Tag Archives: Sculpture

Disaster of the Bronze Age Spreads Beyond the Epicenter

Experts have only recently learnt the true scale of the disaster triggered by the volcano eruption on Thera (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans). As they have concluded, its deadly impact stretched far beyond the island of the tiny Minoan island (Mitchel 2011). The volcano spewed out huge plumes of ash, carried by wind southwards (History Channel 1980s; Lilley 2006). It travelled from Thera to Crete in less than half an hour (Masjum 2006). When the dense clouds appeared, it must have seemed to the Minoans on Crete that nature had turned against them (Lilley 2006). ‘Imagine this ash coming over the island’, asks the professor of Greek archaeology, Jan Driesser (Ibid.). ‘It blackened the air [and the] blue sky for several days’ (Ibid.).

I looked up in the azure colours of the sky over the Mediterranean. I just could not imagine it turning into black pitch and breathing fire and ashes.

Town under the ashes

In 1980s, Prof. McCoy and his colleagues found ash deposits on neighbouring islands and on the seabed near Crete (Lilley 2006). ‘We calculated the amount of the volume of this material, which is how we [figured] out how explosive [the] eruption had been’, says Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). Recent analysis of the seabed around the island has revealed that sediments from pyroclastic flow extend over thirty-two kilometres and are up to eighty meters deep (Mitchell 2011).

The earthquakes on Akrotiri seemed to happen in a couple of waves. One set did substantial damage to the town. Photo by Gretchen Gibbs. Source: Mari N. Jensen, UA College of Science (2018).

Excavations on the island of Santorini reveal that pyroclastic flow broke the upper fronts of the buildings on Thera (Mitchell 2011). Subsequently, the Minoan settlement was buried in a layer of volcanic ash and pumice stones more than forty meters deep (Jensen 2018).

Biblical darkness

With time, more evidence of Thera’s deadly deposits began to emerge not just from the Mediterranean but as far as the Black Sea (Lilley 2006). Volcanic ash must have plunged the region into darkness for weeks (Mitchell 2011). Computer modelling expert and volcano enthusiast, Dr Stuart Dunn, decided to plot the results by creating a database putting together all ash thicknesses with their locations (Lilley 2006). The location and thickness of these residues allowed to calculate how many millions of tons of material were blasted across the region (Ibid.). ‘We concluded that the eruption was very much larger than [it] was previously thought’, admits Prof. McCoy (Ibid.). ‘Now we’re up to ten times of the explosivity of Krakatau’, he concludes (Ibid.). After scientists, It was one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in human history, one hundred times the eruption of the volcano at St Helens and forty thousand times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima (Mitchell 2011).

The ruins of the palace of Knossos on Crete, excavated and then reconstructed by Sir Arthur Evans at the beginning pf the twentieth century. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The clouds of ash caused the climate collapse over the whole region and subsequent lightning and hail storms (Masjum 2006; Wengler 2009). Temperature around the world lowered, inhibiting plant growth even in the British Isles (Mitchell 2011). Before collapsing into itself, the volcano expelled twenty billion cubic metres of molten lava and pumice has been found far inland of the Mediterranean region, where could have been carried by the waves of tsunami (Wengler 2009). Hundred and forty pumice stones from Thera’s eruption were found by Prof. Bietak in Avaris, in the Delta Nile (Ibid.). It is the same site, where the Egyptologist has found the Minoan fresco. Some number of pumice has been also found by archaeologists in Sinai (Ibid.).

Decorative flower-like rosettes from a fresco at Akrotiri, on the island of Thera, today Santorini. Copyright©Archaeotravel

Also this has prompted some scholars to suggest that the stories in the Bible may be linked to Thera eruption (Masjum 2006). In the Book of Exodus, signs of the ten Egyptian plagues include thunder and hail and total darkness, the phenomena that could have been volcanic in origin (Ibid.). And another plague mentioned in the Bible, namely the waters of the Nile turning into blood (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer explains that huge amounts of reddish dust, as upper layer in Santorini, and lot of dead material actually wiped out over the area of Egypt (Ibid.). He says that all this volcanic dust was in the atmosphere and was brought in the Nile by very heavy rains falling at a time and so the colour of the Nile could have changed from its natural into reddish tint (Ibid.). For the people of the entire Mediterranean observing such phenomena, the world must have descended into chaos (Ibid.).

Fire in the sky

Prof. McCoy assumes that in the morning, after the eruption, Minoans at Knossos and other towns along the northern coast, must have seen the clouds of smoke on the horizon (Masjum 2006). Although they must have already been frightened, they had no idea yet what was in store for them (Ibid.).

The north entrance to the palace of Knossos passing by the North Pillar Hall. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

‘They saw black sky, lightnings, darkening clouds enveloping them and ash falling on the ground all around them. And constant earthquakes. For them the world looked like it was ending’, he says (Masjum 2006). ‘When something blew up, north of them, on the horizon, they must have known it was the island’, he speculates (Ibid.). ‘Maybe some [Cretans] had family or friends there. There was fire in the sky, […] ash falling out of the sky and even torrential rains coming along with the latter part of the eruption’ (Ibid.). Earthquakes from the eruption triggered further fires setting ablaze the Minoans temples, houses and other buildings (Ibid.). Climate change also badly influenced their agriculture (Ibid.). The effect on them must have been tremendous (Ibid.). Zeilinga de Boer adds that ‘the volcano brought a lot of pumice, the material that floats very easily and have covered apparently most of the eastern Mediterranean for years, making rowing or sailing impossible, so this commercial empire lost its major part of existence’ (Ibid.).

Each numbered triangle represents the deposit of ash from Thera. Source: Harvey Lilley (2006). The Real Atlantis. A Quickfire Media Wales Production for BBC and Arte France.

Until recently, many archaeologists believed that the ash from Thera suffocated the entire island but Dunn’s computer model shows that only the eastern part of Crete received a significant covering, whereas the western part of the island reminded virtually untouched (Lilley 2006). Prevailing winds blew most of the ash clouds away (Ibid.). If the ash did not cause the Minoans’ downfall, what then did? (Ibid.).

Catastrophe speeding up towards Crete

Today the serenity of Crete is a far cry from the fabled land of half-human monsters, bloody sacrifices or natural disasters (History Channel 1980s).

Gramvousa Peninsula in north-western Crete is nowadays a dream destination for tourists. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Much of what is encountered today seems barely to have changed in the course of its mysterious past (History Channel 1980s). Just in the ancient times, the forests were logged because the wood was needed for monumental architecture and ships (Ibid.). Sheep and goats graze here as they have for thousands of years (Ibid.). The work of farmers and shepherds give little hint that this island was once the center of a powerful commercial empire (Ibid.). After centuries of foreign occupations, residents here are more aware of their immediate past (Ibid.). The tale of the Minotaur has faded into a legend (Ibid.). Only at the beginning of the twentieth century, following the independence from the Ottoman Empire archaeologists came (Ibid.). Among the first, there was Sir Arthur Evans, able to start digging into Crete’s great past (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated on eastern coast of Crete. Photo source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Palaikastro”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage. ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr. Sandy McGillivray.

The archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray has been excavating the Minoan town of Palaikastro on eastern Crete (Lilley 2006). The extent of ruins found there suggests that this was the largest Minoan settlement after Knossos and home to around five hundred people, stretching from the mountainside to the seaside (Ibid.). Like in other Minoan settlements, paved roads with drains were laid on a grid pattern in its town plan (Ibid.). Palaikastro’s extensive workshops produced everything from basic foodstuffs to some of the finest art, yet discovered on Crete (Ibid.).

Today the small hill, the town stood on at the water’s edge is eroding into the sea (Lilley 2006). It reveals strange layers of chaotically mixed material of pottery, building material, stones, cattle bones and lumps of ash, reaching up to five metres above Minoan sea level (Ibid.). After Prof. Hendrik Bruins, a soil scientist who specializes in identifying and dating unusual layers, the deposit does not look like natural archaeological stratification or the result of an earthquake (Ibid.). To find out the origins of the strange deposits in Palaikastro, Prof. Bruins has conducted thorough laboratory studies (Ibid.). He was thrilled by the results (Ibid.). ‘We saw foraminifera in these deposits’, he says (Ibid.). Foraminifera are the shells of tiny organisms only found beneath the sea (Ibid.). Accordingly, it suggests that the deposit has been formed with the power of sea waves (Ibid.). Another marine creature within the soil sample is coralline algae from the seabed (Ibid.). ‘These come from below the sea level and in order to deposit them in that level, where we found them in a promontory, [they had] to be scooped up […] to [the] level, where the sea normally never comes’, explains Prof. Bruins (Ibid.). No storm would have lifted the algae from the seabed and left it stranded metres up on the island (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there is another powerful natural force that has the power to do that (Ibid.). These are tsunami waves (Ibid.). Are the Palaikastro beach deposits the terrifying footprint of a tsunami? (Ibid.).

Now it makes sense

Prof. Costas Synolakis, an expert on tsunami, has explored the excavated part of the Minoan town of Palaikastro, situated three hundred metres from the beach (Lilley 2006). He has found there further evidence that something extraordinary happened there in the far past (Ibid.).

Tsunami waves demolishing the coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The buildings of the town itself show unusual signs of damage (Lilley 2006). ‘We find some walls entirely missing’, says Dr Sandy McGillivray. Prof. Costas Synolakis claims that ‘this is what we [observe] in modern tsunamis. We call this the blow out. The sea comes in [and] blows out the walls. If the building is strong enough, the side walls […] will survive but the walls facing the ocean […] collapse’ (Ibid.). For Dr Sandy McGillivray ‘all of the sudden a lot of deposits [around Palaikastro] began making sense […] because [the town] had these buildings pulled away, [it] had the fronts of buildings missing. [it] had buildings raised right down the foundation level’ (Ibid.). What kind of wave was then powerful enough to cross three hundred metres of land before demolishing a town? (Ibid.).

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea, which caused giant waves of tsunami, breaking into Minoan cities, mainly on the north-eastern coast of Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

The scientists also travelled further inland of Crete to find out how wide was the range of the waves terrible progress (Lilley 2006). Around one kilometre from the shore, and well above sea level, they have found deposits of seashell (Ibid.). Soil samples from excavation from ancient Palaikastro also contain the tale-tell microscopic signs of marine life, which is another evidence that the tsunami deluged the town (Ibid.).

Destructive tsunamis

When Thera erupted, it unleashed a powerful force into the sea (Masjum 2006). Scientists believe it caused giant waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Hour after hour, pyroclastic flows on Thera were pushing volcanic debris into the sea, causing great tsunami waves that battered the Aegean coast (Masjum 2006; Mitchell 2011). ‘And then what happens is that the centre of the volcano […] has been blasted. it collapses to produce today’s caldera’, describes Prof. Floyd. ‘The land suddenly fell in, the ocean poured in and out producing constant tsunami’ (Masjum 2006). Inhabitants of nearby Crete could notice warning signs, but did not have enough time to react (Mitchell 2011). The first tsunami moving at the speed of three hundred and twenty kilometres per hour reached the coast of Crete within twenty minutes (Ibid.). At the time of contact with the land, the wave could have been up to twenty meters high (Ibid.).

The remains of the Minoan town of Malia, Crete. Scientists have found there layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that are observed along the northern coast of Crete as the results of the tsunamis. Source: Ian Swindale (2020) “Malia”. In: Minoan Crete. Bronze Age Civilization.

Apparently, the tsunami generated by Thera eruption was powerful enough to ravage the entire civilization (Lilley 2006). On the north coast of Crete, fifty kilometres west along the coast from Palaikastro, Malia lies. Now it is known for ruins of a Minoan palace but once it was the third largest settlement on coastal Crete (Ibid.). Close by the ruins, the team of scientists has found the same layers of smashed pottery, building debris and crushed seashells that they have observed in Palaikastro (Ibid.). That is further evidence that a huge wave had struck the northern coast of Crete, dumping marine life onto the land (Ibid.). Next step was the study of the Minoan port of Amnissos (Ibid.). The site is located west of Malia and near the settlement of Knossos (Ibid.). Four thousand years ago, a villa nestled among olive groves on this idyllic coast (Ibid.). It was decorated with frescoes that celebrated the Minoan love of nature (Ibid.). But about the time of eruption of the volcano, the villa was destroyed and the frescoes torn from the walls (Ibid.). Pumice from Thera was once found in the ruins of this Minoan villa (Ibid.). Initially it was thought that the petrified volcanic froth may have been brought in there by a storm (Ibid.). However, the team has also found Thera pumice higher in the hills behind the villa, twenty metres above sea level, which may suggest it floated in on a massive tsunami (Ibid.).

NOVA senior science editor, Evan Hadingham, described the tidal wave as ‘terrifyingly destructive’, perhaps larger than the Indian Ocean tsunami that hit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, in 2004. Source: Telegram.com (2007).

Dr Sandy McGillivray says that he remembers from his childhood a big anthill at one end of the garden and as a child he used to go with a garden hose and wash ants off it (Lilley 2006). That memory keeps coming back to in his memory when he is thinking how the tsunami destroyed the Minoans on Crete (Ibid.). Tsunamis weeping people out to the sea must have been just like washing ants off the anthill. ‘It is a terrifying thing’, he admits (Ibid.). ‘Those ants never had a chance [to survive]’ (Ibid.). ‘Once the tsunami starts climbing up on dry land’, he continues (Ibid.). ‘It’s moving at [such] speed that nothing can stop it’ (Ibid.).

You wish you hadn’t found out …

Evidence gathered also demonstrates the range of destructive powers of the tsunami that would have struck on northern coasts of Crete (Lilley 2006).

As it can be concluded, when the caldera of Thera collapsed, it sent several walls of water into the Aegean Sea, like a pebble dropping into a pond (Lilley 2006). These waves cumulated around the islands and bounced off them (Ibid.). As a result, Crete was hit not by one but by several rebounding waves (Ibid.). The intervals between them were from around forty-five to thirty minutes (Ibid.). Recent studies have shown that more tsunamis ravaged cities on the northern coast of Crete for hours or even days after the eruption (Mitchell 2011). It is estimated that they killed from thirty to forty thousand people (Ibid.). After the first tsunami, there were surely Cretans who escaped but they came back to look for the injured and dead relatives and friends, smashed by the powerful wave (Lilley 2006). They did not realize that another wave was coming (Ibid.). Consequently, the survivors of the first wave may have become the victims of the second (Ibid.).

Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell; Writer: Rhidian Brook; Stars: Stephanie Leonidas, Reece Ritchie, Langley Kirkwood; Network: BBC One
Documentary tells the story of the greatest natural disaster of the ancient world, an event that some experts believe inspired the legend of Atlantis. Source: Youtube.

Dr McGillivray has been deeply moved by the obtained results. ‘You know, it’s like time looking for something and then when you find it, you wish you hadn’t because it becomes too real and, you know, you begin to feel the experience’, he admits (Lilley 2006). ‘This is life, this is people just being washed out to sea [in vast numbers]. There’s a whole instant that flashes through your head’ (Ibid.).

Mysterious legend that haunts to this day

The most massive volcanic eruption of the ancient world blew the island of Thera apart and buried for centuries all the evidence of the lives of people who had once called it home (Westbrook 1995). Yet memories have remained (Ibid.). Footprints in the dust have finally been discovered by archaeologists (Ibid.). There are, however, no written records left about the Thera’s eruption and subsequent tsunamis, no figures for the death or destruction it has caused (Lilley 2006). It is only known that the rich culture of the Minoans, one that awed and inspired the earliest civilizations of the Mediterranean, completely vanished at the end of the Bronze Age (History Channel 1980s). Was the powerful empire of the Minoans destroyed by natural forces or was there human intervention? (Ibid.).

Bronze Group of a Bull and an Acrobat, the so-called a bull-leaper. Said to be from south west Crete. Today it is preserved by the British Museum. Photo by Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Photo source: “Minoan Bull-leaper” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On Thera, a massive eruption had buried Minoan streets and buildings beneath the flowing lava (History Channel 1980s). Meantime, clouds of ash engulfed the entire region (Ibid.). Crops were ruined and livestock suffocated (Ibid.). Consequently, all life on Santorini was destroyed (Ibid.). The utter destruction of the island and its people who settled there, must have left the powers of the region awestruck (Westbrook 1995). The palaeontologist, Charles Pellegrino, claims that the Egyptians must have known Thera (Ibid.). In the Bronze Age, it was surely known as a powerful colony of the Minoans (Ibid.). Egyptian ships would have travelled north to the very mountainous island for trading (Ibid.). After the volcano eruption, there was nothing but the silvers of broken rib-like land (Ibid.). Pellegrino thinks that to the ancient Egyptians finding the still smoking and blooming crater probably meant that the whole island and its inhabitants had simply sunk and disappeared (Ibid.). In centuries to come a great legend was heard of a Utopian island society that vanished in the sea “in a single day and night” (Ibid.).

The Palace of Knossos: North Passage. 3D Digital Reconstruction by John Carlina (2011). Source: Youtube.

Did the Egyptian priests mean Thera in their written story of the sunken island that they retold to Solon? According to some scholars, the history of the volcanic disaster on Thera may have been recorded by the ancient Egyptians and survived in repeatedly embellished stories (Mitchell 2011). In the fourth century BC., they may have inspired the Greek philosopher to write a morality play about the rise and fall of a great civilization, called Atlantis (Ibid.). For centuries, Plato’s words were considered a legend, until archaeologists discovered a lost world on Thera (Ibid.).

In one day and one night

The legend of Atlantis has teased human imagination ever since (Westbrook 1995). Some scholars definitely claims the story is a myth, others believe it is a true story and they either still keep looking for it or point to the small dot in the Aegean between Egypt, Greece and Asia, today just a rim of volcanic rock jutting out of the sea (Ibid.). Is Thera a legendary Atlantis? (Ibid.). Plato described the island of Atlantis as alternating rings of land and sea (Mitchell 2011). The port was full of ships and buyers from all over the world (Ibid.). Such great wealth had never been seen before (Ibid.). Bulls grazed at Poseidon’s temple, and ten princes hunted for them using wooden sticks and ropes (Ibid.). Then came powerful earthquakes and floods (Ibid.). In one day and one night, Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and disappeared (Ibid.).

Bull’s head rhyton from the palace at Knossos, Crete. It is made of black steatite, jasper, and mother-of-pearl. One of the greatest finds. Now exposed by the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

After some enthusiasts of the legend, like Pellegrino, there are some convincing clues and local finds that confirm that Plato’s Atlantis was in fact the island of Thera (History Channel 1980s; Mitchell 2011). “Like the Atlanteans, the Minoans were island-dwellers with shipyards, powerful fleets and a thriving maritime commerce. They had fine houses and superb artifacts, and were skilful builders and engineers – again like the Atlanteans. As in Atlantis, the bull, sacred to Poseidon the earth-shaker, was important in Minoan rituals (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Also Plato describes Atlantis as an island made of sea and land rings (Mitchell 2011). Thera’s reconstructions before the volcanic eruption show that the island could have fit this description (Ibid.). The unusual terrain was the effect of the most powerful geological forces on earth, always active beneath the island throughout its geological history (Ibid.). Nevertheless, there would have just been one concentric ring of land and two of water, building up the island, whereas Plato describes Atlantis as a fortified dwelling place with concentric rings, two of land and three of water (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). Thera, as one of the Minoan colonies in the Mediterranean, was too small to be self-sufficient (Mitchell 2011), yet it was as wealthy and self-assured as much as the settlements of Minoans on Crete (Lilley 2006). Its geographical location made it an important trading point in the Mediterranean (Mitchell 2011). Its buyers acted as intermediaries by trading precious metals, oil, wine, ceramics and spices from Africa, Asia and Europe (Ibid.).

