Explain the role of women in Minoan Crete.
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Women in Minoan society had a key role within religion; this is supported by many pieces of archaeological evidence from sites on the island. Evidence also suggests that women were involved in parts of the economy, as well as having roles within several other parts of Minoan life.
Minoan women were a central part of religion on Crete; evidence suggests that they were priestesses, having significant responsibilities within rituals and ceremonies. La Parisienne, a fresco found in Knossos, shows a possible priestess, the religious dress she wears and the sacral knot worn on the base of her neck, give her this identity. The sacral knot was a piece of patterned cloth with a fringe at each end that was knotted and worn in women’s hair. Cameron believes that the knot represented a man’s possession of a woman, however it is more likely the sacral knot symbolized the bond between the wearer and a deity. For this reason, La Parisienne is likely to be one of the celebrants in a sacred rite. This role as a priestess is supported by the images found in the Agia Triada sarcophagus, which depicts priestesses and their purposes within the religious ritual of a funeral. The women in the relief are identified by their pale skin, whereas the men are shown to be darker skinned.
Within the funeral precession, a priestess in shown to be blessing a sacrificial bull, another prepares vessels on an altar, while a third and fourth priestess make offerings of liquid, presumed to be bull’s blood. The images on the sarcophagus include significant religious symbolism, such as the double axe and the horns of consecration. Furthermore, it has been suggested by archaeologists, such as Castleden, that evidence of the role of Minoan women in religion can be found within the predominant positions women were given within religious ceremonies. This notion is supported by the Grandstand fresco found a Knossos. The fresco shows a ceremony, potentially religious in nature, four women are depicted, enlarged, either side of a tripartiteshrine, while rows of people are seated around them.
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The women in the fresco are central, the most prominent people in the image, indicating their importance and superiority in a religious ceremony. This can also be seen within the Sacred Tree and Dance fresco in which women are shown,dancing in a trance-like state, bare breasted. It has been speculated that these ceremonies were apart of women’s festivals, which would have been conducted by Minoan women. In addition to this, the Sacred Tree and Dance fresco also supports the evidence from Homer’s Odyssey that talks of females who were sacred dancers within religion.
Women’s role and status within religion is also evident through the female religious figures within the society. The religion was centered on a mother goddess, called Potnia, to whom which votive offerings and shrines, often being related to femininity, fertility and children, were dedicated. It is believed that the symbol for this goddess was the double axe and it is also possible that the snake and pillar were also representative of her. Figurines of a Minoan Snake Goddess have also been discovered. The figures are in the bare breasted Minoan dress, they were crowns upon their heads and hold a snake in each hand.
Archaeologists have different interpretations of this goddess; some believing that the bare breasts represent fertility, whereas Nilsson believed that in Minoan religion the snake was the protector of the house. Despite these disputing understandings, the Snake Goddess demonstrates the significant role women held within religion. This can also be seen through the discovery of representations of the Poppy Goddess, in which a woman is depicted with raised hands, seeds of opium poppies on her head. It is possible that goddess is giving a greeting or a blessing, or she could be praying, archaeologists speculate what the goddess actually represents. Thus, the key role that women played within Minoan religion can be seen through these representations of them as goddesses.
Women also had a role within Minoan industry and economy. It is evident that they had a significant role in the textile industry, women would have weaved garments for external and internal trade. This notion is supported by the discovery of loom weights and spindle whorls on the island of Crete. Objects that would have been used for dyeing fabrics, such as large washing tubs, have also been discovered. Furthermore the Corridor of the Procession fresco shows figures in vibrantly patterned and coloured robes, demonstrating the presence of such a textile industry. This industry would have been vital within the economy; however, there is no concrete evidence to support the notion that it was women who dominated it, despite the assumption that this was the case in Crete because it occurred in many other ancient societies.
The Linear B clay tablets record of women wool workers, this could be interpreted in many ways. The tablets also tell us that women had equal or more pay then their male counterparts, highlighting their elevated status within the society, in comparison to other ancient civilizations. Seal stones discovered show women fishing, revealing that they would have been apart of this key industry also.
In addition to these two key roles, evidence indicates the roles of women within other parts of everyday Minoan life. Firstly, the sacred tree and dance fresco could potentially depict a leisure activity, despite religious interpretations, as religion and leisure seemed to combine in Minoan Crete. In addition to this, the Bull Grappling fresco could also show a leisure activity in which women had a key role. Women are depicted in the fresco as participating in the popular bull leaping activity, it is suggested that this was seen as a revered acrobatic skill within the society. Furthermore, it is assumed that women would have the primary care givers to children, and would have looked after the homestead.
There are no frescos that depict a mother and child, however this has always been the traditional role across societies and it is assumed that the same happened in Minoan Crete. Insight is also given into the role of the wealthy, upper class women of Minoan society through frescos and written evidence. The Ladies in Blue fresco shows these women and their elaborate hairstyles, jewellery and dress. It is speculated that it would be these women who participated in religious life, with the writer Homer recounting the special “boxes” that were reserved for women of the Minoan court, thus showing that it was the upper class, elite who had a role within religion.
Thus it is evident that women in Minoan Crete had an important role within religion, as well as being involved in industry, leisure and motherhood.See More on Women