Chronicle 17. MINOAN CRETAN THALASSOCRACY
THE MINOAN CIVILIZATION, the crème de la crème of the Aegean cultures in the Bronze Age, arose on the island of Crete, flourished from the 27th to the 15th centuries BCE, and then vanished. It came to light again at the outset of the 20th century CE, thanks to the British archaeologist Arthur Evans. The term Minoan refers to the legendary Minos. We presume, on no evidence, that it was not a name but a royal title. In the Odyssey, composed centuries after the demise of the Minoans, Homer calls the natives of the island Eteocretans (“true Cretans”); most probably, they were true descendants of the Minoans. In addition, there were several settlements in the Aegean and the Ionian Seas, as well as in Sicily and Canaan, known by the name Minoa. The root min– appears in some Aegean languages, toponyms, and in the name of an autochthonous people inhabiting the Aegean, the Minyans.
We assume (again, on no evidence) that the Cretans were not Indo-Europeans, but a Mediterranean people, possibly related to the Pelasgians and the Minyans – the pre-Hellenic dwellers of the Aegean. Crete remained free from invasions for many centuries, and managed to develop an independent and very distinct civilization, one of the most advanced in the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age, together with that of Egypt. Linear A, the Minoan script, has not yet been deciphered – though it is similar to Linear B, the Mycenaean Hellenic script. It possibly represents an Aegean language, unrelated to Indo-European tongues. (On the Aegean, Crete, Minoans, Mycenaeans, sea voyages, etc. see Chronicle 3; on the Pelasgians, Minyans, Greeks see Chronicles 15 and 20).
“Crete was well placed in relation to sea trading routes”, observes Eugene Hirschfeld, writing on Grace in the Aegean: the art of the Minoans. “Thucydides wrote that Minos was the first to build a navy:
“‘The first person known to us by tradition as having established a navy is Minos. He made himself master of what is now called the Hellenic sea, and ruled over the Cyclades, into most of which he sent the first colonies… and thus did his best to put down piracy in those waters, a necessary step to secure the revenues for his own use’.”(a)
“With their merchant fleet,” says Hirschfeld, “the Minoans came to dominate the seas, sailing for hundreds of miles in search of trade from Spain in the west to Syria in the east…(b) It is possibly a measure of both the Minoans’ geographical isolation and the strength of their fleet that their coastal towns seem to have had few fortifications. Thus their period of ascendancy was called by Arthur Evans the Pax Minoica or ‘Minoan peace’ – a time when cities needed no walls.(c) Like Pax Romana, of course, such a peace, if it existed, would have been the product of military strength rather than pacifism.”
● The Minoan Cretans used celestial navigation. Besides, they surely had knowledge of astronomy: the palaces and mountaintop sanctuaries have architectural features that align with the rising sun on the equinoxes, as well as the rising and setting of particular stars. The Cretans voyaged to Thera, Egypt, Iberia… Such trips, even that one to Santorini, would have taken more than a day’s sail; thus the sailors would have been left travelling by night across open water. Then the sailors would use the locations of particular stars, especially those of the constellation Ursa Major, for their orientation. Written records of such navigation using the stars go back to Homer’s Odyssey, where Calypso tells Odysseus to keep the Bear (Ursa Major) on his left, and at the same time observe the position of the Pleiades, the late-setting Boötes and the Orion, as he sailed eastward from her Ogygia isle traversing the Ocean. Celestial navigation was as important as shipbuilding: the development of nautical know-how and technology was necessary for the expansion of the Mediterranean civilizations.
