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Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults: Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period [and] Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity

Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults: Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period [and] Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity

Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults: Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period, edited by Mieke Prent. Pp. xviii + 737, figs. 81, tables 8, maps 3. Brill, Leiden and Boston 2005. $251. ISBN 90-04-14236-3 (cloth).

Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity, edited by Michael Wedde. Pp. 303, figs. 144. Grieg Medialog, Bergen 2004. $87.50. ISBN 82-91626-23-5 (paper).


The people of the prehistoric (i.e., up to ca. 700 B.C.E.) Aegean left behind a tantalizing array of apparent ritual objects and spaces as well as depictions of ritual events. Because textual material is scant, explications have been based on at least one of three premises. First, the ritual activities that left material traces on Crete, mainland Greece, and the islands anticipated the cult practices of historic Greece (e.g., M.P. Nilsson, The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion [Lund 1950]). In this view, classical texts help us determine the nature and purpose of rites and the identities of divinities. Alternatively, representations of human (divine?) activity, primarily in frescoes and glyptic but also figures/figurines and reliefs in faience, ivory, and stone, present scholars with the participants’ own views so that we can “reconstruct” what was transpiring, although such interpretations assume that our readings coincide with those of the practitioners (e.g., N. Marinatos, Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image and Symbol [Columbia 1993]; R. Laffineur and R. Hägg, POTNIA. Deities and Religion in the Aegean Bronze Age [Liège and Austin 2000]). More recently, in the wake of the processual/postprocessual wars, some Aegeanists have used documented practices in other societies for potential explanations of Aegean cult activity (e.g., C. Morris and A. Peatfield, “Feeling Through the Body: Gesture in Cretan Bronze Age Religion,” in Y. Hamilakis et al., eds., Thinking Through the Body: Archaeologies of Corporeality [New York 2002] 105–20).

A broader approach, and the nominal subject of the two books under review, is to analyze the shrine or sanctuary and its contents, so as to extract meaning from the location of objects both within a particular stratum and as part of a sequence of deposits over time (e.g., L.V. Watrous, The Cave Sanctuary of Zeus at Psychro: A Study of Extra-Urban Sanctuaries in Minoan and Early Iron Age Crete [Liège 1996]), and at the same time apply one or more of the above models. Numerous monographs in this vein have addressed the Aegean (e.g., B. Rutkowski, The Cult Places of the Aegean [New Haven 1986]), Crete (e.g., G.C. Gesell, Town, Palace and House Cult in Minoan Crete [Göteborg 1985]; E. Kyriakidis, Ritual in the Bronze Age Aegean: The Minoan Peak Sanctuaries [Bristol 2005]), the Cyclades (e.g., C. Renfrew, The Archaeology of Cult: The Sanctuary at Phylakopi [London 1985]), and mainland Greece (e.g., H. Whittaker, Mycenaean Cult Buildings: A Study of Their Architecture and Function in the Context of the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean [Bergen 1997]). The important role of Bronze Age Crete in shaping religious practices throughout the region informs these studies.

The beginning of the Iron Age signals, for most scholars, a significant shift to mainland Greece as the center of change. Although a few archaeologists have investigated Iron Age Crete (e.g., C. Nowicki, Defensible Sites in Crete, c. 1200–800 B.C. [Liège and Austin 2000]), most have concluded that Crete’s development does not fit the mainland model, and the island receives little attention in general works (e.g., I.M. Morris, Archaeology as Cultural History: Words and Things in Iron Age Greece [Malden 2000]; R. Osborne, Greece in the Making 1200–479 B.C. [New York 1996]). The same is equally true for studies of Iron Age sanctuaries (e.g., A. Mazarakis Ainian, From Rulers’ Dwellings to Temples: Architecture, Religion and Society in Early Iron Age Greece (1100–700 BC) [Jonsered 1997]).

Against this background, Prent’s Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults, a “slightly reworked version” (xi) of her doctoral thesis, is a major contribution to the historiography of both Crete and prehistoric Greek religion. The book presents precise descriptions of more than 90 Cretan sanctuaries in use between 1200 and 600 B.C.E. as well as discussions of the excavation history, cult equipment and votives, and possible identity of each associated deity (although Prent is appropriately tentative on this issue). Prent’s analysis of disputes on every topic is balanced, and her treatment of Cretan prehistory and historiography is comprehensive. She highlights both indicia of Cretan exceptionalism and parallels to circumstances on the mainland. The scope of the book and its bibliography make it an essential text for anyone interested in Crete or in early Greek religion. One can only hope that her ambitious undertaking prompts other similar endeavors.

