The Minoans

Thera

When I was younger I spent some weeks island-hopping around the Aegean, ferry by ferry. The Cyclades, and Greece in general, floated in quieter waters in those days and you could get a better feel for the culture and history cast over the wine-dark sea.

The most spectacular place I stopped at was the Island of Thera, more recently named Santorini. You approach the island by ship, passing below sheer cliffs to moor at their base. Nowadays, a gondola lift glides you up to the dazzling white and azure town perched on the rim. When I was there you could either ride up on a poor sweating donkey, or toil up on your own legs.

Thera is a startling place; rugged, barren and hot, with black, volcanic beaches. In reality, it’s just the largest of a couple of islands forming a ring roughly seven kilometres in diameter around a smoking volcano in the centre. Approximately 3,600 years ago the island – and it probably was just one conical island then – erupted in a cataclysmic explosion that blew the mountainous centre clean into the stratosphere.

The photograph below and the one at the top give some idea of the amount of rock that was jettisoned that day, although you really have to go there to get a proper sense of the thing. The volcanic island in the centre re-emerged from the sea centuries later to remind us that the event will, in time, be repeated.

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Suffice to say that, apart from the Toba eruption in Sumatra over 70,000 years ago, this was the most destructive event ever witnessed by mankind. I use the word ‘witnessed’ loosely, since anybody close enough to see the island when it exploded couldn’t possibly have survived. The eruption’s shock-wave would have circled the Earth and it’s quite possible it gave rise to the biblical tales of the seven plagues of Egypt as well as the pillars of cloud and fire witnessed by the fleeing Israelites. Closer to point zero the effect was obviously far more profound.

thera map

The world this devastation crashed into is known today as the Bronze Age and in a real sense it was the beginning of history. It was the time when records, messages, accounts and stories started to be written down and that was like an anchor, pinning everything down. Before writing, people were adrift in time. The future is always a blank wall and we are blissfully unaware of the glories or terrors to come, but what had come before the people of the Bronze Age was, to them, almost as hazy and mysterious as what was in their future. These people’s real, factual origins are far clearer to us now than to them – to them the past was, quite literally, the stuff of legend.

To get some perspective, we need to peer back a little further in time, to when ice covered the north and the world was drier; then further back to warmer times – before that, icy times again and so on. For millennia, people had lived as hunter-gatherers, each generation doing just as the last, and maybe a hundred generations passing between even the slightest innovation. Your life would be no different from that of your great-grandparents or your great-grandchildren’s.  For all its hazards, it was stable.

It wasn’t such a bad existence; people spent their lives in contact with the land where they hunted and gathered. Their social structures and skills were finely honed to the world around them; to the changes of the seasons and the slow but momentous changes in climate. People moved a lot, but mainly to follow the herds and to benefit from the changing seasons. They certainly traded and knew the neighbouring peoples, but, in basis, the world ended just over the horizon at the edge of the familiar and the familiar didn’t stretch very far.

Then, just after the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago, an incredible revolution took place; people stopped moving around and started growing their food and raising animals in one settled location. Ironically, staying in one place started to expand horizons enormously.

The pace of change exploded. Agriculture allowed populations to expand massively, to live in ever larger more complex communities –villages became towns, towns cities, cities kingdoms and kingdoms empires. In many ways, everything was new – a Brave New World, but unfortunately, often an oppressive and frightening one.

We tend to forget that concepts that are familiar to us were at one time amazing and revolutionary. The idea of a city, a complex organisation of thousands of people, was a new and uncomfortable one – let alone an empire of hundreds of thousands. To make it work, new ideas were needed: money; taxation; writing; an army; a divine emperor – a man so god-like you couldn’t touch him or look in his face. Everyone must know his or her place; the slightest disobedience must be savagely punished. The whole edifice was based on slavery; an entire class of people with no rights or status at all; their role, to toil endlessly.

The manpower was now available to built great cities and crushing, monumental architecture; the surplus provided by farming could sustain a ruling class, anxious to maintain their position, priests, craftsmen and intellectuals with the leisure to think and create.

Then a frightening new material made its appearance. It gave its name to the Bronze Age, and the primary use for the hard, shining metal was war; it gave rise to a new terror-weapon, the sword. Across the Middle East, great empires had already risen on the back of agriculture: Babylon, the Hittites, Egypt, Assyria.  Large-scale warfare was being fought and great armies organised and trained to slaughter each other. New technology and innovation – the sword, cavalry, the wheel – and so chariots, now made war more deadly than ever.

