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Trance-former/Performer: Shamanistic Elements in Late Bronze Age Minoan Cult

Caroline Jane Tully

The religion of Late Bronze Age Minoan Crete was characterised by several features that can be termed “shamanistic”. These include ecstatic trance, dialogue with spirits, divine possession, the traversing of other worlds within a tripartite vertical cosmology, and therianthropic metamorphosis. Such activities were publically performed at cult sites situated upon mountains and within caves, as well as at urban locations. In addition they were engraved upon gold signet rings and stone seals, thus the events were both recorded and advertised through the multiplication of images associated with the Minoan administrative sealing process. Initially interpreted in the early twentieth century as blanket depictions of possession, Minoan cult procedure was characterised as involving the ingestion of psychotropic substances, the arrival of a possessing deity in the form of a bird, and the subsequent possession of the human participant – all of which manifested in frenzied dancing signifying a loss of control (Evans, 1901). Later scholars modified this diagnosis of possession, suggesting that rather than being “out of control” the scenes depict altered states of consciousness in which participants underwent non-ordinary bodily states but which were not necessarily characterised by the loss of control suggested by the term “possession” (Morris and Peatfield, 2002). Analysis of “shamanistic” activity within Minoan religion can be more precise however. This paper argues that, along with images of classic ecstatic possession, glyptic art also depicts scenes of entasy in which spirits appear outside human figures, soul journeys to different realms, and the subjective trance experience itself. Three types of evidence will be used to support this contention: glyptic art, architecture, and the Minoan landscape. The main focus will be on miniature glyptic scenes on gold rings and stone seals. These depict images in which male and female figures exhibit extensive motor behaviour such as dancing and violently shaking trees, and alternately calm, contemplative visionary states whilst leaning over baetylic stones. Human figures also communicate with tiny airborne human and animal figures, see hovering abstract forms, and undergo possession by, and subsequently enact the role of, deities. These performances occur within the natural landscape, at peak or rural sanctuaries, in caves, and at urban sites. Scenes depicting the subjective trance state, shapeshifting, metamorphosis and therianthropic hybridisation will also be analysed. Architectonised versions of peak and cave sanctuaries such as stepped platforms, tripartite shrines, column shrines and pillar crypts, which evoke the idea of a central world axis through referencing trees, pillars and mountains, and incorporate the vertical cosmology of the Minoans within an urban environment, will also be examined.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Shamanism Reconsidered

Session/Paper Number

70.2

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