Bull-leaping fresco from the east wing of the palace of Knossos (reconstructed). Today in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion. Photo by Jebulon and one more author – Own work (2015). Originally at Wikipedia. CC0. Bull-leaping was an important initiation ritual for young Minoan men, perhaps also for women (Mitchell 2011). Photo source: Dr. Senta German (2020). Bull-leaping fresco from the palace of Knossos. In: Khan Academy.

Also the bull, especially bull-leaping, is a recurring theme in Minoan art and there are many depictions of this powerful animal (Westbrook 1995). Such representations echo Plato’s description of Atlantis; there are described golden cups with scenes of bull ceremonies engraved on the sides, also analogous to Plato’s narrative (Ibid.). Such details as bulls being tied up by nooses and with rope furthermore match the author’s descriptions (Ibid.). Pellegrino also recounts the moment ‘early in [the twentieth] century, when the Minoan civilisation was being unearthed’ (Ibid.). ‘Some of the first archaeologists to arrive on the site, looking at the paintings of the bull ceremonies, and so on, said: ‘that’s Plato! That’s his Atlantis story!’, he claims (Ibid.). Plato also mentions that “first noble and innocent, the Atlanteans in time became power-hungry aggressors, seeking to subjugate neighbouring lands. Eventually, they were however, defeated by the Athenians, and then their island was destroyed by natural forces, earthquake and flood” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:18). As archaeological records suggest, the Greeks indeed invaded and conquered the Minoans in the second half of the fifteenth century BC. Moreover, like the wonderful civilization of Atlantis, Thera was destroyed by a terrible cataclysm during its greatest heyday and vanished (Westbrook 1995). “If Plato’s date for Atlantis, 9 000 years before Solon, were to lose a zero (a scribal error, perhaps, or storyteller’s exaggeration), [after some scholars], it would fit neatly into the timescale of Minoan culture” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21).

Elephants on Thera?

“But problems remain, not least the fact that Plato explicitly states that Atlantis lay beyond the Pillars of Hercules, [on the Atlantic Ocean]” (Harpur, Westwood 1997:21). Although Thera’s explosion blew the island apart, it only precipitated the downfall of Minoan Crete, which eventually happened generations after the volcano eruption with the invasions of Mycenaeans from Greece (Ibid.:21). Correspondingly, the Minoans were not defeated by “the Athenians” before the natural disaster but long after it. There are also other differences between Plato’s story and archaeological facts about ancient Thera. Among animals living on Atlantis, there were elephants, which did not live on Thera, at least not in the Bronze Age (Ibid.:18). Thera was also too small to fit Plato’s description or to be divided into ten kingdoms between Poseidon’s descendants, like Atlantis actually was (Ibid.:18).

Found at Akrotiri, Minoan frescoes of Boxing Boys or Girls (on the left) and Gazelles (on the right) Today they are exposed in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens. Photo source: Ricardo André Frantz (User: Tetraktys). CC BY-SA 3.0. Photo source: “Wall Paintings of Thera” (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

What is more, Crete and not Thera was the headquarters of the Minoan empire. And, unlike the legend of Atlantis says, Crete did not disappear in a single night and day (Westbrook 1995). It was only Thera that vanished (Ibid.). Plato does not either mention any volcano eruption on Atlantis but the fact the island was destroyed by earthquakes and floods (Masjum 2006). Moreover, although recurring representations of bull ceremonies are the traces left by the Minoan civilization, the evidence is hardly found on Santorini (Westbrook 1995). Yet it is abundant on Crete (Ibid.). Or maybe was Thera (and the Minoans) just a legacy of the Atlanteans, and not Atlantis itself?

Fatal thread to Cretans

Prof. Walter Friedrich, a geologist, thinks that the volcano eruption was entirely fatal for Thera, but not for Crete (History Channel 1980s). For Cretans living on the northern coast of their island, the biggest thread came from the sea (Ibid.). Giant waves of tsunamis swept across the Aegean, destroying their glamorous architecture and powerful fleet (Ibid.). The tsunami was enough to bring a great civilization to its knees but there were survivors (Lilley 2006). Knossos, the Minoan capital was too far inland to be destroyed (Ibid.). According to archaeological evidence, the Minoans rebuilt their palaces, and although they never regained their full power and influence, they could still create exquisite works of art (Ibid.).

Detail of the Palaikastro Kouros. It is a statuette of a male figure, probably an idol, made of serpentine, hippopotamus ivory, and gold. The statuette was deliberately destroyed during social unrest following the volcano eruption. (Archaeological Museum of Siteia, photo by Olaf Tausch, CC BY 3.0). Source: Dr. Senta German (2020). “Statuette of a Male Figure (The Palaikastro Kouros)”. In: Khan Academy.

‘Did the volcanic eruption on Santorini directly destroy the Minoan culture’, asks Dr Don Evely, the archaeologist (Masjum 2006). ‘The answer is simply no. If, however, we ask a more subtle question: did it contribute to the decline? Did it undermine the Minoan power? The answer is almost certainly yes.’ (Ibid.). The devastating effects of Thera’s eruption on Crete are not limited to the number of dead and destroyed palaces (Mitchell 2011). Minoan society suffered a serious shock (Ibid.). Archaeological data testifies a deep social unrest; towns and temples were looted and set on fire (Ibid.). People were probably sacrificed (Ibid.).

Invaders from Greece

A final outburst of destruction overtook the Minoans in around 1450 BC (Lilley 2006). In western Crete, an excavation in the heart of the modern town of Chania has revealed evidence of arson, which proves strong fires once took place there (Ibid.). It is a pattern repeated also in other sites across the island (Ibid.). Was this a revolution within the Minoan society or is it the evidence of conquest by outsiders? (Ibid.). The archaeologist, Dr Maria Vlazaki, discovered a highly unusual cemetery in Chania (Ibid.). It dates from the same period as the widespread destruction in the Minoan world (Ibid.). ‘These are warrior graves’, she claims (Ibid.). ‘They are single burials, something that is in opposition with the traditional [Minoan grave. The buried were of the age] between twenty-four and thirty. They [were] tall, robust and they look [like] invaders’ (Ibid.). These invaders’ burials have been also found at Knossos and elsewhere on Crete so it suggests an invasion from the mainland of Greece (Ibid.). The invaders are believed to have slashed and burned their way across Crete, overwhelming the Minoans (Ibid.).

Flotilla fresco of the miniature frieze from the West House or House of the Admiral at Akrotiri, Room 5, south wall: detail. It probably represents a mountainous landscape of the island of Thera with its flourishing port and fleet. Source: Fritz Blakolmer (2012). “Image and Architecture: Reflections of Mural Iconography in Seal Images and Other Art Forms of Minoan Crete”. In: Minoan Realities. AEGIS Approaches to Images, Architecture, and Society in the Aegean Bronze Age, pp. 83-114. Diamantis Panagiotopoulos et Ute Günkel-Maschek (dir.), fig. 27.

Dr McGillivray believes that the tsunamis and forthcoming social unrest may have actually helped the Mycenaeans to attack Crete (Lilley 2006). Coastal towns of the Minoans, like Malia, had no protective walls (Ibid.). Minoan defences rested instead on their control of the sea as the leading naval power in the ancient world (Ibid.). ‘The [islanders] were so confident in their navy that they were living in unprotected towns and cities all along the coastline’, he explains (Ibid.). All that naval force must have been, however, smashed and lost in the waves of tsunamis (Ibid.). Meantime, the fleet of Mycenae had grown in power (Ibid.). ‘[Their] traditional homeland is on the southern shores of the Gulf of Corinth’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). The archaeologist thinks that the tsunami could not reach into there because of its geographical landscape and natural closure from the sea (Ibid.). ‘Mycenaean Greeks up there were probably the only people who had survived with a navy, possibly in the whole eastern Mediterranean’, he explains (Ibid.). Hence their upcoming powerful empire.

Idyllic life on the coast of Crete. The town of Amnisos was believed to have served as the harbour of Knossos, which was located farther inland and so was not directly affected by the tsunamis. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: Sherna Bhumgara (2004). Hooked on Inspiration’s Blog.

Did these invaders encounter a dark side of Minoan culture? (Lilley 2006). In Knossos, archaeologists have found grisly human remains (Ibid.). ‘One of the most telling and horrifying deposits from the post-Thera eruption period in Crete was a deposit recovered in the town of Knossos up along the Royal Road and that [were] these cannibalized youths’, says Dr McGillivray (Ibid.). ‘The analysis of these bones from this […] deposit strongly [suggests] that [the bones] have been hacked up in order to take the flesh off [and] eat [it]. This cannibalistic aspect of the Minoans is probably one of the things that was recalled when the Greeks first arrived in Crete’ (Ibid.). Was this an origin of the Minotaur myth? (Ibid.). Did the Greeks imagine that these unlucky victims had been led to the labyrinth to be sacrificed to the Minoan bull god? (Ibid.). Whatever is the truth of their myth’s origins, within a generation of their arrival, the Greeks had conquered Crete (Ibid.). The last embers of Minoan culture flickered out (Ibid.).

Between now and then

Today, the only things that have survived from the Minoan culture are the remains of their monumental architecture, being visited by flocks of tourists every summer (Masjum 2006).

Today, Crete is being visited by hordes of tourists, who usually prefer sandy beaches and the warm sea to spending time on archaeological sites, where the heat is quite unbearable. Yet, the Minoan legends are still very tangible on the island and their elements can be encountered and felt everywhere on the island. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Yet for most the real story of the catastrophic disaster smashing the civilization is too heavy for people’s relaxing vacation. Soon most tourists usually abandon the ancient stones and go to sandy beaches. But endowed with its natural grandeur, the Aegean islands and Crete fire people imagination. In this idyllic landscape the atmosphere of the past is still very tangible. And it makes them unconsciously listen to its legends.

Featured image: The refugees from the erupting Thera are trying to flee to Crete. Shot from the documentary: Atlantis: End of a World, Birth of a Legend (2011): Director: Tony Mitchell. Source: CDA.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Last Queen in the Valley of the Kings

It was once believed that only thanks to the Divine Consort – the Queen, the royal power could rest in the hands of the king – her husband (Żylińska 1972-1986:56; see Noble 2003:79-84). It was also a remnant of matriarchal times that Pharaohs shaved their beard to resemble their feminine consorts; when the king-warrior replaced the divine Queen in the performance of sacred rites, he put on women’s dresses and had his face close shaved (Ibid.:56). At a time when in Egypt the Pharaohs were fully in power, in accordance with the old tradition, they still close shaved, but to emphasize their masculinity – because the patriarchal time had already come – they additionally wore an artificial beard, together with their coronation garments (Ibid.:56-57).

Royal Wife and goddess by birthright

Menkaura flanked by the goddess Hathor (left) and the goddess Bat (right). Graywacke statue in Cairo Museum. The sculpture shows the concept of the Divine Consort – the Queen who grants the royal power to a male king – her husband. Photo by Chipdawes (2019). Public domain. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Menkaure“ (2020). Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Also, Thutmose the First, the third pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty in the times of the New Kingdom, had his face close shaved (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). He became a Pharaoh thanks to his marriage to his half-sister, in whose veins divine blood flowed and whose offspring also had divine origins (Ibid.:57). For no matter who the queen of Egypt was married to, the god Amon-Re was considered the father of her children (Żylińska 1972-1986:57; see Noble 2003:79-84). The child of the Queen Ahmose and the god Amun-Re was a girl (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). She was given the name Hatshepsut. On the other hand, Thutmose the First had also a son with the concubine, whose name was Thutmose as well (Ibid.:57). Those events possibly took place at the turning of the fifteenth century BC.

Mortuary temples in western Thebes

I was just thinking about the life of an extraordinary Egyptian queen. Jadwiga Żylińska (1972-1986:56-70) tells her story like a fairy tale, which, however, really happened.

We had already landed on the west bank of the Nile. In a few minutes we were to reach Deir el-Bahari, a valley near the famous Valley of the Kings (“Deir el-Bahari” 2020). It is a complex of mortuary temples and a part of the Theban Necropolis in the Upper Egypt (Ibid.). The so-called mortuary temples erected in Western Thebes can be divided into two main groups: terraced temples and temples with a classical arrangement (Lipińska 2008: 160; see: Miracle of the Sun). Among the terraced temples, the oldest and largest is the Temple of Queen Hatshepsut (Ibid.:160). It was built under the influence of the construction of the Mortuary Temple of Nebhepetre Mentuhotep the Second, erected during the reign of the Eleventh Dynasty, which ruled at the end of the third millennium BC. (Ibid.:160). In turn, the temple of Queen Hatshepsut was a model for others, later sepulchral edifices (Ibid.:160).

Djeser-Djeseru – Hatshepsut’s temple, the focal point of the compound. Photo by Dan Lundberg (2011). CC BY-SA 2.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Surviving for eternity

Our bus was rocking on the way to our next destination, and my mind again went back to the Eighteenth Dynasty and Hatshepsut herself. At that time, the capital of Egypt was in Thebes. After the Hyksos were driven out of the land of the Pharaohs (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans), the city returned to its former glory and grew in splendour with each passing year (Żylińska 1972-1986:57). Hatshepsut often sailed from the east bank of the Nile, where the palace was located, to the West Thebes, where the dead reigned (Ibid.:57-58). She wanted to see if the work on the tomb being erected for her earthly father had already progressed (Ibid.:58). It was the only time when the inhabitants of the commercial district and the port could see the tall, long-legged and motionless-faced Pharaoh’s divine daughter (Ibid.:58).

Seeing the tomb erected by the Chief Royal Architect, Ineni, Hatshepsut thought that a mortuary temple should also be built for herself (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). That one would survive for eternity when there was no more trace of her on earth (Ibid.:58).

My thoughts were interrupted by the whistle of the opening doors of the bus. When we got out of it, a long train with six-seat carriages came to take us to the foot of the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut.

Successor of her father

Hatshepsut’s representation in a documentary (screenshot). Source: TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap 60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen”, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db.

When Hatshepsut turned twenty-four, Thutmose the First announced her as his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:58). The celebration took place in Karnak, in the temple of Amun-Re (Ibid.:58). It was followed by her marriage to her sick and weak half-brother, Thutmose the Second, who was seven years old (Ibid.:59). Three years later, Thutmose the First died and the new royal couple began reigning together over a united Egypt (Ibid.:59). Yet, although Hatshepsut was just a Great Royal Wife, it was clear that Egypt was ruled mainly by her (Ibid.:59).

Just after starting her reign over Egypt, the Queen immediately began erecting her mortuary temple in the Nile Valley, on the west side of Thebes (Żylińska 1972-1986:59).

The Alley of Sphinxes

The train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. By order of the Queen, it was erected directly opposite the district of Amun-Re, on the eastern side of the Nile (Lipińska 2008:160). The Alley of Sphinxes once led to the sanctuary, each with Hatshepsut’s face (Żylińska 1972-1986:66). Now there is no trace of the Alley, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes … (Dr Andrzej Ćwiek in PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).

There is no trace of the Alley in front of the Mortuary Temple, except for one or two partially reconstructed sphinxes. Each was with Hatshepsut’s face. Photo by Dezalb (2018). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

‘The alley of sphinxes was about 500 m, or 1000 Egyptian cubits long. Based on the recorded databases, we assume that there were about 70 sphinxes. The alley was 6 meters wide, and the distance between the statues was about 17 m’, explains Dr Andrzej Ćwiek, a member of Polish-Egyptian archaeological and conservation mission (PAP – Nauka w Polsce, Zdziebłowski 2008).


The creator of the funerary complex of Hatshepsut, Senenmut, designed a building on a monumental scale (Lipińska 2008:160). He was Hatshepsut’s favourite and the chief architect of the Queen’s works in Deir el-Bahari (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:160). Senenmut “first enters the historical record as the ‘Steward of the God’s Wife’ (Hatshepsut) and ‘Steward of the King’s Daughter’ (Neferure). […] After Hatshepsut was crowned Pharaoh, Senenmut was given more prestigious titles and became high steward of the king” (“Senenmut” 2020).

TT 353 of Sen-en-Mut (Senenmut tomb) – a hypogeum built by the order of Sen-en-Mut, 97.36m long and 41.93m deep. Photo by Edal Anton Lefterov (2011). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Moreover, some of archaeological evidence supports the idea that he had an emotional connection with the Queen and there was an intimate relationship between them (Quilici 2007). One of the traces supporting this hypothesis is definitely Senenmut tomb, placed just beneath the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, and ambiguous representations and writings inside it (Ibid.). Although Senenmut was the government official, he was just of low commoner birth, and so such a relation with the Queen-Pharaoh, who was perceived as an incarnation of gods on earth would be outrageous to the public at that time (Ibid.). Still, there is no decisive evidence that such an affair took place at all (Ibid.).

Prosperity of Egypt in stone

When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. The temple, although largely reconstructed by archaeologists, is remarkable and still arouses admiration among visitors; It was built of local white limestone beautifully harmonizing with the natural colour of the rocks, and its well-balanced porticoes are supported either on pillars or on polygonal columns of several types (Lipińska 2008:164). A real feast for the eyes!

Our train slowly coiled like a snake just before the road leading to the Temple. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

From the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters in a straight line, and the width of the central courtyard exceeds 100 meters (Lipińska 2008:161). The difference in levels between the lower courtyard and the highest storey of the temple is over 15 meters (Ibid.:161). According to the classical temple plan, the temple complex began with the lower temple, also built on terraces, almost completely ruined today (Ibid.:161). A one kilometre long avenue led to it, guarded once by the mentioned sphinxes (Lipińska 2008:161; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). The main temple had no pylons, only a stone gate in a wall of white limestone surrounding the courtyard (Lipińska 2008:161). The entire structure is situated on three successive levels: the lowest one is a courtyard closed on the west side with porticoes, between which a sloping ramp leads to the middle level (Ibid.:161). The northern portico has a badly damaged decoration depicting hunting and fishing, and the southern portico shows a unique scene of the transport of two obelisks ordered by the Queen in Aswan, and floated by a large barge to Thebes (Ibid.:161). One of these obelisks still stands in the Temple of Karnak (Ibid.:161).

‘The Queen also donated to the expansion of the Temple of Karnak itself,’ recalled Menes, our guide (Lipińska 2008:161; Quilici 2007). There, on a granite obelisk covered with a thick layer of electrum (a mixture of gold and silver), she had the following words inscribed (Żylińska 1972-1986:66; Brier 2017).

