Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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The Minoan Menagerie Part 3: Animals of the Sea

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

This is the third in a series about animals in Minoan art. Part 1: Animals of the Land and Part 2: Animals of the Sky complete the exploration of the three realms, though we will still have a look at mythical critters in Part 4 (coming up next week).

Of the three realms of land, sky, and sea, the sea is perhaps the most prevalent in Minoan culture and art. Crete is, after all, an island, and the Minoans developed their great wealth as seafaring traders. So it's understandable that the waters of the Mediterranean, and the creatures that live in those waters, would feature in Minoan art in a major way.

The fresco at the top of this post, found in the Knossos temple complex, depicts the short-beaked common dolphin that lives in the Mediterranean and that shows up frequently in Minoan art. One of my favorite renditions of dolphins in Minoan art is this offering stand from Akrotiri:

Offering stand from Akrotiri
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Minoan sailors and traders must have enjoyed the sight of these beautiful creatures leaping in the water around their ships.

Besides dolphins, octopuses are probably the most well-known sea creature in Minoan art. They show up on marine ware ceramics like this huge pithos from Knossos:

Minoan marine ware pithos
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

And this one from Palaikastro, which happens to be my favorite Minoan octopus:

Minoan marine ware jug
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Octopuses also appear in other forms, such as this impressive stone weight (for a balance-beam scale) from Knossos:

Minoan octopus stone weight
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

There's another type of octopus that shows up in Minoan art, but a lot of people don't realize that's what it is. The argonaut, or paper nautilus, is a type of deep-sea octopus the Minoans would have encountered as they sailed around the Mediterranean. The female creates a papery egg case that looks kind of like a nautilus shell, hence the name. They look kind of like the octopus version of a hermit crab - a large shell with octopus tentacles snaking out of it. Argonauts were very popular on Minoan marine ware pieces like this beautiful jug:

Marine ware jug
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, since we're talking about a seagoing culture, there will be fish. I love this tiny carved stone fish; it was probably a pendant that someone wore as a necklace:

Minoan stone fish
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the Minoans caught fish to eat. This fresco from Akrotiri shows a proud young man holding up two strings of mahi-mahi that he has caught:

Akrotiri Young Fisherman fresco
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, the Mediterranean is also home to flying fish, like these exuberant ones on a fresco from Phylakopi on the island of Melos:

Flying Fish fresco from Phylakopi
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Let's not forget the shelled creatures that live in the Mediterranean. They also show up in Minoan art. Tritons, a type of large sea snail, appear on many marine ware ceramics, like this spouted cylindrical container from Nirou Chani:

Marine ware vessel from Nirou Chani
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The Minoans used triton shells in ritual as trumpets, and they carved stone replicas of them to use as rhytons (libation pitchers). This alabaster one from Knossos is especially lovely:

Alabaster triton from Knossos
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That's a lot of sea creatures. But then, the Minoans were surrounded by the sea. They relied on Grandmother Ocean for food and transportation. So it's no surprise that their art is full of beautiful depictions of sea creatures.

We've completed our exploration of the animals of land, sky, and sea, but there's still one more category of animals that show up in Minoan art. We'll have a look at them next time.

Check out Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4 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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