Here are a couple of examples of these Middle Eastern empires’ art-work. On the left,  a Hittite chariot in action. On the right, Assyrians flaying captive rebels.

hittites

Nothing very jolly here. Even the relatively peaceable Egyptians weren’t big on human rights, as this inscription from Karnak suggests:

“His Majesty exults at the beginning of battle, he delights to enter it; his heart is gratified at the sight of blood. He lops off the heads of his dissidents. His majesty slays them at one stroke – he leaves them no heir, and whoever escapes his hand is brought prisoner into Egypt.”

Somehow one gets the feeling it wasn’t a great stroke of luck to be “brought prisoner into Egypt”; the Egyptians made a habit of chopping the penises off prisoners of war.

The basic theme of these civilisations appears to be power; naked power based on merciless destruction and systematic humiliation. There was no shame in mutilating your enemies or hacking their children to pieces, rather cruelty was something to be revelled in and boasted about; it was the idea of mercy that was unusual. There were things of beauty too, of course; wonderfully crafted ornaments and adornments but, one feels, status symbols rather than things to cherish and love.

My focus here is on the civilisations of the Middle East, but wherever else cities and kingdoms have appeared, notably in China, India and, at a later date, in the Americas, the story seems to have been similar. Perhaps an iron fist was the surest way to crush nomadic hunters into obedient subjects, lacking that metal, bronze would do just as well.

These empires were undeniably masculine. The gods were predominantly male and epitomised the male attributes – war, hunting and physical power. Since the dawn of agriculture, women had generally been sinking, slowly but surely, into a subordinate position, and not only in these great empires.

This was a fundamental change. Throughout the pre-agricultural period, as far as can be judged, the focus was very much on a female divinity, whose exaggeratedly fat carved images have been found in many places. We can presume that women held an equal or even dominant role in society; the nurturer, the life-giver. But now, wherever people settled down in agricultural communities, the Earth-Mother was pushed further and further into the background, to be replaced by a pantheon of male gods.

Why this should be is an interesting question, but it may have a lot to do with the idea of ownership and the need for certainty that it was your own son who inherited your wealth. In any case, by the Bronze Age, women had, in many places, become little more than the chattels of men and any status they might have now derived from their husband or father. A dismal blueprint was laid down that was to last for millennia and exists still in most parts of the world.

But there was another blueprint available during the Bronze Age. In one corner at least, the Earth-Mother still reigned.

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In the 1960’s a local Theran was driving a mule along a rough path in the south of the island, when the unfortunate animal disappeared into a hole. Below, a series of buildings and streets lay preserved; the archaeological site of Akrotiri had been discovered, which was to be excavated by the somewhat eccentric archaeologist Spyridon Nikolaou Marinatos between 1967 and 1974. Beneath metres of volcanic ash from the ancient eruption was a site to rival Pompeii.

When I first visited Akrotiri, I was struck by how familiar it all seemed. Under an ugly protective roof were a few hundred square metres of ancient streets just like the ones I’d been wandering through on various Aegean islands. The houses had been damaged by earthquakes prior to the eruption 3,600 years before, the people presumably having fled at these warning signs, but windows, doorways and staircases could still be seen in houses that looked like they might have been tavernas, guest houses and gift shops. This was my first introduction to the Minoans and my instant feeling was of a connection with these Bronze Age people.

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Thera was an outpost of the Minoan culture which was centred on the island of Crete. Most people have heard of the Minoans in connection with Knossos, the most massive of the several palace complexes they built around their island.  The site was excavated and reconstructed, somewhat imaginatively, in the early twentieth century by another great eccentric archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans. It’s a massive and impressive monument from an obviously sophisticated civilisation.

Relatively little is known about the Minoans; we don’t even know what they called themselves –  ‘Minoans’ being an invention of Evans, after the mythical King Minos of Crete. They had a written language known as Linear A which has never been deciphered, mainly because too few examples are known. The language they spoke is also unknown, but recent genetic studies of bone fragments suggest they came from the European mainland or Anatolia, which is present-day Turkey.

What we can establish from archaeology is that the Minoans were a powerful seafaring nation, with trading outposts, including Thera, around the Aegean. They thrived for centuries, growing in power, dominating the Aegean and trading far afield. They were certainly well-known to the Egyptians, who saw them as an important power.

Then they disappeared off the face of the earth. Almost certainly, this was a direct consequence of the disaster at Thera.

You might think that such an important culture and its sudden end must have left numerous references in the historical record, but this is not the case – this was the very beginning of written history, as we’ve seen. We know the Minoans only from the archaeology, and the excavation on Thera was like a spot-light suddenly shone on their faces.

