Everything in Minoan Crete was a hymn to mother nature. Almost every building had rooms dedicated to the worship of the deity. There appear to have been very few independent temple buildings. A unique, imposing separate temple was discovered a few years ago at Anemospilia, Archanes. Cult places may be divided into two groups: a) natural sanctuaries (cave and peak sanctuaries), and b) sacred buildings (house-hold and palace shrines). They are discussed briefly below.
The most important cult caves in Crete in which some excavation has taken place are those at Trapeza, Kamares, Psychro, the Idaean Cave, the caves of Eileithyia at Amnisos and Inatos, Phaneromeni, Skoteino, Patsou, Tylisos, Karnari, Chosto Nero, Ellenes, Melidoni, Koumarospilio, Arkoudospilio, and Platyvola. These caves were originally used as refuges and seasonal residences by the hunters of the Neolithic period. In the Pre-Palace period some of them became burial places, and in the following, Old Palace period, were used as cult places of the Minoan chthonic Mother Goddess together with the divine infant, who were worshipped on altars and in recesses, in cavities and fissures. The caves were used for cult purposes until the end of antiquity, when the Minoans goddess had been succeeded by later deities. Cult practices in caves included the dedication of ex votos and offerings made in a wide range of types and materials: bronze and terracotta figurines and other objects. The cults also seem to have included initiation rituals. It may be noted that Crete has over 3000 caves. The significance of the caves of Crete is that Greek religion and mythology located the birth of Zeus in one of them (Diktaean or Idaean Cave). The cave of Arkalochori is unique. The archaeologist Sp. Marinatos originally suggested it was dedicated to the cult of a warrior god, in an attempt to explain the unusually large numbers of bronze artefacts, mainly weapons, found in it. In fact the cave was used as a hiding place for a hoard of bronze objects which had probably been gathered together from the sanctuaries in the region and were destined to be melted down in the palace workshop at Knossos, under the supervision of the neighbouring palace at Galatas. The objects were concealed in the face of some unknown impending danger, with the intention of recovering them later; the cave collapsed however and the hoard was only discovered 3,500 years later.
Sanctuaries on the peaks of mountains or hills or on mountain-sides were dedicated to the cult of the Mother Goddess as “Mountain Mother” or “Mistress of the Animals”. They had enclosure walls and, terraces and were initially open areas, though small rooms were later added (Juktas), possibly for the storage of the cult objects. Pilgrims and worshippers placed their offerings on pyres and altars, and also in cavernous recesses. The offerings consisted of bronze and terracotta figurines of humans and animals or parts of the human body, vases and utensils, jewellery, etc. The dozens of sanctuaries in this category include those on Mount Juktas and at Symi, Kophinas, Petsophas, Traostalos, Piskokephalo, Pyrgos Tylisou, Prophitis Ilias Malion, Kalo Chorio, Vrysinas, Atsipada, etc. We have already noted that the palaces had a sacred character, which was stressed by their being crowned by double horns made of stone or plaster, and by various hieroglyphic marks incised on the masonry (mainly the double axe). Every palace also seems to have possessed a separate series of apartments that formed the palace or house-hold sanctuary. This took the form of a tripartite shrine, which is depicted in miniature wall-paintings. The earliest known example of this type is the Old Palace shrine in the north-east corner of the middle West Court of the palace at Phaistos. Such shrines have also been discovered in the palaces at Knossos and Malia and in the megaron at Vathypetro. Characteristic features of the shrines include low built benches or sills, higher benches, which were also built, fixed rectangular altars and moveable stone biconcave altars, stone or plaster offering-tables, plaster horns of consecration, squat alabastra, lamps, recesses and cupboards, hearths, crypts and treasuries, and small lustral basins. The room that is normally regarded as the core of shrine is the pillar crypt, with one or two pillars. This was a dark ground-floor room, at the center of which was a square pillar that formed the object of the cult (stone-worship or baetyl-worship), since the patron deity of the palace, megaron, or house was though to reside here.
Artistic representations make it clear that many round columns were also the object of worship. Another characteristic sacred area was the “lustral basin”, a semi-basement room with steps leading down into it. Some of the best-known shrines have been preserved in the form they assumed in the Post-palace period, including those in the Little Palace at Knossos, and at Ayia Triada, Malia, Mitropoli Gortynas, Gazi, Gournia, and Karphi. The last two, and the one at Malia, have been described as settlements sanctuaries.
Dr Andonis Vasilakis