LIFE IN MINOAN CRETE
The Minoan civilisation became famous at the beginning of our century because of the excavations by Sir Arthur Evans. It was like unearthing from the nebulae of the past, a new mythical world, unknown until then but very ravishing. The archaeological scientific research on the Minoan civilisation that was done during the continuous excavations by Greek and non-Greek scientists did not deprive the subject of its interest, but it became much more interesting. Of course, it is not easy to visualise the daily life in Minoan Crete; this happens not only because it has to be based on artefacts, which are contradictory testifiers, but also because the minoan civilisation, like every human activity, was not something static and fixed. Since 2600 BC, when the Neolithic civilisation ends, until 1400 BC, i.e. 1200 years, there had lived many generations of the human race and various things happened, in the island and overseas, which affected their life.Since 2000 BC and until 1700 BC the island reaches its greater prosperity. The “dynasties” are now of no importance and the local princes become powerful kings.
The golden inscribed ring from Mochlos. In Cretan hieroglyphics we read the word “ship”.
In c.1900 BC the first luxurious palaces are being built in Knossos, Phaistos and Malia. The three kings are almost equal and there is no enmity among them. In c.1643 BC, a disastrous earthquake ruins the palaces. After that earthquake, new palaces are built, which are larger and nicer. Minos, king of Knossos, seems to have the entire principality of the island during this period. In addition, in this period, the Cretans colonise peacefully the islands of the Aegean Sea and the coastline of Asia Minor.
The Cretans were sailors, and they had intercourse with all the other nations of the Mediterranean. In the Greek mainland, which was inhabited by the Achaians, the Cretan influence was obvious in art and fashion during the 17th century. On the other hand, the Achaians, who are powerful in the Greek mainland, become powerful in the sea as well. Hence since 1450 BC they dominate Crete.
Cookers, weaving weights, agricultural and carpentry tools, unearthed from agricultural regions, oil mills and wine presses, are the artefacts on which we are based to visualise the daily life of the peasants. We can imagine their small settlements, surrounded by fruitful trees. We can almost see men who work on agriculture, pastoralism, hunting, and apiculture, and women with their household duties, such as wheat milling, weaving, sewing, and embroidery of the clothing. Based on the burnt to ashes products and the minoan terminology of the plants, we can assume that Minoans used to cultivate their land and grow cereals, legumes and plenty of vegetables in their orchards. In addition, the greatest part of their production is wine, olive oil, and wheat.
These products became known to the other habitants of the Aegean islands by the Greeks. According to the ancient tradition, the Minoan Cretans were those who taught to the rest of Greece, the systematic cultivation of the olive tree, the vineyard and the wheat. Stafylos (the Grape man) was Cretan and he was the son of Dionysos and the Cretan princess Ariadne. He run away to Pepartho – nowadays Skopelos – and he is the ancestor of Spermo, Oino, and Elais. In Samothrace, recently there were found tables inscribed with Cretan hieroglyphics. Similar tables had been found in Knossos and they are talking about the importing of vineyards. The Minoan Cretans were not just good farmers. They also study the healing features of the plants. A kind of popular medicine is being developed. It is based on the experience they have and thus they are able to distinguish which plants can be used in pharmacy. Seals with Cretan hieroglyphics on them, which were found in Zakros, refer to types of drugs, such as strychnine on the seal with the famous deer-head man. The aromatic plants and the aromatic seeds are now very popular and they become merchandised products. Also, the farmers have flocks of oxen, sheep, pigs, and goats.Oxen are very useful for transports and agriculture. The Minoans have no horse until the Postminoan period (1600 BC), when it is imported for the first time. They have asses, which are also used for transport among the urban centres. In these centres, there are summoned agricultural products and timber. Oaks, firs, and cypresses are used for shipbuilding.
Of course, the Minoan civilisation was not just a civilisation of farmers. Apart from the population that dwells the countryside, there is the population of the cities. These cities are not away from the coastline. The coastline of Crete, and especially the northeaster, had never been so densely inhabited. The bigger cities have town centres and all the roads end in these centres. The dominant parts of the cities are the palaces (Phaistos, Knossos, Malia, and Zakros). Their courts, their gardens, the reception halls, the temples, the private suites of the royal family, the warehouses, their height, the buildings with many floors and balconies, comprise a labyrinthine complex of buildings. In addition, the royal courts of the princes that are around the palaces are very luxurious as well. Those royal courts seem to belong to military or administrative officers of the upper class or to priests. An example is the royal court of Archanes, which is near Knossos. These courts have well done interiors with walls covered with shiny plaster or beautiful frescos, with silken floors, well done floors, hydraulic installations, and baths. All these testify the existence of an elegant society that lives a life of high quality. This society builds comfortable houses with tasteful interiors. However, these courts have also some smaller rooms and not too far from them are some poor settlements as well.
