Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.03.17

Nanno Marinatos, Minoan Religion. Ritual, Image, and Symbol. Columbia: University of South Carolina, 1993. Pp. 306. ISBN 0-87249-744-5. $47.95.

Reviewed by James C. Wright, Bryn Mawr College.

Nanno Marinatos, who for nearly two decades in numerous notes and essays has been adding to our understanding of Minoan religious image and practice, has now produced a comprehensive study of Minoan religion encompassing the entire archaeological record of Minoan Crete from the Early through the Late Bronze Age. Here is a book rich in ideas and in detailed discussion of a vast array of evidence. Thoroughly steeped in the local interpretive literature of the subject, and informed by certain directions in the method and theory of religious studies, this book views the reconstruction of Minoan religion, for which there are no written sources and only a restricted body of iconographic ones, as relatively unproblematic. It proposes as its method a reading of the evidence as if we already possessed knowledge of the grammatical structure, syntax and vocabulary.

In Chapter One the reader is invited to consider briefly the intellectual trends that have colored our understanding of religion in past societies and to place the study of Minoan religion in historical perspective. But in lieu of a clear statement of the role of religion in human societies and the changing forms of religion in the evolution of societal forms, Marinatos offers only generalized asides to an "anthropology of religion" and to the use of structural and semiotic theory (pp. 10-11) that well may induce students to ape these notions with neither comprehension of their meaning and application nor with an appropriate set of readings to introduce them to the subject. This is not to denigrate Marinatos' contribution, for she offers a much needed, concise critique of the work of Evans and Nilsson and their followers (pp. 8-10) and pulls together in a comprehensive manner evidence and arguments that her predecessors and contemporaries have not succeeded in making clear. What is missing, though, is a sense of the systemic interrelationships among religious, social, political and economic organizations. There is inadequate consideration of the evolution of a Minoan religion as a part of the increasingly complex and unified society that emerged in Crete during the second millennium B.C.E. And, for an audience that presumably has not read much of the literature dealing with religion, there is no introduction to the issues that surround its study, for example the role of myth and ritual, its relationship to ideology, and to the more mundane forms of human activity.1

Chapter Two, entitled "The Cult of the Dead in Prepalatial Crete", argues that we must find our early evidence of religion in the monumental remains of burials, since such evidence from settlements is "notably absent". Marinatos then posits a cult of the dead celebrated through burial rituals which can be reconstructed from the existing remains. The evidence of Early and Middle Minoan burial chambers, she argues, emphasizes the communal and collective nature of Minoan burial practice. The chapter concludes with a presentation of probable objects of ritual purpose found in the burials. Marinatos' interest in these objects stimulates unsystematic speculation about their purpose, e.g. the digression about the enigmatic "sheepbells", the consideration of the models from the Kamilari tomb (which seems slightly out of place insofar as these models do not date to the Pre- and Protopalatial periods).2 Although Marinatos' interest in reconstructing the rituals surrounding death is most evident in this chapter, her inclusion of a consideration of the paintings of the Ayia Triada sarcophagus is particularly problematic. In a sense it violates her dictum to reconstruct religion based on the internal evidence, since this sarcophagus dates from LM IIIA when Mycenaeans were present over much of Crete and fully 300-700 years after the period in question. It would better have been deferred for discussion in Chapter 11.

There are larger problems with this chapter. Although the author emphasizes the communal and collective nature of Early Minoan burial practice, she does not clarify what this tells us about Early Minoan society (see especially, pp. 26-28). What the reader needs to learn is that mortuary practice may relate to a society's cosmogony,3 and therefore may reflect some aspects of religious belief. Here, some reference to the work of Emile Durkheim would be useful.4 In many societies the dead mediate between the world of the living and that of the spirits; therefore the location and care for the dead is part of the process by which a society maintains its position within the cosmic order and legitimizes its organization and territorial location.5 All of these ideas are well documented in the archaeological record of Early Minoan mortuary remains but not explained in this chapter. It has been pointed out by other scholars that the use of collective ossuaries, though characteristic of Early Minoan culture, endures throughout the period of the first palaces and beyond. Thus, despite the economic and probable political centralization that the founding of the palaces implies, the persistence in the location of settlements and places of burial, and by association probably the form of landholding, implies the strength of the collective nature of Minoan social organization.6