“I have thought of what people shall say, [when they see the monuments I have founded]. Don’t say my words are exaggerations but say how like her it is, to be true to her father”.

Time Trips (2021).

At that time, for a daughter to be considered as not worse than a son, she had to be twice as good as him (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

The facade of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple, Deir-el-Bahri. When we were standing in front of the Temple, before our eyes a high sand cliff rose. At its foot, the irregular and jagged shapes of rocks turned into a geometric arrangement of ramps, successive terraces and porticoes, rising and climbing upwards. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As the Egyptologist, Kara Cooney, states it is well shown in stone that Hatshepsut brought prosperity to the country (Quilici 2007). Not only did she greatly contribute to the growth of the Temple of Amon-Re in Karnak, but also she actually founded Luxor Temple (Ibid.).

She had brought peace and abundance

The reign of Hatshepsut therefore took place in peace, time spent on daily duties and pleasures of common Egyptians, and the growth of the Queen’s power through the foundation of monumental temples and the establishment of and strengthening trade contacts, including such relations with Caphtor (possibly Crete), and with the legendary land of Punt. It is probably thanks to the Queen’s help that the inhabitants of the Nile Delta, fleeing the effects of the volcanic eruption on Thera, found rescue and refuge in Thebes. Yet, it is unknown if the recorded disaster had been caused by the volcano or if it had happened at all at that time, as Hatshepsut’s reign was rather a period of prosperity (see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

My sister in front of Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple and among the crowds of tourists visiting the monument of Deir-el-Bahri. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Years later, people got used to such affluence and common wealth, resulting from long-term peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:60). There was no hunger or thirst in any part of the country, livestock multiplied in abundance, the children of Egyptians were born on the Nile, no one lacked grain, oil, or honey (Ibid.:60). Memories of the Pharaohs’ war expeditions faded into oblivion and slowly, like all past events, became legendary (Ibid.:60). Similar stories were also told to little Thutmose, Thutmose the Second’s son, born of a concubine like his father (Ibid.:61). He listened to similar stories with bated breath and burning face, and in his heart a longing for the glory of war and a thirst for conquest was born (Ibid.:61).

Arranged miracles of Amun-Re

At that time, the priests of Amun-Re in Karnak gained more power and influence, including such matters as the appointment to the throne of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:134). The best example illustrating their dominance happened the case of the son of Thutmose the Second (Ibid.:134). Although Thutmose the Third’s father was the Pharaoh, his mother was not the Great Royal Wife but the lesser lady of the Harem (Ibid.:134). So he had no right to the throne, but he was the only male descendant of the king who died, leaving behind only a legitimate daughter, Neferure (Ibid.:134). At first, the priests of Karnak thought that the boy was more suitable to be a ruler, and ‘arranged’ a miracle; during the procession in the pillared hall of the temple of Amon-Re, the god’s statue stopped in front of the boy hiding in the shadows of the pillars and appointed him as the successor of his deceased father (Ibid.:134).

The way up to the first level of the Temple; from the entrance to the courtyard to the main sanctuary in the heart of the complex is 240 meters. Photo taken by Marek. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Thutmose the Third took over the throne but it did not prevent the priests from coronating the widow of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut, just a few years later (Lipińska 2008:134). To justify the crowning of Hatshepsut, the priests composed a song about her divine origins, according to which the god Amon-Re himself, taking the form of Thutmose the First, visited his holy wife and conceived the daughter (Ibid.:134). When she was born, the god introduced her to all the gods as the future ruler of Egypt (Ibid.:134). The priests of Amun-Re probably understood the Pharaoh did not have to be a man, especially when the Hyksos were eventually defeated and the country needed peace (Żylińska 1972-1986:59). On the whole, there seems to be a trace in this tangled story of the existence of two factions among the priests of the Temple of Amun in Karnak, one supporting Thutmose the Third and the other, Hatshepsut (Lipińska 2008:134-135).

False beard of the Pharaoh-Queen

Hatshepsut had been crowned the Pharaoh at Karnak (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). During the ceremony, she appeared in a ritual outfit, in a diadem with a uraeus, which has always stood for ‘goddess’ and was strongly linked to royalty in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:61; Noble 2003:83-84). In her hands in turn she held a golden whip and a staff, both crossed on her breast (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). According to the repeated ritual, she had a false beard attached to her face, which actually was a double mystification, but she was not aware of it (Ibid.:61). The patriarchy had already left its mark on people’s minds and there was no turning back to the old values. By attaching a false beard, the woman now imitated the man to be honoured and become the Pharaoh, the female incarnation of Horus (Ibid.:61).

Horus as a falcon in front of the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

On the same base of the obelisk founded by Hatshepsut, the carving also reads (Brier 2017):

“I erected them for my father Amun. They could be seen from the other side of the Nile, their tips gleaming in electrum” (Brier 2017).

It is true that “Hatshepsut used her obelisks as a form of propaganda[?] [Nevertheless, she had never tried to] pass herself off as a man. She calls herself the female Horus—female falcon—meaning she [was] the king, although she [was] female” (Brier 2017).

Hatshepsut as the goddess Hathor in the form of a cow with a golden disc between her horns. In such an incarnation, Hathor is identified as a mother, and so the Pharaoh Hatshepsut, who played the role of a feeder of an Egyptian nation (represented as a small figure in front). In the relief, a visible human figure, standing below the cow, is drinking milk directly from the udder of a Hathor-cow. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But Hatshepsut was also the earthly incarnation of Horus’ divine wife, Hathor. The name Hathor means ‘House of Horus’ which embodies the whole idea of ​​a divine wife giving her husband the right to the crown (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161; see Noble 2003:79-84). Hathor – the goddess of beauty and love – was often pictured as a cow or a woman with cow horns on her head, between which a solar disk was placed (Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:161-162; see Noble 2003:79-84). Such attributes not only emphasized her role as the mother feeding her nation (cows have always been extremely valuable in this part of the world), but also the fact that she was of extraordinary beauty.

How’s that? Beautiful? Cow ?’, I once asked my Egyptian guide.

‘Have you seen the cow’s eyes? They are large and deep framed with a veil of long lashes’, explained Menes.

I tried to remember a picture of a cow’s head from my childhood, which I spent in the countryside. There were two good lasses, although I never paid much attention to their ‘wonderful’ eyes.

‘When a man says you look like a cow, it will be the biggest compliment,’ promised the guide.

I smiled. I would like to see the expressions of European women hearing similar compliments.

Hathor (Hatshepsut) as the Cow of the Heavens in the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At first people thought that Hatshepsut, that is to say, Horus and Hathor in one person, would be a regent until her daughter Nefrure grew up and married her half-brother Thutmose in due time, who would be thus granted the throne (Żylińska 1972-1986:61). But it soon became apparent that Hatshepsut did not intend to rule in anybody’s name but her own (Ibid.:61). She herself probably planned to prepare her daughter for the future role of the Pharaoh of Egypt (Ibid.:61). Thutmose, on the other hand, was given military training; he was to become a military commander, maybe even a general, but he was to stay away from Thebes and reigning in Egypt (Ibid.:61).

Offerings from Punt

A famous expedition of Hatshepsut to the land of Punt took place at that time (Żylińska 1972-1986:64-65). It was a commercial journey, further than before (Ibid.:61). Punt, a legendary land often associated with today’s Somalia, was beyond the fourth Nile cataract and further than Niya (a kingdom in northern Syria), where the foot of an Egyptian soldier never reached (Żylińska 1972-1986:64; Lipińska 2008:163).

Reliefs at Deir el-Bahri. A painted relief depicting scenes from Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

But at the time of the Fifth Dynasty, there had apparently been an earlier expedition from Egypt reaching Punt, when Egyptian ships entered its distant ports (Żylińska 1972-1986:64). At the time of Hatshepsut, however, in addition to the sailors, several court scribes and painters were to accompany the queen so that they could describe the whole expedition and depict it in pictures (Ibid.:64). At the rising Moon, five thirty-oar boats left the Red Sea harbour and headed south (Ibid.:64). The expedition lasted two years and returned to Thebes at the time of harvests with unbelievable treasures (Ibid.:64). The Dukes of Punt mistook the Egyptian expedition for the messengers of heavens and fell on their faces before Hatshepsut (Ibid.:65). The Egyptians prudently held the hostages, and then proceeded to exchange goods: piles of fresh incense, precious myrrh trees, ebony, ivory gold, cinnamon leaves, antimony, baboons, vines, dogs and leopard skins (Ibid.:65). In return, the Queen of Egypt offered them innumerable piles of coloured beads, various fabrics, daggers with decorative handles, painted vessels, two chairs and a multitude of hatchets, both suitable for cutting trees and killing cattle and people (Ibid.:64).

Punt Reliefs, Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri. Photo by Zigor Agirrezabala Vitoria (2016). Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

The expedition returning from Punt was welcomed in Thebes with excitement and feverish curiosity, and news of the imported riches and wonders of Punt, the divine land from which the Egyptian goddess Hathor hailed, fired the imaginations of residents of the palace as well as the commercial district (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). But in this general mood of joy, there was no exultation accompanying the return of the victorious army, that incomparable triumphant intoxication aroused by the soldiers riding on the chariots of war and the long columns of prisoners with the mark of slaves on their faces following them (Ibid.:65).

Temple tells a story

Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple was also finished; it rose unsurpassed in its beauty and solitude on white terraces, surrounded by columns, against the background of a dark massif of mountains (Żylińska 1972-1986:65). Now the Queen began to decorate the walls of her temple (Ibid.:65). She had her history painted on them, from the moment when her mother, Queen Ahmose, was visited by the god Amun-Re, through her birth, the announcement of her succession to the throne, the history of the trip to Punt, until the day when she would give her divine body under the protection of the goddess Nut, asking her to make place for her among the stars lest she die forever (Ibid.:65-66).

Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

A transverse ramp led us to the middle level of the temple, with a similar architectural shape to the lower one, but more extensive (Lipińska 2008:161). On both sides of the portico closing the courtyard from the west, there are chapels of collaterally worshiped deities in the temple (Ibid.:161). The Hathor chapel was built on the south side, and the Anubis chapel on the north side (Ibid.:161,163). In the chapel of the goddess Hathor, embodied by Hatshepsut, both pillars and smooth, cylindrical columns topped with so-called Hathor’s capitals were built (Ibid.:164).

The north side of the central courtyard is occupied by a colonnade that was never completed (Lipińska 2008:163). The northern portico is decorated with bas-reliefs illustrating the legend of the divine birth of Hatshepsut (Ibid.:163). The southern portico, on the other hand, is decorated with the highly detailed image of the exotic land of Punt, famous and unusual in the history of ancient Egypt, where the Queen went with a trade expedition (Ibid.:163).

The third story of the Temple has a different spatial layout and here are the main rooms of the monument (Lipińska 2008:164). From the second, central courtyard, we climbed the ramp again (Ibid.:164). At the end of the way up, we were greeted by another terrace with porticoes on either side (Ibid.:164). Porticos have pillars reconstructed by archaeologists, decorated on the front with colossal Osirian statues representing the Queen in the form of the god Osiris; they are five meters high each (Ibid.:164). The entrance is on the axis and leads through a red granite portal (Ibid.:164). It guided us to the inner courtyard, behind which there is a barque shrine, partially carved into the rock and deeper, in the very heart of the temple, there is the sanctuary or the holy of holies (Ibid.:164). On both sides of the inner courtyard there were additionally chapels: on the north side an open courtyard with the altar of solar worship, and on the south side, there was a tomb chapel and two sarcophagi: one for Hatshepsut and the other for her earthly father; these were their sacrificial halls (Lipińska 2008:164; Żylińska 1972-1986:66). For everything that Hatshepsut undertook and everything that she did, she did with her father Thutmose the First in mind, who placed her over his son and appointed her his successor (Żylińska 1972-1986:66).

Hatred Queen

However, not everyone worshiped the Queen as their Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). For the son of Thutmose the Second, Hatshepsut was an ordinary usurper (Ibid.:67). Thutmose the Third hated her with the hatred of all the years spent in the shadow of her divinity (Ibid.:67). He wanted to fill them with the toil of military expeditions, the clamour of battles, the march through the deserts and the glory of the military victory (Ibid.:67).

Deir El Bahari; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Nina Evensen (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

Eventually his wish came true (Żylińska 1972-1986:67). The news of the war fell on Egypt like a vulture from high above; Syrian cities revolted against the Egyptian crews, demolished Egyptian holy statues and proclaimed independence from Pharaoh’s rule (Ibid.:67-68). On the day of the Egyptian army’s departure, Hatshepsut handed over the highest military power to Thutmose (Ibid.:68). A few months later, news began coming into Thebes announcing the victory of the Egyptian army (Ibid.:68). All Egypt was in a frenzy of joy (Ibid.:68). It was the first triumph of war in over thirty years that struck and drunk city dwellers like young wine (Ibid.:68). Only mothers cried for their slain sons and worried that their bodies were not properly prepared for the journey to the Land of the Dead and that their souls might not have been brought to the Judgment of Osiris and so died for eternity (Ibid.:68-69).

A view to a sanctuary chamber on the upper platform of the Temple of Hatshepsut, Luxor’s west bank, Egypt. Photo by Przemyslaw “Blueshade” Idzkiewicz (2004). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut proclaimed Thutmose the Third the co-regent of Egypt, and they were to share power together (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). There were also rumours that he was going to marry Princess Neferure (Ibid.:69). And when people had ceased to worry about the change and to speculate whether the Queen’s stepson would be satisfied with his assigned share of power, Hatshepsut unexpectedly passed away (Ibid.:69). Nobody ever found out under what circumstances she died (Ibid.:69). Yet not long ago, it was still a mystery of history.

Mystery of the history

Moreover, Hatshepsut’s body mysteriously vanished from the sarcophagus she had chosen for herself, and in which she would have given her immortal soul into the hands of the goddess Nut; when the sarcophagus was reopened again, it turned out that the queen’s mummy originally buried there disappeared without a trace (Żylińska 1972-1986:69; Quilici 2007). However, the Hatshepsut’s sarcophagus had never been deposited in her Mortuary Temple, which was rather a cenotaph (Quilici 2007; Lipińska 2008:171). The Hatshepsut’s last resting place was to be in the Valley of the Kings, intended for the Pharaohs (Lipińska 2008:171). This place, due to its seclusion and difficult access, provided a better protection against robbers (Ibid.:171). It is also believed that the choice of the site could equally be influenced by the landscape, above which the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn has stood, towering over the valley like a colossal pyramid (Ibid.:171).

Site plan of Deir el-Bahari (in French). Drawing by Gérard Ducher (user:Néfermaât) (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Drawing and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Already at the beginning of the Eighteenth Dynasty, to which Hatshepsut belonged, the existing way of building a royal tomb and a mortuary temple in one sepulchral complex was given up (Lipińska 2008:171). It was considered that the separation of these two elements may have contributed to a better protection of the tomb, which had since been placed in the distant, hard-to-reach rocks of the mountain massif in Western Thebes (Ibid.:171). These are complexes belonging to both the Valley of the Kings and of the Queens (Pharaohs’ wives). It seems that this chapter in the sacred sepulchral architecture of Egypt was initiated by the second ruler of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Amenhotep the First (Ibid.:171). His son and Hatshepsut’s father, Thutmose the First, on the other hand, introduced the construction of a new type of royal necropolis in the Valley of the Kings, a desert valley on the other side of the massif closing the Deir el-Bahari Valley from the west (Ibid.:171).

Deir el-Bahari with Hatshepsut’s temple, temple of Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, West Thebes, Egypt. Above the necropolis complex towers the mighty triangular peak of El-Kurn, like a colossal pyramid, which had probably influenced the choice of the place by the pharaohs. Photo by Nowic (2003). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Hatshepsut’s mummy was buried in the tomb labelled today as KV20, the deepest tomb in Egypt, situated over ninety-one metres underground, in the Valley of the Kings (Quilici 2007). “It was probably the first royal tomb to be constructed in the valley, […] distinguished from other tombs in the [area], both in its general layout and because of the atypical clockwise curvature of its corridors. […] KV20 was the original burial place of Thutmose I […] and later was adapted by his daughter Hatshepsut to accommodate both her and her father” (“KV20” 2020).

The Name to be forgotten

After Hatshepsut’s death, no mourning rituals were announced, and no coronation ceremony took place, as if Thutmose the Third had been a Pharaoh since his father’s death (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Sometime after these events, by the orders of the new Pharaoh, teams of workers began the painstaking work of destroying all traces of Hatshepsut’s existence (Ibid.:69).

Thebes – Temple Dêr el Bahri. Photo by Ephtimios Freres – Rare Books and Special Collections Library; the American University in Cairo, early twentieth century. Public domain. Photo and caption source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In the Sphinx Avenue and in the porticoes on the third-level terrace of her temple, the stonemasons smashed the heads with the face of the Queen, then they threw her statue in coronation garments from a granite base and proceeded to demolish her representations in relief (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). First they hammered her eyes, then they knocked down the uraeus from her forehead, and when they did so, they smashed the statue into thousands of pieces, by throwing it from the height of a two-story building (Ibid.:69). All inscriptions with the name of Hatshepsut were being erased with chisels for many months (Ibid.:70). In their place, engravers carved the name of Thutmose the Third or his son Amenhotep the Second (Żylińska 1972-1986:70; Quilici 2007). Also the papyri with the Queen’s edicts were destroyed, and her painted images were covered with thick layers of plaster (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Preserving the name of the dead was essential in ancient Egypt as they would not have been recognised by gods. And if the name of a mummy had been forgotten, they would not have been able to enjoy the Eternal Life and their souls would have disappeared into nothingness. Just in the same way as it was going to happen with the soul of deceased Hatshepsut. Erased from the list of Pharaohs, without a sarcophagus, not prepared for the way to the Land of Osiris, she was to fall apart, disappear from memory and dissolve into emptiness (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Thutmose the Third began his reign of Egypt by denying the existence of the last divine Queen of Egypt, who was a Pharaoh (Żylińska 1972-1986:70).

Rebirth of the Pharaoh

Thirty-five centuries later, the remnants of the desecrated statue of the Queen were excavated from the sand layers, as the stonecutters had left them, and a team of archaeologists carefully put them back together, restoring the statue of the divine Hatshepsut to its original shape (Żylińska 1972-1986:69). Similarly, Osiris’ statues with her features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen, who became one of the most famous and colourful, yet mysterious Pharaohs of Egypt (Lipińska 2008:164-166).

