The Minoan civilization of ancient Crete has long fascinated historians and students of history. As early as about 4000 years ago, the Minoans already had a thriving culture with major commercial, esthetic, and technological accomplishments, unparalleled virtually anywhere else in the world of their time. Some have even speculated that the Greek legend of the ultra-advanced ancient city of Atlantis was based on knowledge, passed down through the ages, of the accomplishments of Minoan Crete.
This essay will examine key aspects of Minoan life and culture. We begin by looking at this civilization’s emergence and the kind of geographical environment in which it came to be. We then continue the examination of the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete by discussing the Minoan economy and government – both of which were remarkably advanced for their time and allowed the Minoans a then unparalleled degree of liberty and prosperity. We proceed to discuss this culture’s religious, esthetic, and technological aspects, the athletic activities common in Minoan Crete, and the manner in which this remarkable ancient civilization met its end.
Beginnings of the Minoan Culture
The site of Knossos, the capital of ancient Crete, possessed discernible human influences from as early as 7000 BC. The beginning of intense development can be detected at about 3000 BC.
The Minoans originated in Asia Minor and spoke a language not related to the Indo-European group. The interpretation of their scripts and any manner of their phonetics are lost to us, although Myceneans and later Greeks may have borrowed certain Minoan aspects of speech.
Centralization of government was gradually instituted with the construction of the first Palace in Knossos at about 2000 BC.
When population reached levels exceeding the available food supplies, migrations to neighboring islands were required to extend the accessible arable territory. Need of a navy also arose for purposes of transportation as well as commerce with other Mediterranean cultures for the acquisition of food and other raw goods.
Geography of Crete
Crete, a large island in the Mediterranean, lies halfway between Asia Minor and Greece, granting it a central spot in numerous ancient trade routes on the sea.
During the earliest days of its development, Crete was free from invasions, since no civilization had yet developed a sufficiently massive and functional navy to mount an expedition. This permitted relatively calm development, where resources could be employed for technological advancement and the arts rather than frequent warfare, subsistence, and repairs. The Minoans as a result created few defensive structures and no standing army, since the necessity for these was not present.
Crete possesses a temperate climate and highly productive soil. Large families were common, as demonstrated by houses of four to six rooms for even the poorest dwellers within the realm. Evidently, the frequent agricultural surpluses resulted in rapid population growth and hence the need for expansion and trade.
The primary vehicles of the Minoan economy were mercantile ships also equipped with armaments. They conducted journeys to mainland Greece, Asia Minor, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Palestine. From there they imported basic resources such as additional food to maintain a constantly increasing population.
Minoans exported refined goods, such as jewelry, wine, oil, and artwork, for Crete was home to numerous skilled craftsmen and specialists.
Present hypotheses concerning the identity of numerous Minoan documents hint at a purpose of recording commercial transactions. It is known that accuracy and calculation were valued in conducting economic deals.
Trade was centralized and commissioned by the King, whose extensive network of bureaucrats would implement detailed designs and analyze the results. Because of Crete’s small size and relatively small population, it was possible for the monarch to govern the country in a similar way to the management of a modern corporation. Nevertheless, the government did not neglect the people, and there is evidence of even the lower classes enjoying imported goods. The distribution may not have been even, yet the differences between wealth and poverty were substantially smaller than in any other contemporary culture.
Crete was ruled by a monarch from the central palace of Knossos. The first ruler (and the only one whose name is known) was the legendary King Minos, described by later Greeks as being the son of Zeus and appointed by the chief deity to reign over the island.
The monarchy, however, was far from a totalitarian regime. Historian Richard Hooker describes the role of the King as a “chief entrepreneur or CEO” rather than a dictator. Numerous administrative decisions were shared by a priesthood (which was mainly female) and an immense network of bureaucrats and scribes. This semi-meritocracy was one of the most civil regimes of its time, remarkable for its lack of rigid caste structures and barriers to individual socioeconomic advancement.
Evidence suggests that the people of Crete were permitted a large degree of liberty, and no gender inequalities existed. Cretans are anomalous in that respect, having avoided the negative impacts of late Neolithic societies upon women and the poor. Perhaps this is due to the fact that their relative tranquility placed a smaller need on a strong military and a subservient workforce. Thus patriarchy and a rule of warlords never developed.
