by Dr. Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.
Without doubt birds, and especially doves, played an important role in Minoan belief. According to a current interpretation, doves could be seen as the embodiment (epiphany) of a divinity, a representation of a goddess in a bird form near her sacred place — in a shrine or on a tree. This idea is supported in literature: according to Homer, the goddess was able to take on the shape of a bird.
From the Early Minoan period on, libation vases and amulets or models in bird form existed in Crete and these were used for ritual purposes. We can observe the shape of a bird even among the signs on the famous Phaistos Disc. Clay models of birds and their images on ritual vessels are also among the regular furnishings of shrines like those at Knossos, Gournia, or Karphi. The type of these birds have long been a subject of discussions between scholars, but usually they are considered to represent doves.
From the Old Palace of Knossos, a model of the so-called "Dove Shrine Deposit" shows three pillars with capitals and beams, on which three doves sit. Two doves are incised in a stone vessel used as an offering table at Phaistos, and some doves are pictured sitting on the double axes at a sacrifice scene on the sarcophagus from Hagia Triada. Finally, doves with the other sacred symbols surround the clay figurines with upraised hands and cylinder-shaped bodies from the Late Minoan civic and rural shrines from Gortyn, Gournia, Knossos and Karphi. Some of these figurines, with birds sitting on their heads or perching near their bodies, are viewed as the representation of the Dove Goddess.
The doves are interpreted as an emblem of a celestial goddess and are a symbol of her heavenly power, contradictory to a snake, which has been regarded as an underworld aspect of the goddess and a symbol of her earthly power. But mainly in the Late Minoan period, the sacerdotal symbols are mixed, which is proved by the ritual objects and figurines discovered from the shrines. The models of birds were found at the same locations together with the snake tubes. One of the figurines from the shrine at Gortyn is represented with a bird flying close to her cheek, while she is holding the snakes in her hands.
Unfortunately, we cannot identify the so-called Minoan Dove Goddess from Crete explicitly as a celestial goddess, having not enough material to support this idea. But it is sure that the Dove Goddess was linked to the Snake Goddess and Poppy Goddess, who are connected with the household role in Crete. All of these divinities were worshiped in the Late Minoan civic and rural shrines, where the traditional Minoan religious cults were kept alive.
It is not clear if the dove was only a symbol of a divinity or an attribute of a certain goddess in Pre-Hellenic mythology. As well, we have no evidence if in the Minoan religion only one universal goddess was worshiped with various aspects, or if many goddesses shared a spiritual realm and governed over the sacred world of these people. The symbol of the dove spread from Crete to the mainland of Greece and to Cyprus and to other Aegean places.
In Mycenaean iconography doves appear as early as the second half of the sixteenth century BCE. But the unique golden ornaments of a naked goddess and a tripartite shrine, surrounded by the doves from Mycenae, are interpreted as foreign imports. Bird pictures appear in Mycenaean iconography more frequently from the end of fourteenth century BCE, and became a common decoration in the twelfth century BCE. This motif is interpreted mostly as the symbol of epiphany of a goddess, similar to Crete. But we have no proof that in Mycenaean mythology the same believe existed as in Crete, nor can we attribute a dove to a Mycenaean goddess. Also it has to be mentioned that many different kinds of birds are represented in Mycenaean memories, in which specially water animals have a priority.
Concluding, we can point out that the dove is connected with sacred places and was used as an offering. Furthermore, we can suppose that all of these cultures — the Minoan, the Mycenaean, and the Oriental — played a role, when a dove entered Greek and Roman mythology as one of the attributes of the goddess of Love, Aphrodite/Venus.
- Alexiou, S. n.d. Minoan civilization. Heraclion.
- Burkert, W. (1994). Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts.
- Castleden, R. (1994). Minoans. London, New York.
- Davaras, C. (1976). Guide to Cretan Antiquities. Athens.
- Demakopoulou, K. (1988). Das Mykenische Hellas Heimat der Helden Homers. Athens, Berlin.
- Sakellarakis, J.A. (1993). Herakleion Museum. Athens.