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Griffin & Labrys
We saw why the broad dating of the Bull Leap fresco’s creation pointed to decades just before the 1600 earthquake, or within 100 years after it. (The fresco’s border was copied on the mainland by perhaps 1510, though we cannot dismiss noted later possibilities.) In effect, this placed the fresco in the midst of the Minoans’ Late-period creative powers and their society’s increasing fragmentation.
Both developments played out along a century of accurate Great Year strings of time; which, to be tracked and exploited, demanded few calendric adjustments over decades of lunar/solar cycles. We saw why several panels of Bull Leap frescoes might be a response to the overlaps among strings of 8½-year lunar/solar signs; and, clues that more central icons might have seasonal and cyclic relationships that grow more visible in the remains of New Palace times.
Evidence around the fresco does not prove a calendar in its border. Yet with a few keys across these chapters, calendric references seem to appear almost straightforwardly, and where they should (in forms related to astronomy, ecology, agriculture, social organization and religion)—in a place where for long periods of time, society was orderly and dynamic, without any familiarly-autocratic king sitting visibly on a throne.
Minoan magnitude is unlikely without some degree of calendric cooperation. As stated, and further chapters try to show: Knossos, while raising and promulgating New Palace culture, might have been trying to gather together calendric knowledge and traditions into a new form, as part of Crete’s two-fold situation: continuing to refine and holding onto their practical and spiritual universe, while Thera and Mycenaeans brought change. In a cultural struggle, calendric symbols that spoke to everyday life and to spiritual beliefs would have brought them into play as Minoan assets.
To resume from last chapter: what parts could griffins have played in a Great Year calendric imaginary, in Crete’s circumstances?
Crete has the large mountain-soaring Griffin Vulture (gyps fulvus). As a devourer of the dead, in Egypt it was sacred to Osiris through its role in death and in rebirth. In Sumer and Egypt, the role of vultures and eagles in the Sun’s journey was to “prevail over” Snake and thus enable the life/death cycle to complete itself.
Crowley (Aegean 137, 298) finds griffins arriving with Cretan trade from 2000 BCE and acquiring New Palace importance. The first seal below, Old Syrian, shows a griffin court-guardian as part of a throne’s powers: perhaps, to watch over all things, and to unleash aggression. Below, the Middle Minoan gold ring and a seal from Mycenae (dated 1510-1390, Crowley Fig. 124) might symbolize similar concepts.
Compare the pair of griffins in the first Minoan seal shown in this chapter (just above, cut in black stone, beside the picture of the Griffin Vulture) with Chapter 5's precisely matching seal-example that features heraldic lions. By about 1700-1600 (Middle Minoan times), griffins appear to share symbolic status close to Bull’s: snakes, horns and Labrys have their place with griffins alike.
Griffin (with two female examples below) is a symbolic composite-beast, with predator features: the head, tearing-beak, and sometimes the wings of an eagle or hawk, the body and claws of a lion/ess, and a tail whose poison-adder marks relate to Snake. It belongs to the sky, hunts on the Earth, and delivers its prey to the underworld. In the seal at right above and other examples, Griffin can also have bull’s horns. So it has features in common with Snake, Bull and Lion, but not with other animals in the same arts: boars, for example. Stags, goats and rams have different horns.
In the round of the year, all consume and are consumed in turn. We see the ends of mortal beasts, but not Griffin’s. There is more evidence of this significant different status, and it appears consistent with a Great Year cosmology and calendar.
Although Griffin’s central Knossos examples in the throne room (ahead) are uniquely wingless, this is a creature of the sky. As such, Griffin is the linked opposite of subterranean Snake. On the seal above from Evans’ Palace (4: 624), a pair descend to prey on Bull. From his back sprouts the Linear A writing-sign for grain.
The Spring must die. Grain ripens only if Summer comes to pass. A seasonal Bull’s death would enable fulfillment of a farming and food-production year, as Summer’s Lion/ess devours Spring’s Bull. In a Crete without any predators devouring bulls, these attacks must express a conceived symbolic role related to what Bull represents. Marinatos’ Religion shows other beasts (even octopi) attacking Bull, but none of them present equal levels of clues to calendric connections.
Hence, perhaps, Snake (Winter), Bull (Spring), Lion/ess (Summer)—and Griffin in some supernatural, transcendent relation at a fourth cosmological point. In these gifts below (which include a jackal’s and goat’s head vessels) from Late Crete to the Egyptian court, pictured in the tomb of Rekhmire (in Evans Palace 2: 535), Bull, Lion/ess and Griffin stand out together, as they will in a much later form (Chapter 9).
As noted last chapter about the “dragon” who is guide to and guardian of the Beyond, of the Pole Star(s) and “door” in the sky, Griffin has a death-aspect. Although immortal, Griffin still needs to hunt and consume; or, its nature as the essence of predators serves some larger symbolic conception.
