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Minoan Religion
Minoan Religion
About Crete - The Minoans - Minoan Religion

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

Many religious and cultural scholars now believe that almost all religions began as matriarchal religions, even the Hebrew religion (where Yahweh is frequently referred to as physically female), but adopted patriarchal models in later incarnations. What precipitated the transition from goddess religions to god religions is still subject to much debate and controversy, but the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle because of agriculture may have fundamentally reoriented society towards patriarchal organization and the subsequent rethinking of goddess religions. It is certain, however, that urbanization dramatically precipitated gender inequality as human life suddenly assumed a double quality: public life and private life. The domination of public life, that is, administration, rule, and military organization, by men certainly produced a reorientation of religious beliefs. The Cretans, however, do not seem to have evolved either gender inequality nor adapted their religion to a male-centered 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."

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, which is a fundamentally different relation than the relationship of the father to his offspring. This is an impossibly difficult difference to really understand, but Sigmund Freud in Moses and Monotheism hints at its fundamental aspect. The relationship between a mother and offspring is a real, biological relationship that can be concretely demonstrated (the child comes from the mother). The relationship to the father is also a biological relationship, but it can only be inferred (because the child doesn't come directly from the father's body). It is inferred symbolically, that is, the child looks like the father. One aspect of goddess religion, then, is a fundamentally closer relationship, kinship and otherwise, to the deity, wheras god religions tend to stress distance. These, however, are only guesses because so little comes down to us about goddess religions of antiquity.

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. There are several goddesses we can 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). 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.

The world for the Minoans seems suffused with the divine; all objects in the world seem to have been charged with religious meaning. 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.

The Minoan religious world apparently had numerous demons as well, who are always pictured as performing some religious ritual or another, so their exact nature is difficult to assess. They are always depicted as human beings, with the hands and feet of a lion. While they are certainly monstrous, they may, in fact, be symbols of religious worship.

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