Cretan Musings

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 – Solar alignments at tholos tombs and the Throne Room at Knossos.

Ancient civilisations very often constructed their monuments in relationship to sunrises and sunsets at key times of the year, most notably the summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes. This is widely known throughout the prehistoric world, from the megalithic tombs of Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, to the pyramids of Egypt, to the buildings of the Anaztasi Indians in central America. However, with a few notable exceptions, one area that has been little studied for this phenomena are the Bronze Age monuments of ancient Greece.

Now, a first tentative step towards looking at some possibilities has been made by Lucy Goodison in a paper entitled: “From Tholos Tomb to Throne Room: perceptions of the sun in Minoan ritual” [Aegaeum, 22]. Goodison looked at two main areas: the tholos tombs of the Mesara region in south-central Crete, and the throne room at Knossos. In the Mesara region there are 94 tombs that have been identified, with less than a third still possessing a doorway clear enough to determine its orientation. Goodison analysed the orientation of these and found that they were all in an easterly direction, the position of the rising sun at different times of the year. Some alignments were to the solstices, but others close to the equinoxes, with another large cluster around late August/early September (what Goodison calls ‘the times of the dead’). She explores the possible significance of these orientations, whether they represented calendrical markers of the year turning and/or markers in relation to livestock, planting or harvesting.

The tombs seem to focus on the period of transition from one season to another and the relationship between land and sky. There is obviously much more work to be done in this area, but it is certainly interesting to speculate that the tomb builders of ancient Crete were as interested in the “death and rebirth of the sun” as were their contemporaries in Northern Europe and the near-East.

Cretan Musings

Goodison then goes on to highlight the work of photographer Carlos Guarita, who has drawn attention to the interaction of landscape, building and sun at the Throne Room complex at Knossos. Here specific dramatic lighting effects were deliberately created at sunrise at certain times of the year, whereby the rising sun would shine through specific doorways to illuminate particular areas that would have been used for ritual purposes. Guarita photographed the rise of the sun over the ridge of Prophitas Elias hill to the east of the palace temple site, from midwinter to midsummer and back again. Lucy Goodison followed this up by actually going into the Throne Room complex to observe the entry of the sun at specific times in the year’s cycle.

Throne Room alignments

She discovered that dawn light entering through one of the Anteroom doors (extreme right) at midwinter sunrise reached right into the Throne Room itself, a normally unlit interior space, where it would have illuminated the figure of a Priestess in the ‘throne’. Close to the equinoxes it would have entered another door (second from right) to illuminate the Inner Sanctuary, which Arthur Evans felt was the location for “a vision of the Goddess herself and her divine associates”. At the “times of the dead” (early September) the light would have entered through the next door along (second from left); and finally, at the midsummer sunrise it would have entered through the door on the extreme left to illuminate the room called by Evans the Lustral Basin. Marinatos believed that Lustral Basins were imitations of cult caves, so one may imagine somebody (a Priestess?) dramatically lit up at the moment of emerging from it.

All this shows a deliberate and dramatic use of light and darkness to enhance the use of ritual space in this inner sacred area.

But for what purpose could this all have been used? Goodison quotes Reusch who suggested that the ritual performed in this inner chamber may have been the Epiphany of the Goddess, whereby a Priestess would have embodied the Goddess herself and become Her. If this act, presumably witnessed by a select audience of initiates, were illuminated by the rising sun at midwinter solstice, at the point of the epiphany itself, it must have been an incredibly dramatic and powerful experience, as the Goddess Herself appeared in the first rays of dawn.

Goodison suggests that something similar may have happened in different parts of the room at other special times of the year (such as the rising midsummer sun illuminating the ‘Lustral Basin’ area). She also suggests that something similar at the midwinter sunrise may have occured at the palace temple site of Phaistos, where once again the rising sun would have illuminated a person sitting against the wall. If all this is true, and Goodison’s meticulous research seems to show that it was, we are on the verge of a major new breakthrough in understanding Minoan sites as temples of the rising sun and the Ephiphany of the Goddess.