Cycladic, Minoan, Mycenaean, and Archaic Greek Mythology

Minoan Religion and Mythology

What was the nature of Minoan religion?

What we know of Minoan religion and mythology before the Mycenaean domination in Crete is based on assumptions derived from archeological material such as frescoes and other objects found in the ruins of palaces such as the one at Knossos. There is evidence from these materials of a kind of ceremony involving youths leaping over bulls. The bull seems to be an object of worship, a fact perhaps confirmed by similar worship in ancient Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and by the prominence of bulls in later myths already discussed concerning Crete. In Egypt, for instance, Hathor was a moon goddess who was also a cow, and the pharaoh was a sacred bull. Much later, in the Irish epic the Tain, a connection exists between a great bull and a queen. The doubleheaded axe also is prominent in Minoan art, suggesting a religious function. The later Greek word for the doubleheaded axe is labrys, which suggests a connection to the Labyrinth. Was the doubleheaded axe a symbol of the sacred bull? Prominent among Minoan archeology and artifacts is a goddess figure. Many scholars have suggested that Minoan culture was goddess- rather than god-centered. Some claim that Minos means “Moon Man” and refers to a ritual marriage of a priest king with a moon priestess who represented the Great Goddess of Crete. A sacred marriage of this sort existed in connection with the Inanna cult in Mesopotamia. But all of this is mere speculation, colored to some extent by later Greek myths such as the one about Pasiphae and the Great White Bull of Poseidon. What we do know is that a Minoan goddess figure—depicted with bare breasts and often with a pubic area marked by a stylized triangle—appears in many places in Crete. The goddess holds up snakes, familiar goddess companions in many parts of the world. It is probably fair to assume that this figure—especially in connection with a bull god—probably represented fertility. Sometimes a youthful male figure accompanies the goddess. The later Greeks associated this figure with the boy Zeus or with Zeus’s son Dionysos, who, in the myth of Theseus and the Labyrinth, marries Ariadne after Theseus abandons her on his way home from Crete.

Some have suggested that the youth was a dying god figure, a mythical representative of youths sacrificed in fertility rituals. There is, in fact, some indication of human sacrifice in Minoan Crete, a fact given mythological form in the later story about the Athenian boys and girls sent as sacrificial tributes to King Minos.


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