The city of Gournia gives us a very characteristic image for the special construction of a Minoan city. It has small workshops, which are well preserved, and the house of the ruler is on the top of the hill where the city is built. We will not be able to understand the social organisation of the Minoan world unless we understand the centralised character of the Minoan economy, which is based on the capital. The palace is the central point for the life of the whole city. The king has divine power. He is the great priest, the great judge, and the great general. He is surrounded by priests and officers. In the private apartments, the scriveners record on tables the slaves, the armour, the flocks and the incoming of the palace.
The guards are awake and patrol. The state wealth and the navy belong to the king. The princes of the provinces are representatives of him and they have to live an analogous life. Wealth and luxury give to them the social image that their status necessitates. The king is also the great diplomat who accepts in his court the representatives of foreign states. Apart from him, the princes of Palaiokastro, Pseira and Mochlos accept quite often the official visitors from East, Syria, or Cyprus. The palace also does commutation of products. The Egyptian texts are talking about the commutation between the Pharaohs and Babylon, Cyprus and Crete. The “Ceftiou” (Cretans) take from the Pharaoh gold, ivory, luxurious textiles, perfumes, slaves from Nouvia and playful monkeys for the royal gardens of Minos. In return, they give to the Pharaoh the beautiful products of their metalworking. Apart from the royal commerce, there are some merchants who trade in small scale. It is doubtful whether there was large-scale commerce during the Minoan years by non-royal merchants.
There in no “demos” in the Minoan world and the existence of slavery is doubtful. A group of artisans is depended on the palace or the royal courts of the princes. There, they have their workshops and they produce beautiful pieces of pottery, sculpture, goldsmithery, or seal making for the king or the prince. Of course, we can not exclude the possibility of the existence of an independent class of artisans, organised in craft guilds, who work in the cities.
Royal or not, these artisans always create masterpieces and it is obvious that their creative and reproductive mind has no limits. The freedom that the Minoan artisan enjoys is of no doubt. This explains the variety of forms and the indignation for new expressional ways. This is characteristic for the development of the Minoan pottery and sculpture and the existence of great local workshops all over the island.
However, journeys, work, and the function of the state mechanism are not the most important things in life of those people. Their Mediterranean nature seeks social activities.
They love celebrations, religion festivals, dancing and singing. Homer says that the Cretans are great and skilful dancers. Dancing is the way that those agile men and brunette women express and enjoy themselves. We can imagine them living in their elegant and simple furniture houses, which are cool during the summer and warm during the winter. They have mobile braziers and lamps in the rooms that are not naturally illuminated. Their perfect hydraulic system, which is spread all over the house, shows how important was hygiene for the Minoans. In addition, physical exercise very important for them because it gives them good physical condition and charm and elegance. They drive chariots, they take part in acrobatics with bulls, and they participate in all festivals, ritual procedures, and symposia. In contrast to the rest of Greece where woman always indoors, Minoan women participate in every social activity. The gentleness of the Minoan ladies seats them in the first seats in public meetings. They arrive in litters, carried by slaves. They are perfumed, elegantly dressed. In frescos, we see women being talkative and sociable, while they are waiting for the opening of the festivals. Also, the rest of the day, they are sitting in the palace, sewing, or playing the minoan board game called “zatrikio”. Their intercourse with the opposite sex tones up their smartness. We know Minoan fashion from the female idols that have been found. The main characteristic of Minoan fashion is the emphasis on femininity and the curves of the female body. The dresses are rich, colourful, with a lot of drapery and they have wide belts that are stretched round the waste.
