THE NEW MINOANS

How far does the traditional picture of the Minoans stand, and to what extent do we need to revise our view of them? Certainly some revision is necessary, since Evans’ milk-and-water Minoans could never have survived in the tough world of the bronze age Aegean, let alone produced a flourishing civilization that lasted over a thousand years.

There must have been a sterner, stronger side. We should recognize that a society may possess a dark side that it does not express in its art and which does not leave any archaeological trace. In some ways, societies function like individuals, who may go to great lengths to project a particular public persona and conceal certain aspects of personality; even an experienced biographer may fail to unearth the shadow-personality. We should certainly not take the laughter, the dancing and the apparent joie de vivre at face value. The Minoans, we can assume, had a dark side even if it was not expressed in art or archive.

The bull sacrifice was probably a regular occurrence at the temples, yet it is very rarely depicted: the scene with the trussed bull on its sacrificial table shown on the Agia Triadha sarcophagus is a rarity. Equally, war and conquest may have been important activities, as important to the Minoans as to the Hittites or Egyptians, even though they left them unexpressed in their art. In fact, the nearest approach to a record of battle is to be found in the Minoan colony of Akrotiri on Thera, where the North Wall Frieze in Room 5 of the West House unequivocally shows a naval engagement: there have been some fatalities, to judge from the naked bodies shown in the water, while in the background a fragmentary line of at least five soldiers advances, armed with boar’s tooth helmets, long spears and large rectangular cowhide shields. The large South Wall Frieze, which may at first sight be taken to show another naval engagement, nevertheless seems to depict a major religious festival: no arms are involved on land or sea and the ships seem to be dressed overall with garlands and bunting.

In fact, as with the personal ambition issue, it is possible from the evidence so far reviewed to argue either for peace-loving Minoans or for aggressive, assertive, warlike Minoans whose exploits were in the main unrecorded. The problem is encountered again in the debate concerning the nature of the ‘Minoan sea-empire’. In Chapter 5, we reviewed the evidence that indicates the existence of Minoan trading-stations and colony-towns in the southern Aegean. Evans argued that the Minoans held dominion over Mycenae but others disagreed from the start, on the grounds that the Myceneans were obviously a warlike people and well able to hold their own territory. This view nevertheless falls into the trap of seeing the Myceneans as they apparently saw themselves - all-conquering warriors - and not as they may actually have been. The Myceneans may not, in spite of their Homeric and modern publicity, have been particularly good warriors. Equally, the Minoans were certainly not as soft, feminine and peace-loving as their press.

The Minoans were a sacrificial people. The famous, but fragmentary, Procession Fresco in the Knossos Labyrinth shows a procession of worshippers coming to offer oblation to the deity or deities of the temple: at one point we seem to see the feet of the goddess they are honouring, but the rest of the figure is lost. The Cupbearer, probably best interpreted as part of the self-same decorative scheme and part of the same procession, proudly carries a rhyton, a ritual libation vessel. The Minoans were always making offerings to their deities: it was an integral part of their belief-system. In the Late Dove Goddess Shrine at Knossos there was a typical clay offering table, a round tray with three legs, cemented down to the floor, a permanent begging bowl for the goddess.

Some offering tables were equipped with pits or hollows in their surface. The best-known of these kernoi is the round stone kernos in the temple at Mallia, which was evidently used for the panspermia offerings, a presentation to the deity of tiny quantities of all kinds of grain and other farm produce. In classical times a similar practice prevailed: small amounts of wheat, barley, oats, lentils, beans, oil, milk, wine, honey, opium poppyseeds and sheep’s wool were offered in little cups. A sweetmeat made from various fruits was probably placed in the central hollow of the Mallia kernos. In some of the old Cretan monasteries, an object similar in conception to a Minoan kernos, a combination of candlesticks and vials to hold wheat, wine, and oil, can still be seen: some Minoan practices have survived until modern times, although it should be emphasized that the use of the kernos was already an ancient practice when the Minoans adopted it, since they inherited it from their neolithic forebears.