Osiris’ statues with Hatshepsut’s features were discovered and reconstructed, along with other covered or smashed images of the Queen. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Since 1961, the Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple has been reconstructed by Polish archaeologists and other specialists, initially under the supervision of a Polish famous archaeologist, Kazimierz Michałowski (Lipińska 2008:165; see: Saint Anne of Nubia – “It Will Make You Speechless”). During the reconstruction of the retaining wall, which is the background for the temple, a terrace carved in the rock was discovered, probably to protect the temple from rock fragments falling down (Ibid.:165). The destruction of the temple was not made entirely by Thutmose the Third himself; It experienced many further destructions, for example, in the Late Period, and was rebuilt in the Ptolemaic and Coptic times (Ibid.:165). The Ptolemaic enlarged the sanctuary of Amun, creating another one behind it, devoted to the cult of the three healer deities (Ibid.:165). Deir-el Bahari was then famous for miraculous healings, where the sick came even from distant Greece (Ibid.:165-166). In the Coptic times, a Christian monastery was built on the upper level of the temple, and the valley owes its name to the monastery: Deir-el Bahari means ‘northern monastery’ (Ibid.:166).

Beside the Stepmother anyway

During the work in the Deir el-Bahari Valley, Polish archaeologists unexpectedly also found the ruins of the temple of Thutmose the Third, located in the vicinity of the temple of Hatshepsut, his hatred stepmother (Lipińska 2008:166). The construction of the Temple of Thutmose the Third began when, at the Pharaoh’s order, the statues of Hatshepsut were smashed and carvings with her names erased from the walls, which was associated with the destruction of all the traces of the reign of the Queen-Pharaoh (Ibid.:166). Although Thutmose the Third was one of the greatest Pharaohs in history, it is ironically, the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, and not the ruins of the Temple of Thutmose the Third, that arouses widespread admiration today, and the very name of the Queen, so shamefully removed, is much more often mentioned by visitors to Deir el-Bahari.

In front of Deir el-Bahri; Hatshepsut’s Mortuary Temple. Photo by Ron Porter (2014). Photo cropped. Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

The building of Thutmose the Third was situated in the centre of the Valley, obviously on a higher level than the Queen’s temple, despite very unfavourable natural conditions (Lipińska 2008:166). The structure erected had a shape borrowed from both neighbouring temples; those of Mentuhotep the Second and Hatshepsut (Ibid.:166). Tens of thousands of fragments of polychrome reliefs were recovered from the rubble of this, also three-level temple, which was destroyed at the end of the New Kingdom (Ibid.:166). Reconstruction of the wall reliefs allowed to recreate the decoration of the temple after many years (Ibid.:166).

Temples in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari

During the New Kingdom, shortly after the reign of Thutmose the Third, there were three buildings in the Valley of Deir el-Bahari, which must have been once a magnificent complex of architecture harmonizing with the natural landscape of the Valley. At that time, the temple of Mentuhotep had not yet been destroyed (Lipińska 2008:166). Next to it, the temples of Hatshepsut and Thutmose the Third rose in all their majesty (Ibid.:166). The wide processional avenues, running parallel to the bottom of the Asasif Valley, were framed by necropolises with decorated tomb facades (Ibid.:166). As underlined above, the background of the whole necropolis were rock cliffs dominated by the El-Kurn peak with a triangular top resembling a pyramid (Ibid.:166). The rhythm of the horizontal temple porticoes and the sloping ramps of the three temples, each different but consistent with the others in style, must have produced a wonderful effect in the rays of the sun continuously shining from the cloudless sky (Ibid.:166-167). This effect was enhanced by the colour contrasts between the bright brown rocks being the background of the temples, the white and rich polychrome of the buildings, and the green foliage of the trees that used to grow in the lower courtyards (Ibid.:167).

The so-called Hathor chapel on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard. A photographer at work. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

At the foot of the ramp in the courtyard of the Hatshepsut’s Temple, there were also two small pools filled with water (Lipińska 2008:167). Each part of the architectural complex harmonized with each other and with the surrounding environment; they were built gradually over the centuries, and although there is no question of spatial planning, according to scholars, the harmony of the whole complex and the organic connection of the buildings with nature are the main advantages of Deir el-Bahari, as opposed to richer but chaotic buildings in the Amun-Re district of Karnak in Eastern Thebes (Ibid.:167,170).

Hathor looking down from the capitals

I was standing on the south side of Temple’s second courtyard, admiring pillars and columns at the Hathor chapel. They are usually referred to as the Hathor or sistrum columns (The MET 2020). Their capitals show heads of Hathor in the form of a cow on four opposite sides. Each is additionally topped with a naos-sistrum sound-box (Ibid.). Such a capital had been quite typical of Egypt since the beginning of the New Kingdom. Between them, I noticed smooth movements of a photographer nimbly climbing the pillars and columns up and down with a huge camera hanging from his neck. From time to time, he froze in a peculiar pose in his acrobatic dance between the columns, and took a series of pictures of the cow goddess.

Neglected mummy from KV60

Hatshepsut’s story was still on my mind. I was trying to piece it together. Her name was wiped out from the history intentionally, her legacy destroyed, her mummy vanished for centuries (Quilici 2007). Actually, it was officially uncovered in the tomb KV60, located close to the KV20, in 1903 by Howard Carter (Ibid.). It is speculated that Hatshepsut’s mummy had been removed from her original tomb and shifted from place to place for centuries, in order to save it either from grave robbers or a final destruction by the following Pharaohs, taking into account Hatshepsut’s name was being hacked away in the entire Theban region by Thutmose the Third (Ibid.).

Matriarchy had already been over

For some reasons, her image as the Pharaoh must have been removed (Quilici 2007). It was so, along with the names of Senenmut and Hatshepsut’s daughter (Ibid.). By this means, Neferure, Hatshepsut’s desired heir to the throne, would simply vanish from history (Ibid.). Female Pharaoh grooming her own daughter to be her successor to the throne must have been too radical in her plans at the time of patriarchy (Ibid.). This is probably why Neferure’s last resting place is located high in the mountain cliff, In the small opening in the rock, very distant from Thebes and difficult to be found (Ibid.). Moreover, the hacked away name of the Queen was usually being replaced by the name of Thutmose the Third’s son, Amenhotep the Second (Ibid.).

Pillars with the Hathor capitals in the Mortuary Temple, Deir el-Bahri. Photo by Dezalb (2015). Colours intensified. Photo source: Free pictures at Pixbay.

After Kara Cooney, it is possibly the key to the whole campaign against Hatshepsut and severe attempts to destroy her legacy; she and her female heir must have been removed from common memory to avoid a woman descendant to mount the throne in Egypt (Quilici 2007). Therefore the attack on Hatshepsut’s legacy was all about the politics of succession; Thutmose the Third wanted to make sure that the succession remained patrilineal, that it to say, it would be passed down from father to his son (Ibid.). But in order to guarantee a smooth succession, it was essential to remove the Queen and her daughter from history (Ibid.). Eventually, it made Thutmose the Third’s masculine descendants take Hatshepsut’s place (Ibid.).

Tale-tale tooth

Discovered in the first decade of the twenty-first century, the mummy of Hatshepsut has finally found its place among other royal mummies in the Museum of Archaeology in Cairo, Egypt (Quilici 2007). It has her left arm bent in a royal position, the feature typical of deceased Egyptian Pharaohs, and is still well preserved, despite the fact it used to be long transferred from one tomb to another before being finally abandoned and neglected (Ibid.). Identifying the Hatshepsut mummy was only possible by means of an analysis of a tooth found in the canopy box with the Hatshepsut name (Ibid.). Further  studies have also revealed she died at the age between forty and fifty and was killed by an infection in her body (Ibid.).

Walking down the ramp of the Temple. Photo taken by Marek, Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Rescued from oblivion and becoming famous

Owing to the team of specialists, led by the Egyptian archaeologist, Zahi Hawass, the Queen was rescued from oblivion (Quilici 2007). Hatshepsut has regained her position as one of the most powerful women that the world had ever seen on the throne of the Pharaohs (Ibid.).

Since then, the mysterious story of Hatshepsut has attired attention of various scholars and authors, such as an associate professor of Egyptology, Dr Kara Cooney  whose book, The Woman Who Would Be King (2014) greatly underlines Hatshepsut’s legacy.

Author Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy (2014). Kara Cooney, author of “The Woman Who Would Be King” and leading Egyptologist, discusses Hatshepsut, Egypt’s longest reigning female pharaoh and her legacy. Learn more about Hatshepsut at KaraCooney.com. Film source: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel.

Featured image: Hatshepsut’s temple. Deir el-Bahari with temples of Hatshepsut, Thutmosis III and Mentuhotep II, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Ian Lloyd – lloydi.com (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Deir el-Bahari” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology;
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Quilici B. (2007) Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen. Starring Kara Cooney and Zahi Hawass. Discovery Channel.

The Crown Publishing Group (2014). “Kara Cooney on Hatshepsut’s Legacy”. In: The Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. In: The Crown Publishing Group Youtube Channel. Available at <https://bit.ly/3pH7BUO>. [Accessed on 3rd February, 2021].

The MET (2020). “Column with Hathor-emblem capital and names of Nectanebo I on the shaft. 380–362 B.C. Late Period”. In Metropolitan Museum. Available at <http://bit.ly/3q1SMfv>. [Accessed on 6th January, 2021].

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TV db; Administrator (2019) “16:9 Screencap #60792152 of the documentary Secrets of Egypt’s Lost Queen, directed by Brando Quilici (2007). In: Discovery Channel Documentaries. TV db. Available at <http://bit.ly/3hRnTaC>. [Accessed on 7th January, 2021].

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The Spell of Ushabtis: ‘Verily, I Am Here’.

Servants, musicians and court craftsmen were once placed in the mounds around royal tombs and mastabas in Egypt (Żylińska 1972-1986:56). Dying with kings and queens was a privilege and a passage to eternity (Ibid.:56). Later, human sacrifices were abandoned and the old rite was replaced with others: deceased royal members were accompanied to the Afterlife by faience figurines placed in the tombs (Ibid.:56). They represented the servants and handmaids (Ibid.:56), the ushabti, originally known as shabti or shawabti (“Ushabti“ 2020).

No more work in the Afterlife

When in the times of the Old Kingdom (circa 2686-2181 BC.), the king and his relatives reached Sehet Jaru in the Afterlife, they had to do physical work themselves, sowing and harvesting, to ensure their livelihood, yet the king could have ordered the subjects who accompanied him to the Afterlife to do these works for himself (Rachet 1994:359). In the times of the Middle Kingdom (circa 2055-1795 BC.), the land of eternal happiness was opened to all subjects, but they did not intend to work in the Afterlife like ordinary peasants (Rachet 1994:359; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179).

Four ushabtis of Khabekhnet and their box; 1279–1213 BC; painted limestone; height of the ushabtis: 16.7 cm; Metropolitan Museum of Art. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Colours intensified. This photo was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2020). Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Life After Death was supposed to be a more perfect version of earthly existence, so the Egyptians believed that it would be full of free time and would not have to do manual labour (Ikram 2003:110). Therefore, in their tombs there have been found peculiar magical objects and images to improve the quality of the Afterlife (Ibid.:110). These also include the ushabti, although the name of such objects itself appeared only in the Late Period (circa 664-332 BC.) (Ikram 2003:111; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Primarily, such statuettes were referred to as shabti or shawabti (Ibid.:110).

Fetch and carry

Statuettes of servants had already been common during the Fifth and Sixth Dynasties (the Old Kingdom), depicting Egyptians devoting themselves to their daily activities (Ikram 2003:110). Among them there are thus imagery of people milling grain, baking bread, making pots, brewing beer, and many other scenes that have been seen by the Nile (Ibid.:110). It was believed that, just like the images painted and carved on the walls of tombs, the ushabti magically came to life in the Afterlife to perform the listed activities for the deceased (Ibid.:110).

In the Old Kingdom, statuettes did not always represent offering services; sometimes they were members of the deceased’s family, carrying out everyday activities for those they loved (Ikram 2003:110). In the Middle Kingdom, statuettes of servants were replaced by wooden grave models, beautifully illustrating people performing their daily activities (Ibid.:110). They too came alive thanks to magic and satisfied the needs of the dead (Ibid.:110). While, all these painted and carved crowds did work for the deceased as much as their real-world counterparts, the ushabti were to take on the tasks assigned to their master in the Afterlife as a part of the service for gods, or the work that they had to do to ensure their existence after Death (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). I wish I would not have to wait till the death to have such servants …

Mummies offering services

The ushabti, were originally called shabti by the Egyptians and appeared at the beginning of the Middle Kingdom (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:359). They disappeared in the Ptolemaic Period (circa 332 – 32 BC.) (Ikram 2003:110; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Shabti usually took the form of mummy-shaped figures and, depending on the wealth of the deceased, they were made of various materials: wood, glass, clay, wax, stone, and bronze (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360).

For the richest, the most often they were made of the famous Egyptian faience, blue in the New Kingdom (circa 1550 – 1069 BC.), and green in later eras till the fourth century BC. (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). Statuettes also differed in size and quality; some were only a few centimetres high, others were half a meter high (Ikram 2003:110). Some were carefully carved statuettes, others were roughly shaped lumps of clay or even just wooden pegs of wood (Ibid.:110). Until the time of Amenhotep the Second, the deceased had only one or two figures deposited in their tombs, and initially each had its own sarcophagus (Ikram 2003:110; Rachet 1994:360). Later, also during the New Kingdom, the ushabti began to be placed in tall, chapel-shaped boxes, which by the time of the Nineteenth Dynasty (New Kingdom) already contained several hundred figurines (Ikram 2003:110). The ushabti were an extremely important element of tomb equipment, as proved by their prevalence in the graves of people of all social classes and in all periods (Ibid.:110). They served not only humans but also sacred animals; some mummies of the holy Apis also were accompanied in tombs by typical mummy-shaped figures with bull’s heads (Ibid.:110).

Enjoying the freedom of the Afterlife

Tasks of the ushabti were not always the same. Initially, the figurines took the place of the tomb models, taking over the role of their owner’s servants (Ikram 2003:110). However, they could also represent the deceased himself, which it is supported by the fact they were provided with their own sarcophagi, just like a mummy (Ibid.:110-111).

An ushabti box, probably the beginning of the Ptolemaic Period. On display at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, California. RC 623. Photo by BrokenSphere (2008). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In this role, the ushabti replaced the statues of ka (Ikram 2003:111). However, their most important task was to do whatever work on behalf of the dead that gods ordered them to perform in the Afterlife (Ibid.:111). Mostly, the dead was demanded to cultivate the land and perform other farm labours, which were the backbone of the Egyptian economy (Ibid.:111). As the physical work expected of the dead was performed by their assistants or ushabti, they would not have to bother and enjoy the freedom of the Afterlife (Ibid.:111).

Spell for making an ushebti work

The ushabti came to life owing to a magical text that appeared during the Twelfth Dynasty (Middle Kingdom) as the Chapter 472 of the Sarcophagus Texts, after which it evolved in the New Kingdom into the Chapter Sixth of the Book of the Dead, also referred to as the Book of Coming Forth by Day or Book of Emerging Forth into the Light (Ikram 2003:111; “Book of the Dead” 2020). It is commonly referred to as the ‘Spell for making an ushebti work (for a man) in the God’s Land’ or simply, the ‘Shabti Spell’ The (Shabti Collections 2020). Its words were “inscribed on the shabtis with certain variations depending at which time they were made. Sometimes the complete spell was used, or certain clauses were omitted” (Ibid.).

A receipt for 401 ushabtis produced by Padikhonsu. Photo by (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

As it is seen in the Third Intermediate Period (circa 1069 – 664 BC.) and Late Period (circa 664 – 332 BC.), the figurines were usually inscribed with the title of the owner and his name along with the name of ‘Osiris’, referring to the changed status of the deceased in the Afterlife (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020; Lipińska, Marciniak 2006:179). It was either the ultimate inscription, or written in addition to the Spell (Ikram 2003:111; Shabti Collections 2020).  “[The] earliest version of the ‘Shabti Spell’ appeared in the Coffin Texts of the Middle Kingdom” (Shabti Collections 2020).

O, this/these shabti(s)

If one counts, if one reckons the Osiris (…)

To do all the works which are wont be done there in the god’s land

Now indeed obstacles are implanted therewith –

As a man as his duties

‘Here I am,’ you shall say when

You are counted off

At any time to serve there

To cultivate the fields, to irrigate the riparian lands, to transport by boat the sand of the east to the west

And vice-versa;‘

Here I am’ you shall say.

Shabti Collections 2020

A servant for each day of the year

Pottery ushabti with linen grave clothes. (Nineteenth Dynasty). From Heracleopolis Magna, Egypt. The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London. With thanks to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP (Glasg) (2016). CC BY-SA 4.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

At the beginning of the New Kingdom, the ushabti were given agricultural tools, usually hoe and back basket models, but these quickly turned into images painted or carved on the figurines themselves (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359). The number of the ushabti also increased (Ibid.:111). In some of the tombs, as many as a total of 401 figurines were discovered, including 365 servants, one for each day of the year, along with 36 overseers, each in charge of ten ‘workers’ of the ushabti (Ibid.:111). Seti the First, as the Pharaoh he was, (the New Kingdom) had seven hundred ushabti, and some dead in the Late Period had even more than a thousand, although, of course, the number of figurines varied according to the wealth of their master (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:360).

Shawabti and shabti

Some figurines of the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Dynasties (New Kingdom) were also called by the term shawabti (Ikram 2003:111). The difference between it and the more common name shabti is not clear (Ibid.:111). Generally, the etymology of the words referring to the figurines is still not clear and under debate (Rachet 1994:359). The shawabt or shabti terms may have derived from words meaning ‘stick’ or ‘food’, both of which would be appropriate for the statuettes often carved from wood and destined to work to provide their master with food (Ikram 2003:111).

Slaves in Amenti

In the New Kingdom, figurines were often considered as slaves in Amenti (Kingdom of the Dead), as shown in the preserved bills for their manufacture (Ikram 2003:111; Rachet 1994:359).

Memphis, 500 BC – Troop of funerary servant figures ushabtis in the name of Neferibreheb, Louvre-Lens. Photo by Serge Ottaviani (2013). CC BY-SA 3.0. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Ushabti“ (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Ushebtis respond

During the Third Intermediate Period and Late Period, the ushabti were made in mass-production; they were thus rather crude and carelessly made (Ikram 2003:111). The views on their role had also somewhat changed (Ibid.:111). Since then, they had been defined by the term ushabti (Ibid.:111). Its entry into the common language defines the figurines in a slightly different way; ushabti means to respond and clearly refers to the situation when the gods called the deceased to work, and the figurines replied: ‘Here I am’ (Ibid.:111).

Featured image: Ushabti in the Museum of Louvre. Photo by Néfermaât (2006). CC BY-SA 2.5. Colours intensified. Photo source: “Uszebti” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Through the Passageway of the Khmers’ Stargate of Angkor Tom

A soaring, pyramidal stone gateway was rising just in front of me. It was covered with terraces of carvings, shaped by mythological world of ancient Khmers and their beliefs. The gate was one of five identical monumental portals built as a part of a defensive, twelve-metres long wall surrounding a squared area of Angkor Thom – the Great City (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

Walled City

Each of the four of the wall’s sides measures three kilometres (Renown Travel 2010-2020). The fortifications were “built […] at [nearly eight metres] high, […] and [with] moats that are [one hundred kilometres] wide. [Their construction is] of laterite buttressed by earth, with a parapet on the top [but without battlements]. As the [city’s central temple, Bayon], itself has no wall or moat of its own, those of the city are interpreted by archaeologists as representing the mountains and oceans surrounding the Bayon’s Mount Meru” (Teo 2014).

