A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year at her home in Crete, researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there. In this contribution she writes about – Cretan Goddesses and their names.
Although many Goddesses are known by name from the Hellenistic Greek pantheon (such as Athena, Aphrodite, Hera, etc) it is sometimes said that we don’t know the name of the Goddess who was worshipped in the earlier Bronze Age at the Minoan sites. This is only partially true. We do in fact have some tantalising clues of possible names, and it appears that she may have been worshipped under different names in different places.
The earliest form of writing discovered is the Linear A script, a cursive syllabic script, which, despite intensive study and some limited progress, is not yet fully deciphered. The tablets and sealstones which contain this script have been found at the temple-palaces and towns of Knossos, Malia, Aghia Triada and Hania among others, and date from the neo-Palatial period (1700-1450 BCE) On one Linear A text the name of a Goddess Assassara has been deciphered, which makes her the earliest, and probably the least-known, of any Minoan Goddess. It has also been suggested that the Goddess Eileithyia dates from this earlier period, as her name is not Indo-European in form. She was the matron Goddess of childbirth, and caves dedicated to her can be found at Amnisos in the north and Inatos in the south of the island.
Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, took it for granted that a Minoan Goddess survived to become Gaia, Rhea and several other Greek Goddesses. Other scholars have reinforced this assumption, including contemporary scholar Nano Marinatos, who says: “The survival of certain religious traits of Minoan religion into post-Minoan and Doric Crete cannot be denied”(1). But she also makes the point that the Minoan religion, like others of the eastern Mediterranean, was probably polytheistic (worshipping several Goddesses rather than one).
From the later post-Palatial period comes the Linear B script, which has been deciphered. From Knossos a Linear B tablet refers to an offering made to da-puz-ri-to-jo po-ti-ni-ja which translates as Labyrinthos Potnia, meaning “The Lady of the Labyrinth”. This is a fascinating designation, linking as it does the labyrinth to the site of Knossos. The name Potnia comes up time and time again, not just in Crete but throughout the Mycenean world. Although it only means “The Lady”, it is clearly the name or title of the Goddess, though John Chadwick (2) concluded that Potnia was probably one Goddess “worshipped at a number of places under various forms”.
Other named deities or aspects of the deity, who are given offerings and tributes on the Linear B tablets, and who may be translated as Goddesses are as follows:- (3)
po-ti-ni-ja-we-jo/ja = Potnia Aphrodite (?)
a-ta-na-po-ti-ni-ja = Lady of Athana (?)
e-re-u-ti-ja = Eileithyia (the entry links her to the cave of Amnisos, and she receives a wealth of offerings, including wool and honey).
e-ri-nu = translates as ‘Erinys’ which became an epithet for the Goddess Demeter
pi-pi-tu-na = Pipituna, an unknown moon Goddess.
a-pe-ti-ra = this name has been translated as ‘bow goddess’, which may be an earlier form of Artemis
qe-ra-si-ja = this has been translated in various ways, one of which is “the huntress”, which again would make her an Artemis figure.
a-ne-mo = this has been translated as “the Priestess of the Winds”, though it is not known if the Winds were Goddesses.
If we move forward from the Linear tablets to the written material of the Hellenic period, there are a number of little-known Goddesses from Greece in general and Crete in particular. The Greeks had many sea Goddesses, from Aphrodite who rose out of the waves, to Eurynome, who with Tethys and Thetis, were a trinity of sea and creation Goddesses. Another sea Goddess with a pre-Greek name was Amphitrite, whom Homer said was the manifestation of the ocean itself. She dwelt in caves under the sea, from where she emerged to tend her fish and mammals of the deep. She was eventually replaced by the male sea God Poseidon, but is certainly much older than him. A similar fate happened to the Minoan Goddess Britomartis, also known as Diktyna, who was extensively worshipped throughout Crete. Her later written story encodes the usurpation of native Greek Goddesses by the invading Hellenic peoples. In the story, she was pursued by King Minos, who chased her for nine months throughout the island, until she flung herself from a remote cliff at the far end of the Rodopos peninsula in north-west Crete. Here she was caught in nets by fishermen, nets that she herself had invented as a gift to humanity. She later became assimilated into the Goddess Artemis, and became a hunter, rather than a hunted, Goddess (4).
Artemis was also a moon Goddess, but there was an actual family tree of Moon Goddesses, celebrated in Greek and Cretan mythology:
Other moon Goddesses were Phaidra (“she who shines”), the grandaughter of Europa, and Aerope (“she who shines in the air”) the great grandaughter of Europa.
Finally, it has been suggested that the Goddess Demeter had strong links to Crete, and was a descendant of the Minoan Great Goddess. She was associated with the town of Gortyn, where she consummated her love to Iasion ‘in a thrice ploughed field’. In the Homeric hymn, the Goddess herself tells how she came to Eleusis (where the Eleusian Mysteries were celebrated) from Crete. Crete was obviously the centre of many cults of the Goddess, who manifested in different places under different names.
(1) Nanno Marinatos: “The Goddess and the Warrior” (Routledge, 2000)
(2) John Chadwick: “What do we know about Minoan Religion?” (1985)
(3) from Marina Moss: The Minoan Pantheon (BAR, 2005)
(4) from Cheryl Straffon: Daughters of the Earth (O Books, 2007)