Bull, whose horns are sometimes visible in Griffin, is not a predator. Marinatos writes in Minoan Religion (197): “It is clear that the most powerful animals were those belonging to the predator class….At the bottom of the scale is the bull. And yet he, too, is perceived as dangerous….When confronted with a real predator, a lion or griffin, however, he inevitably becomes prey.”
This describes a hierarchy. When we seek out cyclical relationships, it seems that Bull (as the embodiment of Spring regeneration) must die to release its potentials and allow the full year’s cycle to turn. So must Summer’s Lion (a pair of them carried on a pole, below-right). Griffin is built from their rent pieces, their mortal aspects. And yet, besides its wings, are there other signs that griffins may have played a cosmic Great Year role?
Griffin has a Minoan double, the “Genius” or Demon (or, Spirit Being)—at once fantastic and fearsome, protective, predatory, deathless, heraldic, and linked to the sky and stars. Its history in Crete begins later than other creatures treated here, meaning sometime after 1700 (Middle Minoan II B: see Phillips 2005: 456; Rehak below, and Marinatos Religion 287, notes 23-25). The Genius, a clear borrowing from Egypt, is at first a predator there and in Minoan images, and over time acquires the same places as the other noted beasts. Like Lion/ess and Griffin, the Genius can also be female.
As Marinatos cautions (Religion 197), the Genius may have carried none of its Egyptian-traditional meanings into Crete (for example, as a protector of newborns in this life and the next). Yet, what is known about the creature, from the place that conceived it?
The Egyptian goddess Taweret (a.k.a. Tawaret, Taurt or Thoueris), with the head and claws of a lion, the body of a hippopotamus, and a crocodile usually down her back, was a composite of dangerous creatures. Crowley’s 2005 “Interconnections” (174) speculates on why Minoans incorporated Tawaret in the first place. “If Crete were suffering a prolonged drought…Minoans might well send to the older civilizations of the East for the help of some beneficent deity.” In Egypt and/or Syria, they would “meet” Taweret and be aware of “her protective and beneficent role from the amulets,” finding also that “Mesopotamian tradition associated [this deity] with procuring fresh water and fertilizing rain.”
The Genius as a rain-maker would place it in the sky-realm. Yet perhaps more than rain-making prompted Minoan interest in this Spirit Being, since Moody’s 2009 study of Crete’s ecological history revealed a period of drought from 2300-2100, but a return to normalcy by 1900-1700, the supposed period of Taweret’s adoption (247).
As Ernest and Relke show (2002: 66, 71, Fig. 7), Taweret and an almost-identical deity, “Hippo” were astral deities, “fierce and protective, with a composite of feared and affectionate associations.” They were closely related to Ursa Major, which (in Egypt likened to a bull’s foreleg) never set below the Minoans’ north horizon—and to Draco, the great composite snake, dragon, falcon and/or griffin, winding round the Pole Star. According to one early (though later) writer on astronomy, Eudoxus of Cnidus (a Minoan-affiliated Carian city), sailors called Ursa Minor stars “The Dragon’s Wing”: synecdoche for a stellar guide over the sea, which itself was equated with the cosmic void.
These Beings circled the axis of the sky, “the firm, immoveable point securing the revolving sky to its immortal center” (Ernest and Relke 70), and a transformative threshold through which the dead and newborn (or reborn) souls crossed, in their protective care.
Clearly, as Rehak shows (1995c), the Minoan Genius is several things: a libation-bearer (whose pouring might relate to rain-making); an attendant at once protective, heraldic, and (also like griffins) an “aspect” of hunting and predation; and a Being related to sacrifice or, more generally, to death. Rehak (220) shows even a man being carried by a Genius—a man as if dead, except for one arm still fixed in his ritual gesture. As Rehak and others doubt any regular Minoan human sacrifice, we may understand the Genius as a bearer of the dead to the world Beyond. Except for rain-making, all these functions match those of griffins; and that may be a role of help or service close to libation-pouring, which griffins never perform.
On the seal at top right above, a Genius stands, atypically, above the doubled 8-point symbols of moon, sun or stars as it carries a dead stag (sometimes found in Bull’s place). A creature looking down on heavenly bodies would be traveling through or beyond them. In the second row above/right, the pair that flank a dessicated tree, perhaps a world-axis, look up in supplication toward a likely pole star.
Evans named this “notched plume and star” motif found on griffin wings (the example above from Miniature Frescoes dated to Middle times before 1600; 1: 549). The notched plume connects Griffin with arrows, and vice-versa, as instruments of death. They both fly, unleashed by their masters: they kill, and the victim is bound for the grave and the stars. Given also Late evidences treated at the end of Chapter 8, it seems unlikely that Griffin, with its wings, roles and similarities to the Genius (and to Snake), was not associated with the Beyond in similar ways.