The libation vessels are recognizable from their impractical shapes, with round or pointed bottoms, and with holes in their bases for the outflow. They are also recognizable from the inventiveness of their decoration. Early vessels, from before 2000 bc, were in the form of the Magna Mater, with holes in the breasts for pouring: these may have been used for offerings of milk. Later rhytons, in the form of a bull’s head, would seem the appropriate choice of vessel for a libation of blood from a sacrificed bull. And it is blood - and the preoccupation with the shedding of blood - which is the most disturbing feature of the Minoan personality.

The altars in Minoan sanctuaries were stained with the blood of many sacrifices. A fresco at Akrotiri on Thera shows an altar surmounted by sacral horns: both horns and altar run with the blood of recent sacrifices. That evidence and the evidence of the Agia Triadha sarcophagus are enough to show a more violent aspect of the Minoans, and we should perhaps have been prepared for the discovery in 1979 of the first conclusive evidence of human sacrifices in a Minoan sanctuary.

The small temple of Anemospilia stood on the north slope of Mount Juktas, on the prow of the ridge overlooking the lowlands that focus on Knossos. Its three oblong shrines ranged along the uphill side of a 10-metre-long hall which served as an area where sacrifices were prepared; there were auxiliary altars in the hall. A lifesized wooden cult statue stood in the central shrine on a low bench altar. At its feet, a low knob of living rock projected through the floor; this is thought to have been a holy rock on to which blood libations were poured. In the northern shrine there was a free-standing altar block which clearly functioned as a sacrificial table. The remains of a seventeen-year-old youth with his legs drawn up were found on the table. Analysis of the bones showed that the blood had drained from the upper half of his body. He had probably had his throat cut with the long bronze dagger engraved with a boar’s head that lay beside him (and now displayed in Heraklion Museum).

Figure 57 The Cupbearer, from a fresco in the Knossos Labyrinth

Figure 57 The Cupbearer, from a fresco in the Knossos Labyrinth

The skeletons of three people involved in the boy’s ritual murder were found nearby. One had apparently been carrying a vessel with a yellow spotted bull painted on its side; the remains of the (male or female) skeleton were found in the hall, outside the doorway to the central shrine where the idol presided over the sacred stone. It seems possible that this temple servant was carrying a vessel full of blood freshly drained from the boy’s still warm body to make a blood libation in the central shrine, at the very moment when the building collapsed, entombing the victim and his killers alike. A second figure, a strongly built man perhaps in his thirties, lay on his back on the floor beside the boy. This man, evidently of high rank, to judge from his ring made of iron and silver, and probably a priest, had apparently sacrificed the youth just minutes before the building fell down on them. Nearby was the body of an anaemic woman, probably a priestess.

The inference made by the excavators, Yannis and Efi Sakellarakis (1981), was inevitable: an impending catastrophe caused the priests and priestesses at the Sanctuary of Anemospilia to offer a human sacrifice. They were attempting to propitiate the deities of the underworld - very likely Poteidan himself - just moments before a great earthquake brought the roof of the sanctuary down. From its date, about 1700 bc, it was almost certainly the same earthquake that caused the destruction of the Old Temple at Knossos. The criminologist Dr Koutselinis feels that a prima facie case could be made for the priest as the murderer; after cutting the boy’s carotid artery, the priest laid the dagger on the body and began to collect the blood in jars. It is interesting that the assumption is automatically made that it was the man who murdered the boy, when the priestess, whose body lay almost as close to the victim’s, could as easily have wielded the knife; from what we are learning of Minoan gender roles, a priestess would have been quite capable of such an act.

The victim’s legs were tightly folded up, feet to buttocks, and must have been tied there. How the boy went to his death is not known. He may, as the ethnologist Dr Konstantinos Romaios suggests, have been the priest’s (or priestess’s) son, and he may have met his fate as a matter of unquestioning filial obedience. Alternatively, he may have been a religious fanatic who willingly volunteered; or he may have been drugged or physically overpowered and sacrificed by force. We shall probably never know.

