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How far is Mycenaean religion a copy of that of the Minoans? What differences are there and can they be explained? Wayne Barry


Introduction The art of reconstructing ancient civilisations starts with the collection and categorisation of the surviving archaeological, iconographical, anthropological and textual assemblages, evidence and information. Once the evidence has been amassed, the painstaking and laborious (if not onerous) task of unlocking the secrets of an ancient people begins. Much information can be acquired about the dietary, domestic, socio-economic, technological, environmental, behavioural (for example, mortuary practices) and sometimes the political and cultural make up of an ancient civilisation. It is only when the notion of religious, cultic, mythic, and ritualistic practices arise do the problems of unlocking the door to the ancient civilisations’ psychology causes problems and controversy to the archaeologists who are attempting to fit the pieces of an ancient jigsaw puzzle together. It is; therefore; not surprising that attempts to understand the Mycenaean religion has been particularly difficult. This essay will review the current evidence and asks the question: How far is Mycenaean religion a copy of that of the Minoans? We will look at and discernible differences in style and execution of the religious practices of these two civilisations in the Aegean Bronze Age and will attempt to offer explanations for those differences.

Mycenaean Religion – An Overview

It is useful at this point to define what we mean by “religion”, although there are many definitions and most of which have yet to receive universal acceptance; we shall use a definition that Hendry (1999, p. 117) highlighted, quoting directly from The

Golden Bough by Sir James Frazer. “[Religion] is a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to control and direct the course of nature and of human life. Thus defined, religion consists or two basic elements, a theoretical and a practical, namely a belief in powers higher than man and an attempt to propitiate or please them (1922, p. 50)”


Though, Chadwick (1985, p. 191) provides us with a much simpler framework for defining the nature of religion:

“…a system of thought founded upon belief in an unseen and nonmaterial world interacting with the visible world around us.”

Before we are able to look at the features and artefacts that make up the Mycenaean religion, Dickinson (1994b, p. 286) is at great pains to warn us that the:

“evidence for MH religion is virtually non-existent, and the processes of development which led to a distinctively Mycenaean set of religious features are remarkably obscure.”

In many ways, what we know about Mycenaean religion is because much of it has survived into classical Greece in the pantheon of Greek gods. But what we really don't know is how much of the Greek religious belief system is Mycenaean, and how much of it is a product of the Greek Dark Ages or later. Like everything else about ancient cultures, it is hard to reconstruct a religious system from only ruins and a few fragments of writing. A number of reasonable guesses and assumptions can be made. However, Mycenaean religion was almost certainly polytheistic and the Mycenaeans were actively syncretistic, that is adding foreign gods to their own pantheon of gods with surprising ease. The Mycenaeans may have entered Greece with a pantheon of gods headed by some ruling sky-god which linguists speculate may have been called “Dyeus” in early Indo-European. This “Dyeus” shows up in almost all Indo-European languages, possibly suggesting that this god is a common heritage for all Indo-European peoples. In Greek, this god may have well become "Zeus". He is known in the Vedas as "dyaus pitar" ("pitar" which means "father") (Chadwick 1976, p. 85 – 86). At some point in their cultural history, the Mycenaeans may have adopted the Minoan goddesses and associated these goddesses with their own sky-god. Classical scholars and archaeologists believe that the Greek pantheon of gods do not reflect the Mycenaean religion with the possible exception of “Zeus” and the female goddesses. These goddesses, however, are Minoan in origin. In general, later Greek religion 3|Page

distinguishes between two types of gods: the Olympian, or sky-gods, and the gods of the earth, or chthonic gods. These chthonic gods are almost all female. The Greeks believed that the chthonic gods were older than the Olympian gods; this may possibly suggests that the original Greek religion may have been oriented around the goddesses of the earth, but there is no evidence for this outside of reasonable speculation (Chadwick 1976, p. 85). Hägg (cited in Dickinson 1994b, p. 286) suggests that:

“libation was practised on the mainland from MH times…and that cults could have been established in caves and open-air sites such as water sources, to become part of a ‘popular’ Mycenaean religion.” Dickinson (1994b, p. 286) is quick to point out that:

“Hägg’s argument that there was an eagerness to adopt Minoan symbols, practices and beliefs in the early Mycenaean period certainly seems to fit the evidence, although…this phenomenon may have been confined to the Argolid, where the only examples of Minoan-type ritual vessels in early contexts are found, and there is other evidence of emulation of Minoan high-status behaviour by the emerging elite.”

