by William McDonald Ph.D.
Assembly Room, A. K. Smiley Public Library
Here’s the opening line of Thomas Mann’s tetralogy Joseph and his Brothers: "Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?" Taking Mann’s metaphor literally, imagine for yourself a wide-mouthed “well of the past” in north-central Crete, just outside the precinct of the Minoan palace of Knossos. The well has a sturdy metal ladder attached to its side, and we begin our descent. Near the top rung of our ladder we encounter…
-- contemporary Cretan culture (though politically part of Greece, the Cretans are a stubbornly independent people who are not fully assimilated into the mainland culture).
-- In 1944 they expelled the NAZIS, who had defeated them and their British allies in 1940-1.
-- Crete formally joined Greece only in 1913, following the revolution of 1908 led by the most honored Greek patriot of the 20th century, Elutherios Venizelos.
-- From 1898-1908 Crete was ruled, or rather managed, by the High Commission of England, France, Russia and Italy, who had expelled from actual power the …
-- the Ottoman Turks, who had ruled Crete since 1669, who themselves expelled. ..
-- the Venetians, who came to "Candia" as a result of the 4th Crusade—their forts are still on show in the harbors of Iraklion and Rethymnon—and who in turn had expelled the recently arrived Genoans and ...
-- the Byzantines (for the second time), who had reconquered the island from their predecessors ...
-- the Saracens [Arabs] in 824—their capital, El Khandak, the source of the medieval name “Candia”—who had expelled an earlier rule of …
--the Byzantines, who took over from …
-- the Romans, who invaded in 68 B.C. under Quintus Metellus, expelling ...
-- the Hellenistic Greeks, who, as precise dates become hazier, followed upon…
-- the classical and archaic Greeks (who strangely weren't much interested in Crete), and who followed, by attrition…
-- the Dorians, who used their iron swords to expel the…
-- the Mycenaean Greeks, who prized what they found on the island, yet who most probably expelled the last rulers of ...
-- a people or peoples called the "Minoans" by us, though not by themselves. Finally we've reached a provisional stopping point on our ladder to get our first basic facts:
-- There is traceable “Minoan” culture on Crete since 2600 BCE,
--- and a so-called “Palatial” culture since 2,000 BCE.
-- These palaces were first destroyed around 1700 BCE, almost certainly by earthquake/tsunami, events most probably spawned by the great volcanic explosion on the nearly island of Santorini. These palaces were rebuilt then fell again, in the conventional tale, to a combination of earthquake, tsunami, and possibly mainland invasion by Mycenaeans around 1450 BCE.
-- The great palace of Knossos itself burned sometime in the late 1400s, and was not rebuilt. This is the blaze that miraculously fired, and so preserved, the clay tablet records of one of their two main languages, which we call Linear B. Cretan immigrants from these catastrophes gradually established themselves around 1200 BCE on the SW coast of Palestine. At least some of them called themselves “Kaftor” (Jeremiah 47:4: more later!), but we know them by a name derived from the Semitic root p-l-s, meaning “to roll in or invade”: the Philistines.
-- and now, our brief resting pause over, we can descend again, before the Minoans, to the Neolithic peoples, who crossed to Crete at the end of the last Ice Age, when the Mediterranean was dramatically lower, and the sea between the island of Kythera and the mainland was entirely absent. There are TEN layers of settlement at Knossos before any significant palace construction began—and that construction began 4000 years ago! And at that point the well descends into bottomless darkness.
A few comparisons in time:
-- The archaic ancient Greeks, i.e. Homer, then the classical Athenians—Herodotus and Thucydides, and also Plato—sought to understand the ancient Cretans just as we do. Unbeknownst to them, they were about as far away from the last Minoans in "real time" as we are from King Arthur or the Venerable Bede.
-- Diodorus Siculus, who wrote in the time of Julius Caesar, and who was one of the best ancient storytellers about the Minoans, was as distant from them as we are from St. Augustine.
-- And Thucydides, say, or any 5th century Athenian, was almost as far way from the beginnings of Minoan culture as we are from Thucydides.
Minoan culture subsided—not began, but subsided--1,259,000 days ago.
"Deep is the well of the past. Should we not call it bottomless?"
We’re going to look at Minoan culture through three complementary narratives that I hope come together to form a coherent and pleasing overview in your minds: first, its mythic traditions, second its society as archeologists understand it today, and finally the imaginative nature of the site’s archeological history as generated by Knossos’s excavator and, arguably, its creator, Sir Arthur Evans. In the interests of time I’ve relegated a lot of information to footnotes, and summarized the famous decoding of one of the Minoan languages, Linear B, in an Appendix, so if the Minoans come to intrigue you, all this will be on our website shortly.
I'll open with the two main Minoan myths: the stories of Minos and Daedalus, giving us our first light following our dark descent.
In myth he is the Son of Zeus by the kidnapped daughter of Phoenix, the eponymous ruler of Phoenicia, whose name was Europa. (It’s sobering to remember that Europe is named for a god's rape of a human being.) According to Herodotus, the rape of Europa was revenge for the rape of Io of Argos by Egyptians, at Hera's jealous instigation....), inaugurating a cycle of invasions and counter-invasions from East to West and back again, including the Trojan War and its countless successors, culminating today in Iraq. This is our first fact: the mythographers of classical Greece thought of the original Cretans as non-Greek.
Hiding among cattle disguised as a bull, Zeus behaved so gently that Europa, enchanted by his beauty, climbed on his back. Immediately the bull bolted to the shore and swam across the sea to Crete and Zeus’s birthplace, the Dictean Cave in East Crete, on the Lassithi Plateau. Europa’s brother Kadmos, in one version, was sent to find her, went to the Delphic Oracle, and was instructed to abandon his search and instead to follow a cow—a nice symmetry!—standing outside the precinct to the place where it sat down. That place turned out to be Thebes, soon to be the city of Oedipus. So the myth honors a tradition of important Phoenician presence in Mycenaean, or even pre-Mycenaean, Greece, as well as Crete
In that sacred cave—of which more later—Europa gave birth to three sons: Minos; Rhadamanthys (his name is not a Greek name, and he is a figure most closely associated with righteous judgments and with the southern Minoan city of Phaistos: Perhaps an imported deity?); and Sarpedon (of whom more later).
After this birth narrative, two intertwined stories of Minos’s reign have come down to us: the legends of the Athenian hero Theseus and the Athenian craftsman Daedalus. Both of them center on bulls
: Minos indeed is a bull-haunted king! And there’s a third narrative: every nine years h would retreat to the Dictean cave for divine renewal: “becoming,” as mythic writers describe an intimate relation with a god, his father Zeus.
He’s a curiously inactive king; he doesn’t do much in most of
Certainly we can see the marriage (after the rape…) of Europa and Zeus, which took place under an evergreen tree near Gortyn, as the marriage of Minoan and Mycenaean cult figures, with the female supplanted by the male: an old pattern in mythmaking, as exemplified by the origins of Delphi.
Homer had a double view of Minos that we have inherited: both the just lawgiver and the oppressor. Presumably he was talking about a much later Minos, an Achaean and grandfather of Ideomeneus. He has Odysseus in the Underworld call him, on the one hand, "a splendid son of Zeus, seated, holding a golden sceptre, ordaining righteousness among the dead, who were sitting or standing around the lord [wanax], questioning him about their rights." But a bit earlier in the epic he termed Minos "ill-designing" (oloophron).
We do have his death narrative: pursuing Daedalus to Sicily and being killed by the daughter of King Kokalos, who, using a design of Daedalus, poured boiling water or oil on him through a ceiling drainpipe while he was in his bath (Cretan/Greek kings didn't fare very well when they took baths in the houses of unfriendly women, or when they tried to mess with artists). And there’s an interesting archeological note: the legendary tomb of Minos on Sicily (within a temple of Aphrodite: his “bones” returned to Crete in 5th BCE) is a virtual replica of the one royal tomb which Sir Arthur Evans excavated at Knossos.
the stories in which he figures. He did have quite a few lovers, but virtually no heroic tales.
All this suggests that "Minos" is a generic royal title, like "pharaoh," not simply a common name or even a symbolic common name (like Daedalus). It’s like calling the English "Arthurians" or "Ma-TIL-dans". [What would the history of Europe have been like if the English had taken their name from the great early queen?: The Matildan Empire!] Or like calling the Egyptians "Pharaoh-ians," "the people of the Pharaoh," or calling us "Washington-ians." As you listen to those names, it’s easy to see how such a title—"Minoan"—already shapes one’s view of the culture.
Now for our second mythic tale: Daedalus and Icarus; Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur.
