There were a number of distinctive symbols the Minoans cultivated that had significant importance in their rituals and way of life. These distinguishing elements were not unique to the Minoans, which distinguished historians have identified were more cross-cultural, much like the representation of the Mother or Earth Goddess. The origins and similar features are evident (see article by J. Alexander MacGillivray) yet the purpose of the Minoan symbols evolved according to their needs and religious tenets. The main icons were the labrys, the bull horns, bees, and snakes.
1. The labrys, Minoan for double headed axe.
Labrys gave us the word labyrinth for which the palace of Knossos was known as the ‘House of the double headed axe’. The labyrs was attributed to the Mother Goddess and figurines of the goddess have been found with her holding a labrys in each hand. It has been surmised the priestesses used the axe to sacrifice bulls, yet images show daggers were used to cut the victim’s throats. The image of the double headed axe were inscribed on walls, jugs, and pottery gave rise to the butterfly pattern. The labrys/butterfly symbol came to represent the cycle of life, death and rebirth.
2. Bull horns – ‘Horns of Consecration’
The palace of Knossos has a dominating feature, the horns of a bull as an architectural feature all the way around the edges of the roof. It’s the first noticeable element you see when you visit the site. The icon was also used in the form of a rhyton cup, vases, seals altars, murals; sculpted and/or painted. Sir Arthur Evans attributed the horns to a real bull and hence the essence of virility. Latter historians, drawing connections to the Egyptian symbols for ‘mountain’ (see article by Emilia Banou), have determined the Minoans applied the same ethos. The shape of the horns was a symbolic representation of a sanctuary on a mountain, used by the priestesses.
A more simplified view was that the ‘horns of consecration’ likely represented the cult of the bull. The significance of the horns can be interpreted either way as each have a valid argument, though the former point seems to be more accepted by the academics.
3. The snake
I mentioned the symbol of the snake in relation to the Snake Goddess a few posts earlier. The snake represented the chthonic power of the Earth Goddess and its unique ability to shed skin, attributed to the concept of rebirth and eternal youth.
4. The bee
Bee-keeping was important to the Minoans as they believed the bees were related to the Great Mother of the Mother Goddess and the honey was used in rituals. The symbol of the bee was twofold: one it represented mutual support and fertility; two, life that came from death. ‘Melissae’ was the name given to the priestesses relating to the cult of bees.
Other animals featured in Minoan religious rites were birds, bulls and mountain goats. The image of a bird in religious scenes signified a ‘divine epiphany’, that being the manifestation of a divine being. The bull and goats were created as votive figurines and used as sacrificial animals.
These symbols were attributed to many cultures and their role in religious rites similar, which implies the evolvement from a single source. What are your thoughts on this?
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Historical fiction novelist and a secondary teacher, Luciana Cavallaro, likes to meander from contemporary life to the realms of mythology and history. Subscribe to her free short story at http://eepurl.com/bhESs1