The Minoan civilisation of Bronze Age Crete was named after the legendary King Minos. The most advanced Aegean civilisation, it arose after 2500BC. It is conventionally divided into three phases and it is to the Middle period (2000-1700BC) that the great palace of Knossos belongs. The Palace was luxurious and sophisticated. Frescoes decorated its walls, there was an elaborate water system and goods were imported from Egypt. After its partial destruction in circa 1450BC the palace was finally burnt down in circa 1350BC.

King Minos’s palace at Knossos is the backdrop for the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur. In the palace lay a huge maze built for him by the inventor and architect Daedelus. Inside the maze the King kept a monster called the Minotaur. It had a bull’s head and a man’s body and was the offspring of Pasiphae, wife of Minos, and a bull with which Poseidon had caused her to become enamoured.

According to the legend, King Aegeus was forced to pay tribute to King Minos of the Minoans. Every year the tribute included seven young men and seven young maidens. Every year the fourteen young Aegeans would be let loose into the labyrinth where they would become hopelessly lost and eventually be eaten by the Minotaur.

King Aegeus’ son, Theseus, decided to volunteer as one of the sacrificial victims, so that he could attempt to kill the monster. Theseus was successful and, having slain the minotaur, he found his way out of the maze by following a trail of twine he had deliberately laid when he entered.

The ancient Minoan civilisation of Crete remained practically unknown to research until the closing years of the 19th century. At that time large-scale excavations were carried out and the magnificent relics that had lain buried for centuries in the soil of the island were brought to light.

Excavated frescoes and artefacts show that Minoan material culture was highly sophisticated; craftsmen included skilled architects, potters, painters, stone cutters, goldsmiths and jewellers.

The sarcophagus was found in a looted tomb of the early 14th century BC (LM IIIA) at Haghia Triadha. The form of the tomb was unusual, but its few remaining contents, aside from the sarcophagus itself, were unremarkable. The sarcophagus is unusual in that it is a rare stone version of the otherwise common enough terracotta burial chest or larnax. The scenes on the sarcophagus, painted on lime plaster applied over the limestone body of the chest, are unique in Aegean funerary art.

Quotations in the descriptions below are taken from C. Long, The Ayia Triadha Sarcophagus (Göteborg 1974).

Front Side

"The pouring scene represents the mixing of liquids, probably wine and water, in a krater in honor of a goddess or goddesses symbolized by the double axes mounted on either side of the krater. The birds perched on the double axes probably indicate the arrival of the deity(ies) and have been summoned by the music of the lyre...." The ceremony takes place outside the tomb. "The Minoan funerary libation would not require the quantity of liquid being prepared in the krater, and the scene might better be regarded as the preparation for the Mycenaean funerary toast."

"The recipient in the presentation scene probably represents the spirit of the deceased observing that his obsequies are being performed with all proper dignity and beginning to sink beneath the ground on his way to the afterworld, as does the ghost of Patroklos in the Iliad. His motionless stance with arms concealed indicates he is neither deity nor living human, nor is he wrapped like an Egyptian mummy or laid out like the corpses on the Tanagra larnakes (burial urns). The rite being performed may have been intended to secure for the deceased a happy life after death in addition to admission to the afterworld....The building behind the recipient can be equated with the tomb in which the sarcophagus was found.... The boat might provide transportation for the journey to the afterworld, and the cattle might represent either sustenance for the journey or the bulls supplied for funeral games in honor of the deceased. The absence of parallels for the gifts in cult presentation scenes may be evidence that they are funerary."

Double Axe

Although some large bronze examples of the {double axe}, the most common of all Minoan religious symbols, were clearly used as tools, miniature specimens in unsuitable and sometimes precious materials (eg: gold, silver, lead, steatite, terracotta), as well as very fragile bronze examples (eg: the gigantic specimens from Nirou Khani), must have had a purely symbolic function.

The earliest examples date from the middle of the EM period.

Double axes often appear in representational scenes, usually set in the top of stone bases or between "horns of consecration". Their precise significance is disputed. In the Near East, axes of this sort are often wielded by male divinities and appear to be symbols of the thunderbolt. Since in Crete the double axe is never held by a male divinity, an alternative view which ascribes its frequency in art to its popularity as a sacrificial instrument has considerable appeal. Miniature examples may have functioned as charms or amulets.

Plutarch (Quaestiones Graecae 302A), a Greek author of the second century AD, reports that the Carian (a southwest Anatolian population) word for double axe was labrys, a word likely to be connected with the mythological name for Minos' palace and the Minotaur's lair at Knossos, labyrinthos (= "place of the double axe"?).

Pillar-shaped Stones (or {baetyl}s)

An example of such a natural form at a cult location is the stalagmite in the Cave of Eileithyia at Amnisos. On seals, free-standing columns or pillars, both with and without capitals, are shown within small enclosures and in the presence of worshippers.

Such columns or baetyls also appear flanked by antithetic animals (eg: the relief on the Lion Gate at Mycenae). The place of the column may be taken by a human figure, arguably a god or goddess, in what is otherwise a closely comparable composition. The column or baetyl may therefore symbolize a deity or be a symbol for the palace of the king (as is often argued for the column in the Lion Gate relief) or for the shrine of a divinity. In this connection, the flanking animals are considered to be "protectors", appropriately enough in that they are usually lions or griffins.

In the pillar crypts of Minoan palaces and villas, square piers are often found incised with a variety of signs, including double axes, stars, and tridents. Although these piers serve a structural function, they may also have been considered sacred in some sense. Hence it has often been suggested that the signs incised on them constitute some form of divine invocation to secure the building in which they occur against the dangers of earthquake and fire.




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