Mycenaean religion

The religious element is difficult to identify in Mycenaean Greece (c. 1600-1100 BC), especially as regards archaeological sites, where it remains very problematic to pick out a place of worship with certainty. John Chadwick points out that at least six centuries lie between the earliest presence of Proto-Greek speakers in Hellas and the earliest inscriptions in the Mycenaean script known as Linear B, during which concepts and practices will have fused with indigenous Pre-Greek beliefs, and—if cultural influences in material culture reflect influences in religious beliefs—with Minoan religion.[1] As for these texts, the few lists of offerings that give names of gods as recipients of goods reveal nothing about religious practices, and there is no surviving literature. John Chadwick rejected a confusion of Minoan and Mycenaean religion derived from archaeological correlations[2] and cautioned against "the attempt to uncover the prehistory of classical Greek religion by conjecturing its origins and guessing the meaning of its myths"[3] above all through treacherous etymologies.[4] Moses I. Finley detected very few authentic Mycenaean reflections in the eighth-century Homeric world, in spite of its "Mycenaean" setting.[5] However, Nilsson asserts, based not on uncertain etymologies but on religious elements and on the representations and general function of the gods, that many Minoan gods and religious conceptions were fused in the Mycenaean religion. From the existing evidence, it appears that the Mycenaean religion was the mother of the Greek religion.[6] The Mycenaean pantheon already included many divinities that can be found in classical Greece.[7]


Fresco depicting a goddess or priestess in Mycenae, 1250–1180 BC.
The Lady of Phylakopi; wheel-made pottery figurine of a goddess or priestess from the West Shrine in Phylakopi; late Helladic III A period, 14th century BC, Archaeological Museum of Milos

Poseidon (Po-se-da-o) seems to have occupied a place of privilege. He was a chthonic deity, connected with the earthquakes (E-ne-si-da-o-ne: earth shaker), but it seems that he also represented the river spirit of the underworld as it often happens in Northern European folklore.[8] Also to be found are a collection of "Ladies". On a number of tablets from Pylos, we find Po-ti-ni-ja (Potnia, "lady" or "mistress") without any accompanying word. It seems that she had an important shrine at the site Pakijanes near Pylos.[9] In an inscription at Knossos in Crete, we find the "mistress of the Labyrinth" (da-pu-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja), who calls to mind the myth of the Minoan labyrinth.[10] The title was applied to many goddesses. In a Linear B tablet found at Pylos, the "two queens and the king" (wa-na-ssoi, wa-na-ka-te) are mentioned, and John Chadwick relates these with the precursor goddesses of Demeter, Persephone and Poseidon.[11][12]

Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the goddesses of the Eleusinian mysteries, were usually referred to as "the two goddesses" or "the mistresses" in historical times.[13] Inscriptions in Linear B found at Pylos, mention the goddesses Pe-re-swa, who may be related with Persephone, and Si-to po-ti-ni-ja,[14] who is an agricultural goddess.[9] A cult title of Demeter is "Sito" (σίτος: wheat).[15] The mysteries were established during the Mycenean period (1500 BC) at the city of Eleusis[16] and it seems that they were based on a pre-Greek vegetation cult with Minoan elements.[17] The cult was originally private and there is no information about it, but certain elements suggest that it could have similarities with the cult of Despoina ("the mistress")—the precursor goddess of Persephone—in isolated Arcadia that survived up to classical times. In the primitive Arcadian myth, Poseidon, the river spirit of the underworld, appears as a horse (Poseidon Hippios). He pursues Demeter who becomes a mare and from the union she bears the fabulous horse Arion and a daughter, "Despoina", who obviously originally had the shape or the head of a mare. Pausanias mentions animal-headed statues of Demeter and of other gods in Arcadia.[18] At Lycosura on a marble relief, appear figures of women with the heads of different animals, obviously in a ritual dance.[19] This could explain a Mycenaean fresco from 1400 BC that represents a procession with animal masks[20] and the procession of "daemons" in front of a goddess on a golden ring from Tiryns.[21] The Greek myth of the Minotaur probably originated from a similar "daemon".[22] In the cult of Despoina at Lycosura, the two goddesses are closely connected with the springs and the animals, and especially with Poseidon and Artemis, the "mistress of the animals" who was the first nymph. The existence of the nymphs was bound to the trees or the waters which they haunted.

