Between 3500 and 1500 BC a very attractive and rather mysterious civilization developed and then vanished on the island of Crete in the southern Aegean Sea. In Greek myth the ruler of this realm was called Minos, and so we refer to Minoan Crete to describe what we know of this people.
1 A Semitic people
It is likely that the island was settled by Phoenicians, a great seafaring people of Canaan, Syria and the Lebanon who also colonised Carthage (Phoenician for Newtown) in Tunisia in northern Africa, and Tartessos on the Atlantic coast of Spain, thus anticipating the achievement of the Muslims in the extent of their culture. Crete may have been attractive as a trading depot with Egypt to these people. Phoenician innovations include the trireme, a ship which could weather the open sea, and the alphabet, which spread as far and wide as their settlements (and was further developed by the Greeks). Both Crete and Tartessos sucumbed to earthquakes, a volcanic eruption at Thera disrupting Minoan civilization and at Tartessos consequent subsidence and flooding led to abandonment of the site, and it is thought knowledge of these catastrophies might have influenced the formation of the legend of Atlantis, which Plato claimed to have heard in Egypt (a tyrannical kingdom which attacked Athens and was repulsed, much as Persia was). Although genetic studies have distinguished between Phoenician and Minoan stock, this predicates there was never any cross breeding between peoples in common areas, which is unlikely.
Our idea of Minoan culture and society is very fragmentary. Not much of the past survives, and care has to be taken that false emphases are not placed on items or traces that have survived simply because they are all that has survived. An effort should be made to supplement what we know of Crete by what we know of other contemporary civilizations, and by analogy with our own, admitting that there is much we will never know.
Crete seems to have become prosperous through trade, and formed part of a trading network which extended to Egypt, Syria, the Aegean, Africa and Spain. The era was the Bronze Age, when bronze weaponry was the latest technology, and Crete traded in both tin and copper (the components of bronze). Another major trade item was saffron, valued as a food seasoning in the ancient world. Crete had a navy and was famous for its ships. Because the only weaponry surviving, in artifacts or artistic representations, is ceremonial, it is thought by some that Crete was a peaceful trading empire with no need of an army. However there is little evidence to support the contention; arguing from negative evidence of course can prove anything, especially when a case that most evidence has vanished. Possibly Crete, with no borders of contention with other states, may have been peaceful.
From the large number of representations showing them in Minoan art it has been surmised that Crete was a society giving equal status to women, rare in any age, perhaps a matriarchy. Many of the portraits surviving show women in dresses that leave their breasts exposed, and this may be a sign of respect for their femininity. However court ladies of Louis XIV at Versailles also exposed their breasts, and this was a matter of sexual politics, not prestige.
The prime deity worshipped in Crete seems to have been she known as the Great Goddess, an awareness of the fructifying power of the earth. Perhaps she was Astarte, worshipped by the Phoenicians. Other deities are represented by the snake and the bull. There is a ritual involving bull leaping. And reference to labrys, a kind of axe, and labyrinth, a kind of shamanic psychic path of worship. It is possible the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis originally represented a Bronze Age Canaanite version of this kind of worship. Eve would then be the Great Mother goddess or her priestess, the wise snake her medium whereby man received knowledge from the gods, and the gifts given include the fruit which gave knowledge of good and evil, and the fruit of immortality. Lilith, Adam’s first wife in a Hebrew non-Biblical tradition, is thought to be a version of the Sumerian moon goddess, in the days when the Hebrews were polytheistic, so such a role for Eve is not impossible. The story in the Bible has been radically recast, not to explain the fruitfulness of the earth as a gift of the gods, but as the occasion of how evil entered the world.
Many of the material remains from Minoan civilization are those of buildings. It is likely that these are all ceremonial and administrative buildings. Most personal dwellings in all ancient cultures have vanished, but the Parthenon and the pyramids remain. The technology used in Crete is impressive, and includes paved roads, drainage and sewage for streets and buildings, a sophisticated water supply, bathrooms with baths and flushing toilets. The later Mycenean peoples in Crete preserved a story of a great engineer and inventor, Daedalus, who made a flying machine and created a prison for the evil Minotaur, a folk memory of this technological sophistication. The Minoans were literate, and used a script known to us as Linear A, which has not yet been deciphered.
