Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Knossos, archaeological provenance unknown, LM IB – LM II, 1450-1400BC

We have already seen how the complex iconography on this ring typifies the epiphany cycle as elucidated by Dimopoulou and Rethemiotakis as the appearance of the deity out of the sky, descending to earth and then sailing away in a seagoing vessel, exemplifying types Ia, Ib and IV in our typological classification, and we have noted the ambiguity between enacted and visionary epiphany for the seated female figure on the right. The same ambiguity could be argued for the woman in the ship also.

The Ring of Minos
Fig 30. The Ring of Minos – Image and Sketch

The sea-going figure bears more analysis here because, as we shall see, several other epiphany artefacts depict the deity in her ship with such similarity to the Ring of Minos here that a ninth visual convention of the epiphany can perhaps be established. Galanakis notes that in such scenes, the ship bears a female deity with a stereotypical posture of one hand raised towards the face – in the present ring this has been varied expertly to suggest the detail of an oar which she uses to propel the ship. He also notes that several depictions of the ship bear a 'Babylonian dragon' prow of uncertain meaning.

Ring Of Minos - lower half detail
Fig 31. The Ring of Minos, lower half detail

Marinatos notes a Ugaritic goddess Athirat, one of whose epithets was “Great Lady who treads upon the sea dragon”, and although the mythform which underlies this epithet is now lost, she suggests that this feature of Minoan glyptic scenes constitutes a shared visual language across the Middle Bronze Age Eastern Mediterranean, and perhaps hints at the triumph over an underworld deity. On the other hand, Dimopoulou and Rethemiotakis term this prow shape a sea-horse figure, which presents a challenge to Marinatos's interpretation here.

As to the general meaning of the 'Goddess from the Sea', Galanakis remarks:

“Most of the representations [of the Goddess]... lead to the assumption that the appearance of a single female figure was not accidental. The Minoans had a long history of depicting solitary female figures in many different contexts... [including] seafaring. The Minoan thalassocracy possibly required the presence of a single divinity, a female divinity in particular... This divinity, the so-called 'Goddess from the Sea', was probably worshipped in specific rituals before or during important sea travels and expeditions faraway.”

In the Amnisos ring below, we see a possible epiphanic depiction of such a suggested pre-voyage ritual. Galanakis continues:

“There is the possibility that the iconographical schema of the 'Goddess from the Sea' may have implied the formation of a prehistoric, mainly Minoan mythology, where the 'Goddess', dressed in Minoan formal attire with the flounced skirt and open bodice, sailed with a mythical ship ready to inaugurate her cult in new places...”

We may note here that the formation of a native Minoan mythology here disagrees with Marinatos's conclusion above, but whereas Marinatos seeks in much of her work to promulgate an image of Minoan kingship informed by a Near-Eastern cultural and visual koine – an image which the present author considers is somewhat lacking in the artefacts of the Minoan civilisation – Galanakis seeks to place the 'Goddess from the Sea' artefacts specifically within the contexts of known Minoan archaeologies and evidences.

I have suggested elsewhere, following to a certain extent the arguments made by Beekes, that the Classical Greek mythform of Europa represents a survival of the image of the Minoan 'Goddess from the Sea' in the labelling of her as 'Phoenician' (a demonym which itself has a deeply complex history, outside the scope of this essay), but Galanakis connects an 8th century BC graffito on a plastered wall in a temple complex at Delos with the survival of this image in a local depiction of the prehellenic goddess Leto, or possibly Britomartis.

Ring of Minos - upper right detail
Fig 32. The Ring of Minos, upper right detail

In this regard, we must remark on Beekes' etymologies for the names Britomartis and Diktynna: he considers them both as pre-Greek (ie, ancient loans into Classical Greek from an aboriginal Aegean language of which presumably Minoan was a dialect) and associated solely with Crete, considering Britomartis in particular to be either a Cretan goddess in her own right or as an epithet of Artemis on Crete. We note that Britomartis was a nymph of the mountains – itself resonating with the wider 'epiphany' and its placement on peak sanctuaries – who, after being chased by Minos across Crete, threw herself into the sea to avoid his advances, and, becoming tangled in a fisherman's nets, becomes transformed into Diktynna (another name resonant with Cretan mountains – cf: Mt. Dikte) and was transported across the sea to Aegina, a Minoan colony, where she gained the name Aphaia 'invisible one'. Thus it is possible that this myth, while not likely to represent a perfectly-preserved Minoan original, can perhaps she some light on wider mythological contexts of this epiphanic sea-borne image in that some of the names and images resonate with our present theme.

To return to the Ring of Minos, one question that this artefact begs is, who is the visionary here? We have not much discussed the presence in several epiphany scenes of dancing and ecstatic figures engaged in acts of 'tree-pulling', considered by Rethemiotakis to be an act of tree worship but by Warren as an act engendering ecstasy and thus incipient to the visionary act itself or as a way of beckoning the deity to the ritual scene. Several divergent narratives are thus possible here, and the only unambiguous feature is the floating deity at top right. Four principal narratives are here discussed.

Ring of Minos - analysis
Fig 33. The Ring of Minos – Iconographic Analysis

We might suggest a more traditional interpretation, that the seated female is a human woman representing the goddess overseeing two acts of tree worship, whilst herself experiencing a visionary epiphany depicted as the floating figure. The shimmering textures surrounding the ocean-going vessel may in turn represent a second visionary epiphany. Here, then, the seated female figure is the visionary.

Alternatively, we might argue that one or both of the ecstatic 'tree-pullers' are the visionaries and, their actions having beckoned the deity, they watch as she emerges out of the sky, descends to earth and seats upon her shrine. The vision then continues with the deity leaving the scene on her boat, bearing a shrine. A variation on this narrative might be considered, in that the female 'tree-puller' at left appears to be indicating the sea-going vessel with her hand – perhaps this is her vision alone. The rippling, almost-birdlike nature of the rocks near her feet seems to underscore the construal and visionary nature of the whole scene.

A fourth possibility exists, emerging from the realisation that the sea-going female's head is also gazing towards the seated female figure. It is possible that this represents a second enacted epiphany gazing at the simple epiphany scene at top right.

Of course we cannot be certain which, if any, of these interpretations is correct, and bearing in mind the aforementioned differing Minoan categorisations of deity and the sacred, we must also consider the possibility that the original artist intended a multiple display of visionary epiphany, in which each figure ambiguous beholds the other. We could thus follow a line of gazes, starting with the 'tree-pulling' figures, passing through the sea-going female who in turn gazes up at the terminating image, the epiphany at top right.


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


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