Craftsmen of the Minoan civilization centred on the island of Crete produced stone vessels from the early Bronze Age (c. 2500 BCE) using a wide variety of stone types which were laboriously carved out to create vessels of all shapes, sizes and function. The craft continued for a millennium and vessels were of such quality that they found their way to the Greek mainland and islands across the Aegean.
Stone vases are amongst some of the earliest surviving artefacts from the Minoan civilization with examples from the early Minoan phase between 2500 and 2000 BCE. With origins in the Neolithic period and perhaps influenced in the early stages by Egyptian artists, Cretan artisans used chisels, hammers, saws and blades to work blocks of stone, sometimes also using a harder stone tool. The vessels were finished by grinding with an abrasive such as sand or emery imported from Naxos in the Cyclades. The inside of the vessel was carved out using a copper drill turned with a bow and once again using an abrasive. The drill was hollow and so the residual core of stone was then snapped off and the work finished using a second drill.
Most designs were copied from pottery shapes and even pottery decoration such as the Marine Style with its octopuses and shells was transferred to stone vessels.
A wide variety of stone was used by Minoan craftsmen and included variegated marble, limestone, gypsum and calcite (alabaster), breccia, basalt, obsidian, rock-crystal, steatite (soapstone), schist and serpentine. In addition, design and material were often carefully matched so that elegant forms brought to the fore the natural colour variations of the stone. Most designs seem to have been copied from contemporary pottery shapes and even pottery decoration such as the Marine Style with its octopuses and shells was transferred to stone vessels.
Many fine examples of stoneware were produced across Crete including Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, Mochlos, Palaaikastro, Tylissos, Gournia and Zakros. Indeed, such was the success of Minoan artists that vessels were even exported to the Greek mainland and across the Aegean to islands such as the Cyclades.
Shapes & Designs
Popular shapes include the 'bird's nest' lidded bowl which tapered significantly at the base and was probably used to store thick oils and ointments. The form was produced over a period of 1000 years throughout Crete from 2500 to 1500 BCE. The same shape of vessel but with simple carved lines on the exterior imitating petals is known as a blossom bowl and enjoyed similar longevity in terms of popularity as the 'bird's nest' variety. The most common material for these vessels was dark grey serpentine, although, one notable lid with a carved dog is made from green schist.
As artists grew in confidence other, more ambitious and larger vessels were made such as ritual vases or rhyta which could take many forms. These were usually covered in gold leaf and were especially popular in the 15th century BCE, when the outer surfaces were, once again, often decorated with scenes carved in relief. A typical example is the Chieftain Cup in serpentine which depicts a young prince in Cretan costume, high boots and jewelled collar holding a sceptre and giving orders to one of his captains outside what appears to be a palace. Conical shapes with a single handle were popular but rhyta could also be made in the shape of animals such as lions, bulls (see below) and even shells, for example, the triton shell from Malia, which is decorated with relief scenes of demons and sealife.
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Stone vases were perhaps the most common shape of all for Minoan stoneware. Tall, elegant chalices were produced with horizontal ribbing or vertical flutes, sometimes in quatrefoil form. Another type was the two-handled vase, probably imitating metal vessels, a form which is frequently depicted in Minoan frescoes. Plainer, cylindrical vases, spouted jugs and lidded boxes were also produced, as were small vessels with such limited cavities that they could only have functioned as dedicatory grave goods.
With the Mycenaean takeover of Minoan sites in the second half of the 15th century BCE the production of stoneware ceased at all sites except Knossos. Those vessels that were made tended to be larger and more functional in shape and even these died out on Crete by the early 14th century BCE.
Perhaps the most famous example of a stone rhyton is the serpentine bull's head from the Little Palace at Knossos (c. 1600-1500 BCE) which is now in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. With gilded wooden horns, rock-crystal eyes and a white tridacna shell muzzle the animal is superbly rendered, capturing a life-like pose that would not be equalled in art until Classical Greek sculpture a millennium later. The head is also engraved to depict short curled hairs above the forehead and longer hairs down the cheeks. The horns have been restored (in imitation of a similar vessel from Mycenae) but one of the eyes is original and was painted behind with a black iris and red pupil. The eyes are also set inside a thin red jasper surround which gives a bloodshot effect making the bull even more realistic and threatening. The vessel was filled from the neck and liquid poured out from a small hole in the muzzle.