("Dee-dalus" is correct Greek pronunciation, but I can’t break my old habit.) In Greek “Daedalus” means both "a skillful thing" (artful works are called "daidala") and/or a "skillful (or cunning) artificer." So his name links Maker and the thing Made. Daedalus grew up in Athens, where his father, Eupalamos ("Skill-hand"), was a famous craftsman descended from Erechtheus, legendary ruler of the city. Along with his father, Athena was his main teacher, and thanks to her Daedalus as a young man effectively supplanted his father as the supreme craftsman, architect, and
sculptor in Athens. Indeed, 5th century artists—the poet Pindar and the dramatist Euripides—both claim that he made such lifelike wooden sculptures that they had to be chained to prevent them from running away. He made beautiful buildings that were practical and
pleasing to inhabit, and was also held to be the inventor of the axe,
Martin Bernal, the author of Black Athena, argues that Minoan culture derived largely from Egyptian culture, especially Egyptian religion, and from Semitic Phoenicia. Bernal is not original in this, as he readily admits: famous predecessors include Walter Burkert's work on the origins of Greek myth in Near Eastern sacred stories, and especially the Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anda Diop. (Diop has a university named for him in Dakar. He derives “Minos” from Egypt's first legendary lawgiver and king, Menes, or Min, as Herodotus called him). Menes founded the bull-cult of Apis at Memphis. Bernal also says that a related bull-cult was connected with the so-called Egyptian "winding wall," (an idea of C19th Egyptologists which Bernal follows), i.e. the walls of a labyrinth. So, Bernal continues, what does the title "Minoan" Culture” suggest to us? What kinds of reality does it apparently create? First, that the Minoans were the people of a king, or male royal line. Second, that their self-conception as a culture was monolithic, single, perhaps even racial. It marks, he says, an ideology of sameness: What if the Minoans had been named, by Evans, the "Cretan Phoenician or “Western Semitic” peoples?" So does the singular name "Minoans" represent an impulse to keep ancient "European" civilization "free" from origins in Egypt (Black Africa) or the Levant (Semitic)? There is some evidence for this: Early 20th scholars (though not Evans) wrote about the beauty of the Minoan people, and how therefore they could not be descended from Semitic lines (see Stobart, The Glory that was Greece  or anything by J. B. Bury, e.g. The History of Greece , where there is much talk of "Greek soil" and "Semitic blood"—clear marks of racism). The main point of Bernal’s project was to show how racist 18th & 19th scholars tried to isolate Greek culture from both African and Semitic origins: compare Edward Said’s Orientalism.
See Sarah Morris, Daidalos and the Origins of Greek Art. Daedalus was adopted by the Athenians after the defeat of Persia and came to symbolize superlative craftsmanship throughout Greece. Morris uses "the myths surrounding Daedalus" to describe the profound influence that the Near East had on Greece's artistic and literary origins.
the plumb line, the auger, glue— and the folding chair that was on display in the old temple of Athena Polias on the Athenian Acropolis (and that we saw Minos sitting on). One legend even makes him the builder of the pyramids, an excess that dramatizes his importance. After his adventure on Crete, Daedalus constructed a gold-roofed temple at Cumae in southern Italy, on whose doors he carved the story I'm about to tell.
In Attica Daedalus helped to train his nephew Perdix or Talus (actually a monster’s name), who was also a precocious young artist and craftsman, inventing the saw by copying either the jawbone of a snake or the spine of a fish. Maddened by his nephew’s success, he killed him and had to flee Athens with his only son. And where to?—Crete.
Meanwhile, on Crete, Minos prayed to his uncle, the sea-god Poseidon, for a perfect bull to sacrifice in the god’s honor. Poseidon was a central god for the Minoans, since they ruled the seas of the eastern Mediterranean. The bull emerged from the ocean (a variation on the Zeus and Europa tale), and was so perfect in its whiteness and form that Minos could not bring himself to kill it. So he concealed it in his flock and substituted another bull for it. But you don’t fool the gods, and Poseidon decided to punish Minos for his arrogance (and, more ironically, for his love of beauty: he had placed aesthetics before religious duty). Minos’s wife Pasiphae (“wide-shining”), daughter of the sun-god Helios and the mother of Ariadne and Phaedra, was at first enraged by her husband's defiance of the god, but when she saw the bull she too fell under the spell of its beauty. (Note also how this also replicates— almost parodies—the "original" rape of Europa and her impregnation by the bull-god: it’s OK when permitted by Zeus, but....) So Pasiphae compels the king’s new master builder Daedalus to craft a “perfect” hollow bronze cow on wheels which was then rolled out to the pasture with the queen concealed inside, eager to receive the bull. Their bestial issue was officially named "Asterios," "The Starry One," but was called by the Minoans the "Bull of Minos," or the Minotaur: a bull's head atop an enormously strong human body and, unlike all normal bulls, an omnivore.
Minos then ordered Daedalus to build a huge underground prison for the “monster,” where it awaited—and devoured—adolescent children of the Mediterranean cities, including Athens, which paid tribute to Minos and his empire. He called it the labyrinth, named for the double-axe—the labrys—that was the symbol of civic and religious power in Minoan culture.
Enter now the Athenian hero Theseus, whose famous exploits repeated, with variations, the fabled labors of his mythic predecessor Herakles. Theseus concealed himself among the fourteen children sent as tribute by his city, and then courted Minos’s daughter Ariadne. “Ariadne”—Cretan-Greek for "Ari-hagne", "utterly pure”— fell in love with him, and agreed to help with the slaughter of her deformed and defamed brother. Following the uncanny golden thread and the magical dancing steps she gives him,
Theseus slaughters the Minotaur and follows the thread back to the
Some versions claim that Daedalus wove the thread, but that sounds like a patriarchal appropriation of Ariadne’s cleverness.
land of the living. Heroes always protect their cities from the threats of invaders (show Theseus and the Amazons) and monsters. This part of the story ends with the celebrative "Crane Dance,” a circular dance replicating the moves necessary to escape the labyrinth, which Ariadne taught to Theseus.
Enacting the ironic reversal frequent in such tales, the doubly angry Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the maze. Beyond revenge, Minos has a practical reason: an artist and military designer of Daedalus’s capacity could not be allowed to live in the court of a rival. But the old artificer proved to be also a master of the technology of escape: he had to fly because Minos controlled the seas (myth confirming archeology!). But, as hundreds of painters and poets have testified, the wax holding Icarus’s wings in place was warmed by the sun, and the boy fell into the sea—a balancing death for his father’s murder of Perdix. One version has Daedalus 's sister Polycaste, Perdix’s mother, transformed into a partridge (in Greek "Perdix") and gloating over the dead Icarus. This is the sort of the sort of dark symmetry that the Greeks loved: Daedalus' son perishes even as Minos' son perishes, and even as Minos is helpless to pursue Daedalus once he flies, so Daedalus is helpless to save his son who flies wrongly, out of balance, overreaches, makes a "monster,” a metaphorical Minotaur, of himself.
Theseus escapes too, with Ariadne, but coldly leaves her on the island of Naxos when he sails for Athens. More dark symmetry: because Theseus in his excitement forgets to fly a white sail as he enters the Athenian harbor, his poor father Aegeus, watching from the battlements of the Acropolis, sees only the black sail proclaiming his son’s failure, and leaps to his death. Theseus and his men rejoice as they land, before learning the truth. As for Ariadne, she comes out the best: Hermes, in a prefigurement of a more famous annunciation scene, appears to her with the good news that the god Dionysus is coming from the east to wed her— which he does. (NB the personification of Sleep and the grapevine in the pix). They have ten children, several with names connected to wine, and her wedding diadem was set in the heavens as the constellation Corona.
So the stories of Minos and Daedalus present us with a version of the Minoan society that we can align with the archeological evidence—and to the Minoans’ oft-celebrated artistic creativity. It’s a wealthy court, with an economy apparently based on sea power and trade, that can underwrite enormous palaces. It’s a culture where stern but fair judgments are enacted. It’s a liberal, sensual and beauty-loving culture; the example of Pasiphae’s desire is extreme even for them, but a god-sanctioned mating with a divine white bull is authorized, and beauty of design or living form overwhelms all the participants. It’s an aesthetic culture, one that honors great craftsmen, elaborate architecture, and whose ruler can be cajoled by the sheer beauty of a bull to challenge the authority of a god. Finally, it’s a culture that later Athenian mythographers struggled to wrestle into conformity with their patriarchal presumptions: Europa, Pasiphae and especially Ariadne are powerful women with magical or religious powers that rival those of gods and kings. Ariadne is clearly more effective in the world than her father.
Now for the Standard Story of Minoan culture as developed over the past century, and a look at what remains of the great palace at Knossos. Three opening snapshots: The Minoans were as much the people of a mother goddess as of a male ruler (or deity). Their culture was homogeneous over time, yet also multi-lingual and in several important ways multi-cultural. Their artwork suggests more freedom and variety than the image produced by the leveling myth of "Minos."
