Rites and Swallows


In honour of the arrival of summer, I’m dedicating this post to a little bird I now pass by whenever I walk through Nathan Philips Square in Toronto: the swallow. We know these birds for their cuteness and their uncanny ability to show up out of nowhere when eating something that could have crumbs. More relevantly (for this post), these birds did not go unnoticed by the ancient Minoans in Greece either.

Pictured above is the “Spring Fresco” in Room 2 (the “Room of the Lilies”) of Building Delta at Akrotiri, Thera (modern-day Santorini, Greece). Thera is one of the very few almost intact Aegean Bronze Age wall paintings found in situ (1). In her article, “A Flight of Swallows,” Karen Foster calls for a reinterpretation of the swallows painted on these walls, a reinterpretation that will shed new light on the room “as a cultic space in which iconography and architecture combined to create a dramatic setting for epiphanic ritual.”(2). She claims that instead of interpreting the image as peaceful and almost fun-loving, the imagery is almost bacchic, arguing the birds exhibit “classic signs of…high-intensity display, of which is possession of airborne feathers for use in nests”(3).

Foster’s is a poignant article because she demonstrates that we risk losing sight of the fact that these motifs might actually represent a very different element of Minoan religion that we do not comprehend. The swallow is an indigenous Theran motif from the Middle Cycladic period appears to have influenced the wall paintings of Late Cycladic I paintings, such as the “Spring Fresco” from Delta 2 (4).

The advent of modernity led to the creation of two fundamentally different ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand and of non-humans on the other (1). Rapid, far-reaching innovations in technology have created a wide divide between living beings (humans, animals) and non-living beings (material objects). Consequently, we no longer see animism in a rock or in the personality of a teddy bear. Representations of swallows are prominent throughout Akrotiri in frescoes found in rooms Delta 2, Xeste 3:4, Beta 6, Arvaniti 1 and West House 5. Pottery with swallow representations are found at the West House, Xeste 3 upper story, Arvaniti 2, Delta 9:1, Arvaniti 1 or 3, Bronou 2 upper room, Arvaniti 2:2, House of Ladies 1, repository 3 and West House 6 (5). Is this because swallows were simply easy and/or beautiful to paint or do they represent or play a part in a ritual that is part of Minoan religion as a whole?

1. Mary B. Hollinshead, American Journal of Archaeology, vol. 93, no. 3 (Jul., 1989): 339. Online version is here. 2. Karen Polinger Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” American Journal of Archaeology 99 (1995): 409. 3. Ibid. 4. Heather Mae Russell, “Sacred or Profane: Swallow-Painted Nippled Ewers from Akrotiri” in SOMA 2004: Symposium on the Mediterranean Archaeology: Proceedings of the Eighth Annual Meeting of Postgraduate Researchers, School of Classics, Trinity College Dublin. 20 – 22 February 2004, ed. Jo Day et al. (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2006), 149, quoting from M. Mathari. 5. Foster, “A Flight of Swallows,” 424-5.

Link to image here