The book has five chapters: “Introduction”; “History of Research”; “Sanctuaries and Cults of the Late Minoan IIIC–Subminoan Period”; “Sanctuaries and Cults of the Protogeometric, Geometric and Orientalizing Period”; and “Conclusion.” The introduction is a brief discussion of the author’s methodology and a summary of what will follow. Chapter 2 contains an exhaustive review of the literature about Crete and the Dark Ages in which Prent argues that emphasis on Crete’s Bronze Age splendor has impeded recognition of its Iron Age. Chapter 3 has three sections: history of LM IIIC–Sub-Minoan Crete; a catalogue bifurcated into urban/suburban and extraurban sanctuaries; and analysis of cult equipment, votives, and the apparent nature of cult activities. Thirty-two of the sanctuaries (21 of which are urban/suburban) are modest spaces. They often contain stone benches or rock shelves and a typical assemblage of large, frequently wheel-made goddesses with upraised arms (GUAs), snake tubes, plaques, and kalathoi. Prent seeks the GUAs’ source in earlier Cretan figural art, but terracotta figures with upraised arms are rare until LM III, and only one authentic Neopalatial example survives, the MM IIIB faience figure from the Temple Repositories at Knossos (C.F. MacDonald, “The Neopalatial Palaces of Knossos,” in Monuments of Minos. Rethinking the Minoan Palaces [Liège 2002] 35–53; K.D.S. Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire and the Forging of History [New York 2000]). The GUAs more closely resemble the 13th-century Syrian representations of Qudhshu/Qadesh (I. Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess. The Iconography of the Syro-Palestinian Goddesses Anat, Astarte, Qedeshet, and Asherah ca. 1500–1000 BCE [Fribourg 2004]).

Extra-urban sanctuaries lack GUAs but do have large, predominantly bovine terracotta animal figures, animal and anthropomorphic figurines, large horns of consecration, and fantastic or hybrid creatures. Prent traces the bovines to Neopalatial bull rhyta (ritual vessels with two openings), but the earlier, much smaller bulls are so redolent of palatial culture that these large figures more likely draw on an indigenous folk tradition or similar contemporary Cypriot terracottas. Very different rituals took place at the two types of sanctuaries, as the extraurban sanctuaries have thick ash deposits associated with the sacrifice or consumption of animals, whereas GUA sanctuaries do not.

Evidence for increased stratification within society appears during the Protogeometric, Geometric, and Orientalizing periods (ca. 970–600 B.C.E.) (ch. 4). There are more sanctuaries (69), 51 of which are new foundations and 24 of these are suburban sanctuaries. Extraurban sanctuaries increase to 20. Older extraurban sanctuaries continue in use, although the quantity and quality of the votives decline. Some of the new foundations may have been regional sanctuaries. Metal objects, previously rare, become typical—shields, armor, cauldrons, and tripods—and are accompanied by large wheel-made animal figures. The quantity and, in many cases, quality of the metalwork surely reflect the rise of an elite class, as does the development of urban and suburban sanctuaries intended to articulate social and political groups. Modest Hearth Temples, whose size limited access to only a few, such as Temple B at Kommos, replace the bench sanctuary and associated GUAs. Cretan Hearth Temples, whose developments appear to be independent of similar structures on the Greek mainland, may have served as sites for commensality among the elite, anticipating the later Cretan andreion (men’s hall). By contrast, spacious sanctuaries appear with large numbers of moldmade terracotta figurines at prominent places like the acropolis at Prinias, probable sites for initiation rites that integrated the community. A different class of smaller suburban sanctuaries, frequently associated with springs and large numbers of moldmade figurines, may have addressed women’s concerns with their social roles. Finally, sanctuaries appear in the ruins of Bronze Age structures, perhaps the sites of ancestor cults that would have enhanced elite standing. Within this chapter Prent also addresses an array of other issues, such as the presence of Phoenicians at Kommos and reconstructions of Temples A and B at Prinias.

Chapter 5 is a summary of Prent’s arguments and conclusions from preceding chapters. Prent reminds the reader of the as yet unsolved problems of influences from the mainland, the Near East, and Cyprus. Finally, she observes that the processes she has described were part of, and contributed to, the emergence of the distinctive Cretan poleis (city-states).

For all these merits, the book is tough going. Prent needed to undertake more than a “slight reworking” of her thesis to enhance significantly the usefulness and accessibility of the book. The number of sites and objects and the variety of sources—both ancient and modern—that Prent consulted mean that the text requires focus and a clear narrative arc; it lacks both. Judicious editing, particularly in chapter 2, would have moved the recapitulation of interpretive disputes to the notes, reducing the exhaustive and exhausting “History of Research” section and eliminating redundancy. Chapters 3 and 4 are repetitious and unnecessarily long. A single, consolidated catalogue would simplify comparisons between sites and eliminate repetition for sanctuaries used throughout the period (Psychro Cave appears on 167–70 and 339–42). A spare, standardized rubric for each site with a list of the objects found would obviate Prent’s tendency to recycle the text from the catalogue in the interpretive section. For example, the Spring Chamber at Knossos appears on 135–36 and 198–99, and paragraphs on 324 and 280 appear, unaltered, on 428. Cult equipment, votives, and so forth belong in separate chapters, clearly organized with headings and subheadings. Prent moves seamlessly and without direction from archaeological evidence to debates in the secondary sources to inscriptions and back to archaeological evidence, so that in the middle of a section the reader has lost track of the original argument. Conclusions about the distributions and arrangements of objects require tables logically ordered to establish a point. Tables 1 and 2, the distribution of objects at sanctuaries with GUAs and those with animal figures, list items in descending order of frequency so that in one column the GUAs and in the other bovines are at the top. Listing the objects in the same order for both tables would have highlighted more effectively the differences between the two. Crucially, the book has no thesis. Prent tells us in the introduction, “it is not the intention of this study to argue the strength of continuity of Bronze Age religious traditions in Crete. . . . In this respect the work has no central thesis to defend” (11). Finally, there is an unacceptably large number of typographical errors, missing citations, and incorrect bibliographic references. At the end of the day, however, Prent has attempted a cohesive and coherent study of a substantial body of material.

