Heraklion Archaeological Museum
Isopata Chamber Tomb, Knossos, LM IA – LM IB, 1600-1450BC

This ring seal, found in a tomb at Isopata near Knossos, is one of the most famous images of the Minoan Epiphany, and though its depiction seems at first glance relatively straightforward, the complex iconography and ambiguities visible here have been used as central evidence in a bewildering array of hypotheses on Minoan religion. Morris & Peatfield used this ring as their typological image for their altered states of consciousness hypothesis, whereas Gimbutas considered the image to provide evidence for the continuity of bee-worship and honey-rituals from Neolithic European cultural horizons down to the Aegean Bronze Age. Vasilakis considered this ring to exemplify Minoan dance circular dance rituals. Rehak considers this ring to show some kind of rite pertaining to young adult women, rather than an epiphany scene, a conclusion with which we disagree here.

Isopata Ring
Fig 34. Isopata Ring – Image and Sketch

But Rehak does note several interesting aspects to this image: he sees in the usage of 'cavalier' perspective in the positioning of the figures, and the multiple levels upon which the plants are depicted, as a direct link between this scene and other, similarly-arranged images of dancing women on frescoes at Knossos. He also considers that the women depicted here are young, judging by their hairstyles:

“The hairstyles of... [three of] the women can be compared to those worn by women in the Thera frescoes. The two young women in the lustral basin scene from Xeste 3... both have coiffures of long, thick hair wrapped in a fillet which has been gathered in a loop at the base of the neck and trails down the back... mature women, by contrast often wear their hair up in kerchiefs.”

By implication, the three female figures at left and centre are young, whereas the rightmost figure, with her hair tied up, may be senior in age, and her posture may connote her status as the leader of the ritual depicted. He considers the suggestion that the smallest figure (what we, below, consider as the floating epiphany figure) is not in fact floating, but simply situated at a distance, following his 'cavalier' perspective line of reasoning.

But the curious line feature two-thirds of the way up the scene, mentioned briefly in the main essay, suggests a crudely-drawn line of mountains, implying that the figure is floating, and thus corresponds to other floating, epiphany figures in the corpus of Minoan glyptic. Rehak's conclusions notwithstanding, most are in agreement that we have here an epiphany scene, but the complexity of the action renders unambiguous interpretations difficult.

At first, the Isopata image seems like a large type I epiphany: the central figure (type Ib) functions as a visionary epiphany in a vision shared by the two dancers to the left and the older woman to the right. The postures of these three women are distinctive but somewhat opaque as to meaning – the two women to the left appear to be adopting beckoning postures and the lines of their bodies suggest a swaying movement in agreement with the altered consciousness state hypothesis of Morris & Peatfield above. The postures of the central figure (hand raised with head slightly bowed) and the female figure at right (arms held up in a posture suggestive of swaying or dance) seem similarly meaningful.

However, when we add to our considerations the small floating figure, interpreted here as the deity appearing out of the sky (type Ia), it appears that the leftmost dancer, at least, is beckoning directly to the smaller figure, and a powerful sense of narrative action begins to colour the scene: the two swaying dancers at left beckon the deity to emerge from the sky, and she does so, alighting on the ground in the middle distance in the presence of an older, presiding female figure who may represent a ritual leader, an enacted epiphany, or both. From what little we can see of their heads, specifically the implied directions of their gazes, we suggest that the vision of the presence of the deity is shared by all three women.

We might also ask: were the efficacy of many of these rituals guaranteed by the presence of an enacted epiphany? The figure on the right seems to 'authorise' the scene, as if the presence of a woman performing as the earthbound surrogate of the deity ensures the presence of the epiphanic deity – the two phenomena mirror each other: the goddess is able to emerge from the sky since, technically, she is already present in the person of the human woman performing the enacted epiphany. Again, we find significant challenges to our Western models of religious perception.

We have followed at length in the main essay Morris & Peatfield's (and McGowan's by implication) line of reasoning that the aniconic or attenuated head-shapes on this ring imply that the ritual participants are experiencing a trance or altered state of consciousness. Gimbutas, however, offers an alternative interpretation of these curious shapes.

She remarks that the heads of these figures bears resemblance to bees and suggests these may be bee or honey priestesses in an act of worship. We have noted previously the modern Western bias that assumes such depictions are worshipful or reverential, but the possibility exists that a conscious depiction of insectoid heads may have been intended here – this needn't detract from the hypothesis that the figures are also depicted in a state of trance. Further, the finding of the golden bee pendants in the richly-decorated grave of a young woman at Chryssolakou near the palace of Malia, and the Linear B inscription (Kn V 2, Text 702) from LM II-IIIA (1450 – 1320 B.C.) period at Knossos which lists the Mistress of the Labyrinth as receiving the same amount of honey as 'all of the gods' strongly suggests a correlation between sacred bees, honey usage in rituals and high-status or sacredly powerful women and female deities. That males are completely absent from the depiction on this ring image may amplify that notion.

Finally, there are a few other curious features on this ring. We have noted the single jagged line running two-thirds up the scene suggestive of a line of mountains, but behind and to the right of the central figure is a strange formation that might suggest an eye, a distant hill or body of water. Above the central figure is a feature that is also present in other epiphany scenes, and which has been various interpreted as a meteor, a comet or a floating ear of barley.


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


Copyright (c) 2002-2018 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.