Just look at a few of these vases, with their marine motifs, their uplift, even their joyousness. Or consider this acrobat, carved from ivory, or, best of all, the Harvester Vase.
According to the archeological record, where did the Minoans come from? Homer described a multi-cultural ancient Crete: he named five different peoples on the island, and no fewer than ninety cities, which complicates the portrait. There’s some evidence for Libya and Syria, but the most commonly held view is that they descend from the Luvian culture in SW Asia Minor, who had been driven west by the Hittites into the Greek islands. The Luvians were an Indo-European people who had invaded Asia Minor in the latter part of the 3rd millennium BCE. Their principal city was Beyce/sultan on the Meander river, which was destroyed 1750 BCE by the Hittites in the next "wave" of East-West invasions. Legend and science dovetail again here: Sarpedon the brother of Minos founded a colony in Asia Minor, Miletos, just down the road from Ephesus in what was Luvian territory and fought with the Trojans against the Achaians until Achilles' mentor and lover Patroklos killed him.
Next, the Luvian language, close to Hittite and possibly the language spoken at Troy, is most likely the basis for one of the two linear scripts used by the Minoans. Further, Luvians worshipped bulls and marked their worship with clay models of altar horns exactly like those found at Knossos. We can say this much with confidence: the Minoans were originally non-Greek; they almost certainly had Luvian ancestry, and they were not a simple, monolithic society. In this they were like the great Hittite civilization, whose capital city Hattusa has offered up tablets in eight
The "Eteo-Cretans”; "Kydonians" (from the area around modern Hania: their lang. unknown); the Achaeans (i.e. Mycenaeans); the Pelasgians ("an original" Aegean people whose language was somewhere in between Hittite and Luvian), and the Dorians (conquerors of the Mycenaeans) on Crete after 1150.
If they came from Libya, the Minoans may be "refugees" (or "invaders": NB how quickly refugees can become, or be seen as, invaders) from the invading Egyptian Mena, about 3,000 BCE. The ancient Libyans were peoples from the west bank of the Nile delta. Clothing and hairstyle similarities are verifiable, but the architecture is very different. So Libya is possible, but not likely. Another idea: the Minoans came from ancient Syria/Phoenicia, as the story of Zeus and Europa suggests. A similar seal-stone hieroglyphic marking system did originate there. So, as several scholars have claimed, the Minoans may have been a Semitic people.
different lang.: the multi-cultural ancient world, not unlike, say, the L.A. of our time. But that's about all we can claim about origins.
Here again is our basic timeline and geographical information concerning Minoan Crete:
a. Neolithic occupation from 6000
b. The Minoans arrived after 3,000, but did not become a dynamic culture until approximately 2600. They may have arrived from different cultures in the East, and in different times.
c. Pre-Palatial =s 2600 - 2000;
d. First Palatial =s 2000 - 1700;
e. Second Palatial =s 1700 - 1400 [or a little earlier];
f. Post-Palatial =s 1400-1100.
At least four principal palaces were built on Crete: Knossos, Phaistos; Mallia (the modern name: ancient name unknown) and Zakro at the island’s far eastern tip. We've already mentioned Gournia. Whether or not there are Homer’s ninety, there are almost certainly other undiscovered palaces, especially near the city of Hania on the northwest coast.
There are a number of other Minoan sites around the Aegean: in fact, the remarkably preserved city of Akrotiri on the volcanic island of Santorini, is one of the world’s great archeological sites. There are sites also at Kytheria (just off the eastern tip of the Peloponnese); at Elafonisi, at the end of the middle finger of the Peloponnese: it’s underwater now; at Keos (just east of Attica); and at Rhodos; Miletos, and Naxos (Ariadne!) a trading center. There are cultural contact points—pottery finds—all along the coast of Turkey and Asia Minor, the Levant, and especially in Egypt.
Santorini was the site of one of history’s most violent volcanic explosions. Archeological excavations began unintentionally on the island. In 1859 Santorini ash (pumice dust mixed with lime in 3 to 1 proportions, exceptionally resistant to seawater) from the volcano was mined for the building of a great project: the Suez Canal. The diggers soon hit foundations, and found some lovely pots and frescos, but oddly there was no serious archeological push to excavate professionally at the town we call Akrotiri until the Greek Spiriodon Marinatos undertook the task in 1967.
The great earthquake that followed the eruption was once thought to take place around 1500 BCE, but in recent years that date has been pushed back 200 or more years, well before the final collapse of Minoan civilization on Crete, just 80 miles away. Of course there were other, succeeding earthquakes, and the geological record is unavoidably uncertain. Scientists think the Santorini explosion was even more powerful than that of the famous modern volcano of Krakatoa (1883), which blackened the sky for three days, knocked down walls 100 km away, which was heard 3000 km away in Australia (the loudest noise ever recorded on earth), which raised the tides as far away as India and South Africa, and which claimed 36,000 lives. The depth of sediment in Crete’s soil and especially sea samples is about 5 cm: not totally fatal to human habitation (10 cm is fatal), but very damaging. The Minoans of that era (the Middle Palatial) probably couldn't recover economically, since this much ash was likely to wipe out sheep and goats, the economy’s main animals. Yet there’s no evidence for tidal wave destruction on Crete, even at low-lying Gournia.
THE PALACE ITSELF: A QUICK OVERVIEW. SLIDES
The palace was the hub of the city: the streets all radiate from it. In its heyday Knossos covered at least 66,000 square feet, with three stories on the west side, and five on the east. It contained the first staircases and light wells in the world. It had working space for several thousand in the palace's 1500 “labyrinthine” rooms. About 20,000 people lived in the immediate area, and the town that grew up around the palace had a population of around 50,000. The entire island held, at its prime, about 250,000.
Now for basic economic information, as inferred from the archeology: The Minoans were a sea-faring, trading people, and a very large economic power in the southern Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean from 2000-1450. They had no rivals, really, since Egypt was concerned mostly with its trade route to Syria, and the other great powers of the day were also land-oriented. The Minoans produced wealth primarily through agricultural surplus: wheat, olive oil, wine (plenty of grape pippins found), then barley, figs, and timber (cedar especially).
So one of Knossos's principal functions was to serve as an enormous warehouse and distribution center. There’s a huge underground storage system, including enough pithoi to hold 240,000 gallons of olive oil and/or wine, plus immense granary storage areas. Some of these spaces date from even before the first palace. No other ancient trading city or port, whether in Egypt or the Near East (Ugarit, El-Amarna), had storage facilities for grain or oil anything like these.
Managing this system required a large number of bureaucrats and a recording system of some kind. That’s what writing was used for: Lists of sheep and goats, grains, oil, wine, honey, and other holdings, plus personnel/staff. One series of tablets from Knossos totals the Palace holding at 25,000 sheep, raised primarily for wool. Vegetable and fruit trace remains include cress, lettuce, celery, asparagus, carrots, peas and beans, pears, quince, and dates (probably from Egypt). All these bureaucrats and warehouse workers required working space: hence the huge, "labyrinthine" palace.
So the Minoans exported grain, oil, wood, pottery, and wool/woolen cloth: sheep and goats the dominant animals; bull stories aside, there aren’t abundant cattle in mountainous Crete. They imported tin to make bronze; precious jewels and stone (ivory); gold and silver; ostrich eggs (made into libation vessels) and ostrich plumes from North Africa; probably linen & some specialty pots and decorated furniture from Egypt. There’s was a “redistributive economy,” with the palace as nodal point and storage depot. All this trade confirms that Crete was not just a set-apart Minoan culture, but the far west anchor of a huge economic system that existed in the oikumene, the commonwealth, of the Eastern Mediterranean: Syria, Mesopotamia, Cyprus, and especially Egypt.
Tin came from central Europe, or Syria, or Southern Spain. There’s a fair amount of copper in Crete (twenty sites mined, including three just north of Knossos), and much more in Cyprus.
A quick sidebar: Beyond pottery shards, how do we know they traded with the Egyptians? When Sir Arthur Evans unearthed the first traces of painting at Knossos, he was enough of an Egyptologist to recognize them immediately as representing a people called the "Keftiu". The Egyptians used this name to separate them from the more generic "sea peoples," their condescending term for the many islanders with whom they traded. These named portraits are on the walls of the tomb of Rekhmire, vizier under Thotmos III (1504-1450 BCE). All of them are bare-chested and wearing the decorated kilts, a late style, which we see at the “Corridor of the Procession” at Knossos. The Egyptians apparently liked to use Minoan sailors and merchants because they were reliable: safe arrival of valuable shipments, especially wood, were trusted to them.