Preserved beneath the volcanic dust at Akrotiri were a series of frescoes so fresh and vital they could have been painted yesterday. Here are just a few.

murals

There is a joy and naturalness about these pictures. You can almost hear the excitement and laughter of the people, the flitting movement of the natural world. There’s a feeling of soaring delight; of freedom. Again, there’s a sense of familiarity; we instinctively understand the Minoans. No monolithic sculptures of god-emperors receiving tribute; no images of defeated enemies being crushed under hooves and chariot wheels, nor lines of trussed, dehumanised slaves; no scary half-animal, half-human gods. There’s nothing to suggest war in Minoan culture; Cretan cities seem to have had no walls, no image of a soldier has ever been found.

Instead we see representations of people relaxing and playing, lifelike natural scenes and, above all, goddesses, or perhaps aspects of just a single goddess. We see her, or her priestesses, dancing and lounging among flowers. Her hair falls in long, wavy tresses around her face and shoulders. Often she holds snakes; often her breasts are exposed. You get the feeling she cares about how she looks and will blow a kiss to get an admiring glance. She’s as lightly feminine as the Bronze Age gods were crushingly masculine.

priestesses

The Minoans are also known for their bulls. The animal was clearly sacred and was used in graceful and dangerous-looking bull dances. Perhaps the Goddess and the Bull represent the complementary male and female aspects of their religion. The Minoans were obviously attached to the natural world; many of their frescoes depicted plants and animals and they had shrines on mountains, in woods and in caves, where people would leave little carved offerings.

leaping

What’s more, they seem to have had a sense of humour.

funny

I don’t want to make the mistake to idolising the Minoans. It would be difficult to run an extensive trading network in the Bronze Age without resorting to war and intimidation, and it’s hard to believe that they didn’t own slaves, just as their neighbours did. In addition, there is good evidence that they practiced human sacrifice on occasions. However, I think it’s safe to say that they were unique in the Bronze Age; a different and gentler sort of blueprint for the future.

Then, Bang, in a cruel geological joke the blueprint was gone. The massive tsunami from the eruption of Thera would have wrecked the shipping and coastal cities on the north coast of Crete, just 100 km to the south. Other Minoan islands would have suffered a similar fate and Thera itself, of course, ceased to exist. The ash clouds and associated earthquakes would also have been devastating.

The Minoans seemed to have struggled on for a century or so, before their cities, palaces and temples were finally abandoned. Perhaps the psychological effect of seeing their beautiful land laid waste and the knowledge that the Goddess had deserted them was the final nail in their coffin.

So that was that; a remarkable and unique civilisation was finished, buried and forgotten until its rediscovery in the 19th century. It might be thought that the Minoans had been truly obliterated, with all their marks on history wiped clean.

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A strange tale comes down to us, faintly, from the distant past. It’s told by Plato in the form of two of his dialogues, the second incomplete, and possibly written as a philosophical parable rather than an historical account. It could possibly be complete invention.

Plato was writing in Athens in 359 BC, but informs us that the tale is very ancient and comes not from his native Greece, but from the archives of Egyptian priests. It concerns a great civilisation to the Egyptians’ west, an island kingdom of immense power and sophistication, which “held sway over all the island, and over many other islands also and parts of the continent”.

This kingdom had been a model of rectitude, the people “uniting gentleness and wisdom” and thinking lightly of the possession of gold and other property”. But then they went to the bad and started “insolently advancing to attack the whole of Europe, and Asia as well”. Plato’s main point in the dialogues was to extol the virtues of bygone Athens, so we find Athens leading the resistance to the invaders and, when their allies desert them, standing alone and triumphing.

Then, seeing the corruption of these previously virtuous people, Zeus decides to punish them. The island kingdom is utterly destroyed and where the fabulous island had once been, there remained only an impassable shoal of mud.

The lost kingdom is, of course, familiar to us as Atlantis. It seems incredible that Plato’s almost throw-away description, which he couldn’t even be bothered to finish, went on to spark imaginations through the centuries, right up to our own time. Everything originally related about Atlantis can be comfortably read in half an hour, the rest is latter-day supposition and invention, much of it far-fetched and bizarre.

People still search for Atlantis out in the Atlantic Ocean, against all geological reason and despite the fact that when the Egyptians wrote the account (presuming they in fact did), the edges of their world were far closer to them. The first known mention of the Atlantic Ocean is in 450 BC, by Herodotus – could it have been named after the equally mysterious lost civilisation far to the west? Likewise, Plato’s positioning of it “beyond the Pillars of Heracles” is seen as referring to the Straits of Gibraltar only because the Greeks later gave them that name.  Previously, the ‘Pillars of Heracles’ had referred to the headlands on either side of the Gulf of Laconia – beyond those lie the Aegean islands and Crete.

