To honor the latest release of Minotaur Hotel I decided to do an article on what is known of the Minoan deities.
Known as the “first European city-makers” and a distant precursor to Greece, what is called the Minoan Civilization after King Minos of Crete was a mysterious Bronze Age nation that governed Crete and neighbouring parts of the Aegean. Its age, likely influences over posterior Greek (and by extension western) culture and unique art has long made it a subject of mystique and intrigue. Whereas it’s the several still undeciphered scripts and languages or the fact that it seems to have a rare genuinely matriarchal society, it seems the countless research and academia only raises more questions than answers.
One such well documented but ultimately unsuccessful endeavour is identifying the pantheon these people worshipped. It is strongly speculated that Minoan Crete was theocratic (Kristiansen & Larsson, 2005, among several others) and several art either represents cultic activities (such as the famous bull leaping) if not gods themselves, but in the absence of the proper written word this is beyond impossible to ascertain. The implications of understanding Minoan religion are very clear, as beyond offering a snapshot to the lives of these people it also bears the potential implication that many Greek gods and mythological figures ultimately had their origins here.
To completely compile, summarise and synthesize all that has been written on Minoan religion is a task far too vast to implement, so here are some of the most widely agreed upon gods.
Queen of the Gods
By far the most well kown figure attributed to Minoan religion is the Queen or Mother goddess, sometimes known as “Snake Goddess” due to an abundance of figurines depicting women holding snakes. Perhaps surprisingly (or not given the second paragraph), she’s not actually attested anywhere, given that Minoan scripts haven’t yet been deciphered, but her existence can be inferred due to a variety of factors:
- Female figurines are by far the most common representation of what could be interpreted as a god in Minoan sites. Chief among these are the aforementioned “snake goddess” figurines. While there is considerable debate on whereas these truly represent deities (plural or singular) or mortal priestesses, they are comparable to apotropaic depictions of surrounding cultures, most notably those of the latter Athena Parthenos which similarly is associated with serpentine iconography as controlling these forces of chaos (Ogden 2013).
- The fact that Minoan society was matriarchal in nature, which would lend credence to the supreme being in their cosmology being feminine in nature. While a dominant female deity does not always correlate to a matriarchal society (i.e. Amaterasu, Virgin Mary, et cetera), the opposite, a matriarchal society with a masculine supreme god, is yet to be documented (though see below).
- Several Greek mother goddesses such as Demeter and Rheia are thought to have a Cretan origin (Mylonas 1966, Sidwell 1981 among several others), so it’s not terribly hard to see them as “descendents” of this Minoan deity.
- The Philistines, contray to biblical assertions on Dagon worship, seem to have favoured a goddess as their primary deity (Schäfer-Lichtenberger 2000, Ben-Shlomo 2019). The Philistines, through genetic legacy and material culture, are now understood to have had an Aegean origin, so again seeing this as a continuation of a Minoan goddess is plausible.
Several names have been speculated for this deity, usually along the lines of the author’s interpretation of Minoan scripts (which should be noted, are not only undeciphered but very likely don’t mention deities at all, since all we have seem to brief texts likely attributed to tax reports). The name “Rhea” doesn’t seem to be of Indo-European origin (Nilsson 1950, Sidwell 1981), making it very likely that this is a theonym with Minoan origins. The same applies to Ariadne (Alexiou 1969) and possibly also Athena (Beekes 2009). Conversely, the Philistine goddess is possibly attested as “Ptgyh” (Ben-Shlomo 2019), a name that is speculated to be related to Greek “Potnia”, “mistress”. In all likelihood, such an important goddess likely was known by a variety of epithets.
Fertility is naturally considered a major function of this mother goddess, but perhaps in ways one might not expect. An emphasis on solar worship has been noted due to temple arrangements and material objects such as “frying pans” with solar iconography (Ridderstad 2009), suggesting that, rather than an earth goddess as one might expect, this was a solar goddess. Solar goddesses are known from a variety of Near Eastern cultures such as Egypt (Sekhmet, Hathor), Anatolia (Arinniti, Istanu, Estan, Wurunsemu) and Canaan (Shapash) so a solar interpretation of the Minoan supreme goddess isn’t unusual. In particular, this might imply a more “chthonic” interpretation of the sun than the Classical “object in the sky”, due to temple angles tressing sunrises and sunsets (Ridderstad 2009), whch is consistent with the Hittite notions of the sun goddess ruling the underworld. Regardless, as noted below in Talos there is also possible evidence for a Minoan male sun.
More unambiguously, this goddess had a civil and possibly domestic function. As noted above snake goddess figurines might be apotropaic in nature, used to ward off evil spirits or more mundane threats like snakes. If Athena is derived from this goddess then a role as the protector of the palace is also implied given Athena’s role in the Mycenaean era, and both Ariadne and Athena are associated with weaving. Conversely, so are solar goddesses in other places, like the Baltic Saule or the Turkic Gun Ana, as the rays of the sun are easily linked to threads, further suggesting this role for the Minoan goddess. Both Rhea and Demeter are also associated with lions, animals that not only are symbolic of the sun but also of a notable sun goddess across the sea, Sekhmet.
