Minoan Crete – Island Life of the Ancient Minoan Civilization

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Minoan fresco, showing a fleet and settlement

Minoan Crete began when the ancient Minoan civilization, a highly unique and spirited culture, settled on the isolated island more than 7000 years ago.

In 1900, when Sir Arthur Evans began excavating Crete in search of Knossos, the ancient Minoan civilization was unknown. Evans named the culture Minoan after the Greek mythological King Minos. Romans and later Europeans knew nothing of them but ancient Greeks and Egyptians knew the Minoans well. Evan’s endeavors have provided insight into a unique and intriguing culture that might otherwise have been lost in obscurity.

Minoan Crete

Minoan Crete began about 5000 BC. The Minoans were a seafaring people of extensive and successful trade, building the world’s first known navy. Winters were short and mild, and the summers long and temperate. The Minoans drove chariots and held festivals and rituals. Unlike mainland Greece where women stayed indoors, Minoan women were energetic nature lovers. Islanders raised flocks of oxen, sheep, pigs and goats and had donkeys. They cultivated crops of grain, herbs, olives and fruit. Bees were domesticated for honey production, and in 1600 horses were introduced.

Minoan Appearance

Minoan men and women are usually self-depicted as having long dark-brown hair, shoulder length or longer, with locks or curls hanging down the sides of the face. Some men, however, had short hair, some were clean-shaven, and some had mustaches and beards. Small bronze blades were used as razors and tweezers were used on eyebrows.

Pigments ground on stone palettes, and later in stone bowls, served to add color to women’s lips and eyebrows. They wore perfumes and nail polish and used mirrors of polished bronze with wood or ivory handles. Hygiene was important.

Minoan Dress

Minoan men wore loincloths or kilts in several styles either rolled and tucked around the waist or held up by a belt. One fresco hints these may later have been adapted into shorts by sewing the front and back together between the legs. Minoan men often appear nude.

Minoan women wore short sleeved tunics open to the naval and layered flounced skirts that filled to a wide hem. In many cases the breasts were exposed. Fabrics were of often intricate, colorful geometric designs and some had embroidery or beads sewn in. Some women wore a strapless fitted bodice, the first fitted garments known in history. It’s clear that clothing was valuable, at least to the women. Generally Minoan women are depicted as having full hips, ridiculously tiny waists and prominent breasts. They often wore hats.

Minoans adorned themselves with large elaborate earrings (sometimes two or three pairs), armlets, bracelets, anklets and necklaces of copper, silver, gold or semi-precious stones.

Minoan Art

Minoan art reflects an appreciation of nature and a joy of life. Charm and elegance were important. The Minoan society steeped itself in art for art’s sake with no political undertones. Figures were often displayed in action and frescoes were a prominent art form having even been found in sarcophagi. Palaces contained room after room of magnificent wall-sized paintings, and highly decorated seals in various shapes and styles were produced by Minoan stone-workers. Many figurines of terra cotta and a few of faience have been recovered along with beautifully crafted pottery and ceramics. Minoan art was protected; bull-jumping scenes are symbols of Knossos and found nowhere else. Half-rosettes were another Minoan trademark.

Minoan Language and Writing

Knowledge of Minoan language is scant due to the small number of records found in Linear A. While the Eteocretan language is believed to be a descendant language, there’s not enough source material in either to allow for conclusions. Both are undecipherable and their phonetic values are unknown. Most Minoan writings appear to be accounts and records. Their earliest documents were hieroglyphics which eventually developed into Minoan Linear A script. They wrote on long thin tablets of clay with a stylus.

Minoan Religion

Minoan religion was matriarchal – a goddess religion; no male god has been identified until later periods. A single mother deity ruled the universe. A popular lesser deity with snakes entwined on her body or in her hands was found only in houses and small shrines. Another, the “Huntress”, is represented as protecting and mastering animals. Numerous shrines also centered around a dove-like creature. Minoan “demons” are pictured as human beings with the hands and feet of a lion. Their true meaning however is difficult to assess as they seem to be performing religious rituals. Some scholars believe goddesses of Greek mythology may have been inspired by those of the Minoans.

Sacred caves and mountain tops were important places of worship. The Minoans particularly worshiped trees, sacred stones, and springs. The priesthood was entirely female though there’s evidence the kings had some religious functions as well.

Bulls and snakes were sacred to the Minoans and some of the sites excavated reveal they may have practiced human sacrifice.

Minoan Sport and Recreation

The Minoans built the world’s first sport arenas. They loved sports, particularly boxing and bull-jumping. In bull-jumping, an incredibly violent activity, a man or woman would grab an oncoming bull by the horns vaulting up over its back in a somersault to either land on its back or on their feet behind the bull. Amazingly, the sport is depicted as more about grace and gymnastic ability rather than danger of being gored or trampled.

Dancing was also an important Minoan pastime. Homer writes that they were great and skillful dancers.

Fate of the Minoans

Having overcome two natural catastrophes within a hundred-year period, demonstrative of their resilience, the Minoan civilization of Crete began its decline after a great fire in 1450 BC. Did another natural disaster strike or did outside forces invade? As excavations continue, hopefully time will further enlighten us as to the reason behind the decline of the unique and spirited Minoan civilization.

References:

  1. Ancient – Greece Org. “History of Minoan Crete”
  2. Hooker, Richard 1996 “Bureaucrats & Barbarians-The Minoans”
  3. Castelden, Rodney “Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete” 1993
  4. Owen Jarus Heritage Key “Did Unemployed Artists Land Jobs in Ancient Egypt?”