Minoan Art, Life, Society, Culture and Religion (3000 B.C. to 1400 B.C.)

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Tablet with Minoan writing
Minoans were the first Europeans to use writing. Their written language was only deciphered in the late 1990s. Known as Linear A, it contains 45 "letters" and is categorized as an ancient form of Greek. The few scraps of Minoan text that have been translated are mainly records of trade, inventories of military equipment, and lists of harvests of wheat and olives. Linear A clay tablets, dated between 1900 and 1700 B.C., were found at Knossos. They were found along with tablets with Minoan hieroglyphics, Linear B, and a still undeciphered Cretan script dated to 2000-1700 B.C.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Minoans have left...large quantities of written records. Unfortunately, unlike the writings of the Egyptians, Hittites and Babylonians which shed light on such things as social organization, religious beliefs and historical events, those Minoan writings discovered so far are simply inventory records- detailed, plentiful but not as enlightening as one might hope. An added complication is that scholars have been only been able to decipher a small portion of their written language.” [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca]

Colette Hemingway and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “With the palaces came the development of writing, probably as a result of the new record-keeping demands of the palace economy. The Minoans on Crete employed two types of scripts, a hieroglyphic script whose source of inspiration was probably Egypt, and a linear script, Linear A, perhaps inspired by the cuneiform of the eastern Mediterranean. The scripts are found on sun-dried clay tablets that are mostly administrative records; on ritual objects such as miniature double axes and stone libation tables; and on pottery and rings. Archaeological evidence suggests that the Minoan palaces also functioned as centers for ritual, although major religious activities also occurred at cult sites in the country such as caves, springs, and peak sanctuaries. [Source: Colette and Seán Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002 metmuseum.org \^/]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org; British Museum ancientgreece.co.uk; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia hsc.edu/drjclassics ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization pbs.org/empires/thegreeks ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive beazley.ox.ac.uk ; Ancient-Greek.org ancientgreece.com; Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org/about-the-met/curatorial-departments/greek-and-roman-art; The Ancient City of Athens stoa.org/athens; The Internet Classics Archive kchanson.com ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources web.archive.org/web; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea showgate.com/medea ; Greek History Course from Reed web.archive.org; Classics FAQ MIT rtfm.mit.edu; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy iep.utm.edu;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy plato.stanford.edu

Phaistos Disk, and Efforts to Decipher It

The Phaistos Disk, found in the ruins of the 3700-year-old B.C. palace of Phaistis, is the earliest know example of printing. The six-inch, baked-clay disk contains 241 pictorial designs comprised of 45 different letters arranged in a spiral formation. The symbols were placed on the disk with a set of punches, one for each symbol, using the same concept as movable type.

Phaistos disk
The Phaistos Disk was discovered in a palace called Phaistos in Crete in 1908. Thought to date to around 1700 B.C., this roundish disk of clay has symbols stamped into it. The text consists of 61 “words,” 16 of which are accompanied by a mysterious "slash" mark. The symbols portray recognizable objects like human figures and body parts, animals, weapons, and plants. Fore more than a century, while other difficult-to-decipher ancient languages such as Linear B and Ugaritic were cracked, the Phaistos Disk eluded decipherment. Since the text of the disk is so short, decipherment by statistical cryptographic techniques used by Michael Ventris used to crack Linear B are impossible.

The Phaistos disk is about 15 centimeters (6 in) in diameter and is made from fired clay. Both sides are adorned with 45 symbols, which appear in different combinations in 241 boxed segments, almost like a picture cartoon. The segments then run in a spiral and can be read by starting from the outside edge of the disk, moving towards the middle.

After six years of work a team at Oxford University deciphered around 90 percent of the text. The process of unraveling it began when the most frequently-appearing word was found to be “mother.” After a while, it was determined that the disk contained an engraved with a prayer honoring the Minoan mother goddess. According to researchers, one side of the famous artifact is dedicated to a pregnant woman and the other to a woman in labor.