Dickinson (1994b, p. 286) continues to assert that it is still difficult to link, what he terms as the “Minoanisation” to the Mycenaean practices and cult sites of the Third Palace Period which “have few if any obviously Minoan elements”. In Taylour’s work: The Mycenaeans (1964, p. 60 - 89), he cites the following Mycenaean cultural artefacts as possibly being influenced by the Minoans, these include: Terracotta household snake gods; Snake goddess; Vegetation goddess; Animal sacrifice; 4|Page

Some male and female idols; Worship of Zeus and Poseidon. The principle recipient of worship depicted in Minoan art is a goddess, depicted as a woman in a long elaborate dress and usually placed in outdoor settings that featured trees, other vegetation and animals. The similar scenes are also represented in Mycenaean frescos and on gold and silver rings. Other Minoan symbols that also recur in mainland and island art (Taylour 1964, p. 65 - 67) are that of: Snakes; Birds; Bulls; Styled bullhorns; Axes with double heads. The goddess figure that appears in both Minoan and Mycenaean art were originally identified as a representation of a single pan-Aegean mother goddess. However it now appears that they may well be representations of regional gods (Dickinson 1994b, p. 287). Male gods are also present and are as numerous as female gods, however they are not depicted in art or the iconography that often.

Mycenaean Religion – The Differences Minoan Places of Worship

Cult Furniture





Peak Sanctuaries

Cult Centres

Domestic Shrines (part of Admin complex)

Shrines (Independent structures)

Double Axe

Terracotta Figurines

Horns of Consecration


Altars and Sacrificial Tables


Table of Offerings



Table of Offerings

Snake Tube Hearths Libation Jug da誰ses Pillar-shaped Stones Earthenware High-handled Ewers Bronzeware Statutes

Cult Symbols










Snakes Demons

Cult Deities

Snake Goddess

PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia

Mistress of Animals

A-TA-NA PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia Athena

Mistress of the Mountain

A-RE Ares

Goddess of Vegetation

E-NU-WA-RI-JO Enyalios

Male Divinity

PA-JA-WO-NE Paiawon PO-SE-DA-O-NE Poseidon E-NE-SI-DA-O-NE Enosidas DI-WO Zeus DI-WI-JA Diwia PI-PI-TU-NA Diktynna(?) DA-PU-RI-TO-JO PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia

of the Labyrinth E-RE-U-TI-JA Eleuthia E-RI-NU Erinys(?) A-NE-MO I-JE-RE-JA Priestess of the



QE-RA-SI-JA Teiresias(?) PA-SI TE-O-I All the gods Mother Goddess (e.g. Demeter,

Aphrodite, etc.) Cult Offerings

Gifts: Food, Drink, Manufactured Goods, Statuettes, Votive Objects

Gifts: Barley, Wheat, Flour, Olives, Figs, Honey, Wine, Cheese, Olive Oil, Spices (such as fennel and coriander), Wool

Sacrificial: Animal, Human Sacrificial: Not known

Table 1: Comparison between Minoan and Mycenaean religious / cultic practices

However, although there appears to be many similarities, there are a number of distinct and significant differences between Minoan and Mycenaean religious, or cultic, practices (see Table 1). For example, Minoan worship tends to take place within caves and sanctuaries built on high mountains; where as the Mycenaeans did not appear to construct any shrines outside of their cities, though these tended to be independent buildings or cult centres. Minoan palaces contain more elaborate and more shrines than Mycenaean palaces. The Megaron appears to have been the focal place for religious worship within the Mycenaean palaces, though the palaces themselves could not appear to offer a place for the congregation to gather. (Dickinson 1994b, p. 291). Probably of considerable significance is the fact that both Mycenaean and Late Cycladic cult buildings are independent structures, not built within major administrative complexes such as the palaces at Mycenae and Tiryns or the Megaron at Phylakopi. Thus the Mycenaeans and the islanders of the later Late Bronze Age appear to have avoided the Minoan practice of including several shrines within their most imposing forms of settlement architecture. To date, there has been no convincing evidence found for either Mycenaean peak sanctuaries or Mycenaean cult caves.