The idea that the beautiful, graceful, flower-loving Minoans were capable of committing such brutal acts is difficult for many of us to accept, but the archaeological evidence is not susceptible of any other interpretation. The consternation caused by the Sakellarakis discovery is partly a tribute to the success of Evans’ propaganda for the Minoans as languid flower-and peace-lovers. It is also partly due to a wrongheaded tendency to associate a love of flowers with other specific qualities or tendencies - qualities such as passivity, pleasantness, softness, agreeableness, harmlessness, ineffectuality. Yet there is no inherent logic in these associations.

However harmless most modern flower-lovers may be, there is no reason why we should expect to project the association - even if it were a valid one now - back three thousand years into an alien culture. There is no reason why an obsessive delight in the natural world should preclude a taste for bloodshed and violence, or any other taste or predilection for that matter. Lord Kitchener was a flower arranger.

Although the discovery at Anemospilia is so far the only unequivocal archaeological evidence of human sacrifice, there is no reason why we should regard it as anything other than an integral, if infrequent, part of Minoan religious ritual. There are even some temple archives which may record people offered as human sacrifices. One, on Knossos tablet Gg 713, includes a dedication to a god followed by a human offering: ‘for Marineus, one female servant’ . Another entry gives a list of men’s names and then goes on to the dedication, ‘to the House ( = sanctuary) of Marineus, ten men’. Possibly wealthy slave-owners offered tribute to the temples in the form of temple servants, but they may equally have been offering people for sacrifice on altar-tables like the one at Anemospilia.

Close on the heels of the Sakellarakis find, actually in the same season, came Peter Warren’s discovery at Knossos of evidence of child sacrifice and cannibalism. In the western part of the Minoan town of Knossos, 100 metres from the Bull’s Head Sanctuary (Evans’ Little Palace), Warren found a mass of children’s bones in an ordinary Minoan house. It seemed that a sheep had been sacrificed at the same time the children had died. Warren reluctantly interpreted the remains as those of a mass child-sacrifice. Worse still, the bones had many knife-cuts on them, showing that the flesh had been deliberately and carefully carved off. The only interpretation seemed to be that the children had been murdered and then eaten in an act of ritual cannibalism (Warren 1980-1).

‘The House of the Sacrificed Children’ gave an altogether new and distasteful dimension to the picture of Minoan religious and social customs, yet - given the sinister reputation of the Knossos Labyrinth in classical folklore and the memory of King Minos as a violent, implacable and bloodthirsty tyrant - we perhaps ought to have been prepared for something of the kind. Both the Anemospilia human sacrifice and the Knossos cannibalism are represented as unique events, aberrations from the norm, but this is not perhaps the soundest archaeological interpretation. Archaeology yields only a fraction of what actually once was, records only a fraction of what actually once happened; we can be fairly sure that, whatever happened at Anemospilia and the ‘House of the Sacrificed Children’, it happened many more times than the once or twice that these chance archaeological survivals may at first suggest.

Donald Tumasonis (1983) has commented that the Anemospilia finds may have triggered a line of thought which led directly to the cannibal-sacrifice claim for the Knossos finds. Without the Anemospilia discovery, possibly the Knossos finds might have been interpreted differently. Are they susceptible of another interpretation?

In fact, the cache of children’s bones could be interpreted as a second interment. In some cultures, a preliminary phase of burial or exposure to rid the skeleton of its flesh (and presumably spirit, too) was followed by a second and final burial rite, in which the clean, dry bones were secreted in an ossuary or grave. The second rite might be preceded by the removal of any bits of flesh still adhering to the bones, which needed to be completely clean before being finally buried. Something of this practice seems to have survived into recent times within the Greek world. Only a hundred years ago, in the village of Leonidi in the Peloponnese, baskets of human bones were seen being stripped with knives by men and scrubbed with soap and soda in wash-tubs by women; the job took two days to complete, after which the bones were white, clean and ready for burial. It has been a common practice in modern Greece to leave a body in the ground for 3-7 years, until the flesh has gone. After this time, the bones have been ritually cleaned and then re-interred, often in a family ossuary. If the flesh has not fallen away, the use of knives might be a last resort (Lawson 1910).

