I feel a little bit like an elementary school teacher: OK, everyone, we're going to learn to read Minoan art!

We're all a bit past elementary school, but learning to understand the iconography of any ancient culture is a big step toward understanding their religion and worldview. Iconography is the set of symbols (icons) that have meaning in religious art. They're pictures, but in a sense, we can "read" them and they'll tell us their story. Archaeologists and historians of religion have pieced together the basics, and we've fleshed it out just a bit more in MMP using dance ethnography and shared gnosis.

Let's start with the basics. How do we know whether the image shows a deity or a human? Egyptian art has headdresses that identify gods and goddesses; Greek and Roman art often uses written labels to name the deities. How does Minoan art tell us who's who?

There are some standard formats for gods and goddesses in Minoan art. The first is a male or female figure flanked by a pair of animals, like you can see in the drawing of a seal impression from Knossos at the top of this post. Here we see a female figure flanked by lions. The type of animal tells us which deity we're seeing; this is the Earth goddess Rhea. This figure is also standing atop a mountain. Standing on the top of a mountain or any kind of tall landscape, such as a city, also denotes a deity, as in this seal impression from Chania:

Minoan seal impression from Chania
Image CC BY 4.0 Wikimedia Commons

We interpret this figure to be our god Korydallos, the Red Champion, with his staff (it's his spirit weapon or tool).

The flanking-animal-pair setup was common in the Mediterranean and the Near East throughout the Bronze Age. Sometimes the iconography gets really symbolic, and instead of a human-looking figure, we get a pole or a stylized tree flanked by a pair of animals. That's still a deity, usually a goddess, and that format was also very common throughout the Mediterranean and the Near East during the Bronze Age.

And no, having a pair of animals flanking a female figure doesn't mean the goddess is Potnia Theron (Lady of the Animals). That's a catch-all term that's not terribly well received anymore. The specific animal identifies the specific deity. Check out this blog series to find out which animals and other symbols are associated with each god and goddess.

So, for instance, when we look at the lovely griffins flanking the central seat in the Knossos Throne Room:

Knossos Throne Room
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

...we can tell that whoever sat in that seat was meant to be viewed as a deity - specifically, the Mediterranean Sun goddess, because griffins are her animal. In MMP we call her Therasia.

Speaking of Therasia and being seated, that's another iconographic setting that tells us we're looking at a deity. While a figure flanked by a pair of animals could represent either a god or a goddess, in Minoan art there's a special situation that shows up just with goddesses. A lone seated female figure is always a goddess. The Knossos Throne Room combines the two iconographic elements we've already talked about: the flanking animals and the seated figure. But here's a seated Therasia with just one griffin, in a fresco from Akrotiri:

Goddess with griffin fresco from Akrotiri
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Now, we're sure that's a goddess in that fresco. She's seated and she has a griffin at her side. We're not sure whether the girl on the left, who's pouring saffron into a basket, is meant to represent a human worshiper or a figure from mythology. But the lone seated female figure is definitely a goddess.

In contrast, a group of female figures seated together, like in the Grandstand fresco from Knossos, are human:

Grandstand fresco detail
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Any figure who's in an ecstatic posture such as the Minoan salute is a human worshiper:

Minoan bronze figurine
Image CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Minoan bronze figurine
Image CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

And any group of people performing a ritual are human, though clues in the art might tell us that one or more of them is being trance-possessed by a deity. For instance, in the gold seal ring from the Isopata tombs near Knossos:

Isopata Minoan gold seal ring
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

...we see a group of women in what could be a dance ritual. Minoan art used a small amount of (slightly awkward) perspective, so you can see that the woman on the far left and the one in the center aren't standing level with the other two. But they're not floating, just standing farther back in the scene, and some of the lilies are growing farther back in the scene as well. There is one figure who is floating, though. Look closely to the left of the central figure's head and you'll see a tiny female figure who is "flying" - her hair is streaming out behind her.

This tiny floating woman is an epiphany figure: the goddess coming to "ride" the priestess during this ritual. Male epiphany figures also show up in Minoan art, so we know that both priests and priestesses practiced trance possession.

That's the basics. Most Minoan art falls into these categories, though obviously there are some details we haven't figured out yet. But in general, it's fairly easy to spot deities. They'll be flanked by a pair of animals, seated alone (for goddesses), or floating in tiny form near the head of a priest or priestess. Otherwise, human figures are either actual humans (such as worshipers or clergy) or figures from Minoan mythology. We still haven't figured out how to tell the difference between those two, but we're working on it.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.