Another excellent example of a rhyton in stone is the serpentine Harvester Vase of Hagia Triada on Crete (c. 1500-1450 BCE). Once covered in gold leaf, this vessel, of which only the upper portion survives, is covered in relief scenes depicting a sowing festival with no fewer than 27 figures: an aged gentleman in a cloak, a singer with a rattle or sistrum of Egyptian origin, a choir and figures carrying hoes and bags of seed corn in their belts.
Two superb rock-crystal examples are the shallow bowl from Mycenae (but attributed to 16th century BCE Minoan Crete) which has an elegant duck's head for a handle and was perhaps originally used for storing cosmetics. The second striking rock-crystal vessel is a jug from Zakros (c. 1450 BCE) and it was also probably used to pour libation liquids in religious ceremonies. It has a separately made collar of rock-crystal with gilded ivory discs which cleverly hides the join between the neck and body. The jar has a handle made of 14 large green beads, also in rock-crystal, strung onto bronze wire. The vessel was discovered shattered into hundreds of small pieces but it has been painstakingly restored to once again win deserved admiration for the skill and artistry of Minoan stoneworkers.
History of Mexican Talavera and Greek Minoan Pottery
Talavera pottery's journey has taken centuries, and has traversed the globe. The stunningly beautiful artwork known to us today as the Talavera pottery of Mexico comes from a tradition spanning centuries and continents. Yet, the history and handcraft we know as today's Mexican Talavera pottery was almost lost to us forever after its early emergence in the 16th century.
In the 1980's, the craft had almost vanished, as the painstaking process of harvesting the indigenous clay, hand-forming the local minerals into paints and the beautiful hand-painting characteristic of this pottery was simply too time-consuming for the artisans.
To hold one of these hand-crafted pieces of art, made from only the finest indigenous clays and hand-ground mineral paints, is to understand you are the steward of something truly noteworthy. We are grateful to do our small part towards keeping this beauty and craftsmanship vital.
History of Greek Minoan Pottery
Minoan pottery is another ancient craft, reflecting history, the values of a culture, astonishingly contemporary design and a deep commitment to beauty, symmetry and nature.
However, where the beauty of Talavera traveled across countries and cultures, the fine art of Minoan pottery stayed largely within its home on the Crete Island. Instead, this beautiful handcraft evolved over millennium into different periods of design, each reflecting the cultural influences of its time.
The Minoan pottery of Greece, found on the beautiful island of Crete, is a story of over three thousand years of evolving design and cultural sensitivity. Aficionados will see centuries-old dinnerware, plates and tableware that reflect the beauty and colors of nature, symmetry and functionality.
For a concise overview regarding the history and beauty of this fine pottery, we recommend reading journalist and historian Mark Cartwright's excellent entry in the Ancient History Encyclopedia: Minoan Pottery.
The Minoans were a Bronze Age Agean civilization, dating from 3,000 B.C. to their eventual decline and disappearance in 1,100 B.C. It is believed a volcanic eruption contributed to their disappearance, although there is some mystery around the demise of this culture.
In brief, Minoan pottery is into three main periods, with very distinct design approaches. Across these three design periods, however, the focus on graceful and functional construction and a natural color palette of terracota, white, red and black remains evident. The Minoan artistry reflects a love of flowing, natural shapes and also of nature: many of their earliest pieces reflect birds and animals.
The first known period of Minoan pottery design, utilized for vases, plates, dinnerware and other functional and decorative pieces, was characterized by red and white designs, often very dense, on black background. This period lasted approximately from 2000-1700 BC.
A Brief History of the Island of Crete As it Relates to Minoan Pottery
In the article series Minoan Pottery, you can read about the various stages of Minoan pottery, the styles, uses and sources of inspiration. Beginning with a brief history of the island of Crete will allow a better understanding of the culture known as Minoan.
Stone Age ( _ - 2400 BC)
There is, to date, no written evidence that man arrived on the island of Crete before Neolithic times.
The peoples of the island at this time were seafarers, or semi-nomadic groups with their origins in Asia or North Africa. The were primitive peoples whose existence depended on hunting and fishing, with the people living in or near caves. They used tools of both stone and bone and they made simple clay pottery. Later migrants to the island introduced basic agriculture, the domestication of animals, the knowledge of how to build clay brick dwellings and the idea of decorating their simple pottery pieces.