While Chapter 8 explores why the Knossos throne’s griffins were probably wingless, the Agia Triada larnax (circa 1425-1400, details below) presents positive evidence. Marinatos (Religion 31) sees its rituals as representative of even Pre-Palatial Minoan religion; and she locates the pair of griffins below in the underworld (2010: 164). A priestess pours funereal blood-offerings (mainly from a bull) between a pair of doubled double axes. The pair of griffins at right appear on one end-panel, bearing, guiding and/or dragging the deceased to his next destination. Red (in the blood and background) and blue (the color of shadow, death and the underworld) connect the living and the dead in ways detailed in the next chapters.
How, then, do the Knossos throne room griffins speak to its possible place in a Great Year cosmology? Although Immerwahr (97) sees the throne’s pair of them as “the most controversial” fresco restorations “of this period,” she does view them as part of “a Minoan conception” (167): as noted earlier, “the throne room at Knossos and its paintings seem a Minoan creation, even if the final form took place in a period in which Myceneans were present at the palace” (137). We must share her “doubts about their accuracy” because so few remains of the originals survived on the “blackened walls.” Further, Shank (2007) reveals original evidence showing clear restoration errors, and the possibility that these griffins had wings (163 and Fig. 19.5). While later we return to these points, examine the Gillieron restoration in Evans’ Palace of Minos.
Many details might be contested, but here are some curious aspects that need not carry any Great Year weight. At its heart is a double spiral in light and dark (possibly, solar cycles). The motif is known from Late painted vases (Immerwahr), and could hardly sum up better the cycles of time through which Griffin never dies. At its shoulders hang what may be inverted flowers, in blue the fresco’s color of shadow, eclipse and death, and the flowers spill red. Griffin’s crest is a pair of crescents or moons, in New orange and Waning blue, like alpha-and-omega signs of time in eternal cycle. Gillieron’s restorations do closely match original fragments shown in Shank (2007), but had little or nothing to do with calendrics.
Where, though, is Bull in these examples flanking the throne (with another pair likely flanking the chamber’s inner western door)? Why do these griffins have no horns, in the center of the place where Bull was “the” image of authority and power? Fresco-fragments of a bull’s hoof and more were found in the throne’s outer anteroom (Evans Palace 4: 893). Let us look at the least-contested details, along Griffin’s belly. First here are the original fragments (Shank 2007: Pl. 19.8), and then a restoration-detail.
The original fragments show a web-work of X’s—a form and pattern of calendric and tribal significance, as shown and further-shown through Chapter 9. With all evidence considered, we may return to those original X’s above and find their location significant. Presently, they comprise what art historians call the invention of “realistic” cross-hatch shading along Griffin’s belly (Evans’ studies in 1: 710-14, and 4: 912-13).
Why was a rounding-effect demanded here? After all, this creature (like the Genius) has a license far beyond realism to fulfill some symbolic end. Immerwahr: the rounding might “simulate the stucco reliefs of an earlier period” (98). She notes that Mycenaeans of Pylos “misunderstood this shading as ingrowing hairs,” among other “lost meanings,” in their palace’s copies (167).
There might be an immediate reason: full bellies. If these griffins’ beaks are lifted in heraldic honor of person(s) on the throne, their postures also match the way predatory birds crane their necks upward when they swallow.
Griffin, supreme predator guarding (and perhaps, chastening) the Winter Solstice throne, may have consumed all other calendric creatures of the year. On its central day they all begin to return from shadow to light again. With shading, Griffin bulges not only like a well-fed predator. She might be wingless, and couchant rather than rampant, because she is pregnant; first, with Bull and Spring, in the new cycle born beyond Midwinter, whose passing in turn raises grain from sprout to harvest. As if cycles of time and cycles of creatures pass through her. The same can be said about the door in the sky itself.
If “Snake is the father of Bull,” Griffin finds with Snake another polar correspondence, as Bull’s mother. A mother who births and devours her young is consistent with a Minoan cosmos centered in nature and the feminine divine.
If we wonder why the Knossos throne is almost unique in its age for not facing this chamber’s entrance-doors, the fact is that its back is to the north (while positioned also to meet Winter Solstice). As shown in Chapter 1, the throne’s disc may be both the sun and a star. Whether “North Star” or “the Imperishables,” the disc presents any “initiated” viewer with their alignment. Conceptually the line runs from northern star(s) in the sky above and behind the chamber, down through the terrestrial throne; then south, to the Sunken Chamber (or “Lustral Basin”) underworld, toward Orion’s Belt. There (noted below) reigned Egypt’s Osiris, green divinity of rebirth.