The American linguist twins Rev. Kevin Massey-Gillespie and Dr. Keith Massey claimed they deciphered the Phaistos Disk and wrote about their experience in an e-book called "Mysteries of History Solved!" They wrote: “Another ancient writing system provides the key to reading the Phaistos Disk. At Byblos in modern day Lebanon, an advanced culture flourished for centuries. There are many signs of contact between Ancient Crete and Byblos, including signs of orthographic borrowing as pointed out by Victor Kenna in "The Stamp Seal, Byblos 6593" Kadmos 9 (1970) pp 93-96. Further, examples of the yet undeciphered Linear A script have recently been found in Turkey, providing evidence of orthographic relationships between Crete and Asia Minor. The Proto-Byblic script was used in the early part of the 2nd millenium B.C. a time contemporary with the supposed date of the Phaistos Disk. The underlying language of the Proto-Byblic script was Semitic. It is a linear script which displays many identifiable objects, like weapons, human figures, and body parts. The Proto-Byblic script, catalogued by Maurice Dunand in the 1940's bears striking resemblance to the symbols of the Phaistos Disk. [Source: Internet Archive, from Phaistos]

Snake Goddess
“Eduard Dhorme, one of the decipherers of Hittite, published the first consonantal values for the Proto-Byblic script in SYRIA XXV 1946 in an article, "Dechiffrement des Inscriptions Pseudo-Hieroglyphicques de Byblos." A comparison of these values with the symbols of the Phaistos Disk yielded consonantal assignments for a surprising amount of the writing on the disk. It should be noted here that all previous attempts to decipher the Phaistos Disk have been subjective attempts, assigning phonetic values to the characters with no true objective criteria. This is therefore the first effort at cracking the disk by OBJECTIVE determinations. When these consonantal values are examined, elements of an Hellenic language emerge in the text of the disk. Scholars had never known what the significence of a mysterious "slash" on 16 of the words of the Phaistos Disk. We observed, based on our values, that each of these 16 words are numerals counting commodities on the disk, similar to the majority of Linear B texts.”“

Minoan Religion

According to the Canadian Museum of History: "While we can only guess at their religious beliefs, the remains of their artwork suggest a polytheistic framework featuring various goddesses, including a mother deity. The priesthood was also completely female, although the King may have had some religious functions as well. In fact the role of women- as religious leaders, entrepreneurs, traders, craftspeople and athletes far exceeded that of most other societies, including the Greeks. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

The Minoans had no temples and no large cult statues from what we can tell. Worship centered around sacred caves and groves where it is believed the Minoans believed to be their deities dwelled. Minoan religious objects consisted primarily of small terra-cotta statuettes.

The Minoans worshiped what has been described as a mother goddess, or snake goddess. This goddess was associated with animals, particularly birds and snakes, the pillar and the tree, and sword and the double ax. She was often depicted with snakes around her arms and lions at her feet. Her companion Zeus, the Monoans believed, was born on Mt. Ida on Crete. A popular image of the mother goddess shows her as a bare breasted snake goddess with snakes crawling up her arms, circling her head and tied into a knot about her waist. One of the unusual things about the worship of snakes by the Minoans is that Crete has virtually no snakes.

Most of the sculpture of earth goddesses found before in 2000 B.C. in mainland Europe were plump big-breasted women with folds of fat and little lines representing their genitalia. On Asia Minor and the Cycladic islands off of Greece little girlish figures with small beasts triangles for genitalia were common between 2500-1100 B.C.

The Minoans also worshiped male deities as reflected in the large number of male figures found and the quality of their craftsmanship. Egyptian symbols and deities, such as Orisis and Anubis, pop up frequently in Minoan religious iconography. Butterflies symbolized long life to the Minoans and bulls represented strength and fertility.

Human sacrifice although rare were sometimes performed. Skeletons and artifact from the archeological site of Anemospilia seem to show a human sacrifice that was interrupted in mid-course by an earthquake which not only finished off the sacrifice victim but also spelled doom for the sacrificers as well.

Minoans, Bulls and Bull Leaping

Bulls held a high place in Minoan culture. They appeared again and again in paintings and sculpture. Some have suggested that the Minoans worshiped bulls and that this may have grown from the cult surrounding the Egyptian god Hathor, who was often pictured as a divine cow.

20120217-Bull leaping Knossos.jpg

Some scholars have said that the Minoans conducted sacrifices of bulls whose horns were covered with gold. Evans said that large double-headed axes found at Minoan sites were likely used to ritually kill bulls, arguing that they were too big to do anything else. Now it appears that the double headed ax was more likely a symbol of the equinox.

