Cretan Musings

A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year at her home in Crete, researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there. In this contribution she writes about: Minoan contact and influence

We sometimes think of the Minoan civilisation as being complete unto itself. After all, it seems to have had everything it needed: a rich vibrant culture, an egaliterian peace-loving structure, and a Goddess-celebrating and nurturing society, in which all citizens’ contributions were valued and honoured The civilisation itself encourages this view. It has left a legacy so rich in beautiful creative objects, so advanced in the architecture of its ‘palaces’, temples and villas, and so assured in its ceremonial practices and rituals, that, seen through the lens of time, Crete seems to float in an azure sea of peace, harmony & completeness.

But while all or some of the above may indeed be true, it would be wrong to think of the Minoan people as being isolated from the rest of the Meditteranean and the near East. From the very earliest Pre-Palatial period [3300-1900 BCE], Crete had contacts with other parts of the Aegean which were already flourishing, like the Cyclades and the NE Aegean. Many of the pottery shapes shapes of this period are the same as those found in Poliochni, Troy and Samos. The same technical advances (burnishing, painted decoration, and incision) can be found in all four Aegean cultural areas (Minoan, Cycladic, Helladic & NE Aegean).

Cycladic-style Goddess found at Phourni on Crete

At the cemetery of Phourni near Archanes on Crete the earliest tombs date back to 2400 BCE, and are larger versions of those found in the Cyclades. In Tholos Tomb C was found precious jewellry, and 15 figurines which came from the Cyclades, the most important of which depicts a Goddess in ivory [photo above].

Susanna Hoe in her book Crete: Women, History, Books & Places [Holo Books, 2005] comments: “They are unique because usually such figurines were probably broken on purpose as offerings during tomb cult rituals”.

There is evidence of other cultural contacts between Minoan Crete and the Cyclades. Some pots exported from Crete have been found in the Cyclades, where Cycladic pottery exercised a strong influence on Minoan styles. A good example are the bird-shaped vases that occur at the same time in Crete, Cyprus, the NE Aegean and Asia Minor. There must have been extensive cultural exchange between all these regions.

Minoan woman/Goddess figurine found at Peak Sanctuary of Petsophas

By the end of the PrePalatial period in Crete, large settlements had begun to grow in places such as Vasiliki, Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and others. However, on the mainland the reverse was happening, with a period of unrest and cultural decline, due to the movements of various peoples through the Near and Middle East. As a more isolated island, Crete escaped most of this, and the culture and people thrived for the Proto-Palatial period [1900-1700 BCE]. Furthermore, the Cretan theocracy established relations with the Syro-Phoenician coast and Egypt, where imported Minoan objects have been found. Crete traded with Cyprus, from where they obtained copper for the making of bronze, and on at least two islands in the Cyclades, Milos and Kythera, they established colonies, which soon became prosperous towns. Although such Minoan colonies would doubtless have been Goddess-celebrating, special to Crete were the clay figurines of women/Goddesses and animals that were made to be placed as offerings in the peak sanctuaries, denoting worship of Mother Earth and the Mistress of the Animals. [see above].

In about 1700 BCE on Crete, many of the first temple palaces were destroyed in an earthquake, but were rebuilt more splendidly on the same sites. This Neo-Palatial period [1700-1350 BCE] saw the full flowering of Minoan culture and the expansion of its colonies on the Greek mainland, and in the islands of south-central Aegean, the coast of Asia Minor, and the eastern Mediterranean countries. Thera (Santorini) [1], Kythera [2], Milos [3], Rhodes [4], Kea [5], Aegina [6], Skopelos [7], Kos [8], Karpathos [9] and Amorgos [10] became centres for the dissemination of Minoan culture and trading stations for Minoan commerce.

The most important, and intriguing, of the Minoan ‘colonies’ were on Kythera to the NW of Crete, and on Thera (Santorini), Crete’s neighbouring island to the north. Kythera formed a link between Crete and mainland Greece, and was the point from which Minoan influence spread to the south Peloponnese. Excavations on this island have revealed an important settlement, with rock-cut chambered tombs of Minoan style, as well as an important peak sanctuary, in which a large number of bronze figurines were deposited. In mythology Kythera was the birthplace of Aphrodite from a scallop shell, and remains of a temple to her can be found on the island. It is possible that she was an original Minoan Goddess whose worship was brought from Crete.