What are we to make then of the change towards individual burial, which Marinatos thinks is introduced in jar and larnax burials in EM III and which continues through MM? It is true, as Marinatos asserts (p. 24) that this represents a change to emphasis on the individual, but it is equally important to stress that these new burial forms continue to be stored in large collective tombs. Thus an important consideration not taken into account here is what the continuation of the collective tombs signifies. The conclusion, drawn by some scholars, is that the sense of community was so strong in Crete that despite the shift to jar and larnax burial individual identity continued to be suppressed during the period of the first palaces. Instead the author leads the reader to think that there is increasing monumentalization of burial "for the ruling elite", a statement based on the meager evidence from one context, Chrysolakkos at Mallia, and contradicted everywhere else. Of course, this is not to say that status differentiation did not exist, as the evidence of wealthy individualized grave goods demonstrates varying degrees of stratification.7 But it does suggest that the centralization concomitant with the establishment of the first palaces was not so pervasive as to restructure the social relations that had obtained in traditional areas of settlement throughout the Early Bronze Age.

Likewise, the presentation of the origins of Minoan religion is not seen to be a problem, and Marinatos delays treatment of outdoor peak sanctuaries until chapter 4, when her discussion is well into the different facets of the religion of the palaces. Consideration of the outdoor areas of cult activity, however, is central to any discussion of the origins of Minoan religion for two reasons. First, there has been debate as to whether the peak sanctuaries were established before or after the foundation of the first palaces. The implications of this problem are that if they precede the palaces then they reflect local religious belief and activity, whereas if they follow the palaces they represent the imposition of belief and practice by the elite in the palaces over a surrounding territory. Second their distribution, especially the change in their distribution from pre-palatial through Neopalatial times, is instructive about the centralizing changes in the organization and administration of Minoan religion during the two palace periods. These issues are considered neither in this chapter nor in Chapter 4 where the peak sanctuaries are discussed.

Since the Chrysolakkos complex was discussed in Chapter 2 and emphasis was placed on how it illustrates some continuity with the prepalatial period, one might expect the next chapter to focus on the issues surrounding developments in religious activity during the protopalatial period. As we have seen, the peak sanctuaries played an important role in this development, and so too did the centers of the Protopalatial period with their variety of structures. Thus the exceptionally well documented artifacts from Quartier Mu -- including sealings, figurines, incised votive vessels, and Linear A inscriptions, and the cult rooms in the west facade of the first palace at Phaistos need to be considered in general and specifically compared to the assemblages of the peak sanctuaries.8 This evidence of worship provides clues to the degree of integration of religious activity at the palace sites and in their surrounding territories. Without following the progression from Early Minoan hamlet and village to Middle Minoan town and palace site, the reader cannot easily detect the developmental thread in ritual practice in Minoan religion.

Instead Marinatos proceeds in Chapters 3 and 4 to explore the notion that the palaces were primarily temples. This is one of the more enlightening and cogently argued parts of this book. Her consideration of the formal planning elements of the palaces as having an ideological basis, and her view that the west courts and the formal sidewalks that lead to and through them serve to facilitate religious activity is well founded, although it may be too speculative to identify rituals for the dead as taking place in them. More analysis of the relationship between paved areas and sidewalks in tomb complexes (e.g. Koumasa, Pyrgos-Myrtos) as well as in the palace centers (e.g. Quartier Mu, the Crypte Hypostyle and Agora) would better test that claim.

