Lesson 26: Narrative

Mycenaean and Late Cycladic Religion and Religious Architecture

  1. Introduction
  2. Mycenae
  3. Tiryns
  4. Ayia Irini
  5. Phylakopi
  6. Mycenaean Religion as Evidenced in the Linear B Texts


As late as 1960, the evidence for Mycenaean and Late Cycladic religious architecture consisted of no more than a single probable shrine within a house of undistinguished plan at LH IIIC Asine. Since then, remarkable discoveries have been made at Mycenae and Tiryns on the Greek Mainland and at Ayia Irini and Phylakopi on the Cycladic islands of Keos and Melos. Although only the finds from the shrine at Phylakopi have as yet been published in detail, both these and preliminary reports on the finds at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Ayia Irini have vastly increased our understanding of Aegean Late Bronze Age religion outside of Crete over what was known in the year when Vermeule’s Greece in the Bronze Age was first published. The following summary focuses on the four newly discovered shrines and on the evidence from Linear B texts from both Knossos and Pylos regarding Mycenaean cult practice.



In the area within the citadel south of Grave Circle A and southwest of the palace, on a series of terraces extending from just inside of the fortification wall to the slopes directly below the palace, a complex of religious buildings has been cleared by W. D. Taylour and G. E. Mylonas. The best known of these buildings, those excavated by Taylour and his team, are known as the “Temple” and the “House with the Fresco”. The entire complex, however, extends further to the southeast and includes Tsountas’ House and some altars on a terrace in front (i.e. to the north) of that building.

The Temple

This building has a megaroid plan consisting of a porch (the so-called “Vestibule”) and a main room (the so-called “Room with the Platforms’), with two annexes opening off of the back of the main room. The western annex, a small triangular area, is often referred to as the “Alcove”. The eastern annex, a small rectangular room approached by stairs leading up from the main room, has been christened the “Room with the Idols”.

The Vestibule

Measuring some three meters deep by four-and-a-half across, this space contained nothing of note except for a few nondescript vases. Some rubble constructions at the southwest are enigmatic. The entrance from the southwest was blocked up immediately after the great destruction within the citadel at the end of the LH IIIB period.

The Room with the Platforms

In the approximate center of this room, which measures about 5.1 meters deep and 4.2 meters across, is a low rectangular daïs with rounded corners, the whole plastered over with white clay. The position of this feature suggests that it may have been a hearth, but no traces of any burning were associated with it. Bases to support three wooden columns were found in a north-south row in the eastern portion of the room. Against the east wall at its northern end was a series of rubble-built steps leading up into the Room with the Idols. Along the north side of the room and stretching from the steps just mentioned to the west wall were a number of plastered platforms with their tops at a variety of different levels. On the northeastern platform stood a female idol in situ, its base actually plastered into the platform, with a small tripod table of offerings crudely made of mud-plaster in front of it. The idol faced westward toward the higher platforms in this direction.

The Alcove

In this peculiarly shaped triangular space, the bedrock, which rises generally toward the north and east in this area, projects above the floor level in the northeastern portion of the room. The room is entered from the Room with the Platforms at the south over a low sill located above the platforms in that room’s northwest corner. The southwest wall of the Alcove is awkwardly designed to link the northwest corner of the Room with the Platforms to basements of other buildings further to the north. Poorly constructed, this wall is considered by Taylour to have functioned as a screen wall shutting off any view of the bedrock outcropping in the Alcove from persons walking down the passageway further to the west. With this interpretation of the Alcove’s southwest wall, Taylour suggests that the exposed bedrock within the room had some cult significance, a viewpoint echoed by the excavator (Sakellarakis) of the much earlier Minoan sanctuary at Anemospilia on the slopes of Mt. Iuktas in Crete with regard to a similar outcropping in the central room of that more recently discovered cult building. The Alcove contained numerous fragments of large terracotta figures (or idols) which in most cases mended up in such a fashion as to produce less than half of the bodies of the original figures. Joins between fragments found in the Alcove and other pieces from the nearby but not adjoining Room with the Idols indicate that these figures were deposited in an already fragmentary state in the two annexes at the same time.

The Room with the Idols

Measuring approximately two meters square, this small room contained fragments of about eight large terracotta figures standing between 0.50 and 0.60 m. high, of which the three most complete had their faces turned toward a wall. Among eight somewhat smaller figures, one is a gaily painted and considerably smaller (0.28 m. high) female, holding her breasts and decorated with painted motifs suggestive of a late LH IIIA or early LH IIIB date. A good deal of pottery was found in this room, including a bowl filled with an ivory comb, a small ivory figurine, a scarab bearing the name of Queen Tiye of Egypt, the wife of Amenhotep III who reigned in the early 14th century B.C., a cowrie shell, some beads of amber, rock crystal, lapis lazuli, and carnelian (all once part of a necklace?), and numerous ornaments of glass-paste. The pottery was largely unpainted and was accompanied by three tripod “tables of offerings” made of unbaked clay coated with stucco. Among the finds in the room were also at least six terracotta snakes in coiled positions, two of them complete and all measuring 0.22 to 0.28 m. in diameter. The door to the Room with the Idols from the Room with the Platforms had been walled up and whitewashed prior to the great destruction by fire in this area at the end of the LH IIIB period, so that the cult paraphernalia both in the former room and in the Alcove had been partially broken and purposefully redeposited and, at least in the Room with the Idols, sealed before the citadel at Mycenae fell victim to either sack or earthquake at the end of the 13th century B.C.