Now for Minoan society: like all human societies, it has its hierarchies. This one is headed by a young priest-king or priest-prince (young!) AND a priest-queen together with their religious retinues. Throughout the ancient Near East and Egypt priest-kings are direct representatives or even embodiments of their god—remember Minos repairing to the Dictean cave. But several contemporary archeologists (Helga Reusch: Helen Waterhouse) think that the Priest-Queen was the dominant figure. It’s quite possible that the priest-king was more of a judge than a ruler, since that was Minos' great reputation in the classical world, while the queen was the leading religious figure.
Next, there were bureaucrats and administrators, to supervise the elaborate holdings and economy of the Palaces. The power of writing and recording very likely made them exceedingly important persons (not unlike computer gearheads today). And there were specialized artisans in every conceivable field: jewelers; masons; sculptors; painters, potters, shipbuilders, tanners & weavers.
Then came the workers in the "studios" of the artisans, at the docks, in the storerooms, and finally the peasants who grew the crops that anchored the economy. Were there slaves? Probably not: at least there’s no concrete evidence if we read the record-keeping tablets correctly, since no tablets count slaves as such. At the same time, slave societies have been the dominant model in world civilization, especially in the ancient world. And some of the arguments against the Minoans having slaves are curious: they’re based on the joy and life-affirmation in their art. Arguments from absence or silence are obviously dangerous in archeology. Most scholars (Matz, et al.) believe that the peasants were indeed vassals with some standing in the society.
Twenty years ago these Egyptian paintings were being cleaned, and something very unusual was discovered: there was a painting of the same figures underneath the visible figures. The bodies hadn't changed, but the clothes had: they were wearing a loincloth or codpiece only: a short, stiff kilt upturned at the back. The shorter codpiece is definitely an older Minoan style. So it’s possible that the paint-over indicates the arrival of a second embassy of the Minoans, or perhaps— Cotterell—the newly-in-power Mycenaeans, who took over the most recent Minoan fashions. Among the wonderful finds at Knossos is the lid to an alabaster jar clearly inscribed with the name of the Hyksos ruler Khyan—of Egypt—in the later 17th century BCE. A gift to Minoan royalty? Evans thought so. Scarabs have also been found in Crete.
In the palace itself there were beautiful, specious quarters for the Queen and her consort, and perhaps for a few aristocrats. There were also several large homes on the outskirts of the Palace—Evans called the largest one at Knossos "the Little Palace"—for the royals and other people of rank and authority. The same layouts occur at Mallia and Phaistos.
Your status and social position coincided with your function, or immediate relevance, to the Palace's central economic and religious functions; in fact, Knossos is best described as a religion-infused administrative center. A lot of your life was probably taken up with ritual and other ceremonial duties.
If you were at the bottom of the ladder, a peasant, you lived at the greatest distance, worked the fields in what was largely a stone age economy. Bronze tools have not been found in such numbers as to suggest that everyone had access. But you might have access to, as a peasant, a little “bronze magic,” since it would be in the interests of greater production. Yokes have been found: you might drive oxen (though they were not plentiful). Your dwelling would be extremely small (6'x6': 8'x8'): two teeny rooms, one story, a flat roof. You’d sleep with your clan, not a nuclear family, with men and women in separate quarters. Your actual working conditions?—we just don't know. Did you have your own garden plot? It’s unlikely: the main system was communal tenure of land. You would also be expected to labor on the great public works: harbor building; roads and aqueducts, and so forth.
If you were an artisan, you worked much closer to, or indeed inside the great palace itself: the northeast portion of Knossos is given over to hundreds of shops. Again, you labored in tiny work areas. Did you sell your goods—again, unlikely; you were part of a larger centralized economic machine. You were fed from the surplus food generated by the peasant population. You were specialized—and if you were among the best craftsmen, especially if you were a master of inlays in metal or in fresco painting, you quite possibly enjoyed freedoms and position similar to those of the aristocrats. At Akrotiri on Santorini there were some two story dwellings, and, if you were a real honcho, a house with its own light-well. But not at Knossos. The cultural motive for your labor?—that you were celebrating the endlessly renewing life of the mother goddess and her consort. Religion and economics, as in the Protestant work ethic, were very much allied. You lived in a theocratic world.
Now if you were an aristocrat and/or top administrator, or, praise to the bull and the snake, the priest-king or priestess-queen, then luxury awaited you; you led a very comfortable life indeed. For the upper classes there were all sorts of cosmetics and toiletries: tweezers, mirrors, razors. You wore elegant clothes, cut from both local cloth and linen from Egypt. Men wore kilts, women transparent bodices, with high collars and flowing skirts. Both sexes wore their hair long, and had choices between sandals or boots. There were small hats for out-of-doors, along with cloaks—and plenty of jewels!
There was a kind of currency: copper ingots with a uniform weight of about 28.5K. But they seem to be as much a way of storing wealth as a medium of exchange.
At Knossos and Hagia Triada you also enjoyed Europe’s first indoor plumbing—both running water under pressure, tapping underground streams and using ceramic pipes that still drain the site today more effectively than the city sewers of Iraklion operate. Marie Antoinette did not have indoor plumbing at Versailles, but the queens of Knossos did.
Sports and recreation included a complicated board game, music and dancing, boating, fishing, even boxing (Akrotiri).
You would be surrounded, in the Late Minoan period, by great wall paintings (true frescoes): scenes of celebration, adventure, pure decoration. And you had plenty of leisure to enjoy them: your life was largely ceremonial and religious, but clearly not ascetic. It would be rather like the dream retirement.
Now, what can we say about Minoan religion?
Virtually all scholars now agree that mother-goddess worship was central, though it probably included a sky-god as well. Linear B tablets contained the names of mother goddesses common throughout Eastern Mediterranean: Astarte, Inanna, Isis, Ishtar, Mtylitta, Kybele, Aphrodite, Britomartis ("Sweet Maid") from Crete, the birth goddess Eileitheia.
The famous snake-goddess statuettes. In many ancient cultures snakes are representative of the earth and its fertility, especially meandering rivers and plants emerging from the earth's darkness. Snakes also, from time immemorial, have been connected to rebirth or resurrection, and to healing: the shedding skin. In later times the snake would be sacred both to Aesklepios, the Greek god-man of healing, and to
Evans called her "The Lady of the Labyrinth"—a term that may apply equally well to the goddess herself, or her priestess. (He used the same name for the famous "snake goddess" statues—those that aren’t forgeries.) The classical carry-over is the goddess of health, Hygeia, associated with snakes. Evans equated the goddess with Ariadne, in keeping with his idea that the life-force embodied in Dionysus—modern readers will detect the fingerprint of Nietzsche—ruled with her in this once-universal matriarchal stage of human cultural evolution (Cathy Gere).
An Artemis-like figure, who apparently is pursued by Minos and undergoes a saving transformation (or is thrown into the sea and rescued by fishermen: hence Britomartis 'Diktynna': “of the nets.” Her cult continued into Hellenistic times on the north shore of Crete. Diktynna herself was a hunter-goddess, and a cult figure not only in Crete but Athens and Sparta. One statue has her as a mountain-mother, nursing Zeus. She was also worshipped as Aphaia (the goddess honored most on the island of Aegina), a direct link to Artemis.
Two important seal-stones take us a few steps further: one shows the mother-goddess standing on top of a mountain, guarded by two standing lions, one of them collared (the still-standing Lion Gate at Mycenae precisely). In the background there is a building with decorative bull horns along its balconies. She holds out a rod toward an approaching young male suppliant. In the second the mother goddess is seated at the right of the seal: she lifts her breasts in a gesture of fertility, of nursing. She is approached by two female suppliants and a smaller, servant woman. The double axe is free-standing in the center of the picture. Is it her symbol? Behind her is a fruit-loaded, perhaps sacred grape tree which a fifth woman is harvesting. The sun and grain stalks are also figured. We can infer from these the worship of, or at least celebrating the sacredness of, many natural things: trees, animals, and birds.
the female worshippers of Dionysus, who danced with raised snakes down into Roman times.
In terms of sacred sites, there are no buildings (temples) set aside exclusively for worship: palace-temples both secular and sacred. But there were sacred rock shelters and especially sacred caves, at Psychro, twenty miles ESE of Knossos. D.H. Hogarth the British archeologist and fellow of the Ashmolean like Evans, investigated them. There a shrine was found in a second, concealed cave beneath the first: a subterranean lake with stalagmites, including one clearly worshipped as a phallus. Votive offerings were scattered everywhere, and the cave contained a great number of pillar-adornments and symbolism from Minoan culture. The Psychro Cave is another nominee for Zeus's Dictyan Cave, his birth site.
