A Cretan Conundrum

This post is a somewhat modified version of a talk that I presented to the Egyptian Study Society of Denver Colorado on 21 January 2014. It was intended for a general audience; thus, it includes some information that is already well known to readers of these blogs. See also James Stratis’ post “The Egyptian Gods of Kommos” for additional information on Sekhmet and Nefertum.


Kommos1is an archaeological site that was a Minoan port on the South-West coast of Crete. It was home to Minoans until the end of the Bronze-Age, about 1200 BCE. For about 200 years, the site lay deserted. Then, in the Iron Age, roughly the first millennium BCE, the site was intermittently occupied by Greeks and, apparently, by Phoenicians. That Iron-Age Greeks were there is unsurprising; their modern descendants are there to this day. But why Phoenicians and what were they doing there? That they were there seems undeniable. Phoenician pottery is found at Kommos and so is a Phoenician shrine, inside a Greek temple. (Shaw 1989).

The Phoenicians initially came from cities along the Canaanite coast, essentially coastal parts of today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. Phoenicians were famous as sea-faring Canaanite merchants. Indeed the term “Phoenician” may be more a job description than it is an ethnic identity. Phoenicians expanded throughout the Mediterranean and even beyond to the Atlantic coasts of Africa and Spain.


They identified themselves as people of a particular city, notably Byblos, Sidon or Tyre. Phoenician cities were fiercely independent, quarreled often amongst themselves, and were often dominated by outside powers. In the Iron-Age, Canaan was increasingly dominated by Assyria (Miles 2012, 24) which became quite antagonistic to Egypt and, after 732 BCE, Canaan was essentially forbidden to trade with Egypt (Miles 2012, 55). Assyria took over Byblos and Sidon. Tyre bought off Assyria by paying massive tribute, especially in silver from the land that would later be known as  Spain. It is ironic that Phoenicians exploited Spanish silver in much the same way as Spaniards themselves exploited the New World silver more than two thousand years later. Much of Tyre’s wealth came from a purple dye made from the Murex sea snail. Indeed the word Phoenician probably comes from a Greek word, “φοινικη”, for red-purple. This was royal purple, and it was extremely costly.

Sometime around 800 BCE, Phoenicians from Tyre began settling at Carthage on the north African coast in what is today, Tunisia. It became the strongest maritime power in the western Mediterranean until it was destroyed by the Romans. The Romans deliberately obliterated Carthage, along with most of its own records and writings. What we know about Carthage is from writings by its enemies. (Miles, 2012).

CarthageFramedWebInitially, Carthage maintained strong ties with its home city, Tyre, and every year it sent a tithe to Melquert, the chief god of Tyre (Miles,2012:61-62). But by the 5th Century BCE, Carthage was largely independent of Tyre. Carthage had settlements with which to trade all around the western Mediterranean and on Sicily, Malta and Sardinia. However, the greatest evidence for of Phoenicians or Carthaginians residing on Crete is at Kommos, (Kourou, N. 2000) where they seem to have arrived within a century after the founding of Carthage .


When Joseph and Maria Shaw excavated Kommos, they found a series of three Greek temples built on one on top of the other. (Shaw 1989) The temples were rectangular buildings with openings to the east and benches along some of the sides. As time passed, beach sand blew in, accumulated and partially buried the temples so that each time they were re-built it was at a higher floor level.

In the figure, Minoan ruins are shown in grey. Temple A , or what’s left of it, is shown in green. It dates from when the Greeks first occupied the site. There was a hiatus. Then, Temple B shown in blue, was constructed over Temple A. Temple B was in use, with renovations, for perhaps 200 years. Temple C, shown in red, was a more elaborate Greco-Roman structure that was built later still. Its remnants are which you see today. The floor of its main sanctuary completely covers the remains of Temple B beneath it.


All the temples appear to be Greek, but Temple B contains a shrine comprised of three small pillars set in a line from north to south. The pillars are rectangular and look a bit like small, flat topped obelisks. The big column on top of the shrine was a structural part of the later Greco-Roman temple. It’s not part of the shrine.