On Santorini, 100km/70mls north of Crete, a full-scale Minoan town Akrotiri has been excavated, complete with Neo-Palatial style wall frescoes and Linear A script. The town was destroyed and buried under 30m/98ft of pumice in about 1650-1600BCE, when the volcano Thera erupted, the greatest explosion ever known to humankind, The centre of the island disappeared beneath the waves, leaving the caldera that is now covered by the sea. Some commentators have suggested that Thera was no mere colony or outpost to Crete, but was in fact the Minoan centre of both islands.

Whatever the truth of the relationship between the two islands, we should perhaps not just think of Crete when we think of the Minoans, but of Thera (Santorini) as well.

As well as the Minoan outposts, settlements and colonies, the exchange of products continued between Crete and other countries, such as Egypt, the Lipari islands off Sicily, Syria, the Middle East, and Cypus, where Cretan vases have been found, Minoan rock-cut tombs excavated, and Linear A script discovered. Crete was importing raw materials, such as copper and tin, and exporting beautiful Minoan arefacts. By now the Myceneans were firmly established on the Greek mainland, so there must have been extensive Minoan-Mycenean contact. The old theoretical model that saw the peaceful matrifocal Minoans conquered by the warmongering patriarchal Myceneans has now been largely discounted. During this period of contact, there is no evidence of the Myceneans attacking Crete, and indeed, when they did eventually come to the island, they seem to have brought or absorbed their own version of the Minoan Goddess. So it may well be that during this Neo-Palatial period, Minoan Goddess-inspired artefacts and iconography could easily have influenced their Mycenean neighbours. Such Minoan examples have certainly been found at Mycenea on the mainland.

Jug from Neo-Palatial period (found at Aghyia Triada)

So who were these special people, the Minoans? They must have had many affinities with their neighbours in the Cyclades, but they were clearly thought of as being a different race of people. A wall painting on an Egyptian tomb at Thebes, dating from 1520-1420 BCE, shows various foreign emissaries coming to give tribute and gifts. Amongst these are shown the ‘Keftiu’, who from their appearance can be confidentally assigned to Minoan Crete. In the tomb of Rekhmire they are named as being “from the land of Keftiu and the islands of the Green Sea”. Among the offerings the Cretans bring are: rolls of cloth, ingots, palace amphorae, elaborate metal vases, tall fluted and engraved jars of gold and silver, cups inlaid with silver, and bulls’ head rhytons, all desirable and valuable Minoan gifts. The vases are depicted with such accuracy that archaeologists can easily date them as being from the Late Minoan 1A period [1550-1500 BCE]. The Minoans were still clearly a well-respected and important people at this time.

Wall painting from Thebes showing the Keftiu (Minoan) people

Wall painting from Thebes showing the Keftiu (Minoan) people

Goddesses with upraised arms from Post Palatial period

However, all this was to come to an end after the great conflageration that swept the island in 1450 BCE, destroying most of its towns, temple palaces and dwellings. Knossos was partially rebuilt after the conflageration, but most of the rest were abandoned. The causes of the fires are still not completely understood, and they may have been accidental or deliberate. But the result was that a society weakened first by earthquakes, then by the mega-eruption of Thera in about 1650-1600 BCE, and finally by the fires of 1450 BCE, was in no position to resist an invasion by Myceneans from the mainland, ushering in the Post Palatial period on Crete [1450-1100 BCE]. This Mycenean-Minoan cultural mix was not a cultural genocide for the Minoans, but the styles of the pottery and artefacts did change, and characteristic of this period are the large Goddesses with upraised arms, which seem to be a new religious and cultural phenomenum, different from either the Cretan Minoan or mainland Mycenean styles that had gone before.

Although Crete now embarked on a new course of its history, nevertheless it maintained friendly relations with the outside world, including the Greek mainland from where the Myceneans had originated, as well as Karpathos, Rhodes, Cyprus and Egypt.

And it is here that we must leave the story – until a future article follows the thread of the last days of the Minoans. But we have come far enough to have seen that throughout its two and a half thousand year Bronze Age existence, from the Early to the Late Minoan [3500-1100 BCE], Minoan Crete was neither insular nor a dominating colonial force. It seems to have achieved that rare thing in the history of nations and civilisations: a powerful and self-sufficient Goddess-celebrating culture, that spread its ideas and artefacts and influence by peaceful and co-operative means, and not by warfare and conquest. Minoan Crete still has lessons for us today.