Thursday, January 30, 2020

Minoan Fairies? Hovering human figures in the glyptic art of Late Bronze Age Crete

This is an interview I did with Simon Young which appeared in the Fairy Investigation Society Newsletter 2, New Series, Jul 2015.

SY: Caroline, first of all thanks so much for talking to us. Could you start by telling us something about what you are studying and how you got there?

CT: I did a PhD at the University of Melbourne, Australia, on what can be generally termed ‘nature worship’ in Late Bronze Age or ‘Minoan’ Crete. It involved looking at images and sites in Crete and Greece and at comparative material from Cyprus, the Levant and Egypt. I focused on miniature images engraved upon gold rings and stone seals dating to the Cretan Neopalatial Period (ca.1750–1430 BCE) that depict human figures interacting with the landscape through religious activity focused upon trees, stones and mountains, as seen in Figure 1, as well as the actual sites where such activity may have occurred.


Figure 1. Minoan style gold ring from Mycenae, Greece.

I came to this topic through a lifelong interest in religion – specifically ancient religion – and art. I have a background in art and craft and worked as a medieval style tapestry weaver at the Australian Tapestry Workshop for fourteen years, before going back to university in 2004 and starting my PhD in 2009. I also have a background in nature religion, having been involved in Contemporary Paganism since 1985, before which I was a rather disinterested Catholic. In the case of Minoan religion I am interested in what appears to be a communicative relationship between humans and the landscape, expressed through ritual, which suggests that the Minoans perceived the landscape as animate.

Many images on the gold rings feature full-sized human figures apparently communicating with tiny hovering human figures that seem to emerge from the sky or in the vicinity of trees and rocks, as can be seen in Figures 2, 3 and 4. In Minoan archaeology these have traditionally been interpreted as ‘envisioned epiphany’ scenes, meaning that they are thought to depict a vision of a deity or spirit that the human figure in the image is experiencing.

 Figure 2. Drawing of the bezel of a Minoan gold ring (Ashmolean Museum).

Figure 3. Drawing of the bezel of a gold ring from Elateia, Greece.

 Figure 4. Drawing of the bezel of a Bronze ring from Khania, Crete.

SY: Now many people reading this will be saying what has this to do with fairies? Well, I’m presenting here Figure 5 from a recent article of yours. Can you explain what the image we are looking at shows and why it might be argued that this is a particularly early depiction of a fairy?

Figure 5. Drawing of the bezel of a gold ring from Isopata, Crete.

CT: As you can see in Figure 5, a tiny female figure hovers in the upper right of the image while four larger human figures appear to be in an ecstatic state, possibly dancing. Other objects hover in the sky as well, such as an eye, a snake, and a possible shooting star or bean pod (we don’t really know what it is, some think it might be a sprig of wheat) and perhaps a small container, but it is the tiny human figure that I’m suggesting is akin to what we might term a fairy. I’m not the first one to suggest this; Lucy Goodison proposed the same thing in her book Holy Trees and Other Ecological Surprises (Just Press, 2010).

In examples where hovering human figures seem to emerge from trees, as in Figure 6, I tend to think that what we might be looking at are what were termed in ancient Greece ‘Tree Nymphs’, which were long-lived – but not necessarily immortal – numina of trees. There are other types of nymphs as well, but generally they tend to live in natural places such as in forests and on mountains rather than cities. Although Crete is part of the Greek Islands today, the ancient Minoans were not Greek, but I think that such figures emerging from trees express the same idea as the Greek nymph.

 Figure 6. Drawing of a clay sealing from Haghia Triada, Crete.

Not all Minoan examples are associated with trees; some appear in conjunction with architectural structures such as buildings, stone altars or boats, as can be seen in Figures 7 and 8.

Figure 7. Drawing of a clay sealing from Zakros.

 Figure 8. Drawing of the bezel of a gold ring from Amnissos, Crete.

SY: So these would be boat or building spirits?