Brief as Plato’s account may be, it is detailed enough to suggest a basis in reality. And those details (especially if you divide all dimensions and time-periods by ten), seem pretty much a mixed description of Crete and the volcanic island of Thera. If we ever get to decipher Linear A, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to find that the ‘Minoans’ actually referred to themselves as ‘Atlantans’.

It’s noticeable that the tale supposedly comes to the Greeks via Egypt, even though the Minoans were just across the sea from Athens. So why did the inhabitants of the Greek mainland leave no first-hand record of their powerful, probably overbearing, neighbours?

The people then living in what is now Greece, were an altogether different sort of culture to the Minoans. They were known as the Mycenaeans. Remember that this was long before the classical Greece we are familiar with; the Mycenaeans weren’t strictly Greek at all, but probably part of an earlier Indo-European migration. They certainly had cities – the eponymous Mycenae, with its impressive Lion Gate, being the best known, but also Athens, Thebes, Pylos and others. However, they were far from sophisticated by Egyptian, Babylonian or Minoan standards. Theirs seems to be a warriors’ world, their art crude and functional.

But there is something familiar, also, about the Mycenaeans. Their culture revolved around the king’s great hall, with tales and music about feats of arms and heroes. To us, it feels like they belong further north, with the Celts and the Vikings, with Beowulf. Their society certainly wasn’t peaceable, nor in any way equitable, but compared to the god-like figure found further east, the king was more ‘first among equals’. Women, of course, were far from equal and slaves toiled away as everywhere else.

It was the Mycenaeans who walked into the power vacuum left by the Minoans and who ruled the Aegean and Crete after their fall.

The question arises, how did these rough and ready warriors give rise to the amazing flowering of classical Greece a thousand year later? It isn’t even as if there was an uninterrupted period of progression to the age of Pericles. Four centuries after the fall of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans were themselves over-run by a far more barbaric people, the Greeks. The peninsula then entered a dark age of some 300 years before emerging into classical times.

However, the Mycenaeans are far from an irrelevant dead-end. It’s in them that we see the embryonic classical age. The world of Homer is Mycenaean; the siege of Troy and the journey of Odysseus, remained the great classics of the ancient world and an insight into the culture of these Bronze Age people. You can imagine blind Homer singing and elaborating his histories by the fire to an entranced gathering in the great hall of the king.  We hear these stories still, and again we feel a connection; ecstatic heroism and triumph undermined by human doubt and failings; great anger and savagery giving way, suddenly, to human compassion. If we feel we know the Minoans, we surely know these people, too.

It can be seen that Mycenaean’s were greatly influenced by the Minoans. It was far more than a mere trading relationship and aspects of Minoan religion and art are echoed by their northern neighbours. So did the Mycenaeans really leave no account of their powerful contemporaries? The first point to make is that history, as we have seen, was in its infancy. Homer’s epics were memorised and sung and passed down to the next generation, before, eventually, being recorded in writing many years later. So we shouldn’t expect factual historical accounts of events which preceded the siege of Troy by hundreds of years; instead we should look to oral tradition. And here we hit a treasure trove.

A great many of the myths that we think of as Greek, find their origin in Crete, and when we see them from that angle, they take on a startling new light…  A white bull comes from the sea and has unnatural relations with Cretan Queen Pasiphae… Europa, is abducted by Zeus in the form of (another) white bull and ravished, bearing him three sons, including Minos… Daedalus, King Minos’ great craftsman, builds him ingenious dolls, a bronze giant to patrol the coast of Crete and the labyrinth to hide the Minotaur, before finally escaping by air with the importunate Icarus.

Zeus himself was raised in a cave on Mount Ida in Crete, hidden by dancing goddesses from his jealous father, Cronos. A sad little figure, but later he tries to seduce Hera in Knossos, unsuccessfully until “She took pity on him only when he adopted the disguise of a bedraggled cuckoo, and tenderly warmed him in her bosom. There he at once resumed his true shape and ravaged her, so that she was shamed into marrying him”.

And so it goes on. In these myths the whole world of Bronze Age religious and political power-play seems to be hidden, tantalisingly, just out of view. The goddess is very present in the myths, struggling to maintain her power in the face of the new male pantheon led by Zeus.

