Minoan Civilization: Religion, Deities & Symbols

Instructor: Tommi Waters

TK Waters has a bachelor's degree in literature and religious studies and a master's degree in religious studies and teaches Hebrew Bible at Western Kentucky University.

What gods and goddesses did the ancient Minoans of Crete worship and how did this influence the later Greek religion? Read more about the Minoan religion and its influence in this lesson.

Minoan Deities

Long before ancient Greek civilization developed, and with it the famous Greek mythology, the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete was engaged in religious practices that would become the foundation for the Greeks. From the deities they worshiped to the religious symbols they used, the Minoan religion was a major influence on the Greeks, with one notable exception - the chief deity of the Minoans was female. As we explore this civilization, keep in mind that while we are able to learn quite a bit from the Minoans' artwork, we still cannot decipher their writings, so we do not have a complete picture of what the Minoans' religion was like.

Let's take a look at what we do know about the deities the Minoans worshiped. In most of the Minoan artwork we have, there is a depiction of a goddess who is surrounded by snakes. She's probably the chief deity of the Minoans, from what we can tell, and is often referred to as the Mother Goddess or Snake Goddess. She seems to be associated with most facets of life: fertility, dance, death, and so forth. If you have ever seen a snake shed its skin - leaving behind what looks like a carcass - yet keep living, you might have an idea of why the goddess was typically surrounded by snakes. Snakes shedding their skin was typically associated with eternal life, so this would represent the eternality of the goddess. In addition, similar to the Garden of Eden story of the Hebrew Bible, snakes are associated with creation and wisdom.

Findings at the Knossos palace in Crete. Notice the two depictions of the Snake or Mother Goddess
Findings at the Knossos palace in Crete

In depictions of the Mother Goddess, there are often birds sitting on or around the deity. It is unclear what the purpose of these birds is. Some scholars think the birds are just associated with the Mother Goddess while others think they indicate another important goddess, referred to as the Bird Goddess. Some even think the Minoans believed the Mother Goddess had different forms, including the snake form and bird form. The Minoans probably also worshiped the Bull God, though his importance is unclear. The Minoan civilization was clearly a female dominated society, so the role of a male god is a bit confusing. As we'll see in the next section, the bull played an important role in the symbology of the religion, so this could be the reason for the bull imagery.

Minoan Religious Symbols

Like major world religions today have symbols that represent them - think Christianity and the cross, Hinduism and the word ''Om,'' and so on - the Minoans had many symbols that represented various parts of their religion. The most important of these was the labrys, which was a double-headed or double-edged axe. Labryses were made of metal (typically bronze) if used as weapons or tools, but the symbols were also often carved or sculpted. Labryses have been found all over Crete, most notably in the labyrinths, maze-like structures in sacred caves and temples, which were named for the axe.

Small golden labrys from Crete
Small golden labrys

In Minoan artwork, only women are depicted using the labrys and it is often shown in or alongside the Horns of Consecration. The Horns were attached to a bull sculpture or carving and were probably a symbol of the Bull God, or at least a sacred bull. Because the two symbols (the labrys and Horns of Consecration) are typically seen together and because we know the Minoans engaged in some sacrifice of bulls, it makes sense that the labrys was probably the tool used to slaughter the bull for the sacrifice. Since women were the only ones depicted with the labrys, they were probably the ones slaughtering the bulls and offering sacrifices, unlike most other, male-dominated religions.

Trees were a natural symbol of the Minoan religion. They occur less frequently than labryses or the horns, but the tree groves, or small clusters of trees, on the island of Crete were probably the location of many ceremonies. The Minoans probably danced and offered libations, the pouring out of liquid offerings like honey or oil, in the tree groves as part of their religious ceremonies, particularly in the spring.

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