Kommos Sekhmet Kommos Nefertem

Votive figurines were found squeezed into the spaces between the three pillars. Between the south and central pillars, there was a bronze horse and above it, a faience figure of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet. Between the north and central pillars, there was a faience figure of the Egyptian god Nefertum (Shaw 1989). There were many other offerings left in the shrine. Most of them were pottery but there were also a three bronze bulls and a bronze ram.
Dexter Hoyos remarks that the “Phoenicians were as punctiliously pious as Romans, and merchants arriving to trade in a new region would commonly set up a sacred place for their protecting deity to watch over them.” (Hoyos, 2010:5) Contracts could also be agreed to in front of shrines with the gods as witnesses. Pillar worship is particularly characteristic of Phoenicians (Moscati 1968:39-40; figs 14, 24, 26,28) although some Greek examples are known..ShrineColor2Web

Joseph Shaw compares the shrine at Kommos with shrines and stele from several Phoenician sites, including some from Western Phoenician or Punic sites (Shaw 1989). He also presents a number of interpretations of the votive offerings. In particular, he suggests possible associations with Cyprus or with Phoenicia including the possibility that Sekhmet might be associated with the Phoenician goddess Astarte (Shaw 1989)

Miles (2012:133-134) mentions Punic pillar shrines that were set up in Greek temples by Carthaginians after they occupied Selinus, Sicily and that they did the same in Sardinian native temples (Miles 2012:89). So, at Kommos, it appears we have a Greek temple with a Phoenician shrine and Egyptian gods.

Sekhmet and Nefertem, along with Ptah, are a well-known triad of Egyptian gods from Memphis (Wilkinson 2003:124). No figure of Ptah was found at Kommos (Shaw2006:139). Unfortunately, the absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. We cannot be sure that Ptah was never present only that he wasn’t found. Herodotus (2007:2.112) says there was a Phoenician quarter at Memphis, so they would have known and perhaps worshiped the gods of Memphis along with what he called the “Foreign Aphrodite”.


Occasionally, Egyptian figurines including a possible Sekhmet have been found in other parts of Crete (Shaw 1980:footnote 102) as have Ptah in the form of Patakios, who resembles the well-known dwarf figure of Bes. (Wilkinson 2003:123). Kourou (2000) provides a summary of the Phoenician presence in Iron Age Crete. The Kommos Sekhmet has a figure of a cat at her feet. Thus, this Sekhmet may have come from the city of Bubastis, in the Delta of Egypt where Bastet is a major goddess. Bubastis was a capital of Egypt during the 22nd and 23rd Dynasties.

I suggest that the Phoenicians installed the shrine at Kommos to their own gods, not to Egyptian ones. Both religious syncretism and assimilation was occurring at this time in the civilizations around the eastern Mediterranean. Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans borrowed each other’s gods, and had always seen foreign gods as being similar to their own. As gods became important, they tended to absorb the attributes of other, similar deities. So rather than look at these Egyptian deities from Egyptian or Greek standpoint let’s look at them, or try to, as a Phoenician might’ve done. The question then becomes: What associations might a Phoenician have made with Sekhmet and Nefertem?TanitColorCompositeWeb


The most similar Phoenician goddess to Sekhmet that I have been able to find is from Carthage and she is usually called Tanit2 or possibly the Genius (or Spirit) of Carthage. Both she and Sekhmet are female, lion-headed deities. The evidence for a Phoenician lion-headed goddess is in surviving statuary and in some scarabs. This statue of Tanit is in the Bardo National Museum; others are in the Museum of Nabeul all in modern Tunisia where Carthage was located. This goddess has wings folded around her body.

These Phoenician-made scarabs are small carved gemstones in the Beazley Archive Collection, at Oxford. Apparently they were used as amulets and seals. They were found in Sardinia, in Italy and near Carthage itself. The standing figures in the scarab appear related to the later Tanit sculptures but they are not attributed to any specific goddess. With their wings folded, their resemblance to Sekhmet is very strong.