2 Myth and religion
Aside from scholarly squabbles as to whether the existing remains of buildings are temples or palaces (probably both), whether the Minoans were warlike or pacific (probably both, as required), and idyllic pictures of them as an artistic culture busy laying the foundations for the achievements of classical Greece (Arthur Evans’ view), which overlooks the fact the Minoans weren’t Greeks but a people with very different cultural values to classical Greece, largely unknown ones; the fact is that our sources of information about Crete are two disparate and fragmentary ones, both misleading, archaeology and myth. To draw conclusions about the culture based on the existence of flushing toilets is like assessing American culture based on the existence of screw top bottles or ring pull cans. Conclusions based on frescoes and statuettes unavoidably sees them in a misleading context of museums and art galleries which ignores their actual purpose and creates a picture of a kind of ‘art for art sake’ culture which is bound to be anachronistic. The other source of information is Greek myth, and here some discrimination too is needed.
The heroes of Homer were part of a jackal like culture which lived on despoiling and destroying weaker powers, as they did at Troy. Archaeologists have established that as the early waves of Dorian Greeks, led in myth by the hero Herakles, established themselves 1500-1200 BC at centres like Mycenae in northern Greece, they pushed on down the Aegean into the power vacuum left by the destruction and disorientation of the Minoan centres of influence. For a time Crete was a Mycenean fortress city state. Most of the myths about Crete are from this time, and reflect Mycenean culture, not Minoan.
The reign of Minos, the Minotaur, Ariadne and the thread, the Athenian hero Theseus freeing Athens from tribute, Daedalus and Icarus, these and many other stories date from or depict the period just prior to the Trojan war of the thirteenth century BC, the time also of Jason and Medea, Perseus, Oedipus and the adventures of Odysseus. By this stage Crete as a power and cultural identity had vanished. Yet some traces remain of this ‘Minoan’ culture, and can be investigated by starting from one striking image uncovered by Evans: the young men and women apparently vaulting over the back of a massive bull.
Minos was said to be the son of Europa, a Phoenician princess who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a white bull, which came from the ocean and carried her to Crete. Europa herself is thought to be a form of the fertility goddess known in Egypt as Hathor, and represented as a cow, and a descendent of another victim of Zeus, Io, who was transformed into an heifer. Hera herself had associations with a heifer. There is a strand of myth here relating to a bull and a heifer which is not Greek and which includes a reference to Phoenicia. The Greeks had a tolerant habit of renaming foreign gods to that of one they themselves worshipped, so ‘Zeus’ is probably not the original name. It could have been Phoenician Baal. The worship of gods in animal form is best known from Egyptian examples, but was common all over the ancient world. Students of the Bible will remember the story of the golden calf. The woman who is transformed into an heifer and mates with a bull seems to be a rite in celebration of fertility. On Crete the Minoan priest might have worn a bull head dress, just as the shaman in ancient Europe wore a stag head dress, and the priestess may have taken the name of Io or Europa. The Myceneans, who worshipped the sky god Zeus, and not the chthonic powers of the earth, turned this rite into a scandalous story of Pasiphae’s bestiality with the Minotaur. Europa has been linked with the fertility goddess Demeter, and it is no very great leap to the Phoenician Astarte. Was this myth a memory of a rite of Astarte and Baal, imported from Phoenician city states such as Tyre or Sidon? It makes a lot more sense than stories of bulls and maidens falling in love. Many myths were reworked by first century pastoral poets, and that is how they have survived to modern times, but the treatment is romantic, not religious as it was originally.
The bulls of Lascaux are among the greatest and most impressive survivals of ancient times. From Gilgamesh to Mithras, gods and heroes have sacrificed the sacred bull to ensure his life force is returned to nourish his people. There is a complex of meanings here: the life blood which is spilt so worshippers can partake of it and find eternal life; the potency that begets many children; the seed germinating in the earth, the child in the womb, that needs power to bring it to life; and the sun and the moon on their paths which must be implored to continue their life giving functions through worship of the gods responsible for these functions. The horns of the bull and heifer represent the crescent, and so the phases, of the moon.