The same cannot be said of Celebrations. Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity, 11 of 20 papers presented at the 10th Anniversary Symposium of the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 12–16 May 1999. This eclectic group of essays touches on prehistoric Crete, Mycenaean and classical Greece, and Iron Age Norway. The papers were not published until 2004, and Wedde, the editor, allowed the authors to present their submissions in whatever form seemed appropriate. (Nine authors did not submit their papers; perhaps their submissions would have provided some much-needed connective tissue.) The result lacks thematic coherence, and the writings vary so much in quality that reading the book is a bumpy experience.

The two papers on Bronze Age Cretan rituals are continuations of the authors’ previous work on Minoan iconography. Morris and Peatfield (“Experiencing Ritual: Shamanic Elements in Minoan Religion”) argue that figurines and gold rings reflect the effects of Minoan shamans on the worshippers. Wedde (“On the Road to the Godhead: Aegean Bronze Age Glyptic Procession Scenes”) employs a formalist analysis to identify four separate groupings (“clusters”) that constitute successive stages in approaching the divine.

Discussions of Mycenaean ritual focus on architecture. Konsolaki-Yannopoulou (“Mycenaean Religious Architecture: The Archaeological Evidence from Ayios Konstantinos, Methana”) addresses a large Mycenaean megaron, with associated buildings and finds, apparently the focus of an important shrine at Methana. Albers continues her important work on Mycenaean sanctuaries in her chapter (“Re-evaluating Mycenaean Sanctuaries”), a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between sanctuaries and palaces and, in turn, between the major Mycenaean palaces themselves. The essay is the script as presented at the conference and has an addendum addressing some of the questions raised in the discussion period. The third Mycenaean essay, Hielte-Stavropoulou’s “Traces of Ritual,” is a raw, completely unedited text whose purpose is obscure.

The most interesting papers pertain to the historical period. Voyatzis (“The Cult of Athena Alea at Tegea and Its Transformation over Time”) traces the development of a panhellenic city goddess from her origins as a fertility goddess at a modest site. Bouvrie (“The Pilgrimage to Olympia”) brings her expertise in anthropology and classical Greek culture to the decipherment of the experience for those who traveled to Olympia. A brief summary of the literature on the purpose and concrete aspects of pilgrimage precedes her exploration of the site at Olympia to demonstrate that the pilgrimage was intended to exclude non-Hellenes. The language of the “sacred truce,” while referring to eirene, omonia, and philia, implies circumstances not reflected in witnesses’ accounts, who understood the truce as simply providing safe passage. According to Bouvrie, the absence of a theater underscores the fundamental austerity of the Olympic festival, which, after the great procession from Elis, reinforced the sentiments of men, through participation in the games, and of women, through lamentation at the grave of Akhilleus in Elis. This emphasis on death and rebirth created the sentiment of an overarching Hellenic identity. Handelman (“Designs of Ritual: The City Dionysia of Fifth-Century Athens”) and Thomassen (“Sacrifice: Ritual Murder or Dinner Party?”) are writing outside their usual respective fields of India/Israel and Sufism/Gnosticism. Handelman has interesting insights on the Athenian Dionysia as he demonstrates how principles of ritual design informed the combination of various elements of performance. Thomassen’s essay is more modest, essentially a critique of Burkert and Vernant for their one-sided views on rituals. Kristoffersen’s (“Symbolism in Rites of Transition in Iron Age Norway”) is an interesting and, for this volume, well-written discussion of the ways in which brooches and keys defined the Lady of the House in fifth- and sixth-century Norway.

Although nominally their respective authors have tendered both books as contributions to the archaeology of sanctuaries, only Prent’s accomplishes this mission. For all its problems, Prent’s book is a truly important work that will provide researchers with rich sources for further investigation; it also emphasizes the need for similar comprehensive studies. By contrast, Wedde’s book serves mainly as a caveat against publishing conference proceedings without clear editorial direction. Insufficiently edited papers do no favor to their authors. Although there are some individually interesting essays, they are not sufficient to get most readers past the paperbound book’s rather steep price.

Emily Miller
Department of Liberal Studies
California State University, Fullerton
800 North State College
Fullerton, California 92834

Book Review of Cretan Sanctuaries and Cults: Continuity and Change from Late Minoan IIIC to the Archaic Period, by Mieke Prent, and Celebrations: Sanctuaries and the Vestiges of Cult Activity, edited by Michael Wedde

Reviewed by Emily Miller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 112, No. 2 (April 2008)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1122.Miller

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