● This knowledge characterized all major navigating cultures. Before the Minoans and Mycenaeans, well before the Phoenicians, who were last in line, such a seafaring people covering long distances with their ships had been the Carians. According to Thucydides, it was largely the Carians who settled the Cyclades (and other Aegean islands) prior to the Cretans. The Minoan expansion during the Middle Bronze Age into this region seems to have come at their expense: they were pushed eastwards towards this area in Asia Minor called later Caria, and many turned to piracy as a way of life. Then Minos established his navy to control the Aegean and put down piracy. Ironically, the Carians did not find peace not even on the Asia Minor coast. Hellenic colonies in Doris and Ionia pushed them further into the hinterland, and those who started as seafarers ended up as land people (see the map).
One after the other, all the unique features of this marvelous civilization seem to arise from only one: the Minoans’ thalassocracy, their “geographical isolation and the strength of their fleet”, as Eugene Hirschfeld points out and explains in detail immediately afterwards:
“As a maritime trading civilization, it is unsurprising that the Minoans left us some beautiful fresco images of their ships, wooden sailing vessels superior to any others on the Mediterranean. Perhaps because of this fleet and the protecting seas, military images are unusual in Minoan art. Until the attacks by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BC, there is no real evidence that the Minoans fought wars with any other culture. This is in stark contrast to their contemporaries: the city states of Mesopotamia were constantly at war, celebrating their exploits on such works as the Stele of the Vultures, and Egypt covered tomb walls with images of military pomp. The Minoans preferred leisurely scenes or sports. They loved to decorate walls with murals of dolphins, flowers and fish. Their art has a grace, movement and exuberance distinct from the art of Egypt and Sumer, and… their craftsmanship is second to none.”
A cultural paradox: a great power without militarism; a palace that was
not a royal residence, neither the king was glorified; a religion with no
grandeur; while women were equal to men and free – or so it seems…
This civilization is really an astonishing paradox: a great power without a military aristocracy; a palace that was not a royal residence, and neither the anax (king) was glorified; a religion with no grandeur; while women were equal to men and free – or so it seems. Besides, free expression was a basic feature of Minoan art.
“The Minoans were skilled and sensitive architects, and the palaces count amongst their greatest works of art. The most famous is the palace at Knossos, often called the ‘Palace of Minos’. A multi-storey complex of corridors, rooms and staircases built around a central courtyard, the palace boasted impressive plumbing as well as lovely frescos, columns and gardens. Visitors found its ‘agglutinative’ architecture of over 1000 rooms so confusing that it is thought to have inspired the myth of the Minotaur’s Labyrinth. Knossos was an entire community, a centre for religion, pottery production and storage of trade goods, and a venue for festivals. For this reason the term ‘palace’ is not adequate for describing these Minoan complexes.”(d)
“Sitting at the apex of a trading empire, the Cretan kings were extremely wealthy. It is therefore interesting that they appear to have ordered no sculpture, memorials, king-lists or other works to boast of their power and status… We find nothing like the mighty monuments to the god-kings of Egypt. We have no record either of a king Minos or of any other named monarch, male or female… Historian R. F. Willetts has suggested that the apparent modesty of the Minoan aristocracy can be explained by a difference in religious emphasis: the Minoans did not seek to associate the king with the immortal gods, like the Egyptians or Mesopotamians, but worshiped a particular vision of nature. From this standpoint, images glorifying the king were unnecessary.”
“Women seem to have enjoyed higher status in Minoan culture than was usual in the Bronze Age and… served as administrators and priestesses… Women’s relative equality may be because of the absence of military threat, giving far less impetus to the development of a male warrior discourse and thus a greater role and respect for women. It is tempting when looking at images of young women somersaulting over bulls with the men to conclude that women enjoyed considerable freedom… As for religion, Minoan art provides us with faience figurines of a ‘snake goddess’, and frescos… on which women priests outnumber men. No images of male deities have been found from the peak of Minoan civilization. The apparent prominence of women in Minoan religion has led to conjecture that the principal deity or deities of Minoan Crete may have been female, e.g. an earth or mother goddess.”
What conclusions can we draw?
