Was Minoan Crete a Matriarchal Society?

Minoan Crete is a fascinating but rather ambiguous Bronze Age civilization that flourished from ca. 3000-1100 BCE.

Mar 14, 2024By Hannah Harms, BA Ancient World Studies, BA Literature & Theatre Studies, MA Ancient Mediterranean History, Archaeology and Art (in progress)
minoan crete matriarchal society


What exactly does it mean for a civilization to be ambiguous? Minoan culture is complex to understand due to the lack of historical sources and its undeciphered Linear A text. This makes much of the archaeological evidence, including the so-called ‘palaces’, open for interpretation — there is no singular answer for their role in Minoan society. Famous Cretan sites at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros provide a rich archive of Bronze Age artifacts, yet their function is not completely understood. So is there enough to suggest that Minoan Crete was a matriarchal society?


Minoan Crete Before the Bronze Age Collapse

blue ladies fresco minoan
Reproduction of the “Ladies in Blue” fresco at Knossos by Emile Gilliéron in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Source: the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Prior to its collapse in the 1100s BCE, the Minoan civilization was a flourishing, literate culture with extensive economic and religious systems. The construction of monumental ‘palace’ complexes and open-air peak sanctuaries indicates that a highly ritualized society existed. Sites across Crete contain an abundance of religious iconography and paraphernalia from the Bronze Age civilization. These include the characteristically Minoan double axes, Horns of Consecration, and various clay figurines. These votives reinforce the ambiguous nature of the Minoan religion. As famously stated by Swedish scholar Martin P. Nilsson, it is like reading “a picture book without a text”. Due to the undeciphered Liner A text, we rely solely on archaeological evidence and external literary sources.


The so-called ‘Palaces’

minoan double axe
Minoan Labrys Double Axe from Arkalochori Cave Crete ca. 1700-1600 BCE, Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Mary Harrch.


The label of monumental Minoan complexes as ‘palaces’ stems from the work of British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans during the early 20th century. His excavations at the site of Knossos from 1900 to 1932 shaped much of what we know about Minoan civilization. Despite his extensive and valuable work on the history of this Bronze Age culture, there are some issues with his reconstructions. The labeling of prominent Minoan sites as ‘palaces’ that contain a central court and throne room implies that they are royal structures headed by an official ruler. In reality, the intricate complexes reinforce a highly ritualized society structured around a set of religious beliefs. The richly decorated frescos and the presence of cult figurines indicate the lack of a singular authorial figure. Instead, the material culture reinforces the notion that this was a civilization centered around a series of ritual beliefs and practices that potentially worshiped a female deity.


camp stool fresco
Camp Stool Fresco (Libation Fresco), outer west wall of the palace at Knossos, ca. 1400-1300 BCE. Source: Archaeological Museum of Heraklion.


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The ‘palace’ complexes are arguably monumental sacred buildings due to the abundance of religious iconography on the frescos, multiple shrines, and the presence of cult objects that are consistently found across these Cretan sites. Despite functioning primarily as ‘cult centers‘, these buildings served important administrative and economic purposes as well. The location of Knossos and Phaistos ensured control of the north and south coast of the island, while Zakros in the easternmost part, had a strategically positioned harbor. What is interesting about these monumental complexes is the lack of ruler iconography. Instead, there is emphasis on ritual activity and allusions to a powerful goddess of nature, indicating that Minoan religion was potentially centered on a matriarchal figure.


Open-Air Peak Sanctuaries

minoan votive female headress
Terracotta female votive figure wearing a large forward curving headdress. Found at the peak sanctuary Petsofas, MMI-MMII period. Source: The British Museum.


The notion of a strong matriarchal presence in Minoan religion is reinforced through the peak sanctuaries and sacred caves that are situated near the prominent urban centers. These sites contain a significant number of votive offerings, highlighting a connection between the natural landscape and Minoan ritual beliefs.


