Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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Astronomy and the Minoan Temple Complexes

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

These days when we consult an architect to create a new building, we generally orient it with the front toward the street that will access the building, for convenience and practicality. But in much of the ancient world, each new building was carefully oriented toward one or more cardinal directions or astronomical alignments. Ancient Crete was no different. The temple complexes at Knossos, Phaistos, Zakros, and other Minoan cities and towns were built to align to a variety of related astronomical events.

For the most part, the celestial events the Minoan buildings align to are risings of various sorts: sunrise, moonrise, the rising of the planet Venus, and the heliacal rising of certain stars. These astronomical events held a special place in Minoan religion, marking sacred times of the year, and also helped to maintain the Minoans’ complicated lunisolar calendar.

Since the rising of planets and stars was so important to the Minoans, it stands to reason that they would set up their buildings to make for easy viewing toward the east. This shows up in the history of many of the temple complexes, the way they were originally built and later expanded. For instance, the temple complexes all appear to have been constructed in a sequence, with the central court being built first, then gradually encircled by the multiple stories and layers of rooms that make up the large buildings. Most of the central courts are oriented with their long axis running roughly north-south and the ritual and cult rooms along the west side of the court. This is especially true of Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Gournia, and appears to be the case with the newly discovered temple complex at Sissi as well.

In these temple complexes, the west wing was built first (after the central court was complete) while the east side of the central court was open, allowing an unobstructed view of the horizon. When the buildings expanded to surround the eastern side of the court, the Minoan astronomers (probably members of the priesthood) would have had to use the rooftops to view the horizon. This would not have been difficult since Minoan buildings, like much of the architecture in the Near East and Egypt at the same time, had flat, level roofs.

I noted above that the central courts of many Minoan temple complexes run roughly, but not exactly, north-south. This is because the buildings were not aligned to the cardinal directions, but toward the rising of specific celestial objects. The temples were essentially giant calendars, keeping track of a variety of astronomical movements throughout the year. In most cases, these objects didn’t rise due east, but a little north or south of east. So what exactly are all these astronomical alignments?

Let’s start with Knossos, since it’s the most well known of the Minoan cities and its temple complex has been studied more than any of the others so far. Near the north central coast of Crete, the ancient city of Knossos boasted an estimated 100,000 residents at its peak, with the temple complex itself spreading across six acres.

It’s likely the astronomers at Knossos viewed the rising of the Sun, Moon, and stars over the mountainous horizon to the east of the city. They would have watched the Sun move along the horizon from its northernmost point at Summer Solstice, to its southernmost point at Winter Solstice, and back again, most likely over the mountain currently called Prophitias Elias. So the solstices were easy to spot. The Minoan astronomers probably knew exactly which mountain peak or cranny designated these turning points on the horizon. But the equinoxes aren’t so easy, because you have to figure out the exact halfway point between the solstices. The Autumn Equinox in particular was very important to the Minoans because it served as their new year, both for religious celebrations and for calibrating the lunar and solar aspects of their calendar. So how did they figure out when the equinoxes were?

Here’s one clever way the Minoans came up with. At Knossos there is a built-in alabaster bowl in the floor of the Corridor of the House Tablets that, when filled with water, would reflect the rays of the rising sun on the equinoxes as it shone in through the doorway. Since the bowl is cemented in among the flat stones along the floor, it can’t be accidentally moved to make the alignment inaccurate.

The Throne Room at Knossos also includes a number of interesting astronomical alignments, all associated with the Autumn Equinox. This unique room, with its famous built-in seat flanked by frescoed griffins and palm trees, sits along the western edge of the central court. The Throne Room itself has two doorways along its eastern side and it also has an anteroom, a sort of ‘front porch’ where it opens out onto the court, with four doorways facing east. These six doorways, in the Throne Room and the anteroom, could be opened and closed to change the way the light came into the room. What I find most interesting is that, with the correct doorways opened, the sunlight at dawn on Winter Solstice would illuminate the ‘throne’ and the dawn on Summer Solstice would illuminate the lustral basin on the far side of the room. In addition, at a point in March shortly before the Spring Equinox and again in September soon after the Autumn Equinox, the dawn Sun would shine in a straight line through the anteroom and the Throne Room, and through another doorway into the room behind the Throne Room, lighting up a spot on the far wall there. These sorts of ‘sunlight plays’ on special days of the year remind me of the Solstice Sun shining into the depths of the passage at Newgrange in Ireland or the Sun Dagger at Chaco Canyon in North America. I suspect there were more of these kinds of magical light plays built into ancient structures than we realize.