Mycenaean Religion – The Explanations

It is clear from the arguments that there is little, if not any, consensus of opinion as to whether Mycenaean religion is just a copy of that of the Minoans. Relying on the surviving, tangible evidence of ruins, few written, if indecipherable, shards of text and an assortment of paraphernalia which may, or may not, be religious or cultic in context, it leaves too much room for guesswork and speculation, however reasonable they may be. By the same token, each archaeological investigator brings with them, their own unique cultural perspective to analysing these ancient conundrums. This “unique cultural perspective” is according to psychologists, Manis and Meltzer (1972), is based around the concept of “symbolic interactionism”, which is concerned with “the ‘inner’, or phenomenological aspects of human behaviour”. What this means is that human behaviour is somehow defined, not from within the person, but from their social interaction. Symbolic Interaction involves three basic premises. First, individuals respond to the environment on the basis of the meanings that objects, or symbols, of the environment have for them as individuals. Second, such meanings are a product of social interaction; and third, these social / cultural meanings are modified through individual interpretation within the sphere of this shared interaction (Manis and Meltzer 1972). These ‘symbols’ take on many aspects or facets, such as language, gestures, nonverbal communication (popularly referred to as body language), clothes, hair styles, colour of clothes, fashion accessories, the nuances and tones of the voice, gender, occupation, race. All these symbols are open to personal interpretation. Depending on how we interpret, or unlock, these symbolic codes, determines a particular action or course of events. With this thought in mind, we look towards the act of iconographic interpretation, which lies at the very heart of establishing some theories and opinions surrounding Minoan and Mycenaean civilisation, indeed this could apply to any ancient culture. Morgan (1985, p. 6) informs us that iconographic interpretation is a two-fold process of translation: 8|Page

“1) at the level of language: from visual to the verbal, configurations as described in words; 2) at the cultural level: from Minoan to modern, meaning is categorised according to experience.”

It is here, that Morgan explains “is the root of divergence”. Whilst inspecting an image, the interpreter may place an idea, notion or concept as to the meaning of the image based around their sphere of influence, these could be as Morgan (1985, p. 6) highlights, be of the following type: Environmental; Socio-economical; Technological; Mythic; Cultic; Behavioural. Morgan (1985, p.6) makes a point of suggesting that:

“The image, however, may express several of these [above list] simultaneously, and may further express areas of significance which lie outside modern experience…Yet the systems of classification through which we comprehend the world, though they bring order to the mass of data, are not necessarily the systems of Minoan [and Mycenaean] thought...The cultural context is the relevant issue.”

Chadwick (1985, p. 192 – 193) also offers warning about placing too much emphasis on the interpretation of iconography without the appropriate texts to elucidate towards their exact meaning, purpose and function. He offers this thought:


“Whether the Mycenaeans had a collection of religious texts handed down by oral tradition must remain a matter of speculation; but to assert that we can form any reliable impression of their contents by examining seal-stones and frescoes strains the credulity.”

As much as archaeologists would like to see the “evidence” that suggests that the Minoans in some way had influenced Mycenaean culture to the point that the Mycenaeans had blatantly copied them is stretching the boundaries of acceptable speculation a little too far. Indeed, there has been some archaeological evidence, which would appear to suggest some form of influence, but as Morgan and Chadwick warn us, we need to be careful how we interpret the available evidence and not be quick to make circumstantial associations.


The Mycenaean period provides a problem for many archaeologists, unlike their more sophisticated and technically skilled neighbours, the Minoans, the art and craftsmanship of the Mycenaeans is crude and child-like. Even the deciphering of the Linear B texts has failed to enlighten us fully about their culture, other than providing enormous registers detailing supplies and offerings. In a bid to understand what is going on inside the Mycenaean psyche, archaeologists have turn to the frescoes and the other surviving iconographical evidence to try and paint a picture of what life was like in that ancient civilisation, particularly that of their religious, or cultic, practices. In their eagerness to demonstrate parallels and comparisons with the Minoans, some archaeologists have been rash to make a number of assertions; assumptions and speculations based on questionable interpretation on the iconographical evidence. It is clear that a fresh, thorough and balanced perspective is required. By developing new thinking models and frameworks can we hope to unravel the mysteries of the Mycenaeans and more importantly those other civilisations who are equally reluctant to give up their secrets to a prying world.

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How far is Mycenaean religion a copy of that of the Minoans?