity and interestingly does not appear on seals.

But the household goddess also seems to have taken the form of a small bird, for numerous shrines are oriented around a dove-like figure. Most scholars believe that the principle female goddesses of Greek religions, such as Hera, Artemis, and so on, ultimately derive from the Minoan goddesses.

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The head of the Minoan pantheon seems to have been an all-powerful goddess which ruled everything in the universe. This deity was a mother deity, that is, her relationship to the world was as mother to offspring.

Mistress of Animals (or of the Mountain)
A famous seal impression from Knossos shows a female figure holding a staff and standing on top of a cairn or rocky hill. She is flanked by antithetic lions, beyond which are a shrine on one side and a saluting male on the other. A second seal from Knossos shows a capped female with a staff walking next to a lion, another pose of the same Mistress of Animals figure.

Goddess of Vegetation
Dominating female figures on a number of seals are often identified as deities.

Double Axe:
Some large bronze examples of this, the most common of all Minoan religious symbols, were clearly used as tools, but miniature specimens in unsuitable and sometimes precious materials (e.g. gold, silver, lead, steatite, terracotta), as well as very fragile bronze examples (e.g. the gigantic specimens from Nirou Khani), must have had a purely symbolic function.

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"Horns of Consecration":
These occur both as three-dimensional objects of stone or terracotta, often stuccoed, and as painted or sculpted representations on murals, altars, vases, seals, and larnakes. Typically they serve either as stands for a narrow range of other cult implements or as architectural crowning members on both altars and roofs. The original significance of the "horns" is uncertain. It has been suggested that they are stylized bulls' horns, a symbol of the moon's crescent. 

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Birds, Bulls, Agrimia, and Snakes:
Birds appear frequently in religious scenes and are usually identified as "divine epiphanies", that is, as manifestations of divine beings , although in some cases they appear to be an identifying attribute of a divinity rather than an alternative form of one. Other frequently occurring animals are bulls, agrimia (Cretan ibexes), and snakes. The first two often occur in the form of votive figurines and probably figured importantly as sacrificial animals.

The Snake may have been a prominent symbol in earth (or chthonic) cults, just as birds may have been in sky (or atmospheric) cults.

Mentioned are a pot of honey, spices such as fennel and coriander, and jugs of oil. Wool, cheese, barley, and wine are possible offerings. Sheep are connected with the figure of Potnia, but not as offerings.

Human Sacrifice
This type of offering is unique and has led to much speculation. It is known that there were such things as "slaves of the god". Consequently, most authorities have seen here the consecration of certain men and women to the service of a deity. However, other specialists argue that the offerings made are extraordinary because they were made for the specific purpose of saving the palace just before it was actually destroyed. The suggestion has therefore been made that the human beings mentioned as offerings were in fact human sacrifices.

Kernoi: These are simply ceramic vessels with multiple receptacles of the same shape, where such offerings as wine, oil, graine etc. could be laid.

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The Minoans particularly worshipped trees, pillars (sacred stones), and springs. The priesthood seems to have been almost entirely if not totally female, although there's evidence (precious little evidence) that the palace kings had some religious functions as well.

Caves were first used in Crete as dwellings or at least as habitation sites in the Neolithic period. Toward the end of the Neolithic, they also began to be used extensively as cemeteries, and such usage continued throughout the Early Minoan period and in some areas even longer.

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Cave of Psycho
Caves appear to have first been used as cult places early in the Middle Minoan (Protopalatial) period, at more or less the same time when the first Cretan palaces were being constructed. There may very well be some connection between the establishment of powerful central authorities in the palaces and the institution of worship in caves. The evidence for the use of caves as cult places consists of pottery, animal figurines, and occasionally bronze objects. Such objects are found not only in caves which had previously served habitation or funerary purposes but also in caves which had as their earliest known function the housing of some religious activity. In addition to artefacts some cult caves contain large quantities of animal bones, mostly from deer, oxen, and goats and no doubt derived from some form of animal sacrifice.