According to Marianna Ridderstad (see Further Reading at the end of this article), the Throne Room also has a Minoan-era alignment to the heliacal rise of the star Spica, the brightest star in the modern constellation of Virgo. During the Bronze Age, this occurred in early September, and may have been the signal to begin preparations for the series of rituals and other sacred activities that took place in the days and weeks leading up to the Autumn Equinox. These rituals were probably the origin of the later Greek Eleusinian Mysteries, which also took place around the time of the grape harvest and the sowing of the grain crops, both of which occur in the autumn in a Mediterranean climate.

Not as much study has been done on the smaller temple complexes around Crete, but we do know a few things about their building orientations. For instance, Phaistos, in south central Crete, is oriented to the heliacal rise of the star Canopus, the brightest star in the southern constellation of Carina and the second-brightest star in the sky, after Sirius. Also, the New Palace at Phaistos, built in the same spot after the Old Palace was destroyed by earthquakes, has an overall east-west orientation that points to the sunrise five days before the Spring Equinox and five days after the Autumn Equinox in Minoan times. Given what we know at this stage, it’s likely the Autumn Equinox alignment was the important once, since that’s when the Minoan calendar turned over (had its new year) and the lunar and solar cycles were recalibrated to make sure they were still in sync.

In eastern Crete, the smaller temple complexes of Zakros, Petras, and Gournia also display some interesting astronomical alignments. At Zakros and Petras, for instance, the central courts are oriented to particular rising points of the Moon instead of to the Sun or a star. Just as the Sun shifts back and forth along the horizon as it rises throughout the year, so the Moon also shifts along the horizon during its cycle. At Zakros, the central court is aligned to the southernmost point at which the Moon rises, while the central court at Petras is oriented to the northernmost moonrise point along the horizon. The ritual rooms that open out onto the central court at Zakros also appear to have alignments to the southernmost moonrise point.

The central court at Gournia, also in eastern Crete, is aligned with the point along the horizon where Venus rose in conjunction with the star Spica a few days before the Autumn Equinox during Minoan times. This conjunction, which repeated every eight years, was probably used to help calibrate the Minoan lunisolar calendar, which also correlated with the Venus cycles.

Archaeologists and archaeoastronomers have discovered more alignments than I’ve mentioned here, and I’m sure more will turn up in the future as well. Some of them will probably be coincidence, but I suspect many of them were purpose-built to help the Minoans maintain an accurate calendar. Some of the alignments may be to particularly sacred points in the Minoan religious year, but I suspect some of them are simply calendar markers to keep the dates straight. Maintaining an accurate calendar that combines the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and Venus, as well as several bright stars, all without the aid of mechanical calculators, is a daunting task. I wonder if religion was the Minoans’ only motivation to continue such detailed and laborious work.

Further reading:

Mary Blomberg and Göran Henriksson have been running a Minoan archaeoastronomical project out of Uppsala University for more than two decades now. They have graciously provided much of their research to the public on their website. Their corpus of work is probably the single largest source of information about Minoan astronomical alignments and the Minoan calendar.

Lucy Goodison has done a great deal of research on the alignments of ancient Minoan buildings. Her article, From Tholos Tomb to Throne Room: Perceptions of the Sun in Minoan Ritual provides some good information.

Marianna Ridderstad – Her article, Evidence of Minoan Astronomy and Calendrical Practices, is an excellent source of information about astronomical alignments and the Minoan calendar.

 

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Laura Perry is an artist, writer, and the founder and facilitator of Modern Minoan Paganism. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of hers since a fateful art history class introduced her to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. Her first book was published in 2001; one of her most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. She has also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

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