Copper and Bronze Age (the Minoan era. 2600 - 1100 BC)
Pre-Palatial (2600 BC - 2000 BC)
Newcomers from, it can't be said for certain where (possibly Asia Minor), came to the island around this time. These new peoples intermingled with the existing islanders. The new environment stimulated an individual culture that we now know as Minoan. One result of this influx of newcomers, was that a new artistry appeared in the treatment of pottery.
Proto (1st) Palatial (2000 - 1700 BC)
This time period saw the construction of the first palaces at Knossos, Phaestos and Mallia. Also during this time, a more systematic and hierarchic society came to be. Trade was increased with Egypt, Asia Minor, Africa, the Aegean Isles and the Mediterranean world in general.
Major achievements were seen in arts and crafts including stone carving, gold work, jewelry, sculpture, painting and - of course - pottery.
Around 1700 BC, the main palaces of Crete appear to have been struck by an earthquake or some other natural disaster. However, there seems to have been no break in the continuity of Minoan culture.
Neo (2nd) Palatial (1700 - 1400 BC)
After the natural disaster of 1700 BC, the palaces at Knossos, Phaestos and Mallia were reconstructed. The concentration of power at this time was at Knossos, with the legendary King Minos being the leader.
All of the arts and crafts were practiced during this time. Vase making in particular flourished with a movement toward more naturalistic decoration.
Around the year 1500 BC (there seems to be conflicting evidence as to the absolute correctness of this date, however, 1500 BC appears to be the most accepted to date) Knossos and many of the other centers of Minoan society appear to have been simultaneously overwhelmed. The most generally accepted theory is that there was a catastrophic explosion of Thera - the volcanic island located north of Crete - accompanied by a rain of volcanic matter, a tidal wave and an earthquake on Crete itself. Another theory revolves around the possibility of invaders or rebel forces attacking and burning down the palaces. Whatever the event, it marked the end of the Minoan society and culture as it had existed before.
Around 1450 BC, the Myceneans came to Crete and took over the administration of the island, rebuilding the palaces and playing an active role in what was left of Minoan life.
Post-Palatial (1400 - 1100 BC)
During the years following the great disaster of 1500 BC and the takeover of 1450 BC, although Minoan social, religious and artistic patterns seem to have been broken up, the arts and crafts of these people did not completely disappear (they were just altered slightly and added to by the Myceneans).
Portions of the Minoan sites were restored and reoccupied. Some Minoans founded new villages elsewhere on the island. However, for all intents and purposes, after the year 1100 BC, the Minoan culture was no more.
For more Ancient History articles and resources, be sure to visit N. S. Gill's About.com website at http://ancienthistory.about.com
A fantastic site on the history of Minoan Crete can be found at www.uk.digiserve.com/mentor/minoan/index.html
1 My thanks are due to the Managing Committee of the British School of Archaeology at Athens for awarding me the Macmillan Studentship for 1962 and 1963, when the substance of this article was written. I am also grateful to Mr. V. R. d'A. Desborough and to Mrs. E. French, who have discussed various points with me, and to Dr. St. Alexiou, Ephor of Crete, and his staff, who facilitated in every way my study of the material, and undertook the restoration of the crater.
Pendlebury's observation that one of the greatest necessities for Minoan archaeology is the excavation of a stratified L.M. III site is as true now as when it was written twenty-five years ago (AC 253).
The following abbreviations are additional to those normally used:
Athens = Broneer , , ‘ A Mycenaean Fountain on the Athenian Acropolis ’, Hesperia viii ( 1939 ) 317 – 429 .CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Borda = Borda , , Arte cretese-micenea nel Museo Pigorini di Roma ( Rome 1946 ).Google Scholar
Delphi = Lerat , , BCH lix . 329 –75.Google Scholar
Desborough = Desborough , , The last Mycenaeans and their Successors ( Oxford 1964 ).Google Scholar
FK = Matz , , Forschungen auf Kreta ( Berlin 1951 ).Google Scholar
Karpki = Seiradaki , , ‘ Pottery from Karphi ’, BSA lv . 1 – 37 .Google Scholar
Kastri = ‘Palaikastro VI’, pp. 278–99 above.
LDPK = Popham , , The Last Days of the Palace at Knossos ( Lund 1964 ).Google Scholar
Mallia = Dessenne , and Deshayes , , Fouilles exécutées à Mallia , Maisons ii ( Paris 1959 ).Google Scholar
Palestine = Bliss, Macalister, and Wunsch, Excavations in Palestine 1898–1900.
