BMCR 2020.05.42

Cultic life of trees in the Prehistoric Aegean, Levant, Egypt and Cyprus

, Cultic life of trees in the Prehistoric Aegean, Levant, Egypt and Cyprus. Aegaeum (Annales d'archéologie égéenne de l'Université de Liège et UT-PASP), 42. Leuven; Liège: Peeters, 2018. xviii, 314 p.. ISBN 9789042937161. € 110.00.

Tully’s monograph, based upon a 2016 PhD thesis, sets out to bring the study of Minoan tree cult into the twenty-first century. The field has, until now, been heavily influenced by Arthur Evans’ 1901 study, ‘Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult and Its Mediterranean Relations’, which Tully describes as ‘canonical’ (p.5).[1] The approach offered by Tully intends to introduce modern analytical techniques to the iconography of the 44 images of Minoan tree cult which form the focus of this piece. These images are found across 21 gold rings, 2 bronze rings, 1 bone ring, 7 clay imprints from metal rings, 6 sealstones, 3 paintings, 2 fragments from stone vases, 1 ivory pyxis, and 1 bronze plaque, and are taken from across the Aegean. They are also compared with additional images of sacred trees from Cyprus, the Levant, and Egypt. The inherent challenges of dealing with four such distinct territories are apparent from the front matter, which sets out a helpful set of six chronologies for any readers not accustomed to the dating schemes of the territories.

The front matter of the monograph is extensive, offering a thorough table of contents, useful to the reader interested primarily in one region’s tree cult. It also offers details of the 215 high-quality figures included at the close of the monograph. These figures range from the heavily annotated sketches of the images, glyptic and otherwise, under discussion to maps of archaeological sites and photos of frescoes.

The monograph proper consists of eight chapters, a brief introduction and final summary. The opening part of Tully’s monograph introduces the academic context and the source material. The academic context, while heavily influenced by Evans’ work, does extend beyond it, into the 21st century, and Tully identifies a number of key themes in scholarship, including the challenge of identifying tree type. Contrary to Evans’ approach, Tully takes the line of Moody, in that ‘In none of the glyptic cases is it really possible to identify tree species’, and extends this to larger images, such as the frescoes under discussion in this study. The final section of the opening chapter introduces Tully’s three key questions: what is the nature of Minoan religion; what is the meaning of the sacred tree; and can comparative studies of sacred trees in the Eastern Mediterranean inform our understanding of Minoan tree cult?

An aspect of Evans’ scholarship that Tully aims to move away from is the use of glyptic images in particular to identify the location of Minoan cult sites in the landscape (pp.9-10). She outlines the problem with this in the “Theoretical Framework.” Here, she discusses the parergon, or frame of the space occupied by the image, and the image’s miniaturisation. Tully argues that this renders a glyptic image unable to depict a real site: it is reduced to an abbreviation of one. This is where Tully introduces a common refrain of her study. These images are not scenes, but signs. The argument is compelling although brief, and becomes something of a mantra for the reader as it is repeated at least once in each of the following chapters.

These chapters follow a basic structure, fully outlined in the Table of Contents below this review: chapters three to five deal exclusively with images found in the Aegean. The following three (chapters six to eight) introduce images from beyond, although chapter six does include two Cretan images alongside two of uncertain provenance.

The repetition of ‘signs not scenes’ across these chapters, while a minor frustration to those already persuaded, is necessary. It combats the academic precedent of trying to match the images to sites, and reinforces the point to cursory readers who may dip in and out of the carefully partitioned chapters rather than read cover to cover. This second reason also explains the sometimes formulaic chapter construction of a description of the images discussed, the general dismissal of potential real-world locations, and discussion of the societal implications of the images. There are two partial exceptions to the treatment of these images as ‘signs not scenes’. The images discussed in chapter five (figs 19-42), ‘Trees and Cult Structures’, are an exception, although Tully limits them to only having ‘a basis in reality’ (p.93). Additionally, the images discussed in chapter eight (figs 193a-202), ‘Trees in Cyprus’, ‘elements of the imagery… do correlate with features of rural sanctuaries’ (p.162).

Tully highlights throughout the nature of the individuals engaging in tree cult activity, or in a proximal relationship with sacred trees. These people are, like the owners of the luxury items the images are carved on, likely to be élite members of society, and Tully utilises the scheme of Peirce’s scheme of ‘Icon, Index, and Symbol’ to arrive at this conclusion.[2] This, Tully argues, is essentially a gatekeeping exercise for the numinous landscape, reserving it for a wealthy élite, and she identifies features of these images, such as the tree and the rock as representations of power (pp.46-8). In her conclusion, Tully tells us that these tree cult scenes can show us how Minoan élites established power, arguing that the tree acts as a ‘physiomorphic representation of a goddess type’ (p.163), and that this representation functions to enhance the self representation of élite women as divinities. This conclusion is possible by the consistent appearance of the goddess type in the comparative studies from the Levant, Egypt, and Cyprus. This can be extended to the depictions of tree cult in proximity to boats (the subject of chapter six), which show dominance over the landscape, and promote Minoan seafaring.

This book should not be approached as a book about trees. Tully makes it clear very quickly that there is little benefit in identifying these trees, either by species or location. They are examined as a constituent and visible part of a numinous landscape. The book should be read as one about Minoan religious practices, and what these images of tree cult on a range of objects can tell us about Minoan society. Through a series of case study chapters and comparative studies, it explores interaction with the landscape as one layered with meaning, and does this through the lens of Minoan tree cult activity. It updates the field in a much-needed manner, and develops a new cross-disciplinary methodology for the re-examination of these images. This methodology enables Tully to dispel the argument put forward in the canonical study of Evans, that these sacred trees belonged to a primitive religion. Through her fresh approach, Tully inserts new complexity into the issue of Minoan tree cult, and into ancient interactions with the landscape.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Background and Methodology
1. Review of the Literature
2. Theoretical Framework
Part 2: The Aegean
3. Trees in Rocky Ground
4. Trees, Walls and Gates
5. Trees and Cult Structures
Part 3: Interconnections/koiné
6. Trees and Boats
7. Trees in the Levant and Egypt
8. Trees in Cyprus


[1] A. Evans, Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult and its Mediterranean Relations. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 21 (1901), 99-204.

[2] Peirce, C.S. (1932) The Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, Volumes I and II: Principles of Philosophy and Elements of Logic. Cambridge: Belknap Press.