Some have suggested that bull leaping was a popular Minoan sport. Frescoes appear to depict male and female athletes doing flips over bulls charging at them at full speed. Some the “players” appear to grab the horns and hold on to the bull’s back as they leap over.

Scholars have interviewed rodeo experts to get their view on the depictions of of “bull leaping.” Some concluded that picture were not of bull leaping: the sport would simply be too dangerous, they say, as bulls usually turn their heads when confronted and anyone who tried to leap through their horns would likely be gored. Some scholars say that the “bull leaping” images represent something else, perhaps the constellations Taurus and Orion.

Minotaur, Theseus and the Labyrinth

The story of the Minotaur and the labyrinth, according to to some, is set in Crete, presumably during the Minoan era. According to legend, King Minos was a wise leader and a just lawgiver who ruled Crete from Knossos and lived in a magnificent palace. One day the sea-god Poseidon gave him a magnificent white bull that was intended to be sacrificed in the sea god's honor. Minos greedily kept the bull instead and Poseidon got even with the king by casting a spell on his wife, which made her want to make love with the bull, which she did, producing the Minotaur. Daedalus, the Athenian architect who later tried to fly to Sicily with wings made of wax, built the Labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur.

After King Minos's son was killed in Athens the king captured Athens and secured an annual tribute of seven youths and seven virgins to be eaten by the Minotaur. One of youths offered to the Minotaur — Theseus — fell in love with King Minos's daughter. Daedalus gave Theses a ball of string so that he could find his way out of the labyrinth of he managed to kill the Minotaur. After slaying the Minotaur Theseus fled Crete with king’s daughter but as was true with heros in other Greek myths, such as Jason from the Argonauts, Theseus abandoned the girl after winning his freedom.

medieval rendering of the Minotaur myth

The Minoans believed that King Minos was the son of Europa, the daughter of King Sidon, and Zeus transformed into a bull. The association of the Minotaur myth with Knossos can be traced to Sir Arthur Evans, the British adventurer, who excavated Knossos in the 1890s. He reportedly was struck by the size of Knossos and its large number of rooms that he figured it must be the source of the labyrinth myth. Some have said he defied one of the cornerstones of archaeology by forcing evidence to fit his model rather than letting evidence speak for itself. Evans is also the source of some other dubious claims about Minoa.

Minoan Society and Government

Colette Hemingway and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: “Around 1900 B.C., during the Middle Minoan period, Minoan civilization on Crete reached its apogee with the establishment of centers, called palaces, that concentrated political and economic power, as well as artistic activity, and may have served as centers for the redistribution of agricultural commodities. Major palaces were built at Knossos and Mallia in the northern part of Crete, at Phaistos in the south, and at Zakros in the east. These palaces are distinguished by their arrangement around a paved central court and sophisticated masonry. In general, there were no defensive walls, although a network of watchtowers punctuating key roads on the island has been identified. The walls and floors of the palaces were often painted and colorful frescoes depicted rituals or scenes of nature. There were sanitary facilitie as well as provisions for adequate lighting and ventilation. Living quarters of the palaces, like the better Minoan houses, were spacious. [Source: Colette and Seán Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002 metmuseum.org \^/]

The Minoans are believed to have lived in matriarchal society based on the prominent role that women played in their religion and mythology. Owen Jarus wrote in Live Science, Their “Great Goddess held a spot above all other gods. Minoan art supports this idea, showing powerful priestesses who dominated religious ceremonies and women wielding battle axes and swords. Young Minoan women were trained in all the physical activities of their male peers and ran all aspects of their communities, while men spent months at a time at sea. [Source: Owen Jarus, Live Science, October 12, 2015]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Successful and extensive trade resulted in a Minoan society that was wealthy and archaeology suggests that wealth was widely shared throughout the community. The extensive written records that do exist and have been deciphered show a highly controlled flow of goods into and out of state storehouses. The standard of living was high. Within the palace complexes… sophisticated plumbing, wonderful frescoes, plaster reliefs and open courtyards. Their system of government was that of a monarchy supported by a well-organized bureaucracy. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca |]

Akrotiri fresco of a Minoan town

Minoan Life, Bathtubs and Clothes

One gets a sense that the Minoans enjoyed life. They seemed to have a lot of leisure time, which they filled with sports, religion and the arts. Minoan artwork and sculpture often depicts bare breasted women, dancing figures, men playing sports, and people partying and shaking Egyptian rattles and singing so hard their ribs are pressed against their skin from lack of breath. Minoan art contrast markedly with early Mesopotamian and Egyptian art which was often rigid and formal.