The House with the Fresco

Accessible only from the northwest, this complex is unconnected with the Temple to the southeast. The building could not be fully cleared by Taylour, so that the rooms in its western portion cannot as yet be described.


The entire west side of this roughly square space is taken up by a broad doorway whose threshold consists of a large block of conglomerate. Since thresholds of this material are not found elsewhere in this area of the citadel at Mycenae, it has been suggested that this building must necessarily have been of some importance. A second doorway at the southeast leads into the Room with the Fresco.

The Room with the Fresco

Measuring ca. 5.3 meters east-west by 3.5 meters north-south, this room has at its center a large oval hearth bordered by large stones along its north and south sides. At the west end of the hearth is a drum-shaped feature of clay-plastered earth in whose west side is a semicircular cutting where a wooden post or column once stood. At the opposite or east end of the hearth, another earthen feature, in this case horseshoe-shaped in plan, was also clay-plastered. In the center of the back of the horseshoe are traces of another post or column emplacement, while there is a socket for yet another wooden fixture in the south arm of the horseshoe. A good deal of pottery, some fairly complete, was found in and around this hearth, which furnished abundant evidence of burning to support its functional identification.

Against the north wall of the room rested a terracotta larnax with a few vases lying around it. Along the south side of the room ran a bench approximately one meter high and 0.70 m. wide, the upper surface of which consisted of a layer of large stone slabs. No objects were found resting on the bench, but the fill within it cntained a veritable treasure: numerous complete terracotta vases, some crushed lead vessels, a stone macehead, a stone vase, an ivory sword pommel, and two superbly carved ivory figures, a couchant lion 0.17 m. long and the head of a young man. The head has small holes for attachment drilled through the neck, as well as a large vertical perforation from the neck through the top of the head; it may have formed part of a scepter or piece of furniture.

In the room’s southeast corner is a large platform built up against the mudbrick east wall. Just north of the platform is a low step in the form of a quadrant of a circle. The southern end of the east wall of the room and the adjoining north face of the platform were decorated with a fresco which preserves parts of five human figures. At the right, in front of a column, is a large standing female figure facing left and holding a spear or staff (?); she faces a second large female facing right, standing in front of a second column, and holding what may be a large sword with its tip resting on the ground. Between these two female figures, likely to be goddesses rather than mortal women, are two small male figures facing left, one above the other, in a narrow vertical panel. Some distance away to the left and at a lower level is a smaller female in front of yet another column; she is seated, holds two sheaves of grain (?), and appears to have had a rampant animal, whose identity cannot be determined from what survives of it, in front of her. The entire Room with the Fresco appears to have been purposefully filled in just before the great destruction at the end of the LH IIIB period, since there is no trace of burning or destruction within it at floor level. The fresco which gives the room its name was whitewashed over before the room went out of use.

The Room with the Ivories

This L-shaped room opens off the east end of the Room with the Fresco. In its northern part were found numerous bits of ivory, including a cubical core, which at first suggested that the room functioned as an ivory workshop. However, further digging revealed a low daïs in the southwest corner of the room on which rested a small, elaborately painted female figure with raised arms. She faced northeast into the room and directly in front of her was a little pile of 44 beads of glass paste. The floor of this room was also littered with a large number of terracotta vases of no particular distinction.

West Room

Accessible only from the Room with the Fresco, this space was only partially excavated by Taylour and produced no features of particular significance.


The Terracotta Figures

Large Figures

Twenty-one such figures are largely restorable, although few are altogether complete. Two quite evenly represented sexes were originally distinguished by Taylour on the basis of differences in the modelling of the upper torso and in the hair treatment: barrel chests were taken to identify males, flattened chests females, while hair signified females, baldness males. Two figures with flattened chests but no hair necessarily had to be tentatively identified as “androgynous” or “hermaphroditic”, a circumstance which cast into considerable doubt the whole process of sexing the figures. More recently, Moore has suggested that sex was not an important attribute of the figures in view of the fact that they are not clearly and unambiguously divided into two and only two groups.