Almost as alluring as the goddesses is the labrys, the double axe. (As noted, labyrinthos literally means "House of the Double Axe"). It was sacred to the goddess; you never see a male figure holding it. Further, it’s a bronze double axe, a talisman for the power of that metal to make all of Minoan civilization possible: everything from saws to harvest timber and cut stone to jewelry settings. It may have been the weapon used to slay the sacrificial victims, whether bulls or in the dark period around 1450, human beings, including children. Some debunking scholars maintain that the labrys carved on stone as a mason's mark, not a religious symbol, but I’m not buying it.
Finally we have the worship/sacrifice of the bull (recall the probable Egyptian and Luvian origins). The bull has always been a sacrificial animal, and honored in Minoan Crete by the ceremony of vaulting by young men and women. Could this connect to the Theseus story; were the prisoners forced to face the bull rather than a mythical underground creature? Mythographers record that Minos' son Androgeos won every event at the all-Athenian games, and so enraged Theseus, or perhaps his father and all the Athenians, that they slew him. This poses yet another reason for the "original" enmity between Attica and Crete. The wrongful deed naturally required sacrifice. Were the seven youths and seven maidens “devoured" by the Minotaur, either in fact or symbolically: were they shipped into slavery, lost to their families forever—until Theseus effected their rescue?
We do know that some potentially deadly, yet celebrative bull-vaulting contest took place, and had religious significance. Homer termed the center of the labyrinth the "dancing place that in Knossos Daedalus wrought for Ariadne of the lovely tresses," as descried on the shield of Achilles in Book 18 of the Iliad. This would make Ariadne more the goddess/priestess than a victim: " the dancing maiden with her
One of the figurines, in the Iraklion Museum, is that of the "poppy goddess from Gazi," made around 1450. Her "crown" consists of three poppies, which have been incised in the correct way to remove the opium. So it’s possible that religious ceremonies were enhanced by drugs, as they were so many places. Poppies were definitely cultivated at Pylos on the southwest coast of the Peloponnese; we have Linear B tablets counting them.
Women were the woodcutters in Neolithic societies: perhaps an echo?
magic steps. Recent scholars now argue that the bull-vaulting took place not within Knossos but out on an open field beyond the palace because even its huge central court of Knossos isn’t large enough for the game-ritual as we understand it. It reminds us of Spanish bullfighting today, but instead of killing the bull, it sublimates an ancient animal sacrifice into a celebrative, and dangerous, religious-sporting ceremony (like NFL games?). Remember our ivory acrobat: he was a bull-vaulter, as these frescos depict.
The best rationale: the priestess/goddess had a young male consort who, as a youth, dies—and whose death is closely connected with the bull. A related story: there was also a narrative of a Cretan Zeus who dies and is born again!— sounds more like Dionysus!—who is also a bull-god and a dying god. This was probably celebrated at a New Years Festival, the central event of the year (same in Asia Minor): the ruler celebrated the season with a holy marriage, or re-enactment, between himself and the mother-goddess/priestess.
So, is the labyrinth a puzzle which the male hero must solve with canny help from the "all pure" Ariadne, the lady of the Labyrinth?
No goddess/heroine dies so many different deaths as Ariadne! This fact probably (Nilsson) marks her original place in a cult in which her death—and resurrection?—were celebrated. It’s typical of mythic figures to die many different deaths, unlike characters in novels. But in each of their deaths all the others are tacitly present, as echoes (Roberto Calasso). Did she or didn't she die on Naxos? There were actually two festivals on the island annually, one celebrating her marriage to Dionysus and the other mourning her passing. Could she then be a female vegetation, dying-rising goddess? (There’s no other such myth that I know of, including in Asia).
Evans kept finding new dancing-courts, and changing his mind about which was the most authentic, but they were central to his imaginative recreation of the palace. He then named it as the source of the orchestra when the tragic choruses of Dionysus enacted on the Athenian stage more than a 1000 years later. He liked to make these (dancing) leaps across time.
On a bronze signet from Knossos a goddess stands outside a shrine or enclosure of squared masonry with a sacred tree in or behind it. A female attendant seems to have climbed the wall of the enclosure and is pulling down a bough of the tree. Behind the goddess, who is stooping as if in sorrow, is an object shaped like a jar used for burial in many parts of Crete from 2000 BCE forward. Is this a mourning for a dead male-god, and perhaps the evoking of a sacred tree or a magic bough to restore him? There is another showing a priestess/goddess in a boat apparently journeying to—where?—the land of the dead?
More mysteriously, the idea of Elysium, or the Isles of the Blessed (as opposed to Homer's Hades), was believed by classical Greeks to be an inheritance from Crete. The dead journeyed there by boat. On Minoan burials: Only one large tomb was found by Evans: certainly nothing like the monumental cult of the dead in Egypt. The round tombs (tholoi) in the Messara plain are probably the tombs of noble, land-owning families. There’s one collective tomb south of Knossos that was used for more than 500 years. Many people were buried in large pithoi (there’s the story of Minos' son Glaukos who was drowned in a jar of honey, but restored by a snake). The dead were provided, Egyptian fashion, with certain items—luxuries such as tweezers and mirrors—for their crossing. So there was a definite idea of an afterlife, but kept to human scale. Archeologists have found several communal (clan?) graves: others with four, or two, and an occasional single body, with the smaller numbers in later times.
OR is the labyrinth fundamentally a prison, designed to keep a dark, abortive creature within: to contain, and not to challenge?
We can end this section on religion with a brief evocation of the Minoan Universe: it was animated, alive: spirits, presences everywhere, a polytheistic world with a central goddess whose several different names suggest eclecticism rather than dogma.
Labyrinths in Europe since medieval times have several fascinating characteristics: they are frequently named for besieged towns, especially Troy, or they are a form of garden, sealed off and mysterious ("hortus conclusus
"). This sealed or walled garden is one origin of both "paradise" (from the Persian Pairi-daeza
: "walled garden") and a symbol for virginity: maidens or left-behind (and unvirtuous!) women were often secreted in labyrinths. Rosamund is the most famous: She was the mistress of Henry II and therefore a "monster" whom he penned in an underground labyrinth when he left for the Crusades. In other words, she was made into a Minotaur-woman. Henry's wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, tricked her guards, entered the labyrinth and poisoned her rival. Further, gardens and war have been intimately connected since time began: “Capability” Brown’s renowned Blenheim Palace layouts were replicated in many places in England and Europe. And on the parodic side, Tristram Shandy
features Uncle Toby's garden-battlefield layout, a miniature version of many C18th landscapes. The joke here is not the making of the model battlefields but that men below the highest nobility should do so. In monasteries a labyrinth is a place of penance (the famous Woodstock labyrinth was such a place) or meditation, as on the University of Redlands campus, just west of the Chapel.
There are several festivals on Crete that survived into classical times in which females are converted in to males: e.g., the cult of Leto Phytia ("Leto the Productive") at Phaistos, honoring Leukippos who was changed from a girl to a boy when "his" mother, Galatea, persuaded Leto to so change him. Youths dress as grown men mark the change in which the boy "dies" and the man is born.
Modern explorations and the story of Sir Arthur Evans
A Cretan antiquarian, happily names Minos Kalokairinos, excavated for six weeks on the Knossos site in 1879 until the Cretan assembly ordered him to stop. But he was there long enough to find a few of the large storage jars, confirming the likelihood that the site was indeed the long-sought Palace. The French applied to continue the dig, but the Turkish authorities simply ignored them. Schliemann wanted to excavate it after Troy, but the Turks wouldn't sell him the site of Knossos except at an outrageous price he refused to pay. Schliemann died in 1890.
The story of Knossos in our time is necessarily the story of Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941), its namer, excavator, and proprietor. Evans came from a wealthy family. His father, John Evans, owned a highly profitable paper mill near St. Albans in Hertfordshire. Dad was also a scientific excavator of Roman sites, a collector of ancient coins and, of course, fossils. He was an agnostic, and skeptical of the power of myth or legend to tell us much of anything abut the past. He was looking for a credible, “scientific” story of how “industrial man” came to be.
Sir Arthur’s mother, Harriet Dickinson, married John Evans over her family’s objections. She founded a school for mill workers’ children and patiently educated her eldest, Arthur, who was profoundly attached to her. But she died in childbirth when he was seven. Without being reductive, there’s certainly some connection between his life-long sorrow and sense of loss for her presence and his discovery of a beneficent, peaceful, fertile matriarchal society buried in the European past.
Evans was educated at Harrow, then Brasenose College Oxford, taking a first in modern history in 1874. After graduation he studied briefly at Göttingen, then returned to the Ottoman territories in the Balkans that he had visited earlier with his brother Norman, supporting Serbian nationalism against the Turks. Soon afterwards the Manchester Guardianhired him as their Balkancorrespondent. He was arrested as a spy, but talked his way out of jail.
