The palace of Knossos; a forerunner for the title of ‘earliest civilisation in Europe’ and the birth place of one the pioneering cultures of the Bronze age.
Crossing the stone threshold brought the hair on my arms to stiff attention as I felt the invigorating rush I’ve come to associate with exploring such sites.
The vast scale was immediately apparent and I had to remind myself this palace was not a 16th century fort ruin, but in fact a relic of the bronze age.
The fertile, hydrated landscape spelled out in plain language exactly why this Cretan site had been occupied by farming people for at least 9,000 years.
It was in the early Greek bronze age though, beginning early on Crete from around 3200BCE, that an entire cultural power centre, identifiable and dominant, was born: The Minoans. This palace site on which I now stood was their cultural capital and the centre of their power. Hidden in its many chambers and laters was archeological history, steeped in myth.
It is possible to talk about Minoan culture chronologically by dividing into pottery styles (Early, Middle & Late) or by the state of the palace. Given my visit there, I’ll use the latter!
Soon after 2,000 BCE, more than a millennia into successful bronze age production, farming and trade, the first palace was built at Knossos marking the proto-palacial period. This was something of an evolution for the civilisation and a huge change from the Neolithic farming villages that had existed thus far in the pre-palatial period.
The first rendition of the palace housed around 18,000 people before falling around 1,700BCE, most likely to an earthquake. The new palace that followed (neo-palatial period) would see up to 130,000 people in its peak. For frame of reference, the whole of Crete today is home to around 600,000, this was a thriving palace culture and Crete was home to several other large sites at the same time as Knossos.
The term Minoan is an entirely modern construction courtesy of the British archeologist and one time keeper of the Ashmolean museum in Oxford (my personal favourite), Sir Arthur Evans who himself unearthed Knossos.
Evans found the artefacts on Crete to be so distinct in style that they warranted a separate classification to the Mycenaean collections of mainland Greece. He gave the name in honour of the mythological king of Crete, King Minos, known to him through the classics.
If you’ve ever read any Greek mythology you’ll no-doubt of heard of King Minos and the Minotaur who legendarily stalked a labyrinth beneath the palace so I’ll delve into mythos first before looking more at Minoan culture as the archeological record suggests it.
The mythology around king Minos presents quite a contradictory conundrum. On one hand he was a benevolent king, son of Zeus and of such level-headed esteem to have been afforded a place as a judge in the Greek underworld. On the other hand he was a cruel, tyrannical king subjecting Greeks to human sacrifice, being cannibalised by the minotaur.
Some later rationalists have taken the split in character alongside a seemingly over stretched lifespan for the figure to mean there were two Kings by the name of Minos. Minos I being the ‘good’ king and Minos II being his spoilt grandson. I’ll take the mythology of both at high speed for those unfamiliar, feel free to see Minos as one or two characters!
Anyway.. As usual our story starts with Zeus being horny.
The cloud gatherer had spotted a stunning Phoenician princess named Europa (who incidentally was also his great, great, great grand daughter and pretty fine).
Not wishing to be caught once again by his goddess wife Hera, Zeus came up with a cunning plan. He transformed himself into a stunning white bull, irresistible in allure and with the breath of saffron & crocuses, every girl’s dream. Europa was drawn to the bull and climbed onto his back whereby Zeus promptly bounded across the sea with her to Crete and as usual, got his way. He celebrated his union by creating the constellation Taurus.
Europa was married off to the king of Crete but bore three children to Zeus, one being the future King Minos. Europa was also a great, great granddaughter of Poseidon making Minos a direct descendant and nephew of both Zeus & Poseidon.
Flash forward into the hight of Minoan power and we see King Minos viciously asserting dominance over the Greek world. Bringing Mycenae, Attica and Athens to heel. Of these fledgling cities he demanded human tributes from each city every 9 years.
To confirm his strength as King and cement his vast kingdom, Minos asked Poseidon for a sign. The sea god sent forth from the foam a beautiful white bull, reminiscent of the form once taken by Zeus and a symbol that had become sacred to Cretans.