The arms of these figures are invariably raised. In four cases, the figures have both arms raised vertically, perhaps to hold something like a necklace strung between the two hands. In four other cases, figures hold their arms forward and upward but bent at the elbow so as to hold in front of them some form of cult object, partially preserved in two cases, one being a hammer-axe held by a “male”. In the cases of three other figures, one certainly and two probably have the right arm raised vertically and the left extended forward and bent at the elbow in the pose of a contemporary banner carrier. The painted decoration of all these figures is individualized, although it consists of no more than varying coverage with a solid coat of paint. Numerous holes pierced through the head and upper body may have aided in the firing of the figures but perhaps also served as points from which added decoration in the form of jewelry, clothing, etc. might have been hung. The bodies are coil-made, the heads wheel-made.

Smaller Figures

About half the size of the large figures, only three well-preserved examples exist, although there are fragments of others. All are painted with patterned ornament in contrast to the solid coats of paint which characterize the larger figures. Of the three complete pieces, all of which are female, one was found in the Room with the Ivories, one in the Alcove, and one in the Room with the Idols. A very similar figure was found by Mylonas some time ago in the northern part of the citadel at Mycenae, while the lower half of yet another was found in a pure LH IIIA2 context at nearby Tsoungiza-Nemea in the summer of 1986. Of the three from Mycenae found by Taylour and his team, the one found in situ on the daïs in the Room with the Ivories has raised hands, thus resembling in its pose the Psi type of small Mycenaean female figurine. The one from the Alcove is in the form of a piriform jar with added head and arms, the arms held just below the breasts. One hand of this figure is actually missing, while the other grasps an only partially preserved, and hence unidentifiable, attribute. The third figure, from the Room with the Idols, holds her breasts.


Some seventeen are preserved. Although unparalleled in this particular form, snakes are common enough in Minoan cult.


At least some, and possibly all, of the smaller anthropomorphic figures were objects of worship: this much seems clear from the one found in situ on a daïs in a corner of the Room of the Ivories with a number of offerings in front of it. The large, solidly painted figures, however, represent votaries or worshippers in Moore’s opinion, thus explaining why their sex is not a particularly important feature and why each of the three attested dispositions of the arms is repeated multiply rather than the posture of each and every figure being unique. The snakes are unlikely to have been worshipped themselves and probably served simply as attributes of a chthonic, or earth, cult. Much of the cult paraphernalia, including nearly all the figures, were sealed in blocked off or backfilled rooms before the final destruction of the palace at Mycenae, perhaps to protect them from vandalism. Originally, most of the figures presumably stood on the numerous platforms in the main room of the Temple. In spite of the possible presence of male figures among the terracottas, all the major figures in the mural of the Room with the Fresco are female, arguably all goddesses.



A small megaroid shrine has been discovered recently by the German excavators of the Unterburg (or Lower Citadel) at Tiryns. It consists simply of a very shallow porch opening into a small main room which employs the fortification wall of the Unterburg as its back wall. The main room has a hearth at its center and a bench against the back wall, a plan roughly comparable to that of LM III shrines such as the Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos. The Tirynthian shrine, in use for several phases during the LH IIIC period but apparently no earlier than this, stood on one side of a relatively large open area in the Lower Citadel. In each of its several distinct phases, pattern-painted female figures with raised arms stood on the bench in its main room.


Ayia Irini

Just inside the main city gate was found a rectangular structure, which early in its history consisted of at least six rooms and measured ca. 23 x 6 meters, surrounded on three sides by streets or passageways and entered for most, if perhaps not quite all, of its existence from the southeast through one of its short sides. This building has an extremely long history, having been constructed in the Middle Cycladic period (probably as early as the 18th century B.C.) and continuing to be a focus of cult until the Hellenistic period (3rd century B.C.). Although it has not yet been fully published, a rough outline of its use may be reconstructed from preliminary reports. The southeast end of the building is not preserved due to the encroachment of the sea and consequent erosion.

Middle Bronze Age

The building was constructed well before the end of the Middle Cycladic period. At the west end, the earliest floor in what appears at this time to have been the main cult chamber (XI) consisted of a series of low, stone-paved platforms of varying sizes with tops at a variety of distinct elevations. From this room only could the innermost room of the structure (XII) be entered by stepping up over a raised threshold in the rather narrow doorway which connected the two. From Room XI, one stepped down by means of a lower threshold and a still lower marble step block onto the flagstone-paved floor of Room IV, along whose north wall ran a high and narrow bench. The paved floor of Room IV sloped down markedly toward the southeast and underneath it was found debris associated with the earliest use of the building in the Middle Bronze Age. Room IV was linked at the east to Room V by an axially located doorway with a raised threshold and an associated pivot stone which shows that an actual door was located here. In Room V, an earthen floor lay at a somewhat lower level than the contemporary floor in Room IV and underneath this, as in Room IV, was found debris associated with the earliest Middle Bronze Age use of the building. Against the north wall of Room V was a stepped bench and in the middle of the floor were patches of burnt material. In both Rooms IV and V, several subsequent floor levels of the Middle Bronze Age were noted, and the threshold between the two rooms was raised progressively through time as the floors themselves rose. No published data concerning the architectural arrangements in the small Rooms VII and XIII during this period are available.

