More about Minoan-Mycenaean signatures observed by Pausanias at sacred spaces dominated by Athena

2020.05.22, rewritten 2020.05.23 | By Gregory Nagy

§0. In the previous posting, Classical Inquiries 2020.05.15, I highlighted details that I described as signatures of a Minoan-Mycenaean phase in the evolution of the figure known in classical and post-classical times as Athena. In that posting, I concentrated on the ancient acropolis of a city by the name of Phrixa(i) in the region of Triphylia in the Peloponnesus. When Pausanias, who lived in the second century BCE, visited that city, which was mostly in ruins by his time, he found that the local population was still holding on to an ancient practice of worshipping the goddess Athena as the personification of their acropolis, and I argued that this personification could be traced back to a distant Minoan-Mycenaean past. For the illustration in that posting, I showed what I think is a relevant picture dating from that same distant past. We saw in that picture what I would describe as a Minoan equivalent of an acropolis. That is, we saw an elevation fortified and crowned by a palatial building. We also saw a male figure standing on top of the elevation, whom I would describe as a Minoan equivalent of a hero known in classical and post-classical times as Hēraklēs. But what about Athena, patroness of Hēraklēs? As I will argue, the Minoan equivalent of Athena is really present in that picture: she is there, though she is not yet visible. She does become visible, however, in the picture I show as the main illustration for the posting here.

Sketch, by Jill Robbins, based on a drawing of impressions (= imprints) made on a number of clay sealings found at Knossos (“Central Shrine” and chamber to west, CMS II.8 no. 256, HMs 141/1-2, 166/1-3, 168/3). All these impressions were stamped by the same signet ring, which has not survived. Estimated dating of the original ring: Late Minoan I (1600–1450 BCE)..

§1. This picture, as I have just said more fully in the caption, is based on a composite drawing of impressions made on a number of clay sealings found at Knossos and stamped by the same signet ring, which has not survived. The original picture that had once been carved into that signet ring shows a female figure hovering over an elevation, which is a stylized hill or mountain, and she is flanked by two lions, one at each side. Archaeologists sometimes refer to this female figure as “The Mother of the Mountain.”

§2. In what follows, I propose to compare this picture with the other picture I already showed in the previous posting. That other picture too, as we already saw, is based on a drawing of another impression, made on another clay sealing and stamped by another signet ring that has not survived. It is “The Master Impression,” and I show again here not only a sketch but also, as in the previous posting, a photograph of the impression:

Sketch, by Jill Robbins, based on a drawing of an impression (= imprint) made on a clay sealing found on the acropolis of Kastelli Hill in Chanià, Crete (Archaeological Museum of Chania, museum number KH 1563). The impression, known to archaeologists as “The Master Impression,” was stamped by a signet ring that has not survived. Estimated dating of the original ring: Late Minoan I (1600–1450 BCE; the impression, however, is probably of a later date)..


Photograph of “The Master Impression.”
Photograph of “The Master Impression.” Image via Wikimedia Commons.


§3.  Before we proceed to compare the similarities we see in the picture of “The Master Impression,” which features a male figure dominating the landscape, and in the picture of the other impression, “The Mother of the Mountain,” which features a comparably dominant female figure, I need to highlight a salient dissimilarity between the two pictures. Unlike the male figure in “The Master Impression,” the female figure in the other impression is positioned in a most special way: as I have already noted, she is flanked by two lions.

§4. I find the positioning of this female figure, flanked by two lions, analogous to the column flanked by two lions on top of the Lion Gate at Mycenae:

The Lion Gate at Mycenae. Image via Wikimedia Commons.


Close-up of the column flanked by two lions above the gate to the citadel of Mycenae. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

§5. I focus on the symbolism of this column positioned at the center-point of the Lion Gate. It is a matter of common knowledge, I trust, that this single column guarded by two lions stands for the entire building complex of the acropolis of Mycenae. Such symbolism is a perfect example of the kind of metonymy where a most prominent aspect of a set of details stands for the sum total of those details.

§6. That said, I now go on to propose that the positioning of the column flanked by two lions in the Mycenaean visualization of Mycenae as an acropolis is comparable to the positioning of the female figure flanked by two lions in the Minoan visualization of the elevation that we see pictured in the clay impression under study.

§7. Here I carry the reasoning one step further. Just as the figuring of a single column flanked by two lions was a way of symbolizing, in Mycenaean architecture, the overall idea of the acropolis at Mycenae, so also the figuring of “The Mother of the Mountain” flanked by two lions was a way of symbolizing, in Minoan glyptic art, the overall idea of a comparable acropolis. And, in this case, the female figure who appears as a woman magnified in size, “The Mother of the Mountain,” is I think the figure of a goddess who dominates her acropolis and who is, further, the personification of that acropolis.

