Looking at the Cave Sanctuaries of Crete

28 Jun

Cretan caves are really wonderous sites to visit. Some of them are composed of multiple chambers,situated at different levels and joined together by passages. Many contain stalagmites and stalactites; some have pools of water. In such an atmosphere of partial or total darkness,it is easy to understand how human imagination could be spurred to see the shape of the rocks divinities or spirits. For these reasons caves became places of worship as early as the First Palace period. It was only during the New Palace era,however,that cult became really intensified,continuing not only after the palatial system but well into Greek and Roman times.

 Stalagmite Psychro Cave.

The reason for this continuity must certainly be sought in the emotional response that the awsome atmosphere of caves evokes in the human psyche. Even in our times,there is a little chapel built over the cave of Skoteino east of Heraklion. The cave is still used for yearly celebrations. The interior of the caves were utilized.Natural rock formations,such as those in the first chamber of the caves at Skoteino and Amnissos,become focal points for worship. Flat rocks could be put to use as alters. Objects were sometimes placed in between rocks or stalagmites,but man made alters are also present.

The offerings are typical of votive religion and do not differ significantly in character from those in peak sanctuaries. The main difference is the pre-ponderence of bronze over terracotta objects,especially figurines.This may have to do with the fact that caves were used for more specialized needs than peak sancturies.Some may have been for public festivals,others may have served personal needs,and yet others may have beeen used by special groups or societies..

Many caves had relatively poor votives: cups,jugs,kernoi,bowls,even pithoi.Others included more prestigious items, such as stone offering tables,bull rhta,seals, jewelry,double axes and weapons. This descrepancy in the wealth  and the types of offerings between the two categories has led scholars to postulate different types of deities for each group. The variation seems to reflect a fundamental difference in the identity of the worshippers rather than the venerated gods. Whereas some caves would have been under the influence of the palatial theocracy,others could have attracted rural inhbitants for the performance of popular cults in the countryside.

The cave of Kamares is situated within the domain of the palace of Phaistos,high up in the mountains; it flourished during the First Palace period. Because of the altitude,there is snow in the winter,which makes visits impossible during this time of year,only the late spring and summer could people climb there. A seasonal festivity seems a plausible occasion for the visits of the pilgrims. The finds support this theory because neither figurines of worshippers nor personal items were found,only pottery which consisted mostly of dining equipments,such as jars,jugs,bowls and plates.

 Kamares Ware Jar.

 Kamares Ware Jug.

More of Kamares Ware My favourite Minoan pottery.

 Small Bowl Kamares Ware.

In the interior there was found a heap of grain,and it is possible  that more was kept in the storage jars of the cave. This would suggest that an agricultural festival was the occasion which prompted the visits to the cave,and that there was an  ensuing communal feast.The participants would have been poor people from the countryside,but as the good quality of some of the pottery show (Protopalatial Kamares ware),palatial  emissaries also must have taken part. Storage jars were found also at other caves. Food storage presupposes collection and redistribution of produce.

Storage Jars such as these would have been used to store grain.

For our understanding of the social dynamics of Minoan religion,it is important to note that the evidence from the Kamares cave indicates that people from different social strata mingled during the public festivals. Personal item such as seals,weapons,bronze tools,tweezers,and needles as well as many bronze figures of animals and human worshippers were found in the caves of Skoteino,near Knossos,and especially Psychro on the Lasithi plateau. A common conception is that votives give information about the nature of the deity worshipped,and yet the dedicatory offerings are just as telling about the identity of the donor. The dedication of weapons,for example betrays the presence of male warriors. Although female figurines have been found in caves,male ones generally predominate. As to bronze animal figurines,these may have been dedicated by wealthy farmers or herdesmen who wished to multiply their flocks

 Bronze figurine found at Psychro.

If we consider the idea that weapons suggest dedications by male warriors especially the cave of Arkalochori.There the votives consisted almost exclusively of weapons and  emblems of power. At least 100 double axes have been found, 26 in gold, 7 in silver,in addition to blades,swords and knives.Some of the double axes were inscribed,an indication of upper-class presence.