The Minoans had a matriarchal religion in which no male gods were detectable.
Cretan religion orients itself around animals, and numerous deities seem to possess a central emphasis on them. For example, “The Huntress” represents human attempts for mastery over other creatures, while “The Mountain Mother”, a diametric opposite, attempts to preserve a natural setting for animals. A popular household goddess was portrayed as entangled in snakes throughout her organism. Other goddesses possessed exteriors of birds, most notably doves.
The Minoans worshipped trees, rocks, and springs in a semi-Animist manner.
Evil figures in Minoan religion are represented as human demons with the limbs of lions and other carnivores.
Art, Architecture, and Technology
The most renowned of the palaces in Knossos was the four-story Labyrinth, the chief palace of the King in existence from 2000 to 1350 BC. Its extraordinary abundance of rooms served as a basis for legends of foreigners, such as mainland Greeks, who perceived it as a maze in which it would be humanly impossible to remember one’s way. In reality, however, it was not the crude dwelling of the Minotaur that myths describe it to be. It possessed numerous places of worship, workshops, lavish banquet halls, and a grand courtyard in the center, surrounded by four sections. This palace was destroyed and rebuilt numerous times, in 1700 BC, and later by an earthquake in 1600 BC. The eruption of the Santorini volcano in 1450 BC was its greatest catastrophe, although it was restored once more by conquering Greeks. However, it fell into neglect and disrepair as Crete lost its political value around 1380 BC. This monumental work is thought to have been designed by the legendary architect and scientist Daidalus, the father of Icarus.
Minoan art seems to have been separated from mundane tasks and duties and oriented toward a purely aesthetic purpose. Numerous wall murals in palatial complexes within Knossos illustrate scenes from the animal world and everyday life, common in depiction but detached from practicality. The objects portrayed were often trivial and superficial, and there is no moral or political aim discernible in the works. Art was instead developed “for art’s sake”.
Minoan cities possessed plumbing and sanitation systems reaching into the confines of every home. The exact means by which they realized this was, unfortunately, lost following their decline and not recovered until 17th century Europeans had again attained this skill.
The renowned sport of ancient Crete, open to both genders and subjecting all to the same standards, was bull leaping. This was a dangerous pastime, but harmless and humane to the athlete and the animal if performed with skill. A bull would be released to charge toward the jumper. Once it was in sufficient proximity, the performer would attach his hands to the bull’s horns and vault onto the creature’s back. Another common objective was to somersault from such a position to a state of standing on a spot of land directly behind the bull.
Boxing was also a favorite activity, as portrayed in numerous wall murals. The precise regulations are unknown, but this is perhaps a source of inspiration for later Greeks, who adapted the sport to the Olympic Games.
Fate of the Civilization
The Minoans’ isolation from foreign threats caused them to maintain feeble frontiers, and gradually mainland powers such as Mycenae developed, with the fleet and army to overcome them.
The task of conquest was perhaps lightened for the Myceneans by the explosion of the Santorini volcano, four or five times more massive than the cataclysmic eruption of Krakatoa in 1888. This, along with a similar catastrophe on a nearby island from the volcano Thera, inflicted devastating blows upon Crete’s population and economy, crippling it and rendering it susceptible to invasion.
Under Achaean occupation, Knossos gradually withered away into an insignificant village, the cultural level of the Myceneans being too primitive to maintain the complexities of the civilization which they had conquered.
Nevertheless, evidence suggests that Cretan script was somewhat adopted by the occupants. Elements of Linear A, the original (and yet un-decoded) alphabet of the Minoans, have been spotted in Linear B, the early writing of the Myceneans.
Myths maintained a memory of this civilization in such fascinating works as the tale of Theseus and his struggle against the Minotaur for over 3000 years. Only between 1900 and 1931, during the extensive excavations conducted by archaeologist Arthur Evans, did details begin to surface about the true identity of this culture. Archaeologists and historians discovered a humane and prosperous society that existed during a relatively savage time, a society that provided many of the early foundations of Western civilization.
Hooker, Richard. “The Palace Civilizations of the Aegean.” http://richard-hooker.com/sites/worldcultures/MINOA/MINOANS.HTM
Iraklion Museum. “City of Knossos: The Palace of King Minos.” http://www.dilos.com/region/crete/kn_01.html.