Late Bronze Age Preceding the Great Earthquake of LM IB/LH IIB, ca. 1490 B.C.

The LM IA-B/LH I-IIA strata from Rooms IV-V are totally missing, having presumably been dug out in the subsequent LH IIIA-B periods. In Room XI, however, a beaten earth floor of the LM IB period was found covering the earlier platforms. On this floor, toward the western side of the room, were found numerous fragments of large terracotta statues of women, broken and jumbled in such a fashion as to indicate that they had probably fallen either from a high wooden (hence no longer preserved) bench or, perhaps more probably, from the floor of a room above on the second storey. Associated with the statues was a considerable amount of pottery, among which were two high-handled ewers comparable in their shape to the libation jugs of Minoan cult. Following the disastrous LM IB earthquake, Room XII to the north was evidently purposefully packed solid with debris and never re-used. The deposit on the floor of Room XI was also almost completely sealed with debris, to the extent that only one or two of the fragmentary statues projected from the hard upper surface of this debris. No subsequent activity is attested in Room XI until Protogeometric times (10th century B.C.), and it is possible that the doorway between Rooms XI and IV may have been sealed shortly, perhaps immediately, after the earthquake. The architectural arrangements in the small Rooms VII and XIII are, as for the previous period, unpublished, but some miscellaneous finds from Rooms VII to be attributed to this period include a bronze model boat and a bronze male figurine portrayed in the characteristic Minoan posture usually identified as a saluting gesture. Some authorities have noted a general resemblance between the plan of the Temple at this stage and that of the contemporary Temple Tomb at Knossos.

Late Helladic IIIA-B (ca. 1490-1200 B.C.)

No material of these periods was found in Rooms XI-XII and only scattered LH IIIA-B pottery was found in disturbed levels in Room IV directly above levels of the Middle Bronze Age. A threshold in the doorway between Rooms IV and V, a step just to the east of it in Room V, and an associated floor level in Room V may belong to this phase. At this time, the entrance from Room V to Room IV was flanked on either side by pi-shaped structures, a bench was constructed along the south wall of Room V, and on the axis of this room toward the southeast end was found a stone base which may have supported a column. Fragments of the earlier terracotta statues concentrated in Room XI were found in levels of this phase in Room V in both this and the following phase, and some of these fragments were found actually incorporated into the masonry of walls and benches.

Late Helladic IIIC (ca. 1200-1050 B.C.)

No remains of this period come from Rooms XI-XII at the west, but at the east end of the building (Room V) and in Corridor VII copious deposits of pottery of this phase show that the building was extensively modified and refurbished during the 12th century. In Room V, the collapse of the southwest and northwest walls necessitated a reconstruction in which the earlier pi-shaped structures flanking the doorway to Room IV were overbuilt by a straight bench along the northeast wall and an L-shaped bench along the southwest and northwest walls as far as the doorway to Room IV. The doorway to Room IV was narrowed and a new threshold inserted at a higher level. In the center of Room V was built a rectangular podium (1.15 x 2.10 m. in plan), possibly to be interpreted as an altar. In the north corner of the room was a mass of clay whose source and purpose is something of a mystery. The pottery found on the floors associated with this new architectural phase, both in Room V and in Corridor VII, dates from late in the LH IIIC period, ca. 1125-1100 B.C. Subsequently but still before the end of the Bronze Age, the north and west walls of the room collapsed and necessitated further rebuilding, at which time, if not before, the temple building as a whole appears to have been abandoned as a larger architectural unity. In the north corner of Room V was built a small rectangular room (BB) with a narrow bench along its southwest long wall and an entrance through the short southeast wall facing the sea.

Early Iron Age (ca. 1050-700 B.C.)

During the Protogeometric period (ca. 1050-900 B.C.), Room XI was used again for the first time since the earthquake of ca. 1440 B.C. To the east within the area formerly occupied by Room IV and in its west corner was found a small rectangular room or enclosure (AA), further to the east of which was found a rectangular base (C), perhaps an altar. Room XI continued to be used in the 9th and 8th centuries. From the late 8th century dates an earthen floor on which was found a large ring base surrounded by stone slabs. In the center of the ring base and supported by it was the vertically erected and extremely worn head of one of the statues found about a meter below on the LM IB floor of the same room. Collapsed building debris sealed this late 8th century level and rendered the western part of Room XI unusable for some time, but cult continued in the ensuing Orientalizing (7th century B.C.) and later periods in the eastern half of the room.

Archaic to Hellenistic Periods (ca. 600-200 B.C.)

No well preserved architecture of these periods has survived. However, graffiti on the feet of Archaic and Classical drinking cups identify the divinity worshiped at this spot in those periods as Dionysos. The latest finds consist of coins of the later 3rd century B.C.

