From the foregoing essay it can be seen that the images of the Minoan Epiphany are both complex and somewhat ambiguous, at least, to our modern eyes. A combined model, which includes considerations of mundane ritualistic behaviour as well as altered states of consciousness of a more sacred character, has been required to gain an adequate understanding of the scenes, and we have noted that the visionary culture evidenced by the epiphany imagery challenges and transcends our rather passive Western models of religious experience.

There has also been scope for doubtfulness with some of the images as to whether a visionary or enacted epiphany is being depicted, and just as the action moves seamlessly from worldly to sacred activity, so a seamlessness appears to exist between enacted and visionary, and Minoan categories as to who or what could constitute a deity as well as distinctions made (or not) between enacted living, iconic and visionary depictions, again challenge our Western ideas. We have also uncovered a set of visual conventions which may be here briefly summarised:

1. A figure's small size, waving hair and downward-pointing feet denotes a deity floating in or moving through the air, or emerging from the sky.

2. A figure's large size, flat feet and contact with or depicted at the same level as the ground denotes the deity's arrival upon the earth.

3. The appearance of a flying bird denotes either the imminent arrival of the deity, or functions as the deity seen epiphanically.

4. Heads depicted as aniconic in contrast to other detail, or as attenuated, or as floating above the body, denote the experience of the trance state on the part of the beholding visionary.

5. Elongated body forms whose dimensions go beyond the norms of Minoan depiction also denote the experience of the trance or altered state

6. A variety of beckoning postures are seen, with the intention that these 'invite' the deity into the ritual action.

7. Dynamic tension in the body forms of the celebrants or visionaries are also seen, which may suggest the techniques by which the celebrants enter the trance or altered state.

8. Images of wild nature abound, suggestive not merely of a rural or peak sanctuary location, but of the animistic sanctity of nature itself.

In coming to review a selection of artefacts upon which scenes of epiphany are depicted, it is useful to elucidate the types of epiphany seen in the imagery, for there is much evidence of idiosyncrasy in the visionary content (such as, for example, the variation in the deity appearing in human or birdlike form). While such changes in depiction may express underlying Minoan meanings that are now lost to us (a bird deity may, for example, be of different character to a human one, and so on), broad outlines can be drawn.

The classifications below, then, are an attempt to combine all the foregoing models, but particularly the epiphany cycle and the above list of conventions, to permit a set of visionary aesthetics to emerge naturally from the epiphany images, with the suggestion that these aesthetics may disclose something, however vaguely, of the original Minoan conceptions.

Type I – Floating or Earthbound Human Figure

The appearance of the deity in human form to the celebrants is the most common form of the epiphany depicted, and corresponds to the first two stages in Dimopoulou & Rethemiotakis's epiphany cycle. This type appears in a variety of locations, but is commonly associated with shrines and depictions of wild places. Two types are seen, often combining with each other, or with other types of epiphany, to function as the initial stage of a narrative depiction of visionary action.

Type 1 Epiphanies
Fig 27. Type I Epiphanies

Type Ia – Floating Figure
A female or male figure descends from on high, hovering or floating with downward-pointing feet, her small size denoting her distance from the main ritual action or that she is emerging from the sky to attend the ritual, a notion often emphasised by her elevated position above the ritual action. The floating figure is, with a couple of exceptions, consistently female.

Type Ib – Earthbound Figure
The floating figure then makes contact with the earth, and is seen with flattened feet and a similar size to the celebrants. The deity's elevated status is less emphasised, often appearing at the same level as the celebrants – in such depictions, a neat aesthetic balance between the sacred and the mundane is achieved – and she is sometimes shown dancing, or hailing the visionary. This type also carries the greatest ambiguity between enacted and visionary epiphany: at times it is unclear whether the sacred figure is a visionary deity or a human female surrogate, or indeed a cult statue. Again, with one or two exceptions, the figure seen is consistently female.

Type II – Symbolic Figure

The deity is seen as one of her symbols, which may suggest the imminent arrival of the deity rather than the deity herself, or equally may imply that the deity is manifesting symbolically, arriving in one of a stereotypical and limited set of disguises which may hint at now-lost Minoan narrative expectations. This type of epiphany is commonly associated with scenes of baetyl ritual, but in several images, a combination of the above type I is seen surrounded or associated with symbols of type II to suggest a possibly narrative action, or that several visions (experienced by one or several celebrants) are depicted. Four types are generally seen, again often combining with each other.

Type 2 Epiphanies
Fig 28. Type II Epiphanies

Type IIa – Bird
The deity appears, or is heralded by, a large bird, often larger-than-life, appearing in the scene, often bearing fruit or seed pods in its mouth, and often shown descending to approximately the celebrants' eye level, a notion which subtly emphasises the visionary nature of the depiction. Notable here is the detailed depiction of the bird, such that it can be roughly identified at times as a crane, eagle or dovelike figure.

Type IIb – Insect
The deity appears, or is heralded by, some kind of insect. The butterfly is most commonly seen, often shown rising or floating, and consistently larger-than-life, the variation in size ranging from twice or three times life-size to massively enlarged. (In this regard, it is perhaps useful to note Gimbutas's hypothesis that the Minoan double axe represents a stylised butterfly – while this is not widely accepted, we nonetheless may have here a symbolic identity between Type IIb and Type IId epiphanies.) Bees or flies are occasionally depicted, though their depiction is ambiguous and debatable. In one instance a dragonfly is clearly seen, again larger-than-life.