It is obviously not possible to decide definitely what happened to the children whose remains Peter Warren found at Knossos, but it would at least seem wise to leave the door open to interpretations other than cannibalism. The sacrifice of a sheep at the time of the final burial does not in itself prove that the children too were sacrificed, only that their re-burial was accompanied by some form of religious ritual, as we would expect. This softer explanation is preferable, not because it leaves the harmless, flower-loving image of the Minoans untarnished, but because it is more in accord with what we know of the later burial practices of the region - and of prehistoric burial practices too.

So, provisionally and cautiously, cannibalism can be set aside. This still leaves the hard evidence for animal and human sacrifice unshaken. The Minoans’ militarism remains an open question, although there is much to commend Sinclair Hood’s (1982) argument that there is no reason to suppose that the bronze age Cretans were any less aggressive than their neighbours. There is also the thought, mentioned earlier, that the Minoan culture, with its very distinctive and independent character, simply could not have survived as a separate entity in the bronze age Aegean without being fiercely assertive. We can be fairly sure that the Minoans had to defend themselves in armed combat against predatory neighbours, and repeatedly at that.

There is a clear dichotomy between the traditional Minoans and the darker, more aggressive Minoans who are now emerging. How can the problem of the apparent contradiction be resolved? The Greek legends of an implacable Minos and his sinister Labyrinth housing a ravenous, child-devouring monster exist as a reminder that the classical Greeks were themselves aware that the Minoans possessed a shadow side. It was not the classical Greeks who fostered the idea of the Minoans as urbane and super-civilized aesthetes: they evidently knew - or chose to remember - the darker side better. That darker side was temporarily forgotten in the excitement of the Minoan discoveries early in the twentieth century AD, and in particular Evans’ discoveries at Knossos, which revealed a civilization that was all lightness, sophistication and vivacity. Yet we have been misled to a great extent by both the discoveries and the way in which they have been interpreted. The frescoes, for instance, show us how the Minoans liked to see themselves, so they are in a real sense a partial and subjective view. In addition, much of the artwork is of a religious nature. A very large proportion of the images we have of the Minoans comes from the temple at Knossos and other cult centres, and we should not expect that temple-art will give us a well-rounded picture of a people. The Minoans have, in other words, not deceived us deliberately by misrepresenting themselves; it is simply that we have drawn largely from their religious art in reconstructing their general attitudes and behaviour.

Figure 58 Young god with sacral horns attended by daemonsFigure 58 Young god with sacral horns attended by daemons

There are many pitfalls in any search for the Minoan personality. It is nevertheless unfortunate that, because of these problems, many modern research accounts are rather tight-lipped and circumspect, often focusing on one narrow aspect of the culture. This reaction to Evans’ broad, sweeping, synthetic approach is understandable, but it is unfortunate in that there is a need to re-integrate all the fragments and threads of the culture into the living whole that it must once have been. We may be able to see only contradictions in appearance, attitude and behaviour, but we can be sure that, between three and four thousand years ago in Crete, those would have been seen as apparent only - an iridescent surface shimmer - and that all would have been subsumed in an organic cultural unity.

Sometimes despairing voices are raised, bemoaning the fact that all we have left of the culture is its artefacts, but this is to ignore what some of the artefacts can tell us. The signet rings, for instance, show us one cult scene after another with various permutations of religious symbols, gestures and rituals. Attitude, emotion, commitment and thought-world are all engraved there. The frescoes too, carefully and imaginatively interpreted, as they have been by researchers such as Mark Cameron and Nanno Marinatos, can be made to yield encoded thought-systems and elaborate patterns of ritual behaviour. On the simplest level, these works of art give us images - very powerful images - of the way the Minoans liked to see themselves.

Because of the lack of documentation, the legal and social position of women is hard to judge. The culture was significantly altered by the mainland Achaeans (or Myceneans) and Dorians before the documented period began, and evidence offered from later times may not be applicable. Jacquetta Hawkes (1968) argues that it may be significant that inheritance in ancient Anatolia was matrilineal until the fourth century bc, and that in the Anatolian province nearest to Crete, Lycia, children were customarily named after their mothers, not their fathers. From this, all we can say is that a concept of matrilineal descent was available in the area; we cannot argue that the Minoan society was a matrilineal society.