The Statues

Over fifty terracotta female statues ranging in scale from life-sized to half of life-sized (height of ca. 0.70 m.) have been identified among the fragments recovered from the strata within the temple dating to ca. 1440 B.C. or thereafter. The statues are made in a variety of local clays ranging from very coarse to, in a few cases, relatively fine. There is no evidence for the practice of coating the surfaces with a finer clay slip, but all the statues are likely to have been painted, although only a few traces of such decoration actually survive. The figures all represent standing females with arms slightly bent at the elbow and hands placed akimbo at the waist. In some cases the figures stand straight, while in others they seem to bend forward a bit at the waist and to have slightly bent knees. All figures wear long flaring skirts, usually featureless below a double half-round belt (or girdle) but in one case flounced. The skirts extend to the bottoms of the statues; the feet of the figures are never represented. The hollow skirts are mostly open at the bottom, but some are sealed by low platforms of clay. In some cases the torsos of the figures are covered partially by short-sleeved, open-bodiced jackets of Minoan style indicated in relief. Other torsos at first seem to be wholly nude, but were almost certainly covered partially by similar jackets executed in paint which has since worn off completely. Some figures have what appears to be a close-fitting collar or flat band around their necks, probably a necklace. Others substitute a long, heavy garland in the same position. The hair is normally piled high on the head in two thick coils, and a long braid of hair trails down the back.

The figures were built from the bottom up, the skirts first being modelled in coils up to the waist, at which point a wooden pole was usually inserted vertically in the middle of the figure and the torso was built up as a solid mass around this. The breasts, in most cases large, were sometimes modelled over conical cups inserted into the torso. A second wooden pole was normally added horizontally at the shoulder level to support the modelling of the upper arms. In other cases, the core of the curving arms consisted of a supple piece of wood, bent into a curve running from shoulder to waist and identified in one instance as an osier branch. The head was usually built up around the top of the vertical pole running through the body. Skin was painted white, the cloth of the jacket yellow, and a single necklace red. Firing holes are a common feature of the figures and the wooden armature described above regularly burnt out when the figure was fired. Peculiarities in the techniques of construction and in some anatomical features suggest that a number of different artists produced the figures, all of which seem to represent dancing females, presumably votaries rather than either goddesses or priestesses.

All but one of the statues were made before the earthquake of ca. 1440 B.C. which defines the end of period VII at Ayia Irini. A few fragments come from deposits sealed during the preceding period VI (contemporary with LM IA), but it is uncertain whether statues of this sort were being produced at the site prior to the early Late Bronze Age when Minoan influence, readily detectable in the clothing and general style of the statues, became overwhelmingly strong at the site. Numerous fragments of a statue made without the aid of a wooden armature (like a few of those found in the LM IB destruction debris of period VII) come from a LH IIIA2 context (mid-14th century B.C.) in Room VII of the temple, once a stairwell but at this time probably just a storeroom. This piece, very similar to the earlier statues in costume and pose but quite distinct from them in some aspects of its construction technique, shows that production of these figures did not suddenly and finally cease with the great earthquake which ended period VII.



The last of the major Late Bronze Age sanctuaries described here to be excavated (in 1974-75) but the first to be fully published (in 1985), the complex of two shrines at Phylakopi offers interesting points of comparison and contrast with the Temple at Ayia Irini and the Cult Center at Mycenae.

Main Period of Use (ca. 1360-1120 B.C.)

The West Shrine was built in the LH IIIA2 period (ca. 1360 B.C.). Wall 661, constructed ca. 1300 B.C., created a well-defined open space, bounded at the south, in front of this shrine’s main entrance from the east. The fortification wall and the eastern shrine were added in the earlier LH IIIB period ca. 1270 B.C. All of these constructions were badly damaged in what seems to have been a major earthquake ca. 1120 B.C., which may also have been responsible for the final destruction of the temple building at Ayia Irini preceding the construction of the small shrine BB there.

West Shrine

The main room (6.6 x 6.0 m.) was entered from the east, a smaller southern entrance having been blocked at some point, possibly when Wall 661 was built. Altars were found in the northeast, northwest, and southwest corners. Male figurines, one of the truly distinctive features of the Phylakopi sanctuary, were associated only with the northwest altar. Two female figurines were found near the southwest altar and a third near the northwest altar. In the middle of the main room’s west wall is a door leading into two smaller rooms. This doorway is flanked on both sides by a window about 0.70 m. above the floor. The southern window was walled off at one point with the result that a niche was created in the east wall of the interior room, Annex A. In the southwest corner of Annex A was found the headless body of the beautifully decorated female figure known as “The Lady of Phylakopi” (0.45 m. high), probably a Mainland product of the LH IIIA2 period. Next to her was a crudely modelled female figure and nearby the “Lady”‘s head. In the niche referred to above were four wheelmade bovine figures and a grotesque female human head with a protruding tongue or chin. Just north of the door opening to the west out of the main room was found a splendid seal of rock crystal decorated with a couchant goat.

