A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year at her home in Crete,
researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there. In this contribution she writes about - Solar
alignments at tholos tombs and the Throne Room at Knossos
Ancient civilisations very often
constructed their monuments in relationship to sunrises and sunsets at key times of the year, most notably the
summer and winter solstices, and the spring and autumn equinoxes. This is widely known throughout the prehistoric
world, from the megalithic tombs of
Ireland, Scotland and Brittany, to the pyramids of Egypt, to the buildings of the Anaztasi Indians in central America.
However, with a few notable exceptions, one area that has been little studied for this phenomena are the Bronze Age
monuments of ancient Greece.
Now, a first tentative step towards looking at some possibilities has been made by Lucy Goodison in a paper
entitled: “From Tholos Tomb to Throne Room: perceptions of the sun in Minoan ritual” [Aegaeum, 22]. Goodison looked
at two main areas: the tholos tombs of the Mesara region in south-central Crete, and the throne room at Knossos. In the
Mesara region there are 94 tombs that have been identified, with less than a third still possessing a doorway clear enough
to determine its orientation. Goodison analysed the orientation of these and found that they were all in an easterly
direction, the position of the rising sun at different times of the year. Some alignments were to the solstices, but others
close to the equinoxes, with another large cluster around late August/early September (what Goodison calls ‘the times of
the dead’). She explores the possible significance of these
orientations, whether they
represented calendrical markers of the year turning and/or markers in relation to livestock, planting or harvesting.
The tombs seem to focus on the period of transition from one season to another and the relationship between land and sky.
There is obviously much more work to be done in this area, but it is certainly interesting to speculate that the tomb
builders of ancient Crete were as interested in the “death and rebirth of the sun” as were their contemporaries in
Northern Europe and the near-East.
Goodison then goes on to highlight the work of photographer Carlos Guarita, who has drawn attention to the
interaction of landscape, building and sun at the Throne Room complex at Knossos. Here specific dramatic lighting effects
were deliberately created at sunrise at certain times of the year, whereby the rising sun would shine through
specific doorways to illuminate particular areas that would have been used for
ritual purposes. Guarita photographed the rise of the sun over the ridge of Prophitas Elias hill to the east of the palace
temple site, from midwinter to midsummer and back again. Lucy Goodison followed this up by actually going into the
Throne Room complex to
observe the entry of the sun at specific times in the year’s cycle.
Throne Room Alignments - click on image for a larger version
She discovered that dawn light
entering through one of the Anteroom doors (extreme right) at midwinter sunrise reached right into the Throne Room itself, a normally unlit interior space, where it would have illuminated the figure of a Priestess in the ‘throne’. Close to the equinoxes it would have entered another door (second from right) to
illuminate the Inner Sanctuary, which Arthur Evans felt was the location for “a vision of the Goddess herself and her
divine associates”. At the “times of the dead” (early September) the light would have entered through the next door along
(second from left); and finally, at the midsummer sunrise it would have entered through the door on the extreme left to
illuminate the room called by Evans the Lustral Basin. Marinatos
believed that Lustral Basins were
imitations of cult caves, so one may imagine somebody (a Priestess?) dramatically lit up at the moment of emerging from it.
All this shows a deliberate and dramatic use of light and darkness to enhance the use of ritual space in this inner sacred
But for what purpose could this all have been used? Goodison quotes Reusch who suggested that the ritual
performed in this
inner chamber may have been the Epiphany of the Goddess, whereby a Priestess would have embodied the Goddess herself
and become Her. If this act, presumably witnessed by a
select audience of initiates, were illuminated by the rising sun at midwinter
solstice, at the point of the epiphany
itself, it must have been an incredibly dramatic and powerful experience, as the Goddess Herself appeared in the first rays
Goodison suggests that something similar may have happened in different parts of the room at other special times
of the year (such as the rising midsummer sun illuminating the ‘Lustral Basin’ area). She also suggests that something
similar at the midwinter sunrise may have occured at the palace temple site of Phaistos, where once again the rising sun
would have illuminated a person sitting against the wall. If all this is true, and Goodison’s meticulous research seems to
show that it was, we are on the verge of a major new breakthrough in understanding Minoan sites as temples of the rising
sun and the Ephiphany of the Goddess.