South gate of Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The general flow of water within the square city was apparently established from the north-east to the south-west, in which corner it discharges into a kind of reservoir – the ‘Beng Thom’ – itself draining to the external moat through a row of five tunnels cut through the embankment and the wall” (Glaize 1944).

Portals to the stars

There are four gates at each of the cardinal points, namely the North, the South, the East and the West Gates, built in the middle of the four sides of the wall. While the West Gate is said to be best preserved of all (Glaize 1944), “the mysterious East Gate […] is left in ruins. [It] once served a different purpose and is also known as the Death Gate. Legend has it that it was through East Gate that convicts were sent to be executed” (Teo 2014). From the gates roads lead to the very heart of the City (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The additional fifth gate, called the Victory Gate, is today well preserved and placed on the axis of the Royal Palace to the East Baray and was apparently dedicated to processions of the victorious king (Glaize 1944; Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate

I was just admiring the South Gate. Today it is the main entrance for tourists coming to this famous and gigantesque archaeological site (Teo 2014). Like always during peak seasons, that entrance to Angkor Thom was extremely crowded with a traffic jam of tuk-tuks, motorbikes, small cars and even elephants carrying tourists (Ibid.). All around there were heard voices of people shouting over each other in different languages, the terrifying screech of vehicles and the sound of horns.

Another reason why the place attracts loads of people is the fact that the South Gate is situated “on the path between the two great Angkor complexes” (Teo 2014). Adjacent to Angkor Wat, Angkor Thom additionally constituted the successive capital of the Khmer Empire, which was built in the late twelfth century by King Jayavarman VII (1181-1218), and since then it has been constantly crowded, maybe except the time of the Red Khmers regime (Ibid.).

Three Towers

Each of the gateways, although some overgrown with sprouting roots, made a truly hypnotic impressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are composed of a group of three aligned towers (Glaize 1944); the central tower of the portal is flanked by two smaller towers (Teo 2014).

Three towers at the South Gate of Angkor Thom. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Between them, there are the sculpted statues of three-headed “elephants Airavan, whose trunks are pulling lotus flowers” (Teo 2014; see Pałkiewicz 2007:136). The animals are mounted by the Hindu god Indra with his two wives (Teo 2014). Behind, there are possibly the remains of the Naga’s snake heads, as it is visible in the nineteenth century’s engraving (see Pałkiewicz 2007:136, photo). Between the side towers there is the entrance with the arched vaulting (Ibid.:136). “The opening of the gates are [seven] meters high by [three and half] meters wide in which there were originally massive wooden doors that were closed at night” (Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The entrance is crowned with the major sculpture of the gates: four megalithic faces beautifully enlivened by the play of light and shadow (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). They all are placed at the height of twenty-three metres above the ground, looking down on those who dare to enter their kingdom (Teo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

The Gate is known in architecture as gopura. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The so-called ‘face towers’ are similar to those erected at the Bayon (Renown Travel 2010-2020); they “contain four very large heads on top of the gates facing each of the four cardinal directions” (Ibid.). They are apparently crowned with a headdress resembling a closed flower of lotus. “[The sculpted heads] are believed to represent [Avalokiteshvara] or Lokeshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. The central tower contains [two] faces looking in opposite directions; [every] of the smaller towers have [one] face, each looking in one of the remaining two directions” (Ibid.). According to “the accounts of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese diplomat who lived in Angkor for a year until July 1297, […] there was [also] a fifth head on the [very] top at the time, of which nothing, [however], remains today” (Ibid.).

Also known as a gopura

By its intricate carvings, the whole construction of the five gateways looks as if it was shaped by a cascading waterfall. In Indian architecture, also typical of South-East Asia, such a stone gate in the shape of a multi-storey stepped tower, narrowing towards the top and richly decorated with carvings, was referred to as a gopura (PWN 2007:135). Like in the Khmer Empire, since the Middle Ages, gopuras had been usually placed from the four corners of the world, in the wall surrounding temples in southern India (Ibid.:135).

Five causeways

The five gopuras are all preceded by the causeways thrown over the moats, which are, like the gateways, identical in their construction and decorations (Theo 2014; Renown Travel 2010-2020).

South Gate; a row of Devas pulling the body of Naga. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Before I passed through the South Gate and entered the Great City, I stopped for longer on the causeway to enjoy my eyes with a view that I deeply remembered (Pałkiewicz 2007:131). Behind a hundred-meter wide moat was the citadel, Angkor Thom, the capital of the late medieval monarchy, where the administrative, religious and commercial life of the kingdom was concentrated (Ibid.:131).

Together with Asuras at the South Gate to Angkor Thom. Photo taken by Małgorzata Nowa. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“It was [undoubtedly] the world’s largest city during that time, [ruled] by the famous and great king Jayavarman VII. [He] took over […] the Khmer Empire at a difficult moment, [just] after the invasion of a Cham fleet [that] had destroyed the [previous] capital […], and had taken away the greater part of the country’s properties. […] Angkor Thom covers an area of [nearly] 10 km² [and 900 hectares) within which are located several monuments from earlier eras as well as those established by Jayavarman and his successors” (Teo 2014; see Glaize 1944); apart from a large complex of Bayon, the City also includes four small temples at the corners, known as the Prasat Chrung, Jayavarman VII’s Palace and densely decorated terraces (Glaize 1944; Renown Travel 2010-2020; Pałkiewicz 2007:165-177).

Asuras and Devas

The entrance to the city is guarded by 108 statues of colossal size, holding, or rather pulling, a giant Naga serpent in their hands (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998). The length of the snake body is estimated to around 75 metres (Baskin 2012). On the right side, there are 54 Asuras (demons) with grimace faces, announcing misfortune, and opposite them on the other side of the causeway, there is the same number of demigods (Devas) with distinctively  good-natured expressions (Pałkiewicz 2007:131; Hancock 2016:265-266; Copestake, Hancock 1998).

Some of the heads of the statues along the causeways are badly restored, damaged or even missing. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Lining either side of the causeway are 54 gigantic divinities, like fearsome war-lords. The parapets of the causeway are in solid stone, sculpted to represent [seven]-headed serpents, with the 54 divinities holding the serpents as if to prevent them from escaping.”

Tcheou Ta-Kouan (Glaize 1944).

Lost heads

The other four city causeways are similarly decorated; however, Maurice Glaize (1944), a French architect, archaeologist and Conservator of Angkor (1937-1945), notices that at “the north gate […] the grimacing faces of the demons are particularly expressive, in sharp contrast to the serene faces of the gods.”

North Gate leading to Angkor Thom. The statues are deprived of heads, possibly sold on the black market. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Unfortunately, many of the statues’ heads are now gone, which is especially visible on the northern causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Lessik 2015; see Pałkiewicz 2007:131, photo); they were mostly cut off during the time when Cambodia was under the rule of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979 (Lessik 2015). “While [their] ideology might have been part of the decapitations, apparently the main reason was that the […] heads were worth money. Hundreds if not thousands of heads and sometimes whole statues and other antiquities were stolen and sold to buy arms” (Ibid.). Today the statues are more or less preserved but, according to the journalist Jacek Pałkiewicz (2007:131), they bear the hallmarks of carelessly conducted restoration works, because their bodies and heads were not well matched to each other.

Samudra manthan

However, regardless of their modern scars, made by time and men, the statues still express a clear message transmitted from the past (Copestake, Hancock 1998).

A row of Asuras (demons) between the moat and causeway of the South Gate. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

They are actually a three dimensional version of the Hindu story of the Churning of the Sea of ​​Milk (Samudra manthan) (Ibid.). The sculpture complex is nearly analogical in its interpretation to one of ten bas-relief scenes carved on the inside walls of Angkor Wat (Ibid.). Both, the sculpture of Angkor Thom and the bas-relief of Angkor Wat represent the same mythological event, though with some differences (Ibid.). The story is the most famous Hindu parable, frequent in Cambodian culture, and it dates back to the times when Devas (semi-gods) and Asuras (demons) fought with each other for domination over the world (Rafał 2018). Although the Khmer Empire of the king Jayavarman VII was primarily devoted to Buddhism, the Khmer architecture and art had preserved many symbolical elements of the Hindu beliefs, which were intertwined with the major rituals, dedicated to Buddha.

Pulling the Naga

As the legend says, long eras ago, the Devas weakened with time and the Asuras grew stronger (Rafał 2018). The depressed Devas finally went to the god Vishnu for help (Ibid.). He ordered them to get Amrit, the nectar of Immortality, which, lost during the Great Flood, lay at the bottom of the endless ocean (Ibid.). However, the Devas were not able to do it themselves, so as strange as it sounds, they made peace with the Asuras and ask them for help (Ibid.).

Various scenes from the samudra manthan episode. Source: “Samudra manthan” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

To extract the Nectar of Immortality, the spirits used Mount Mandara as a whisk and wrapped it in the bulk of the multi-headed serpent Wasuk (the snake king of Naga) (Rafał 2018). Devas grabbed the serpent’s tail, and Asuras held its heads (Ibid.). Pulling it alternately, the serpent spun the mountain that churn the Ocean (Ibid.). The mountain, however, began to collapse into the depths of the water, to which Vishnu came in the form of the Kurma turtle and supported it on his shell (Ibid.).


The churning took thousands of years; first, the terrible kalakuta poison appeared, which was a by-product of churning and threatened all existence on earth (Rafał 2018).

One of the four faces adorning the South Gate.

In order to save the world, Shiva drank the poison, but did not manage to swallow it because his wife Parvati held his throat to stop the poisoning of her husband’s body (Rafał 2018). From then on, Shiva’s neck was blue in colour (Ibid.). During the churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk, jewels began to emerge from the water, including: Moon, Ayravata – an elephant with four tusks, Kamadhenu – a cow of abundance which is an eternal source of milk, goddess of alcoholic beverages, Kalpawryksza – a wonderful tree that fulfils all wishes, a white horse Uććhajśravas, Sankha – the conch of victory, the miraculous bow, the heavenly Apsaras, and finally Lakshmi – the goddess of happiness, wealth and beauty (Ibid.). After all this, Dhanwantari (the doctor of the gods) came out of the ocean holding a pot with Amrit (Ibid.). The gods and demons rushed on the vessel, whereupon Vishnu transformed into a beautiful Mohini and took Amrit (Rafał 2018). The demons, enchanted by her beauty, fell down before her, asking her to decide who deserved the Nectar of Immortality (Ibid.). Mohini gave the Amrit to the Devas who drank it quickly (Ibid.). Only one of the demons – Rahu, managed to enter the ranks of the gods under disguise and taste the drink (Ibid.).

One of the restored heads at the South Gate representing a demon with a grimace face. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The Sun and Moon, however, recognised Rahu’s disguise and reported it to Vishnu (Rafał 2018). The enraged god cut off the demon’s head when he had not yet swallowed his drink (Ibid.). The separated head of Rahu remained immortal thanks to Nectar and ascended to heaven as a planet, and his dead body (Ketu) fell to the ground (Ibid.). Rahu, wanting to take revenge on the Sun and Moon, tries to swallow them every time he comes close to them, but since it has no body, the Sun and Moon are safe (Ibid.). Hence, according to Hindu theology, the cyclical eclipses of both celestial bodies take place (Ibid.).

Bas-relief and full sculpture

The rejuvenated Devas defeated the Asuras, but the age-old struggle between them every now and then is reborn again (Rafał 2018). Nevertheless, thanks to the Nectar of Immortality, the Devas always win with the Asuras and still have control over the universe (Ibid.). The bas-relief in Angkor Wat adds to the story of the Churning of the Ocean of ​​Milk some characters of the Hindu epic of Ramayana (Ibid.). This is why there is Ravana among the demons, and Hanuman along with demi-gods (Ibid.; see In the Realm of Demon Ravana; Ram Setu: Ape Engineer Builds a Bridge). On the whole, there are 92 demons on the left, and on the other side, 88 gods are pulling the Naga’s tail in the opposite direction (Ibid.).

South Gate moat. Photo by Marcin Konsek/Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

On the causeways of Angkor Thom, The Ocean of Milk seems to be represented by deep waters of the moats, which flow under the causeway and stretch around the city (Copestake, Hancock 1998). Yet the numbers of Asuras and Devas differ from what is illustrated in Angkor Thom; while approaching the City’s gates, on the right there are 54 demons and, on the left, 54 demi-gods, depicted while pulling the bulk of the serpent (Ibid.). Moreover, unlike in the story, the Naga’s heads are not only wielded by Asuras but also by Devas. It is probably the matter of symmetry and representation of the guards as the open cobra fans in front of the gateway.


Some scholars ascribe a mythological-religious meaning to the sculpture represented on the causeway (Glaize 1944).

“[This] double railing in the form of a [Naga] was perhaps ‘one way of symbolising a rainbow which, in the Indian tradition (and not only), is the expression of the union of man with the world of the gods – materialised here on earth by the royal city. In adding the two lines of giants – devas on the one side and asuras on the other – the architect aimed to suggest the myth of the churning of the ocean in unison by the gods and demons in order to extract the elixir of life. The representation of the churning, with the moats for the ocean and the enclosure wall – and specifically the mass of its gate – for the mountain, is a kind of magic device destined to assure victory and prosperity to the country.’”

Mr Cœdes and Paul Mus (Glaize 1944).
Airavata, the three-headed elephant, is the mount of Indra, who is the king of the Devas. Photo by Michael Gunther (2014); modified. CC BY 4.0.Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Glaize (1944) seems to share such an idea; it is supported by “the presence of [a guardian deity, Indra], at the extremity of the access causeway” (Ibid.). That would confirm the hypothesis suggested above that the Naga imitates the rainbow as, according to the Hindu mythology, the bow belonging to Indra is in fact the rainbow as well (Glaize 1944).

Another message

According to the author, Graham Hancock (1988; 2016:265-266), the complex of Angkor Tom is a monumental, metaphorical representation of precession.

Intricate carvings of the gateways looking like cascading waters of stone. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Depicted there numbers bear out this theory: 54 figures in a row on each side of the causeway, so 108 statues per bridge (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). There are five causeways leading to the city and surrounding the whole complex, so it gives 540 statues on the whole (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). As the author claims, these are all the Precession numbers (Copestake, Hancock 1998; Hancock 2016:265-266). The bridge leads to a gateway (gopura) so the gateway itself and what lies beyond are possibly connected to the mystery of precession (Copestake, Hancock 1998). As such Angkor Tom appears as a vast, sacred enclosure, with its meaningful measurements and a sacral complex in its centre, known as Bayon, the very heart of the City (Ibid.).


But what does the precession actually stand for? One would assume it sounds like the subject of astronomy. And indeed, it is so. But the process of precession gains more importance in terms of its presence in ancient myths (literature) and architecture (art), assuming it is the case. Then the precession becomes the study of archaeoastronomy. That fact becomes even more intriguing when its duration is taken into account. In order to understand entirely the astronomical mechanism of precession, mankind must once have observed its whole and complete process.

South gate of Angkor Thom along with a bridge of statues of gods and demons. Two rows of figures each carry the body of seven-headed Naga. Photo taken by Supanut Arunoprayote (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The problem is that it takes nearly 26 000 years. Accordingly, its mystery must have been studied by long generations. An archaeoastronomer and Egyptologist, Jane B. Sellers, points out that astronomy, especially precession, is an indispensable tool for studying ancient Egypt and its religion (Hancock 2016:261). According to her, ‘the vast majority of archaeologists do not understand the phenomenon of precession, which affects their interpretations of ancient myths, gods and the correlation of ancient temples’ (Ibid.:261). ‘For astronomers, precession is a well-known fact and it is the responsibility of ancient scholars to learn about this phenomenon’, she claims (Ibid.:261).

Astronomical phenomenon

It is worth starting here from the very beginning. The planet Earth spins around its axis in a rotary motion, and it goes around the sun in a circular motion (Kosmiczne … 2020). Hence, as a result of the first movement, day follows night (24 hours), and of the second, there are seasons (365 days).

But some astronomical phenomena, such as the position of the constellations of stars in relation to the Earth, are due to another phenomenon, which is called precession (Kosmiczne … 2020). The earth axis moves along the side of the cone surface with its vertex in the center of the earth (Ibid.). In other words, the Earth’s axis draws a circle against the sky (Ibid.). This phenomenon can be compared to a spinning bittern toy (Ibid.). When the axis of such an object is not vertical, the gravitation tries to overturn the toy (Ibid.). Still it cannot be overturn, but characteristically staggers, which is a reflection of the phenomenon of precession (Ibid.). The Earth rotates around its axis, which is not perpendicular to the orbit encircling the Sun, but is invariably deviated from the perpendicular direction, at approximately 23.5 degrees (Ibid.).

Steven Sanders (2013). “Precession of the Earth”. This movie was created with Blender and is used in the Spitz Fulldome Curriculum for the SciDome planetariums around the world. In: RBITA. The Absolute Magnitude.

The Earth is not exactly a ball because the spinning flattened it slightly at the poles and bulged at the equator (Kosmiczne … 2020). The forces of gravitational pull of the Moon and the Sun to the Earth’s equatorial bulge tend to position the deviated axis of the Planet perpendicularly to its orbit (Ibid.). The Earth, however, spins too fast to yield to these forces, which in turn generates a compromise: the processional movement of the Earth’s axis along the surface of the cone and the axis perpendicular to the Earth’s orbit (Ibid.). In this way, the Earth’s axis cannot be straightened while maintaining a constant inclination to the orbit plane (Ibid.). Yet the axis cannot maintain a fixed position in space and draws an entire cone in about 26,000 years, a period called the Platonic year, the Great Year or the Great Return (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). Every Platonic year the points of equinoxes are at the same point on the sky (Kosmiczne … 2020). The Sun returns to the starting point and the new Great Year begins anew (Ibid.). Precession very slowly affects the appearance of the Earth’s sky (Ibid.). The reflection of the Earth’s orbit on the celestial sphere is the ecliptic, and of the Earth’s equator is the Celestial Equator (Ibid.). Due to precession, the Celestial Equator traverses the ecliptic at 1 degree every 72 years, and the Celestial Pole traces a circle around the Ecliptic Pole with a radius of 23.5 degrees  (Ibid.).

Hence the position of the stars in the sky is not constant and changes gradually over a very long precession cycle (Ibid.). As a result of the precession of the equinoxes, the position of the stars in the sky changes, including the polar star (Ibid.). Currently, due to precession, the polar star is Polaris (Ibid.).


The phenomenon of precession is predominantly related to the zodiac. The zodiac is a belt on the celestial sphere that consists of 12 parts, about 30 degrees each (Kosmiczne … 2020). The sky changes at a rate of 1 degree every 72 years Ibid.). The Sun, therefore, spends about 2,160 years in each of the 12 houses of the zodiac constellations (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:263). The constellation where the Sun is at a given moment very slowly moves along the horizon, until finally another constellation takes its place (Kosmiczne … 2020). The boundaries of the zodiacal constellations are arbitrary, hence there are minor differences in the exact determination of the zodiac era (Ibid.).