East Shrine

On the floor of this smaller shrine (4.8 x 2.2 m.) were found a wheelmade bovine figure, several smaller terracotta quadrupeds, and no less than ten seals.

Post-Destruction Phase (ca. 1120-1090 B.C.)

After the destruction of ca. 1120 B.C., the Annexes A and B of the West Shrine were filled in, as was the southern half of the main room behind a crudely constructed east-west retaining wall designed to hold back debris from the destruction. All three areas thus went out of use after the earthquake. The northwest altar continued to be associated with male figurines, but joins suggest that all of these were probably re-used examples of the pre-destruction phase. The East Shrine continued in use and from its uppermost floor deposit came a miniature gold-sheet mask, possibly used to cover the face of a figurine made in a perishable material, fragments of an ostrich-egg rhyton, and several small terracotta figurines. However, the shrines did not continue in use for very long following the earthquake, in marked contrast with the situation at Ayia Irini.

Summary: Mycenaean and Late Cycladic Cult Buildings and Parallels with Late Minoan Domestic Shrines

The basically tripartite ground plan of the Temple at Mycenae (i.e. porch, main room, twin annexes at the back) is similar to that of the Throne Room at Knossos and to the basic scheme of the Temple at Ayia Irini on Keos. A much simpler plan is apparent in the small shrine in the Tirynthian Unterburg, itself reminiscent of the Shrine of the Double Axes at Knossos: a single room with a bench along the back wall on which stood terracotta images of divinities and probably votaries as well. The twin annexes of the more complex sanctuaries at Knossos, Ayia Irini, Phylakopi, and Mycenae appear to have served primarily for the storage of cult furniture. Benches (Knossos, Room with the Fresco at Mycenae, Tiryns, Ayia Irini) or platforms (Temple at Mycenae, first annex in Temple at Ayia Irini) are common fixtures and presumably functioned principally as stands so that divine images rested at a level above that of their human worshippers. Either hearths, daïses, or tripod tables of offerings are also common features in the centers of the major cult rooms. Probably of considerable significance is the fact that both Mycenaean and Late Cycladic cult buildings are independent structures, not built within major administrative complexes such as the palaces at Mycenae and Tiryns or the megaron at Phylakopi. Thus the Mycenaeans and the islanders of the later Late Bronze Age appear to have avoided the Minoan practice of including several shrines within their most imposing forms of settlement architecture. To date, there has been no convincing evidence found for either Mycenaean peak sanctuaries or Mycenaean cult caves. The Mycenaean sanctuary on the hill occupied by the later Classical sanctuary of Apollo Maleatas at Epidauros has been cited by some as a Mainland Greek version of a Minoan peak sanctuary, but it is likely to have been associated with a nearby settlement and thus may not qualify as an independent and spatially isolated sanctuary comparable to its putative Minoan prototype.


Mycenaean Religion as Evidenced in the Linear B Texts

Texts from Knossos

At Knossos, divinities are mentioned in contexts dealing with offerings made to them, often at specific times (i.e. in certain months). The methods and scheduling of sacrifices appear to be rigidly codified. Certain times are referred to as O-U-TE-MI (ou themis = “not right”). The following divinities are named:

1. PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia (= “mistress”)

2. A-TA-NA PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia (from?) Atana (= “Athena”?)

3. A-RE Ares?

4. E-NU-WA-RI-JO Enyalios (later Classical epithet for Ares)

5. PA-JA-WO-NE Paiawon (as “Paian”, later Classical epithet for Apollo)

6. PO-SE-DA-O-NE Poseidon

7. E-NE-SI-DA-O-NE Enosidas (= “Enosigaios” or “Earthshaker”)

8. DI-WO Zeus

9. DI-WI-JA Diwia (female counterpart of Zeus)

10. PI-PI-TU-NA Diktynna??

11. DA-PU-RI-TO-JO PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia of the Labyrinth

12. E-RE-U-TI-JA Eleuthia (= Eileithyia, Classical goddess of childbirth)

13. E-RI-NU Erinys? (name used for Classical Fury or as a cult

epithet of Demeter)

Two other figures receive offerings but are probably cult personnel rather than divinities:

1. A-NE-MO I-JE-RE-JA Priestess of the Winds (hiereia anemon)

2. QE-RA-SI-JA Teiresias?? (a well-known seer of myth)

Offerings are also often made to:

1 PA-SI TE-O-I All the gods (pasi theois, in the dative case)

Most of the above gods are familiar to us from contemporary cult on the Greek Mainland. It is somewhat surprising that none of the goddesses which are generally considered to be “old Aegean powers” as various forms of Mother Goddess (e.g. Demeter, Aphrodite, Artemis, Hekate, Britomartis) are found mentioned in these texts. There is no figure which can be convincingly connected with the dove or snake goddesses familiar to us from Minoan art, nor is there any mention on the religious tablets of bulls, horns of consecration, double axes, or other common objects of Minoan cult apparatus. Part of the reason for this must be that the Knossos Linear B tablets are products of Mycenaean rule at Knossos, and Minoan cult may have been partially suppressed by the official religion of the invading Greek rulers.


