Roots of Minoan Culture

  February 23, 2022   Read time 3 min
Roots of Minoan Culture
Archaeology has also provided evidence of the Minoan religious world, though this does not, perhaps, take us very far since we have no texts. We have representations of gods and goddesses, but it is not easy to be sure who they are.

Nor can we much penetrate their rituals, beyond registering the frequency of sacrificial altars, sanctuaries in high places, double-headed axes, and the apparent centring of Minoan cults in a female fi gure (though her relationship to other deities remains a mystery). She is perhaps a Neolithic fertility figure, such as was to appear again and again as the embodiment of female sexuality: the later Astarte and Aphrodite. The political arrangements of this society are obscure. The palace was not only a royal residence, but in some sense an economic centre – a great store – which may perhaps best be understood as the apex of an advanced form of exchange based on redistribution by the ruler.

The palace was also a temple, but not a fortress. In its maturity it was the centre of a highly organized structure whose inspiration may have been Asian; knowledge of the literate empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia was available to a trading people. One source of our knowledge of what Minoan government was trying to do is a huge collection of thousands of tablets which are its administrative records. They indicate rigid hierarchy and systematized administration, but not how this worked in practice. However effective government was, the only thing the records certainly show is what it aspired to: a supervision far closer and more elaborate than anything conceivable by the later Greek world. If there are any analogies, they are again with the Asian empires and Egypt.

Successful invasion from the European mainland would itself have been a sign that the conditions which had made this civilization possible were crumbling away in the troubled times of the closing Bronze Age. Crete for a long time had no rival to threaten her coasts. Perhaps the Egyptians had been too busy; in the north there had long been no possible threat. Gradually, the second of these conditions had ceased to hold. Stirring on the mainland were others of those ‘Indo-European’ peoples who have already cropped up in so many places in this story. Some of them penetrated Crete again after the fi nal collapse of Knossos; they were apparently successful colonists who exploited the lowlands and drove away the Minoans and their shattered culture to lonely little towns of refuge where they disappear from the stage of world history.

Ironically, only two or three centuries before this, Cretan culture had exercised something like hegemony in Greece, and Crete was always to hang about mysteriously at the back of the Greek mind, a lost and golden land. A direct transfusion of Minoan culture to the mainland had taken place through the fi rst Achaean peoples (the name usually given to these early Greek-speakers) who came down into Attica and the Peloponnese and established towns and cities there in the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries BC . They entered a land long in contact with Asia, whose inhabitants had already contributed to the future one enduring symbol of Greek life, the fortifi cation of the high place of the town, or acropolis.

The new arrivals were culturally hardly superior to those they conquered, though they brought with them the horse and war-chariot. They were barbarians by comparison with the Cretans, with no art of their own. More aware of the role of violence and war in society than were the islanders (no doubt because they did not enjoy the protection of the sea and had a sense of continuing pressure from the homelands from which they had come), they fortifi ed their cities heavily and built castles. Their civilization had a military style. Sometimes they picked sites which were to be the later centres of Greek city-states; Athens and Pylos were among them. They were not very large, the biggest containing at most not more than a few thousand people. One of the most important was at Mycenae, which gave its name to the civilization that fi nally spread over Bronze Age Greece in the middle of the second millennium.