Welcome back to my series on ancient Greece! Technically, this entry covers a period before ancient Greece, but I feel it’s necessary to give some introduction to the things we’ll cover later. I’m going to discuss the Minoan civilization, one of the most interesting, most obscure, and most mysterious of early civilizations.
Originally, I was going to cover the Minoans and Mycenaeans in one post, but I realized it would be a bit too much. (Especially since I want to include lots of photos of beautiful Minoan art!) So the Mycenaean civilization will be covered in the next post, along with the Bronze Age collapse.
If you missed my introduction to this series, check out my post on ancient Greek history and its time periods.
Who were the Minoans?
The Minoan civilization existed on Crete, the largest of the Aegean islands, and in the surrounding Aegean, from c. 3000 B.C. to c. 1100 B.C. It flourished for most of that time, c. 3000 B.C. to c. 1450 B.C. This is a truly amazing accomplishment when you look at the rather shorter existences of later civilizations. Scholars generally agree that the Minoans were a mainly peaceful society. Their palaces were not walled, and their frescoes and murals do not depict war. The Minoans used the naturally defensive position of Crete to their advantage.
At some point, the Minoans became strong enough to bring some of the surrounding Aegean islands under their control. They established a trade empire centered around the Aegean with arms as far as Egypt and Mesopotamia.
Sources for the Minoans: Archaeological Evidence and Greek Mythology
How do we know about these Minoans?
Egyptian and Mesopotamian records reference the Minoans obliquely. But most of our evidence comes from the art and architecture the Minoans left behind, as well as some writing in an undeciphered script we call Linear A. Yes, it’s still undeciphered, and will probably remain so, given that we don’t know what language family the Minoan language belonged to.
In terms of archaeological evidence, the largest remnant we have from the Minoan civilization is the palace at Knossos, their capital on Crete. It’s an example of so-called agglutinative architecture — which is just a big fancy way of saying that it was added to over time. In fact, it came over time to resemble a bit of a labyrinth… which is why many scholars suspect that the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur has its roots in the Minoan civilization.
Theseus and the Minotaur
In the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, a King Minos — from whom the name “Minoan” derives — holds sway over the Aegean and subjugates parts of the Greek mainland. King Minos’s wife once copulated with a bull and bore a Minotaur as a son. The Minotaur was a man-eater, so King Minos hired the famous architect Daedalus to build a massive labyrinth to house the Minotaur. Every year, King Minos demands tribute from the people of the islands in the form of seven young men and seven young women. These men and women are brought to the court at Knossos and thrown into the labyrinth for the Minotaur to eat.
Long story short, Theseus, an Athenian prince, elects to go to Crete and ends up killing the Minotaur. (This is the story that inspired The Hunger Games, by the way.) Mary Renault has an excellent novel about Theseus titled The King Must Die. I highly recommend it!
The Minoans left a lot of art featuring bulls. This is the main reason why scholars have tied the mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur to the Minoan civilization.
I’ll say a little about each piece of art I show you here, but the bottom line is that Minoan art reached levels of excellence that weren’t again seen until the heyday of classical Athens.
Here you can see the a modern reproduction of the Minoan bull jumping mural. The Minoans used colors to represent genders — so the two “white” figures are women, and the “dark” figure is a man.
The above mural depicts three elite Minoan women. You can tell they’re elite because of their elaborate hair styles and their jewelry. A number of this type of mural remain.
The octopus pot, in the gallery above, is my absolute favorite piece of Minoan art. The detail on the octopus and the way it wraps around the pot are amazing.
How did the Minoan civilization fall?
Around 1450 B.C., the Minoan civilization began to fail. At this time, the Mycenaean Greeks, who inhabited mainland Greece, gained administrative control over the Minoan palaces — this demonstrated by the shift in writing system, from Linear A to B. We don’t know whether this takeover was forceful or not.
At some point near the start of Minoan decline, there was a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, north of Crete, which may have caused a tidal wave of massive proportions to hit the center of Minoan influence. This likely contributed to Minoan decline, although it isn’t certain. By 1100 B.C., the Minoan palaces were destroyed, and the Minoans disappeared completely from the historical record. The Mycenaeans, who had been ruling over areas once under Minoan control, also began to decline in the face of a mysterious threat: the Sea Peoples. We’ll talk about the Mycenaeans and the Sea Peoples next time.
At any rate, a series of natural disasters, droughts, and failed harvests associated with broader climate change accompanied the fall of the Minoan civilization. Some scholars have gone as far as to associate the fall of the Minoans with the Greek myth of Atlantis. But it’s likely that we’ll never know the truth behind many of these connections.
Read a guest post followup to this article about the ancient scripts of Crete and the mysterious Phaistos disk — over three thousand years old and undeciphered to this day…
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the Minoans!
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And if you’re looking to learn more about the Minoan civilization, check out this article from National Geographic about the Minoans and their sudden and mysterious disappearance.
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Did you learn something new? Do you know something about the Minoans that wasn’t covered? (There’s a lot more than just this!) What’s your favorite historical period? Tell us anything.