Carthaginians depicted Tanit as the Greek goddess Persephone (Moscati 1968:172) or Kore (Miles 2012:143) on one side of their coins along with a horse on the other side; They are what Miles (2012:205) calls the “conventional symbols of the city.”Justinus3 quotes a myth that Carthage was assured of a great future because they found a horses head buried at the site where they built the city. Thus, the horse became a symbol of the city. Carthage was famous for its North African horses. They had notably fine heads and long legs, as does the bronze horse at Kommos.

The Shaws say that “the upper legs, haunches, head, and face, display an advanced modeling…” (Shaw and Shaw 1990:145). I suggest that the figure of Sekhmet was deliberately placed with the horse to indicate that the goddess of the shrine is the Carthaginian goddess with the folded wings.

Well, what about Nefertem? In Egypt, Nefertem is the God of perfume. (Wilkinson 2003, 133) His symbol is the Lotus which usually appears growing out of his head; however, the lotus is broken off the faience figure at Kommos.

Carthage’s principal god, Baal-Hammon, is associated with perfumed incense. (Moscati 1968, 138) He, too, can be depicted with a flower upon his head as you see in this picture of a Carthaginian incense burner. There are several other interpretations of name “Baal Hammon”; however, this symbolism points to incense4. In Phoenicia, Baal was associated with bulls, but in Carthage, one form of Baal was eventually associated with rams. Both bronze bulls and a bronze ram were found at the shrine in Kommos. Either way, I suspect that the god of the shrine may be Baal-Hammon.


Tanit is an important Goddess only at Carthage. In the Canaanite homeland she is a minor goddess associated with Astarte (Prichard 1968:104-108) and is known as the “face of Baal.” (Moscati 1968:138) Similarly, Baal-Hammon is known from Canaan. Opinion on his importance there is split; Sabatino Moscati sees him as minor compared to their other gods but Miles (2012:69) says he was major.

TanitSymbolWebAs with practically everything about religious iconography in the ancient world, there are difficulties with this interpretation. The statues of lion-headed Tanit are a very unusual representation of her and the surviving ones are quite late, 2nd century BCE or later. She is usually indicated by the symbol in the figure; however, no such symbol is found at Kommos. Perhaps the later, lion-headed Tanit assimilated an earlier, Sekhmet-like goddess. Tanit becomes obviously preeminent in Carthage only from the 5th Century onward, but we know she existed earlier. She was emerging as the principal goddess of Carthage, when the shrine at Kommos was set up so the Sekhmet figure may have been called that or by an earlier Phoenician name such as Ashtart or Astarte. By whatever name, the Sekhmet figurine with the horse points to Western, or Punic goddess.

The proposed visual identification of Nefertem with Baal-Hammon depends on the similarity of headdresses and association with perfume or incense. So, I assume that the Kommos Nefertem lost his headdress by accident. Furthermore, no two references seem to agree on the meaning of “Hammon,” which makes the identification less certain.
The faience figurines are from Egypt but could easily have come via Carthage where they were popularly associated with Egyptian magic. (Moscati 1968:141) The Assyrian trade embargo against Egypt makes it less likely they came via Canaan. Carthage was free of Assyrian dominance; it could and did trade with Egypt.


There is a larger question however. Why would Phoenicians, or Carthaginians as I suspect, stop and stay at Kommos?

First of all, let’s look at the geography. We now know that Mediterranean sailors were not afraid to sail over open water. At Kommos, the winds blow fiercely from northeast to southwest, as I can personally attest. If that held true in ancient times, then to sail from Carthage, Sicily, or Sardinia to Tyre, the winds would carry you to Western Crete where you could stop and refit. Secondly, Phoenicians seem always to have had a mercantile motive for their settlements (Miles 2012:52) and there was something at Kommos that any Phoenician would find very attractive: Murex sea snails. You have to love the wealth generated by the purple dye to abide the stench of Murex snails, (Ruscillo 2000) but Phoenicians certainly did.
MurexSeaSnailsWebLong before the Phoenicians came to Kommos, as early as 1900 B.C.E., the Minoans at Kommos were harvesting Murex and we presume dyeing cloth with it or selling the dye.

