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.
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).
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,
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.
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.
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.
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,
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)
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.
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.