Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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The Minoan Menagerie Part 4: Animals of Myth

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

We've already had a look at the animals of the Three Realms (land, sky, and sea) in Minoan art. But that doesn't cover all the creatures the Minoans depicted in frescoes, seals, and other works of art. The last place we'll find animals in Minoan art is the realm of myth and imagination. Though these creatures were all borrowed from other regions (Mesopotamia, Egypt), the Minoan artists depicted them in a way no one else could.

So, for instance, we have the exuberant griffin in the gold seal ring above, from the Minoan cemetery at Archanes Phourni. Here, there's an equally exuberant female figure - a priestess or perhaps the goddess Therasia, since the griffin is her animal. Though this is probably a scene from myth or ritual, some of us like to imagine the humorous caption "Fetch!" for this one.

The griffin is a combination of lion and eagle. In the most common version, the lion's body has both the beak and the wings of an eagle, like in the seal ring at the top of this post or this fresco from the temple complex at Knossos, which includes some 3-D components: 

Minoan Griffin fresco from Knossos
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

But sometimes the lion-eagle combo is subtler, like in the pair of griffins that flank the central seat in the Knossos Throne Room. These lovely creatures have the body of a lion and the beak and head feathers of an eagle:

Knossos Throne Room Griffin fresco
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Griffins aren't the only fabulous creatures that appear in Minoan art. The Minoan menagerie also includes that most elusive of all mythical animals, the sphinx. This one from Malia - curved because it was probably attached to a vessel such as a jug or vase - is interesting in that it's male (see the beard?) when sphinxes from Egypt and later, Greece, were typically portrayed as female:

Terracotta sphinx from Malia
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The sphinx isn't the only mythical creature the Minoans borrowed from the Egyptians. The Egyptian goddess Taweret even made her way into the Minoan pantheon and art, though in a somewhat changed form - and we still aren't entirely certain what her function was, except that she's always shown carrying a pitcher or pouring libations. Archaeologists refer to her adopted form as the Minoan "demon" or "genius" because we don't know what the Minoans called her, and because she often shows up as multiples rather than just a single figure. The Minoan genius is typically depicted with a crocodile head and scaly back that looks almost like a turtle shell, and a body that's vaguely leonine and/or hippo-like. In some depictions, the body looks almost human, but the crocodile parts are still present.

So, for instance, from Malia we have this gorgeous green serpentine carved triton with engraving on the side showing Minoan genii bringing libations:

Serpentine Triton from Malia
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Here's a drawing of the scene that's carved onto the side of the triton. You can see that the figure on the right is pouring from a pitcher onto the hands (paws?) of the figure on the left. This may be a scene of ritual offering or cleansing.

Drawing of carving on serpentine triton from Malia
Image CC BY 4.o via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the genii appear as single figures carrying libation pitchers. That's the case for the bold creature on this seal impression, made by this hematite seal now in the Metropolitan Museum. Note that this figure has a human-like body and is wearing a kilt or skirt.

Seal impression Minoan genius
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Mythical creatures played a significant role in Minoan art - and in Minoan religion as well. Since excavations at Minoan sites are ongoing, and more artifacts turn up every year, I wonder whether we'll eventually find more creatures - realistic or mythical - in Minoan art.

Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this series as well.

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

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Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She's the founder and Temple Mom of Ariadne's Tribe, an inclusive Minoan spiritual tradition. 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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