PKU = Bosanquet and Dawkins, The Unpublished Objects from the Palaikastro Excavations 1902–6, BSA Supplementary Paper 1.
Sinda = AJA lii (1948), ‘Archaeological News’ (531 and pl. lvii).
Tarsus = Excavations at Gözlü Kule, Tarsus ii (Princeton 1956).
2 No. 67 in the catalogue, Fig. 2, Plate 85a, considered L.M. IIIB, and another sherd difficult to classify with certainty.
3 Subsequently restored and illustrated in Archaeological Reports for 1963–4, fig. 31.
4 BSA vi (1899–1900) 17 for a description of the Central Clay Area. It was apparently the filling of soil below the great stairway of which the steps had been robbed.
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Ancient Minoan Civilization – The Minoan Inhabitants of Crete
The ancient Minoan civilization of Crete bears the same paradisiacal mystique as Atlantis though the Minoans left an indelible but undecipherable mark.
The ancient Minoan civilization began around 5000 BC on the island of Crete, marking the beginning of European Civilization. Located between Asia Minor and Greece, Crete – a mountainous expanse with natural harbors, is one of the largest islands in the Mediterranean Sea. Uniquely, the Minoan culture was based not on a military state but on commerce. Their success was likely due to the isolation of the island, a luxury the war-faring mainland didn’t share.
Little information is available about the Minoans before 2600 BC. Minor settlements were uncovered near the coast. Circular subterranean tombs were found scattered over the island, used for centuries by entire villages. Older corpses were moved to outer bone chambers to make room for newer burials.
Prepalatial Minoan 2600-1900 BC
Major settlements were at Myrtos and Mochlos. There appears to have been no centralized authority or hierarchical structure. Small palaces located near communities and the tombs were the major architectural accomplishments.
Around 2000 BC a new political system established a monarch or king as a central authority figure.
The Minoans traded with Egypt, Asia Minor and Syria for tin, copper, ivory, and gold. Gold artifacts and copper instruments dating back to 2300 BC have been found. Copper, much sought after at the time, was probably imported from Cyprus. The tin used in the production of bronze alloys was imported – the nearest known mines were as distant as Spain, Britain, and Iran.
Minoans built the first major navy in the world though its purpose was mercantile. Oaks, firs and cypresses were used in ship production. Pirates were a constant threat and the Minoans later redesigned their ships – a design used in the warships of the Mediterranean for the next 3000 years until the age of gunpowder.
Protopalatial Minoan 1900-1700 BC
In early 1900 BC larger palaces were founded, acting as community centers, and a hierarchy developed dividing the people into nobles, peasants, and possibly slaves. Women played important roles and held the same positions as men.
Paved roads were constructed to connect the major cultural centers, and settlements were established outside the palaces and eventually on nearby islands, spreading Minoan culture, religion and government throughout the Aegean. It was a prosperous time for the Minoans.
Neopalatial Minoan 1700-1400 BC
In 1700 BC the Minoan palaces were destroyed by unknown forces speculated to be a powerful earthquake or outside invaders. Despite this, Minoan civilization continued to flourish. Palaces were rebuilt on a larger scale and new settlements developed throughout the island.
Around 1600 BC another natural disaster struck, the palaces were again rebuilt and made even greater than before often multi-storied, with interior and exterior staircases, light wells, and courtyards. Smaller residencies (villas) appeared, modeled after the larger palaces.
Artifacts portray an affluent upper class. The wealth was spread liberally and even the “poor” lived in four to six room houses.
Trade flourished and Minoans were well known to the ancient Egyptians, even appearing in Egyptian art. Timber was a natural exported resource. Wine, food, currants, olive oil, wool, cloth, herbs, purple dye and saffron were also exports. Spinning and weaving were well established industries and clay spindle whorls and loom weights are frequently found at Minoan sites. (In addition to exportation of cloth, sails for the ships also had to be woven.) The Minoans were expert metalworkers and goldsmiths and their jewelry spread across the Mediterranean. The Mycenaeans (ancient mainland Greeks) learned the art of inlaying bronze with gold from the Minoans.
While the population enjoyed the wealth, commerce was rigidly controlled from the palace. A large administration of scribes regulated production and distribution, keeping detailed records. The vast wealth acquired funded architectural and technological development.
Minoans were the first to incorporate indoor plumbing systems (technology forgotten when Minoan society collapsed). They developed aqueducts, cisterns, distribution and sewage systems. Many homes had flush toilets, bathtubs, and hot and cold running water from hydrothermal vents.
