How ‘ritual’ were the Palaces?

Between them, the four palaces excavated on Crete give a vivid insight as to what life was like in a palace-based society. Clearly the palaces were the main focus of ceremonial life, with the political and economic control that went with the ceremonies. The palaces dominated the economy – and ritual – for ritual and the economy were closely intertwined in the Minoan set-up. There are no rich royal burials: burial practices were very low key compared to Egypt. Similarly temples are basically absent: there were indeed shrines, but the gods lived on mountain tops and the most prominent shrines were mountain shrines. It was the palaces that were the focus of the Minoans, where the ruler, King Minos presided and no doubt received the reverence due to a status of combined ruler, high priest and god.

Within the palaces, there are three particular types of structure that have been identified as being ‘ritual’. There were the pillar crypts, semi-subterranean rooms with a central pillar, often with the mysterious ‘double axe’ symbols inscribed on the pillars as a mark of their ritual function. This is where one imagines that the dark hidden mysteries took place.

Phaistos Lustral basin

An (over-restored?) Lustral Basin at Phaistos

And then there are the ‘lustral basins’. This is a term invented by Evans who found a very prominent lustral basin at Knossos, opposite the throne room, and he suggested that it was a place where the queen performed a ritual wash before ascending the throne. However there are problems in seeing them as baths: they are often plastered with gypsum which is water soluble and they had no drains, so if they did have a washing function, the washing could only have been done with jugs. Perhaps it was as bit of both – yes, washing was done, but it within a form of a ritual purification.

Phaistos Pier and door

‘Pier and door’ architecture in the building known as the King’s Megaron in the East Wing at Phaistos. Note the ‘I’ shaped piers designed to have recesses for doors which could be opened and closed.

Finally there are the Minoan halls, difficult and controversial to identify, but they consisted of two or more rooms, an inner rooms and a smaller outer room. The are particularly associated with ‘pillar and door’, architecture, marked by pillars with recesses into which doors could be pushed back, forming partitions which could be opened up to form one big room, or shut to form several smaller rooms. Is this the origin of the labyrinth, in that when you went into the Palace, one set of doors were opened, but then when you came out again, doors were closed and other doors opened, so the whole layout was different – which was (deliberately) very confusing. These ‘Minoan halls’ are very difficult to identify or interpret, but they seem to be the rooms where the more open ceremonies took place.

But all three types of shrine are often in the vicinity of the magazines. You did not just render up your tithes to the Minos and receive his gift as a straightforward transaction, it was all mixed up with ritual hocus pocus. We will never elucidate the ritual. What we can appreciate is that in these palace empires, economics and ritual were all bound up together, but that it was the storage of the surplus produce, the tribute, that gave the ruler his prestige – and his power.

And now, having considered the palaces that made up the Minoan civilisation, it is time to move on to the other remarkable source of evidence about the Minoans, that is their script, Minoan Linear B and find out how it was deciphered and what it tells us about Minoan society.


On to Minoan Linear B

7th August 2016