The sign once received should have been sacrificed back to Poseidon, but in an act of hubris, Minos sought to deceive Poseidon and slaughtered a lesser bull in his honour. The trident holder would think of a novel way to punish Minos for trying to keep the bull..
Poseidon made the king’s wife Pasiphae mad with sexual lust for the bull and she lay herself before it, taking its seed. From this beastial act a creature was born, half boy, half cow (you could say he was half & calf..).
Ashamed of what was born, but unable to kill it without committing blood crime, Minos had the great architect and creator Daedalus craft an impossible labyrinth within which to seal the creature. Once construction was completed, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus in the palace tower. Having no natural food source the creature became cannibalistic and soon dark rumours began to circulate that the young tributes from the cities were taken to feed Minos’ bull.
The greek hero Theseus will ultimately put an end to the Minotaur & King Minos would eventually meet his death in a boiling hot bath whilst attempting to recapture Daedalus who’d escaped in a wing suit.. but read the rest for your self!
Do bear in mind that most greek mythology is first written several hundred years after events allegedly took place and most are likely designed to reframe historical events around a hellenistic centre or a ‘fill-in-the-blanks’ of origin stories. This is probably due largely to the Greek dark ages that came with the collapse of Mycenaean civilisation soon after when the Trojan war was supposed to have taken place.
This doesn’t take anything away from the allure of Greek mythology and indeed it may never have been intended as a firm grasp at history, but rather as figurative tales. It is in any case far more informative to look at the archeological record of the time.
So, do we have any evidence of any of the elements of the mythology? None.
The palace at Knossos did have an incredibly intricate design made up of 1,300 rooms over 5 stories, all connected by intricate corridors and stairways. It certainly may have felt like a labyrinth to visitors, but that’s the extent of it.
The use of the word ‘labyrinth’ itself is probably not related to a prison in Knossos but rather to the Labrys, a stunning double headed axe decorating the palace and seemingly given as a votive offering to the Minoan gods. It is likely an inscription in Linear B was simply misread by later Greeks as “mistress of the Labyrinth” when in fact it says “Palace of double axes”. The Arkalochori Axe is a beautiful example of these style, found on Crete.
Ok, so there’s no man eating bull, but were the Minoans unjust and tyrannical? Did they hold Attica & Athens in fear?
They certainly weren’t tyrannical at home. The palace structures across Crete, including Knossos, held no real defences or any signs of internal strife in their long existence. There is in fact no archeological evidence of battles or any kind of domination at all domestically.
There is evidence to suggest the Minoans had a large and strong naval fleet, yes, and certainly they had the ability to procure and produce plenty of bronze weaponry. Despite this, there are no battle sites on the mainland, meaning they either fought for dominion at sea or they simply controlled through popularity, mutual trade and having the deterrent of superior strength.
Quite simply they found the sweet spot of it being worthwhile to be friends with them and not worthwhile to mess with them. The strongest evidence for this exists in pottery finds in the archeological record of the main land, signs that Minoan culture extended deep into Greece and influenced it.
So why the crazy mythology? Could we be looking at some propaganda or just some wishful fantasy of later Greeks? We’ve looked at the idea of a misinterpretation which could certainly have lead to some flights of fancy but it’s always possible the story of the Minotaur is something of a hit piece. The beastial nature of the Minotaur story is somewhat akin to calling the Minoans cow shaggers, something familiar to rival football teams who use animal emblems, the Nottingham Forest V Derby County rivalry will be familiar to any English readers familiar with football. Group rivalries after all probably haven’t changed much.
Perhaps it serves as a story of savages who offended the gods and acted irrationally needing to be brought under the more logical rule of mainland Greece. This would certainly have massaged the notorious ego of later Athenians.
The rule of Greece did happen, indeed towards the collapse of Minoan civilisation Crete came under the control of Mycenaean Greece at the peak of its power by around 1420BCE. Following a series of natural disasters and growing military pressures on the Minoans, the Mycenae invaded and took over the centre of administration in Knossos.