The fact that the Minoan ruling goddesses was the possible genesis for several Greek goddesses like Rheia, Demeter, Ariadne and Athena suggests a rather extensive and important function in ancient Cretan religion. Conversely, it might also suggest that what we might attributing to a single goddess was in fact several different deities, but as deities overlap and flow into one another it is possible that these goddesses were either seen as one or acquired independent identities several times throught Minoan history.
The Bull God
The bull is extensively depicted in Minoan art. Most common are bull-leaping frescos depicting youths of both genders leaping or interacting with bulls, suggesting this was a common Minoan sport and perhaps even a religious ritual. But bulls are depicted in many other contexts as well, and as such the existence of an actual Minoan bull god is frequently speculated upon.
In Near-Eastern cultures, bulls are both solar and lunar symbols. On the one hand, the bull’s horn/s resemble/s a lunar crescent, and indeed not only are Middle Eastern male moon gods like Nanna and Suen associated with the bull but even the Greek Selene is described as having a chariot pulled by bulls, suggesting that not even a shift towards a feminine moon deity erased this iconography. On the other hand, a bull is a powerful animal and thus worthy of male solar gods, most notably the Mesopotamian Marduk (literally “calf of the sun”). Sometimes both interpretations show up in the same culture: in Egypt the Apis bull is associated both with Ra and with Osiris as Yah (the moon). Perhaps the same applied to ancient Crete (again, see Talos below), but a lunar bull would certainly be a vivid symbol contrasted against the sun goddess.
The bull is associated with Dionysus which otherwise is mired in more “exotic” symbols, suggesting that the putative “Minoan Dionysus” might be the bull god. It has long been speculated that the bull god is a male youth and son and consort to the queen of the gods, though women are also depicted bull leaping.
The Greek minotaur has long been speculated to be a remnant of the Minoan bull god, not without reason being so throughly linked with Crete as a concept. In this case, the monstrous depiction is either fully discontinuous from older practises or defamatory, with my personal two cents that it is also a jab against the bull gods of the Phoenicians, accused at the time of human sacrifice by the (infant killing) Greeks. Asterion is said to be the birth name of the minotaur by Pseudo-Apollodorus, but I wouldn’t read much into this since this name (literally “starry one”) is a common Greek name for many figures both historical and mythological, and at any rate a recent Indo-European name at odds with the most likely Pre-Greek Cretan languages.
There is extensive evidence of wine cults in Minoan Crete (Kerényi 1976). This, combined with the Mycenaean depictions of a bull-horned Dionysus (or “di-wo-nu-so” as it is) seems to point to a Minoan origin for this god. “Dionysus” is an Indo-European name connected to Zeus and other sky father figures but the actual character of the god is not easily identified in the PIE world, suggesting a Pre-Greek, local origin. A possible exception is the Lusitanian god Andaeico (Teixeira 2014) which might resemble the putative “flower Dionysus” (see below), but this deity is himself not well understood and might be from an ancient Iberian stratum in Lusitanian culture.
The Mycenaean Dionysus is a figure with stronger ties to death and rebirth than revelry necessarily but the evolution from “eldritch god” to “party dude” might not have been as linear (geddit) a concept as one might expect. Male figurines thought to represent a young god increase in popularity in later stages of Minoan history (Vasilakis 2001) as do male youth figures often identified as “prince of the lilies/flowers” which alongside the wine cults is closer to the Classical Dionysus than the Mycenaean or later Orphic one. However once more in the absence of deciphered scripts it is impossible to say for certainty that these figurines represent deities let alone are Dionysus. Hell, the “flowery figures” have even been interpreted as female at times.
If an actual god, the “Minoan Dionysus” might very well be identified with the bull god, as the bull is a rather odd symbol for the “exotic” attributes the Classical Dionysus is associated with. Ariadne in Greek myth does get hitched with Dionysus; an imbalanced, reversed remnant of the male youth/Minoan queen goddess pairing perhaps?
Perhaps the only Minoan or at least Cretan god we may truly known by name is Talos. In Greek myth Talos is best known as the strange automaton made by Hephaestus, but it was also the Cretan word for “sun”, analogous to “Helios” of mainland Greece according to Hesychius of Alexandria. Zeus was worshipped in Crete as Zeus Talaios, who was associated with the sun, and the Tallaia was a spur of Mt. Ida associated with sunrise rituals (Nilson 1923).
This association of Zeus with Talos is as peculiar as it is extensive. Zeus, a god whose origins are well documented to be Indo-European in nature, is held in Greek myth as born and raised in Crete, and Cretan depictions of Talos differ from those of mainland Greece in having wings. Further, the seduction of Europa by Zeus as a bull links the Classical Zeus to Crete in a very fundamental way. This seems to indicate a rather through syncretism between the Greek/Mycenaean sky god and this indigenous Cretan deity, which in turn implies a rather relevant role to the Minoan Talos.