There is, on the other hand, good evidence from bronze age Cretan sites that priestesses were more important figures than priests. The miniature frescoes from Knossos show groups of priestesses as the elite of large-scale ceremonial functions. It is relatively rare for men to be shown in commanding positions. There are exceptions; there is the Chieftain Cup, where either a platoon of soldiers is reporting to a prince or senior officer or a group of boy-initiands is reporting to an older youth who has already been initiated; there is a sealstone showing a male holding two lions by the scruff of the neck, though he represents a deity, the Master of Animals; there is the so-called ‘Priest-King’ Fresco, which actually shows a temple attendant, a servant of the goddess; there is the commanding figure of a prince, officer or lawagetas in a miniature fresco fragment, taking the salute from a host of spear-brandishing warriors (Figure 55). Poseidon-Poteidan apart, the goddesses seem to have been more important than the gods, although this point must not be overstated, since several gods are mentioned by name on the Linear B tablets. Even so, the prevailing social structure, at least in the religious sphere, is summed up by the Procession Fresco from the Knossos Labyrinth, where a priestess, or a priestess epiphany of the goddess, is shown receiving tribute, adulation and worship from two approaching lines of men.

Since Minoans of both sexes were accustomed to seeing such images, images of suppliant, subordinate males worshipping dominant females, it is reasonable to assume that the images reflect a more general social attitude. But whether women were dominant outside the religious sphere is impossible to say. On the one hand, religion was obviously of prime importance in the Minoan thought-world and pre-eminence in the religious sphere might be argued to lead directly to pre-eminence in the temporal world. In addition, the easy, relaxed, self-confident manner of the women shown in the frescoes implies that such women would be likely to be outgoing, participating in a wide range of social activity. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all from the tablets, which record some aspects of Minoan administration, that women were attaining positions of major importance, so the positive documentative evidence is lacking.

It has frequently been said that Homer’s description of the Phaeacians may have drawn heavily on the world of the Minoans (e.g. Thomson 1949): many of the scenes described could have been taken from the Knossos frescoes. Nausikaa, the Phaeacian princess, gives Odysseus careful instructions how to approach her royal parents:

When you enter the palace, walk straight across to my mother. You will find her by the fire, spinning sea-purple wool, with her chair against the pillar and her serving-women at her side. My father will be sitting there too, sipping his wine like an immortal, but pass him by and clasp my mother’s knees - then, however far away, you may be sure of a safer journey home.

(Odyssey, Book 6, 303-15)

In the streets, Odysseus meets a girl with a pitcher who tells him more about the queen:

Not only he [King Alcinous] but her children and the whole people honour her. They look on her as a goddess when they salute her as she passes through the streets. . . . If you win her heart, you will have good hope of returning to your own country and setting eyes once more on your kith and kin.

(Odyssey, Book 7, 66-77)

In the event, the supplication to Queen Arete turns out to have a ritual value only; Oysseus is raised up by Alcinous and led to the chair next to his own: but the symbolic deference to the queen had to be made first. We should perhaps also bear in mind that the Greeks were later to remember, for example in Plutarch’s ‘Life of Theseus’, that it had been the custom in Minoan Crete for women to appear in public to watch the games. That folk-memory should be taken seriously, because it harmonizes with the fresco evidence from Knossos and is at variance with later Greek practice.

Given the background, queenship is possible, no less than kingship, in Minoan Crete. Around the time of the abandonment of the Labyrinth in 1380 bc, Queen Hatshepsut reigned in Egypt, although custom required - significantly - that she be called ‘king’. Jacquetta Hawkes (1968) has proposed that the Minoans may have been ruled by a Priestess-Queen rather than a Priest-King. It is possible, but there is no evidence of it. On the whole (see Chapter 2), a king with limited power is more likely, with the real power residing in the hands of the Lawagetas and the priestesses.