Who was first?

The slow pace of changes in the sky caused by the precession of the equinoxes is very difficult to be observed in the lifetime of a single human being (Kosmiczne … 2020).

Animation of the cycle of precession of Earth’s axis, depicting the orientation of the axis in relation to the North Ecliptic Pole (2012). By Tfr000. CC by-SA 3.0. Source: “Precesja” (2020) Wikipedia. Wolna Encyklopedia.

Who and when then discovered it? In 1687, Isaac Newton argued that the precession phenomenon was caused by the forces of gravitation (Ibid.). In 1543, Nicolaus Copernicus characterized the precession as the third movement of the Earth (Ibid.). However, people must have known about the precession thousands of years earlier (Ibid.). Already in the second century BC, a Greek astronomer and mathematician, Hipparchus (Hipparch), wrote about the phenomenon of precession and is credited with its discovery (Kosmiczne … 2020; Hancock 2016:246-247).

North Gate Bridhe with Devas. Photo by Colin W. (2006). CC BY-SA 3.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By comparing his own measurements during sky observations with those of his predecessors in ancient Babylon and Alexandria, Hipparch noticed that the positions of the stars in the sky were different (Hancock 2016:246-247). To explain the inconsistencies, he presented the precession hypothesis and assigned a value of 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, now the value is more precisely calculated and so is recognised as 50, 274 arcseconds (Ibid.:247). The arcsecond is the smallest unit of the angle (Ibid.:247). There are 60 seconds per arcminute and 60 arcminutes is 1 angular degree; 360 degrees is a complete turn of the Earth around the Sun (Ibid.:247). The annual change is 50, 274 arcseconds (less than an arcminute) (Ibid.:247). And it only takes 72 years (precisely 71,6) for the spring sunrise to shift one degree. By these means it shows how slow the whole process is (Ibid.:247).

Approach to the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Astronomy hidden in myths

In 1969, a historian of science, Prof. Giorgio de Santillana proposed that the phenomenon of precession was already known thousands of years before the discovery of the Greek astronomer (Kosmiczne … 2020). Santillana pointed out that ancient civilizations knew about the mechanism of precession and referred to it in their myths, many of which have survived to our day (Ibid.). Despite criticism from scientists, some experts over time expressed the belief that the phenomenon of precession was indeed known much earlier than it was initially assumed (Ibid.). But then how did the ancient reveal their knowledge of precession? Like in many cases, it was possible only by means of a universal language of mathematics and astronomy. It is a pity I was not very dedicated to science at school …

Numbers and numbers

Ancient myths tell stories, such as one cited above, most of which seem to be just a fruit of human imagination. As such the myths are many a time treated entirely as fictional fairy tales. For some experts, however, their certain details seem rather meaningful, especially because they constantly have been repeated throughout ages (Hancock 2016:263). Among them, there are interesting numbers associated by some scholars with important astronomical events (Ibid.:262).

The South Gate: all the gates are “lined with 54 gods and 54 demons.  Both teams are holding a Naga (a snake-like creature with multiple snake heads) that is 75 meters long” (Baskin 2012). Photo by Michael Lai (2013). Source: Retiree Diary. The Diary of a Retiree.

Accordingly, 12 – number of zodiacal constellations; 30 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic assigned to each constellation; 72 – number of years during which the sunrise point on the equinox moves one angular degree; 360 – number of angular degrees on the ecliptic plane; 2160 (72×30 ) – the number of years during which the Sun moves on the ecliptic plane by 30 degrees, that is, it passes through one of the 12 zodiacal constellations; 25920 (2160×12) – the length in years of the full precession cycle, i.e. the so-called Great Year, also called the Great Return; 36 – the period in which the sunrise on the equinox day moves by half a degree; 4320 – the period when the sunrise on the day of the equinox moves 60 degrees, which are two constellations of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:262-263).

Language of ancient architecture

Jane B. Sellers is convinced that these numbers form a code of precession, which appears not only in ancient mythology but also in sacred architecture (Hancock 2016:263,265). Examples include the Egyptian temples in Dendera and Karnak, Baalbek in Lebanon, some Hindu temples, in Indonesia the temple of Borobudur, and in Cambodia, the city of Angkor Thom described above (Hancock 2016:265-269; Kosmiczne … 2020). Such knowledge may have been present even at the time of architects of Göbekli Tepe (Kosmiczne … 2020). A fairly rich set of numbers was also included in the so-called long count of the Mayan calendar (Hancock 2016:265).

The South Gate: Naga snake’s heads are also held be Devas as well (not only by Asuras visible on the other side); such an arrangement, contrary to the narratives, is possibly the architectural result of preserving the symmetry. Photo by Steve Baskin (2012). Source: Camp Champions Blog.

Moreover, among the major numbers of precessions, there are present their various possible combinations; the precession code allows to freely shift the decimal places, thanks to which almost any sum, permutation, quotient or fraction of basic numbers related to the precession rate of the equinoxes can be achieved (Hancock 2016:263). For example, if one add 36 to 72, they get 108, the number of the statues on one causeway leading to Angkor Thom (Ibid.:263,265). 108 can be multiplied by 2, which gives the number of demons on one side and the number of demigods on the other (Ibid.:263,265). In turn, 54 can be multiplied by 10, which gives 540 statues on all the five causeways, or 108 can be multiplied by the number of causeways (108×5), which gives the same value: 540, the number of all the statues (Ibid.:263,265). What is more, the number 54 is quite frequent in ancient architecture; in Baalbek, for example, there are 54 monumental columns surrounding the temple (Ibid.:267).

Scientific message of fairy tales

It is also worth to mention the fact that the given set of ancient precession numbers are more precise than Hipparch’s calculations made in the fifth century BC (Hancock 2016:264). His calculations show that the precession rate is 45 or 46 angular seconds per year, which shows that the Sun moves one degree on the ecliptic surface in 80 or 78.26 years (Ibid.:264). As calculated today, the true number is 71.6 years (Ibid.:264). Thus, the number 72 given by ancient myths is much more accurate than the later calculations of the Greek mathematician (Ibid.:264).

Western face of the East Gate, also known as the Gate of the Dead. Photo by Stephen Bain (2019). CC BY 4.0. Source: “Angkor Thom” (2020) In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Myths also give 2160 for the amount of years, during which the Sun goes through one sign of the zodiac (Hancock 2016:264). Today, this value is said to be 2148 years, and the value proposed by Hipparch is 2400 and 2347.8, respectively (Ibid.:264). Finally, the complete precession cycle according to myths is 25920 years, when the Sun completes its journey through all 12 zodiac signs (Ibid.:264). The Greek’s calculations show that it is 28,800 or 28173.6, whereas today it is known that this number is 25,776 years (Ibid.:264). So Hipparchus’ error is 3000 years, and the one visible in the myths is only 144 years, and probably only because the narrative context forced the authors to round the number 71.6 to 72 (Ibid.:264). In architecture, too, it was necessary; In Borobudur, in Java, 72 statues of Buddha are imagined (Ibid.:266). So to follow the exact values, sculptors must have created only 71 whole statues, with one completed just in 0.6 parts.

Through the Gateway

I stared at the carvings of the causeway for a long while, as series of numbers spilled out of my head. I tried to find astronomical solution in every number imagined in the sculpture: the number of mythical serpent’s heads, of elephants’ fangs and trunks, of the faces illustrated on the South Gate. Then I multiplied, divided and subtracted the collective results. In the end, I lost my strength. I don’t have such a head for mathematics as the ancients did …

South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Pixabay (2016).

Finally, tired with my own thoughts, I decided to enter the gateway. Standing in front of the huge gopura, I looked up at the carved faces; they had their still and narrow eyes gazing in the four cardinal points. Suddenly, a scene from my childhood movie came to my mind. In Never Ending Story, the main character, Atreyu, walks through the Sphinx Gate, and when he is losing his confidence, the eyes of the stone colossi get alive and are slowly opening to strike him with their deadly rays. Although I did not feel confident at that time either, I gathered all my courage and walked through the gateway. Bodhisattvas’ eyes remained focused and unblinking.

Three towers of one of the gopuras in Angkor Thom. Photo by Stacy Rushton (2020). Source: Freeimages.

After a while I found myself in the citadel covered with a damp equatorial forest (Pałkiewicz 2007:136). I had the impression that everything came alive there; sounds of birds were heard in the air, heavy drops of rain fell on the undergrowth and trickles of water flowed from the branches of trees here and there (Ibid.:136). It was the result of heavy rains that rolled through Angkor at dawn. In November, the end of the rainy season still made itself felt. But it was a warm, refreshing rain. The late morning slowly gave way to a sunny day making Angkor Tom’s fragrances and colours more intensive (Ibid.:136). I had entered the kingdom of myths and art but also of astronomy and mathematics.

Featured image: South Gate with the aligned row of Devas along the causeway. Source: Free photo at Pixabay (2016).

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland


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Hopperstad Stavekirke: Under the Surveillance of Wooden Dragons

The Normans! It is hard to imagine how much indescribable fear these sea peoples triggered in Europe throughout the entire ninth century (Rops 1969:495). When these terrible pirates appeared at the mouths of the rivers, the bells rang with alarm; all city gates were shut up, and its terrified defenders appeared on the ramparts (Ibid.:495-496). Whole groups of miserable people fled from farms and monasteries; they were to be met by a massacre rather than rescued (Ibid.:496). Surrounded by a mystery like by a thick fog, from which they emerged like ghosts, infamous Vikings haunted Europe as a living symbol of punishment for its transgressions (Ibid.:496).

The Church not only resisted the invaders, but in line with its conduct, it also carried out missionary activities against them (Rops 1969:501). After years of efforts undertaken by European missionaries, they finally succeeded in establishing two Christian centers in Viking lands, Birca (Birch Island) in present-day Sweden, and in Ribe, a today Danish town in south-west Jutland (Ibid.:501-502). The apparent result was modest, but it was of great importance to the future of the Catholic church (Ibid.:502). It was just a preview of the evangelization of Scandinavia that eventually took place around 1000 (Ibid.:502).

Amazing wealth of nature in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Today Scandinavia seems to be a peaceful land filled with love for the landscape and nature. The vast areas of Norway seem like an enchanted and silent country inhabited by good spirits of lakes and forests rather than by the bloodthirsty ninth-century Vikings. The Scandinavians of the twenty-first century are actually considered the most peaceful nations in Europe (Żylińska 1986:9).

Christianisation of the sea pirates

An exciting missionary adventure had taken place in Scandinavia, but it cannot be followed in detail as there are large gaps in the historic records; yet it is known that the history of the Christianisation of the North is full of very interesting episodes and interesting people (Rops 1969:626).

By the fjord. July of 2014 was surprisingly hot and dry in Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

In three centuries, from the ninth to the eleventh, the Scandinavian world passed from paganism shrouded in the fog of great dreams to the Christian faith (Rops 1969:626). Those corsairs who plundered Christian countries themselves were baptized, sometimes even in places where they had previously plundered, and their new faith made them later steal relics more willingly than treasures, which was then evidence of their great devotion (Ibid.:626). At the same time, missionaries set out to these savage lands, mainly under the influence of the Archbishops of Hamburg (Ibid.:626-627).

The history of the Christianization of Scandinavians, closely related to the military operations that led to the settlement of the people of the North, first in France and then in England, truly had the features of an epic (Rops 1969:627).

In front of Nidaros Cathedral, situated in the city of Trondheim. It is built over the burial site of King Olav II (c. 995-1030, reigned 1015-1028), who became the patron saint of the nation, and is the traditional location for the consecration of new kings of Norway. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The very history of establishing Christianity in these areas bears names of great heroes, such as Saint Olav, king of Norway, this former sailor who, with the help of priests and monks brought from England, worked effectively to eradicate paganism from his territory (Rops 1969:627). The richest personality was undoubtedly Canute the Great (1016-1035), who around 1028 created a wonderful empire that encompassed the British Isles, Denmark and almost all of Scandinavia, and who worked bravely to transform his country into a Christian state (Ibid.:627). In the countries that emerged after the collapse of his kingdom, Magnus of Norway, a worthy son of Saint Olaf, and Emond Gamul of Sweden, remained faithful to his principles (Ibid.:627). Around 1050, northern national Christian communities were formed with their own hierarchy, dependent directly on Rome (Ibid.:627).

Sacral architecture

Today, Norway is home to a mixture of ancient traditions, artifacts and structures left by different eras, including Christian sacral architecture built by the Christianised Vikings to celebrate the birth and development of Christianity in Norway (Norwegian Reward 2019). Although the Christian art was created to express the values and truths of the new faith, it still had preserved its pagan face mainly in its decorations and ornaments. Artistic expressions of pagan ancestors are usually visible in wonderful decorations of wooden or metal objects (Białostocki 2008:69). This style of art was typical of all Germans, including the Vikings; their architecture was covered with intricate weaves of the  floral and zoomorphic ornament (Ibid.:69).

In the Vikings’ art, this was usually a representation of the mythical Yggdrasil – the mighty ash tree whose roots were the foundation of the world, as it is seen on the eleventh century wooden portal of the stave church of Urnes in Norway (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:30).

Carved wooden head of a queen on the canopy above the side altar and other carved heads of baldachin in Stave Church of Hopperstad. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010). Creative Commons CC0 License. Photo source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

In its tangled limbs, woven into nine mythical lands, various animals lived (Ibid.:30). Like in other examples of German art, these are usually the motifs of animal bodies, claws, beaks, tails, paws shattered in an impenetrable tangle of lines describing zigzags, knots, forming a braid (Białostocki 2008:69). Sometimes there is a more geometric ornament (Ibid.:69). At other times, also human figures are entangled in this extraordinary world of fantastic imagination (Ibid.:69). But even when Germanic art took up the figural theme, it was many a time captured in a geometric way that bordered on abstraction (Ibid.:69). This world was not only to decorate Christian truths, but also to express its own legends and symbols in their new entourage,  within Catholic medieval churches.

Hopperstad Stavekirke

The Hopperstad Stave Church “is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord. […] In the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord [there] are [actually] two medieval churches, Hopperstad Stave Church and Hove stone church. Few other places in Norway can boast having two such treasures” (Havran 2014:38).

It was a hot July, which does not often happen in Norway. We left behind the hills covered with patches of snow and headed for the edge of the fjord. Then we took a ferry from Dragsvik to Vangsnes and afterwards travelled farther south to Vik, along the Sognefjord, which is the longest and deepest fjord in Norway. Wonderful views accompanied us throughout the whole journey, and their beauty was just breathtaking; the blue of the sky and the depth of the fjord intertwined with lush greenery and the colors of small, low houses scattered around in the valleys.

Hopperstad Stavekirke up the green hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Less than an hour later I saw the steep roofs of the church, with its sloping silhouette against the juicy colors of nature. In order to enter the church, we had to climb up a green hill with a graveyard, atop which it is standing. It looks just as a medieval stave church should: “with a clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons on the ridges of the roofs” (Havran 2014:19). The church only lacks more typically protruding dormers, definitely featured by another stave church, Borgund, which actually “served as a model for the construction of Hopperstad and Gol stave churches” (Ibid.:46).

Historians usually claim that the mythical animals carved on the church, such dragons, represent the evil banished by Jesus Christ out of the holy place (Białostocki 2008:69). So they meekly crouched on the church’s roof as much as grotesque gargoyles encrusted Gothic cathedrals (see Barron 2000:87-93). “And from the edge of the roof jut menacing serpent-like beasts who appear ready at any moment to pounce on some unfortunate passerby” (Barron 2000:88). In the Vikings’ world, serpents or dragons could fly and speak human voice (Turowska-Rawicz, Sypek 2007:85). They also breathed fire or suffocating fumes and guarded countless treasures (Ibid.:85). But were they evil as it is taught by the Christian Church? Dragons certainly embodied powerful forces and natural element, like Jörmungandr, the sea monster wrapping his gigantic body around the earth and grasping his own tail (Ibid.:85).

Dragon at the roof‘edges of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

The Hopperstad Stave Church was built in  the mid-1100s but “was in a ruinous state by the 1800s and was scheduled to be pulled down when the new Vik Church was completed in 1877. Fortunately it was purchased at the last minute by the Society for the Preservation of Monuments in Bergen, led by architect Peter Blix. During the 1880s he personally restored the stave church to its present appearance” (Havran 2014:38).

Hopperstad Stave Church is located in beautiful surroundings about one kilometre from the fjord, in the beautiful rural community of Vik on the Sognefjord. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In terms of construction, Hopperstad Stave Church is related to Urnes and Kaupanger stave churches. It is of the [Type B], having a raised centre room [and a raised roof], with preserved structural components from the Middle Ages. [Its] massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. […] The nave is dominated by a stunning side altar and Blix’s gravesite beneath the floor. […] The stave church has three portals, the large western portal and two smaller but rare portals. […] The upper portion [of the western portal], however, was reconstructed in conjunction with a restoration during the 1880s” (Havran 2014:38,41-42).

“The main altar is from 1621. The chancel screen is not original, but dates from the Middle Ages and is the only one preserved in any stave church. It has Gothic-shaped openings and probably dates back to a reconstruction during the 1200s” (Havran 2014:38).

View of interior with the side altar and an empora (matroneum) with St Andrew’s crosses. Photo by Micha L. Rieser (2010).  Creative Commons CC0 License. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The medieval inventory item deserving a closer look is first and foremost the altar baldachin [or canopy] above one of the side altars. [it is dated back to 1300s]. The baldachin is a simple stave construction with rich carvings, the underside of the vault painted with scenes from the life of Mary [and Jesus’ childhood]” (Havran 2014:38,40). One of the wooden carvings represents a head of a queen (Ibid.:38).

“Hopperstad Stave Church is still the property of the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments […] and is a museum church” (Havran 2014:38).

Made of upright staves

Stave churches (stavekirke) “were found across the northern parts of the European continent, including in Scandinavia. [Today] it is virtually only in the rugged landscape of Norway that these unique buildings have survived, from the Middle Ages and up to the present” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Massive staves with bell-shaped plinths accentuate the sacred ambience of the church. Source: Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches, p. 43.

The stave churches’ structures are made entirely from wood (Norwegian Reward 2019), with their walls constructed of upright planks or staves (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “The staves, or columns, are bearing elements that give stave churches their name, but there are many other structural elements that are unique in these churches. True enough, the portals served no structural function, but they are also unique [in their artistic expressions]” (Havran 2014:17). “A stave church with an elevated centre room [and so a raised roof] can comprise as many as 2000 different parts, and most of these were shaped beforehand. All of the structural components are perfectly joined and adapted to one another, using no nails” (Ibid.:19). The type with the raised roof predominates today among the remaining stave churches (Ibid.:14). “The reason why [such churches] survived is that they were the largest, finest and most decorated” (Ibid.:14).