Artemis appears as a daughter of Demeter in the Arcadian cults and she became the most popular goddess in Greece.[23] The earliest attested forms of the name Artemis are the Mycenaean Greek a-te-mi-to and a-ti-mi-te, written in Linear B at Pylos.[24] Her precursor goddess (probably the Minoan Britomartis) is represented between two lions on a Minoan seal and also on some goldrings from Mycenae.[25] The representations are quite similar with those of "Artemis Orthia" at Sparta. In her temple at Sparta, wooden masks representing human faces have been found that were used by dancers in the vegetation-cult.[26] Artemis was also connected with the Minoan "cult of the tree," an ecstatic and orgiastic cult, which is represented on Minoan seals and Mycenaean gold rings.[27]

Paean (Pa-ja-wo) is probably the precursor of the Greek physician of the gods in Homer's Iliad. He was the personification of the magic-song which was supposed to "heal" the patient. Later it became also a song of victory (παιάν). The magicians was also called "seer- doctors" (ιατρομάντεις), a function which was also applied later to Apollo.[28]

Athena (A-ta-na) appears in a Linear B inscription at Knossos from the Late Minoan II-era. The form A-ta-na po-ti-ni-ja (mistress Athena) is similar with the later Homeric form.[29] She was probably the goddess of the palace who is represented in the famous "Procession-fresco" at Knossos.[30] In a Mycenaean fresco, there is a composition of two women extending their hands towards a central figure who is covered by an enormous figure-eight shield. The central figure is the war-goddess with her palladium (classical antiquity), or her palladium in an aniconic representation.[9]

Dionysos (Di-wo-nu-so[31]) also appears in some inscriptions. His name is interpreted as "son of Zeus" and probably has a Thraco-Phrygian origin. Later his cult is related with Boeotia and Phocis, where it seems that was introduced before the end of the Mycenean age. This may explain why his myths and cult were centered in Thebes, and why the mountain Parnassos in Phocis was the place of his orgies. However, in the Homeric poems he is the consort of the Minoan vegetation goddess Ariadne.[32] He is the only Greek god other than Attis who dies in order to be reborn, as it often appears in the religions of the Orient.[33] His myth is related with the Minoan myth of the "divine child" who was abandoned by his mother and then brought up by the powers of nature. Similar myths appear in the cults of Hyakinthos (Amyklai), Erichthonios (Athens), and Ploutos (Eleusis).[34]

Other divinities who can be found in later periods have been identified, such as the couple ZeusHera, Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes, Eileithyia, and Erinya. Hephaestus, for example, is likely associated with A-pa-i-ti-jo at Knossos whereas Apollo is mentioned only if he is identified with Paiāwōn; Aphrodite, however, is entirely absent.[35] Qo-wi-ja ("cow-eyed") is a standard Homeric ephithet of Hera.[14] Ares has appeared under the name Enyalios (assuming that Enyalios is not a separate god) and though the importance of Areias is unknown, it does resemble the name of the god of war.[36] Eleuthia is associated with Eileithuia, the Homeric goddess of child-birth.[37]

Representations of the "Minoan Genius" are widely found in the continental Mycenaean Greece.[38]

Shrines and sanctuariesEdit

There were some sites of importance for cults, such as Lerna, typically in the form of house sanctuaries since the free-standing temple containing a cult image in its cella with an open-air altar before it was a later development. Certain buildings found in citadels having a central room, the megaron, of oblong shape surrounded by small rooms may have served as places of worship. Aside from that, the existence of a domestic cult may be supposed. Some shrines have been located, as at Phylakopi on Melos, where a considerable number of statuettes discovered there were undoubtedly fashioned to serve as offerings, and it can be supposed from archaeological strata that sites such as Delphi, Dodona, Delos, Eleusis, Lerna, and Abae were already important shrines, and in Crete several Minoan shrines show continuity into LMIII, a period of Minoan-Mycenaean culture.