The Minoans stored olive and grain in huge clay jars and drank wine. They harvested grain with sickles and knocked olives off of trees with sticks much as modern Cretens do today Childhood skull shaping has also been practiced by Minoans as well as by Egyptians, ancient Britons, Mayas and New Guinea tribes.

The oldest known confirmed bath tub come from Minoa. Shaped somewhat like a modern tub, it was found in the palace of King Minos in Knossos and has been date to around 1700 B.C. Minoan nobility took baths in stone bathtubs "filled and emptied with vertical pipes cemented at their joints." Late these were replaced with glazed pottery pipes which were slotted together like modern ones and carried hot and cold water. The royal palace at Knossos also featured a latrine with an overhead water-holder that has been described as the world's first flush toilet.

Based on images in frescoes and sculptures, Minoans wore leopard skin loin clothes and colorful hippie-like outfits. Some statues show a women, or goddesses, wearing what looks like a 19th-century-style dress with an open area at the top for exposed breasts supported on a bodice. Minoan loin-clothes were similar to those worn by the Egyptians.

Bernice Jones, a professor at Queens College in New York, reconstructed several Minoan garments, including the breast-revealing outfit of the snake goddess, a tube dress and a sheer top found in the depiction of a woman in a fresco in Thera’s House of Ladies, and a breast-revealing blouse worn by a dancer depicted in a fresco in Hagia Triada.

Minoan Art

The Minoans are widely admired today for their art. They produced lovely frescos of dancers and bulls and made wild abstracts patterns on vases. Some Minoan engravings of women give them strange robot-like heads. They also produced extraordinary rhytons (liquid-containing vessels) made to look like bulls heads.

Animals and sea creatures were commonly depicted in Minoan art. Octopuses strangled vases, dolphins leaped from murals, and mountain goats dashed across vessels. One mural fragment shows a cat stalking a pheasant from behind a bush. One scholar claimed that the Minoans had a "passion for rhythmic, undulating movement."

The Minoans created pottery on hand-tuned wheels (2500 B.C.) and made earthen storage jars as tall as a man and thin shelled libation vessels decorated with starfish and sea shell motifs. Potters in Crete still make pottery using the same techniques as the Minoans.

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “The Minoans were gifted artists and that the subject matter of their artworks seems to have been heavily influenced by aesthetic considerations. Some have suggested that they may have loved art for its own sake, which would be an enormous change in the way art was traditionally created and used in other societies at that time. But more research on that possibility is needed. [Source: Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ]

Colette Hemingway and Seán Hemingway of the Metropolitan Museum of Art wrote: During the first half of the second millennium B.C. “great strides were made in metalworking and pottery—exquisite filigree, granulated jewelry, and carved seal stones reveal an extraordinary sensitivity to materials and dynamic forms. These characteristics are equally apparent in a variety of media, including clay, gold, stone, ivory, and bronze. [Source: Colette and Seán Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002 metmuseum.org \^/]

See Minoan Religion

Art at the Heraklion Museum

Heraklion Museum is one of the best museums in Greece and contains almost all of the world's Minoan artifacts. Among the museum’s treasures are ceramic polychrome vases found in the Kamares caves; marble vases encrusted with precious and semi-precious stones; sealstones carved out of semiprecious stones; gold ornaments; frescoes and sarcophagi. Particularly interesting are ceremonial axes and knives used in sacrifices; and libation jars used to collect the blood from the animals necks. Goats and bulls were the animals most commonly offered. Paintings on sarcophagi suggest that spotted bulls were the animals of choice. These same paintings show that the bull was tied down to a table and serenaded by a flutist while it bled.

fresco of women

Vases depict men partying, shacking Egyptian rattles and singing so hard the ribs are pressed against their skin from lack of breath. A popular image was the bare breasted snake goddess with snakes crawling up her arms, around her head and tied into a knot about her waist. One of the unusual things about the worship of snakes by the Minoans is that Crete has virtually no snakes. Some miniature plaques show what Minoan houses looked like. There are also sculptures of dancers and bare-breasted maidens with snakes in their hands, vessels with starfish; massive knuckle covering gold rings with women with robot heads and frescoes of bull leapers.

