Cretan Musings

A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year in Crete, researching the Goddess there.  In this contribution she writes about – The Goddess in the baetyls.

Baetyls are one of the most mysterious and less well defined aspects of Minoan ritual practice. Sir Arthur Evans used the term to describe any cultic object that was the subject of veneration (such as pillars, columns and even stalagmites and trees) that seemed to be an aniconic (symbolic or suggestive) representation of a divinity, specifically a Goddess. These objects were worshipped and venerated by people as “a material home for the spiritual being, brought down into it by due ritual” – in other words an epiphany of the Goddess [see GA19].

In Minoan Religion Nana Marinatos prefers a somewhat more prosaic explanation, describing baetyls as “markers designating a sacred spot on or around which the presence of divinity can be felt more strongly”. More recently, Sam Crooks has studied and identified known baetyl stones (only 7 in total in Crete from 6 different ancient sites) and representations of them on Minoan seal stones.

Seal stone from Kalyvia tomb

From his study, an anomaly soon becomes apparent, between the stones in situ at the sites and the ones depicted on the seal stones. The stones that are depicted on the seal stones are defined as “natural stones, often naturally rounded or ovoid in form” and are usually presented in relationship to human forms or animals and birds. They may be interpreted as a depiction of adoration of the divine in a stone by a priestess, accompanied by creatures from the natural world that may themselves also represent the divine. An example is a gold ring from from Kalyvia tomb [illustration left] where a female adorant is depicted with her arm through a baetyl, while she focusses on an epiphany denoted by a winged creature that may be a butterfly or bird.

Baetyl in centre of court at Malia

Although the stones depicted on the seal stones are often rounded or ovoid in shape, the same cannot be said for most of the ones so far identified in situ at the Minoan sites. Only one, the stone in the middle of the central court at Malia, fits this description. The others are usually square, oblong or triangular.

The sites also cover a wide spectrum of time, from the Pre-Palatial site of Vasiliki, through to the Proto-Palatial site of Ayia Triada (south of Tholos A), to the Neo-Palatial sites of Galatas, Gournia and Malia, to the Post-Palatial period of Kephala Vasiliki. This covers something like 1500 years from 3000 BCE – 1350 BCE, which would indicate a remarkable continuity of use through different periods of cultural and religious change. Although there are only seven identified baetyls during this long period, can we draw any conclusions from the evidence?

Baetyl at Vasiliki

At the earliest site of Vasiliki (Pre-Palatial 2200-2000 BCE approx.) the in-situ baetyl is a prominently positioned free-standing whiteish stone 0.95m in height contained within a curved structure that both delineates it as a sacred area and emphasises its distinctiveness.

As to its importance, it stands on the south-eastern edge of the settlement, which might be thought of as a contraindication of its significance, except that, as Crooks suggests*, it may have been positioned deliberately to give a view of a cave in the mountains opposite. Caves were thought of as sacred throughout the Minoan period [see GA14], and in many of them the people would deposit votive offerings to the Goddess. So this baetyl may well have been placed in a sacred area away from the houses and streets with an uninterrupted view of the cave opposite. Something like the shape of this baetyl is also depicted on a gold ring from Phourni (Arkhanes) tholos tomb A, which shows an adorant hugging such a stone on the left of the scene, while a priestess occupies centre stage, with the epiphany also indicated by two butterflies descending. [see illustrations below, above].

Baetyl at Gournia

A similar shaped stone also stands in the west court at Gournia, a few kilometres further north of Vassiliki. Gournia was founded in the Pre-Palatial period but reached its peak in the Proto-Palatial and Neopalatial periods. It consists of a town of houses and streets, with a ‘sacred area’ in the south-west corner, that includes a double axe carving, a kernos (a ceremonial offering bowl) and a baetyl – a rough undressed stone measuring 0.75m tall. The stone was fixed into the road with cobblestones surrounding its base, and Crooks suggests that the area may have been deliberately constructed to accommodate the stone.

Gold ring from Phourni tomb

He also thinks that it marks a processional route, and that the proximity of the kernos to the baetyl “provides a compelling suggestion that any offerings deposited on the (kernos) may have been directed toward the baetyl, to whatever spirit of divinity may have been seen to either inhabit or be represented by it”.

Interestingly, Gournia also has a Post-Palatial (Mycenean) phase to the settlement, and it is from this later period that a sanctuary was found, which contained a statuette of a Minoan Goddess with upraised arms (GUA) and the fragmentary remains of several other GUAs, as well as five snake tubes, four bird figurines and two small teracotta snake heads. Is it possible that this sanctuary was constructed at this spot because it marked a station on the processional route from the baetyl stone put in place hundreds of years earlier? If so, the memory of the significance of the baetyl as an epiphany of the Goddess would have continued from the Minoan to the Mycenean periods.

Baetyl  at Galatas

At the Neo-Palatial site of Galatas in north central Crete, excavated during the early 1990s, a baetyl was found at the edge of a court, dubbed by the excavators “The Court of the Baetyl”. The baetyl is a large unworked piece of limestone set upright into a rectangular elevated platform.

To the west of this court were buildings that included rooms for libations and offerings, and finds that included a sealstone depicting an ‘ibex-headed woman’ flanked by birds. The excavator concluded that this figure was divine and possibly a nature Goddess. The paved court before the baetyl may therefore have served as a gathering place for the people as a focus for the worship of a nature Goddess.

Something similar may be apparent at Vassiliki. As has already been shown, the baetyl here dates from an early (Pre-Palatial) period, as does the site itself. However, in 1994-6, a site on a neighbouring hill to the west Kephala Vasiliki was excavated, and a similar shaped baetyl stone (0.55m high) was found, laid on an altar, which reinforces the idea that these stones were sacred in nature. The interesting thing about Kephala Vasiliki is that it is much later in date (Post-Palatial) than Vasiliki, and must have grown up after Vasiliki was abandoned. In the southern wing of the complex were found three rooms that had been used for the storage of cult equipment associated with a room called ‘The hall of the baetyl altar’. These include the fragments of certainly five, and possibly six, GUA statuettes. So once again we have an association of a baetyl stone with Goddess objects used for ritual purposes.

These examples show that baetyls were probably, as Evans suggested a century ago, sacred stones where the Goddess was thought to descend, dwell or inhabit. They date from the earliest period of the Minoan civilisation, and continued to be respected and used right into the Mycenean (Post-Palatial) period. But are they the same objects as depicted on the seal rings? Here the jury is still out, not least of all because most of the in situ baetyls are rectangular or triangular in shape, and most of the baetyls depicted on the seal rings oval or egg shaped, which Marija Gimbutas suggested was a symbol of regeneration and rebirth. This may just be a convention of the illustrator, or may point to two different kinds of stone. Perhaps baetyls were stones set up on site in shrines that were part of an epiphany of the Goddess ritual, but the egg-shaped stones depicted on the seal rings were symbols of the Goddess revered and worshipped as gifts from Her or offerings to Her. Rectangular/triangular baetyls and oval/egg shaped stones may be two sides of the same Goddess coin.

* What are these Queer Stones? Baetyls by Sam Crooks [BAR, 2013]