“The absence of battles, kings, boastful inscriptions and historical
events in Minoan art is surprising for the time.” (Eugene Hirschfeld)
“Minoan art does show a greater emphasis on spontaneity and invention, and is more secular and informal… less constrained by rigid conventions and geometry”, Eugene Hirschfeld remarks. “The absence of battles, kings, boastful inscriptions and historical events in its art is surprising for the time. We need to recognize such distinctions [but] without falling into the crude formulations sometimes used in the past, such as posing cultured Minoans against barbarous Mycenaeans.
“Arnold Hauser’s first explanation for the particular character of the Minoans’ art is the relatively modest role of religion in their society. Minoan shrines seem to have been small, even in the palaces, kept in people’s homes or built in out of the way places like hills and caves. There is nothing like the great cult of the dead seen in Egypt, or the grandiose works that went with it. There was therefore less impetus towards sternly imposed conventions. He also admires the urbanity of the cultural life that arose around the palaces:
“‘The freedom of Cretan art can be partly explained by the extraordinarily important role which city life and commerce played in the island’s economy… Probably city life was nowhere so highly developed as in Crete’.
“The ‘palace’ was the centre of Minoan life: of trade and agriculture, but also of art. It was perhaps this union of trade and culture in a context of long internal stability that gave Minoan art its urbane liveliness. Crete’s geopolitical situation may also have exerted an influence. With the natural protection of the sea and backed by their fleet, the Minoans had little need to fear invasion. In the absence of a warrior class, not only were women’s rights better than in most Bronze Age cultures, but art was less constrained by the military and religion.”
“It was perhaps this union of trade and culture in a context of long internal stability that gave Minoan art its urbane liveliness.” (Eugene Hirschfeld)
“It is very likely that writing arose in Minoan culture for the same reason it did in Sumer: to keep accounts”, adds Hirschfeld. “An early pictographic script… was replaced in around 1700 BC by one which represented sounds, i.e. a true alphabet, known as Linear A… It has still not been deciphered… If there is imaginative literature among these writings, we cannot read it. We have no Minoan poetry, no songs, no history, no scripture. It is a great culture, but a silent one… One of archaeology’s more mysterious objects is the Phaistos Disc… A fired clay disc, covered on both sides with spirals of stamped symbols… They belong to none of the writing systems mentioned above.”(e)
“We have no Minoan poetry, no songs, no history, no scripture. If
there is imaginative literature among these writings, we cannot
read it. It is a great culture, but a silent one.” (Eugene Hirschfeld)
MINOAN CULTURE’S INFLUENCE outside Crete manifests itself in the presence of Minoan handicrafts on the mainland of Greece. After around 1700 BCE, the material culture of the Hellenes achieved a new, higher, level due to Minoan influence. The connections between Crete and Egypt were prominent. Minoan wares were found there, while several Egyptian items were imported, especially papyrus, as well as artistic ideas. The Egyptian hieroglyphs served as a model for the Minoan pictographic writing, from which the Linear A writing system developed.
The Minoan palaces were later (late 15th – early 14th century) occupied by the Mycenaeans, who adapted the Minoan Linear A script to the needs of their own language, a form of Greek, which was written in Linear B. The Mycenaeans generally tended to adapt rather than destroy Cretan culture, religion, and art, and they continued to operate the Minoan economic system and bureaucracy. After about a century of partial recovery, most Cretan palaces and cities went into decline in the 13th century BCE. When the Bronze Age came crashing down some time later, Crete did not feel the agony of death…
The Minoans were traders, and their cultural contacts reached far beyond Crete – to copper-bearing Cyprus and Asia Minor (or Anatolia), Egypt and Canaan (the Levant), the Balkans and the Black Sea area, mainly Colchis (Georgia–Abkhazia), Mesopotamia, even faraway Afghanistan. Paintings in Thebes, Egypt, from the 15th century BCE, depict a number of Minoans bearing gifts. Inscriptions record these people as coming from the “islands in the midst of the sea”, and may refer to gift-bringing merchants or officials from Crete. Minoan techniques and styles in ceramics also provided models for Helladic Greece. Along with Thera, Cretan ‘colonies’ can be found on Cythera, an island close to the mainland that came under Minoan influence in the 3rd millennium and remained Minoan in culture for a thousand years, until the Mycenaean occupation in the 13th century, as well as on Melos, Cea, Aegina, Rhodes, Miletus, and elsewhere. The Cyclades and the Dodecanese were in the Cretan cultural orbit.