Cults such as this are known from Anatolia to Egypt, and almost certainly the ritual was carried out in Crete. Whether the sacrifice was an actual one, or a symbolic one, is unknown. The priest who fights and slays the bull and receives his life giving power for human beings is probably depicted in the bull leaping fresco of Knossos, and may be the origin of the bull fight still enacted in Spain today. Strange to think of the bull fight, little more than a tourist attraction now, as the last survival of a Phoenician religious ritual once carried out in Carthage and Crete as well.
One of the most interesting of classical myths about Crete is that of the labyrinth which held the Minotaur captive. A labyrinth however is not the same as a maze, and is not designed to keep anyone captive. It is a ritual path, a mandala, that the priest walks, retracing the formation of the world, and by carrying out rites at certain points, he both maintains the world in its stability, and creates that stability within himself, which power he then imparts to the people during acts of worship. An interesting possibility about Crete is that function may have been carried out by priestesses and not priests, and the primary purpose been that of creating and maintaining life. Ritual may not have been through sacrifice, as was commonly the case with sky gods such as Yahweh or Zeus, involving the death of an animal or human victim. This gives an entirely new dimension to the story of Ariadne, as a priestess who carried out life giving rituals within the sacred labyrinth and so ‘saved’ the believer Theseus. A similar ritual may have survived into classical times at Eleusis, involving Demeter.
Just as the horns of the bull represented the moon’s phases in Cretan and other Middle Eastern religions, so are they represented on the labrys, the double headed axe carried by Minoan priestesses. The peculiar shape of this device is not functional, but symbolic, like the crook and flail carried by the pharaohs. The waxing and waning moon has been connected in many religions with the female reproductive cycle. It is possible that many rites in Minoan religion were concerned with fruitfulness, in nature and in human beings. It has been conjectured that as no Cretan temples similar to classical Greek ones have survived, temples there might have been either open spaces on hilltops, or subterranean spaces. There is no evidence that such matriarchal, female-centered rites existed, in Crete or any other place, but there are some tantalising clues that it might have.
In several representations found on Crete the priestess/goddess (during the rite the two become one) is holding a snake in either hand. Nobody has any idea what she is doing with the snakes though it is worth noting Crete has only a few types of snake, none of which are venomous. In many religions the snake represents infinity, and is shown as an omega, a circle formed by a coiled snake with its tail in its mouth. The snake also, because it sloughs its skin, represents new life, especially that of the believer who has observed the ritual and found favour with the god. Because it has thus had many lives, the serpent also represents wisdom, and especially hidden knowledge. The mandala of the labyrinth can be compared to a representation of a figure called the world tree found in religions all over the world, a representation of the life force as it extends through the cosmos. This tree is often shown guarded by a snake or serpent. In the Garden of Eden the serpent guards the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (and one wonders why Yahweh doesn’t want Adam to understand the meaning of good or evil). In Greek myth Hermes the gods’ messenger carries a snake entwined around a staff. At Delphi the oracle was Python, an immortal serpent whose priestess was the Pythoness who interpreted Python’s prophecy. The role was later usurped by Apollo. Images similar to the Cretan priestess holding snakes have been found on Hittite and Sumerian sites. In all these representations the goddess/priestess may be speaking the wisdom of the god, revealed through the snake, god’s mouthpiece.
3 Cretan women
There have been several attempts, such as Bettany Hughes’, to assert that women in Mycenean society had equal standing to men, at least in the upper classes (if there were upper classes, and it isn’t an anachronistic term). What about Minoan Crete? There have been many attempts to build a picture of a matriarchal society in Crete, where women ruled as priestesses, and male aggressiveness was kept at bay. Unfortunately there is no evidence to support this picture (and no evidence to disprove it). The worship of the Great Mother is likely, as it was prevalent in the Middle East at the time the Minoans flourished, 2500-2000 BC (as previously mentioned, ‘Minoan’ refers to a different civilisation to that ruled by king Minos, who was a later, Mycenean Greek, figure). Surviving statues of a snake bearing priestess/goddess bear this out. But as for the position of women, almost the only indication of this is that they appear to have exposed their breasts. What this means, any woman who removes her top at the beach will know, by contrast with her own experience. No stares, covert or offensive, no unwanted approaches, no being made to feel self-conscious, as though there was something wrong with them. As most women know (but men apparently don’t) sex is a situation, and the body parts are incidental to that situation. But the body part concerned does have great significance as a symbol, and a non-sexual one too, of nurturing and motherhood. If women bared their breasts, it could mean that function made them a respected and powerful part of society, and representatives, each and every one, of the Great Goddess herself. Presumably Cretan men were not made uncomfortable by the sight of a woman nursing her baby as we are. We are not sure if the costume that exposed the breasts was for priestesses only, for rich folk, for ceremonial occasions, or the norm, so speculations as the above have to remain just that. In Egyptian art the breasts are sometimes exposed, but not emphasised as in Cretan art, and the dresses are sometimes transparent. Slave girls are completely nude. Burdened as we are with 2000 years of ‘sex is evil’ Christian indoctrination, one thing we definitely cannot fathom is the sexual mores of ancient cultures. Conclusions about matriarchy are bound to be biased, whether for or against. Yet the speculation does add to the attractiveness of Minoan culture.
