Flowering of Minoan Civilization Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The flowering of the Minoan civilization established the foundations of Mediterranean mythologies, religious practices, and social organization that influenced classical Greek societies.

Summary of Event

The ancient Greeks of the fourth and fifth centuries b.c.e. inherited legendary accounts of a wealthy, powerful civilization located on the Mediterranean island of Crete. Minos was supposedly the ruler of a thalassocracy (sea-empire) that controlled much of Aegean and mainland Greece in prehistoric times. According to Greek mythology, Minos was semidivine: He was the son of Zeus, ruler of the gods, and Europa, a Phoenician princess. Minos was remarkable for his justice as well as his power.

The Minos legend suggested deep historical roots to classical Greek civilization; but the Minoan civilization named after him remained legendary until 1900. Inspired by the discoveries of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy in the late 1800’s and Mycenae, Sir Arthur Evans began to excavate at Knossos. His findings were astonishing and revolutionary. They initiated an ongoing process of revision and reevaluation of classical, Western, and finally world history.

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Evans was deeply impressed by the Minos legend. An important part of that legend said that there was a vast labyrinth at Knossos, built by Minos to imprison the mythological Minotaur (a creature which was half-man, half-bull). As Evans excavated, the legend seemed to be confirmed. He unearthed the remains of a multistory building that, on the ground floor, covered roughly 5 acres (2 hectares). The plan of the building was labyrinthine, with intricate corridors and hundreds of rooms arranged around a central court which seemed perfect for containing the Minotaur. Stone building blocks and various artifacts were found marked with the labrys, the double-ax, thus making the labyrinth the “house of the double-ax.” A vivid fresco depicting male and female acrobats leaping over a powerful, noble bull seemed to refer to Athenian youths and maidens sacrificed as tribute to Minos the Overlord.

As Evans uncovered the ruins and their contents, he believed that he had found the Palace of Minos—that is, the political and administrative headquarters of a powerful monarch who ruled over all or most of Crete, many of the neighboring islands, and portions of the Greek mainland. He interpreted and named sections and rooms accordingly: the Royal Road, the North-West Treasure House, the Royal Magazines, the Corridor of the Procession, the Throne Room, the Central Court, the Hall of the Double-Axes, and the Queen’s Toilet (the Minoans invented indoor plumbing, although the technology was lost with the collapse of their civilization). Because virtually all major findings were in ruins or incomplete, Evans and his assistants reconstructed them as they imagined parts of the great palace might have looked.

As the work continued, two facts became evident. The first was the great length of prehistoric human habitation at Knossos. Evans uncovered about 40 feet (12 meters) of human debris, roughly one-half of it from the Minoan period (c. 3000-1150 b.c.e.), one-half from the Neolithic period (6100-3000 b.c.e.). The Palace of Minos was built on the ruins of a prior, probably somewhat smaller, palace, itself built on the ruins of many layers of earlier Minoan and Neolithic buildings. To the extent to which the roots of classical Greek (and thus Western) civilization are Minoan, they are deep in the Cretan soil.

The second fact implied a similar conclusion about deep roots—now religious—in the earth. Classical Greek religion, like classical Greek society, was masculine, competitive, and oriented toward war. Characteristically, Zeus is depicted wielding his mighty thunderbolt: The Olympian gods are perpetually fighting, either among themselves or in human affairs. Minos as sea emperor fit easily into this scheme of male conquest and domination. Yet the hundreds and then thousands of artifacts—wall and vase paintings, cups, signet rings, cylinder seals and seal stones, jewelry items, rhytons (ritual vessels), and votive offerings—found by Evans and later investigators did not fit this male-warrior picture. They suggested a Minoan religion and civilization of nearly opposite character.

A fundamental insight on religion is offered by the palace itself (and other, smaller palaces subsequently excavated at Phaistos, Mallia, Agia Triada and Zakros on Crete). Unlike mainland palaces, those on Crete had no defensive walls. The obvious implication is a peaceful society; the less obvious one is a society open to nature. Detailed archaeological evidence supports this latter view. The Minoans appear to have loved all aspects of nature—birds, animals, dolphins, fish, bees, flowers, trees and, interestingly, snakes. Aside from the labyrinth itself, the single most famous symbol of Minoan civilization is the figurine of a bare-breasted goddess holding snakes in each hand.

Evans himself was fully aware of the sacred character of many of his findings. However, his view that the palace was the residence of priest-kings has been substantially amended. Archaeological evidence, combined with some documentary evidence from the Linear B tablets (inscribed with an early form of Greek), indicate that the Minoans worshiped and sacrificed to a goddess. The goddess may have taken a number of forms and been attended by one or more younger gods. Nonetheless, at the center of Minoan religion was Potnia (or the Lady). She was the prehistoric Cretan version of the Great Earth/Mother Goddess of Old Europe (7000-3500 b.c.e.). This powerful female deity was understood to be the source of all life and the force behind the annual regeneration of nature.