Certain locations in Crete emphasize it as an “outward looking” society. The palace of Kato Zakros e.g. is located within a bay, 100 metres from the modern shore-line. Its large number of workshops and the richness of its site materials indicate a centre for import and export. Such activities are elaborated in artistic representations of the sea with ships and sailors, e.g. the Flotilla fresco on Thera. Homer recorded a tradition that Crete had 90 cities. Multi-room constructions were found also in “poor” areas, revealing a social equality and even distribution of wealth derived through trade. There was a high degree of organization, with no trace of the military aristocracies that characterized the following cultures. While the Mycenaeans relied mainly on conquest to expand, the Minoan Cretans were a mercantile people engaged primarily in overseas trade. No doubt they should have been involved in the Bronze Age’s most crucial trade of tin: tin, alloyed with copper, obviously from Cyprus, was used in the manufacture of bronze. The Minoan decline seems to be correlated with the decline in the use of bronze tools in favour of iron ones.
Multi-room constructions were discovered even in the ‘poor’ areas, revealing a social equality and even distribution of wealth derived through trade. There was a high degree of organization, with no trace of military aristocracies…
● Bronze was initially made from naturally or artificially mixed ores of copper and arsenic. That is why it was called arsenic bronze. Tin was used only later, becoming the sole type of major non-copper ingredient of bronze in the late 3rd millennium. Tin bronze was superior in that the alloying process could be easily controlled and the alloy was stronger and easier to cast. Moreover, unlike arsenic, tin is not toxic. The earliest tin-alloy bronzes date to the late 4th millennium in Iran, Mesopotamia and China. Copper and tin ores are rarely found together (exceptions include one ancient site in Iran); thus, serious bronze work has always involved trade. The major source for tin in Europe was England’s deposits of ore in Cornwall, traded as far as the eastern Mediterranean. Though bronze is generally harder than wrought iron, the Bronze Age gave way to the Iron Age because iron was easier to find and to process into a poor grade of metal. Bronze was still used in the Iron Age. Roman officers e.g. had bronze swords while foot soldiers had iron. Archaeologists suspect that a serious disruption of the tin trade precipitated the transition. Mass population migrations c. 1200-1100 BCE reduced the shipping of tin around the Mediterranean (and from Britain), limiting supplies and raising prices. As cultures advanced from wrought to machine forged iron, they learned how to make steel, which is stronger than bronze and holds a sharper edge longer. There are many bronze alloys but modern bronze is typically 88% copper and 12% tin. Historical bronzes are highly variable in composition, as most metalworkers used whatever scrap was on hand.
