The Minoans of ancient Greece embodied one the world’s first great civilizations, with innovations that pervaded nearly every facet of their lives. The Egyptians, across the sea and equally great in their own right, had a rich, ancient culture that undoubtedly influenced all who encountered it. When the two civilizations collided, an exchange of goods and ideas ensued that was to forever change the course of history.
Part 1: Minoan Culture and Religion at 1300 BC
The year 1350 BC marks the end of a prosperous era for the ancient Greeks known as Minoans. They were the first Europeans to use writing, were devoted to the development of art and culture, traded widely with surrounding areas by land and sea, and are known for building numerous sprawling palace complexes in the center of each of their (relatively) technologically advanced city-states. Like every civilization before and after them, the Minoans incorporated elements from other neighboring cultures into their own innovations to create their own unique brand of civilization. Surprisingly, the ruins of Minoan civilization in Crete demonstrate influences not only from neighboring Mesopotamia and Europe, but also elements from Egypt, far across the Mediterranean Sea.
Precious little is known with certainty about the religious practices of the Minoans, largely due to the lack of remains after a catastrophic volcano and subsequent series of Tsunamis which all but decimated the Minoan’s island coastline. After this devastation, the Myceneans from mainland Greece further disrupted, and eventually ended, the Minoan way of life when they invaded the Minoans’ island home of Crete, effectively ending their time in history. Some remnants of the Minoans, however, did survive, leaving scientists with just enough evidence to give rise to speculation and inference as to their way of life.
We do know that the Minoan society was largely matrilineal, and this woman-worship was also demonstrated in their religious practices. They are also known for a bull-centered system of deism, engaging in sport bull-jumping and ritual bull sacrifice to honor the gods and raise the dead. The Minoans did not use temples to worship deities and hold religious ceremonies. Instead, they preferred to glorify their goddesses in grottoes, groves and caves, seeking to connect with the divine through the beauty of nature. Evidence suggests that faith in reincarnation or an afterlife was central to their belief system, with elements of this aspect, especially, borrowed from pre-existing Eastern religions. The remains of Minoan Crete also suggest that these religious rites were mainly a facet of the elite and royal in their society, with sacred art that suggests a cult-like funerary aspect to them. It is difficult to ascertain details of the Minoan religious ceremonies and beliefs from the scant remaining archaeological evidence. Physical resemblances, however, do notably exist between Pharaonic Egypt and Minoan Greece, which can be gleaned from the surviving paintings, clay writing tablets and other works of art from ancient Crete.
Part 2: Egyptian Culture and Religion at 1300 BC
Egyptians of the 18th dynasty were notable in their research and achievements in art, agriculture, architecture and naval prowess. They pioneered an advanced system of crop irrigation which allowed for a large population, and consequently, dominance of the continent of Africa. It is unsurprising, then, that they would have had extensive dealings with their Minoan neighbors, with exchange of goods and ideas being commonplace among the two cultures. The exchange of goods between the continents likely began as an attempt by the Minoans to acquire raw materials, such as stone and metals, as they were limited in these natural resources and would have relied heavily on their surrounding areas for the building materials, art supplies and other things they needed to maintain their unprecedentedly luxurious way of life.
The Egyptian civilization has its roots deep in antiquity, with polytheistic religious practices spanning, largely unaltered, over centuries. They crafted great monuments, temples and icons for the glorification of their gods and goddesses, and developed an intricate system of elaborate legend, symbolism and iconography to stun and fascinate humanity for ages to come. The pharaoh of Egypt was considered divine, as well, and was central to the process of divine intercession for human survival and happiness. The people of ancient Egypt implored their nature-based gods and goddesses through the formulary incantations and prayers for protection and blessing. To an outsider, comprehending the Egyptian tangle of god and goddesses with their stories of fantastical origin can be daunting. It is unsurprising, then, that the Minoans only borrowed certain aspects, largely symbolic and superficial in nature, from Egypt’s intricate, ancient, and expansive system of beliefs.
Part 3: Evidence of Cultural Interaction between Egyptians and Minoans
Abundant evidence still survives today which supports theories of extensive trade between Minoans and Egyptians. In Thebes, Egypt, for example, in the tomb of Rekhmire, there are paintings from the 18th dynasty portraying visitors bringing offerings to the Pharaoh with distinctly Minoan features. The long wavy hairstyle, broad shoulders, clothing patterns and narrow waists of these visitors are now considered nearly irrefutable proof of the two countries’ interaction.
Figure 1: Aegean Islanders in the Tomb of Rekhmire
Egyptian merchants made written note of their exchanges with the Minoans, with details of the trades.
In Crete, too we find evidence of Egyptian influence, most markedly in the Cretan religion of the time. They share not only a common belief in afterlife and, but also a belief in the requirement of living a just and pure life to attain life after death. Uniquely Egyptian styles of pottery were found in Minoan Crete, as well as an abundance of powerfully magical Egyptian seals and amulets. Even the writing that Minoans used uncannily resembles ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.
Figure 2: Comparison of Minoan and Egyptian Hieroglyphs
Most important are the sacred practices adopted from Egypt in the formation of a Minoan cult-like religion of goddess worship and bull sacrifice. The divine bull is central to Minoan religion, and may have been derived from the Egyptian god Hathor, also bovine.
Various symbols considered very powerful by Egyptians were also adopted by the Minoans. The ankh, for example, which symbolizes eternal life, as well as sea-themed burial paraphernalia were taken directly from Egyptian belief in passage to an after death underworld on a river. Sea shells, miniature boats, stone cosmetic palettes, and the sistrum all became part of the Minoan burial ritual after they were exposed to them in Egyptian lands. It seems likely that the Minoans desired these icons and religious symbols for their powerful magical attributes, and integrated them into their own sacred rituals and burial rites.