The place of women in Cretan society paralleled the importance of the goddess. They appear, from graphic representations, to have been at least equal to men. They figured prominently in palace life at Knossos, probably not directly as rulers but as priestesses. It has been suggested that a high priestess impersonated the goddess, who was thus physically present as the lady of the labyrinth.

These considerations suggest that the Palace of Minos was more likely the abode of Potnia. Scholars of Minoan civilization have suggested a number of redesignations for the palace—perhaps it was a temple-palace, or a cult-center, or a temple. Even these names, however, may be misleading, since they imply a specialization of activities into religious, political, administrative, and so forth. Western civilization has inherited this orientation from the classical Greeks. What seems unique about Minoan civilization is that it was leisured, sophisticated, and (relatively) equalitarian, yet viewed life from the perspective of the wholeness of nature. Like the labyrinth, it remained close to the earth.

It is no small irony, then, that the civilization of the earth-worshiping Minoans was very probably ended by the earth. Crete lies in a geologically unstable area and is subject to frequent and severe earthquakes. The Old Palace at Knossos was probably destroyed by an earthquake around 1700 b.c.e. It was rebuilt as the New Palace—excavated by Evans—along the same lines but on a somewhat grander scale. It was in and around this structure, be it termed palace or temple, that Minoan civilization reached its fullest development.

Very much remains uncertain about this “flowering.” It is traditionally dated 1700-1450 b.c.e., with the “bloom” of the flowering being 1600-1500. The period 1500-1450 had been thought to correspond to the Thera disaster, when an island 75 miles (121 kilometers) north of Knossos was blown literally to pieces by volcanic eruption. The resulting shock waves, tsunamis, and volcanic fallout, probably combined with local earthquakes, severely damaged Knossos. It has been suggested that this ecological catastrophe forms the historic kernel of the Greek philosopher Plato’s myth of Atlantis. Yet considerable scientific evidence indicates a date of 1628 b.c.e. for the Thera eruption, thus raising the “flowering” by roughly a century.

Significance

It is clear that, at its height, Minoan civilization was a fruitful blending of cultures. Mainland peoples—certainly Mycenaeans, perhaps Luwians from Anatolia and Hyksos from Egypt—mingled with the Cretans, who themselves traveled throughout the eastern Mediterranean. The character of this intercourse is less clear. Did the Minoans colonize and dominate? Were they invaded and conquered? Did both patterns occur, giving rise to ambiguous legends of a “Minos” both powerful and just? Or, was the blending not only peaceful but divine, presided over by a great goddess of nature who nurtured the infant Zeus? Did belief in that Earth Goddess dissipate as the earth repeatedly quaked and destroyed? There are no final answers; Minoan civilization continues to intrigue.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleden, Rodney. Atlantis Destroyed. Reprint. New York: Routledge, 2001. Presents the evidence for the theory that Minoan civilization provided the paradigm for Atlantis. Includes a bibliography and an appendix summarizing the controversies over the dating of the eruption of Thera.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Castleden, Rodney. The Knossos Labyrinth. London: Routledge, 1990. An engaging and often persuasive reinterpretation of the labyrinth as “temple.” Castleden stresses the extent of Evans’s physical and conceptual reconstruction.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadwick, John. The Decipherment of Linear B. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Chadwick, the codecipherer of Linear B along with Michael Ventris, provides a narrative of the process by which the script was cracked and an overview of the Minoan and Mycenean worlds it revealed.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chadwick, John, et al. Corpus of Mycenean Inscriptions from Knossos. 4 vols. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998-1999. Presents thirty years work of translating the entire body of inscriptions in Linear B. Although highly academic, this is the unmediated voice of the Minoans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenean Art. 2d rev. ed. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1997. An abundantly illustrated volume that presents every significant piece of Minoan art known to date. Includes maps and bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Macgillivray, Joseph Alexander. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang, 2000. A reassessment of the subjective factors in Evans’s reconstruction of Minoan Crete; in the process, provides an overview of contemporary theories about Minoan culture.
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    xlink:type="simple">Marinatos, Nanno. Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image, and Symbol. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. The author reconstructs Minoan religious ritual from archaeological evidence, concluding that Knossos was a “cult center.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Willetts, R. F. The Civilization of Ancient Crete. Reprint. Las Palmas, Spain: Adolf M. Hakkert, 1992. Perhaps the best single introduction to Minoan civilization, Willetts’s work is especially sensitive to problems of interpretation and the resultant controversies.

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