But perhaps the clearest appearance of the Minoans in Greek legend is the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. If you remember how it goes, Theseus volunteers to be part of the nine-yearly tribute of Athenian youths sent to King Minos in Crete to be devoured by the bull-headed monster, the Minotaur. With the help of King Minos’ daughter, Ariadne, Theseus kills the Minotaur and escapes the labyrinth, only to abandon Ariadne on Naxos on his way home to Athens.

You don’t need to read very far between the lines of this story to uncover a wealth of clues about the relationship between the Mycenaeans and the Minoans – as well as the rather bloody court intrigues in Athens, in which Theseus so ruthlessly excels. But despite his nose-thumbing, the Athenians seem to be, to all intents and purposes, vassals of the Minoans.

Other stories concerning Theseus have a white bull imported from Crete which runs rampage around the mainland before being defeated by our hero. The intriguing character of Medea also makes an appearance. A witch, constantly meddling in mainland politics, she comes across as the embodiment of Minoan foreign policy.

Femmes fatales seem to be a constant hazard in the Greek legends. Just look at Odysseus’ troublesome journey home from Troy. On the way he has the misfortune to encounter islands controlled by an array of dangerous women; some hideous monsters like Scylla and Charybdis, others – Circe, Calypso and the Sirens, more subtle, indeed seductive. Interestingly, like Medea, the nymphs Circe and Calypso are portrayed with a definitely sympathetic side.

Finally, Odysseus is shipwrecked on the home of the Phaecians and found by the free-spirited princess Nausicaa. Here he is treated with great kindness and later given a lift home. On his arrival he is advised to treat the queen with great respect and courtesy – it’s she who gives the king the OK to take the desperate traveller in; the secret power behind the throne. It sounds very much as if Odysseus has finally ended up in Minoan Crete after a tour of various island provinces run by Minoan priestesses.

Although the Odyssey is set at a date well after the fall of the Minoans, the hero’s epic journey home is quite clearly based on earlier stories and traditions. Many of the female characters, including Medea, also feature in the adventures of Jason and the Argonauts. What comes across from the Odyssey as well as the Theseus and Jason stories is a love-hate relationship between the Mycenaeans and Minoans. The former felt dominated, resentful and rebellious, but at the same time in awe of their neighbours and open to their dazzling influence.

So Minoan culture didn’t die with the destruction of Thera, it had already burrowed deep into Mycenaean mind, and from there made its way to classical Greece. The Greeks were a warlike and male-oriented society where women were of little consequence, but there was an edge – Athens itself is named after Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. In the great Parthenon temple, in classical times, there stood an imposing statue of the goddess herself. She was armed with spear and helmeted for war, but hidden beneath her shield she harbours a snake – the symbol of the Minoan Mother Goddess.

In the Greek myths the Goddess is clearly involved in a losing struggle with male interlopers. Whereas the Theseus legend gives us a glimpse of the Minoans at their height, the myths indicate what happened after the Minoan culture had been wrecked.

But in Hera, Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, Persephone and Demeter, the Mother Goddess was far from dead, she had merely married the Greek gods. A forced marriage, perhaps; a marriage of convenience at best, but anyway, there she was on Mount Olympus with the guys – six gods and six goddesses. Subservient these women were not; they were a force to be reckoned with. The result of their marriage was the Golden Age of classical Greece – a flowering of art, literature , logical thought and democratic rule which still holds us in awe.

It holds us in awe, because it’s our own culture. We in ‘the West’ are the children of this strange fusion of Bronze Age cultures. Through the Roman Empire and Middle Ages, into the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the Goddess lived on; always in the background, always subtle. Perhaps her most obvious incarnation was in the enduring cult of the Virgin Mary. In Europe, women were rarely as completely subjugated and despised (and perhaps secretly feared), as they commonly were in other parts of the world.

Perhaps the defining quality of ‘the West’ – the golden bubble we live in – is individuality; the valuing of the single person as a unique self-determining entity, rather than a cog in a vast impersonal state or religious machine. This, surely, is the quality we see when we look at Minoan artifacts and consider its culture.

The Goddess bided her time, patiently; a quiet, unsuspected influence, until our own time; the little bubble in time and space where to be a women doesn’t automatically mean being second-class. Now after a sleep of three and a half millennia, the Goddess is finally yawning and stretching herself. Perhaps she can now take her place as an equal partner in the world she helped shape.

madonnas
left to right: Venus of Willendorf, c 25,000 BC; Minoan Snake Goddess figurine, c 1,600 BC; Michelangelo’s Pietà, 1499 AD

 

Prospero, 2015

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