The palace is not specified by any particular name in the tablets dealing with religious matters nor is any specific cult area within the palace mentioned with the possible exception of a place called the Daidaleion. In those instances where no place is specified in a tablet, it is probable that the offering described therein took place in the palace itself or in the surrounding town.

The nearby town of Amnisos is often mentioned as the site of an offering. Here Eleuthia, Erinys, Ares, Enosidas, and all the gods were worshipped. Just above the site of Amnisos, a Minoan cult cave has been excavated. This cave may be the same as one mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey as being sacred to the goddess Eileithyia (see lesson on Minoan Religion).

The Linear B texts from Knossos also mention a sanctuary called the Daidaleion where offerings were made to QE-RA-SI-JA and to all the gods. Another possible shrine by the name of Diktaiou appears twice. Perhaps this was a cave on Mt. Dikte, known in later times as the birthplace of Zeus. Besides Amnisos, three other towns are mentioned where specific deities were worshipped, presumably because each of them were locations of shrines or sanctuaries belonging to those specific divinities.


All offerings appear to have been bloodless. Mentioned are a pot of honey, spices such as fennel and coriander, and jugs of oil. Wool, cheese, barley, and wine are possible offerings. Sheep are connected with the figure of Potnia, but not as offerings.

The method of sacrifice is never described. However, the fact that the offerings came from palace stores suggests that the sacrifices were at least semi-official and periodic in nature (as opposed to personal and spontaneous offerings, which must have taken place but were simply not recorded on the tablets). Months are mentioned on the tablets, so the offerings took place at specific times. One of the month names appears to be derived from the name of Zeus, Diwios. One specific festival is also mentioned, TE-O-PO-RI-JA (= theophoria), in all likelihood some kind of processional ceremony comparable to that portrayed in the fresco of the Corridor of the Procession.

Cult Personnel

The Priestess of the Winds is most often mentioned. She receives honey on behalf of the powers which she serves. If QE-RA-SI-JA is correctly identified as an augur, he will have been one of those who interpreted the flight of birds or the rustling of trees, not an inspector of entrails since no blood sacrifices appear to have been made. There are some minor figures known as KI-RI-TE-WI-JA who may have been sprinklers of grain.

Texts from Pylos

The Pylos texts provide a much broader range of information than those from Knossos, in addition to furnishing more specific features of cult. Two facts are immediately clear. First, none of the distinctly Cretan religious figures such as Eileithyia or PI-PI-TU-NA/Diktynna(?) appear in the Pylos texts. The Pylian pantheon is purely Hellenic, a fact which suggests that we should not overestimate the influence of Minoan religion on that of the Mainland during the Bronze Age, as was the tendency when the evidence consisted exclusively of artistic representations, in the days before the decipherment of Linear B. Second, the proportion of male to female divinities in the tablets is almost even, in marked contrast with the impression conveyed by the relative frequencies of gods and goddesses identified with some degree of probability in Mycenaean art, where male deities are decidedly rare. In both cases, excessive reliance on representational art is shown to have been misleading.

The following deities are mentioned on Linear B tablets from Pylos:

1. PO-TI-NI-JA Potnia

As at Knossos, Potnia has a number of epithets, some of which are certainly local but one of which is more likely to refer to her sphere of influence. The epithet A-TA-NA is so far unknown on the Greek Mainland.

(a) PA-KI-JA-NI-JA Sphagianeia?? (local)

(b) I-QE-JA Hippeia (sphere of influence: “of horses”?)

(c) A-SI-WI-JA Aswia (local)

(d) NE-WO-PE-O ?

(e) U-PO-JO ?

2. PO-SE-DA-O-NE Poseidon (evidently the most important deity at

Pylos, to judge from the frequency with which he is

mentioned in the texts there)

3. PO-SI-DA-E-JA Posidaieia (female counterpart of Poseidon)

4. DI-WE/DI-WI-JE-U Zeus

5. DI-WI-JA Diwia (female counterpart of Zeus)

6. E-RA Hera (appears together with Zeus on one tablet)

7. A-TI-MI-TE Artemis

8. E-MA-A Hermes?

9. A-RE-JA Ares?

10. DI-WO-NU-SO-JO Dionysos (possibly a person rather than a god)

11. PE-RE-*82 Peleia?

12. I-PE-ME-DE-JA Iphimedeia (in Greek myth, mistress of Poseidon

and mother of the giants Otos and Ephialtes)

