This article was originally published on the defunct Ancient World Magazine website and is now re-published here.
When I wrote about the Minoan “palace” at Knossos, I mentioned the “Horns of Consecration” briefly. If you’ve been keeping up with my articles on Minoan Crete, it won’t surprise you to know that the term was again invented by Arthur Evans, the British archaeologists who excavated Knossos at the beginning of last century, even if the earliest examples of this symbol were identified by Heinrich Schliemann.
Horns of the sacrificial bull
What are these “Horns of Consecration”? This article’s featured image, above, shows a massive set of “Horns” – 2.2 m tall and 2 m broad – that are located close to the palace’s South Propylaeum. They are made of limestone and have been restored (read: constructed) at the direction of Evans. More fragmentary remains of Horns of Consecration are now located in the area near the Northern Lustral Basin. From the description in Evans’s second volume of The Palace of Minos, p. 160, this is perhaps the “rounded limestone block” that the large reconstruction is based on?
In any event, these symbols are also encountered in Minoan (and Mycenaean) art, where they are often shown lining the roofs of buildings, marking them – it is widely and probably corrected assumed – as sacred structures; they are also depicted in association with plants, landscapes, human figures, and so on. Interestingly, Evans had the restored “Horns” positioned in such a way that they perfectly framed Mount Juktas. Even if we don’t believe this was originally the case, the palace’s Central Court is oriented towards Juktas, suggesting that it was a place of importance (see, e.g., Steven Soetens, “Juktas and Kophinas: two ritual landscapes out of the ordinary”, Hesperia Supplements 42 (2009), pp. 261-268).
Following Schliemann, who had first encountered the symbol during his excavations on mainland Greece, Evans suggested that it represented the stylized horns of a sacrificial bull. After all, bulls are a recurrent theme in Minoan iconography and these objects, abstracted as they are, do sort of resemble bulls’ horns. The interpretation is made more attractive because of the importance of bulls at Knossos and in Minoan iconography in general, and of course the later story surrounding the half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur.
An alternative interpretation
Already back in the early twentieth century there were people who doubted that Evans and Schliemann were correct in regarding these “Horns of Consecration” as representing the horns of a bull. An interesting article about the topic is Emilia Banou’s “Minoan horns of consecration revisited: a symbol of sun worship in Palatial and Post-Palatial Crete?”, published in Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry 8.1 (2008), pp. 27-47. The article is available on her Academia page and has plenty of references.
Briefly, some scholars believe that the “Horns” don’t actually represent bull’s horns, but rather mountains. They have been compared to the Egyptian hieroglyph for “mountain” (djew), which looks similar, featuring two peaks that are connected in the middle, even though the hieroglyph is broader and lower – but one can see the similarities. For some reason, Banou also includes the Egyptian symbol for “horizon” (adjet or akhet), which consists of a disc (the sun) emerging from between two peaks, but this symbol is never encountered in Minoan art and it appears to have been included solely to strengthen Banou’s argument that the Minoans were sun worshippers. (Interested readers at this point should check out Judith Weingarten’s useful review of Nanno Marinatos’s controversial/dubious book Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine (2010), where a similar point is made.)
Still, it’s possible that the “Horns” actually represent mountains. Richard T. Neer, in his Art & Archaeology of the Greek World (2019, second edition), states flatly that they are symbolic representations of mountains. Like Banou and others, he also compares them to the hieroglyphic sign for “mountain”. Furthermore, he suggests that the Minoan symbol resembles the double peak of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain (2,456 m).
About the “Horns”, Neer writes (p. 31):
Could their placement along rooflines evoke Minoan reverence for mountain peaks? In a related vein, a number of important Minoan buildings contained a basement chamber with a single central pillar. These “pillar crypts” may stand in for sacred caves, the pillar representing a stalactite. If these peculiar features really are artificial versions of sacred places in the natural landscape, then their presence in palaces might attest to the institutionalization and centralization of rural cult activity at the administrative center. Tellingly, the number of active peak sanctuaries declined sharply in the Second Palace Period, as religious activity shifted to settlements and palaces.
We know that the Minoans, like many ancient cultures, had an interest in hills and mountains, and it’s possible that they connected them to some sort of (sky?) deity – Greeks of the historic era, after all, believed that Zeus was born in one of the many mountain caves that can be found in Crete. But I’m starting to speculate – unavoidable when dealing with the topic of Minoan religion and symbolism – and, more importantly, I’m moving beyond the scope of the present article.
To sum up, it’s possible that the “Horns of Consecration”, so common in both Minoan and Mycenaean art, are not stylized horns of a sacrificial bull, as Arthur Evans (and Heinrich Schliemann) believed they were, but are abstracted representations of mountains instead.
While comparisons with Egyptian hieroglyphs are perhaps a bit feeble, it cannot be excluded that the Minoans adopted the symbol from elsewhere. For example, in an article published in 1969, Jeremy Rutter compares the Minoan “Horns” with similar objects from Anatolia, some of which were used as pot supports in a hearth, explaining their peculiar shape (Jeremy Rutter, “Horned objects in Anatolia and the Near East and possible connexions with the Minoan ‘horns of consecration’”, Anatolian Studies 19 (1969), pp. 147-177).
For now, however, scholarly consensus leans towards the interpretation favoured by Arthur Evans. Perhaps new evidence or further re-interpretations of the existing data will yield new insights in the future: research into Aegean prehistory is, as usual, an ongoing process.
This is part of the series: Exploring Crete.