The Mystery of the Minoans
What do we know about the advanced society who inhabited the island of Crete 4000 years ago?
Much of the allure of Ancient History comes not from what we know about it but from what might have been. Gaps in the historical only become more common the further back one goes, which leaves room for speculation. Faced with these enigmas, historians of Antiquity must walk a fine line between scholarship and speculation to unveil the clearest, most objective portrayal of civilizations and cultures that have long since faded into the shadows of time. A perfect example may be found in an elusive proto-Greek society known as the Minoans, which beckons us to decipher their secrets and confront the blurred boundary between myth and reality.
On the Island of Crete, in 1877, Greek businessman and amateur scholar Minos Kalokairinos discovered what appeared to be archeological remains in the soil of his family’s land. Kalokairinos’ initial digs revealed the first glimpse of a much larger and very significant discovery. However, since Crete was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Kalokairinos feared the seizure and export of artifacts by Turkish officials. Therefore, he let his findings remain buried for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Crete gained its independence some decades later. In 1899, English archeologist Sir Arthur Evans began a new excavation at Kalokairinos’ site. Evans soon found evidence of a Bronze Age civilization even older than its Mycenaean counterparts on the Greek mainland. This fact alone was intriguing, but it quickly became even more fascinating. Evans unearthed the remains of a palatial structure with a curious and complex design. The structure contained hundreds of chambers, each flowing organically into the next in a maze-like series of winding corridors. One might even describe the floor plan of the long-lost palace as “labyrinthine,” a term which was not lost on Evans.
Having a deep interest in Greek mythology, Evans quickly drew connections between the mysterious winding palace corridors and a well-known Greek myth. According to legend, a half-man, half-bull creature known as the Minotaur wandered the labyrinth beneath King Minos’ legendary palace of “Knossos.” The monster was said to have commonly devoured unfortunate prisoners who had offended the king and were cast into the twisting passages to wander hopelessly until their fateful meeting with the man-eating monster. This continued until the hero, Theseus, finally confronted and slew the beast, bringing Minos’ reign of terror to an end.
Since Minos’ kingdom was said to have been located on Crete, Evans could not help but believe he had discovered the structure behind the story. Numerous recurring examples of bulls in the symbolism of the artifacts Evans unearthed only further fed his fixation on the story and its possible connections to his findings. Evans was not the first to infer this connection to myth. William Stillman, an American journalist and a former American consulate to Crete, had suggested the link based on Kalokairinos’ initial findings. Evans, however, pushed this narrative far more earnestly. Evans continued to draw parallels and conclusions as he excavated what he called the “Minoan” civilization until 1905. He continued to study the site and push for the mythological connection until 1931.
Evans also commissioned a significant amount of “restoration” at Knossos, his official goal being to give visitors a glimpse of what the palace had once looked like in its former glory. These restorations included the reconstruction of roofs, stairwells, and the throne room and the repainting of faded frescoes and columns. He hired a well-known father-son team of Swiss painters shortly after his digs were finished to redo several frescoes. Evans later enlisted the help of architects to do some “reimagining.” The most significant of these contributors was Piet de Jong, who was hired to rebuild substantial portions of the palace in the 1920s. These decisions have proven controversial.
Evans’ decision to alter the primary sources of his site divided scholars and continues to do so. To this day, his critics point out that Evans’ artistic choices were based on models from the later Greek Classical Period. They have also pointed out that the restorations by de Jong seem to reflect the Modernist styles of the 1920s rather than anything from Antiquity. The controversy over Evans’s decisions in the early twentieth century has sparked a vital and ongoing debate in the scholarly community ever since. At what point is myth and modern perception being projected onto reality? What happens when we try to construct an ancient civilization in our image or make it a reflection of our modern desires? And, more importantly, who really were these people we now call the Minoans?
The exact origins of the Minoans were indeterminable until just recently. Evans held that they were refugees from Egypt fleeing for unknown reasons some 5,000 years ago. Evans’ presumptions stemmed from some archeological resemblances. Some Minoan scripts bore a resemblance to Egyptian writing. Minoan painting techniques also reflected some strong Egyptian influence. This theory was feasible since Egypt experienced some very troubled eras that might have motivated some citizens to flee their homeland. The Egyptian connection was a captivating theory entertained for years, but Evans’s entire hypothesis rested upon circumstantial evidence. A recent and extensive study of DNA analysis has thoroughly debunked it.