On his return to England he married the daughter of another anti-Ottoman activist, Margaret Freeman; they went right off to Ragusa where he was arrested again and held, this time, for seven weeks. The Christian <> Muslim conflicts he encountered in the Balkans shaped his view of Cretan culture, and helped to make it an attractive site for his adventurous, romantic spirit: archeology and politics were intertwined for him by both family history and personal experience. Evans’ father joked that he hoped Arthur wouldn’t take up Celtic archeology and try to right the wrongs of Ireland.
Next, in 1882, he was appointed Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Through this connection he met with Schliemann in Greece that same year, where he was on an acquisition mission. Evans had become an ancient writing expert, and also a keen-eyed observer who noticed that the hundreds of Minoan seal-stones had artists’ marks on them: a second subject to investigate more thoroughly, along with the pottery. These artifacts were, for Evans, individualized and expressive signatures that had been buried with their owners. Schliemann, already famous for “finding Troy,” went on to excavate the Mycenaean fortress of Tiryns in the Peloponnese. Evans looked further south.
Then, tragically, Margaret died of TB in 1893; his other much-loved woman lost. Evans never remarried, and took up the cause of lost or orphaned boys like those he had encountered and cared for in Bosnia and Herzegovina. He also became a life-long supporter of the international Boy Scouts.
In 1895 he returned to Crete and bought a quarter of the Knossos site in 1895 from its Turkish proprietors, and the remaining 3/4 in 1900. And he knew how to travel: for that first summer of excavation in 1900 he brought with him not only tools but plum puddings, ox tongues, Eno’s Fruit Salt, quinine pills, and other necessaries of an Imperial expedition. He rode out from Candia to the site, called Kephala then, on a donkey, along with Scots archeologist Duncan MacKenzie, who would be his site supervisor for the next thirty years. He pitched a tent in the shade and ran up the Union Jack on a small flagpole. Sir Arthur had arrived.
His first dig yielded immediate results. There were none of the expected Roman or Greek overlays: within the first month he unearthed many seal-stones and seal-rings, and a ceremonial space he termed the "Throne Room of Ariadne”—its unimpressive small size was perfect for a woman, he argued—and the alabaster basin nearby as “Queen Ariadne’s bath”: this was an archeologist who “knew” what he would find before he found it. His pre-formed convictions controlled what he discovered on the site. Within a few years king “Minos” would replace Ariadne as the chief figure at Evans’ Knossos, just as patriarchal forces had once replaced matriarchy all over the ancient world in his eyes, but his kindly mother-goddesses remained in considerable authority. He built his famous house, named the Villa Ariadne, in 1905-06, and conducted continuous excavations from 1900-1914, and again from 1920-32. Evans presented the site to the British School at Athens in 1928. For the next thirty years he sent essays home to England, first to the Guardian, and, when he outgrew that, to several archeological societies that published them regularly.
Now for Evans‘ world-view and its relation to his findings. Beyond his personal family losses, he experienced first-hand the ravages of war, first on a small scale in the Balkans, and then during World War I. Like many of his contemporaries, he longed for a scientifically-endorsed, violence-free beginning of Western civilization
Sidebar on Minoan excavations: Knossos wasn’t first. Phaistos had been identified since 1866 by the Italian Federico Halbherr, but not excavated.
German mythographer Karl Kerenyi, close friend of Thomas Mann, was the main theologian of the sky-god. He believed the later Minoans worshipped him a way that forecast the frenzied worship of Dionysus (a Nietzschean rereading): libation cup, wine, drunkenness. He saw the Minotaur as the sacrificial, or dying (rising?) god: the suffering, dismembered deity. (Perhaps there is a Minoan root in the early Christian saying "Taurus draconem genuit et taurum draco" ["The bull is father to the snake and the snake the bull."]). So for Kerenyi there was a cult of Zeus' death on Crete, and a tomb located at Knossos (among other places): Zeus as Tammuz-Adonis? Sidebar: St. Paul even censored the Lystrians for believing in him as a healing, and presumably mortal, Zeus (Acts 14).
under benevolent parents: a mother goddess and a law-giving king. Crete was often singled out as the originary “mother-land” (as in fact it was called by the workers he employed). This world should be a society before factionalized religion (the Balkans) and runaway capitalism: a neo-pagan, pacific holy ground of dancing and life-celebration, not the house of a youth-devouring monster. Evans’ reconstruction is a sibling of Schliemann‘s Troy, where The Iliad rather than the Bible served as the basis for reconceiving European history as neo-pagan.
But there was one route Evans didn’t take: Schliemann, and especially his followers, also renamed these founding races “Aryan,” with dark consequences we all know—a complex story…. Evans rejected all the Aryan fantasies: his Minoans came from Libya, Egypt, Anatolia. And he took great pride in having Christian and Muslim workers laboring together on the dig—for years. He achieved this despite the Christian-Muslim mutual slaughtering that had dominated the previous 100 years of Cretan history, as it had that of the Balkans. He even arranged to have his mixed-religion crew “dance the labyrinth dance” together every year on the main open court of the palace.
His major publication was The Palace of Minos at Knossos (1921-35) 12 vols., 3000pp., all written with a goose quill pen! As an archeological guide its tricky to use because of Evans’ complete interweaving of fact and interpretation, but it’s still a landmark project. Unfortunately, Evans was stubborn and autocratic in defending his interpretations, and kept evidence from those who disagreed with him: he was, ironically, the Imperial Archeologist who rejected Imperialist history for his Minoans.
His arguments for reconstructing the Palace as he did remain controversial—the site should probably be named "Evans-Knossos"—but without some kind of reconstruction the five stories and truly labyrinthine quality of the building could not be seen today. And there’s another practical justification: the unusually heavy the storms which rolled over the island in 1904-6 threatened to ruin the site beyond recovery. So Evans called in his friend Eugene Doll, master of new building technologies, to reinforce the crumbling excavation site with its long-decayed cypress wood material (and also to build his Villa). Evans was right that millennia of debris clogged the lower floors that his reconstruction opened up, especially on the east side of the palace. As a consequence we have another lovely irony: the first reinforced concrete building on Crete—and I believe in all of Greece— was the palace at Knosses: the Villa Ariadne was second. As the excavations went forward, Evans ordered that downward-tapered columns of wood and plaster be used to prop up ceilings: he copied them from a fresco fragment. But some floors are frankly imagined: the “throne of
Indeed, there were many anticipations in late 19th European thought of originary matriarchal cultures, notably the once-powerful theories of Johann Jakob Bachofen’s 1861 book Mother-Right.
To date the Minoans Evans relied primarily on pottery, set out in the seemingly inevitable nine divisions ("Early, Middle, Late Minoan I, II, III", with further subdivisions). Pottery is extraordinarily useful for dating because it survives so well, and because shifts in style are easy to mark in time. This is especially true in Egypt, where the timeline is quite firm. And since the Minoans traded with the Egyptian a good deal, it wasn’t that hard to make a pretty reliable timeline.
Ariadne” was discovered near the surface, but now there are two floors above it, which he added in 1930, without having much justifying “debris” to support them. Responding again to his age, Evans’ speeded up the “reconstitution” of the building after WWI, when its “message” seemed all the more urgent to him. He even hired a modernist architect, Piet de Jong, to help him. So this is the first industrially-reconstructed archeological site, and the only one of that type that has gained some measure of acceptance. Here’s our slide of the fully imagined recreation again: doesn’t it looks more like a modernist fantasy version of an ancient palace, maybe designed by Frank Lloyd Wright or Corbusier? After all, reinforced concrete made many of their buildings, indeed hundreds of other modernist projects, possible.
Knossos immediately became a magnet to war-torn Europe, anxious to find an ancient model of a peaceful, aesthetic culture somewhere in the deep well of their past. One example: there’s a great photograph of Isadora Duncan visiting the site in 1910—she described herself as “a battlefield where Apollo, Dionysus, Christ, Nietzsche and Wagner dispute the ground.” She had been trying, unsuccessfully, to revive Greek paganism on the mainland. Knossos seemed like the fulfillment of her dreams. She danced up and down the “grand staircase” with her bare feet and scarves—the “Knossos scarf” designed by Italian fashion king Mariano Fortuny— and wispy garments flying, and in doing so expressed what many Europeans hoped for at Knossos: a peaceful modernity well anchored in the deep past, feminist power, an answer to war, capitalism and patriarchy.