The throne’s disc, perhaps as the horizon of life and death (omphalos, threshold, portal, gate or door), is flanked by immortals, like one eternal point at the center of time, to which all come. Griffins watch over, compel and guide the journey to and through Mother Time; affectionate, implacable, sure as the Bull Leap fresco’s calendric logic. Who Consents, She Guides: Who Refuses, She Drags.
Herberger’s Thread of Ariadne opened these connections and possibilities. In a physical sense, Bull is literally behind the throne as well. The one Knossos bull greater than his brother in the Bull Leap Fresco runs with his horns pointing northward from that Labyrinth entrance portico (image in Chapter 2). Egyptian astronomy viewed Ursa Major as a bull’s foreleg (Ernest and Relke). Between this Bull and the northern stars stands a tree worthy of a Tree of Life or World Axis.
Why was the Sunken Chamber the right place for an overhead light-well? True, it meant light and ventilation when the throne room’s doubled doors closed. We will never know if the well had a roof, or at least at times could allow the sight and ritual inclusion of the night sky. Though the Chamber sees neither north/south groups of stars, a night sky seen from the underworld would have had ceremonial power. A study cited ahead about Mount Juktas calls this the classic pattern in Minoan sacred places: connections from the underworld to the stars. Just ahead is another cosmic symbol consistent with a possibly open-roofed structure.
In Chapter 1 we saw the Pyramids aligned with northern and southern constellations. To the south, beyond Crete’s mountains and peak sanctuaries (studded with calendric alignments), Orion’s Belt and its then-central star Alnilam were the “eternal habitation” of a Pharaoh’s spirit, and the embodiment of Osiris, who “governed the resurrection of souls” (Lankford 245-6). Minoans were old travelers to his tomb at Abydos. Alford: “It almost goes without saying” that a north/south alignment is “not the direction of the sun” (10). The Knossos throne forces no choice.
Herberger’s Thread included a consistent understanding of the otherwise-peculiar composite seals above. Evans (1: 702) referred the example at right (from Zakros) to the “individual spirit and changing moods” of Minoan artists. What are their elements? Only the four creatures among which we found other solar/stellar and cyclic links: Snake, Bull, Lion/ess and Griffin. The chart below presents a cyclical summary of most ecological, cultural, calendric and cosmological elements gathered here (Griffin excluded, though its place seems to be shared with Snake either side of Winter Solstice and its throne).
Labrys remains to be closely tried against these evidences. “Of all [Minoan] religious symbols and emblems…the double axe is the most conspicuous…as omnipresent as the cross in Christianity” (Nilsson 1950: 194). As such, it too might be expected to manifest aspects of the Great Year cycle.
While labrys appears to be a Lydian word from Caria (southwestern Asia Minor), Labranda meaning “place of the labrys” (Evans Palace 1: 6, 447), Dietrich cites many scholars dissatisfied with that linguistic link (1988: 14). According to Alberti (2009: 104), the double axe appears in Crete before in Anatolia, and “might thus be a native Cretan invention” as a symbol of religion and “rank” in society.
Evans dated an “earliest” Cretan double axe (from
Mochlos) to Early Minoan II, or roughly 2900-2300 BCE (Palace 2: 29). That
dating agrees with Lowe Fri’s (16), while Pietrovito (2007: 20) cites even
earlier examples. For Evans, Labrys dates to “the original Palace
structure,” and was the ”center of domestic cult in countless small dwellings”
(Palace 1: 425, 427, and Chapter XXI). Double axes as tools and symbols had
a connection with the dead, and with “new life from death,” all the way from
Early to Sub-Minoan times (Dietrich 15)—a Cretan share of even longer known
links between axes, bulls or rams, birds, butterflies, and a powerful goddess
of protection and renewal (at Late Knossos, Potnia: Chapter 7).
It was certainly Crete’s most common tool, a double-bitted axe offering more balance, striking power, and half the need to resharpen in the midst of heavy use—felling or pruning trees, stripping bark and making planks (Lowe Fri 2007: 16, 18-19). Notably, doubling itself was what bestowed these fundamental practical advantages on an essential working tool, a clear trait and pattern in these chapters' examples of Minoan productions. Turning it around was central to the literal use of a doubled axe, and its symbolic calendric aspects treated below appear to work with and build upon that basic thinking. All these studies describe Labrys as “charged” with central, vital meaning for Minoans, as “emblematic of something as yet indefinable” (Pietrovito 18).
A Late Linear B tablet (Gg702) refers to a “Mistress of the Labyrinth”: hence, House of the Double Axe. Marinatos (Religion 5) wondered why Labrys was never in the hands of a male or a god like later Zeus Labraundos, with his appropriated lightning-bolt or pelekus. Though found among quantities of weapons and tools (below), no Minoan evidence suggests that Labrys’ sanctity came from sacrificial or a god’s use.
