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The Minoans

It is virtually impossible to talk about early Greek history without at some point introducing the Minoans. The Minoans were not Greeks nor do they appear to be closely related. What seems clear however is that they helped to shape the early Greek civilization, later immortalized by Homer and other Greek poets.

The Minoans have left a stunning visual legacy (paintings, sophisticated palaces and varied artwork) as well as large quantities of written records. Unfortunately, unlike the writings of the Egyptians, Hittites and Babylonians which shed light on such things as social organization, religious beliefs and historical events, those Minoan writings discovered so far are simply inventory records- detailed, plentiful but not as enlightening as one might hope. An added complication is that scholars have been only been able to decipher a small portion of their written language

15<SUP>th</SUP> century BC bull-leaper fresco from Knossos, Crete.
15th century BC bull-leaper fresco from Knossos, Crete.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

What we do know is that the Minoans were gifted artists and that the subject matter of their artworks seems to have been heavily influenced by aesthetic considerations. Some have suggested that they may have loved art for its own sake, which would be an enormous change in the way art was traditionally created and used in other societies at that time. But more research on that possibility is needed.

Based on the evidence currently available, it seems that the Minoans arrived on the large island of Crete more than 5000 years ago. The soil was fertile, the climate was favorable and the numbers of people increased. Eventually a point was reached when the resources of the land were insufficient to meet the needs of the expanding population. Many migrated to nearby islands, those that stayed turned increasingly to trade as a means of improving their economic situation.

Successful and extensive trade resulted in a Minoan society that was wealthy and archaeology suggests that wealth was widely shared throughout the community. The extensive written records that do exist and have been deciphered show a highly controlled flow of goods into and out of state storehouses. The standard of living was high. Within the palace complexes… sophisticated plumbing, wonderful frescoes, plaster reliefs and open courtyards.

Minoan ‘snake goddess'. Small, faience figure, circa 1600 BC, Knossos, Crete.
Minoan ‘snake goddess'. Small, faience figure, circa 1600 BC, Knossos, Crete.
Copyright: Thomas Sakoulas, Ancient-Greece.org
Used by permission of Ancient-Greece.org © 2001-2006

People had leisure time and devoted a good portion of it to sports, religion and the arts. While we can only guess at their religious beliefs, the remains of their artwork suggest a polytheistic framework featuring various goddesses, including a mother deity. The priesthood was also completely female, although the King may have had some religious functions as well. In fact the role of women- as religious leaders, entrepreneurs, traders, craftspeople and athletes far exceeded that of most other societies, including the Greeks.

Their system of government was that of a monarchy supported by a well-organized bureaucracy. According to myth, a King Minos, living in a palace with more than a thousand rooms, once ruled the island of Crete. In 1900 such a palace was discovered, excavated and partially restored by British archaeologist Arthur Evans. It was Evans who coined the term “Minoan civilization” in honor of the legendary King.

Around 1450 BC the Minoan civilization, which appears to have been peaceful and prosperous, came to an abrupt and probably violent end. There is evidence of wholesale destruction by fire and there has long been speculation that a volcanic explosion at Thera (followed possibly by a tsunami) created s April 5, 2006 great civilization of the Aegean world. That hypothesis has now been called into question as recent studies of ice core samples push the Thera eruption further into the past.