The Archaeological Museum of Herakleion contains more than 15,000 artefacts, spanning a period of 5,000 years, from the Neolithic era to Greco-Roman period, and collected from excavations carried out in all parts of Crete. The pieces include pottery in a variety of utilitarian yet imaginative shapes; stone carving of exceptional artistry; seal engraving; miniature sculpture; gold work; metalwork; household utensils; tools; weapons and sacred axes. The highlight is the frescoes, with their exquisitely-rendered figures and thoughtful, colorful compositions. [Source: Interkriti]

The pieces include: 1) a Libation vase (rhyton) of serpentine, in the shape of a bull's head with inlays of shell, rock crystal and jasper in the muzzle and eyes from Little Palace in Knossos and dated to 1600 - 1500 B.C.; 2) a flask decorated with a large octopus and supplementary motifs: sea urchins, seaweed and rocks from Palaikatsro (East Sitia) and dated to around 1400 B.C.; 3) a slender libation jug with spiky projections, decorated with painted papyrus flowers and nautilus from a grave at Katsambas (Iraklion) and dated to 1450-1400 B.C.; and 4) the famous "Harvesters' Vase", a steatite oval rhyton decorated with a relief procession of men returning from their work in the fields, from Agia Triada and dated to 1500 - 1450 B.C..

The Minoans developed tools capable of cutting even the hardest stones. Among the items that had to have been produced with such tools are: a large lenticular sealstone, made of agate, depicting a goddess between griffins from Knossos and dated to 1450 - 1400 B.C.) In the New Palace period (1600-1450 B.C.) bronze work advanced and miniature bronze sculpture became relatively common. Animal figures, such as a seated wild goat, from Agia Triada, were typically smaller than the human ones. Unfortunately the most surviving examples of Minoan fresco paintings are fragmentary. The "Blue Bird", a fresco with a blue bird sitting on a rock among plants and flowers, was part of a larger composition from the "House of Frescoes" at Knossos, dated to the Neopalatial period (1550 - 1500 B.C.).

Examples of finely crafted metalwork include 1) a gold lion-shaped pendant from Agia Triada from the Post Palatial period (1450-1100 B.C.); 2) a silver pot (kylix) with gold plated handle and rim from a grave in Knossos area from the Final Palatial period (1450 - 1350 B.C.); 3) a bronze sword with gold-sheathed hilt and gold covered rivets, decorated with relief spirals from a cemetery in the Knossos area from the Final Palatial period (1450 - 1400 B.C.); and 4) a gold votive double axe with incised decorations from Arkalochori cave from the Early Neopalatial period (1700 - 1600 B.C.).

Minoan Homes and Architecture

The Minoans built multi-storied palaces with as many as 1,500 rooms. Most of the large Minoan structures had balconies and were set up around courtyards. Most also had windows, sitting rooms with adjustable partitions, indoor pools, and verandas with wonderful views. Some had advanced indoor plumbing and drainage systems. Many Minoan cities and buildings lacked fortification which has led archaeologists to believe they were a relatively peaceful civilization.


The Palace of Minos was so vast and complex it was no surprise it gave birth the legend of the labyrinth. It covered nearly five acres and was several times bigger than Malia, 20 miles to the east, the next largest Minoan palace. Buildings in Minoan cities such as Knossos possessed latrines, skylights, ventilation, and water conduits for drainage.

The Minoans built their palaces from “poros” (a kind of soft sandstone), sandstone and gypsum. Columns were made of wood. None survive today. The oldest Minoan buildings were built of fired mud bricks, a construction material that was later abandoned.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World sourcebooks.fordham.edu ; BBC Ancient Greeks bbc.co.uk/history/ ; Canadian Museum of History historymuseum.ca ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; perseus.tufts.edu ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, oll.libertyfund.org ; Gutenberg.org gutenberg.org Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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