13. MA-NA-SA ?

14. TI-RI-SE-RO-E Trisheros? (the “triple hero”??)

15. DO-PO-TA Despotas? (the “lord”)

16. MA-TE-RE TE-I-JA Mater theia (“Mother Goddess”)

17. WA-NA-SO-I Wanasoi (“the two Queens”?)

18. DI-PI-SI-JO-I Dipsioi (“the thirsty ones”?)

Instead of “all the gods” as at Knossos, the Pylos texts sometimes mention simply:

1. TE-O-I the gods

2. TE-O (the) god


There was a major sanctuary, apparently of Potnia, at PA-KI-JA-NE (Sphagianes?), an as yet unidentified location within the Pylian kingdom. The sanctuary of the god Poseidon, on the other hand, appears to have been located near the palace at Pylos itself. There may have been other sanctuaries for Zeus and for one or two other divinities.

Although the term “sanctuary” has often been used in the above discussion, there is in fact no word for “sanctuary” in Linear B comparable to the terms used in later Classical Greek (e.g. hieron, naos, alsos). The “sanctuaries” identified in Linear B are based on a concentration of cult personnel at a particular location (e.g. at PA-KI-JA-NE) or on an adjectival formation of the god’s name (e.g. Posidaion). No certain cult buildings have been found at Pylos, and it is quite possible that there simply were no buildings there dedicated exclusively to the practice of cult. For the Mycenaeans at Pylos, worship could perhaps be conducted in surroundings which normally had no particular religious significance. In a famous sacrifice by Nestor, king of Pylos, in Homer’s Odyssey, the bulls are sacrificed to Poseidon on the beach, not in a specific temple or sacred area.


On tablet Tn 316, gold vessels, men, and women are offered to a long list of divinities. This type of offering is unique and has led to much speculation. It is known from other tablets that there were such things as “slaves of the god”. Consequently, most authorities have seen here the consecration of certain men and women to the service of a deity. However, others have argued that the tablet was very hastily written, probably in an emergency, and these specialists argue that the offerings made are extraordinary because they were made for the specific purpose of saving the palace just before it was actually destroyed. The suggestion has therefore been made that the human beings mentioned on this tablet as offerings were in fact human sacrifices.

On a series of oil tablets, offerings of specially perfumed oil and of this commodity alone are made to Poseidon, the Wanasoi, the Mater Theia, the Dipsioi, and simply to the gods. Some of this oil is described as being specifically for “annointing”, almost certainly not for statues (of which we have no evidence) but perhaps for textiles belonging to deities.

A major difference between Knossos and Pylos is the practice of blood sacrifice at Pylos. In one tablet, offerings are made to Poseidon and Peleia: in addition to bloodless material such as herbs, cattle, sheep, and pigs are also sacrificed. Here is the Bronze Age predecessor of the Classical Greek and Roman suovetaurilia, the sacrifice of those three types of domestic animals in a single ceremony. In another tablet, Poseidon receives offerings of grain, wine, a bull, cheeses, rams’ skins, rams, and honey.


Two major festivals, and several minor ones, are mentioned in the Pylos texts:

1. RE-KE-TO-RO-RI-JO lekhestroterion(?) (“preparation of the couch”?).

Perhaps a celebration of the sacred marriage of

Poseidon and Potnia at PA-KI-JA-NE.

2. TO-NO-E-KE-TE-RI-JO thronohelkesterion(?) (“setting up of the throne”).

Perhaps connected with the worship of the Wanasoi.

3. ME-TU-WO NE-WO Feast of the new wine, where the Mater Theia was

worshipped (but not Dionysos!).

4. TU-RU-PTE-RE-JA thrypteria. A ceremony to celebrate the squeezing

of the grapes?

Cult Personnel

In contrast to Knossos, where only the Priestess of the Winds is certainly identified as a human personage connected with cult, there are large numbers of both priests (I-JE-RE-U = hiereus) and priestesses (I-JE-RE-JA = hiereia) mentioned in the Pylos tablets. These are identified by their place of work or by their names, almost never by the deity which they serve. The texts have very little to say about the official duties of these priestly functionaries. They are never mentioned in connection with sacrifices or sacrificial gifts. It is known only that the priests and priestesses were sometimes quite rich in terms of the amount of land they held and that they were in charge of the “slaves of the god”. Besides the priests and priestesses, certain other religious officials are mentioned: the KA-RA-WI-PO-RO (= klarwiphoros or “key-bearer”) whose precise function is unclear since it is not known to what such an official had the key; the PU-KO-WO (= purkooi or “guardians of the fire”?); the KI-RE-TI-WI-JA (“sprinklers of the grain”), also attested at Knossos; the I-JE-RO-WO-KO (= hierourgoi or “sacred workers”), perhaps those who slaughtered animals at blood sacrifices; and the amphipoloi who may have been servants of Potnia charged with the care of ceremonial costumes.


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