One of the better known cult caves is the "Cave Of Eileithyia" near Amnisos, associated with the divinity Eileithyia on the basis of a reference in Homer'sOdyssey. This cave is some 60 m. long, between 9 and 12 m. wide, and 2 to 3 m. high. Near the middle of the cave is a cylindrical stalagmite ca. 1.40 m. high which is enclosed by a roughly built wall 0.45 m. high. Within the enclosure and in front of the stalagmite is a roughly square stone, perhaps some form of altar.

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Peak Sanctuaries
These are cult centres located at, or just below, the tops of prominent local hills, not necessarily "peaks" on true "mountains". Such sites are characterized by deep layers of ash (without animal bones, hence interpreted as the remains of bonfires and not of blood sacrifices of some kind) and by large quantities of clay human and animal figurines.

Like the cult caves discussed above, the earliest peak sanctuaries date from the MM I period and most of the two dozen or more confirmed examples of such cult locales have produced material of this date. Moreover, the cult caves and peak sanctuaries are virtually the only sites other than the palaces themselves to have produced certain artefactual types.

Moreover, the large numbers of animal figurines found at the peak sanctuaries obviously cannot be explained in the same way, although these may have served as substitutes for genuine sacrificial animals or as votive pledges that such animals would be sacrificed elsewhere at some other time, since blood sacrifice does not seem to have been an acceptable practice at peak sanctuaries.

The two major peak sanctuaries so far excavated and published are Petsofa in eastern Crete (elevation 215 m.; serving the town of Palaikastro) and Iuktas(elevation 811 m.; just south of and hence presumably serving Knossos).

In MM III, an imposing building was constructed on Mt. Iuktas consisting of three parallel terraces, oriented north-south, of which the upper two at the west were approached by an east-west ramp at the south.

At Petsofa, a three-room building was first erected in MM III, again a long time after the sanctuary was first used. It is quite possible that these peak sanctuaries were visited only on special religious holidays, much as similar mountaintop chapels are today in Greece, since in many cases the sanctuaries are too remotely located to have served daily religious purposes.

Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos
Bench sanctuary located in the southeast quarter of the palace at Knossos. This tiny (1.5 m. x 1.5 m.) shrine was abandoned with its religious furniture in situ and is thus extremely valuable as a source for our understanding of Minoan religion at least toward the end of the Bronze Age. The room's floor area is divided into three sections at different levels. In the front (lowest) part lie several large vases. In the middle area, a tripod "table of offerings" is embedded in the floor, and to either side of it are groups of small jugs and cups. At the back of the room is a raised bench ca. 0.60 m. high on which are fixed two stuccoed clay "horns of consecration". In each case, between the "horns" is a round socket, presumably to hold a double axe such as the small one of steatite found resting against the left-hand pair of "horns".

Between the two pairs of "horns" were found a bell-shaped female figurine and a smaller female statuette of Neolithic type, perhaps a treasured heirloom. To the left of the left-hand pair of "horns" was a male figurine holding out a dove, while to the right of the right-hand pair were two more bell-shaped female figurines, one with a bird perched on her head. The last is often considered to be a goddess while the remaining figures are identified as votaries.

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Sanctuary complex West of Central Court at Knossos
Two pillar crypts of similar size (3.5 m. x 5.3 m.), both with a central pillar liberally incised with double axes on all exposed faces of each block.

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Throne Room Complex West of Central Court at Knossos
Located near the northeast corner of the west wing of the Knossian palace, the "Throne Room" proper is part of a larger four- or five-room block which was apparently devoted first and foremost to cult rather than to the display or exercising of political authority.

The following website gives us many goddesses worshipped on Crete.

The Cretan goat goddess who suckled the infant Zeus when Rhea was hiding him from Chronos. She may have also been wet-nurse to Pan.