To bolster the centrality of the palaces in cult activity the author follows with a very complete discussion of frescoes in the palaces. The frescoes illustrate the variety of rituals that may have been celebrated there. Unfortunately, the casual reader may miss the note of caution only registered well into the discussion, namely that much of the fresco material dates to the LM III period, an observation that diminishes Marinatos' argument that the frescoes were organized programmatically. Thus, for example, the discussion of the Campstool Fresco, would probably be better understood in the context of Mycenaean Knossos, and perhaps it would be well to observe in the discussion of the so-called Palanquin Fresco that it contains the same elements as the Campstool one. Perhaps there should have been an attempt to isolate the frescoes of probable LM III date from the others. Nonetheless this section is particularly welcome for its attention to the location of the frescoes in the palace. An unnoticed problem regarding the frescoes in the so-called Domestic Quarter is the observation in the new plan of the palace that the "Grand Staircase" is not accessible from the central court.9 Since the author wishes to situate the palace as the cosmic center of Minoan religious activity, it would be worthwhile to observe the extent to which Minoan art, lacking an iconography of human power, focused on architectural displays.10

Having now amplified her contention that much of the palace was permeated by religious symbolism, Marinatos proceeds in Chapter 4 to explore in detail areas in the palace where ritual took place. Expanding upon an earlier article on the "Minoan polythyron", the author presents a detailed analysis of the architectural elements of the so-called "residential quarters" and their relative disposition to one another. Her analysis breaks the confines laid down by Evans and strikes out in a new and productive direction. Whether right or wrong, Marinatos' argument that the adyton (Evans' 'lustral basin'), pier and door arrangements, and Minoan hall are part of an area used for ritual permits fresh thinking and provides a much more coherent explanation of this suite of rooms than previously. It also may fit better with our contemporary sense that the palaces were not inhabited by a monarchy, and that such a lineal social organization is foreign to Minoan culture.

In her discussion of the "pillar crypt" Marinatos again refocuses the question of interpretation by broadening the lines of the argument. Although some may not accept her interpretation of these remains, it is salutary to have the rooms with pillars at Apesokari, Fournou Korfi-Archanes, the Temple Tomb at Knossos, the two-pillared room at Ayia Triada, and the Tomb of the Double Axes brought into the discussion, not only because they broaden the chronological and distributional scope of the evidence, but also because they seem to provide a linkage between mortuary and domestic ritual practice. The presence of pillar crypts in the houses of McEnroe's types 1 and 2a is of particular importance in this discussion since, following Marinatos' argument, identification of these as places of ritual action provides a spatial setting that extends from the palace at the center of a territory outwards to its periphery where the "villas" were located. Thus it may be possible to think of such Neopalatial complexes as those at Nirou Khani, Tylissos, and Kannia-Mitropoleos, for example, as representatives of the palace not just for economic and political purposes but also for the practice of religion as part of the apparatus of a state that needed to secure the allegiance -- the "hearts and minds" -- of diverse groups, some of whom may have had reservations about the centralized authority consolidated in the palaces during the Neopalatial period. Religion, it has been observed,11 is often employed in the service of the political objectives of the state. Thus formalization and control are key elements in the state's participation in the creation of a hierarchy that sanctions and authorizes religious performance.12 Although Marinatos proceeds in her discussion of "pillar crypts" to try, through a simple structural analysis, to reconstruct a relationship between chthonic and celestial deities, this misses the more easily demonstrable point that these remains reflect this major shift during the Neopalatial period in the organization of society from what it had been during the preceding Protopalatial period -- a shift from strictly local domains of control to larger territories that incorporated more people, more resources and probably more diverse political organizations that required a more complex form of management, in which religion played a significant role. In view of this process it might be fruitful not merely to describe the various locales and furnishings of cult activity in the palace but to consider how they might represent different facets of the formalized religion of the Neopalatial period. Following the lead of Anthony Wallace and Vernon Knight one might argue that they are artifacts of different cult institutions that provide different foci of ritual practice for different social groups, so that the state can control a complex religious structure that embraces a host of different ideologies.13 This is an area of research that requires much more systematic attention from archaeologists as my comments on Chapters 6-10 below will emphasize.

