The Minoan Path: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

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Good Guys, Bad Guys, and Utopias

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The world is a complicated place, and it’s tempting to divide it up into good guys and bad guys to simplify things, make life a little easier to digest. A good example of this kind of simplification is the Minoans of ancient Crete.

I’ll admit, when I first discovered this fascinating Bronze Age civilization, I felt like they were practically a utopia: equality for women, no military, a beautiful religion based around nature. Heck, they even had paved streets and flush toilets.

In the first few years of my serious exploration into Minoan life and religion, the Internet wasn’t really a viable source yet, at least not in my neck of the woods, so I had to turn to books. One of the first I found was Riane Eisler’s classic The Chalice and the Blade, a passionate plea for a return to the egalitarian societies of the early ancient world. In this book, Minoan Crete is Dr. Eisler’s exemplar society, peaceful and balanced, religious but not autocratic. I fell in love.

The problem is, what I fell in love with was a bit of an exaggeration. Just as the heroes and villains in books and movies tend to be a bit shallower and less complex than real people, so the descriptions I read of the Minoans tended to gloss over the less savory parts of Minoan society (and in the case of The Chalice and the Blade, to paint the supposed invading ‘Kurgan civilization’ as the world-destroying bad guys). Yes, Minoan society was certainly an improvement over many of the authoritarian, patriarchal societies we’ve seen throughout history, and I think we could learn a lot from the culture of ancient Crete. But it wasn’t a utopia.

Let’s see if we can paint a realistic picture of Bronze Age Crete. The populace of the island was organized into something like city-states, with the temple complex of each city being the administrative as well as the religious center of the surrounding area, but without any sort of oppressive governmental regime or monumental fortifications. And it’s true, the Minoans had no military.

Every decade or so, some academic or other pops up with a paper insisting that because there were spears in the artwork, daggers in the graves, and ships in the harbors, the Minoans must have had a military of some sort, probably a navy. There will be a kerfluffle in the media for a little while, but it will die down because there simply isn’t any sort of evidence beyond this collection of circumstantial bits – no record of the Minoans ever having fought with or against anyone of their era, including the Egyptians, Sumerians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, all of whom kept voluminous records. And in spite of the spears, labryses, and daggers in the Minoan artwork, nowhere is there a depiction of a military expedition or a leader taking prisoners, common themes in the art of neighboring civilizations at the time.

Minoan society was egalitarian, with both women and men owning property and filling leadership roles in the temples as well as secular society. This egalitarianism is reflected in the Minoan pantheon: goddesses do not meekly submit to dominating husbands, but stand equal to them (that is, if they have husbands at all).

The Minoans were wealthy. They traded all over the known world: the whole Mediterranean basin, up the Atlantic coast at least as far as Cornwall, and possibly eastward to the coast of India as well. This wealth allowed them to build beautiful cities with gleaming whitewashed buildings, paved roads, and complex enclosed sewer systems. Even the poor parts of the towns were decent. The people of ancient Crete imported raw materials and exported exquisite pottery, stone vases, dyed woolen cloth (they used the murex purple dye centuries before the Phoenicians did), jewelry, wine, and olive oil. Sounds wonderful, right? Practically a utopia. But the bulk of their wealth came from a single source.

Remember those weapons in the artwork? The Minoans crafted bronze blades – spearheads, swords, daggers – that were sought after everywhere they traded. It was the Bronze Age and well-made bronze blades brought a high price. The Minoans sold their blades in great quantity to anyone who would buy them, everywhere they went. They were essentially the world’s first major arms dealers. No, they didn’t have a military. But they sold to everyone else’s military, and mercenaries, and anyone else who could pay the asking price. Hmmmm.

I mentioned above that women in ancient Crete could own property just as men could, which is great. Not so great: One type of property they could own was human beings, in other words, slaves. Like the rest of the ancient world, the Minoans owned slaves. Individuals who could afford them purchased slaves and it appears the temples had quite a few as well (not including the priesthood who, like the Egyptian priesthood, styled themselves 'servants of the gods'). It’s possible, maybe even likely, that the Minoans traded in human beings along with the pottery, olive oil, and swords. So Minoan society was egalitarian for the free people, sure, but what about those who weren’t free?

Everything I’ve told you so far comes from the archaeological record: temple ruins, Linear B tablets, and so on. But there’s one aspect of Minoan society, of Minoan religion in particular, that isn’t clear from the archaeological record. It is pretty clear, however, to those of us who have delved deeply into the world of ancient Crete through psychic archaeology, meditation, and past life regression. That aspect is human sacrifice.

There are a few tantalizing bits of archaeological evidence that suggest the possibility of human sacrifice as an unusual act during times of extreme distress, among them the temple at Anemospilia, the North House at Knossos, and the town of Chania (ancient Kydonia). This evidence is controversial, since it’s not clear exactly what happened to these people, under what circumstances, and why.

But those of us who work with Minoan religion have a pretty clear impression of human sacrifice – the voluntary sacrifice of willing adults – as a regular part of the regular religious practice of the time. This was done in a ritual setting with people who knew their fate beforehand and agreed to it, and the situation usually involved hallucinogenic substances as well. Such a practice was not unusual during the Bronze Age, but even so, it’s not the kind of thing we can easily accept in the modern world. It definitely makes the Minoans look a little bloody, a little less shiny. And obviously, not something we want to bring forward as we work to make Minoan Paganism relevant in the modern world.

That’s the basics, in a very short format. Minoan Crete is still an attractive civilization to me, and I think there are valuable lessons we could learn from the way the Minoans moved in their world, but they were not a utopia, not in the least. In fact, I think they’re a more valuable example for not being perfect. They show us that ordinary mortals – imperfect human beings – can still develop into a successful, peaceful society whose echoes continue to reverberate for millennia after they’re gone.

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; my most recent work 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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