Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.08.11


Minoan Religion: A Response to J. Wright

Nanno Marinatos, College Year in Athens

Not every critical review requires a response. Scholarship needs dialogue, divergent views should be heard, theories should be evaluated. What has prompted an answer on my part to J. Wright's review of my Minoan Religion, Bryn Mawr Classical Review 6 (1995) [= 95.03.17], are not his disagreements but his misunderstandings of the intention of my book which is on Minoan rituals and symbols and not on state formation. He gives the impression that my account of religion is devoid of social context, and that I am unaware of the use of myth and ritual as instruments of power. According to Wright, there is 'inadequate consideration of the evolution of Minoan religion as part of an increasing complex and unified society that emerged in Crete during the second millennium BC' (p. 62).

None of the above is true. If I have not devoted much space to the emergence of chiefdoms and states, the 'emergence of priesthood' etc., it is because I find that theoretical models can be dangerous. If historical evidence is inadequate on the emergence of the Minoan priesthood, for example, I prefer to confine myself to what we have, namely iconography, and draw on parallel phenomena of the historically well documented cultures of the Near East. In addition, valuable work on such subjects has already been conducted by P. Warren, J. Soles, K. Brannigan and others whose research I have used and cited. There is scope for a different approach to the religion of Minoan Crete based on religious phenomenology; this approach neither confines itself to pure archaeological description (pace Wright, p. 69), nor expands on theoretical models. Parallel phenomena from other cultures offer suggestions (although not proof) of what may have happened in Crete.

Surprisingly enough there is much on which we agree. Like Wright, I have stressed the importance of feasting and drinking rituals in a palatial context (pp. 99-103), and although I have not included charts to illustrate power relationships, I do clearly state the social implications of rituals controlled by the palatial elite. In the feasting ceremonies, for example, I postulate a link between the aristocracy inside the palaces and the people outside (p. 103). By the way, such dining rituals and feasts are finding confirmation in the recent excavations of G. Rethemiotakis at a new palace at Galatas, Crete. Feasting is one example only of how the upper classes controlled ritual; there are others as well cited in the book, such as the performances enacted by the palatial elite in areas adjacent to palaces and villas. I conclude: "The Minoan religious system then was centered around the cult centers ... that we call palaces. Their appearance ... served as a unifying force, while the rulers must have legitimized their authority by monopolizing religion" (p.110).

A serious accusation by Wright is that I mix Minoan and Mycenaean levels of cult, as though I were unaware that there are historical changes in Crete. Wright is puzzled as to why the Hagia Triada sarcophagus is discussed in a chapter which deals with prepalatial Crete. He would indeed have been very right had I not explicitly stated my choice for doing so: "This chapter has focused mostly on the Prepalatial period but, as must have been become evident, the cult of the dead persisted into the Palatial and even Postpalatial eras. It seems logical to close our discussion with two pieces which supplement the archaeological data with iconographical evidence" (p. 31). My reasoning, as stated, is that the archaeological finds can be better understood with supplementary information from art. True, the Hagia Triada sarcophagus dates some centuries later than the Prepalatial and Protopalatial artifacts. However, there is no evidence that fundamental beliefs changed in Crete even after the so-called Mycenaean takeover. This is not just a tacit assumption on my part. I have tried to demonstrate the continuity of the fundamental concepts of Minoan religion in ch. 11, a conclusion that most scholars would not disagree with. At the same time I have consistently drawn attention to the historical and social changes: "If the picture that I have attempted to sketch has some truth in it, it follows that the palaces were the backbones of the religious system and that some radical transformations would have occurred after their dissolution. This is indeed what happened ... there were new features in the expression of the cult, although the essential beliefs remained the same" (p. 244). It is thus puzzling that the explicitly stated postulates of my reasoning would be ignored, especially since the analysis of the Hagia Triada sarcophagus is self-sufficient and is not used to explain earlier evidence.

Incidentally, the Mycenaean takeover, as Wright envisions it, is no more than a theory. What speaks against takeover on the dynastic level, for example? If the new aristocracy were a mixture of Mycenaeans and Minoans, the former being the dominant elite who imposed their language, the essential cultural characteristics of Crete would have remained unaffected. It is true, at any rate, that both religious symbols and iconography remained stable in Crete although not static.

Another problem with my book, according to Wright, has to do with origins. "... 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 ... Consideration of the outdoor areas of cult activity ... is central to any discussion of the 'origins' of Minoan religion" (p. 64). It is precisely because I see a problem that I have abstained from speculations about cosmogonies. I must confess I have no way to get to the origins of any religion, much less the Minoan one where we have such scarce documentation. Exceptions, of course, are such religions as have emerged in relatively recent times and which are historically well documented. Even Greek religion posits constant problems to specialists, and it is well known that there is a split between those who see a strong Oriental influence as a determining factor, and those who prefer to see Mycenaean religion surviving into the era of the polis. To complicate matters, there are local cults and regional variations. How any one could say anything concrete about the origins of Minoan religion befuddles me. Even so, I have made a feeble attempt to show in ch. 2 that cult activity concentrated around the tombs in early times, and stated only the self evident: that there was apparently a female deity in charge of regeneration and death. (Such deities are well documented in the Ancient Orient as well.)

Surely, peak sanctuaries, which Wright connects with 'origins', reveal nothing about the beliefs of the Minoans since a variety of deities may have been worshipped there. Nor can we ascertain much about the nature of early cults. Although peak sanctuaries seem to be a phenomenon of the First Palaces, earlier evidence of human worship may have been lost if offerings were modest and made of perishable materials. Peak sanctuaries merely reflect the choice of spot, in itself not an unimportant consideration in the understanding of Minoan religious mentality. Peak sanctuaries obviously had diverse cults and not a single unified one. What I have stressed is the social context: that they offer us a glimpse into popular religion and that the type of clientele that visited nature sanctuaries consisted of men and women, the rich and as well as the poor (pp. 116,123-126).

As to Wright's complaint that I do not deal with "Minoan cosmology and myth [which] was [probably] in part retained to be incorporated into historical Cretan and Greek religion" (p. 69), I have indeed resisted the temptation to project Greek myths onto the Minoans, given the problem of continuity and syncretism with the East, a subject which would well deserve another book.

Wright finds my iconographical analysis inadequate as well. There is little attempt to recover syntax, rules and grammar of Minoan iconography, he alleges (p. 68). I find this puzzling since, in fact, I engage in quite a bit of 'iconographical analysis', although I do not use the vocabulary mentioned above. It is true, that some scenes I did take for granted, especially where goddesses or gods, generally acknowledged to be such, are represented. Yet, I have made sure to discuss the meaning of puzzling elements or signs, such as columns and trees (pp. 180-181). I have also dealt with spatial relationships (for example whether we have outdoor or interior setting) and analyzed gestures, in such scenes as have ambiguities and in which the identity of figures came into question (pp. 180-192). Thus, the art historical method is there integrated in the analysis itself: differentiation of figures by position, gesture and size, age groups, garments, role division (cf. pp. 133, 135-137, 145).

I shall not dwell on other points of disagreement. I would like to state, however, that I have tried to always keep the social picture in the background. I do not claim to always be right, but it is unfair, and perhaps even disrespectful, to state that I have slipped back "into the much easier mode of description employed by generations of scholars ..." (p. 69) The irony is that I find much to agree with in Wright's work on Mycenaean religion and state formation. If we use different paths to arrive at our respective conclusions, he working with theoretical models, I with anthropology of religion, I consider this diversity to be a healthy state of affairs and not evidence of 'narrow focus' (p. 70) on my part.