By clicking the following link, you can watch a 6 minute portion of a longer video, with Bettany Hughes, explaining a bit about the Minoans and Murex at Kommos.
I want to emphasize that Minoans vanished from Kommos long before the Phoenicians arrived; however, we have evidence that Murex were still there. Some 4.4 kilograms of crushed Murex shells were found in deposits next to a building, called building “Q”, that overlaps or post-dates the period of Temple B.

Deborah Ruscillo (2000: 808-809), who worked at Kommos, says “One interpretation of this later material could be that the Murex debris was retrieved from MM IB/II (ie Minoan) middens and crushed into tiny pieces in preparation to melt it into lime.” However, in the eighth century BCE, the known Minoan deposits at Kommos lay buried under sand and soil. Beach erosion or some other mechanism might have left a midden exposed but, based on their association with building Q, these shells are not obviously Minoan in origin. Perhaps the Phoenicians imported the shells or they may have generated the shells as a by-product of their own dye extraction at Kommos. At least, they surely would have recognized the commercial potential. No other evidence of such activity has been found at the site but, once again, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.

To distinguish between these interpretations, the Murex shells from building Q and those from the Minoan dye industry could be compared by radiocarbon dating. Murex have been successfully carbon dated in the past (Van Strydonck et. al. 2012) and all that is needed for present purposes is to establish whether the dates of the two deposits are the same or differ by about 1000 years or so.

So to sum up, I suggest that the Phoenicians at Kommos were from Carthage or perhaps one of it’s colonies and that they dedicated the tri-pillar shrine to their god and goddess. If so, the horse and the Sekhmet figurine indicate either Tanit or another goddess who later became incorporated into her. The Nefertem figurine together with either the ram or bull may represent Baal-Hammon. Taken together, the symbolism of the tri-pillar shrine apparently points at Carthage. Although the Murex evidence is ambiguous, I also suspect that the Phoenicians made the purple dye at Kommos for which they were famous.


  1. Shaw (2006) provides a general introduction to the site of Kommos. The description of the temple and site is taken from that and other articles by the same author in the bibliography.
  2. Hoyos thinks the Lion headed goddess might be Isis, because of the wings wrapped about her body in this 2nd Cent. BC statue.
  3. In Book 18 of his “Epitome of the Philippic History by Pompeius Trogus”, Marcus J. Justinus writes: “At the commencement of digging the foundations, an ox’s head was found, which was an omen that the city would be wealthy, indeed, but laborious and always enslaved. It (the foundation of the city) was therefore removed to another place, where the head of a horse was found, which, indicating that the people would be warlike and powerful, portended an auspicious site.”
  4. Despite the similarities in name, The “Hammon” part of Baal-Hammon apparently did not refer to the ram-headed Egyptian God Ammon (Moscati 1968:138). Miles suggests a linguistic association of “Hammon” with a Semitic word for “hot” or “burning being.”