In sum, Evans, like Schliemann and other contemporaries, saw archeology as a form of prophesy: here is what we were, and it is to this we shall return. The future may not be knowable, but the past is, and it reveals the “childhood” of Western civilization. Evans used three verbs go characterize his work: he was “reconstituting” the site—the most common—or presiding over its “resurgence” or, occasionally, its “resurrection.” Like many of his compatriots, he relied on interpreting mysteries based on evidence others had overlooked: named by my UofR colleague Kevin O’Neill the “trash theory of knowledge.” It’s a late Victorian epistemology epitomized in Freud and Sherlock Holmes: reality and history are completely readable, but only a few know how to identify the seemingly “trashy,” unimportant clues that reveal the hidden truth. So Evans confidently, from the smallest of fragments—for example, the painted image of the left thigh of a possibly male figure—developed an entire portrait of the “Prince of the Lilies.” He hired a Swiss/French painter, Emile Gillieron, and his son to “complete” the frescos—which they did, often on the flimsiest of evidence. Members of the Munich-based Jugendstil artists known as the Nazarenes, the Gillierons devoted themselves, in effect, to reconstructing Knossos paintings in the image of neoclassical northern Europe. Emile had been a drawing teacher to the Greek Royal family (who were Bavarians), and devised a technique for making metal
Another interpretive angle: critic Cathy Gere thinks Knossos, “with its flimsy Mediterranean modernism, molded broken columns, and Technicolor art nouveau wall paintings, almost postmodern in its aesthetic whimsicality and eclecticism.” (106)
copies of ancient bronze, silver and gold artifacts which were produced in Germany and sold by mail order. His son was the “official artist of all the museums in Greece.”
This is also important: Evans’ first published work on ancient Crete, from the 1890s, described a series of what he called forts in south-eastern Crete, as well as a long road linking them. They were indeed forts of some sort—a fact he simply swept under the rug as he developed his war-free, peace-loving theories about Minoan culture.
While we're talking about Schliemann and Evans and all the other men, I want to, somewhat arbitrarily, throw in that the Minoan palace at Gournia on the north-east coast of Crete, was first excavated by, yes, an American, not a Brit or German, and moreover it was an American woman: Harriet Boyd Hawes! She was investigating later Iron Age tombs on the south coast, because she was convinced that a Bronze Age site was nearby. Gournia seemed a likely site. On the very first day of her dig, just clearing away the scrub, she found Bronze spearheads and beautiful knives. Within three days she found houses, paved roads, Gournia is the most thoroughly excavated Minoan town (1/10th the size of Knossos). Boyd published her findings in 1908. Gournia was more of a residence and factory town than a true palace: Gournia the Pittsburg of Minoan Crete. And it was fortified, an important discovery.
Finally for this section, I could do a whole paper on the aftermath of Evans’ remarkable excavations—arguably more important for the arts and culture than Schliemann’s Troy or Mycenae. Freud would be first—he owned all Evans’ books and cited Minoan culture frequently in his later works. Then there’s feminist archeologist Jane Harrison, one of the first women who succeeded dramatically in the field, whose writings about archeology and the Dionysian significance of the mother-goddess at Knossos brought the site to the attention of many modernist artist like H.D. (analyzed by Freud), Picasso (hundreds and hundreds of paintings), Georgio di Chiroco’s “Ariadne” of 1913 looks like the Knossos reconstruction, and then there’s Robert Graves’s The White Goddess…
So, those are my three stories about the Minoans. From them I think you can see why Minoan culture has enchanted so many Westerners over the past century. You can see why contemporary archeologists vilify Schliemann and Evans for their aggressive reconstruction techniques and their highly subjective accounts of what they unearthed, even as they must honor them for what they discovered. You can see why it became a well of inspiration for scores of great artists and thinkers: the Minoan world does seem almost utopian in its elegance and beauty. Its palaces had no walls, which suggests not only a sense of security from outsiders, but also a security vis-a-vis other Cretan cities: there was no fear of invasion from land or sea.
There was a relatively low ring wall at Mallia, but it is almost certainly a sea-barrier. Gournia’s walls look more like fortifications than sea-barriers, and there’s little doubt about the purpose of the chain of “forts” that Evans discovered early in his investigations.
with the Greek city-states, which were always at each others' throats, or with 20th century Europe, the Minoans were a tolerant multi-cultural society, not a war-dominated culture. They did not celebrate the slaughter of enemies, as did Egypt or Sumeria and just about everyone else, including the Hebrews. There are no monuments to victory. Swords (including gorgeous ceremonial ones), daggers and shields have been found, but they were used for hunting or for ceremony as much as for fighting. These Minoans celebrated life in all its aspects: fertility, beauty, festival, abundance. Nature and religious ritual were their main artistic subjects, not the grandeur of an individual. Movement and grace were highly valued.
You can also see why many 20th century women took inspiration from Minoan culture: a society in which women were, at the very least, equal to men in social and religious importance, a world in which the mother goddess, the feminine half of life, was honored rather than repressed. It was a world dominated, in religion, by priestesses and the goddess (no male is shown in any painting performing a religious function), a world in which women were regularly painted on a larger scale than men, and with more elaborate detail. Here the goddess is the ruler of all of nature, a huntress. She presides over annual ceremonial dances: both Mother and Maid, Demeter and Persephone: perhaps Pasiphae and Ariadne as well. In sum it was a world in which fertility and the female body were celebrated rather than vilified and concealed as a source of sin.
So on these accounts the Minoan world was "soul size," of human dimensions; there were no monumental pharaohs or oversized gods. They prized seal-stone representations rather than colossal statuary. The palaces were built into the environment (Frank Lloyd Wright), not designed to tower over it (Egypt). They flowed with the contours of the ground, and flowed away from a holy central place. Buildings and roads were added as needed; there was no imposing self-contained structure. And there are beautiful, subtle touches, such as the staircase at Phaistos that rises subtly toward its center—the "no straight lines" architecture that made the Parthenon so lively a thousand years later. And finally, its structures weren’t built to last forever; they had a human modesty about them.
To this I’ll add just a couple of rather more sober conclusions:
There was a cult of Demeter at Knossos from the 8th BCE, with one depiction shows her giving the plow to Triptolemos: A fusion of Minoan and Dorian myths and rituals (compare Ishtar and Tammuz, Aphrodite and Adonis, and other fertility/vegetation myths). She was worshipped in the open air before a temple to her was built c. 400 BCE. There were games in her honor at Knossos c. 600 (we have a dedicatory ring): a faint echo of bull vaulting, perhaps? Persephone (explicitly named "the Maid") was also honored. According to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter
, the cult of Demeter and Persephone (Eleusis) came from Crete. Diodorus Siculus confirms that Crete was the origin of this story, and that the rites of the goddesses were "practiced quite openly" there (unlike the Mysteries at Eleusis).
NB that "originally" both Demeter and Persephone were "fatherless"—another matriarchal root of their stories? Were they originally the center of the matriarchal palace-cult?
For completeness, we also have the Romantic version, who saw Minoan culture as a quest culture, and the labyrinth as a testing ground through which the hero must pass.
The Minoans certainly were not warriors, though they were almost certainly fighters. They dominated the seas and probably made raids as Odysseus did. There is a miniature fresco of a Minoan "captain" leading black soldiers in formation; it’s likely they were mercenaries. They had an abundance of daggers, swords (ceremonial and otherwise) and frames for hide-shields (as well as paintings) found. They were not pacifists or animal rights activists. As for the absence of walls, Thucydides points out, with typical coolness, that any maritime port that wishes to protect itself from pirate raids should build their town away from the water, behind low hills. So Knossos had no walls because of its naval power, with Santorini and other island palaces as outposts and naval supply sites.
The key fact for me is that they were traders, but not Imperial traders. They were not aggressively expansionist. Branch ports did not report to a "home city," but were fully independent societies from all we can judge. No one paid tribute: trade was the consistent link. The absence of Imperialism makes possible the presence of the many qualities of a real "civil" society that we all desire.
I want to leave you with an image: that of the “Harvester Vase.” It may in fact depict a planting/sewing celebration, not a harvest: not easy to be sure. It’s made of black steatite, or serpentine: a medium-hard stone, and we only have the top portion. There are 27 figures presented not in perspective, exactly, but the "background" figures seem to grow out of the vase itself. There’s an amazing sense of depth, though the carving penetrates only a few millimeters. The Marchers carrying hoes and long shoots of willow; bags with corn, or seed-corn, hang from their belts. They’re led by a long-haired priest wearing a scaly ritual cloak or cuirass, and a sistrum player, an ancient Egyptian percussion instrument, accompanies the singers. The vase offers a great sense of suspended motion—one man turning around; another stooping—and of celebrative, vibrant life: our ancestors.
Appendix: The Minoans and Writing
Writing was sacred and mysterious in the ancient world, yet was used primarily for secular and clerical purposes. There’s a big gap between these for us, but perhaps not for them.
See the great Akrotiri fresco of Minoan ships visiting Libya in Athens.
Recall in the Iliad the story of Bellerophantes (VI, 182ff), in which King Proteus sent, at the instigation of his conniving wife, the innocent Bellerophantes to her father's kingdom with "tokens, murderous signs, scratched in a folded tablet, and many of them too, enough to kill a man." It’s Homer's version of Joseph and Potiphar's wife.