Peak or mountain sanctuaries were large open-air shrines and functioned as places of worship. The abundance of clay figurines left as offerings indicates that this was a space where Minoan deities were worshipped frequently. As noted by Marymay Downing, religious imagery in the archaeological record is “overwhelmingly female”. Evidence from sacred peak and cave sanctuaries indicate the absence of a dominant male divinity in prehistoric Crete, instead, there is a “predominant femaleness of its religious imagery”.


Excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, the Juktas Sanctuary south of Knossos was carefully selected by the Minoans. The open-air peak sanctuary was situated on the north peak of Mt. Juktas, a sacred mountain range with a strong presence over the palace at Knossos, with Evans noting that it “dominates the whole Central Court of the Palace”. Reiterating the importance of religious sites to the urban centers, ritual beliefs, and practices were a key element in Minoan society. Evidence of this notion is echoed in the sacred caves that scatter the island of Crete, confirming allusions to a strong matriarchal presence.


The Sacred Caves

minoan double axe cave
Minoan Double-Axe from Arkalokhori Cave. LMIA period ca. 1550-1500 BCE. Museum of Fine Arts. Source: JSTOR.


Like the peak sanctuaries, the sacred caves functioned as important religious sites as they directly connected the ritual beliefs and practices of the Minoan people to the natural landscape. This is the central notion of Minoan ritual practices: immersion within nature. Despite there being an estimated 2,000 natural caves on the island of Crete, only a select few were used as cult places. Some of these contained multiple chambers that had been added to enhance the natural structure and to allow space for ritual activities. The sacred caves were used for ritual purposes from at least the Middle Minoan period through to the end of the Postpalatial period and beyond.


Within these sacred caves and peak sanctuaries, cult equipment, including the characteristically Minoan double-axe and various votive offerings, are prominent. Their presence within the so-called ‘palaces’ indicates that these cult objects were a definitive feature of the Bronze Age civilization. There is a relationship between the dominating center of the palaces and the sacred nature of the caves and peak sanctuaries. What is intriguing about Minoan religion is that it is largely concerned with a matriarchal figure, whether this figure is singular or multiple is still debated.


Goddess of Nature 

snake goddess figure
Famous Snake Goddess Figurine from the Palace art Knossos ca. 1600-1500 BCE. The University of California. Source: JSTOR.


The vivid iconography found within the ‘palaces’, sacred caves, and open-air peak sanctuaries, indicates the strong presence of a goddess of nature. However, it is difficult to tell if it is one figure with several forms or many different deities. In the Prepalatial period, we have the earliest examples of this nature goddess. Found in burials, there are many clay figurines of females cradling jugs, suggesting that this figure supplied life. The presence of animal and bird figurines alongside the goddess’s vessels also suggests that this was a protectress of nature; she both gave life and protected it. Representations of the goddess in the Old Palace period continue to develop by manifesting into different variations or adopting entirely new characteristics.


animal figurines votive offering
Early Minoan terracotta figurines ca. 2200-2000 BCE. The University of California. Source: JSTOR.


During the early years of palace construction, the goddess has a clear connection with lilies and breaks away from previous depictions of cradling a jug. Instead, iconography portrays the goddess with the spring flower and connects her to themes of veneration and seasonality. In this period, there was an emphasis on female spirituality, with saffron lilies becoming fundamental to Minoan rituals, as depicted in vibrant frescos and pottery. In the iconography of the Middle Minoan period, archaeologist Peter Warren notes four stages of flower rituals: gathering, preparation, procession, and presentation. In all of these categories, the participants are almost exclusively female; they are the primary focus of these ritual activities. This is affirmed in the New Palace period due to the major increase in iconography related to nature. Now appearing vividly and in quick succession are images of goddesses surrounded not only by flowers and plants but also by various animals and creatures.


One or Many Goddesses?

spring flower fresco
Minoan spring fresco from Thera ca. 2000-1800 BCE. National Museum of Archaeology (Greece). Source: JSTOR.