§8. Relevant here is an Athenian myth retold by Pausanias (1.26.6), which I quoted in the previous posting, about a wooden statue of Athena Polias that descended from the heavens and landed on the acropolis of Athens. I think we see in that myth a visualization that is comparable to what we see in the Minoan picture of a goddess hovering over an elevation. I base my thinking here on what I interpret as the built-in logic of the Athenian myth: once the statue of Athena Polias lands on top of the acropolis of Athens, the fortified elevation that is already visualized as the personified goddess Athena can now become re-visualized not only as a place but also as a person, visible in magnified human form. Such a visualization is an epiphany of the goddess.

§9. So also in the mythological scene that is pictured in the Minoan impression that we are now considering: the goddess is making herself visible in magnified human form, and the vision of this epiphany is experienced by the figure who stands at her side. As for what she holds in her hand—which I interpret to be a staff of authority—it is comparable to the staff that the heroic figure in “The Master Impression” is holding in his hand. What the Minoan equivalent of Hēraklēs is holding in “The Master Impression” may thus turn out to be the same symbol of authority that is being offered to the male figure by the Minoan equivalent of Athena, with her arm extended, in the corresponding impression. The transfer of a staff of authority would be happening in the context of an epiphany, where the acropolis becomes personified by manifesting itself as a goddess in magnified human form.

§10. This last paragraph signals a rewriting, 2020.05.23, of my posting originally dated 2020.05.22. My rewritten text, which comes only one day after I posted my original text, includes corrections and refinements I have made in the light of comments I received from my colleague and friend Georgia Flouda. In addition to acknowledging the changes I made in response to her treasured comments, I also thank her for pointing me to two works that help me enhance my thinking about the staff of authority that we see pictured in “The Master Impression.” One of these works is an article by Christos Boulotis (2008), who studies Minoan seals and sealings that picture human figures who are holding what I describe here as a staff of authority. The other of these two works is an article by Evangelos Kyriakidis (2005), who studies Minoan seals and sealings that picture human figures hovering above ground-level, parallel to figures of objects that are similarly pictured as “floating” in the sky. In the posting to come, I will have more to say about such visual representations in Minoan glyptic art, but I must note already now that the reconstructions I have offered so far, where I focus on representations that I have described as Minoan “equivalents” of Athena and Hēraklēs, are not at odds with what archaeologists like Boulotis and Kyriakidis reconstruct as gods and heroes of the Minoan world. Also, my interpretation of the elevation that is pictured in “The Master Impression” as a generic acropolis is not at odds with the views of archaeologists who think that this elevation can be specifically identified with Kastelli Hill at Chanià in Crete, which is where the impression was found.



Boulotis, C. 2008. “From mythical Minos to the search for Cretan kingship.” From the Land of the Labyrinth. Minoan Crete, 3000-1100 B.C. (ed. M. Andreadaki-Vlazaki, G., Rethemiotakis, and N. Dimopoulou-Rethemiotaki) 44-55. New York.

Hallager, E. 1985. The Master Impression. A Clay Sealing from the Greek-Swedish excavations at Kastelli, Khania. Studies in Mycenaean Archaeology 69. Göteborg.

Krzyszkowska, O., ed. 2010. Cretan Offerings: Studies in honour of Peter Warren. British School at Athens Studies 18. Athens.

Krzyszkowska, O., 2010. “Impressions of the natural world: landscape in Aegean glyptic.” In Krzyszkowska 2010:169–187.

Kyriakidis, E. 2005. “Unidentified Floating Objects on Minoan Seals.” American Journal of Archaeology 109:137-154.

Nagy, G. 2018–. A Pausanias reader in progress. Washington, DC.

Nagy, G. 2019.11.27. “Thinking comparatively about Greek mythology XVIII, a post-Mycenaean view of Hēraklēs as founder of the Olympics.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.04.17. “Questions while viewing Greek myths and rituals through the lens of Pausanias, I: Did Athena, goddess of Athens, belong only to the Athenians?” Classical Inquiries. Updated 2020.04.23.

Nagy, G. 2020.04.24. “Questions while viewing Greek myths and rituals through the lens of Pausanias, II: In Mycenaean times, was Athena a goddess who was worshipped only in Athens?” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.05.01. “Questions while viewing Greek myths and rituals through the lens of Pausanias, III: Is ‘Athena’ the name of a person or of a place? Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.05.08. “Questions while viewing Greek myths and rituals through the lens of Pausanias, IV: Is Athena, viewed theologically, a person?.” Classical Inquiries.

Nagy, G. 2020.05.15. “Minoan-Mycenaean signatures observed by Pausanias at a sacred space dominated by Athena.” Classical Inquiries.