CYCLADIC SOCIETY

Faiths and Beliefs

The Cycladic islanders’ religious beliefs and cult practices in the third millennium BC are difficult to detect without written sources. Unlike the settlements, however, cemeteries are a valuable source of information

The Cycladic islanders’ religious beliefs and cult practices in the third millennium BC are difficult to detect without written sources. Unlike the settlements, however, cemeteries are a valuable source of information. 

The study of burial customs and grave goods shows that the islanders respected the deceased and believed that their essence continued after death

The Cycladic islanders’ religious beliefs

The fact that the deceased were buried with their belongings indicates a belief in the afterlife. Noteworthy is the “killed” dagger from Ano Koufonisi, which was deliberately folded before being deposited in the grave to prevent further use by the living, thereby only serving the deceased in the afterlife.

 The placement of the deceased’s head on a small plaque as if on a pillow or the preservation of the skull inside the tomb after the rest of the bones were disposed of indicates a belief in the afterlife. Ritual vases and fragments of objects deposited in tombs suggest some funerary or religious ritual. In the cemetery at Agioi Anargyroi in Naxos, a large stone-built platform with numerous “hat-shaped” vases with no apparent practical use is interpreted as a place where rituals in honour of the deceased took place.

Presumed ritual vessels include kernoi, zoomorphic vases, the “dove vase”, and pan-shaped vessels. Interestingly, pan-shaped vessels feature an engraved pubic triangle above the handle. The representation of the pubic triangle on pan-shaped vessels, as on figurines, is taken as a religious symbol associated with female fertility and the cult of the Great Goddess.

Religious buildings have been tentatively identified in two Cycladic sites. An ovoid building excavated on the hill at Korfi t’Aroniou, Naxos may have functioned as a small shrine. Near this were ten plaques interpreted as religious objects with representations of the islanders’ daily activities. The discovery throughout Naxos of similar plaques with decorative spirals and pecked depressions identified as solar or astral symbols may support this interpretation.

Kavos is another site with a possible religious function on the uninhabited islet of Keros, between Naxos and Amorgos. A large group of fragmentary Early Cycladic figurines of unknown provenance, conventionally dubbed “Keros Hoard”, appeared on the antiquities market in the 1950s. The group remained a mystery until systematic excavations at Kavos revealed large deposits of broken figurines and vases. The comparative study of the excavated finds and the objects in the enigmatic “Keros Hoard” showed that certain fragments in the two groups join, demonstrating that the “Keros Hoard” originally came from here. The site’s numerous deposits of artefacts that had been intentionally smashed in antiquity and rarely join suggests that Kavos was a place of ritual smashing and deposition of objects of symbolic function.

In their search for Cycladic deities, scholars turned to the anthropomorphic figurines. Some maintain that figurines represent gods, others that they represent mortals. The unique female figurine with a snake’s head and marked pubic triangle represents a hybrid creature with human and “demonic” characteristics, probably with apotropaic properties. Either way, the standardization of figurines and highlighting of characteristics relating to female fertility may indicate the islanders’ religious beliefs and faith in the idea of rebirth.

As for the large statues, these are considered cult objects for use in sanctuaries. The rare male statues, like the one in the Museum of Cycladic Art, are thought to represent a male deity associated to the more powerful female deity.

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