The religious iconography related to the goddess of nature reached its peak in the New Palace period. New representations of a goddess surrounded by wild beats and creatures indicate that this deity had a special relationship with the animal world. Once again, the question of whether this is the same goddess from earlier periods in a new form or an entirely different female deity remains. Of particular importance is the appearance of a bird goddess that has the body of a woman but the head and wings of a bird. Rather than being depicted surrounded by animals, this deity appears in a hybridized form. It is unclear if this bird goddess is a new manifestation of the previous deity connected to lilies and other flowers. Regardless, due to their iconographic popularity, it is evident that the goddess/goddesses of nature were a defining characteristic of Minoan religion and, therefore the society as a whole.


bird goddess figurine


In the New Palace period, there is a striking increase in maritime imagery. The emergence of fish, dolphins, and other aquatic animals alongside imagery related to the goddess becomes prevalent. The Minoans were a seafaring culture so it is not surprising that marine animals appear in their artworks, especially alongside their divine figures.


minoan vessel flowers
Minoan Vessel from the First Palace Period ca. 1800 BCE. The Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Source: JSTOR.


An intriguing aspect of representations of Minoan goddesses is that they are never shown inside a shrine or temple, unlike Egyptian and Near Eastern art during the Bronze Age. The goddess is instead depicted in the natural environment, often sitting under a tree or surrounded by various flora and fauna. Immersion in nature is a continuous theme in Minoan ritual beliefs and practices. The peak sanctuaries and sacred caves are evidence of this notion, directly connecting the natural landscape with the Minoan people. It therefore makes sense that Minoan gods and goddesses were centered around nature. The predominance of female deities in the archaeological evidence indicates that this was a society more aligned with matriarchal characteristics.


Enduring the Postpalatial Period

hagia triada image


The presence of the bird goddess in the period that followed the destruction of important palaces in the Late Bronze Age, acts as testimony to the endurance of the Minoan religion. Despite the Mycenaean takeover of the Knossos palace around 1450 BCE, imagery related to the powerful goddess of nature withstood.


In the Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos, there is a Postpalatial image of the goddess. Recognizable by her larger size and the birds on her tiara, the goddess is surrounded by worshippers, one of whom is a male holding a bird as an offering. As centers of administrative power, the palace complexes were responsible for the distribution of economic goods and sustaining religious ideology. The permanence of this goddess of nature from the Prepalatial through to the Postpalatial period and beyond indicates that this deity, or deities, was integral to the Minoans. It was a central aspect of their religion and therefore their society as a whole, perhaps suggesting to us that this Bronze Age civilization was a matriarchy.


knossos throne room fresco
Reconstruction drawing of the Throne Room at Knossos. Published 1935 in ‘Palace of Minos’ after the original watercolor by Edwin J. Lambert, 1917. Source: The Ashmoleon Museum.


Male gods are neither rare nor unimportant in Minoan religion, but there is an undeniable dominating presence of female deities. Manifesting in multiple forms, the goddess of nature appears in the iconography of vibrant palace frescos, pottery, and clay figurines left as offerings in sacred peak sanctuaries and caves. On the famous Late Minoan Hagia Triada sarcophagus, it is only females who perform the sacrifice and altar rites whilst the males have minor roles as musicians and the bearers of offerings. The Minoan people were constantly immersed in nature, whether that be through the physical landscape of Crete itself or through the iconography that decorated their frescos, the goddess was eternally present.

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By Hannah HarmsBA Ancient World Studies, BA Literature & Theatre Studies, MA Ancient Mediterranean History, Archaeology and Art (in progress)Hannah ia a Masters student, currently studying the history, archaeology and art of the Ancient Mediterranean. She is a graduate of Ancient World Studies (BA with Honours), during which she specialised in the Christianisation of the Roman Empire. Apart from her studies, her interests include literature, art and travel. She is currently living abroad in Italy to pursue her travel dreams and archaeological interests.