Sitting behind Hopperstad Stave Church, down the hill. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Craftsmen during the Middle Ages were conscious of the importance of the building with quality materials. They almost exclusively used pine core from pristine forests that grew untouched for several hundreds of years. In addition, the trees were left to dry on the root for several summers before they were felled. Core pine contains a high concentration of resin, which is a natural impregnating agent. When the stave churches in Numedal were examined some years ago it was found that the wood on the loft that had been unexposed to light was as solid as newly felled timber” (Havran 2014:17-18).


“In terms of construction, the stave churches are wonders of engineering art. Over the centuries they have surely weathered many a storm, and they have not been toppled. Documentation does exist, however, that one stave church was blown down in a windstorm” (Havran 2014:17).

Western facade of the church with the main entrance; an external gallery and a beautifully carved portal. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Additionally “[ground] work has contributed to the longevity of stave churches over the centuries” (Havran 2014:18). “[The] corner posts (staves) and wall planks were set on beams or sills of stone above the ground. Their structure of columns, planks, and supports were joined by dovetailing, pegs, and wedges, never by glue or nails. They were therefore completely flexible and could easily expand and contract depending on the weather” (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020). “Stability problems were solved in a highly refined and indigenously constructive manner. A complex system of knee brackets and braces ensures that the church stands firmly” (Havran 2014:19).

Successive stages of the construction of a typical stave church in Norway. Source: Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000).“Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace.

How were the stave churches built? It is “not known whether the carpenters used drawings [beforehand]; perhaps they scratched designs onto wood or slabs of slate” (Havran 2014:19). According to the description given by the authors of Norway’s Stave Churches (2000), Eva Valebrokk and Thomas Thiis-Evensen, the churches’ construction resembled arranging the wooden puzzles in a very imaginative way (Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace 2009-2020).

Western portal in Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Nina Aldin Thune (2005). CC BY-SA 2.5. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The raft beams were first placed on the foundation of stones. They intersect one another at the corners and continue outward to support any adjacent galleries or transepts. The tall staves which framed the nave were inserted into the mortised raft beams and joined on top by a new square section of beams. This supported the sharply pitched triangular roof trusses. These again supported the roof and the bell tower which straddled the ridge of the roof. At this point the structure still needed added support to prevent it from collapsing in the wind. First, a continuous ‘belt’ of cross braces followed the periphery of the room. Also, there were arches inserted between the staves in the form of curved wooden brackets. Lastly, the low aisle section resting on the raft beams protruding from the nave was also very critical to the structural support of the church” (Valebrokk, Thiis-Evensen 2000).

View of the church from the east; a wooden apse and cascading roof among the green hills. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

As stave churches have never rested on the ground itself, but on a foundation, they have been therefore exposed to the open air (Havran 2014:18). “Lessons were obviously learned from the problems with the earlier churches, where the supporting posts had been embedded in the ground, [where the wooden construction rapidly rotted]. The post churches did not last long, perhaps no longer than 100 years” (Ibid.:18).

Medieval master carpenters

Dragons breathing fire at the roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Photo by Fabos (2005). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“It is probable that there were teams of carpenters who would raise several churches. In Topo Stave Church runic inscriptions were found, including ‘Torolf made this church …’, along with seven other names, who must have been his journeymen” (Havran 2014:18).

The same inscription was found in the demolished Al Stave Church, although with the names of other assistant workers. The Torolf in question was probably a master builder who travelled around and raised several churches” (Havran 2014:18-19).


“Stave churches were built over a period of 200 years […], from the first half of the twelfth century until the Black Death devastated Norway in 1349” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[The] oldest and most precious member of the stave church family [is Urnes Stave Church, which] was included on UNESCO’s list of the world’s foremost cultural and natural heritage sites. […] Perhaps more than 1000 [medieval] stave churches were built in Norway” (Havran 2014:12). Consequently, “more than a thousand villages, maybe even more, had [such a wooden church]” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Hopperstad in 1885 before restoration work. Photo owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“After the Black Death in 1349, there were no longer enough people and resources to maintain […] all [these wooden constructions]. By the time the population had recovered, two hundred years later, they were building log churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Few documented stave churches were constructed after the Black Plague” (Havran 2014:12). “Only 240 of the original thousand or so stave churches were still standing in 1650. Another two hundred years later, there were only sixty left” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

View of the church during the restoration work. hoto owned by The Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Norwegian: Riksantikvaren or Direktoratet for kulturminneforvaltning). Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“Almost miraculously, they narrowly avoided total obliteration at the end of the 1800s” (Havran 2014:12); “the Church Act of 1851, which made stipulations about the size of the church in relation to the number of people in the parish, virtually [had given] the go-ahead for demolition” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Only “[thanks] to painters Johannes Flintoe and I.C. Dahl, as well as the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Antiquities (today called the Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments) and a handful of other enthusiasts, Norway has managed to preserve portions of this cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:12).

Decreasing number of the wooden treasure

“The majority [of stave churches] were likely lost  due to the drastic decrease in population, which fell by two-thirds during the Black Plague. It was not until the 1600s that the population again reached the same level as before the Black Plague. One needs only imagine what 200 years of neglected maintenance can do to a wooden church. Church constructions did revive, although no longer using the stave technique, but rather notching” (Havran 2014:12-14).

The Hopperstad Stave Church after the restoration. Photo by Axel Lindahl – Galleri NOR Tilvekstnummer; created: between 1880 and 1890 date. Public domain. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“In 1650 the number of stave churches had fallen to 270, and by the turn of the [nineteenth] century there were only about 70 left. […] Most of the 70 churches that survived up until 1800 were probably among the most valued buildings. [It is documented that about] 40 stave churches, [most of the finest specimens], were also pulled down during the 1800s, the last of these during the early 1880s. […] When needed, however, they were expanded rather than [demolished]” (Havran 2014:14-15).

“About half of the stave churches [today] are in use as regular parish churches, while others serve more as museums and are used only on special occasions, such as weddings and christenings. The Society for the Preservation of Norwegian Ancient Monuments owns and administers eight of the stave churches, while three are in open-air museums” (Havran 2014:16).

Types of stave churches

In Norway, “[the] oldest stave church is Urnes. Borgund, however, is the most authentic in appearance. […] Nearly half of the remaining stave churches in Norway are of the [Type B] with a raised centre room [and a raised roof, whereas] some have mid-masts and are of the so-called Møre type. [There are also medieval stave churches of a unique architectural style in Europe, with galleries, a chancel and cross naves, which belong to the so-called Nummedals-type (“Nore Stave Church” 2020)]. However, there is a reason to believe that the simplest and smallest [Type A], with a somewhat larger but single nave and narrower chancel, such as Haltdalen, was the most prevalent type of stave [churches] during the Middle Ages” (Havran 2014:19-20; see: “Stave church” 2020).

View from the east on Hopperstad Stavekirke. Photo by Peter (2006). CC BY-SA 2.0. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Taking into account their geographical placement, “the stave churches were distributed widely throughout the entire country. Unfortunately none are documented from the northmost countries; it is likely that they disappeared more quickly there because of the harsh climate. Many of the remaining stave churches are located on the Sognefjord […], in Valdres […] and in Numedal […], that is in areas with the milder and drier climate. The distance between Valdres and Sogn is insignificant, as well, and the stave churches there share many common characteristics. It is for this reason that they are jointly considered as belonging to the Sogn-Valdres type. In the lowlands of Eastern Norway, in Trondelag and in Rogaland, stone churches were more prevalent. Of the nearly 300 stone churches built in the Middle Ages, about 150 are still standing today” (Havran 2014:20).


Unfortunately, “[there] is no documentation showing how the interiors of stave churches appeared in the Middle Ages (Havran 2014:20). “Borgund stave church is the stave church that has weathered the centuries best, without major changes” (Stavechurch.com 2019). But even it is the most authentic of all the stave churches, it “was altered several times during the 1800s. Today this church is practically empty” (Havran 2014:20-21).

“The stave churches were built in the Catholic Age” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “Following the Reformation, all inventory was to be renewed” (Havran 2014:21), and “major changes were made in church interiors” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “The division between nave and chancel no longer considered important, and much of the décor of the Catholic era – the Madonna and figures of saints, crucifixes and other items [such as side altars] – were removed from the churches” (Havran 2014:21; see Stavechurch.com 2019). “A few examples were fortunately preserved and are found today in the churches or museums” (Havran 2014:21). “Pulpits and pews were installed, and, with time, windows as well. Many of the stave churches were in a state of decline” (Stavechurch.com 2019).

Remains of the glorious past

Critically looking “at the remaining stave churches today, [it must be admitted] that several of them are not stave churches at all, in the strict sense of the word” (Havran 2014:16).

Under the guard of the wooden dragons looking down from the roof. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Most of them have been altered or extended, and many no longer look like stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “[Some] have retained only a few of their original [medieval] building components” (Havran 2014:16). “The churches that have survived are often located in small communities that could not afford to build new ones” (Stavechurch.com 2019). “In addition to the [preserved] 28 churches in Norway, one other Norwegian stave church is located in Poland. When Vang Stave Church was to be pulled down in 1841, it was purchased by the Prussian King, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, disassembled, stored for a period of time outside Berlin and later erected on his territory at the time, now [belonging again to Poland, the same territory is known as Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains]” (Havran 2014:16). Frankly speaking, it is a shame I have never visited the Vang Stave Church, which is in my own country. I promised myself to do it in the future.

Additionally, “it has been recently documented that Grip Stave Church was not built until the 1600s” (Havran 2014:16).  

Modern alterations

A wooden pyramid of the church with all its intricate architectural details. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“In addition to the 29 remaining stave churches today, there are some 50 more that are well documented and from which a few building components have been preserved. Among the preserved components, portals and other carved elements are well represented. Throughout history, the stave churches have been subjected to many [alterations], expansions, additions and replacement of inventory, so today they stand as evidence of changing stylistic periods. During the 1900s several of the stave churches were returned to their ‘original’ appearance. Judged from the perspective of restoration concepts and knowledge in our modern era, the type of restoration practised at the time was equivalent  to ‘free interpretation’ on the part of the architect. Nevertheless, in line with restoration philosophy today, it is preferred to preserve the churches as they are, because they are regarded as documentation of a period and taste at the time of restoration, even though they may not be totally ‘historically correct’ in appearance” (Havran 2014:15-16).


Throughout years, however, there was “a dramatic decrease in the number of stave churches” (Stavechurch.com 2019). Some have been set on fire and burnt to the ground, already after their modern reconstruction (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).

Nowadays, there are only 29 out of over 1000 stave churches, built once in Norway. Hopperstad Stave Church is one of the remaining medieval architectural masterpieces. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The greatest threat to the wooden construction has been always fire (Havran 2014:15,22; Stavechurch.com 2019).). There is one stave church lost as recently as 1992 (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). It was Fantoft Stave Church just outside Bergen, originally known as the Fortun Stave Church from the innermost reaches of Sognwas, which was deliberately set on fire (Ibid.:15,22; Ibid.). “Almost all the burnings [of the churches in Norway were deliberate and] have been attributed to a small but zealous group of Satanist-nationalists and their followers” (Stavechurch.com 2019). The very similar problem concerns nowadays Europe and its medieval sacral architecture, which greatly suffers from the hands of various harmful extremists.

Modern fame and restoration

“Even though [stave churches] have been subjected to many [threats and] changes, they represent a cultural treasure paralleled by very few other cultural monuments in Norway. They are visited and admired by tourists from all over the world, by architects, engineers and art historians, but also by the general public. Visitors come to see the magnificent constructions, the shapes, designs and ecclesial art, and not least of all to sense the special atmosphere evoked by a medieval sanctuary” (Havran 2014:21-22).

In front of the main entrance to the church. I could spend there ages. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

Hopefully, “the stave churches will [not] be lost in the foreseeable future. As a rule, they are very well maintained. The Directorate for Cultural Heritage’s ‘Stave church programme’ ensures that all of the stave churches will be restored so that they will remain in good structural condition, the décor and inventory will be conserved, and the churches will be well documented” (Havran 2014:22). “As of [2015], conservation measures have been completed in [28] stave churches” (Ibid.:22).

The significance and future of the stave churches

“The unrivalled [medieval] stave churches are Norway’s most important contribution to the world’s architectural heritage. Several of these unique structures have withstood the teeth of time for nearly 900 years, and they are admired by architects and engineers from all over the world” (Havran 2014:12).

Typical stave church of Norway: clever cascading tier-roof design, external galleries and carved dragons, some breathing fire on the ridges of the roofs. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

All being well, “the family of stave churches will remain intact in the years to come and […] the future generations will continue to be able to enjoy this unique cultural heritage” (Havran 2014:22).

Featured image: Sloping roof of Hopperstad Stave Church. Dragons breathing fire at the top of Hopperstad Stave Church (detail). Photo by Fabos (2005). Public domain. Image cropped. Source: “Hopperstad Stave Church” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

By Joanna
Faculties of English Philology, History of Art and Archaeology.
University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland;
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland;
University College Dublin, Ireland.


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Havran J. (2014) Norwegian Stave Churches. Guide to the 29 remaining stave churches. Challman T. trans. Oslo: ARFO.

Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fU5O99>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Norwegian Reward (2019) “7 stunning Norwegian stave churches”. In: Norwegian Reward. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fVi49B>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Rops D. (1969) Kościół wczesnego średniowiecza. Warszawa: Instytut Wydawniczy PAX.

Stavechurch.com (2019) “From 1,000 to 28 stave churches”. In: Stavechurch.com. Available at <https://bit.ly/2ClH4ZM>. [Accessed on 12th August, 2020].

Turowska-Rawicz M, Sypek R. (2007) “Ludy skandynawskie”. In: Mitologie Świata. Rzeczpospolita. Warszawa: New Media Concept.

Valebrokk E., Thiis-Evensen T. (2000) “Norway’s Stave Churches: Architecture, History and Legends”. Norway: Boksenteret. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace (2009-2020) “The Stavekirke (Norwegian Stave Churches)”. In: Ingebresten’s Nordic Marketplace. Available at <https://bit.ly/3fU5O99>. [Accessed on 13th August, 2020].

Żylińska J. (1986) Spotkania po drugiej stronie lustra. Warszawa: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy.

Lady of the Labyrinth and her Powers

The cicadas are extremely noisy during the summer months in Crete, and particularly in Knossos.

Exploring Knossos … Photo by
Beata Pazdej.

For a good while, I could not gather my thoughts as I stood in the vestibule of the Throne Room and looked deeper into its abyss. The name of this part of the so-called Palace of Knossos comes from the limestone throne found there, which has surprisingly survived in its entire form and which is still in the same location where Evans discovered it and where it was probably used in the past (Łogiadu-Platonos date unknown:60). Although it does not resemble the royal Egyptian thrones of the pharaohs or those of the ancient East, the archaeologist was convinced that he had come across a Cretan royal mansion where King Minos had once been enthroned (Gregor 1997:16).

Since then, however, various hypotheses have been made about the Throne Room of Knossos (Gregor 1997:16).

Kefalia Hill

Arthur Evans began excavations on the Kafala Hill – at the site of the the so-called palace at Knossos – on 23rd March, 1900 (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). An early discovery, made on 30th March, was a great number of clay tablets inscribed in Linear B script in the Room of the Chariot Tables (Ibid.). The most significant discovery, however, turned out to be the Throne Room complex (Ibid.). During the following months, Evans’s group unearthed a series of mysterious rooms along the west side of what later was known as the Central Court (Ibid.).

Reconstructed Fresco of a Tripartite Shrine
Grandstand fresco from the palace of Knossos (reconstruction). Source: Pinterest (2020)..

Unexpected discovery

During this first season of excavation at Knossos, the area between the Throne Room and the Room of the Chariot Tables was uncovered (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). It included the Room of the Tall Pithos and a small room with two open, and empty, cists or vats in the floor (Ibid.). At the time of their discovery, the cists were of a very little interest … (Ibid.).

Temple repositories

Three years later, in 1903, it was noticed that the pavement around the cists was sagging and upon investigation, two much larger stone-lined cists, or repositories, were discovered beneath the floor (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). This area  was called the Temple Repositories of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary at Knossos (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:80-81; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The Tripartite Shrine depicted in one of the Grandstand Fresco may have once been its façade (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Sir Arthur Evans found a large quantity of amazing objects there, probably deposited just after the huge earthquake, around 1700 BC. (Ibid.).

Excavation of the temple repositories, from Sir Arthur Evans, The Neolithic and Early and Middle Minoan Ages (London: Macmillan, 1921), p. 465 (Universitäts-Bibliothek Heidelberg).Source: German (2018).

“Duncan Mckenzie found, on top, a large quantity of vases […] tightly packed together. Then, about a metre down, he found seal impressions, large quantities of painted sea shells, imitation shells and flying fish, fruit and flowers made of faience, beads, faience chalices with sacred tree motifs, decorative inlays, objects made of bone and ivory, gold leaf, a finely polished but broken marble cross [and] two beautiful faience plaques of a goat with her kids and a cow with her calf” (Castleden 2000:81).

Ritually killed?

The most spectacular finds, however, were the broken pieces of at least three female faience statuettes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). “Vast numbers of shells accompanied the terra-cotta figures, along with votive robes for the statues” (Johnson 1990:144). They all were actually represented opulently dressed with two of them with snakes (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017; German 2018). The third one lacks the upper part so it is difficult to say if she held the snakes as well but it is highly possible (Ibid.). “One of the [figures holding snakes] found in the East Repository had been [also] broken before it was sealed up in the vault; a matching fragment of it was found in the West Repository. These and other pieces of cult furniture may have been deliberately, ritually killed [by their depositors] by breaking before being sealed up in the large repositories as a re-foundation offering. After they were filled and closed, the repositories were replaced by two new and smaller [ones]” (Castleden 2000:81).

Objects from the temple repositories f Knossos, just after its discovery in 1903. Evans, A.J. (1921-35). The Palace of Minos – Volumes 1-4. Source: “Minoan Snake Goddess Figurine” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

“The most significant thing about the temple treasure is that it hints at the sort of cult activities that may have been conducted in the surrounding chambers of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:81).

Snake Goddesses’ epiphany and her Votary

The larger statuette (left) stands some thirty-five centimetres high and possibly depicts a female idol, representing the Snake Goddess, her Epiphany or the Great Priestess performing religious rituals (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). She is wearing a tall hat, an embroidered bodice and a skirt with a short apron (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

The information table in the area of the West Wing of Knossos, where the faience female figures were found. Copyright©Archaeotravel.

“Her omnipotence is expressed through a triple tiara topped […] by a snake’s head, [the] bodice, a laced corset exposing her full breasts, suggests her nourishing aspects. The skirt is bordered with the sacred net pattern and partially covered by a short double apron edged with the wave design. The figurine’s most striking features are her staring eyes, black and hypnotic. The eyebrows are sculpted in relief to enhance the mantic expression. Hair hair, cut short in front, falls down her back to her waist. Large ears, quite out of proportion, are a feature noted in other Cretan goddesses of the period” (Johnson 1990:142). Probably three snakes are swirling around her body (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). One is draped around her neck so that it hangs well down her back with its bulk slithering along both of her arms (Ibid.). She holds the snake’s head in her right hand and the tail in her left (Ibid.). Two other snakes appear to slither down her body from the top of her headdress, gliding past her breasts to intertwine their heads just below her waist (Ibid.). All of them “twine [around the faience woman] as if offering life or death” (Johnson 1990:142).