Type IIc – Plant Symbol
A plant symbol, such as a seed pod or ripened fruit is shown, either floating before the celebrant or being carried by the bird in Type IIa. When seen alone, the symbol is often depicted floating directly above the visionary, but the depiction is ambiguous and it is unclear if it represents a floating seedpod or a ritual object (seen in vision or added as a ritual element) such as a rhyton, or even a bucranium, a bull's head motif commonly seen in Minoan glyptic.

Type IId – Sacred Object
The most common form here is the double axe, which may conflate with Type IIb in light of Gimbutas's idea that the double axe represented a stylised butterfly). Here, a suggestion of meaning can be divined, for we never see male figures in Minoan art bearing the double axe – it appears to have been a symbol of female sacred authority, and thus its appearance in epiphany may denote the authority of the deity being expressed, or offer some insight into the familiarity with this authority, something that the celebrant is seeking to disclose through the commissioning of the epiphany artefact. The double axe's appearance also calls to mind the baetyl at Gournia (see Appendix A)

Other symbols are also seen, and these are almost all ritual items: conch shells, robes and items of clothing (although these may represent offerings), and rhytons, although the foregoing ambiguity between rhyton and seed pod should be borne in mind. Other ambiguous objects are seen: a curious symbol appears several times which has been suggested is a stylised pedestalled offering table, and in one case two floating rocks are seen with radial lines emerging – possibly this is a slightly surrealistic depiction of a baetyl. In one case, a hybrid human-double-axe floating figure is seen, and occasionally an abstract image which may represent a comet, meteor or floating ear of barley is present in the epiphany.

It has been argued that these are simply environmental items, showing the ritual space in which the epiphany takes place, however their common depiction as floating above or around the celebrants and their combination with other epiphany elements suggests that they are intended as visionary elements.

Type III – Human Figure in Abstract Space

A rarer type is the depiction of the deity – in all cases female – sometimes accompanied with one of her symbols, but with no celebrant or ritual action visible, and thus it is hypothesised we are here seeing an image which is completely visionary, shown in an abstract space. Care must be taken with classifying images of this type that we are not inadvertently labelling as epiphanic the non-visionary iconic or mythological depictions of the deity, particularly in Minoan glyptic where images of deities are common. Thus for this type of image to be understood as epiphanic, we require other accompanying visual conventions that confirm the visionary nature of the scene. Such an example can be found in the Archanes – Phourni Ring #1.

Epiphanies Types 3 4 and 5
Fig 29. Epiphanies of Types III, IV and V

Type IV – Figure on a Ship

This type corresponds with the final stage of Dimopoulou & Rethemiotakis's epiphany cycle, in which the deity, always female, is seen transporting a shrine (often tripartite) across the sea. Variations on this theme exist: we sometimes see the goddess saluting her shrine, or rowing with great effort across the sea. Plants and trees are sometimes seen emerging from the shrine.

As has been remarked earlier, it is this scene in particular which calls to mind the ability of the deity to transcend all three worlds of the three-tiered cosmos, or perhaps the seagoing scene represents the deity's return to the world of the sacred, disappearing in the ripples of the sea just as she emerged out from the sky. Numerous Neolithic and Bronze Age petroglyphs and mythforms across Europe and the Middle East also suggest the ship of plenty – the goddess's triumphant return in spring with the seeds and fruits of earthly fertility.

Type V – The Sacred Conversation

The 'sacred conversation' is a term coined by Nilsson to refer to an interaction between the celebrant and deity in which, judging by their postures, they greet each other, or the deity imparts some symbol of authority to the celebrant. Koehl and Marinatos both strongly identify the scene with a kind of hieros gamos or sacred marriage.

A notable feature of these scenes is that the gender of visionary and deity in the 'sacred conversation' scenes always differ: in most cases a young male greets a floating or earthbound female deity, but occasionally the reverse is seen – such gender inter-relations resonate with Koehl's and Marinatos's idea, but in terms of our typological analysis here, we may consider the 'sacred conversation' to be a meaningful ritual colouring of the above type I.

Its visual convention is stereotypical and instantly recognisable: the floating deity greets the celebrant with arm held outwards, a posture mirrored by the celebrant. At least one depiction of this phenomenon is accompanied by a fairly unambiguous depiction of an altered state of consciousness (floating head) suggesting that the 'sacred conversation' was a visionary experience rather than a mere representational depiction disclosing sacred familiarity and authority.

There are subtle suggestions, too, judging by the postures involved, of sacred conversations in other epiphany scenes, particularly the Ring of Minos: the seated female gazes up and half-gestures to the floating deity, whose arm in turn gently gestures downwards, directly to the seated female's hand.

Thus, with these types now elucidated, we now proceed to the review of a selection of glyptic artefacts which depict epiphany scenes. In each case, where possible, an image of the original artefact has been presented, along with a full illustration. Further explanatory illustrations help in some cases to clarify the ritual and visionary narratives. This is by no means an exhaustive survey of all Minoan epiphany artefacts, but the most significant finds are presented along with several intriguing yet obscure finds. A total of 23 artefacts are discussed, with a further five artefacts in Appendix G


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


Copyright (c) 2002-2019 Bruce Rimell : All images, artwork, and words on this site
are copyrighted to Bruce Rimell and may not be reproduced in any form unless stated otherwise.