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Book Review: The Dawn of Genius - Minoan super-civilization?

I freely admit to reading pretty much anything I can get my hands on about the ancient Minoans, simply because there's not that much available. I began this particular book with a bit of trepidation, since its cover is full of hype ("The Minoan Super-Civilization and the Truth about Atlantis" is a bit much, I think). The author, Alan Butler, has previously collaborated with Christopher Knight to write some fairly controversial books such as The Hiram Key Revisited and Before the Pyramids, which didn't help my confidence. Fortunately, it appears that when he's writing by himself, Mr. Butler does an excellent job of collecting up known facts and strong evidence and drawing reasonable conclusions from them. The cover is the wildest thing about the book; I quite enjoyed the contents.

So what's the book about? The first section does an excellent job of organizing and explaining the things we know fairly surely about the ancient Minoans, including all the latest data that often gets left out of the articles that get passed around online so frequently (the book was published in 2014 so it's pretty up-to-date). Unlike many writers who rely on outdated references, Butler gets the timeline right: The Mediterranean island of Thera (modern Santorini) erupted in about 1628 BCE, dealing a heavy blow to Minoan civilization and creating a weakness that allowed the Mycenaeans to enter into their sphere and eventually take over (and ultimately, destroy Minoan culture since they don't seem to have been able to adapt well enough to wrangle Crete's stubborn native population into compliance). Minoan civilization itself officially ended about two centuries after the eruption, with the systematic destruction of all the major cities and temple complexes.

Though I was reassured that Butler is a thorough and reliable researcher, I did become a little uneasy when I got to the part of the book where he offers theories about a wide range of Minoan-related subjects. Surprisingly, I came away thinking that he's made some reasonable, educated guesses that aren't at all out of line with the actual evidence. Most of it's not provable (yet - new archaeological evidence comes available every year) but none of it is nearly as wild-and-crazy as I expected from the hype on the book's cover.

[SPOILER ALERT] Yes, I know this isn't a work of fiction, but if you want to be surprised by Butler's theories, you'll want to skip a couple of paragraphs down. His main idea pertains to the "Minoan super-civilization" named on the book's cover, and it fascinates me. I've known about the megalithic yard since I began reading about stone circles as a teenager. Though mainstream archaeologists studiously ignore the idea (because it conflicts with their notion of ancient people as primitive and incapable of certain kinds of mental gymnastics) the data is there. Butler, an engineer himself, shares a second measurement system based on what he calls the Minoan foot. The two units of measurement are related via a system of geometry and time (calendar) that's based on the number 366 instead of 360. Into this he brings the Phaistos disc, which thankfully he doesn't claim to have translated. Instead, he simply looked at it as an engineer and suggests that it could easily have been used to work out the calendar system based on 366 days. I find this idea intriguing; I've always thought the disc was a calendar of some sort. There's a lengthy appendix in the back of the book that explains Butler's mathematics. I have to say, his theory is certainly possible, though obviously it can't be proven at this point. The only real argument against it is the idea that people back then couldn't possibly have known how to do that sort of thing, and to me, that's a pretty shoddy argument, since it ignores all the data entirely. As Sherlock Holmes said in the original books, "It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts."

The second half of the book's subtitle is about Atlantis, and Butler's theory about Solon's legend makes more sense than any I've yet read. He goes to great lengths to explain the details of how he thinks it happened, but the gist is simple: The legend of Atlantis grew, as many legends do, out of the garbled remains of multiple different fictional stories as well as historical events. So yes, the eruption of Thera is in there, but it mustn't be taken literally as the civilization that was Atlantis. Butler's theory aligns with that of many classics scholars who believe Solon's story was meant to be allegorical, a teaching aid with a moral for his audience and not a literal history.

[SPOILERS END]

On the whole, I quite enjoyed the book. It's well written and not sensationalistic at all, thank heavens. If you're interested in Things Minoan, I recommend it simply for the first few chapters that give the best summary I've yet seen of what we currently know about Minoan civilization. As for the rest, you're free to agree or disagree with Butler as you like. For the time being, I'll hold his ideas as possibilities and await the discovery of more Minoan ruins to flesh out our knowledge about Minoan astronomy and mathematics.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

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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.

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