These days deep emotions seem to burst forth at unexpected moments.
While in the car between visiting a pumpkin farm owned by friends and the local cider mill, I decided to pull out a crumpled paper with my brief presentation on the history of Crete. “Does anybody want to hear a story?” I asked my captive audience of one of my best friends and her three boys. “Yes!” As the fall foliage whirled by, I started reading, thinking that attention would wander soon, and I’d put it away. To my surprise the boys wanted me to keep reading and even asked that I continue the story when we returned to the car after a break to feed ducks.
When I finished, the youngest boy exclaimed “that was the best story I’ve ever heard!” I was thrilled I had related it in a way that he enjoyed so much and recognized in his giddy exclamation that mysterious emotional pull of the story of Crete that seemed to reach into his soul. Later he said to me as we watched the moon together, “you have to finish that story and add more about hope and the positive.” I told him, “The hope is in those who hear this story and others like it and strive to create a better world.”
So would you like to hear a story?
Many years ago, there was an ancient Minoan civilization on the Greek island of Crete that predated our most common ideas of what ancient Greece was like …
Before Plato, Aristotle, the Acropolis, before Alexander, before the Trojan War, before the Spartans … There was a civilization like no other on Crete, the largest of Greek islands floating self-sufficiently in a world between Southern Europe and Northern Africa; it was a sea-faring trading culture. Four thousand years ago, small agricultural villages began to build “sacred centers,” usually called “palace structures.” Their demise remains a highly contested mystery. The values of ancient Crete were similar to many indigenous cultures and traditions — like the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois: reverence for all animal and plant species and a sense of the collective nature of existence.
This is very different from the art and depictions that come later on the Greek mainland where heroes conquer nine-faced serpents and perform seemingly impossible tasks for Gods and Goddesses who have a complicated relationship with human beings. The very name of Europe comes from Europa who was a young maiden lured away from her home in Phoenecia and brought to Crete on a bull as part of a trick devised by Zeus. These myths come from a time when domination over nature is held as key: it is THE story that unfolds on the narrative images of the Acropolis in Athens. So what came before on this mysterious island of Crete?
The Minoans. Their culture was different from what comes afterwards. Their sacred centers were dedicated to political, artistic, and cultural events. Their sense of the sacred blended into daily activities. They viewed life itself as sacred. There was a redistribution or sharing of goods and food at these sites, so no one was hungry or had to go without. There is very little indication of fortification and weapons, especially compared to the civilizations to come such as the Mycenaean Greeks. Minoan art depicts women in positions of power—as priestesses with arms upraised in ecstatic states and often naked to the waist without fear. Men are shown singing as they come home from the harvest, there are vases showing marine life in joyful states and smiling dogs made of clay. When you walk through the museum you think — wow, these people knew how to have a good time. They seem happy to be alive. They lived in harmony with nature.
Their frescoes depict bull-leaping games. (Yes, I am talking about a person leaping through the horns of a bovine creature.) This is in stark contrast to a focus on violence to animals such as bull-fighting and sacrifice that are depicted in civilizations following the Minoans. The Minoan frescoes show male and female figures grabbing the bull by the horns, and vaulting through them doing a somersault. Bull-leaping could have been an ecstatic and sacred sport for the younger generation or a type of initiation.
What makes the ancient Minoan culture different from the ones that follow it — from the ones that we are more familiar with in popular culture and academia? Let me give you an 8 WORD SUMMARY: female representation, less violence, no slavery, shared resources.
So back to what happened to them. It’s mysterious. We know from excavations there was an immense catastrophic volcanic event on ancient Thera (now called Santorini). This weakened the Minoan culture. The arrival of the Mycenaeans from mainland Greece led to a relatively brief intermingling of cultures. In Mycenean art we see scenes depicting male heroes conquering nature, women as victims, and violence against animals. After a few hundred years, the Mycenaean rule ended. People retreated into the mountains and Greece entered into a period known as the dark ages that lasted for about 500 years. After this came Homer and the well-known philosophers of Greece.
Are there traces of the Minoan world view in our culture? And why should we care about the Minoans and Crete?
The answer is simple: the hope is in us.
Elizabeth Chloe Erdmann is an upstate theorist with an expertise on “Nomadic Theology.”