Minoan Religion and the Ancient Greeks

Tom Hermes, Dickson College, 2011


This essay was submitted as part of the Ancient Mediterranean & Mesopotamia unit at Dickson College, Semester 1, 2011. It was written in response to the self-devised focus question: 'What were the influences of the Minoan religion on that of the Ancient Greeks?' Tom Hermes also contributed The PLO and the Gulf War to Clio.

The Minoan civilisation of Crete had a large influence on the formation of the Hellenic religion. Elements of Minoan culture, language and art came into use throughout Greece during the Neopalatial period. In this period the Minoan religion and their deities came to influence and merge with those of the Mycenaeans and other mainland Greek societies. The Minoan Gods provided inspiration and served as models for many of the later Greek deities.

To assess the Minoan influence on the Ancient Greek religion one must first establish a basic understanding of the nature of the Minoan religious beliefs. Our knowledge of the nature of Minoan religion has been equated by many to a picture book which lacks text (Hood 1971, p. 131). What we do know is that the Minoans had a polytheistic, matriarchal and nature worshipping religion. This understanding is based on the study of numerous idols, pictures, limited primary texts and other artefacts recently discovered in Crete, primarily at Knossos.

The greatest way in which the Minoan religion influenced that of the Greeks is in providing templates and inspiration for many of their deities. Zeus, the chief deity of the Ancient Greeks, was almost certainly adopted from the Minoan interpretation of this God. In Crete, Zeus was worshipped as a mortal God and by no means a major one. He was mainly worshipped by a cult of select followers, not the mainstream Minoans (Dietrich 1974, p. 88). In Minoan mythology Zeus is a divine figure but not immortal, though the nature of the Cretan Zeus’ death is not known it is known that he did die. The Greeks made Zeus their all-powerful, immortal God and rejected the Cretans’ mortal interpretation of the deity, dismissing this myth as blasphemy, but retained the overall character of Zeus (Hutchinson 1962, p. 200). One of the most telling signs that Zeus is of Minoan origin is that it is widely accepted that Zeus was born or at least raised in the Cretan town of Lyktos. Hesiod writes “To Lyktos first she (Rhea) came, bearing the child (Zeus).” (Banks 1923, p. 81) The story of Zeus’ birth and upbringing was passed on to the Greeks from the Minoans. This is evident because the myth takes place in Crete and was certainly Minoan as the other Cretan civilisation who may have passed it down to the Greeks, the Dorians, have no mention of a similar story in all their folklore (Hutchinson 1962, p. 201).

Figure 1: Statue of Athena.
Many other Ancient Greek deities had their origins in the gods of the Minoans, most clearly the goddess Athena. There is much evidence linking the goddess Athena with Minoan Crete. Robert Graves, in his book The Greek Myths, writes of the birth of Athena as her “coming to Greece by way of Crete.” Her name too was Minoan in origin and was even mentioned earlier than Zeus in Linear B script (Athena - Ancient Greek Goddess 2008), not surprising considering that the Minoans strongly favoured female deities. Athena is strongly associated with snakes, prominent sacred figures of Minoan religion. Proof of her snake association is evident in three factors: Ancient Greek historian Herodotus writes of a “house-protecting snake” which resides in Athena’s temple (Lafargue 1890, p. 926), in many statues of Athena she is depicted accompanied by a snake (see Figure 1) and her character in Greek mythology, especially in the poems of Homer, has the ability to transform into a snake. The most likely explanation for Athena’s association with snakes is that her character is derived from the Minoan’s most recognisable deity known as the Snake-Goddess.

Artemis is another Greek Goddess whose origins are almost certainly Minoan. She is strongly associated with the Minoan sacred figure Potnia Theron the “Mistress of the Animals” who is the holy figure to which many Minoan mountain temples are devoted. We see an embodiment in Artemis of many of the most sacred ideas of the Minoans. The Minoans’ religion was focused on nature and animals. Artemis is the Greek god of the wilderness and of wild animals so she naturally has many similarities to Minoan deities and beliefs. In her cult were present many rituals and symbols like the sacred bough of which Nilsson writes “The resemblance to the Minoan tree-cult and orgiastic dance is obvious.” (Nilsson 1925, p. 28) This alone does not draw a link between Artemis and the Minoans but further evidence is seen in the writing of Homer who refers numerous times to Artemis as Potnia Theron (Nilsson 1933, p. 39). This is widely considered to be Homer attributing the goddess to the Minoans and, the first time the word “Artemis” appears is in the Linear B script of the Mycenaean Cretans (Rose 1959, p. 112). Further Greek gods who are Minoan in at least elements of their character and representations include Apollo, Hermes and Aphrodite (Dietrich 1974, p. 87-88).

There is an abundance of evidence of the Minoan influence on the broad culture and religion of societies on mainland Greece. Up until their civilisation’s downfall, the Minoans were very advanced in societal terms when compared with the relatively primitive Greek society of the period and were thus considered role models in many ways. As stated by historian, Martin Nilsson: "The Cretan overlords must still more strongly have influenced the subordinate, undeveloped Grecian people, not least in religious matters" (Nilsson 1925, p. 70).

This strong religious influence first permeated mainland Greece through the Mycenaeans. The evidence of this is seen in archeological artefacts and structures which have been discovered on the mainland which prove that Minoan religious idols and methods were in use, one example is described by Nilsson as;

At Mycenae a stepped base of a kind similar to that upon which the double axe was erected was recently found. This find is important because it shows that the cult was carried on upon the Mycenaean mainland in the same manner as in Minoan Crete (Nilsson 1925, p. 99).

