All of the clay figures from Ayia Irini are female. Nine different groups have been identified by Miriam Caskey. Because a lot of the statues were fragmentary, the total number of figurines cannot be determined, but there were more than 32. In order to help make these models, parts of them were often shaped around other objects, such as wooden sticks for the arms. They all tended to be hollow and were fired in a kiln.
The largest of the statues are half to three-quarter life-size. Most measure between 70 to 120 cm in height. Some of the best preserved figures are around one metre in height and dressed in typical “Minoan” fashion, wearing a flounced skirt that left the breasts exposed. They also wear a heavy necklace and a belt around the waist. They have their hands at the waist, and it’s been suggested that the figures were perhaps dancing. Traces of pigment suggests that all statues were originally painted.
It’s not clear if the statues are supposed to represent one or more different female deities, or even if they are supposed to represent divine beings at all. Evi Gorogianni does not doubt that the figures are supposed to be divine, and writes (p. 641):
Whether the statues represented a single deity or many, it is reasonable to assume that they were imbued with a sanctity that protected them from the fates of more mundane objects. In ancient Greek, Egyptian, and Near Eastern ritual, as well as contemporary Hindu practice, anthropomorphic cult images are treated as manifestations of deities: the deity is present in the image. Such rituals include not only prayer, sacrifice, and procession, but also the dressing, bathing, and feeding of the images, a clear indication that such representations are not merely symbols but the actual objects of religious devotion. It is possible that the terracotta statues of Ayia Irini were likewise perceived as the timeless, enduring representatives of the deity or deities residing within the temple for the benefit of the settlement.
The settlement at Ayia Irini shrank in size following the destruction of the Minoan palaces on Crete in Late Minoan IB/Late Helladic II, or ca. 1470/1460 BC (see my introductory article on Minoan Crete). The settlement was abandoned towards the end of Late Helladic IIIB (ca. 1200 BC).
This is not the end of the story, however. Finds suggest that the shrine remained in use during the Dark Ages (Andreas G. Vlachopoulos and Xenia Charalambidou 2020, p. 1014). Furthermore, the excavators discovered that in the eighth century BC, the inhabitants of Ayia Irini had found the head of one of the Bronze Age statues and placed it on a terracotta ring supported by flat stones. As Gorogianni notes (p. 643-644):
During the 9th and 8th centuries, a multitude of Bronze Age sites, ranging in function from sanctuaries to settlements and cemeteries, show continuous use or, in the case of abandoned sites, reuse as centers of ritual activity. […] These prehistoric sites were probably rehabilitated by local populations seeking to acknowledge their ancestors (real or imagined) and to make a claim on the landscape by establishing ritual practice.
Gorogianni suggests that in the eighth century, the head of one of these statues was venerated as part of an ancestor cult. Whatever the case may have been, it is clear that the past was deemed important enough to the eighth-century inhabitants of Ayia Irini for them to enshrine a relic of a bygone era. The past is forever re-used and adapted to suit contemporary needs.
Suggestions for further reading are listed below:
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