Evans also presented some of its early forms in Egypt, with the form at right below from Abydos, a Minoan connection-point; adding a research-colleague’s note about a “priest of the Mountain deity and of the Double Axe” there. (Chapter 7 explores these important aspects.) In time it became the “special aniconic form of the supreme Minoan divinity,” “throughout the length and breadth” of the island (1: 447).
Labrys’ forms ranged from simple types tucked in crevices of caves to ceremonial ones, from tiny to huge. Like Pietrovito (19), Dietrich (19) sees Labrys acquiring “vital significance” through the 300 years of Old Palace times. Haysom concluded that in the rise of the New Palace, it became “a symbol primarily associated with a social group who exercised power in the economic, military and religious realms” (35). According to his evidences, they were a “group or class…not narrow and confined to the top” (50), nor confined to Knossos: “a larger social group who had…responsibilities” in food-production, ceremony and perhaps the military.
Those aspects of life are the agreed contexts of most Labrys-finds. But its symbolic opacity has remained. Haysom’s study, pursuing “what kind of religious symbol it was,” reveals some of Labrys’ effects in organizational control or “responsibility”: not an anatomy of its symbolic power (unless Labrys’ meaning centered on “attributes of a man or of men,” 45-46). The same is true of Marinatos’ 2010 Minoan Kingship. Marinatos shows that Labrys had many solar associations that explain some of its forms, “a regenerative quality” through links with lilies and vegetation; and, she shares “the inevitable conclusion that the double axe had some close relationship with the heavenly luminaries, the sun and moon” (121, 127). A much closer look might explain why Labrys meant something so compelling to Minoans for so long a period before its Late deployments “between the horns”; and why this was calculated at that time to produce crucial social effects (Chapter 7).
Minoan Great Year contexts might also be able to detail how or why it was literally elevated by New Palace times into a symbol of “a leadership role in agriculture” (Haysom 50). In Bronze Age calendrics, such a meaning and use went hand in hand with “a leadership role in at least some religious occasions.”
Below are examples of forms and finds: the burial-cist in the Tomb of the Double Axes, at Isopata near Knossos; and a Labrys and black steatite stand found in the central Minoan cave at Psychro, in the eastern flank of Mount Dikte.
As noted, tomb and cave connections for this symbol extend from Below to Beyond. At right above is a Late-period stand for Labrys incised with 4 of them, and each is paired with horns of consecration. The lower-tier photo shows the southeast pillar crypt at Knossos, where Evans found a Labrys-stand beside the great column that, like a “world axis” in seal images, connects the underworld to the sky (Palace 2: 389). For Soles (in his 2001 “Reverence,” 234) “the pillar is specifically designed to…replicate the cosmic axis.” Labrys mounted on its pole or pillar likely points the same way between below and above. Perhaps to ritually bring and to “plant” Labrys in the pillar’s presence was to double a symbolic power.
Gesell’s researches (1985-2004) showed that although widespread, Labrys (like the fresco) belonged to Knossos; and, in its most-official forms, was kept out of sight except for ceremonial or festival showings-forth, “epiphanies.” The Priestess-Queen’s lifted axes (Chapter 4) are problematic, but given the hem of her skirt’s signs, as likely as other possibilities for a symbol in presentation. She is “showing forth” and likely welcoming people to the House of the Double Axe. If one foundation of Knossos’ long sway was calendric, Festival was the time and place to show it in a sign of elite knowledge and recognized sway.
Let us study Labrys’ form. Clearly, as noted, it seems a perfect symbol for Spring and Autumn Equinox. Those meanings would not be hostile to the Great Year’s.
Below is a “Palace Style” example (dated after 1600 BCE, Evans Palace 4: 343). Its pattern was one of 4 (with slight detail-differences) that decorated a large Late Knossos vase (to appear in Chapter 8). While most double axes lack these rich embellishments, they do match its main aspects shown below. In Crete’s Late Period, real ones embellished in these ways would have served high ceremonial purposes.
Below is a schematic that can help to isolate original features and assist comparisons with other evidences.
We can count 8 solar years across the doubled blade-points (plus as usual, a central 9th point in the sphere); or, as with an ordinary double axe, count 4 years in the main outer points and reverse the whole to count 4 more. That is consistent with the Bull Leap fresco border’s doublings and reversals (Years 2 and 4), and with an aspect of actual use: Hodge’s study (1985: 307) agreed with Lowe Fri’s that an axe was double-bitted mainly to be reversed, “renewed” when an edge grew blunt. The prominent spirals as “tracks of the sun” might complement this solar aspect of its form.
Marinatos (2010: 196) sees the “duality” or doubling of the axe “as representing the two aspects of the sun-deity in the sky and the underworld.” Lunar aspects are also apparent. Across Labrys’ upper points, we might see a moon’s 5 phases: New Crescent, Waxing, Full (the central sphere), Waning and Dark. As we count the layered rows of running spirals, on each blade we find two rows of 5 and one row of 3—totaling 13 spirals on each of the great doubled crescents.
