Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The so-called Minoan 'palaces': Royal mansions or holy sanctuaries?

After all those heavy linguistics stuff, I would like to invite readers to a lighter theme. As a fan of Minoan Crete and all aspects of its ancient culture, I am now bringing up a new topic on architecture, rituals, societal organisation, and religion. The question for today will be: what purpose did the so-called Minoan palatial centres, such as the famous Knossos Palace serve? Were they indeed a place for a royal court, and governors? Or did they serve as a focal point of Minoan religion, where high priests prayed and religious ceremonies were held?

This question may not be straightforward to anyone not examining the remnants of this once magnificent civilisation closely. Fortunately, I had the luck to personally visit many of the most important sites of the Minoan and Mycenean civilisation. Even as a simple tourist, one can get a realistic and personal impression of how these structures once looked like. And I can tell you: it is nowhere near the fancy pictures sold to tourists, posted on the net, or inserted into books. This greatly overhauled reconstruction of the Knossos excavation site looks way more like the Versailles of France, or a Victorian-era palace, than a bronze-age building complex. Maybe we can forgive that to Sir Arthur Evans. But do not let us be derailed by the legend of King Minos.

What are the main problems with the traditional reconstruction of the Knossos (and Phaistos) sites? For one of the most obvious ones, the 'palace' did not stand as an isolated building, in the middle of some royal garden. In fact it was situated directly inside the city centre. It looked much like the Athenian Acropolis, since both the Knossos and Phaistos sites were built atop local hills (yet some smaller centres like Malia were not). There were not even walls to keep commoners out, unlike the Forbidden Palace in Beijing or the Kremlin in Moscow.

But the most important evidence of activities other than that of a royal residence lie directly around and inside the palaces. If one pokes around the Phaistos site (the Knossos site is equally good, but there are too many tourists so I preferred the former), one can discover a number of disturbing features not fit with an image of a palace. For example, the West Court of Phaistos is bordered by staircases - that do not lead anywhere. These steps were therefore more similar to the classic Greek theatres' semicircular seats, than some real stepwells. But the most intriguing feature is not this 'theatre', but the strange lines paved onto the ground. On the ground, above the original stone cover, some narrow stone-covered lines criscross the court. The lines start at an entrance, then divide - one of them leads to the 'seats', then (after a sharp break) to the exit - the other line goes streight from entrance to exit. If we follow these lines through the site, we can see that they indeed go through much of the 'palace'.

What were these lines? It takes some imagination, but I believe they marked some sort of 'ritual procession'. In this regard they were comparable to the lines painted on some squares where military parades are regularly held. Yet I am pretty much convinced, that these processions had a profoundly religious character in the case of the Minoan 'palaces'. They lead from one side through courts to the central 'plaza'. But their route is not accidental: they typically pass beside the three strange well-like holes variously interpreted as granaries, cisterns or some other objects. The most acceptable explanation is that these were some kind of "sacred repositories".

Another really interesting fact is the presence of the "tripartite" buildings and altars. This means a typical arrangement of structures: three wings, with a slight elevation of the middle one. I cannot resist the theory that the "tripartite" altars served some divine trinity, so characteristic of the Mycenean religion. The Pylos tablets supply us with a number of such divine trinities: such as Diwia, Iphimedeia and Perswa or that of Poseidon, Qowia and Komawenteia.

Once we have accepted the fact that these 'palaces' could have been in fact sanctuaries (perhaps also housing some theocratic governing body, explaining the large storage buildings and the tablets' reference to taxation), we may explain another strange fact. After the decline of the Minoan age, most part of the palaces were destroyed, yet the cities continued to flourish in the classical era and beyond. The place of palaces lied somewhere not far from their agoras (marketplaces). While most of the buildings were indeed left to collapse, some parts continued to see use in the Classical Greece as well. Strangely enough, both at Knossos and Phaistos, temples of Rhea were constructed above the once-mighty complex.

Could this be a coincidence? I highly doubt it. People are much more conservative in religion than in earthly things: thus if a temple is destroyed, they often construct the new one directly above the ruins (given that the cult survives). This is exactly how the mighty temple-mounts of Mesopotamia (the ziggurats) gained their form: during millenia, the ruins of previous temples have raised the ground below the temples of Uruk or Eridu, and this 'holy design' was avidly copied and simulated by later architects. So the mere fact that the temples were (re)built above the ruins, indicate that they were previously important sites of the cult of Rhea.

Rhea was undoubtedly an important goddess of the Minoan civilisation. The London Medical Papyrus even mentions a god Raziya as 'great god' of Keftiu (cited from the works of Peter W Haider), implying its high status, an perhaps even its role as the head of the pantheon. Apart from the identification issues (more about this papyrus in a later post), it is tempting to believe that Raziya was indeed Rhea, and that she was the head of the Minoan pantheon, a true 'Great Goddess', whose cult and importance was partially preserved in the classic era. Do not forget though, that having a female figure as the head of the pantheon has nothing to do with societal structure: The ancient Irish pantheon being led by a goddess does not imply that Celts were either matriarchal or matrilinear. It is still pretty much likely that the Minoan society recorded relations on a patrilinear basis and had male rulers, just as all neighbouring civilisations of that age.

For those who wish to read more on Minoan and Mycenean religious practices, and the nature of 'palace-sanctuaries', I recommend the book of Rodney Castleden titled 'Myceneans' (2005).

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