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Minoan Peak Sanctuaries: Way Up There

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I’ve written before about the astronomical alignments of the Minoan temple complexes, but the big temples that were the centerpieces of the towns in ancient Crete weren’t the only places the Minoans went for worship. The island of Crete is ringed by lovely flat beaches, but the center is filled with mountains that rise more than a mile high. Some of these mountain peaks were sacred places to the ancient Minoans. They built pilgrimage roads up the mountainsides to shrines and sanctuary buildings at the peaks.

These peak sanctuaries were popular places for sacred pilgrimages as well as official religious celebrations. Some of them were built with purposeful astronomical alignments as well, mostly due east, the direction of sunrise on the equinoxes. But their pattern of use changed over the centuries that they were active sacred sites and some of the sanctuaries fell out of use altogether while others continued to be the focus of religious activities.

So how many peak sanctuaries were there? During the Old Palace Period (1900-1700 BCE) there were more than two dozen active peak sanctuaries in use. They all show evidence of bonfires, which were probably lit on specific sacred days. There is speculation that the bonfires are evidence of Sun worship at the peak sanctuaries since bonfires, around the world and across time, usually represent the Sun.

The bright fires on the mountaintops stand in stark contrast to the dimly-lit caves where the Minoans also partook in sacred activities. This balance of light and dark shows us the two halves of the Minoan worldview: the Upperworld and the Underworld. This division is also reproduced in the temple complexes, where light wells brought sunlight deep into the multi-story buildings but where the adyta (singular: adyton, sometimes called lustral basins) – large recesses in the floor – were essentially man-made caves.

During the Old Palace Period, the peak sanctuaries were popular places for ordinary people to make a pilgrimage. Lots of terracotta votive offering figurines have been found from this time period. These are simple pottery items that would have been cheaply available to everyone. They depict people in particular postures, including the Minoan salute, suggesting that they represent the worshipers who were visiting the peak sanctuary, probably to ask a favor of the gods. The fact that the offerings included not just whole figurines but also purposely-made individual body parts (arms, legs, torsos) suggests that the Minoans visited these places to seek healing.

By the time of the New Palace Period (1700-1450 BCE), most of the peak sanctuaries appear to have fallen out of use. The only active ones were those near the major temple complexes, with each complex apparently overseeing the nearest peak sanctuary. For instance, the peak sanctuary at Mt. Dikte was associated with the temple complex at Knossos. The temple at Phaistos was in charge of the peak sanctuary at Mt. Ida, and the Zakros temple ‘owned’ the one at Traostalos. The peak sanctuary at Petsofas was administered by one of the nearby temples in eastern Crete – Zakros, Petras, or Palaikastro – though we can’t be sure which one at this time.

Along with the reduction in the number of active peak sanctuaries, the New Palace Period also saw a change in the kinds of offerings that were left there. Instead of the rustic terracotta figurines, the sanctuaries received offerings of beads, jewelry, stone vessels, and bronze figurines. These are more expensive items, suggesting that pilgrimages to the peak sanctuaries had become an elite activity, open only to a select few. It’s possible that the temple complexes required some kind of ‘price of admission’ to the peak sanctuaries (perhaps a donation to the temple), thus restricting access only to those who could afford it.

Both the Moon and the Sun were important aspects of Minoan astronomy and religion, and we see this fact reflected in the orientations and archaeological evidence of the peak sanctuaries. Göran Henriksson and Mary Blomberg’s research into the peak sanctuaries reveals that the Minoans used these places not just for religious pilgrimages, but as astronomical observatories as well. This makes sense, due to the extended visibility from the mountaintops.

The Minoan calendar combined the cycles of the Moon and the Sun (as well as Venus, but that’s a post for another time). In ancient Crete, the new year was celebrated at the time of Autumn Equinox, when the ‘dead time’ of summer was over and the renewing rains began in the Mediterranean climate. Blomberg and Henriksson’s research shows that the calendar was recalibrated and the new year officially began at a particular phase of the Moon on or immediately after the Autumn Equinox.

This ‘particular phase’ was probably the heliacal rising of the Moon, what is sometimes called Diana’s bow. This is the first sliver of the newly-waxing Moon you can see above the western horizon just after the Sun sets, and this narrow crescent Moon sets soon after. This was the first day of the month in many ancient cultures – not the day of the New Moon, when the Moon is invisible. The New Moon was considered a ‘bad luck day’ throughout the ancient world because it’s the day on which solar eclipses can occur.

So the Minoan peak sanctuaries performed a variety of functions throughout the centuries in ancient Crete. They were pilgrimage sites, first for the general populace and then for a chosen elite. And they were astronomical observatories, allowing the Minoan priesthood to calibrate their calendar and keep it accurate so they could celebrate the sacred times of the year with confidence.

In the name of the Bee -

And of the Butterfly -

And of the Breeze - Amen!

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Wendilyn Emrys
    Wendilyn Emrys Tuesday, 24 November 2015

    The Peak Sanctuaries, when combined with a Cave Sanctuary, as in the case of Mt. Dikte were also considered the birthplaces of various Goddesses and Gods. Dikte was said to be the birthplace of Zeus, and/or where he was hidden from Kronos. Dikte is a bit of a long journey from Knossos. However, the Mt. Juktas sanctuary is very close to Knossos and could be reached in less than a day. There are also cave sanctuaries in the Gorges.

    I think they must have felt what an open person feels visiting these sites today. A sense of awe, a sense of the numinous, a sense of the sacred just by the overwhelming beauty and wonder of Nature all around you. There is a possibility that the very rock has sound and vibrational traits that enhance these feelings. At night it must have been a glorious sight. No light pollution, one could see the stars as few can see them on our planet today. It might also be rather frightening. One might well feel at risk.

    The drop in visiting by common folk in the New Palace Period may well derive from the integration of the Mycenaeans into the population as overlords. If the new dating of Thera is correct, it occurs in the New Palace period earlier than thought before. Thus, the disruption of the Minoan Civilization happens earlier and the Mycenaean Invasion would happen earlier - as well as the breakdown of the indigenous culture after the destruction caused by Thera. For all we know the Mycenaeans may have placed a prohibition upon the common folk visiting the sanctuaries. Most invading forces limit the gathering of the population they have invaded in places where they cannot be monitored.

    They are well worth visiting.

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