The Snake Goddesses and her Votary from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo (modified): Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The smaller figure (far right), which is about twenty centimetres tall, was found with the head and part of the left arm missing (now reconstructed) (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:81-82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). At the time of being found, she grasped a small snake in her surviving outstretched hand and presumably there had been another one in the right one (Johnson 1990:143; Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). The snake’ “size and distinctive markings identify [it] as [a] sacred [adder]” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans found a small fragment of what he took to be her headdress, a circular crown decorated with raised medallions (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). There was a small rivet hole in the top that matched exactly with another fragment representing the small seated figure of a feline, perhaps a lioness, and the figure was restored on that basis (Ibid.). “The restoration of the Snake Goddess was done by the Danish artist Halvor Bagge together with Evans. Their contribution to the figurine was the creation of a matching arm and stripy snake, the head of the goddess, and the placement of the hat and cat […] on her head, [composed of] separate faience pieces found in the Temple Repositories […]” (German 2018).

The Snake Goddess prior to restoration by Evans,
from Angelo Mosso, The Palaces of Crete and
Their Builders (London: Unwin, 1907), p. 137
(University of Toronto Libraries). Source: German (2018).

“The nubile figure of the smaller goddess is robed in the same fashion as the more matronly figure. A tight-fitting jacket exposes her breasts. Her bell-shaped skirt hangs from the waist in seven flounces, and her apron is covered with the cross-hatched net pattern. Like the larger [figure, the smaller’s] skirt covers her feet, a mark of divinity” (Johnson 1990:143). Evans believed the larger figure to be the Goddess herself or a High Priestess as her epiphany, while the smaller was perhaps a lesser and younger priestess or a votary (Witcombe 1995; Castleden 2000:82; Archaeological Institute of America 2017).

Two Snake Goddesses from the palace of Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 34.2 cm and 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Jill_Ion, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; modified). Source: German (2018).

The figurines must have been created long before the time of the earthquake (Witcombe 1995; Archaeological Institute of America 2017). Nevertheless, they are usually dated back to the time of their destruction (Ibid.). “[Now] reconstructed and deservedly among the most famous and memorable relics of the Minoan culture, [they both show] how the Minoan Snake Goddess was visualized [and] her High Priestess ritually and ecstatically transformed into an epiphany of the goddess” (Castleden 2000:82-82).

The Palace of Knossos is not a palace

As Sir Arthur Evans excavated the magnificent ruins at Knossos, he grew more certain that this was a palace of King Minos and home of the legendary labyrinth (Lilley 2006). He even believed that he had found a royal throne (Ibid.). However, new revelations about Minoan religion and language are transforming a modern understanding of those people (Ibid.). Some archaeologists believe that these buildings are not a palace (Ibid.). Instead they see the Daedalus’ labyrinth or a temple [or both] to harness the chthonic and celestial powers of the divine (Castleden 2000:70-76; Lilley 2006; ).

The Throne Room

Rodney Castleden thinks that “[the] Throne Room has an oppressive, claustrophobic quality that is often missed in photographs” (Castleden 2000:77). I share his opinion. “Windowless and low-ceilinged, approached by way of a deep anteroom that itself is depressed four steps below the level of the Central Court, the room has an almost subterranean quality” (Ibid.:77). Such a character of the Room was also expressed by the colour of the floors and pillars (Ibid.:77). They were pained red (Ibid.:77). The colour itself was associated with sacrificial blood and by extension also with the underworld (Ibid.:77). “The red floor panel was apparently the centre of the religious rituals in the Throne Sanctuary and the manifestation of the deity on the throne itself was their focus” (Ibid.:77).

The so-called Throne Room discovered by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, with a fully preserved gypsum throne. Was it for a king? Copyright©Archaeotravel.

The throne was made of gypsum and, unlike flanking it benches, it was surely intended as a seat (Castleden 2000:77). Surprisingly enough, “it does not face the doorway, but looks across the width of the room towards the half-hidden sunken adyton (holy of holies), [which is also referred to as the lustral basin]” (Ibid.:77). Its design particularly indicates its chthonic character and purpose, and its setting visibly relates it to the throne itself (Ibid.:77). Some scholars even interpret it as the walled pit used for holding sacred snakes (Gregor 1997:17).

“The whole complex of chambers, sixteen in all, [with the adyton included], was evidently designed as a self-contained unit within the temple building” (Castleden 2000:78). It may have been dedicated to the Snake Goddess as her major attribute has been specifically linked to the powers coming from the underworld.

Priestess of the light and darkness

In 2001, the archaeologist, Dr Sandy McGillivray realized that each of the doorways in the Throne Room is aligned with the rising sun on key days in the calendar (Lilley 2006).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion, Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

‘What we’re looking at here is a solar temple’, he claims (Lilley 2006). Accordingly, like the Egyptians, the Minoans may have worshiped the changing cycles of the Sun, the Moon and the stars (Ibid.). Light has always been born from darkness and “[the] adyta were certainly places to descend into […] dark and secret places for mystic rituals, places where the subterranean deities might be invoked, places for individual initiation” (Castleden 2000:78). In the darkness of the adyton, the whole ceremony of the Throne Room may have started with the throne as its focal point. “What we have here is essentially a theater of the senses’, says Dr McGillivray (Lilley 2006). “You can start off with complete blackness and then you can fling open these doors at that [very] moment of sunrise and experience [the] beginning of something new. And in the winter, the Sun comes through on the winter solstice and illuminates the throne” (Ibid.).

Peak Sanctuary re-creation

“The nature of the frescoes [of the Throne Room themselves] suggests an attempt was being made to re-create [there] the wild landscape of the mountain tops. The peculiar wavy shape of the throne […] is a representation of a mountain peak; a rhyton from the temple at Zakro shows a very similar form to indicate the summit of a mountain rising behind an elaborately designed peak sanctuary” (Castleden 2000:79).

The Vase of Zakros. Museum of Heraklion; detail showing the outlines of the throne imitating a mountain peak (between the wild goats’ heads), Crete. CC BY-SA 3.0.; 2012. Source:Source: “Zakros” (2020). In: Wikipedia. The Free Encyclopedia.

Accordingly, “[the] intention of the Throne Sanctuary […] was to honour the same deity or deities that were honoured in the peak sanctuaries by a symbolic re-creation of the peak setting” (Castleden 2000:79). This was mostly a domain of the Mountain Goddess, and the peak dominated by her presence was usually interpreted as a form of her throne (Żak-Bucholc 2005). The latter was also a symbolical representation of the goddess herself (Żak-Bucholc 2005; see Image of the Goddess: between Matriarchy and Patriarchy).

Who sat on the Throne?

“But which god or goddess was being worshiped or appeared to in the Throne Room is far more difficult to say” (Castleden 2000:79). Who then would have sat upon the throne? (History Channel 1980s). Was it used by a king to hold court or did snake princesses practice their rituals of sacrifice there? (Ibid.). Who may have worn the Isopata Signet Ring illustrating rituals led by women? (Ibid.). Was it the privilege of royal or priestly dignity? (Ibid.).

“It was on 13th April 1900 that Evans’ workmen started uncovering the north wall of the Throne Room with its palm tree fresco fragments and the throne itself” (Castleden 2000:43). The Throne Room with its seat, still perfectly intact, is the oldest ever found in Europe dating back to the fifteenth century BC. (circa 3500 years old) (“Throne Room” 2020; see Castleden 2000:31-32,43-44). “[It] seemed to provide Evans with the solid proof of kingship that would support his palace interpretation, but it also provided him with less welcome evidence of religious use” (Castleden 2000:77).

From one side, there is evidence suggesting the existence of a real King Minos; later on, archaeologists found an inscription in an ancient language that may even mention the King by name (Cassel, Conway 2009). ‘In the archives of Knossos there were stone tablets which have inscribed on the words which looked to be like the name of King Minos’, says the author, Tom Stone (Ibid.). Some scholars, however, claim that the word ‘Minos’ does not stand for the name of a particular king but refers to the common title of the monarchs of the Minoans (Castleden 2000:171-172; see Santarcangeli 1982). Also “the strength of the Greeks’ belief in King Minos suggests that there were kings in bronze age Crete” (Castleden 2000:171). These clues suggest the King may have actually lived but the most intriguing connection to the ruins in Knossos appears on another tablet found at the site (Cassel, Conway 2009). “On tablet Gg 702, the inscription [written in the Linear B] refers to an offering made to [the so called Mistress or Lady or Potnia of the Labyrinth]” (Castleden 2000:107; see: Cassel, Conway 2009). So there is in writing not only a direct reference to the Labyrinth, described by Greeks in the Myth of Minotaur, but also a unmistakable connection between the Palace of Knossos and the Labyrinth itself (Cassel, Conway 2009).

Ariadne at the threshold of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

“[The word ‘Potnia’ [itself] was [long] in use in the classical period as an honorific title in addressing women of rank, such as queens, goddesses and mothers; it seems to have had the same flavour of archaic deference as the phrase ‘my lady’. [It] appears again and again as [the main female title referring to the Minoans’ goddess]. Hers, probably, was the double-axe symbol that [is found] at so many Minoan sanctuaries on Crete, but possibly the pillar and the snake were her symbols too. [Truly], the snake may particularly have made a natural symbol for the chtonic, Earth-mother aspect of Potnia” (Castleden 2000:107). Are then the faience female statuettes with snakes linked to the cult of Potnia, and so to the Lady of the Labyrinth?

Mistress of the Labyrinth

Some authors believe, there was a living epiphany of Potnia in Knossos, as much as it is illustrated by the faience figurines (Cassel, Conway 2009). Her identity is, however, an intriguing mystery (Ibid.). Experts believe it was a woman of great importance in the palace, a High Priestess or even the king’s daughter who held this title (Ibid.). In the myth, the King Minos’ daughter was Ariadne and she plays an important role in the myth (Ibid.). ‘We do not know who the Mistress of the Labyrinth was’, says Stone (Ibid.). ‘But it could have been Ariadne in as much as she was entitled to be the priestess of the temple because she was the first daughter of King Minos’ (Ibid.).

“Harriet Boyd, an American pioneer archaeologist […], was at Knossos when the Throne Room was opened up. She described in her diary how Evans straight away named the stone seat ‘the Throne of Ariadne’. The throne’s broad moulded seat, Evans explained, was more likely designed for a woman’s hips than a man’s” (Castleden 2000:43-44).

Sir Arthur Evans, 1911, in Knossos. Source: German
(2020). In: Khan Academy.

For this reason it happened “he […] referred to the stone seat as ‘Ariadne’s throne’ and the sunken area opposite as ‘Ariadne’s bath’. […] But the association of the throne with Ariadne did not lead Evans anywhere, evocative though it was. [On the other side], Evans sometimes referred to the Throne Room as ‘King Minos’ Council Chamber’ to get round this problem. Even so, that initial inspiration witnessed by Miss Boyd, that the throne was Ariadne’s persisted” (Castleden 2000:44). As a matter of fact, “Evans gave different impressions about the throne on different occasions, [calling it either Ariadne’s or King Minos’ seat]. The accuracy of the name was perhaps unimportant to [him]. What seemed to have mattered most to [the archaeologist] was the names evoked the right response in the visitor, that he or she should feel the place to be a great palace and connected with glittering and exotic names from [the] Greek myth” (Ibid.:44-45).

Solar Virgin

According to the Greek myth, Ariadne is a Cretan princess, the daughter of King Minos and his wife Pazyfae, and the half-sister of the monstrous hybrid, Minotaur (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:24). Ariadne enters the mythical scene with the arrival of Theseus in Crete, who is intended together with his Athenian companions as a sacrificial offering to the Minotaur living in the Labyrinth (Ibid.:24). After falling in love with the hero, the girl reveals him the secret of how to leave the Labyrinth, and when he is saved she decides to abandon her home island by his side (Ibid.:24). One version of the myth tells of Ariadne’s breakup with Theseus; reportedly he abandons her on the island of Dia (now Naxos), where she eventually marries Dionysus (Ibid.:25-26). Thus, the meeting with the hero is only a short-lived episode in her life and is only a transition to the essential part of her divine destiny alongside Dionysus – the regenerating god par excellence (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne was seen as a wild goddess, “associated with untamed landscape and consorting with wild beasts” (Castleden 2000:107), as much as it is illustrated by the found female figures.

Ariadne as the Lady of the Labyrinth. Shot from the documentary Cassel C., Conway J. (2009) The Labyrinth of the Minotaur. Clash of the Gods, Season 1, Episode 4. Dreamaker Productions; KPI.

In the Greek tradition, Ariadne was considered a solar virgin, a daughter of the sun and a spring maiden (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:25). Moreover, in Crete her name meant radiant and luminous (Ibid.:25). The Sun in its daily and annual journey illustrates the mystery of the resurrection, hence Ariadne was a symbol of rebirth (Ibid.:25). As such, she is the goddess of life, love and death (Ibid.:25). If she was a priestess in Knossos, she must have led the revival cult; it was finally believed that she disappeared annually and reappeared in the spring (Ibid.:25-26).

Ariadne’s guideline through the darkness

As Theseus goes deeper and farther, and with each step he comes closer to death at the bottom of the abyss, at the center of the maze, Ariadne is a ‘potential opportunity’ for him to see the light again (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26).

Isopata Signet Ring from Knossos, showing some sort of ritual being performed by priestesses. Source: Tausch (2012). In: Wikidata.

The hero who reaches the end of death and kills the Minotaur would never have escaped from the dark Labyrinth if not for Ariadne’s help (Kowalski, Krzak 2003:26). The myth is therefore a story of rebirth, of leaving the Labyrinth in a physical and mystical, literal and figurative sense (Ibid.:26). On the threshold of the Labyrinth, in whose deepest recess lurks a mortal monster, stands Ariadne, the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.:26). She offers the hero a ball of thread and holds its end in her hand as if she held the hero’s destiny (Ibid.:26). In this context, Ariadne personifies and combines two aspects: chtonic and solar, which are also closely intertwined in human life by death and rebirth (Ibid.:26). The Throne Room seems to illustrate this mystery, which is also well revealed by the Greek myth.

Ariadne on the Throne

Like chthonic powers, out of the underground depository of the Snake Goddess Sanctuary came the figures looking like Minoan deities or their priestesses (Lilley 2006). “[Snakes] characterize [their] domination of the underworld” (Johnson 1990:143). Such women apparently controlled religious life and there are scholars who believe that the gypsum throne at Knossos was occupied not by a king but by a priestess (Ibid.). ‘Whoever [sat] on that throne [was] basically being illuminated […] on the day when the Sun is reborn’, says Dr. McGillivray (Ibid.). Still he believes that it was rather a High Priestess who sat there to celebrate the rebirth of the Sun and re-forge the Minoan bond with nature (Ibid.). It is also likely that she was “mysteriously transformed by ritual into an epiphany of a deity (Castleden 2000:82).

Snake Goddess from the palace at Knossos, c. 1600 B.C.E., faience, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde. CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018); Joy of Museums Virtual Tours (2020).

The female figurines found at Knossos themselves suggest a strong cult of the snake deity in the Throne Room (Lilley 2006). Not only is the snake chthonic in its character but also did it appear as a symbol of the renewal coming with the rising Sun. As such it perfectly illustrates the opposite but co-substantiating one another powers of Ariadne. The presence of the snake imagery is also reinforcing the idea that the Knossos palace was actually a temple and that it was led by the Lady of the Labyrinth (Ibid.). Yet [its] size and evident […] seems to leave little room for a king. It is tempting to see King Minos as forever living in the shadow of the High Priestess of the Labyrinth, just as the worshipful Velchanos, Minoan male deity], always lived in the shadow of Potnia. The king may have been a puppet of the priestesses, dependent on them for the divine validation of his reign and perhaps even dependent on them for material sustenance; a share of a large tribute income of the Labyrinth may have been diverted discreetly into the king’s coffers” (Castleden 2000:172).

Women superior to men?

Apart from priestesses, who are believed to have stood at the forefront of the Minoan prosperous society, these were apparently Minoan women who enjoyed significant influence and independence (Mitchell 2011). The legal code found in Crete testifies that Minoan women had more marital rights than wives in other societies of that time (Ibid.). In the event of divorce, they could even order the return of the dowry (Ibid.). And only men were punished for adultery (Ibid.).

The Sacred Grove miniature fresco. Source: Antiquated Antiquarian (2015).

Such a high status of women and their religious leadership is also highlighted by the Minoan art. In the Grandstand or the Sacred Grove frescoes, there is a group of women “who are obviously the [significant] figures. [On the other side], there is still no sign of Evans’ king and no sign of any male officials” (Castleden 2000:116; see 54-55).

The presiding spirit of the Minoan Golden Age

The presiding spirit of Minoan Crete in its Golden Age was undoubtedly the Snake Goddess, the Minoan icon of the feminine power (Hughes 2004). Together with her diminutive companion, often described as a votary, the figurines are both beautifully attired but even their fine craftsmanship cannot disguise the fact that something elemental and very wild is hiding behind their elegant posture (Ibid.). The goddess’ fierce, wide-eyed stare is matched by her votary’s concentration; simultaneously, the gigantic snake grips her in a protective embrace from her slender waist right up to the tip of her headdress (Ibid.).

Hughes B. “The Snake Goddess”. In: Archer M, Kirby T. (2004) The Minoans. The Ancient Worlds: Episode 3 (fragment). Source: Higging (2018). In: Youtube.

The Minoan world was undoubtedly governed by such potent and vindictive powers as personified by the Snake Goddess (Hughes 2004). They could not be understood only placated (Ibid.). “For all the Goddess’ glamour and sexual power this is the deity who feeds off respect and fear and not love” (Ibid.). “Her fearsome expression is a reminder of the volcanic eruptions, tidal waves, and earthquakes that destroyed the temple-palaces on more than one occasion. The greatest eruption ever known is that of the volcano of nearby Thera, [today Santorini]. It blew up the island in a terrible holocaust […] that probably [began the destruction of] the Minoan civilization” (Johnson 1990:143; see: The World Ended When Gods Turned against the Minoans).

Here on Crete, although separated by millennia from the Minoans, I felt closer to the ancient mysterious forces, hidden in the hypnotic gaze of the Snake Goddess and Ariadne’s shining smile, indicating the exit from the Labyrinth’s abyss.

Featured image: Lesser figure of the Snake Goddess, priestess of a votary from the palace at Knossos (detail), c. 1700-1600 B.C.E., majolica, 29.5 cm high (Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, photo: Zde, CC BY-SA 4.0). Source: German (2018).

By Joanna
Faculty of History of Art and Archaeology
Cardinal Stefan Wyszyński University in Warsaw, Poland
University College Dublin, Ireland


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