4 The end of the world
This culture came to an end about 1700 BC. The active volcanic island of Thera, about 70 miles north of Crete, erupted in one of the largest explosions of volcanic matter ever measured, four times the extent of that of Krakatoa in the 19th century. Minoan settlements on the island and nearby islands were wiped out. There is some confusion about how the eruption would have affected Crete. An immense tidal wave is likely to have swept the northern shores of Crete, as high as 500 foot, and volcanic dust and ash settled in the air and caused asphyxiation to survivors who remained in the area. However scientists believe the tidal wave and volcanic matter would not be sufficient to destroy an entire civilisation. That was probably the effect of more indirect causes. It is likely clouds of ash and dust would have obscured the sun, possibly for some months. This would have interfered with agriculture and the care of livestock. As a result, there would have been overcrowding and a drain on resources in centres not directly affected by the explosion. A simple agricultural society would not have been able to cope with this. And as many, perhaps all, industries would have depended on trade, and the eruption would have put a temporary end to trade, and may have destroyed many ships, starvation may have been widespread. With starvation would have come disease, on a scale which ancient medicine could not have dealt with. Perhaps most damaging of all would have been the religious reaction. The eruption would have been seen as a sign from the gods, a sign perhaps that the time of the Minoans was over. There are traces at this time of human sacrifice, a sign of how desperate and afraid the people were at this terrible blow from the gods. And it is also likely the most powerful people on the island, the priestesses, would have gone north to deal with the crisis, and perhaps allay the anger of the gods, and died of asphyxiation, leaving the people without wise guidance. This is the way civilisations are destroyed.
A little research on the Polynesians after Captain Cook’s exploration, or the native American nations after Western settlement and even prior to the US and Spanish Governments’ policy of genocide, reveals the same pattern: death from diseases against which no antibodies existed in the races affected; loss of livelihoods and food sources because of foreign intervention; breakdown of traditional social structures and the loss of leaders to death by disease or starvation; a belief the people had lost favour with god; a recourse to desperate and dangerous ventures leading to misguided tactics of concession or confrontation by unskilled leaders.
Factors of this nature are more intangible than the size of a tidal wave or the amount of volcanic ash produced, but they explain how a culture can fade away more surely than any exact measurement or calculation. The Minoan civilisation did not disappear after the eruption. The devastated areas were resettled, new buildings were erected, in some cases more elaborate than the old ones. There was more than one attempt to return to the condition prevailing before the eruption. But I think the heart had gone out of the effort. The vitality, the exuberance, that can be seen in every depiction of animal or landscape, had vanished. And in the north the wolves of Mycenae sniffed the wind and saw the opportunity of plunder. Down they came, attacking the unprotected and weakened Minoans. At first they were content to destroy, to rape, burn, loot. But, inevitably, some of the Myceneans stayed, settled in the area, absorbed Minoan ways. From about 1500 BC a new culture, that of Mycenean Greece, prevailed on the island.
Perhaps the most precious things to have survived from Minoan Crete are the little, throwaway things, more revealing than possible structures such as matriarchy, or practices such as the worship of the Great Mother, or stories about a great navy, or what survives of a sophisticated technology. These fragments reveal an attitude of such delight, such innocence and freshness, such an observation and savour of nature, as has seldom been expressed, before or since.
©2011 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.