In reality it was the Mycenaeans of main land Greece who were the more tyrannical ones, having walled palaces and plenty of signs of strife & battle before bringing Minoan Crete under its dominion.
So what was the real Minoan culture like?
There is every sign that the Minoans established a relatively peaceful thalassocracy (sea empire) built around the successful trade of their local resources: olives, wood, wool, grapes and their beautiful pottery which was found as far as Egypt, Syria & Anatolia alongside mainland Greece. There are later claims by classic authors that their dominion over shipping trade brought Piracy under control, which may explain why there wasn’t invasive war made against them. There could be an ironic twist to the piracy element when later ‘Sea peoples’ would plague Greece in the absence of the Minoan trade routes, but that’s a story of dark age Vikings of the Greek world for another time!
The bull was certainly significant and appears over and over again in imagery of young men leaping bulls and signs seemingly of bull horns, including the 'consecration of the horns’ - bull horns found in alter imagery. Sheep were far less revered but certainly present, accounting for much of Minoan textiles with linen being very much secondary. It is likely that as now, sheep’s milk products were a dietary staple. Sheep kept well clothe and feed a community whilst providing landscape maintenance.
The Minoans didn’t appear to worship the Olympians either, although they likely entered their sphere later due to connections with mainland Greece. Their bronze age religion is unknown but likely oriented around a solar diety & a possible fertility mother known as the snake goddess. The latter based on two key figurines depicted bare breasted in a dress that seemed common of the Greek Bronze age in which the woman’s chest was partially exposed, though regular style of Cretan women’s dress was less revealing (probably due to Crete’s strong winds!).
The double headed axe votive offering was presented to the goddess it seemed and the meaning is unknown. I personally suspect this may be the protective symbol of the sky father, the double headed axe being linked to the various names of thunder gods in the surrounding world. The giving of the votive double axe may have been asking for the sky father to protect the mother and to appease also the mother to give fertile land & healthy women and infants. The snake, bastardised by later abrahamic religions as a symbol of evil was widely held prior as a sign of fertility, healing & wisdom.
Peaceful, un-walled sites parallel with cultures like that of Stone Henge & other Britannic sites where titles such as priest were theorised to be communal and non hereditary. It is likely that Minoan culture, similar to other bronze age European cultures was a Theocracy and this would mean if there was a Minos, it was more likely a title with both divine and community blessing.
Whether it stemmed from mythology, or the real probabilities of Minoan culture, the spine tingling excitement was real on entering Knossos and I would recommend a visit to the palace and the island as a whole to anyone interested in European history.
Sadly I must say the site wasn’t managed as well as it could be, despite some fantastic vistas, there was an active construction work still taking place that was due to finish nearly 3 years ago and half of the site was closed ‘due to covid’ with no further explanation offered. The sound of a greek builders radio and the sight of cracks deeper than those in the millennias old walls did somewhat kill the illusion of Minoan grandeur. Bus loads of tourists arrive in the early afternoon, thankfully these can mostly be avoided with an early morning arrival when the site is much quieter. A range of guides are available on hand outside, offering their insights for around 20euros per head (not including entry), though for me a little reading and the 15euros entry price was just fine.
The most controversial element of the site stems to an earlier decision by Evans (not his best) dated to the grey age of concreting everything, to do just that.
A number of sections of the palace had been arranged in concrete to bring to life what Neo-palatial Knossos may have looked like. It certainly interests tourists and provides an imaginative and probably reasonably accurate insight but isn’t done as well as the site deserves and unfortunately has caused irreversible damage to the original condition of the site as it was found.
If one day I win the lottery or find Elon Musk’s wallet I should rather like to build a reconstruction in accurate materials and methods off-site where you’ll all be invited, inclusive of all the olives, snakes and enough bear breasts to give a social media moderator a heart attack. I can dream, but for now I’ll settle for a fantastic & accurate replica from museum approved artisans Spirit of Greece, I’d highly recommend taking a look at their range of Minoan pottery for a taste of the period you can add to your home!