Conversely, outside of Crete Talos is an enigmatic figure, as noted by Pausanias himself which seems more confused than anything. Certainly, the story of a pre-sci-fi robot is weird, let alone how it relates to an ancient Cretan god, linked to the supreme god of all Greeks down to his very birth.
Talos is truly an anomaly. A solar god which was important enough to warrant syncretism with Zeus, in a matriarchal culture where the sun seems to have been traditionally the supreme goddess herself. Crete was likely never a monolith even at the height of Minoan rule, but all current signs point to Talos being an ancient Cretan deity from before PIE influences in Greece, and he seems so out of place.
My personal two cents is that Minoan cosmology was similar to that of the Hittites and other Anatolian cultures, where the sun is male during the day as it travels through the sky and female at night where it rules the underworld. Talos’ syncretism with Zeus therefore would be derived from representing the male, skyward aspect of the sun, corroborated by worship at the Tallaia. In the original Minoan religion Talos was probably lesser compared to his female aspect (which even as a chthonic deity would easily be accepted as the supreme power; even Mycenaeans favoured the chthonic Poseidon to the celestial Zeus after all), but his roled ensured syncretism with the king of the gods once Crete was conquered.
Britomartis is possibly another deity we might know from a genuinely Minoan or at least Cretan name. Solinus claims it is “sweet virgin” in Cretan and the name doesn’t seem to have Indo-European roots. If true, I’d imagine this theonym is more due to syncretism with the Greek Artemis if anything as I doubt ancient Minoans cared much about virginity as a concept, though Artemis herself may be derived from this deity. Some archaeologists have further suggested that it is an euphemism for the deity’s actual name, since being a goddess of the wilds saying it might have been unwise (Ruck 1994). Another name attributed to her is Diktynna, “hunting nets”, or simply Dicte/Dikte (unsurprisingly, she named said mountain, and was likely its spirit). I’ve never seen the etymology of this name tracked, so I can’t say for sure if it is Greek or Pre-Greek in origin
Britomartis is in Greek myth a mere oread or mountain nymph, said to have invented hunting nets. She is said to have fled Minos’ lust, a tale that even Siculus expressed disbelief at due to her divinity. Thus, although greatly diminuished by Hellenistic times, she was still clearly held to be a deity, and still seems to have been worshipped in Crete during Classical times, frequently appearing in coinage as a winged figured. She is equated to Artemis, a goddess associated with the wilderness and mountains, and it can be assumed she represents a similar “lady of the beasts” archetype. Artemis herself has a name of unclear etymology, and could be of Minoan origin, being perhaps another name for Britomartis.
Some authors tempt to lump Britomartis with the Minoan mother goddess, but to me these seem like clearly distinct figures. Whereas the queen of the gods is a civic, fertility and possibly solar figure, Britomartis is alcearly a goddess of the wild places, perhaps even more specifically the embodiment of Mt. Dicte. Of course, overlap between these two goddesses likely happened at several points in Cretan history.
And that’s it for now.
Other Minoan gods have been positted, including a sea one (naturally), but they aren’t sufficiently supported by everyone in the field at large, so I won’t bother.
Kristiansen, Kristian & Thomas B. Larsson. The Rise of Bronze Age Society: Travels, Transmissions and Transformations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ogden, Daniel (2013). Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Oxford University Press. pp. 7–9. ISBN 9780199557325 – via Google Books.
George Mylonas (1966), “Mycenae and the Mycenean world “
Sidwell, R.T. (1981). “Rhea was abroad: Pre-Hellenic Greek myths for post-Hellenic children”. Children’s Literature in Education. 12 (4): 171–176. doi:10.1007/BF01142761. S2CID 161230196.
Christa Schäfer-Lichtenberger, The Goddess of Ekron and the Religious-Cultural Background of the Philistines, Vol. 50, No. 1/2 (2000)
David Ben-Shlomo, Philistine Cult and Religion According to Archaeological Evidence, January 2019Religions 10(2):74, DOI: 10.3390/rel10020074
Nilsson, Martin Persson (1 January 1950). The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion. Biblo & Tannen Publishers. ISBN 9780819602732 – via Google Books.
Alexiou, Stylianos (1969). Minoan Civilization. Translated by Ridley, Cressida (6th revised ed.). Heraklion, Greece.
Beekes, Robert S. P. (2009), Etymological Dictionary of Greek, Leiden and Boston: Brill
Marianna Ridderstad, Evidence of Minoan astronomy and calendrical practices, October 2009
Kerényi, Karl. 1976. Dionysus. Trans. Ralph Manheim, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0691029156, 978-0691029153
Monteiro Teixeira, Sílvia. 2014. Cultos e cultuantes no Sul do território actualmente português em época romana (sécs. I a. C. – III d. C.). Masters’ dissertation on Archaeology.. Lisboa: Faculdade de Letras da Universidade de Lisboa.
Andonis Vasilakis, MINOAN CRETE: FROM MYTH TO HISTORY Paperback – January 1, 2001
Nilsson, “Fire-Festivals in Ancient Greece” The Journal of Hellenic Studies 43.2 1923
Carl A.P. Ruck and Danny Staples, The World of Classical Myth [Carolina Academic Press], 1994