Marinatos acknowledges that religion becomes centralized and makes this point forcefully in the next chapter on "Town Shrines and Nature Sanctuaries". She dismisses the prevalent notion of the "domestic shrine" and tries to refocus the issue in a more fruitful manner by asking where and how the commoners worshipped. Unfortunately, instead of developing this question in the context of different periods in Minoan society, the author proceeds with a discussion of specific instances. Many readers will react negatively to this discussion, since there is no apparent relationship between Chamaizi, the building at Rousses-Vianou and the aforementioned type 2a house at Kannia. This discussion simply emphasizes, as I have been arguing, the need for a larger construct in which to situate the study of Minoan religion. Marinatos' explanation that these instances "were the residences of local lords, lower in rank than the lords of the mansions, but high enough to be in charge of the arable land in the countryside," though appealing and in large part probably correct, fails to place them adequately in the context of different socio-political realities within different political economies. Thus the relationship between Chamaizi, the Protopalatial peak sanctuaries and the buildings of Quartier Mu (above note 10) needs to be explained as a phenomenon separate from the consideration of the establishment of the villa system as an extension of palatial governance during the Neopalatial period.

The discussion of peak sanctuaries in Chapter 5 is somewhat less satisfactory than the research published on them by Alan Peatfield. It is misleading to state that the earliest peak sanctuaries "were independent of official religion" without having demonstrated that an official religion existed at that time. More likely the peak sanctuaries represented one of the most visible and comprehensive forms of religious practice for individual communities in the prepalatial and protopalatial period, and it was for this reason that the palaces took an interest in them, because their incorporation into an emerging palace-oriented religion was useful in establishing the ideological primacy of the palaces over their territories. In this regard, it would seem worthwhile to investigate the probability that the relationship between the cult centers in the palace and the peak sanctuaries in the outward region was reaffirmed in periodic festivals, whose celebration was governed by a sacred calendar and executed by a procession from palace to sanctuary and back again.

So far Marinatos has considered the evidence for the location and organization of Minoan cult. The next part of the book, Chapters 6-11, discusses functional elements of religion: the priesthood, divinities, shrines and rituals, nature, and social rituals. Chapters 6-10 rely upon multiple readings of Neopalatial iconography, largely as preserved on sealstones and ring bezels or their impressions. Concerning these there is a vast literature to which Marinatos has already contributed many articles. Yet for all the research to date, there is little which is informed by an explicitly stated and consistently applied methodology. In her introduction Marinatos applauds efforts by other scholars to apply structuralist approaches to the study of religion and goes on to suggest that religion needs to be decoded through application of semiotics (p. 11). Alas, these chapters in no way demonstrate an explicit and consistently applied method for decoding the images. Little attempt is made to recover the rules, syntax and grammar of Minoan iconography. In consequence readers may either accept uncritically her classifications of images (and may wonder exactly what semiotics is)14 or be distressed by the weakness of argument for their recognition -- all the more so since they often seem likely but unconvincing. Part of the problem, in my opinion, lies in the fragmentation of her presentation. By deciding, as she states in the introduction (p. 11), to emphasize in her study the practice (and to some extent the beliefs) of the Minoans, she commits herself to an elucidation of characters (priests and priestesses, gods and goddesses, natural and built shrines) and rituals (sacred marriage, epiphany ceremonies) that should result from a semiotic investigation, not lead it. An example is in her dislocated discussion of gesture (which had been identified as a critical area for further study by L. Morgan).15 Rather than assembling all the gestures of females and examining how they are differentiated in the context of the settings in which the females operate, Marinatos chooses in Chapter 7 to associate a certain set of gestures to deities, and then in Chapter 8 in her discussion of "High Priestesses in Front of Shrines" she differentiates goddesses from priestesses according to gesture; yet there is no mention of gestures in her earlier discussion of the distinguishing characteristics of priestesses (Chapter 6).

Her lack of focus on the social and political processes that affect the formation of ritual and management of religion also hinders her ability to provide reasons for the emergence of a religious iconography. Thus no explanation is given for the emergence of the priesthood, though it is well known that it represents the establishment of offices to control and set orthodox management of rituals.16 Her lack of explicit application of semiosis leads to an assertion that the "signs for sacred space are columns, trees, and tree shrines" that neither demonstrates the contexts that give meaning to these signs nor examines how these icons became important symbols from the larger visual structure and vocabulary of Neopalatial art. Chapter 10, which deals with nature symbolism, is refreshingly more explicit and comprehensive in explaining the sources and probable meanings of the symbols, which are explained both in the context of pan-Eastern Mediterranean and Near Eastern iconography and in reference to specific features of their use and context in the Cretan environment. Likewise her argument for the hierarchical organization of images of real and fantastic animals is closely argued and convincing. But we need to know how these elements are integrated into the larger statements of Minoan religious iconography, a matter not pursued in this chapter.