The corset is very tight leaving the breast bare, and has short sleeves and long necks. They often wear hats and their hair are elaborately combed and adorned with jewellery. Whatever their economical status, Minoan women have collections of jewellery in wide range. At home, they usually walk on bear foot, wearing bracelets around their ankles. Of course, sometimes they wear shoes too. They also use lipsticks, make up, they colour their nails and maybe their hair too. Men too, take care of themselves. They have long hair but they are always beardless and well shaven. Although, their clothing is very simple, they wear many pieces of jewellery. However, their appearance is very masculine. Of course, their masculine appearance is the result of their daily exercising. Running, wrestling, and playing with the bull are their favourite activities. In addition, they are skilful swimmers and hunters.
Political, social and economical life are not the only sectors with which the Minoan world has to do. All these sectors of life are deeply influenced by religion. Every intellectual and artistic activity is inspired by the Great Minoan Goddess. She rules not only the cosmos but also the daily human life. She is the Great Mother Goddess and she has many abilities. She is the “tamer of the beasts”, the “Britomartis” that means the sweet virgin, goddess of the virgins and the births, peaceful and matron of war. She is the Earth Goddess, and the Sea and Heavens Goddess. She causes the earthquakes and makes trees, plants and flowers bloom and have fruits. She owns the stars, she rules the waves, she protects the ships. There are no other gods.
Often, she is accompanied by the young god of flora and other demonic creatures. Cretan people believe that flora itself is the carnation of the Young God or the Holy Infant. Following the annual circle of nature, the vegetation of trees and plants, and then their wilting, the Minoans made birth, death, and the rebirth of the Young God, part of their religion. This god is called “Belchanos” (god of beasts) or “Yakinthos” (weak as child). In his various minoan images, he is presented as partner of the Mother Goddess or as her child. However, sometimes the Minoans used to worship instead of the Young God, a Young Goddess who was dying and resurrecting each year. This young goddess was Ariadne, daughter of king Minos. It is obvious that Minoan religion was monotheistic, combined with ancient cults of stone worship. The goddess is the centre of this religion and she is represented with many symbols: double axes, tridents, stars, thunders, wheat, etc.
The Minoans used to worship the Great Goddess in caverns, in darkness where stalactites make a mystic atmosphere. Also, they worship her in small dark rooms which are something like domestic altars, or on mountain tops where they burn purgatorial fires and through prays, magic ritual procedures and pleads, they try to communicate with the Goddess. Other rituals seem to take place in open areas, the courts of the palaces and the sacred hills. These procedures are lead by the King, officers, priests and musicians who accompany the priestesses when they dance in a rhythmic and ecstatic way. The crowd that participates gives to rituals a public character.
The top-ranking priestess is the queen, who appears in a specific part of the ritual and symbolises the coming of the goddess. If someone will add to these rituals, the sacrifices with animals, the libations and the acrobatics with the bull, he could see that Minoan religion combines mysticism with publicity.
The religious hymns are the only thing that we do not know. On Minoan literature, we can make only assumptions. A nation with such warmth and artistic activity should have sung in its language, which is Greek, about its daily life, but also to its divinity. In addition, our knowledge about the Minoan theory on death is very limited. They respect their dead; they bury them in vaulted tombs, in earthenware jars or in sarcophaguses. They put with the corpse, his signets, and his weapons, vessels and censers. However, we do not know the purpose of this type of engraving. What happens to the soul and what is the nature of the human body is very doubtful. On these matters, even the ancient Greeks expressed many different theories. Similar might be the minoan opinion since, according to the hieroglyphics and Linear A, their writing, they were Greek as well. Certainly, the Minoan Greeks do not believe in metaphysics, like other oriental cultures of the same period, nor they try to preserve whatever has to do with the dead, on the honour of him, as it happens in Egypt. They used to believe that each man’s life follows the fate, according to the text of the pin from Mavro Spilio of Knossos. Living in the Mediterranean environment and climate, which is so beautiful, they wanted to live every moment of their life. Of course, they knew that one day they will die but they were dealing death creating for the eternity. The only thing that they did not know was when chaos would come. The Great Goddess did not save them from disaster. In 1450, an earthquake and a great wave that the earthquake caused, at the upheaval of the Thera volcano, obliterated their life. They run away to the mountains to save their lives, leaving whatever they possessed. After the earthquake, the Minoans met their second disaster, the Achaian dominion in their country. Some of them immigrated to other lands, and some others inhabited isolated areas. All these people could not certainly imagine that after thousands of years, their life would be the object of excavations and archaeological research.
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