Humans are sensory creatures. Our bodies act as a medium through which we experience the world. This has been true throughout human history, including in the time of the ancient Minoans and Elamites. By manipulating surroundings, people change what they experience – different textures, colors, lights, and environments impact humans in various ways. The Minoans and Elamites situated their religious architecture within nature to harness its sensory power.
Minoans and the Ecstatic in Nature
The Minoans were an Aegean people who dominated Crete between 3000-1150 BC. They were masters of the ‘ecstatic’. Within the context of religion, an ‘ecstatic’ experience refers to unusual divinely induced sensations. The primary way Minoans achieved ecstatic sensations was through interactions with nature in deeply personal ways.
Minoan gold seal rings document the phenomenon of baetyl hugging. This involved caressing baetyls – sacred stones – in a particular fashion. Archaeologists recreating baetyl hugging theorized that this induced a particular sensation that was associated with the divine.
Similar experiments were conducted with a position represented by Minoan bronze votive figures. This position involves putting one hand on one’s forehead and the other behind one’s back. Archaeologists found that holding this position for extended periods of time induced a certain sensation. As with baetyl hugging, there is probably a scientific explanation behind these experiences. A scientific viewpoint, however, is only one perspective through which the world can be experienced. Supernatural beliefs colored the Minoan worldview, so to them, these sensations were confirmation of their beliefs.
Minoan Ecstatic Sanctuaries
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The Minoans applied the ability of natural phenomena to engender ecstatic experiences to their religious architecture. They had two types of environment-centered religious structures: peak and cave sanctuaries.
Peak sanctuaries were mountain-top sites. They sometimes had architecture, like tripartite buildings. They featured ash altars and places for fires where votive figures were sacrificed. These votives were usually handmade terracotta images of animals, humans, or single limbs which would rise to the sky as smoke from the fire.
The depiction of a peak sanctuary on the Zakros Peak Sanctuary Rhyton offers an idea of what these sanctuaries might have looked like. The Rhyton shows key sanctuary imagery, like birds, goats, an altar, and Horns of Consecration – a Minoan symbol demarcating sacred space.
A key feature of religious architecture is defining a boundary between mundane, everyday space and divine space. The natural situation of the mountain peak high up, away from the ordinary space of a settlement, made a natural barrier to the peak sanctuary. The arduous climb up the mountain, maybe in a large group with flutes and drums playing, and perhaps while using psychoactive drugs, would have enhanced the experience of crossing that threshold.
Cave sanctuaries were located in underground caves. They consisted not of built structures but temenos walls around stalagmites. Sometimes these stalagmites were carved to resemble people. Many votives found in these sanctuaries were made from bronze. This includes double axes embedded in sacred stalagmites.
Like mountain tops, caves were unusual and relatively inaccessible places. There were no stairs to descend into the cave safely. The sensation of moving from outdoors into a cave with its difference in atmospheric pressure, dank earthy smells, and echoey noises would have helped induce an ecstatic experience allowing participants to enter an altered frame of mind. For the ancient Minoans, the environment was not merely a setting for architecture but a site of religious experience.
A Natural Network
Vesa-Pekka Herva proposed that Minoan religion can be viewed through an ecological perspective. Herva understands that Minoans interact with nature as if every natural thing existed in a network with them. Nature took on specific meanings because of its relationship to humans within this network.
These relationships were not necessarily ‘religious’ as a religious practice is commonly understood. Usually, religious activity involves worshiping a supernatural power to leverage a result, like people praying to a nature goddess for a good harvest. Instead, these were intimate ties with the natural world, in which aspects of nature were participants in the world like humans.
It is a common joke amongst archaeology students that artifacts that are not well understood are dumped under the label of a ‘religious’ or ‘ritual’ item. In moving the Minoans’ relationship with nature away from that label, Herva offers not only a new way of considering Minoan environmental relations but new ways for people today to think about their relationship with the environment.
The Elamites’ Mountaintop Sanctuary
Like the Minoans, the Elamites demonstrated their connection to nature in their religious architecture. The Elamite civilization existed between 2700-540 BCE in what is now modern-day Iran. The Elamite rock-cut sanctuary of Kurangun is located on the precipice of the Kuh-e Paraweh mountain, overlooking a valley and the Fahlian River. Unlike Minoan peak sanctuaries, this structure is not a building with a roof, but a carving into raw rock.
It consists of a set of stairs, a platform, and relief carvings. Along the stairs is a carving of a procession of worshippers. The platform is detailed with carvings of fish, suggesting water. On the wall, adjacent to the platform, is possibly a depiction of the god Inshushinak with his consort. Fresh water flows out from Inshushinak’s staff to worshippers behind and in front of him. This water creates a visual connection with the fish carvings on the floor.
The fish relief on the floor in conjunction with the waters flowing from the god’s staff seem to refer to an abzu basin, a feature regularly referenced in Mesopotamian and Elamite temple architecture. This was the underground freshwater reservoir from which life-giving water flowed to nourish the people. It is almost as if the sanctuary is a statement to worshippers, forcing them to look upon the natural world given by the gods – the nourishing waters of the Fahlian river, the valley for grazing livestock, and the sun above.
There is no evidence this structure ever had walls or a roof. It was open to the elements and sweeping views of the valley and sky. The sensation of movement from mundane space into divine space was likely conjured by the march up the steep mountain, enhanced landscape views, and interactions with the carvings. Worshippers standing on the platform would have been able to come face to face with the depiction of Inshushinak.
The new perspective on the mundane world offered from the height of the open-air sanctuary made nature a key element of this religious space. It was not merely the sanctuary’s background but a point of interest in the sanctuary. Nature was welcomed into the space and highlighted as the subject of aesthetic appreciation. The association of Inshushinak with the glory of nature indicates the Elamites saw the environment as religiously significant. Perhaps they viewed nature as a manifestation of the divine.
The idea that the environment itself is a source of aesthetic qualities is intriguing because art historians and archaeologists usually discuss the aesthetic qualities of human production. They consider things like the importance of depicting a king with strong posture, the symbolism of animals, or the play of shadow and light within a building. But like people today, ancient people saw the environment as something inherently beautiful. Applying this mindset to the thoughts, feelings, sensations of Elamites allows us to consider how people in the past experienced the natural world.
Humans and the Natural World
Sometimes, there’s nothing better than a walk through nature on a sunny day. Studies have shown that being in nature for two hours per week leads to definite psychological and physical health improvements. Spending time outdoors lowers stress and aggression, helping to decrease some forms of crime. In cities such as the Minoan or Elamite capitals, access to nature may have helped reduce crime associated with densely populated cities.
Time in nature may have even supported immunity when modern medicine was not yet invented. Researchers found that nature walks increase the levels of infection-fighting cells. This seemed to be the result of natural aerosols in forests. Plants also help generate fresh, clean air by recycling carbon dioxide. Time outdoors may have negated effects of poor ventilation ancient people experienced while doing hazardous work like mining. Nature has always been an essential part of human existence and will continue to be as long as humans are on Earth.
Minoans, Elamites, and Us
Many would assert that it is not possible to draw lessons from the past. It sometimes seems unlikely people today can learn from history when the modern world is so different from the ancient one. However, as long as we are human, we have things in common with people like the ancient Minoans and Elamites. Just like us, they experienced the world through human bodies, responded with human emotions, and existed within nature. By looking to people of the past, historians can learn different ways of experiencing the world.