Additionally, in the Greek temples of Delphi, Delos and Eleusis many others artefacts that are certainly of Minoan origin, or at least Minoan-inspired, have been uncovered.

The Ancient Greeks are known to have formed their religion by taking and adapting the deities and religious methods of surrounding cultures and Minoan Crete was one of their major influences. Historian Will Durant writes "By a hundred channels the old civilization emptied itself into the new." (Durant 1939, p. 73). Adding to this, Nilsson writes

Natural religion is associated with the soil. Lands may change in respect of population and language, but the immigrants do not refuse their homage to the old gods of the country. The latter do not entirely disappear, even though they are supplanted and transformed. This was in all probability what took place in Greece in prehistoric times. (Nilsson 1925, p. 71)

Even the concept of Heaven in the form of the Elysian Fields is thought to be a legacy from the religion of Bronze Age Crete (Hood 1971, p. 139). In addition to this, many Greek religious practices in the Hellenic Greece probably take their inspiration or literal form from those of the Minoans, these include religious music and dancing styles as well as some sacrificial practices. For example, the lyre, an important musical instrument used in many Greek religious practices, is likely to have been brought to Greece through Minoan Crete. An early form of the lyre is depicted in seal impressions found in Knossos. Leading authority on Minoan Crete Sinclair Hood writes “The music of the Greeks, like so much of their religion, may have been derived from Bronze Age Crete.” (Hood 1971, p. 139) The Minoans had a large influence on Ancient Greek religious practices and broader culture.

The religion of the Minoan civilisation had a profound effect on the religion of the Ancient Greeks. The Cretans had a large impact on the formation of Greek culture and religion. The Greeks formed their religious beliefs and practices by taking and adapting those of surrounding cultures and Minoan civilisation was one of the most prominent of these. The way that the Minoans most influenced the religion of the Greeks was in their deities. Greek gods including Zeus, Athena, Artemis and numerous others took their inspiration from the gods and goddesses of the Minoans.

Subject Author Replies Views Last Message
No Comments

Annotated Bibliography

Literary Sources

Banks, J. (translator) 1923, The Works of Hesiod, Callimachus and Theognis, Henry G. Bohn Publishers, London
Used to find references of the origins of Zeus in Hesiod’s work. Faithful translation.

Boardman, John, Griffin, Jasper & Murray, Oswyn 1986, The Oxford History of the Classical World, Oxford University Press, Oxford
Provided brief overview of Minoan influences in Greek civilisation.

Dietrich, Bernard C. 1974, The Origins of Greek Religion, Walter de Gruyter & Co., Berlin
Major resource. Provided very detailed account of the nature of Minoan religion and its influence on the Greeks.

Durant, Will 1939, The Story of Civilization: Part II, The Life of Greece, Simon & Schuster, New York
Relatively brief account of the history of Greek religion.

Evans, Arthur 1901, The Mycenaean Tree and Pillar Cult and Its Mediterranean Relations, Kessinger Publishing, London
Considered most authoritative analysis of artefacts of Knossos. Provided information as to nature of Minoan deities.

Fox, Robin Lane 2005, The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome, Penguin Publishing, Sydney
Broad history of the Greek and Roman civilisations. Provided very brief summary of history of Greek religion.

Hutchinson, R.W. 1962, Prehistoric Crete, Penguin Books, London
Reliable history of Minoan civilisation. Contains detailed chapter on Minoan religion and its impact on the Greek religion.

Homer 2003, The Iliad, translated by E.V. Rieu, Penguin Publishing, New York
Reliable translation of Homer’s epic poem. Contains numerous references to Crete and Minoan culture.

Hood, Sinclair 1971, The Minoans: The Story of Bronze Age Crete, Praeger Publishers, New York
Major resource, Hood considered a leading expert on Minoan Crete. Provided good information as to the nature and specific influences of Minoan religion on Greece.

Lafargue, Paul 1890, The Myth of Athena, Time, London
Concise history of the Goddess Athena, including her Minoan origins.

Nilsson, Martin Persson 1925, A History of Greek Religion, Oxford University Press, London
Major resource. Nilsson was one of the leading scholars in the Minoan area. This work contains an extensive section on the Minoan-Mycenaean influences.

Nilsson, Martin Persson 1933, Homer And Mycenae, Methuen & Co., London
Details the role of Minoan and Mycenaean societies in the works of Homer.

Nilsson, Martin Persson 1950, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its Survival in Greek Religion, Biblo and Tannen, New York
Provided extensive information on the essay topic, written by leading authority.

Rose, H. J. 1959, A Handbook of Greek Mythology, Dutton Publishing. London
A history of Greek thinking and influences on it. Included histories of the Gods and detailed their Minoan origins where applicable.

Online Resources

'Athena - Ancient Greek Goddess', 2008, Ancient Greece, viewed 15/4/11 at http://www.ancientgreece.com/s/Athena/
Provided a concise history of the Goddess Athena.

'Minoan Religion: The Nature of the Evidence', Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean, viewed 14/4/11 at http://projectsx.dartmouth.edu/history/bronze_age/lessons/les/15.html
Lengthy documentation of the primary evidence relating to Minoan religion

Assessment Task