We recall that the first night of a moon’s two nights in Full phase is its 13th. Yet, after every Full Moon, 13 nights of waning-shadow follow, till the moon goes dark. Labrys is also a totem of official power, like a lifted weapon. It must also wield the form, number and power of Waning Moon, shadow, eclipse and death. Shadows flank the signs of Great Year light the same way in the throne room.
What holds Labrys up is a great axis pillar, a world tree. It reaches from the underworld (mounted in horns of consecration), through a doubled pair of labyrinthine tracks at center, into the sky: from Earth where green things grow (this Labrys is sprouting 8 tiny shoots), to the sun, moon, and Pole Star door to the Beyond. In some ways it seems to be alive, and more variations suggesting this will appear.
Where perhaps are the 4 calendric beasts? Snake is the substance of the pillar or axis—Osiris’ living backbone, as was said of Egypt’s Djed Pillar. Snake and the axis are the path that brings Life rising up from the Earth, returning from where it melted away; and the path from there to the Star Door. In the scaly-lined background of those central jagged patterns (Evans’ “transverse bands” and “ribbon decorations”), we might see Snake’s old slough of skin cracking open with new (and also, poison’s adder-marks). Visually, Snake would be within and below the labyrinthine pattern, a house totem-guardian and father of its people’s generations. Previous and further evidences show consistencies with this. Snake’s time (Winter) we found in the fresco’s verticals, and the other beasts will appear.
In Great Year contexts, Labrys’ visual puns are woven as densely as the signs in the throne room shown across these chapters. In the enlarged detail below, a doubled labyrinthine pattern flanks the axis, in 2 facing rows of conical pointed signs, like teeth, lightning, or mountains. They can be counted as 4’s or as 8’s on each side. When the axe is reversed, the Great Year doubles. Again we seem to have signs of a Great Year and of its doubled “almost-Saros” period (Chapter 4).
Griffin, Snake’s threshold twin, might tell more. We can find one of its traits in those same jagged adder-marks, slanting from above as thunderbolts. Recall Griffin’s close ties with the Star Door and Draco, and those jagged rows show dragon’s teeth. While we found that Snake and Griffin share death-aspects, the dragon’s teeth can also speak of life. In some of the earliest Aegean or Pelasgian myths, Goddess “bruised Snake’s head” for his pride: the teeth she knocked out of him became people, Snake’s grandchildren, born of Bull. (Sources in Graves’ Myths 1, Eurynome and Ophion.)
In the central point (Sun, Full Moon, Pole Star) lie both Solstices, Snake’s Winter and Lion/ess of Summer (she too presents her fangs). Bull as usual is the grand part of the whole, his horns on doubled show. The doubled-13 spirals may suggest other or older intercalation skills to less-initiated rivals. But Labrys’ aspects of light and shadow countersign the calendric patterns in the Bull Leap fresco.
As we consider Labrys and Labyrinth, consider Rappengluck’s 2007 “Cave and Cosmos: A Geotopic Model of the World in Ancient Cultures”:
Often caves, like mountains, were considered as places at which the center, axis and origin of the cosmos was to be found, and where strata of the universe crossed each other. There existed the umbilical point of the World Mother, or the grotto itself was regarded as the navel of the Earth….The worship of stalagmite-stalactite columns and deep shafts is known from the Paleolithic, in places sometimes called The House of the Calendar (245).
[These places were] frequently associated with particular times like the equinoxes or solstices, the seasons of living beings or of social events, e.g., initiations….The cave was a place of birth, death, and rebirth, and at the same time a womb of the cosmos and of the human individual…a place of initiation and transformation….Going into the world-cave meant contacting primeval power and the ancestors: a descent, an oracle, and an ascent that meant he/she had ‘died’ and was ‘new-born.’….In the innermost chamber, the hidden principles of life were to be found….The voyage through the grotto reflected the ascent to the heavens (246-7).
Hundreds of double axes were recovered from the cave at Arkalochori, many of gold and silver: generations of Minoans left them as offerings, many even after the cave had collapsed. Evans (4: 346) connects the central Labrys’ engravings above with olive trees and grain, a connection evident again in Chapters 7, 8 and 9. Dozens of long blades and daggers also found here and the rare image of a goddess with a sword have fed one of the most prominent debates about Labrys.
Were its meanings more secular (political and military) than religious? Haysom, comparing Classical examples of votive-offerings, shows they can also “be given to commemorate some great event like an athletic or military victory,” in which “the symbolism refers to the event rather than directly to the [religious] cult” involved (42).