Consort of Minos, who much like Persephone spent half the year in the Underworld
On one text from neo-Palatial period (1700-1450 BCE) the name of a Goddess Assassara has been deciphered, which makes her the earliest, and probably the least-known, of any Minoan Goddess. 

(Charmel, Carmenta) The goddess of Mount Ida, inventor of the alphabet, language and augery. Her name refers to kindness and charms (spells), and she was concerned with prophecy.
("good maiden") A youthful hunter, often depicted with arrows, suckling babes or holding snakes. Sometimes seen as a chthonic figure (associated with Hecate), she is a guardian of the dead who was sometimes seen by sailors as a mermaid. Like Hera, she was associated with the lily or lotus flower. Britomartis was also worshipped on Aegina and in Sparta under her titles, Aphaea and Laphria. The Spartans adored both her and Artemis as Ladies of the Lake.

The law-giving labrys Goddess of Crete and Mount Dicte, she is neither naked nor clad, and lines of force surround Her. Double axes, or labryses, represent her active Feminine Energy. Worshippers, in the original palace fresco, throw their arms up in amazement at her appearance. The labrys is also a symbol of the female community of Lesbos who worshipped only the Goddess in nature and in each other. The original "She who must be obeyed," Dictynna lived on top of Mount Dicta. Her powerful name lives on in our words "dictate" and "edict." Her sacred plant was dittany.

The Goddess Eileithyia dates from neo-Palatial period (1700-1450 BCE) her name is not Indo-European in form. She was the matron Goddess of childbirth, and caves dedicated to her can be found at Amnisos in the north and Inatos in the south of the island.

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Full Moon, the Great Goddess as Mother of all Europe. White Moon Cow. Garlanded white bulls were sacrificed to this Lunar Cow Goddess in Crete and Mycenae from a very early date.

The White Mare. A Cretan horse goddess.

She Who Shines for All. A Cretan moon goddess.

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Aegean Universal Mother, Great Goddess, Pre-Hellenic Great Mother Goddess. Also known as Britomartis, Great Goddess of Bronze Age Crete and the Aegean Islands. Great Mother. She had no consort and ruled supreme before the coming of patriotic Hellenic invaders. Archetypal Triple Goddess. Britomartis, the Sweet Virgin, Dictynna, the Lawgiving Mother and Aegea, the foundress of Aegean civilization. aka Coronis. Pre-Roman Latium knew Her as Rhea Silvia, Rhea of the Woodland, under Whose rule, the Vestal Virgins were neither celibate nuns, nor servants of the state, as they became in later ages. They were choosers and deposers of the early Latin kings, a college of matronae who ruled the rulers and took no husbands. Her children were cared for by Acca Larentia - the Holy Harlot or High Priestess.

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Snake Goddess
The Snake Goddesses were created during the Middle Minoan period, perhaps in 1700 BC. Two figurines were found they are similar, but have different arm gestures.

One figurine shows a woman in unusual dress with overlapping flounces, but her breasts are bared. On her head, she wears a hat, with a sitting cat on top. She is also holding up two small snakes, one in each hand, which reminds us of the Bronze Age goddess known as the Mistress of Animals (Potnia theron), holding a wild animal in each hand, often lion, stag, and bird.

A snake can bring swift death with their poison, she can be seen as the goddess of death or of the dead. Snakes, as well as the cat, can also symbolise the afterlife. On the hand, snake can also symbolise life, because snakes are often associated with healing.

Adding the cat with the snakes, the figurine may depict goddess of sexuality or fertility. Her sexual attributes were emphasized with the exposure of her full, rounded breasts. This may indicated that she is a mother goddess.

The second figure of the Snake Goddess is a slightly taller figurine, wears a different type of dress, but like the first one I had mentioned before, her breasts is exposed. The 2nd figurine wears a very tall hat.

This figure has a very long snake, with its head in her right hand. The snake entwined up her right arm, over her shoulder, down one side of her back, then across her buttocks; then up the other side of her back, over her left shoulder, and entwined her around her left arm, with its tail in her left hand.