In a recent study, researchers from the United States and Greece examined mitochondrial DNA extracted from ancient Minoan skeletal remains to trace the ancestry of the Minoan civilization. Minoan remains were cross-referenced with 135 other populations, with the results of this study suggesting that they were most closely related to the same ancestors of many European populations. It also seems that little has changed since the people still living near the Lassithi plateau in Crete carry this same genetic heritage. Therefore, the Minoans were most likely the initial inhabitants of Crete and probably arrived from Anatolia and Europe some 9,000 years ago. The civilization uncovered by Evans would have emerged from these same people some 4,000 years later. It would be nice to learn their origin story as they understood it. And, since written records have been discovered, scholars might have it. Unfortunately, this is where the plot thickens, and the enigma grows ever more intriguing.
The lack of primary source evidence from the Minoans does not occur from a lack of written records. The Minoans were a very literate people for their time. They had not merely one but two distinct writing systems in which they composed records. Sadly, the separation of time and subject matter between the two scripts has played a cruel joke on historians.
Evans’ initial digs uncovered several shards of pottery with etchings that were unmistakably some sort of language. The etchings, dubbed Linear A, reveal what linguists call a pictographic writing system. Much like Egyptian hieroglyphics, the characters of Linear A resemble pictures rather than letters. This writing system was in use from roughly 1800 to 1450 BC. Somewhat frustratingly, Linear A has proven utterly indecipherable, and linguists remain baffled to this day. An abundance of information left by the Minoans remains so close yet so far away.
Linear B, by contrast, is a syllabic writing system that came into use from roughly 1600 to 1200 BC. This writing greatly resembles the one used by Myceneans on the Greek mainland and was, therefore, readily deciphered shortly after its discovery. However, while scholars can read it, the topics written about in Linear B are of interest to very few. Linear B’s use was primarily confined to business and government matters such as tax records, palace inventories, and other administrative issues.
Given Linear B’s focus on practical matters, it has long been assumed that texts of cultural significance, such as myth and literature, were recorded in the older script. Regardless, as of now, there is simply no way to know for sure. Perhaps one day, a missing link will provide scholars with the tools needed to decode Linear A, much like the Rosetta Stone unlocked the secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphics. In the meantime, scholars must rely on what archeology can suggest to try and get to know the real Minoans.
The geographic situation of the Minoans may explain many critical differences from their mainland Greek counterparts (the Mycenaeans). As an island civilization, they would have had the advantage of developing in splendid isolation. They would have also been able to selectively participate in any cultural, economic, and political trends they liked in the nearby mainland (Greece, North Africa, and parts of the Middle East). This fact, coupled with the excellent farmland in Crete’s lower elevation areas, was a recipe for success. Elaborate infrastructure and technological innovation were the result.
Scholars like William Dunstan have referred to Minoan Crete as the “most advanced culture of the Aegean” during the end of the third millennium BCE. The palaces of Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia best exemplify the impressive level of Minoan technological and societal development. The palaces seem to have been constructed ca. 2000 BCE, each appearing to have served as an epicenter of Minoan civilization. The abundant chambers in these palaces seem to have existed for numerous purposes, including throne rooms, residence chambers, religious shrines, storehouses for food and other resources, and more. Huge courtyards were also included, which would have been suitable for state ceremonies. Particularly impressive are the elaborate plumbing systems that provided palace residents with water for drinking, bathing, and even flushing toilets. Equally elaborate drainage systems were also included to keep things sanitary.
The elaborate nature of these archeological remains suggests that the Minoan civilization developed in a relatively peaceful environment. Remains of some small fortifications have been discovered on the coast. Still, there is a distinct lack of defensive walls around major cities, which implies a lack of armed conflict on the island. The structures appear to have sustained sudden and heavy damage some two centuries after their initial construction. While a foreign invasion or civil war could have incurred such destruction, archeologists attribute the damage to earthquakes. The palaces were quickly rebuilt after the fact and possibly were even more impressive than before. The very existence of these elaborate structures and their hasty restoration further the image of a largely peaceful existence.
Visual depictions discovered in surviving Minoan art only further the theory of a benign island environment. Unlike their Mycenaean counterparts on the mainland, there are no depictions of angry beasts or armies marching to war. Instead, Minoan artists have chosen to portray a copacetic ecosystem of which man is a predominant part.
Unearthed remains of Minoan pottery indicate some connection to Asia Minor, where the potter’s wheel had long since been invented, but the pieces created are distinctly Minoan. Kamares ware, a style of pottery unique to Minos, is named for the caves at the slopes of Mount Ida in Crete. Kamares ware is notable for its distinct white patterns on a black surface. These patterns may be sweeping spiral patterns or abstract natural forms, the significance of which could mean anything or nothing at all.
