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Minoan Peak Sanctuaries: Pilgrimage and Offerings

Imagine climbing halfway up a mountain to a plaza in front of a small building just so you could make an offering – to ask a deity for aid or healing, or perhaps to give thanks for what the deity has already done for you. This is something the Minoans did on a regular basis, making pilgrimages up the mountainsides to the four dozen or so peak sanctuaries that were in operation before the Thera eruption (a number that dropped dramatically by 2/3 to 3/4 after the eruption, for complicated reasons).

The photo (CC BY 4.0) at the top of this post comes from the peak sanctuary at Petsofas on the far eastern end of Crete. This fascinating artifact appears to be a model building in the shape of doubled sacred horns, with more small sacred horns over the central doorway. This piece was probably not a pilgrim’s offering, but may have been part of the sacred paraphernalia that had a permanent home in the building at the peak sanctuary. Maybe it was used during rituals of some sort.

But there are plenty of other artifacts from Petsofas that are offerings left by worshipers. Like these terracotta male figures, with the ones in the front in the Singing Shaman ecstatic posture:

Terracotta votive figurines from Petsofas
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These all look similar enough that they may have come from the same workshop. Archaeologists think there were probably vendor stalls at the peak sanctuaries, cave shrines, and maybe even at the temples where people could buy votive figurines. This is similar to the vendors at modern pilgrimage sites like Lourdes and Guadalupe, so it’s not a totally unfamiliar concept to us modern folx.

Here are some more votive figurines from Petsofas. These are female figures, with the one on the left front in the Singing Shaman ecstatic posture and the one on the right in another ecstatic posture, though it’s hard to tell the exact details because her left arm is broken off:

Female votive figurines from Petsofas
Image CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These figurines, like the male ones above, may represent the worshiper who made the offering. Or they may represent another person – perhaps a loved one – who needs a deity’s aid or who has been helped or healed after a deity was asked for assistance.

Here are a couple more votive figurines, these from Piskokephalo, a peak sanctuary near the northeast coast of Crete.

Minoan votive figurines from Piskokefalo
Image CC BY 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These are much more detailed and finely made than the examples above from Petsofas, so they were probably more expensive as well. They’re also in ecstatic postures and may represent either the pilgrims who left them at the site or someone else on whose behalf they made the pilgrimage.

One of my favorite peak sanctuary artifacts is this one from Traostalos near the coast in far eastern Crete:

Rhinoceros beetles from Traostalos
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

These are terracotta rhinoceros beetles! I have no idea why anyone would offer a model of rhinoceros beetles at a sacred shrine, but they must have had some kind of meaning for the Minoans, because other rhinoceros beetle models have been found at Piskokefalo.

This figurine from Traostalos is especially interesting, for a couple of reasons.

Traostalos seated votive figurine
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

First of all, seated female figures in Minoan art usually denote goddesses. That’s part of the way Minoan iconography works. But votive figurines usually represent worshipers, not deities. If we look closely at this figurine, we can see that her left leg is swollen. So maybe she’s seated because she can’t stand – which suggests to me that not only is this probably a worshiper and not a goddess, but also that someone else who cared very much for her must have made that climb up the mountainside to offer this figurine and ask for healing for her.

We also find a lot of animal figurines at peak sanctuaries, like this awesome little goat from Traostalos:

Goat figurine from Traostalos
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Animal votive figurines might have been offered to ask the deities for blessings on the family flock or herd, or to help relieve the animals of disease or injury – or in thanks for blessings or healing already received.

How about this fish from Traostalos, perhaps offered by someone who made their living fishing or who wanted to ensure their family’s sea-based food supply:

Terracotta fish from Traostalos
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Maybe the same person also gave this little terracotta boat as an offering:

Terracotta boat figurine from Traostalos
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 Sometimes the worshipers offered figurines of body parts like these legs from Petsofas:

Leg votive figurines from Petsofas
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

or this arm that looks like it’s wearing a bracelet:

Votive arm from Petsofas
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

People offered body parts like these when asking for healing from injury or disease or when giving thanks after receiving healing. Though the Minoans were renowned for their medical ability, this was still the Bronze Age, millennia before the invention of antibiotics and vaccines. So even for the Minoans, health could sometimes be a tricky business.

If you were going on a pilgrimage to a Minoan peak sanctuary, what would you take as an offering?

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.

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