Aegeus Society for Aegean Prehistory


Nanno Marinatos, 2010. Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Reviewed by Judith Weingarten (British School at Athens)

When I was at Oxford in the late 1970s, even a mild suggestion that the Minoans might have owed a small part of their culture to Egyptian or Near Eastern ‘influences’ was crushed by sardonic cries of “ex oriente lux!” Minoan Crete was seen to be like Great Britain, instinctively an island unto itself. When studying its development, we no longer did as Arthur Evans and looked to older civilizations for inspiration but rather referred to the island’s own deep, long roots – even if those were not yet visible to us. This mindset is now dying, put out of its misery by some striking archaeological discoveries over the last few decades. Interaction and koine are taking over.

Just how far the pendulum has swung to views once exemplifed by Evans is evident in Nanno Marinatos’ new book, Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess. [1]. She is proposing something quite radical – to wit, that Crete was part of the Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean cultural koine [NB: not ‘a’ koine now, but ‘the’ koine] and fully shared in its religious and political ideas. The better understood visual code of the eastern world can thus provide the key to unlock the symbolic secrets of Minoan iconography. Evidently all overlap. While Marinatos is certainly aware of the complexities of the eastern societies, she nonetheless treats her religious koine as if it were a single and unchanging category; it was neither. The differences of culture were far greater than she allows for.

In this review, I take issue with the very first examples she presents – the Minoan Plumed Crown and Long Syrian Mantle – which I believe highlight fundamental flaws in her methodology. I then look at some pivotal contentions concerning the ‘Horns of Consecration’ and “the central symbol of Minoan religon: the double axe.” Even a brief focus on these excerpts, I’m afraid, will lead to an overlong review but Aegean scholars, surely, can handle detail.

Right off the bat, Marinatos accepts the Gillérons’ reconstruction of the Knossos relief fresco of the ‘Prince of the Lily Crown’ or ‘Priest-King’, the iconic striding male figure with elaborate lily crown, waz-lily necklace, and codpiece. Marinatos identifies him as a king because “So far we have seen that only divine figures and sphinxes [in Egypt, a deified form of the pharaoh] wear this crown” (p. 14). No, we haven’t. By page 14, we have only seen that the much disputed ‘Prince of Lilies’ has been reconstructed as wearing this crown. Many scholars argue that the main elements (crown, torso, codpiece) are from three different reliefs. Although the fragments were found near each other and may be parts of a single scene, their archaeological context will always be unclear (possibly a secondary deposit); in any case, the fresco(es), which dates no later than LM IB, had long since fallen or been removed from the walls. Marinatos cites Maria Shaw in support [2] Shaw, who recently restudied the relief, largely agrees with the Gilléron image. Nonetheless, she notes that the figure is moving right (viewer’s left), “to judge by the direction in which the head turns despite [my emphasis] the frontal torso. The figure is further identified by the codpiece, if [my emphasis], indeed, the lower body belongs with the torso and the crown pieces” (Shaw 2004, 69). In other words, the [re-]reconstruction may or may not combine elements from different relief figures. Above all, the argument hinges on the plumed lily-crown which is only worn elsewhere in Minoan art by females and sphinxes. Are there any parallels for males wearing such florid headgear? Shaw points to a fresco fragment from el-Daba of a male tumbler restored in a peculiar twisted pose which allows a featherlike waz-lily ornament to be put on his head. Marinatos compares a seal impression from Knossos (CMS II.8 248), its caption reading “God wearing plumed crown and flanked by beasts” [3]. However, as she notes, the sealing is not well preserved on the top (p. 14)[4]. Both head ornaments (if such they are) are no more than lily-caps and neither is compelling evidence for an elaborate crown. Nor is this a sound a basis on which to postulate a crowned king – who will soon be raised to divine status, no less.