CT: Well, in Figure 7 the hovering figure seems to emerge from what might be either a building rendered in small scale or an altar structure that has what are termed in Minoan archaeology ‘Horns of Consecration’(stylized bull’s horns and/or possibly the Egyptian sign for the horizon consisting of two stylized mountain peaks with a valley in between them) on top of it. Whether it is a building or an altar, the Horns of Consecration suggest that it is a sacred structure, so this hovering figure is probably indicating some sort of numen of the structure. There is also a small altar on the right with a plant on top of it which a full-sized male figure is leaning over. In Figure 8 the hovering figure, while above a boat, actually emerges from a tree or branch that is also hovering above the boat, so I think this is some sort of numen of the wood that the boat is made from. Boats were considered to be alive in the Bronze and Iron Age Mediterranean, as evidenced by texts from the Levantine city of Ugarit (on the Syrian coast opposite Cyprus) that speak of a boat being ‘killed’ by a storm. Maritime archaeologist, Sara A. Rich, has suggested that Levantine cedar wood ship masts were considered to be manifestations of the tree goddess, Asherah. It may have been the case in Crete as well that the animate tree continued being inhabited by its numen after it was turned into a boat.  

Whatever the location of the tiny hovering figures in the Minoan images, I think they represent a communicative relationship between a human being and a spirit of the environment. In Greek literature, only heroes and heroines (think Achilles or Helen in the Iliad) saw supernatural beings in anthropomorphic form, often because they were half-divine themselves or especially favoured by the gods. Other people had to settle for seeing such beings in their natural forms for example, the god Zeus as a thunder storm or Athena as a shooting star. This might be what we are looking at in Figure 9.

In the examples on the Minoan rings the human figures who see the tiny hovering figures may be claiming to have a more intimate relationship with the animate environment ‒ which manifests to them in anthropomorphic form ‒ than those who see shooting stars, birds, insects, or symbols, as seen in Figure 9. A spirit that takes a human form is easier for an actual human being to relate to and may suggest a particular type of skill or special quality of the human that gives them the ability to see the supernatural being in human form. Of course ‘supernatural’ isn’t really the right word here, as this is not occurring outside of or beyond nature. I should say ‘numen’, meaning the spirit or divine power presiding over a thing or place.   

Figure 9. Drawing of the bezel of a gold ring from Vapheio, Greece.

In these particular examples, being on gold rings owned by elite Minoan administrators and perhaps rulers, it is these types of people who are claiming to have an intimate relationship with the animate world around them and who may also have had priestly roles within their society. This does not preclude the regular people of ancient Crete also having a relationship with the numina of the environment, and they probably did, but the artwork that depicts these images was commissioned by and belonged to the palatial elites.

SY: You rightly point out that there is a lot of uncertainty here. This is, after all, a civilization with no usable written records: that is we can’t yet read their writing. The images are open to many different interpretations. But if we accept that there are ‘spirits’ of some kind here what kind of spirits are they likely to be? Some talk of spirits of the dead, others nature spirits? Are these, thinking of arguments about fairies in Britain and Ireland, perhaps the same thing in the end?   

CT: That’s right, the scripts of Minoan Crete (Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A) are not translated so in deciphering Minoan religion we have to rely on images and archaeological sites, as well making comparative analogies with other societies. Yes, the Minoan examples may have been both spirits of the human dead and animate aspects of the natural world at the same time. We don’t really know what the Minoans thought about where the dead went when they left their human bodies, but in some cultures ritual offerings are given to the dead for a certain amount of time, or the remains of the dead are treated in a particular way for a specific period, until it is deemed that they have moved from the realm of the human dead (which could be earthbound or in an otherworld) to the realm of the ancestors.

The ancestors may not be so much in an ‘other’ place, as in another state of being, and may return to, or manifest in, familiar earthly locales. In some cultures ancestors are associated with the chthonic, earthly gods, or with the celestial deities and the stars. Sometimes more elite ancestors have a more comfortable afterlife while regular people have a correspondingly ordinary afterlife. The Minoan hovering figures could certainly be ancestors and of course, as you say, British and Irish fairies are associated with the dead. I still think, however, that they emerge from within the real world rather than come from some remote unknowable place outside the world.   
SY: So if we can just back up for a minute: Let’s take this argument on trust for a moment and call these being ‘fairies’. Is this perhaps the oldest depiction of a fairy in the world?

CT: Well, it depends on what you think a fairy is. In British and Irish fairy lore and in Scottish Witch Trial confessions, fairies are not really always small, some are human sized but are recognised as fairies by their clothes – either green or very old fashioned – again crossing over with ghosts of the dead (old clothes) and spirits of nature (green clothes). If fairies are actually signs of communication between human beings and their environment, which I think they are, then they can be classified as a category of deity – if you think that deities are anthropomorphized aspects of the natural and cultural world, which I do. In that case, these Minoan images would not be the oldest images of fairies, as they only date to the Late Bronze Age, which really isn’t that old.  