If what we have in this and some other caves are hoards of double axes, tools, and weapons (some of which were of impractical thin sheet bronze), we still have no direct evidence of Labrys’ use as a weapon. Perhaps a workman, a sailor or a young warrior dedicated to their society’s religion identified more of their lives with Labrys’ sharp blades than with its cosmology and balance. They might possess little more than their prayers and tools to represent themselves. The “event” or occasion of leaving such tools, double axes and sometimes-symbolic weapons might be a person’s retirement (leaving a “best” tool or weapon, in symbolic anticipation of death), or going out to uncertain service.
Shrines are always filled with signs of families’ bonds and hopes. A Labrys that cost an individual or family something in labor or wealth to obtain, which was then dedicated and perhaps engraved with a helmet (for example in Haysom), at once individualized it and forwarded its intentions—through and into the greater group’s belief in a secular necessity, and in a religious ritual’s helpful effects.
Sacral Knots (next chapter) and butterflies were also incised on some double axes, aspects of what Dietrich called a “formula” for “the promise of new life from death” (15). These inscriptions, he noted, worked to “double” the renewal meaning (18-19). Perhaps once in their lives, individuals or families on their behalf might leave a lasting “personal religious” sign behind in a cave—in Crete, as a place symbolic of rebirth through a Mountain and Earth Mother (Chapter 7).
Ahead, the Sacral Knot might also suggest a Knossos elite who needed to “enlist” so many young Minoans at the height of their power and reach. They had to give each one of them a motivating personal connection with a central symbol of power on some basis, militaristic or religious, or both.
The real-life referents of these votives might be practical service of the collective (wearing a land-supervisor’s cloak as Haysom shows, or behind a shield, or wearing a sacral knot at sea, Chapter 7); in exchange for ceremonial consolations, which produced an enabling share of belief in a life after difficult service and death. Religious meanings often underwrite practical and military ones. A bifaced axe that was also perhaps a weapon, a sociopolitical totem and a cosmic (Great Year) religious symbol crossed many lines of Minoan life. Further chapters try to understand Labrys as central to Late Knossos’ choices of symbols to unify Crete around a “cosmological center” (Driessen/Macdonald 1997: 74).
With a slight detour, there is more to see about Labrys and how its Great Year aspects connect with its surroundings. Driessen and Letesson (2008: 210):
Minoan palaces are strange buildings, still eluding us after more than a hundred years of study. Where their spatial syntax is concerned, they form complex ring-like systems, which means that their spaces are primarily linked in loops and not only in linear sequences. Their configuration is extremely intricate, and there are multiple connections between the different spaces within buildings.
This “loop configuration” is “shared by a series of important domestic constructions” with examples “across the island” in New Palace times. Alberti (2009) demonstrated the use of “visual perspective” in the Tomb of the Double Axes, where “from the outside,” two pillars (“one of the most important symbols of Minoan religion”) “appear to be just one,” but are “doubled.” The fresco’s border-patterns are linked in linear and loop sequences, doubling like a countersign to an “8 or 9”-year cycle, which Labrys doubles by turning it around in ceremonial display. With other central signs, Labrys points a journey and brings us over, like guides in the fresco.
Perhaps Late Knossos was trying to promulgate its calendar as a new expression of cosmic and hence Minoan social order, an anchor for the way of life at its peak and yet slipping away by the decade. Varieties, rhythms and effects of light and shadow were clearly close to the heart of it. Perhaps Crete’s long-standing system of peak sanctuary bonfire-beacons and signals provided also “an opportunity for the expression of ritual unity [that] may have transcended political boundaries” (Peatfield 1994: 25). The “viewsheds” detailed in these works would have enabled festival light-shows for miles across the night landscape. If practical uses had evolved a code, time might have contributed forms of greetings, prayers, odes and orders, warnings, traded barbs and blessings, crossing the island in a system that seemed to anticipate mass media.
“Unity of emblematic imagery implies unity of ideology” (Marinatos “Divine” 39). “The Knossian ‘palatial decoration’ was comprehensively unified according to a thematic formula based on a restricted cycle of ideas” (Cameron “Notes” 321).
These seals may present variations on a theme that is woven through these calendrics: light and shadow, life and death, time and eternity. At left, a possible World Tree is flanked by a female with a bough (a cutting or pruning, a sign of Spring labor and offerings?). Opposite her, a Bull lies dead like an offering of harvest thanks. Between them (at Midwinter?), Bull is born again. Marinatos (2010: 194): In Egypt “the sun, the moon and the constellation of Ursa Major were all associated with the bull in some way. The young bull calf also occurs as a symbol of the rising sun.” On the Late seal at right (from Herberger’s “Thera”), a “supernatural” being or person in a ritual mask presides as half of a leaper’s rent body falls from Bull’s back. At center is the figure of a child, who seems at once to be flung up into the air, appearing, hailing, blessing, and exuberant.
