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Ritual object or everyday pitcher? A few searching questions about Minoan artifacts

It's an old joke in the archaeology community, that if you can't figure out what an artifact was used for, you call it a ritual object. But it's a problem for those of us who are trying to figure out how the ancient Minoans actually practiced their religion, so we'll have some guidance for how we do our thing in the modern world.

I've written about this issue before, and there are some obvious clues in some instances. If an object was found on an altar or shrine shelf, it's pretty obviously a ritual object, regardless of what it looks like. Sarcophagi, by their very nature, are sacred items. Deity or priestess figurines, scenes of rituals on frescoes and seals, objects found in ceremonial areas in temples - those are clearly ritual artifacts.

But what about a jug that was found in an ordinary house, not on an altar but somewhere else in the building, a jug with sacred symbols on it? 

Usually, when we're trying to figure out stuff like this, we look at how things work on a practical level for modern Pagans. It's not unusual for us to pull dishes out of the kitchen cupboard to use on our altars and in ritual, so an ordinary-looking cup or bowl on an altar is a sort of temporary sacred object. But our everyday dishes don't tend to have sacred symbols all over them (though heaven knows, I'd buy a set of labrys-and-horns-adorned plates and cups if I could find them).

I was wandering through my local Indian market one day and I had a bit of an epiphany about this issue. The Vedic traditions (a.k.a. Hinduism and its variants) are still very much alive, a set of cultures and religions that have survived down the millennia. And all over the Indian market, I found items that would confuse the heck out of future archaeologists: jars of coconut oil with pictures of the goddess Lakshmi on them (Lakshmi is a brand name, believe it or not); boxes of incense with the god Ganesha on them. Deity images and symbols everywhere, all over food and housewares and cosmetics. For Hindus, it's perfectly normal to have the gods and goddesses and their symbols blessing every part of life, even the bits we tend to refer to as "mundane."

What if the ancient Minoans had a similar mindset? What if, to them, the gods and goddesses were everywhere, all the time?

We like to talk about how there was no separation of church and state in the ancient world. But what really matters in terms of spiritual practice is that there was no distinction between the sacred and the mundane. Or, the way I think about it, there was no mundane: it's all sacred.

So finding a nippled ewer that looks every bit like the Bird Goddess in a kitchen in Akrotiri, or finding a jug adorned with labryses in a house - trying to define whether or not these are ritual objects is, perhaps, the wrong question to be asking. Because by the modern definition, ritual objects are sacred and other stuff isn't.

What if it's all sacred?

 

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

Image: Ceramic pitcher from the House of the Frescoes, Knossos. Public domain image from The Palace of Minos by Sir Arthur Evans.

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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

  • Anthony Gresham
    Anthony Gresham Thursday, 18 July 2019

    My mom had a coffee cup with a dogwood blossom and the legend of the dogwood on it. The legend of the dogwood is a bit of local Christian folklore. She drank her morning tea in it, just a little reminder of her faith.

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