Marinatos continues to argue on firmer ground in Chapter 10 for the existence of rites of passage in Minoan art. She introduces the subject with a brief explanation of the stages of such rituals, then presents the argument for identifying age distinctions in the two genders. The following argument for female rites of passage in Xeste 3 on Thera is already well-known; tantalizing as it is, many will reserve judgment until the final publication of the frescoes and their contexts, since their locations on the walls of the building are critical for the interpretation. No doubt many will give Marinatos' interpretation the benefit of the doubt. Next she argues for male rites as preserved in images on stone vessels and seals. These images mostly depict athletic activities. The frequency of representation on vessels may be a clue to return to consider the context of vessels, as on the Procession Fresco from Knossos or in the abundance of goblets found at Kato Syme.

Finally Marinatos turns to developments in Minoan religion after the palaces, from ca. 1450 to ca. 1200 B.C.E. which, as she admits, merits a separate monograph. She demonstrates areas of continuity with palace religion yet emphasizes different and new elements of this time. She provides a useful survey of the major shrines with benches at various sites and considers them and the figurines found in them in the context of Minoan and Mycenaean bench sanctuaries of the post-palatial period, for which there is an extensive bibliography. Missing from this discussion is the role of the Cretan cylindrical models, which help define the specifically Cretan form of post-palatial cult (see now: R. Mersereau, AJA 97, 1993: 1-47).

The conclusion of this ambitious book is brief and to the point. The author offers an appreciation of the distinctive features of Neopalatial religion as well as a comparison to religion elsewhere in the Near East and Egypt. She then suggests lines for understanding the transformation of the religion in the post-palatial and succeeding Dark Age. After such an exhaustive excursion through the evidence readers might value an even more detailed comparative study and a discussion of the probability that Minoan cosmology and myth was in part retained to be incorporated into historic Cretan and Greek religion.

This book is illustrative of a problem often encountered in studies in Aegean pre- and proto-history. Despite a professed interest in utilizing theory, when faced with the choice of rigorously applying theories to particular cases, many scholars avoid the confrontation and slip back into the much easier mode of description employed by generations of scholars who wrote culture history. But as Binford notes, the past, like the present, consists of dynamic societal organisms with observable systemic interrelationships, thus any approach to reconstructing the past has to respect that dynamism and carefully employ analogy and some form of systems analysis.17 In this book no such approaches are taken, and in consequence our understanding of Minoan religion is not markedly advanced. The primary reason for this failure, in the opinion of this reviewer, is the narrow focus on arguing for the dominant role of religion in the Minoan palaces without a complementary appreciation of the role of religion in the evolution of the society. Marinatos indulges in reconstructions of rituals and beliefs without providing dynamic socio-political contexts and justifications for their practice. One finishes the book wondering if all that was said could be true, rather than coming away with a better understanding of how in the context of the long evolution of Minoan society religion played a vital and dominant role.