The head of the second snake is found on top of her hat. Following its long body down the hat, in front of the woman's left ear, curving around the outside of her left breast, before continuing down until below her waist, across her belly, and back up the right side of woman's body. The snake's tail ends up looping around the woman's right ear.

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Sea Goddesses
If we move forward from the Linear tablets to the written material of the Hellenic period, there are a number of little-known Goddesses from Greece in general and Crete in particular. The Greeks had many sea Goddesses, from Aphrodite who rose out of the waves, to Eurynome, who with Tethys and Thetis, were a trinity of sea and creation Goddesses. Another sea Goddess with a pre-Greek name was Amphitrite, whom Homer said was the manifestation of the ocean itself. She dwelt in caves under the sea, from where she emerged to tend her fish and mammals of the deep. She was eventually replaced by the male sea God Poseidon, but is certainly much older than him. A similar fate happened to the Minoan Goddess Britomartis, also known as Diktyna, who was extensively worshipped throughout Crete. Her later written story encodes the usurpation of native Greek Goddesses by the invading Hellenic peoples. In the story, she was pursued by King Minos, who chased her for nine months throughout the island, until she flung herself from a remote cliff at the far end of the Rodopos peninsula in north-west Crete. Here she was caught in nets by fishermen, nets that she herself had invented as a gift to humanity. She later became assimilated into the Goddess Artemis, and became a hunter, rather than a hunted, Goddess.

Moon Goddesses
Artemis was also a moon Goddess, but there was an actual family tree of Moon Goddesses, celebrated in Greek and Cretan mythology:

Telephassa (meaning “one who shines from afar”) was the mother of Europa (meaning “with broad shining forehead”). Europa was mother-in-law of Pasiphae (meaning “she who shines on all”). In one tradition Pasiphae is identified with the nymph Krete who gave her name to the island, and in another Pasiphae coupled with the bull, and gave birth to the Minator. Her name eventually became a cult epithet of the Goddess Artemis.

Other moon Goddesses were Phaidra (“she who shines”), the grandaughter of Europa, and Aerope (“she who shines in the air”) the great grandaughter of Europa.

Finally, it has been suggested that the Goddess Demeter had strong links to Crete, and was a descendant of the Minoan Great Goddess. She was associated with the town of Gortyn, where she consummated her love to Iasion ‘in a thrice ploughed field’. In the Homeric hymn, the Goddess herself tells how she came to Eleusis (where the Eleusian Mysteries were celebrated) from Crete. Crete was obviously the centre of many cults of the Goddess, who manifested in different places under different names.

From post-Palatial period comes an offering made to da-puz-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja which translates as Labyrinthos Potnia, meaning “The Lady of the Labyrinth”. This is a fascinating designation, linking as it does the labyrinth to the site of Knossos. The name Potnia comes up time and time again, not just in Crete but throughout the Mycenean world. Although it only means “The Lady”, it is clearly the name or title of the Goddess, Potnia was probably one Goddess “worshipped at a number of places under various forms”.

Other named deities or aspects of the deity, who are given offerings and tributes on the tablets, and who may be translated as Goddesses are as follows:

po-ti-ni-ja-we-jo/ja = Potnia Aphrodite (?)

a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja = Lady of Athana (?)

e-re-u-ti-ja = Eileithyia (the entry links her to the cave of Amnisos, and she receives a wealth of offerings, including wool and honey).

e-ri-nu = translates as ‘Erinys’ which became an epithet for the Goddess Demeter

pi-pi-tu-na = Pipituna, an unknown moon Goddess.

a-pe-ti-ra = this name has been translated as ‘bow goddess’, which may be an earlier form of Artemis

qe-ra-si-ja = this has been translated in various ways, one of which is “the huntress”, which again would make her an Artemis figure.

a-ne-mo = this has been translated as “the Priestess of the Winds”, though it is not known if the Winds were Goddesses.

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