Marinatos compares the Lily-Prince’ to a Hittite king (or prince) on a rock-carving in the Anti-Taurus mountains [Gezbeli] and takes this as “indirect confirmation that Evans and the Gillérons were on the right track” (p. 18). What are we to make of this comparison? The Hittite figure clasps a bow with his left hand, the arm bent at the elbow [5]. The right hand extends forward holding a spear. A heavy sword is strapped around his waist. He is dressed in a short tunic, shoes with curved tips, and wears a round cap. I see no similarity between this figure and the reconstructed Minoan Lily-Prince other than that both poses indicate some form of authority. 1) The Hittite prince is a heavily-armed hunter or warrior; the Minoan figure is unarmed. 2) The Hittite extends his right spear-holding arm, the left arm bent at the elbow in front of the body; the Minoan figure bends back his right arm while his arm is extended behind him (or, in Shaw’s reconstruction, swings downwards). 3) The Hittite stands before two mountain gods surmounted by a bull; the Minoan, we are asked to believe, is himself a god. Not least, the Hittite rock carving is dated to the Imperial period, hundreds of years later than the Minoan image. Examples plucked out of place and time are assumed nonetheless to have the same meaning(s). This is a very weak reed on which to build a superstructure of theory.

The second example is the ‘Long Syrian Mantle – a fringed robe worn obliquely over the shoulder – which clothes important male figures on more than twenty Minoan seals. This mantle has long been recognized as a borrowing from Syria (along with the lunate axe) and associated with priests. Marinatos argues that it is instead a distinguishing feature of Minoan kings. She compares it to robes worn by 1) a ruler on a Syrian seal from 19th or 18th century; 2) a king on a Hittite silver vessel of the 14th-13th century; 3) a bronze Syrian god from Qatna; 4) a ruler on a Middle Bronze Age scarab from Jericho. “In all cases, the mantle in question designates gods or rulers, and this is the case throughout the second half of the second millennium” (p. 19).

There is no reason to doubt the widespread adoption of this originally Egyptian-Syrian garment (as Evans clearly showed: PM IV, 404-421). Yet, there are differences over time and space. The robe is often depicted in Classical Syrian glyptic (ca. 1850-1720 BCE) with a slit that exposes a bare forward leg and a kilt worn underneath; the Minoan robe lacks this slit. The statuette from Qatna – probably of MBA date and a deified king(?), not god – is bare-chested and his robe is not fringed but trimmed with a thick edge that probably indicates fur [6]. The figure on the scarab from Jericho (early 15th Dyn. [ca 1652-1610 BCE]), while closer in date to the Minoan examples, wears a typical Canaanite garment, the so-called ‘toga’, with his right shoulder and arm bared. Are we to assume that any and all long robes are equally meaningful parallels? Even in MBA Syria and Hyksos Canaan, there are several different elite robes. Why the Minoans adopted one particular garment (and lunate axe) is the question. Analysis of robes worn by eastern elites might show that they were worn while performing different duties, or perhaps fashions changed, but this is a matter for research, not assertion. The last parallel cited, the Hittite silver vessel of Imperial date, shows a libating king wearing a long, fringed robe – followed by a procession of musicians all similarly dressed and similarly coiffured [7]. Surely, not all are kings and gods. To erase time and place is seriously problematic.

In Chapters 8 and 9, Marinatos interprets the Cretan Hieroglyphic signs 36 (double axe), and 37 (‘Horns of Consecration’ [hereafter HC]) within “the context of Minoan cosmology, religion, and kingship” (p. 103). Instead of Evans’s explanation that the HC represent the horns of sacrificed bulls [8]. Marinatos endorses an alternative identification with the Egyptian sign of the ‘mountain of the horizon’, thus defining the HC as “the twin peak mountain depicting the east and west points of the horizon.... A symbol so common to Mesopotamia, Syria, Anatolia, and Egypt and designating ‘mountain’ must have had a similar meaning in Crete” (p. 107-8). I beg to differ. I restrict my comments to Egypt alone since the Egyptian sign does have at least a superficial resemblance to the HC. First, there are two distinct Egyptian signs: the twin peaks meaning ‘mountain’ and peaks with a sun disk between them which means ‘horizon’. While they are certainly related – and both have cosmological significance – the signs are not interchangeable. The Minoan HC resembles, if anything, the mountain sign: the Minoans never insert a sun disk between the peaks – though they do sometimes insert branches or a double-axe, or even (once) a male figure. It is always a good idea in archaeology to begin at the beginning: if the Minoans borrowed the ‘mountain’sign from Egypt, when did they borrow it and how was it used in Egypt at that time?