Part 4: A Closer Look at the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus
One notable example of sacred art from Minoan Greece is the Hagia Triada Sarcophagus, believed to be crafted circa 1350 BC. It consists of limestone with fresco painting. The sarcophagus is ornately detailed with chronological depictions of a Minoan ritual funerary rite. It describes, in detail, a procession of supplicants, sacrificing a sacred bull and celebrating the resurrection of their beloved prince. Like Egyptians, the religious Minoan burial rites were generally reserved for the elite classes.
Closer inspection of each side of the sarcophagus reveals a story told in pictures. On one side of the sarcophagus, a freshly sacrificed bull is centered in the artwork, his blood collecting in a container beneath him. To the left we see a priestess carrying double axes blessing the bull offering. There is a procession of supplicants following the priestess, while in front of the bull stand an aulos player and a lyre player, celebrating and heralding the resurrection of their prince.
Depicted on another side of the sarcophagus is a woman carrying a two-handled urn containing blood from the sacrificed bull. Next to her is a priestess wearing a bird-shaped crown carrying baskets on her shoulders which contain the freshly cut thighs of the sacrificed bull. Both of these women are taking their burdens to commit as burnt offerings. The blood and body of the sacrificed bull will give power to their spells and cause the resurrection of their prince. Both women are wearing feathers as befits servants of the goddess. A man playing a seven-stringed lyre with a plectrum stands alongside three priests in sheepskin skirts. The priests bring offerings of two tied calves and a curved boat for passage on the river between the underworld and this world. The priests are against a darker background “signifying, perhaps, a journey into the earth; into the darkness which opens out on (to) a sacred grove where another altar stands (Lahanas, 1).” Finally, the deceased prince is depicted on the far right in a striped burial shroud. The prince’s feet are hidden, giving the impression of slowly emerging from the sacred grove at the summons of the priests (Payne). Blood from the sacrificed bull, once placed in the sacred urn on the far left, has resurrected the dead prince and returned him to the land of the living.
The Hagia sarcophagus has a decidedly Egyptian tone to it. Even though Minoan art is typically more naturalistic and less rigid than that of the Egyptians, the influence of Egypt is undoubtedly present, nonetheless. Like Egyptian depictive art, in the Minoan sarcophagus, representations of death are positioned on the left, and life is on the right. Also, a resemblance of Egyptian art is found in the profile view of the priests and priestesses bodies, with almond-shaped eyes at a frontal view. The ideas of an afterlife, a bird-goddess, a divine bull, and a watery passage from life to death are all loosely interpreted versions of centuries old Egyptian religious traditions.
Part 5: A Closer Look at the Last Judgement of Hunefer Scroll
By comparison, the Last Judgement of Hunefer papyrus scroll from Thebes, Egypt. This artwork dates back to Egypt’s 19th Dynasty, during its New Kingdom, around 1275 BC. The scroll, like the Hagia sarcophagus, depicts a story through chronological events. Its theme is judgement in the afterlife, and has been extracted from Hunefer’s Book of the Dead. Each Egyptian Book of the Dead holds spells, prayers, incantations and instructions for the afterlife. An excerpt from the book is translated, revealing all of Hunefer’s good deeds of his lifetime:
Hail to you, great god, Lord of Justice! I have come to you, my lord, that you may bring me so that I may see your beauty, for I know you and I know your name, and I know the names of the forty-two gods of those who are with you in this Hall of Justice, who live on those who cherish evil and who gulp down their blood on that day of reckoning. I have rejected falsehood. I have done no evil. My name has not reached the offices of those who control slaves, I have not deprived the orphan of his property. I have not short-changed the food-offerings in the temples, I have not destroyed the loaves of the gods. I have not copulated, I have not added weights to the hand-balance, I have not lightened the plumb-line of the standing scales, I have not taken milk from the mouths of children… I am pure, pure, pure, pure! (Spell 125 from The Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, trans. R. O. Faulkner, New York. Macmillan, 1972, pp. 29-30).
Depicted on the scroll is a chronological sequence of events detailing the after-life judgment of Hunefer. Anubis (holding an Ankh – a symbol of eternal life) takes him by the hand to have his heart, which is the seat of emotions, intellect and character, weighed against a feather, which symbolizes that which is right. He then weighs the heart himself, while “the devourer” Ammut (part crocodile, part lion, part hippo) observes. The bird-headed human is Thoth, who records the proceedings. The heart appears to be balanced with the feather (even a bit lighter) and so in reward, Hunefer goes with Horus (now holding the Ankh) to meet with his father Osiris who is attended by his sisters Isis and Nepthys. Osiris is seated on a throne that floats on the waters of the heavenly Nile, and is protected from above by several cobras. Had his heart been heavier than the feather of Ma’at, Hunefer would have been condemned to nothingness, and his heart would have been devoured by Ammut. At the top of the scroll, Hunefer is depicted addressing thirteen divine judges, beseeching them to hear of the good deeds of his lifetime.
The Egyptian scroll is rife with examples of symbolism, including incantations and images that are meant to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The ancient tradition behind these symbols has imbued them with great power, given additional weight by the sheer immensity of time behind the tradition. It’s no wonder that the Minoans found it irresistible to borrow facets of such a profound and complex belief to integrate into their own religious ceremonies and burials.
Place these two works, side by side, and the similarities between the two are undeniable. A funereal, otherworldly feel unites them, as well as the artistic treatment of human figures in them. Supplication, divinity, death and resurrection are conveyed in both pieces, with stoicism and reverence to higher powers. This shared style of artistic expression emits an unearthly, superhuman magic that is uniquely powerful and evocative in its own right.
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