 Golden Double Axe Votive.

Because a few of the weapons seemed unfinished and because there were also ball-shaped ingots among the objects,the excavator,Sp Marinatos,toyed with the idea that the cave was not a cult place, but a smithy. The absence of tools and installations,however is a desisive argument against the hypothesis,as he himself admitted. Another suggestion of this may be more fruitful: that there may have been some kind of priestly guild in control of the cave

It is easy to imagine that the Arkalochori cave would have been used by a society of warriors or priests whose insignia dignitatis were swords,daggers and double axes, dedicated during major festivals and/or initiation rituals. The deposition of ceremonial weapons,as well as the leftover raw material(which would be owned by the donor),would be an integral part of the ceremony. Other caves also yielded warrior figurines,especially the cave of Patso. Although these are Postpalatial in date they show continuity of the custom with later times.It is possible that we can link the custom of dedicating weapons in caves with the later Greek tradition of the mythical young Cretan warriors who brandished their shields in war dances. This line of investigation also leads us to initiation rituals and special societies. If there is some truth in this,a distinctive role for some of the caves emerges as centers of specialized social groups,especially warriors. This does not mean that we should exclude other participants.

It is interesting that daggers are used as insignia of status in the iconography whereas weapons and religeous implements are combined in graves of personages of high status. Thus a society of warrior-priests can be easily imagined as fitting the context of the social tableau. As to the rituals,they must have been similar to those of peak sancturies. Here also we have evidence of libations and agricultural offerings,attested by jugs and stone offering tables. At Psychro,the latter were found around an alter together with chalices,jugs,cups and bowls.There were animal sacrifices and ensuing cult meals which left behind them bones and ashes..Some of the offerings,seals or figures,were destroyed by being thrown into the rock crevices or into a pool of water, as at Psychro. This recalls the custom of throwing objects into rock fissures or into the fire,observed at peak sanctuaries.

 Votive of a Snake goddess

Clay figurine of Snake Goddess

A special instance of dedication consisted of embedding double axes and daggers in stalagtites. This act pre-supposes strength. The figurines exclusively represent worshippers,not deities. The gestures indicate reverence or, when the hands are streched out,offering. Given the fact that the figurines were predomenantly made of bronze,they would have been dedicated on special occasions or during major festivals. Life- crisis rituals spring to mind,but seasonal festivities cannot be excluded.

The question of the deities venerated must be left open. For only one cave, that of Amnissos near Knossos do we have information  about the name of the deity worshipped. It has been identified as the cave of  Eleithyia (the goddess of birth). It yealded mostly pottery and hardly any figurines, and its floruit came in the Greco-Roman period.

Despite so much information, many scholors suggested a chthonic goddess for some caves,or, in the case of Arkalochori, a war god. However we cannot speculate since the type of evidence of the ex-votus is not conclusive and can be analyzed from the point of view of the economic status and personal needs of the worshippers. Given the similarities of the objects at peak sancturies and caves,it is too simplistic to reconstruct celestial deities for mountain shrines and  chthonic goddesses for caves.

Nature santuaries have shown us a different facet of Minoan cult. It is in those places,those extra-urban sanctuaries,that official and popular religion met in common concerns,such as plentiful harvests or life-crisis rituals. That the places would try to use such cults to unite the population in the rural countryside is a logical assumption.


Posted by on June 28, 2012 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Looking at the Cave Sanctuaries of Crete

  1. mbjssgpm

    June 28, 2012 at 5:37 pm

    fascinating blog again Rita, they just get better and better. Gill 🙂


    • ritaroberts

      June 29, 2012 at 10:48 am

      Thanks for dropping by Gill. Your nice comments always appreciated.


    • ritaroberts

      July 10, 2012 at 10:16 am

      Many thanks for visiting my blog.Glad you enjoyed about The Cave Sanctuaries


  2. Elder Mountain Spiritual Artist Residency

    June 27, 2016 at 2:40 am

    Thank you for posting.



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