  • [1] E. Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, Glencoe, IL: Free Press 1926; A. Wallace, Religion: An Anthropological View, New York: Random House 1966; W. Lessa and E. Vogt, eds. Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, New York: Harper and Row 1972; C. Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, New York: Basic Books 1973; C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice, New York: Oxford 1992.
  • [2] D. Levi, "La tomba a tholos di Kamilari pressa a Festos," Annuario della scuola archeologica di Atene, n.s. 23-24 (1961-62) pp. 61-69, esp. pp. 67, 135, passim.
  • [3] Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 98-125; R. Hertz, Death and the Right Hand, Glencoe, IL: Free Press 1960; L. Danforth, Death Rituals of Rural Greece, Princeton: Princeton 1982, pp. 25-34.
  • [4] Geertz, p. 119 maintains that religion does not merely "describe the social order but also shapes it."
  • [5] J. O'Shea, Mortuary Variability, New York: Academic 1984, p. 21; Geertz, p. 88.
  • [6] M. Dabney in M. Dabney and J. Wright, "Mortuary Customs, Palatial Society and State Formation in the Aegean Area: A Comparative Study," in Celebrations of Death and Divinity in the Bronze Age Argolid (Proceedings of the 4th International Symposium at the Swedish Institute in Athens, June 10-16 1984), Stockholm 1987, p. 46; M. Dabney, The Later Stages of State Formation in Palatial Crete," in Politeia (Proceedings of the 5th International Aegean Conference, Heidelberg, April 10-13, 1994) R. Laffineur and W.-D. Niemeier, eds, in press.
  • [7] J. Soles, The Prepalatial Cemeteries at Mochlos and Gournia and the House Tombs of Bronze Age Crete, Hesperia Supplement; T. Whitelaw, "The Settlement at Fournou Korifi Myrtos and Aspects of Early Minoan Social Organization," in Minoan Society, O. Krzyszkowska and L. Nixon, eds. Bristol: Bristol Classical Press, pp. 336-330.
  • [8] L. Godart and J.-P. Olivier, Fouilles exécutées à Mallia: Les Quartier Mu. Études Cretois 23 Paris 1978; B. Detournay, J.-C. Poursat and F. Vandenabeele, Fouilles exécutées à Mallia: Les Quartier Mu, Études Cretois 26, Paris 1980; L. Pernier, Il palazzo minoico di Festos, volume I, Rome 1935, pp. 195-238; L. Pernier and L. Banti, Il palazzo minoico di Festos, volume II, Rome 1951, pp. 572-81; and in general see G. Gesell, Town, Palace and House Cult in Minoan Crete, SIMA 67, Göteborg 1985.
  • [9] S. Hood and W. Taylour, The Bronze Age Palace at Knossos, BSA Supplementary Volume 13, London 1981, no. 88.
  • [10] See K. Krattenmaker and R. Mersereau, "Bringing the Palace to the Sanctuary: Two- vs. Three-Dimensional Representation of Architecture in Minoan Palatial Art," AJA 97 (1993) pp. 349-50; C. Boulotis, "Villes et Palais dans l'art Égéen," in P. Darque and R. Treuil, eds. L'Habitat Égéen préhistorique, BCH, Supplement 19 (1990) pp. 421-59.
  • [11] K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology, 1947, p. 20; G. Conrad and A. Demarest, Religion and Empire, Cambridge 1984, 205-26; M. Bloch, "Religon and Ritual," in A. Kuper and J. Kuper, eds. The Social Science Encyclopedia, Boston 1985, pp. 688-701.
  • [12] Wallace pp. 257-58; R. Bellah, "Religious Evolution," in W. Lessa and E. Vogt pp. 135-49.
  • [13] Wallace, p. 75-77 passim; J. Knight, Jr. "The Institutional Organization of Misssissippian Religion," American Antiquity 51 (1985) 675-87; idem, Mississippian Religion (Ann Arbor: University Microfilms 1981); in this regard see also Victor Turner's notion of the "dominant symbol" -- an all embracing symbol that encompasses contradictory elements within an ideological structure (V. Turner, The Forest of Symbols, Ithaca, NY 1967, pp. 20-32).
  • [14] A good primer is the article by Mieke Bal and Norman Bryson, "Semiotics and Art History," Art Bulletin 73, 1991: 174-208.
  • [15] L. Morgan, The Miniature Wall Paintings of Thera, Cambridge 1985, pp. 117-18, passim.
  • [16] Bloch, p. 699; Bellah, pp. 135-49.
  • [17] L. Binford, "Archeological Perspectives," in L. Binford and S. Binford, eds. New Perspectives in Archeology, Chicago 1968, pp. 5-32. On analogy see, L. Binford, "Smudge Pits and Hide Smoking: The Use of Analogy in Archaeological Reasoning," American Antiquity 32 (1967) pp. 1-12.