It is when Warren turns to the second of his categories, baetylic rituals, that the greatest resonance with our present theme is seen. The baetyl, or sacred rock, is a common presence in both Minoan archaeology and iconography, and its functions seem to have been multiple. At times, we see the baetylic ritual alone without epiphany elements but with strong connotations of ritual copulation or of stone-kissing – see for example figure 7 depicting a naked woman clasping a baetyl stone and making intimate contact with her face.

Baetyl Seal Impression Knossos
Fig 7. Seal Impression, Knossos (c.1400 – 1250 B.C.)

However it is with epiphany elements present that the smooth movement from mundane ritual to visionary epiphany is most superbly expressed. As Warren narrates:

“A series of scenes on gold rings or their impressions shows a female or male figure kneeling and touching a rounded or oval stone... In the Kalyvia scene the male figure…is apparently naked., while opposite him a half-naked female pulls at a tree con furore orgiastico... A bird approaches the kneeling man from behind...”

Two similar scenes are found on a gold ring from Sellopoulo, near Knossos and in a seal impression from the palace at Zakros in the far east of Crete. In the Sellopoulo scene, we see that:

“...the naked man, leaning on the boulder with one arm, vigorously beckons to an approaching bird with the other. We are surely meant to understand the bird as epiphanic and as conveying the power or presence of the divinity to the stone baetyl and to the human figure who touches it...”

while in the Zakros image:

“...a female leans on a large, grooved boulder and turns back to beckon a huge, approaching butterfly, which from its position performs the same function as the birds from Kalyvia and Sellopoulo...”

Kalyvia Seal and Impression
Fig 8. Gold Ring and Impression, Kalyvia Tomb 11, Phaistos (1525 – 1450 B.C.)
Heraklion Archaeoligical Museum

We will note in passing that we see displayed in these three images apparently a third set of visual conventions for the Minoan epiphany: the miraculous appearance not of the deity but of one of her symbols, either an epiphanic bird of rather fantastical character, or of an insect depicted in similar resplendent form. Galanakis considers the presence of the bird as signifying the moment of the epiphany action, or as Rethemiotakis puts it:

“[The deity's] imminent arrival is suggested by the flying bird, which is both a symbol and a companion of the goddess in her numinous appearances.”

and indeed we do occasionally see in epiphany scenes a goddess accompanied by flying birds (See the Review of Epiphany Scenes following the conclusions to this essay). We have here then the suggestion that the bird or insect represents perhaps not merely a symbol of the deity but indicative of her implied arrival upon the scene.

Sellopoulou Ring
Fig 9. Gold Ring, Sellopoulo Chamber Tomb, Knossos (1600 – 1450 B.C.)
Heraklion Archaeological Museum

That birds and baetyls are associated archaeologically outside of the epiphany iconography is evidenced by the findings at the peak sanctuary site of Atsipades Korakias, where Moss reports figurines of birds perched upon rocks were uncovered close to a cleared area at the centre of which was a baetyl. Moss concludes the “bird-on-a-rock figurines might also depict the epiphany of the deity.” Bird figurines have also been found at a variety of other peak sanctuary sites.

What is really striking, however, in these baetylic images is how overtly is depicted the invocatory and beckoning nature of the ritual. The celebrants lean against the rock, but their bodies are flexed, turning with arms aloft and calling forth the arrival of the symbol of the deity's presence, underscoring the archaic perception that the primary focus of Minoan ritual was to secure the presence of the deity. That the faces of the celebrants are turned in the direction of the deity's representation infers strongly that the bird or butterfly was actually perceived in vision, although this style of vision-depiction is perhaps less obvious than a figure floating before the visionary's eyes, as depicted for example in figure 1.

Zakros Impression Sketch
Fig 10. Seal Impression HM234, Hall of Ceremonies, Zakros Palace (1500 – 1450 B.C.)
Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The postures of the celebrants in all these images are decidedly tense, often with a characteristic arched-back form so commonly seen throughout Minoan iconography, and this tension seems to go beyond mere dance or simple movement into territories of rapture. Warren continues:

“The ritual on these [baetylic] scenes may be understood to be ecstatic, with naked or semi-naked figures leaning on, clasping or kissing a rounded boulder... and the ritual context of the actions is confirmed by the wide range of cult symbols also depicted, dragonflies, chrysalis, sacral knot, eye, column with two cross-pieces. These symbols operate as a language to confirm the actions and the presence of the divinity.”

The third epiphanic visual convention, that is, the symbol of the deity is depicted rather than the deity itself, is thus neatly summarised, and he then speculates upon a possible reconstruction of the baetylic ritual with a naked celebrant who:

“...approaches a baetyl... kneels and touches [it]... and summons the divinity to the stone by gestures. The arrival or presence of the divinity is indicated by a bird or butterfly epiphany... the participant finally embraces and kisses the boulder in communion with it and the divinity.”

Baetyl Ritual Reconstruction
Fig 11. Reconstruction of baetylic ritual performed by the author at Gournia
(Baetyl located on a small plateia southwest of the villa and west of the main plaza)

Warren has acknowledged the ecstatic nature of these rituals, and we have noted the tense postures often depicted in epiphany scenes which augment this idea, but if there is ecstasy in the dance and perhaps an element of the orgiastic in the kissing and possible ritual copulation with the baetyl, can we posit the possibility that the celebrants experienced a trance or other altered state of consciousness?

Merely remaining within ritual or symbolic contexts may not help us here, as Morris and Peatfield remark: “Although the language of ecstasy is used in connection with these images, the implications of ecstatic experience have not received the attention they merit, and the emphasis has remained on symbolic representation.”

It is searching for answers to this question that we find some interesting evidence suggesting that the iconography of the Minoan epiphany did indeed portray genuine visionary content rather than idealised images of ritual; such evidence challenges notions (as briefly alluded to above) of 'worship' and 'adoration' so common in interpretations of Minoan scenes. The emergence of the field of embodied archaeology – ancient societies viewed through the lens of the experience of the human body – that has greatly illuminated this aspect of Minoan religious practice.


'The Minoan Epiphany: A Bronze Age Visionary Culture'
Bruce Rimell, 2010 - 2013


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