The Palanquin Fresco, of which only fragments survive, shows a dignified female clothed in a white robe being conveyed through a crowd at some public festival. The fresco came from the Labyrinth, and the existence of a terracotta model of a palanquin with a seated female in a ritual context in another part of the Labyrinth supports the general idea that high-status women were publicly paraded as part of a religious festival. In Egypt, a wooden idol representing a deity was carried round from temple to temple to signify that the gods were visiting one another, re-consecrating the shrines. The circulation of the idol had the additional purpose of describing a magic path of protection round the settlement. At Knossos, and the other Minoan centres, the priestesses sometimes functioned as manifestations of deities, so it is possible that they were conveyed round the temples, courtyards and roads of the Minoan townships, bonding temple and town, goddess and people, and conferring divine protection to whole towns. The so-called ‘Royal Road’ connecting the Bull’s Head Sanctuary with the main temple-complex at Knossos comes to mind as a natural route for a palanquin procession of this type; we can visualize the goddess returning on her litter to the Labyrinth, to be formally greeted and welcomed home in the Theatral Area.

Whatever the specifics of the situation, Jacquetta Hawkes is right in seeing the Minoan civilization as gaining much of its distinctive colour from qualities that we often think of as feminine. Attempts to explain this are fraught with difficulties. It could be argued that it happened because the original colonizers of Crete managed to settle there without fighting for it and without having to defend it subsequently, it being a large and isolated island remote from the mainland. But facile explanations that hinge on environmental determinism cannot seriously be entertained any longer; cultures somehow generate their own energies and characteristics, and often the links with external situations, factors and events are unclear. It is quite possible, as we have already seen, that the Minoans were aesthetes who were also capable of military aggression and violence.

After only a century of research, we still know far too little about the culture to be able to explain all its characteristics. Perhaps, in the end, it will prove more fruitful to return to the Jungian idea of a nation awakening to an archetype residing in the collective unconscious of its people. Under the right conditions, whatever they might be, the kraken wakes, and the whole nation may be swept along in the grip of the unleashed archetype. Perhaps we should see the Minoan civilization as a whole symbolized in the Isopata Ring: a group of opulently dressed and bejewelled priestesses dancing ecstatically to produce an epiphany, willing themselves to be possessed by the goddess who hovers in the air among them.

The Minoans were above all creative and original people, fiercely life-affirming and devoted to the worship of their many goddesses and gods. From the evidence so far gathered, their attention was finely divided between economic production, trade, bureaucratic regulation and the preservation of their material well-being on the one hand, and devotion to a complex and demanding religious creed requiring festivals, sacrifices and the building of temples and shrines on the other. There are great gaps in our knowledge of the Minoans, and we have to be ready to modify our view of them in the light of new archaeological discoveries. Minoan archaeology is still excitingly young and we can be sure that many new and unexpected things remain to be learned about this remarkable civilization.

Its most disappointing feature is the absence of literature. Tantalizingly, in spite of the several scripts which evolved during the bronze age in Crete, not one of them, on the available evidence, seems to have been utilized to record thought. There are lists of places, of people, of amounts of commodities, of deities even, yet no comment on any of them. But perhaps some tablets will one day be found that will tell us of some event, an account of a military expedition perhaps, or an invocation to Potnia, or a fragment of bardic poetry. It may be that the Minoans never used their scripts for such purposes, but we should keep an open mind. We have, after all, come very close indeed to losing the literature in classical Greek; only six epics have survived to us out of what may originally have been scores - only forty-five plays out of thousands. Let us hope that somewhere in Crete, perhaps buried among the rubbled foundations of some yet undiscovered and unplundered temple, there is a cache of Minoan poetry, history, or liturgy waiting for us.

The fourth-century BC Athenian orator Isocrates wrote a panegyric on what it meant to be Greek (Panegyricus, 47). It would perhaps be asking too much to hope for a Linear B tablet telling us what it meant to be Minoan - which is what we most want to know. But we are nearer to knowing. The conclusive evidence of boy-sacrifice from the Temple of Anemospilia gives some depth to the picture, some of the shadow side that was previously missing. The circumstantial evidence of opium-taking explains the vividness of the Minoans’ religious experiences, their ecstatic and bizarre visions, their daemons, and may go a long way towards explaining the extraordinary architecture of their huge temples. The Minoans were sensual aesthetes and visionaries with bloodstained hands, and possessed of a much fiercer, darker, grimmer and more exotic beauty than we hitherto imagined.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!