While occasional depictions of natural scenes have also been found on various pots, they are more frequently depicted in colorful Frescoes on palace walls. The walls of Knossos, in particular, are decorated with many colorful depictions of the natural world both above and below the waves. Underwater coral reefs team with fish, octopi, and anemones. Blue dolphins frolic among the waves while mariners calmly steer their boats. Colorful birds take to the pale skies while a mountain lion gives chase to deer and wild goats. All this takes place around a majestic palace on the hill, which one may assume was Knossos in its heyday. Aside from a hunting wildcat, no representations of nature’s cruelty or violence exist.
Serene representations of daily Minoan life are also found in these vivid depictions. The Minoans all appear youthful, wasp-wasted, and wide-eyed, with their long, flowing hair tied back in braid and tail. Young men are depicted as fit, tanned, and bare-chested. Women, on the other hand, are porcelain-skinned and garbed in revealing dresses. Both genders adorn themselves equally in flamboyant jewelry, including earrings, necklaces, armbands, and bracelets. Everyone also uses cosmetics. Notably absent are any depictions of death, war, or even the infirmity of old age. One may presume that while this idyllic depiction probably has some basis in the reality that Minoans knew, it better reflects the parts of life they preferred to focus on.
One Fresco that stands apart from all this is the famous Bull-Leaping Fresco. This enigmatic work of art portrays a daring young man vaulting over the back of a charging bull. Two figures, presumably young women, are poised to aid the daring young man in his endeavor. Whether he is a highly successful acrobat or a very unsuccessful rider is unclear, as is the true purpose of this scene.
Bulls appear elsewhere in Minoan symbolism, but without context to inform us, they could mean any number of things. Bulls were a common religious symbol in various cultures of neighboring lands, such as the Levant and Assyria. The significance of the Bull in Minoan civilization may have taken many possible forms. Like many aspects of this enigmatic culture, the true meaning of Bull-Leaping Fresco may be hidden within the undeciphered characters of Linear A. This is, of course, if it was ever written at all.
Is it a daring sport, an expression of physical prowess, or perhaps a ritual of profound significance? Some argue that it represents an ancient adrenaline-pumping spectacle, while others contend that the physicality required for such a feat is physically impossible. Could it symbolize humanity’s precarious mastery over the forces of nature? Much like Minoan civilization, the portrayal of the bull-leaper remains shrouded in mystery, fueling a wide range of theories and speculations.
Minoan religion seems to have been polytheistic, as most, if not all, religions of the time were. At the center of the Minoan pantheon is a distinct, imposing figure known only as “The Minoan Snake Goddess.” This iconic matriarchal deity thrived from approximately 2000 to 1400 BCE. Bare-breasted and wide-eyed, she wears a distinctive headdress and a flowing skirt. She is also typically depicted holding a snake in each hand. Snakes were a powerful symbol of fertility, regeneration, and wisdom in the Near and Middle East bronze age cultures, and presumably for Minoans, as well.
Once again, without a good understanding of Linear A, all scholars can do is present educated guesses. Of course, interpretations of the snake goddess vary among researchers, sometimes wildly. Even so, it is widely agreed that the Snake Goddess is associated with the reverence of nature and, therefore, highlights a deep connection with the natural world. This stigma is pervasive among many deities from many cultures, both past and present. In this way, it is assumed that the Minoans were probably not unique. Anything that might make them stand out, again, remains frustratingly elusive.
Once again, it is tempting to draw parallels between the Snake Goddess and her counterparts from the later Greek Classical Period. Her association with snakes has led some to believe she was a prototype for Medusa, the snake-haired Gorgon slain by the mythical Greek hero Perseus. The snake connection has also led others to hypothesize that she is a predecessor to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and war. She is also believed to have been associated with the Moon, leading some to conclude she may be an ancestor of the Greek goddess Artemis. Again, even if something seems a fitting match, resemblances alone are insufficient evidence. Though her exact role in Minoan society remains a subject of scholarly debate, the captivating image of the snake goddess continues to intrigue and inspire. In turn, like their matron goddess, so does the mysterious Minoan civilization.
The Minoans continue to tease us with all of the potential missing links they might or might not add to the historical record, any of which may or may not be written down in a language no one has yet been able to decipher. It is tempting to shape them in our image and see what we want to see, but at the end of the day, all we can know for sure is what archeology can suggest.