SY: I’ve spent quite a lot of the afternoon looking at these images and it strikes me that many of the ‘fairies’ we are seeing are ‘winged’: what is it with ‘fairies’ (and other spirits) and wings?

CT: Well, actually, what you’re looking at is traditionally interpreted in Minoan archaeology as their hair which is rendered as a series of dots (Figures 2, 3, 4, 5). It is thought that the rows of upwards curving dots behind the tiny figures is their hair being blown upwards as they descend from the air. Some scholars have suggested than rather than hovering, the figures are just really far away and that is why they appear so small. Their billowing hair, along with their pointed feet suggest that they are not standing on the ground however but are floating, rather than being located in the distance of the image. But, the hair could be interpreted as wings – some of them don’t have any noticeable hair at all though (Figures 6, 7, 8).You can also see dots in the sky in Figure 10. These have been interpreted as either the horizon or as bees heading for a beehive situated in the far left of the image.

As for fairies and wings, I’m not sure how old the image of the winged fairy is. Certainly the cute butterfly-like fairy is a Victorian construct, but I’m not sure about other periods. The fairies that the Scottish witches dealt with were human sized and not winged as far as I know. Different cultures will have different looking fairies, but I suspect the wings are related to their ability to fly as well as their non-human, rather insect-like natures – they don’t usually have bird’s wings, do they? Although many ancient deities certainly took on the forms of birds and some of the Minoan rings depict birds swooping down toward human figures in some sort of swoon, as can be seen in Figure 10.

Figure 10. Drawing of the bezel of a gold ring from Kalyvia, Crete.

SY: Let’s leave these fascinating images behind for a moment. We know that in other parts of the world and throughout history shamans, witches and magicians had spirit assistants, which they sometimes called fairies. Is this relationship between a man and woman of power and a, let’s call it, ‘familiar’, pretty much universal in human societies?

CT: I suspect so, but not for everyone. Some people are simply not the slightest bit interested in dealing with the hidden or ‘occult’ realms. And sometimes the person who does deal with what we may call for convenience the Otherworld is accepted and revered by their society and has a high status, and other times they are disapproved of, shunned and even persecuted. In the Minoan examples elites were showing that they had a special communicative relationship with the animate landscape, so in this society it must have had a positive – even prestigious – value. In other cultures, especially when not part of official religion, interaction with spirits can have a very low, even criminal, status as we see in the European Witch trials.  

SY: If an Isobel Gowdie, the Scottish witch condemned for trafficking with fairies in 1662, was to come back today and meet our modern fairy shamans and fairy seers would she feel kinship? Is there continuity between the men and woman of power who see fairies in 2015 and those who were the brokers between the spirit world and this world three or four hundred years ago?

CT: I think that people from the past such as Isobel Gowdie who believed in and had converse with fairies – by whatever name they called them, elves, brownies, piskies, lords and ladies –would find common ground with people who do this today. There may be cultural differences, the fairies may have different names or look different, the reasons why people converse with them today may be different to those in say, mid-seventeenth century Scotland when Isobel Gowdie was around, but the general idea is the same. I think fairies are a way to speak to nature. I know that sounds rather naive and romantic in this post-industrial world, but I don’t mean it in an escapist way, but rather as an actual method by which one can intuit information about our world. Does that mean that I think fairies are metaphors? No, but I don’t think they – or gods for that matter – really have human forms. I think that is a disguise they wear so they don’t confuse or even frighten us by their real forms. I think we find it easier to relate to them when they are in anthropomorphic form. If fairies are a way by which human beings can relate to the world around them, attempt to gain access to knowledge that may otherwise be unobtainable, bring good fortune upon ourselves, and avert illness and bad luck, then I do think that we have continuity with historical figures who interacted with fairies. But, I don’t think that in 2015 we can unlearn the advances in science of the last three hundred and fifty-plus years that separate us from a fairy witch such as Isobel Gowdie, which might make some of us more self-conscious and less spontaneous in our adventures into the realm of fairy.  

SY: Caroline, Thanks so much!

Thanks to Professor Ingo Pini and the Corpus der Minoischen und Mykenischen Siegel for permission to reproduce these images.