Minoan Civilization: Religious Rituals & Places

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.

In this lesson, learn more about the religious rituals of the Minoans of Crete, such as their dances and offerings, as well as the sacred spaces they created and used.

Minoan Sacrifices and Offerings

The best way to learn about religious practices is to watch them - and while we cannot watch the rituals of the ancient Minoans, we know a lot about their religion from the artwork discovered on the island of Crete where they lived about four thousand years ago. Because we cannot decipher the writings of the Minoans, everything we know about their religion comes from archaeological finds and the art of the Minoans.

For instance, the Minoans' art depicts that that sacrifice was at least a small part of their religious rituals. Since we only have a few depictions of animal sacrifice in these ancient works, scholars are unsure of whether or not it was a common Minoan ritual. When the Minoans did perform sacrifices, they probably sacrificed bulls, and the women were the only ones involved in the sacrificing.

While animal sacrifice might have been uncommon, other ''sacrifices'' were not. There are many depictions of the Minoans offering the goddesses libations, or pouring out various liquids on altars or in sanctuaries. This was a common practice in ancient religions. The Minoans often performed the libations as part of processions where the priests and priestesses would have some type of orderly ceremony to offer to the goddesses. The offerings typically consisted of mead, milk, and honey. In addition to the artwork, archaeologists also found vessels in some of the Minoans' religious places.

Minoan Religious Dance

An incredibly important ritual of the Minoans was religious dance, depicted in many Minoan art works. Surprisingly, all of the Minoan depictions of dance rituals are performed exclusively by women. The participants always seem to be dancing erratically, so some speculate that they might have taken some snake venom to produce a drug-like effect. This seems even more likely since their chief goddess seems to be a snake goddess.

It is unclear why dance was such an important part of Minoan religion, but it could have something to do with the mythology of Zeus. According to tradition, Zeus was the father of King Minos, the legendary labyrinth king for whom the civilization was named. When Zeus was an infant, people invented dance and danced around him to protect him. This first dance could be what the Minoans were trying to reflect.

Natural Sacred Spaces

A variety of natural locations on the island of Crete were considered sacred spaces for the Minoans and performed religious functions. They often had peak sanctuaries where they built small temples on the mountain peaks where they could worship and perform rituals. Nearby to most of these peak sanctuaries were sacred caves. The sacred caves typically contained labyrinths, or maze-type structures that were probably set up to reflect the temples. They were probably even thought of as an entrance to the underworld.

Minoan Shrines

In addition to the caves and peaks, the Minoans had underground pillar crypts, which were small rooms containing several pillars. The purpose of them is unknown, but many scholars suggest that they were dedicated to a deity who controlled natural disasters, particularly earthquakes.

The Minoans constructed shrines within their palaces as well, which probably served as the main location for their processions. One of the most popular palace shrines was the Tripartite Shrine located in the capital city of Knossos. The shrine was dedicated to the snake goddess and contained holes in which to pour the libations as offerings.

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