  1. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 88.
  2. ^ As explicitly expressed in Martin P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion, 1927.
  3. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 84.
  4. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 87: "Words that are not understood are constantly deformed to give them meanings. Mere resemblance is of course nearly always deceptive."
  5. ^ Finley 1954.
  6. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 339.
  7. ^ Paul, Adams John (10 January 2010). "Mycenaean Divinities". Northridge, CA: California State University. Retrieved 25 September 2013.
  8. ^ Nilsson 1940.
  9. ^ a b c Mylonas 1966, p. 159.
  10. ^ Chadwick 1976, pp. 92–93.
  11. ^ Mylonas 1966, p. 159: "Wa-na-ssoi, wa-na-ka-te, (to the two queens and the king). Wanax is best suited to Poseidon, the special divinity of Pylos. The identity of the two divinities addressed as wanassoi, is uncertain."
  12. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 76.
  13. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 463.
  14. ^ a b Chadwick 1976, p. 95.
  15. ^ Eustathius of Thessalonica, scholia on Homer, 265.
  16. ^ Mylonas 1961.
  17. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 475.
  18. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece, VIII–25.4, VIII–37.1ff, VIII–42.
  19. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 479–480.
  20. ^ Robertson 1959, p. 31; National Archaeological Museum of Athens, No. 2665.
  21. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 293.
  22. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 227, 297.
  23. ^ Pausanias. Description of Greece, VIII–37.6.
  24. ^ Chadwick & Baumbach 1963, p. 176f.
  25. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 273, 295.
  26. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 162, 310, 489.
  27. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 281, 283, 301, 487.
  28. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 500–504; Chadwick 1976, p. 88: "Pa-ja-wo suggested Homeric Paieon, which earlier would have been Paiawon, later Paidn, an alternative name of Apollo, if not again a separate god."
  29. ^ Kn V 52 (text 208 in Ventris and Chadwick); Chadwick 1976, p. 88.
  30. ^ Hagg & Wells 1978, Arne Furumark, "Aegean Society", p. 14: "Atano is identical with the Greek Athana (that she was originally the Minoan "palace goddess" was rightly concluded long ago by Martin P. Nilsson)."
  31. ^ Palaeolexicon. "di-wo-nu-so".
  32. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 565–568.
  33. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, p. 215.
  34. ^ Nilsson 1967, Volume I, pp. 215–219.
  35. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 99.
  36. ^ Chadwick 1976, pp. 95, 99.
  37. ^ Chadwick 1976, p. 98.
  38. ^ P. Rehak, The ‘Genius’ in Late Bronze Age Glyptic: the Later Evolution of an Aegean Cult Figure (PDF file), in W. Müller (ed.), Sceaux Minoens et Mycéniens [CMS Beiheft 5] (Berlin 1995) 215-231


Further readingEdit

  • Guilleux, Nicole. La religion dans les nouvelles tablettes de Thèbes. Réflexions complémentaires. In: Espace civil, espace religieux en Égée durant la période mycénienne. Approches épigraphique, linguistique et archéologique. Actes des journées d'archéologie et de philologie mycéniennes, Lyon, 1er février et 1er mars 2007. Lyon : Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux, 2010. pp. 93-102. (Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 54 []
  • Espace civil, espace religieux en Égée durant la période mycénienne. Approches épigraphique, linguistique et archéologique. Actes des journées d'archéologie et de philologie mycéniennes, Lyon, 1er février et 1er mars 2007. Lyon : Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée Jean Pouilloux, 2010. -1 p. (Travaux de la Maison de l'Orient et de la Méditerranée, 54) []