● Orichalcum is mentioned in several ancient writings, most notably in the story of Atlantis as recounted in Plato’s Critias dialogue. It is first mentioned by Hesiod in the 7th century BCE, and in a Homeric hymn dedicated to Aphrodite. Plato says that the metal was considered second only to gold in value. But by his time, it was known only by name. Pliny the Elder points out that it has lost currency due to the mines being exhausted. The name derives from the Hellenic word ὀρείχαλκος (from ὄρος, “mountain” and χαλκός, “copper”). Plato’s orichalcum has been held to be either a gold-copper alloy, or a metal no longer known, or mythic like Atlantis. The Romans transliterated “orichalcum” as “aurichalcum”, meaning “gold copper”. The Andean alloy tumbaga is something similar, being a gold-copper alloy. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a gold-silver alloy is mentioned. In later years, orichalcum was used to describe the sulfide mineral chalcopyrite or brass, that is, a copper-iron or copper-zinc alloy. The colour of brass is generally golden-yellow, while that of bronze is brown-red.(f)
Where did the Minoans find tin, the necessary component to produce
bronze? No doubt, Minoan ships should have transported British tin…
CYPRUS WAS THE MEDITARRANEAN “copper island”; the word copper comes from the name of the island: from the Latin phrase Cyprium (aes), “Cyprian (metal)”. A possible etymological origin of the name Cyprus is the Sumerian words for copper or bronze (zubar / kubar), due to the massive deposits of copper ore found in the island. But where did the Minoans find tin – the necessary component – to produce bronze? Tin was very rare in the eastern Mediterranean. The only known source of cassiterite in the area was Kestel-Göltepe on the Taurus Mountains of south-central Anatolia. It supplied tin from the late 4th millennium to the mid-19th century BCE, when the ores became uneconomical or ran out. There were three other sources of tin available to the Minoan traders: the distant northeastern Afghanistan, central Europe (Bohemia), and the Occident, with vast amounts of tin in places such as Iberia, Brittany, in northwestern France, and especially Cornwall, in southwestern Britain. For the seafaring Cretans, the West was the destination they probably preferred best.(g) When the Taurus mines shut down, western tin became more important and the Minoans would have completely monopolized the supply of tin into the Eastern Mediterranean with their navy and shipping. Objects made by Minoans suggest there was an extensive network with mainland Greece, Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and westwards as far as Iberia, and also even further, that is, Bohemia, Brittany and, of course, Cornwall. Trade in nearby lands was direct, while in distant lands it could also be indirect through middlemen. Undoubtedly, Minoan ships should have transported British tin. If they also dropped anchor at British harbours it’s another story.
The Cretans derived their surplus from trade, unlike Babylonia and Egypt that principally relied on agriculture. They were the unrivalled long-distance traders, masters of the sea routes, having developed the most advanced navy that had ever been seen. They traded not only their own manufactured goods, “Made in Crete”, such as ceramics and metalwork, but acted as intermediaries, as well, trading raw materials and finished products throughout the Mediterranean and beyond. Their most valuable re-exports were pottery, copper, tin, gold, or silver. They were on the move not only in the Orient but also in the Occident, founding emporia all around. Their most privileged trade contacts in the East were surely those with the Egyptians, while their most significant Western partners should have been the Iberians, as the peninsula was rich in metals, especially silver, but also tin. Trade in tin was very lucrative in the Bronze Age, because, as we have seen, it is an essential component of true bronze, and comparatively rare: only gold and silver are rarer. Apart from the cassiterite deposits in Iberia, the locals obviously knew the route to the Cassiterides…(h)
The metals were just the opening move of a far broader economical and cultural exchange. A lot of Iberians e.g. are nowadays intrigued by the fact that so long ago the Minoans were practicing their own version of “bullfight”. In his bilingual (in Portuguese and English) book, Fado – Lyrical Origins and Poetic Motivation, Mascarenhas Barreto refers to the Neolithic hunting rituals as a possible origin of the bull-leaping “pegas” during Portuguese bullfights, or even other similar daring games with bulls, and wonders
“whether the peoples of the Iberian Peninsula learnt this from the Cretans of the 3rd millennium BC, or if they themselves may have been the teachers, since the bulls were taken from their natural habitat in the peninsula to the island of Crete” (see, as well, Chronicle 5. Iberia’s Odyssey).
Nevertheless, when one speaks of such extensive exchanges taking place in the 3rd millennium BCE, with customs adopted and bulls transported so far away, is it really so important to know who imitated whom?
Next Chronicle 18. AEGEAN: KNOSSOS, MYCENAE, TROY ● Stonehenge ● Dorians and Sea Peoples ● Mysteries ● Trojan War and Bronze Age Collapse