Wooden plows were used, and the most common tool had a wooden handle with an axe head on one side and an adze edge on the other. Flint chips attached to bone or wood were used as sickles later formed of bronze. They knew the mechanics of hydraulics.
The Minoans experimented with the healing properties of plants and were familiar with drugs hieroglyphic seals found at Zakros refer to drugs such as strychnine.
In 1450 BC, the Minoans suffered a blow from which they wouldn’t recover – the destruction of most of the palaces and villas of the countryside. Evidence of a violent fire and destruction is clear. What remains elusive is the cause.
The explosive eruption of Thera was suggested but in 1987 scientists dated frozen ash from the eruption at the Greenland ice cap concluding the Thera eruption occurred in 1645 BC, putting it closer to the 1600 BC natural catastrophe of Crete. In 2006, Walter Friedrich of Denmark and his colleagues analyzed an olive branch trapped inside a volcanic rock face. Convinced the plant was alive when smothered, researchers used the tree’s growth rings and carbon dating to show the tree died between 1627 and 1600 BC. Therefore it’s been suggested a second eruption of Thera caused the final damage to the island. Others believe it was invasion the Minoans were undoubtedly resourceful and resilient, overcoming two prior natural disasters, but did their lack of military cause their demise?
Postpalatial Minoan1400-1150 BC
Power in the Aegean begins shifting to Mycenae. Greek names such as Zeus appear, new pottery styles develop, vaulted tombs appear, and the Mycenaean Linear B script begins replacing the still undecipherable Minoan Linear A. The Minoan culture’s fusion with mainland Greece had melded into the Mycenaean civilization, which in turn had challenged the Minoan supremacy at a time when unknown events had already proved challenging.
In 1375 BC the palace at Knossos was destroyed, some say by a Minoan revolt against the Mycenaeans, some say between the Mycenaeans themselves.
The Stream of Time
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Thanks for the in depth article much appreciated great detail alongside the photos covering the varied artefacts. Minoan and Theran wall paintings displaying Minoan type galleys added to the articles impact. THanks for sharing!
Akrotiri is by no way a minoan palace. (Map of minoan trade and its nodes)
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What good reporting! Finally the trade to Egypt from Bactria/Margiana is being noticed by scholars. Please be assured Minos and Sarpedon, his brother who was an exile to Lycia as well as Minos' family Cecrops and Pelops were REAL. They are well documented in history all over the Mediterranean. What we forgot was that they were lined up to be deities in life and treated reverently. Their doings became instant historical records. The bards had to keep their jobs. The Royal line of Sarpedon in Lycia moved over to Bactria/Margiana to mine the family lapis mine-- the largest in the world. His offspring, Amorges, was named for the Idaean Dactyl, Morges, several hundred years after the Dactyl had lived. The Morges/Amorges clan named their lands after themselves: Morges, Siris, etc.. Amorgos, Morges In Switzerland, Margiana, Markiani, Morges In Ephesus, etc. are examples. It made it easy to trace our Morgan Family heritage. My husband is a direct descendant of this clan, the first Clan of Scotland.
Major subsequent modifications and revisions have been made to Arthur Evans's pottery sequence, but his suggested tripartite division of the Neolithic period and the Minoan period is still by and large in use. Most scholars are also using a parallel, broader, and more simplified division of the Minoan era: the Prepalatial, Protopalatial, Neopalatial, Final palatial, and Postpalatial periods. Only the most important novelties and characteristic traits in each period are highlighted in this article, and it must be emphasized that “a specific period is defined not only by the exclusive presence of certain features but by the fact that some wares are common while others are just beginning or ending their periods of greatest popularity.”.
Birgitta Hallager, University of Aarhus.
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The Minoans seem to have worshiped primarily goddesses, and can be described as a “matriarchal religion.” Although there is some evidence of male gods, depictions of Minoan goddesses vastly outnumber depictions of anything that could be considered a Minoan god. While some of these depictions of women are speculated to be images of worshippers and priestesses officiating at religious ceremonies, as opposed to the deity, several goddesses appear to be portrayed. These include a mother goddess of fertility, a mistress of the animals, a protectress of cities, the household, the harvest, and the underworld, to name a few. The goddesses are often depicted with serpents, birds, or poppies, and are often shown with a figure of an animal upon her head.