  • Herodotus. (2007). The Landmark Herodotus, R. B. Strassler Ed. Anchor Books, NYC
  • Hoyos, B. D. (2010). “The Carthaginians”. Routledge, NYC
  • Hughes, Bettany, (2002) “The Minotaur’s Island” Video DVD Acorn Media, 2 parts 198 min. 4 min excerpt from Part II.
  • Justinus, Marcus Junianus (ca.200). “Epitome of the Philippic History of Pompeius Trogus.” tr. Rev. John Selby Watson. (1853). Henry G. Bohn, London. Quoted 21 January 2014 from http://www.forumromanum.org/literature/justin/english/
  • Kourou, Nota. 2000. “Phoenician Presence in Early lron Age Crete reconsidered” in Actas del IV Congreso International de Estudios Fenicios y Punicos. Cidiz, 2 al6 de Octubre de 1995, VOL. III, Servicio de Publicociones Universidad de Cadiz CADIZ, pp1067-1076
  • Miles, Richard. ( 2012) “Carthage Must Be Destroyed: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Civilization”, Viking, NYC, London.
  • Moscati, Sabatino. (1968). “The World of the Phoenicians” (English Trans). Phoenix Orion (1999 ed.). London.
  • Moscati, S., (2005) “Fenici e cartaginesi in Sardegna” Piero Bartoloni (ed.). Ilisso, Nuoro. Sardinia, Italy.
  • Pritchard, James B. (1978). “Recovering Sarepta, a Phoenician City: Excavations at Sarafand, Lebanon, 1969-1974, University Museum U. Pennsylvania”. Princeton U. Press, Princeton NJ.
  • Ruscillo, Deborah (2000) “Fauna Remains and Murex Dye Production” in J.W.Shaw and M.C.Shaw, (2000)
  • Shaw, Joseph W. (1980). Excavations at Kommos (Crete) during 1979. Hesperia, Vol. 49, No. 3. pp. 207-250. Plates 53-67 (pp. 45-59.)
  • — (1982). “Excavations at Kommos (Crete) during 1981”. Hesperia, Vol 51, No. 2. pp. 164-196, plates 48-56 (pp. 33-41)
  • — (1989). “Phoenicians in Southern Crete”. American Journal of Archaeology 93: pp. 165-183.
  • — (2006). “Kommos: A Minoan Harbor Town and Greek Sanctuary in Southern Crete” American School of Classical Studies at Athens. 171 pp.
  • Shaw, Joseph W., Maria C. Shaw, (2000) “Kommos : an excavation on the south coast of Crete Volume IV” Princeton U. Press, Princeton NJ.
  • Van Strydonck, Mark, Mathieu Boudin and Damià Ramis. (2012). “Direct 14C-dating of Roman and late antique purple dye sites by murex shells”. ArchéoSciences, 36, pp. 15-23.
  • Wilkinson, Richard H. (2003). “The Complete Gods and Goddesses of Ancient Egypt”. Thames & Hudson. NYC
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4 comments on “A Cretan Conundrum
  1. druscillo says:

    The reference to the Ruscillo work on Murex in the Kommos volume is 2006. Shaw’s Phoenician
    article is 1993, not 1989. Also:

    1) Minoan Murex middens would have been exposed from construction of Building Q.
    Foundation trenches were dug before construction, dredging up this earlier
    industrial debris. There are Minoan sherds in Q from this disturbance, for
    2) Bigelow mentions that they may have imported Murex… does he mean that they
    were imported to Kommos from elsewhere? Why would the anyone do this when
    they are available locally, when the snails have to be alive in order to
    extract the purple?
    3) Bigelow neglected to mention the pulverized state of the Murex at
    this later date in Q, which is not indicative of dye extraction, but rather lime production, such as those pieces found in lime floors elsewhere on the site.
    Even if we accept that these Murex are from a later small-scale dye production in
    Room 38 of Q before they were pulverized, there is very little chance that
    they were Phoenician produced:
    4) Johnston in his 1993 Hesperia article shows that Q was used in the 7th
    c BC and abandoned about 600BC. Shaw in his 1993 AJA article states that
    the peak use of the sanctuary by Phoenicians based on the pottery at
    Temple B is 875-800, 200 years too late. The pottery in Q also testifies
    that Q is not a Phoenician construction: there is 271 kgs of pottery from
    Q including local, Corinthian, Laconian, Lesbian, Milesian, Cypriot and
    North African pots. Very few pieces are from Punic colonies “at a time
    when Punic material is quite common at other sites”. In fact, Johnston and
    Bikai marvel at why Punic traders seemed to have overlooked Kommos during
    this period.

  2. R.C.Bigelow says:

    Thank you for your comments. My apologies for the mixup of dates, the reference for your article should be to Kommos Volume V not to Volume IV.

    The only point I was trying to make with the Murex was where they came from, not their ultimate disposition. I didn’t and don’t question that the shells were ground up, only their origins. The problem I have had with the early Minoan origin has always been the depth of burial and how the Phoenicians would have known the shells were there. Now, from what you say, the question doesn’t arise because it appears the people who ground up the shells in Building Q weren’t Phoenicians. The clincher is the pottery, something I did not properly appreciate.

    Unfortunately, this still leaves open the question of why the Phoenicians or Carthaginians came and stayed at Kommos.

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