The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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A Minoan by Any Other Name

If the ancient Minoans were such successful traders with so many other cultures, why don't we hear about them in the writings of those other cultures? Because in the ancient world, they weren't called Minoans.

The term "Minoans" is a 20th-century invention. Sir Arthur Evans, the British archaeologist who unearthed the temple complex at Knossos, had been chasing a set of myths for years: King Minos, the Labyrinth, Ariadne and the Minotaur. Like Heinrich Schliemann, who wanted to prove the truth of the tales in Homer's epic works by digging up the real city of Troy, Evans wanted to prove the historicity of the myths about ancient Crete.

So when he found a huge temple complex with hundreds of rooms and corridors, he assumed it was King Minos' palace with the fabled Labyrinth. He reasoned that if the King was named Minos, the people and the culture could be called Minoan. He coined the term and the name stuck.

This is why, on a regular basis, I get people asking me where Minoa is located. Sorry, but there is no such place. The modern name of the island where the ancient Minoans lived is Crete. The name the Minoans called it might very well have been Ida, which is also one of the names of the Minoan mother goddess Rhea. But there is no Minoa.

If Evans coined the term Minoans in the 20th century, what were the Minoans called in the ancient world? We're not sure, but the current best guess is that they were called something like Keftiu, based on the term kftı͗w found in a number of Egyptian inscriptions. This is not the same as the "Caphtor" found in the Bible and ancient Near Eastern texts. There is still a great deal of debate regarding whether Keftiu is indeed the correct ancient term (whether it's what the Minoans called themselves or what other people called them).

One of the most puzzling clues we have regarding the identification of Crete and the Minoans as Keftiu comes from an inscription on the stone base of a statue from the reign of Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III. Conventional dating places his reign during the 14th century BCE, shortly after the fall of the Minoan cities, though those dates are contested as too recent by some scholars. Regardless, the inscription lists locations on Crete and other Aegean islands at a time when the Egyptians were still regularly trading with Crete. The locations on Crete inlcude Amnisos, Phaistos, Kydonia, Knossos. The thing is, Keftiu is also in this list, as if it were a city alongside the others. That's a bit confusing, to say the least.

So the honest answer is, we really don't know for sure what the Minoans called themselves or what anyone else called them. The term Keftiu has stuck in the popular imagination and a lot of people use it in preference to Minoan, partly because it feels more historically accurate (even if it really isn't) and partly because there's some objection to using a name based on the idea of King Minos, when there was probably never a Minoan king at all (Minos was a Minoan god who was "demoted" to the status of mortal by the Greeks, just like Ariadne and the Minotaur, Minoan deities who were also "demoted" in various ways).

A few people have tried to re-brand Minoan culture as Ariadnian, based on the idea that the goddess was the supreme deity in ancient Crete, but the name simply hasn't caught on. The term Minoan is fixed in the popular imagination and isn't going anywhere anytime soon.

So the ultimate answer is, we can't be sure what the Minoans called themselves way back then. Keftiu seems to be the consensus answer to the question, though it still has its problems. I suppose it doesn't matter what we call them, as long as we keep talking about them so they don't end up lost to history once again.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

 

Recommended reading:

Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth by Joseph A. MacGillivray

The Dawn of Genius: The Minoan Super-Civilization and the Truth about Atlantis by Alan Butler (I promise the contents aren't nearly as sensationalistic as the title)

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Archer
    Archer Monday, 16 October 2017

    I really enjoyed this and look forward to learning more about the "Minoans". I love the way you combine mystery, historicity and imagination in your approach.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Monday, 16 October 2017

    Thank you! I try to make it clear where I'm speculating or working off gnosis (mine and/or that of others). But there's simply so much we don't know from the archaeological record, we have to fill in the blanks somehow.

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