Early appliqué HC appear on vases at EM III-MM I Phourni and MM Malia, and, most strikingly, as architectural crowning members on MM clay models of shrines and altars, not least the altars from the Knossos Loomweight Basement (PM I, 200, fig.166) [9]. I know of no such uses of the Egyptian ‘mountain’ sign in MK Egypt. In addition, the early Minoan ‘horns’ have sharply pointed peaks rather than the rounded, almost breast-like forms found on the Egyptian sign. If the borrowing is to be supported, and conclusions drawn from Egyptian practice, this needs further research.

Marinatos’s main claim concerns the double axe: “The biggest pay-off of the adoption of a Near Eastern prism has been the deciphering of the central symbol of Minoan religion: the double axe” (p. 10). She argues that “[t]he axe, then, occupies the same position as the rising sun in the syntax of the representation: it passes through the mountain gate every morning.” Simply put, “the double axe is the sun” (p. 115). As noted, however, there is no evidence for the Minoan import of the ‘horizon’ sign, with a sun disk between the peaks. Early examples of double-axes, usually made of thin metal, begin in the EM period and are never inserted (as far as we know) within any HC: our only Protopalatial double-axe stand (MM II Malia) is triangular in form. The insertion of double-axes into HC and its depiction with various embellishments are LBA developments (some quite late in the LBA) – and cannot be assumed to be part of the original concept or, still less, of any imported package. It is only natural, of course, that various elements, some of which may already have coexisted for ages, and others that were introduced later, keep on influencing each other. Still, one can hardly argue from a late development that that was the original idea all along.

This is, by any measure, an ambitious book. And few scholars other than Marinatos would dare to take it on. Yet, extraordinary claims require extraordinary proofs. In my opinion, that is not forthcoming. To those distant cries of ‘ex oriente lux’, I would have to add ‘caveat emptor’.



1. An addition to the bibliography: J. Assmann, Egyptian Solar Religion in the New Kingdom (Kegan Paul, 1995); and to a sub-bibliography on the ‘Horns of Consecration’: E. Banou, “Minoan ‘Horns of Consecration’ Revisited: A Symbol of Sun Worship in Palatial and Post-palatial Crete?”, MMA 8 (2008) 27-47; A.L. D’Agata, “Late Minoan Crete and Horns of Consecration: A Symbol in Action”, in R. Laffineur & J.L. Crowley (eds), Eikon, Aegean Bronze Age Iconography (Liège 1992), 247-55; G. Rethemiotakis, 2009. “A Neopalatial Shrine Model”, in A.L. D’Agata & A. Van de Moortel (eds), Archaeologies of Cult: Essays on Ritual and Cult in Crete (Athens), 189-99; A.G. Vlachopoulos, 2008. ‘The Wall Paintings from the Xeste 3 Building at Akrotiri’, in N. Brodie, J. Doole, G. Gavalas & C. Renfrew (eds), Horizon: A Colloquium on the Prehistory of the Cyclades (Cambridge 2008), 451-465. 

2. M.C. Shaw, 2004. ‘The ‘Priest-King’ fresco from Knossos: Man, woman, priest, king, or someone else?’, in A.P. Chapin (ed.), Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr (Princeton, N.J.: American School of Classical Studies in Athens): 65-84.

3. ‘Beasts’ is a bit of a weasel-word: the animals are clearly very large dogs so one could argue, I suppose, that this figure is a Master of the Hunt.

4. According to the CMS, “Es ist nicht ganz klar, ob die männliche Gestalt auch einer Kopfbedeckung trägt.” (CMS II.8 1, p. 389).

5. similar relief from nearby Hemite:

6. Beyond Babylon # 22 [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008].

7. Beyond Babylon # 108 [Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2008].

8. Newly supported by the red paint on the HC above a shrine or altar in Xeste 3 at LM IA Akrotiri, clearly a dripping liquid – most likely blood (see Vlachopoulous 2008 Fig. 41.10).

9. The roughly made, slightly crescent-shaped clay ‘horns’ from EM I-II Mochlos are disputable (albeit accepted by Evans, Nilsson and, more recently, Peter Warren [Anticità Cretesi, 145]). Protopalatial references in E. Banou, MAA 2008, 32; a MM IIIA clay shrine from Gournos: Rethemiotakis 2009.


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