The Minoans used writing principally to keep track of their holdings and surpluses. Earlier cultures may have had similar pictographic writings on perishable substances—palm leaves?—but have not survived: thank God someone—a bureaucrat with an eye on immortality?—thought of clay.
There were four different kinds of writing in Minoan Crete, with no sharp demarcation between one and the other, except for the introduction of Linear B). First, there’s an early "pictographic" (Evans) or hieroglyphic writing, found mainly on the seal-rings that so intrigued Evans from the beginning. Next are two linear scripts which Evans, unimaginatively, named "Linear Class A" and "Linear Class B." "Pure" hieroglyphs typically evolve quickly into ideograms as scribes work faster and faster.
Linear Class A: A script found at every major Minoan site, but not in enough quantity (or undamaged quantity) to make possible a definitive decipherment. The only site with any quantity at all is Hagia Triada. One example, at Knossos, is clearly religious in intent, and is written in cuttlefish ink inside two conical cups. We have some pretty good ideas, however:
It’s probably "Eteo-Cretan," the language of the "true Cretans" and even more probably the scripted version of the hieroglyphic language of high Minoan civilization. It was certainly used by the priest-king and the priestesses. It has symbols in common with Hittite and especially Luvian words, and these tongues are generally held to be the tongues of origin. There are similar names for the goddess, for example, though no direct religious borrowing/descent line can be established. (There’s a less popular but interesting argument that Linear A is a Semitic language.)
There’s a second pictographic writing, printed on a circle of wet red clay—the first European printing—with a wooden stamp on both sides and then fired. This is known as the “Phaistos disc” (found 1908 at Ayia Triada: made around the end of the 17th century BCE). It’s not a symbol system used elsewhere: perhaps it had a hieratic, religious significance, and was preserved despite its archaic nature. The most likely idea is that the disc codes a Luvian dialect, even though we have no example that early of Luvian hieroglyph. The disc has been translated, speculatively, as a report to the ruler of Phaistos from an emissary he had sent to Asia Minor. He describes power rivalries among princes there, and includes a mention of the city state "Wilusa," which we know to be Troy.
Here’s a highly abbreviated version of the famous story of Linear B and Michael Ventris. As a schoolboy Ventris fell in love with the Minoan world when he heard Arthur Evans lecturing, in 1936, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the British School of Athens. Linear B survived on Cyprus as an element in the Cyprus Syllabary into the 6th-4th BCE, as an alternative for writing Greek. Its sound values were therefore known, and offered Ventris a good starting point for unraveling the code.
Linear B syllabary contains 87 different signs for different combinations of consonants and vowels. Ventris first thought that Linear was Etruscan, which was known from a very similar tongue spoken on the island of Lemnos and which is similar to the Pelasgian (i.e.. Hittite/Luvian) dialect. The key clue came from another too-easily forgotten American woman, linguist Alice Kober, who pointed out to Ventris that an inflectional language will have a visual declension. (Sadly, Kober died at 43 of cancer, three years before Ventris published.) In other words, and to simplify quite a bit, there will be ways to "read" syllables and inflections by doing a statistical analysis. Ventris devised a complex three-tiered grid, and found patterns that made clear that Linear B had the same inflectional patterns as the earliest Greek. The key confirming find was a tablet found at Pylos just as Ventris was finishing his work that had the syllables "ti-ri-po" -- the Greek word for tripod. Ventris published in 1953.
This also made clear that there was a Mycenaean power, probably even a Mycenaean ruler, at Knossos at the time of the Pylos writing (1450), a discovery confirmed by the repetition at Pylos of the ceremonial griffins in the throne room at Knossos—or was it the other way around?! Linear B catalogues a good deal of what appears to be military equipment, especially some 200 chariots, including broken ones, at Knossos alone, which earlier scribes apparently didn't catalogue: another mark of a Mycenaean presence. Linear B tablets have also been found at Mycenae, Tiryns, and Thebes.
There was no official archival room in Minoan palaces. Even the tablets with the names of gods and goddesses were scattered across the sites. But over 3000 of them have been found to date. So we have many tantalizing, teasing traces of Minoan and early Mycenaean religious practice in surviving cults and traditions.
Linear B tablets include the names of Greek divinities: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Hermes, Artemis,
and even, to the surprise of some, the "latecomer" god Dionysus (once thought to be a fairly recent import from Phrygia or Thrace). There are also gods we now know little or nothing of: "Dopata," "Manasa," "Drimios the son of Zeus" found only on Knossos tablets (though on a few vases elsewhere). They may be connected to the main story about Zeus' growing up on Crete (after Rhea rescued him from the swallowing Kronos): the baby was entrusted to the Koretes, or (later) the Korybantes, who danced around the baby, beating their drums and clashing
In Greek antiquity the year was divided into 12 months alternating between 29 and 30 days, with the 11 day deficit being made good by adding a 13th month every three years out of eight. There is much evidence in support of the view that this luni-solar calendar, based on a cycle of eight years, "originated" with the Minoan tradition of an eight year reign for the priest-king, consort of the all-powerful goddess. Homer describes Minos as a "nine-year king," and the Greek word ("enneros") means literally "for nine years," but also "intervals of eight years," since the Greeks, in reckoning intervals of time numerically, included both the terms separated by the interval.
Artemis was associated, on Akrotiri and Kydonia, with the bear that suckled the infant Zeus: hence Artemis the Bear sites in Attica, indeed on the Athenian Acropolis. There is also a "Cave of the She-Bear" ("Arkoudia") at Akrotiri. Now the cave is consecrated to the Purification of the Virgin ("Panayia Arkoudiotissa"). There has probably been a continuous cult of the mother goddess at this site from Minoan times.
Eileithyia the goddess of childbirth (Homer terms her "mogostokos," goddess of the pains of birth. He adds that she attended Leto [Lato in Doric, from a Carian word "lata", "lady"] at the birth of Apollo and swaddled him. The Odyssey puts her cave on Crete at Amnisos, Knossos' harbor town: perhaps a Minoan tradition? She was worshipped thruout the Greek world, but especially on Crete. The name is not Indo-European, making a Minoan descent all the more likely.
their shields and spears to prevent his cries being heard by Kronos. It certainly reads like an old initiation rite: Minoan?
Linear B reads left to right. It’s composed of words, singly or in very short sequence, and of ideograms for commodities and numbers. The archaic Greeks picked up the Phoenician alphabet (which has 24 letters and no signs for vowels) and adopted it to their language by assigning some of the letters to vowel sounds. This was the first "modern,” efficient alphabet, which equated one letter with one sound (not the Linear B combinations). This occurred no later than the last half of the 8th century, and some scholars think even earlier because some of the earliest writing replicates Phoenician characters that had been in use as early as the 12th century but had gone out of fashion. Greek was written without word breaks until the 9th century CE, either from right to left, or right to left then left to right in alternating lines.
For visual entertainment: check out
The ancient culture of Crete, fabled but largely unknown before 1900, has played a central role in the imagination of artists and utopian since its unearthing. Named “Minoan” after its legendary first king by its first archeologist, Sir Arthur Evans, its civilization has entranced those searching for a pacific, life-affirming, woman-centered and highly aesthetic early European civilization that might somehow offset the millennia of sectarian and military violence that followed it. The paper tries to interweave three threads from the Minoan labyrinth: its crucial mythic narratives (Minos’s birth, and the stories of Theseus and Ariadne, Daedalus and Icarus); the imaginative recreation by Evans of its fabled palace at Knossos; and the more scientific archeological accounts of Knossos and other Minoan sites that have followed Evans’ work.
Bill McDonald grew up in Glendale, near the other end of our remarkable mountains, the longest east-west chain in America. Both his parents and most of his relatives were teachers, and he was not a rebellious child. He earned his B.A. at Colgate in philosophy and religion in 1961, then returned to Claremont for his doctoral work in religion and the arts. After a four year stint in a Midwest English department, he, Dolores and their three boys returned to California in 1969 to join the U of R’s new, innovative Johnston College. Forty two years later he’s now an emeritus Professor of English and the Hunsaker Chair in Distinguished Teaching. It’s rare in education to have the chance to build a new college, and the Johnston program remains at the center of his active work. He’s co-authored one book on the College’s history and co-edited another, and also published books on two winners of the Nobel prize in literature: Thomas Mann and the South African J. M. Coetzee. He’s given Fortnightly papers on literary disclaimers, on the history of reading, on Sappho and Homer, and on Freud. His other interests include the history of the novel, literary theory, roses, European modernism, wine, the history of love, poker, James Joyce and his gang, classical music and opera, the ancient Greeks, the Rams (since 1949) and the Lakers (since 1960), and now, as a retiree, doing alumni and development work for Johnston.
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