These images, like ceremony itself, seem to endlessly recast the emergence of life out of death. (See Beckmann’s 2006 “Blue Bird Fresco” for a stunning example of how this calendric and spiritual conception was exemplified in terms of flowers.) The child above makes a sacred gesture as old as Egypt’s earliest statuary (Naqada examples circa 3500 BCE: Chapter 9). It betokened, in part, the moment when Isis spread her wings over dead Osiris and the wind became his first resurrected breath. It resembles the New Year hieroglyph in Chapter 1, and the throne’s lunar/solar disc-in-crescent. Examples and variations appear through Chapter 9.
If Knossos was a 500-year center of ceremony and initiations (meaning bonding, teaching and shaping lives), we might expect this sign alive among Post-Palatial generations, even exiles; and it is, a main example in their Goddess(es) With Upraised Arms and other forms. The gesture connects few but central elements—Snake Goddess, perhaps the Priestess Queen, the throne, and ahead, Late versions of Labrys—down long ages of Minoan time. Perhaps we can sense why these themes flowered in good times and went on as sources of strength through the worst.
One more aspect of Griffin’s might enrich the possible meanings in Labrys. Griffin was restrained by leashing, often to a column or pillar (as in this Late Labyrinth relief). Perhaps only an icon of Life itself possessed powers equal to Death’s. Soetens’ 2009 study of Mount Juktas adds to evidences shown that Minoans gave axis mundi importance to real or conceptual links between the sky, landscape and underworld (268). And Haysom shows that where pillars and “poles” in Minoan imagery had long been “bare,” the New Palace crowned them with Labrys (23). It seems that in the pillar or handle that upholds Labrys as the consummate Great Year sign, Life stands, holds on and goes on against its opposite, a light and order between unfathomable shadows.
Even Labrys, however, stands only for a time, hidden-away and then shown, in alternating cycles. If it represents balance of light and shadow, the balance is temporary. It appears that in the Minoan universe, even supreme things give way to each other in their turn. Great Year strings of suns and moons fade out. Light and order die into darkness, and from darkness, lights arise.
Labrys rises, shows forth—Bang! Transcendent fifth, The Thunderclap, from the sky to Earth’s cracked-open skin, a birth-and-death roar of Bull and Lioness: Snake rears up and Griffin spreads her wings. Natural fact and spiritual meaning leap into being, shatter and illuminate, warn us and draw us in through the horned gates.
The Bull Leap fresco’s Great Year calendar points to this life. Its bull-leaping scene and series present an ideal of cyclical, ceremonial, cooperative play in the presence of nature’s monstrous powers, including time: competition in sacred contexts. And, like Labrys, the calendar concerns time’s mortal implication. Below at left is half of a Labrys-shaped grave at Mallia: at right is a Late seal with Labrys aligned with a radiant heavenly body (from Goodison’s Women Fig. 147). The calendar and double axe alike reflect the balance of cosmic powers as well as their cyclicity.
Perhaps the earliest-known examples of Bull and Labrys together, showing the double axe inverted (cited in Haysom 37), represented early attempts to combine the two signs and their meanings cosmologically. For after the 1700 earthquake that shattered the Knossos Old Palace, they did first come together (MM III: Dietrich 14), including examples with “horns of consecration.” Why may appear ahead. If the growth of Knossos “pomp” demanded actual public display between horns or on stands, a handle-down position was obviously required, and most examples conformed. An inverted Labrys still pointed upward with its handle, the more like a pillar; evoking as well, in its “unmistakable message of renewal,” a butterfly (Dietrich 15).
Let's make a final observation about Labrys, regarding another of its long-standing mysteries to which Great Year calendrics and forms (such as we saw in Chapter 4) may be able to speak. For no one really has explained why the blades of double axes are often doubled yet again, as in the main example studied just above. What we can say is that such doublings make the axe impractical—they transform a given Labrys away from the associations of daily use and into the symbolic and ritual realms. If we conclude from many evidences that these doublings are signs of particular meaning and power that derive from cycles of the sun and moon, what might they mean in the case of Labrys? For all the possible Minoan meanings of this sign, the most observable are the numeric values of its features. And so, consistently again, we return via Labrys to Chapter 4's "forms of time." For in the case of a double-bladed Labrys, we have 8 points to be counted in each face (or actually, as with the shape of the Knossos throne, 9). And when we turn it around or double it, we are close once again to that now-familiar relation between the Great Year's rhythms and those of the Saros eclipse cycle.
In particular ways presented to this point, elements and aspects of the Bull Leap fresco’s possible calendar appear to connect with central Minoan iconography and contexts including food production and ceremony. Matters of “conflict” lie ahead; for a further way to test for the Great Year’s existence is to investigate how these likely calendric elements and symbols were deployed under stress, amid the events of Minoan Crete’s two final centuries—whether their places in the story suggest that Late Knossos had a Great Year calendar to offer and to exploit in its situation.
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