There is a certain kind of mindset that says that we, the current oh-so-modern inhabitants of the world, are the epitome of social and biological evolution, that we are an improvement over everything and everyone who has come before us. This concept was very popular in Victorian times thanks to Social Darwinism, a misapplication of the concept of evolution to social and cultural contexts. It was simply an easy way for well-off white Westerners to feel superior to non-whites, non-Westerners and pretty much every single culture that had come before them. So it came as quite a shock to Victorian society when Sir Arthur Evans uncovered the ruins of Minoan civilization and discovered complex architecture, beautiful naturalistic art and (gasp!) enclosed sewers and flush toilets. It turns out, ancient Crete wasn’t alone in this kind of ‘modernity.’ Almost every house in the ancient Indus Valley cities of Mohenjo-daro and Harappa had flush toilets attached to a sophisticated system of sewers.
The concept of linear cultural and social evolution, of simpler and cruder things leading to more complex and elegant things, derives from the Judeo-Christian worldview that offers a beginning (creation) and steady progress to an end (Judgment Day). This viewpoint colors our expectations of ancient cultures and our interpretations of what we find. But many cultures around the world, especially the ancient world, had a non-linear view of history. They did not see a straight path from beginning to end so much as an ever-spiraling cycle, like the seasons but on a larger, almost epic, scale. I think this circular/spiral mindset is more helpful than the linear one as a lens for viewing ancient cultures. It allows us to recognize the ups and downs of history and prehistory, the fact that people have always been intelligent, ingenious and adaptive.
It can be hard for us modern folks who have always lived in a patriarchal society to envision any other kind of culture. As Riane Eisler perceptively noted in her book The Chalice and the Blade, we come from a dominance hierarchy type society so we tend to assume that any other kind of society from history or prehistory must be similar. In other words, if the men aren’t in charge and disproportionately powerful compared to the women in a culture, then the reverse must be true: the women must hold all the power while the men are largely powerless and oppressed.
This unfortunate bias has spilled over into our interpretation of Minoan society. I can’t count how many times people have told me, “Oh, those Minoans, their art is all women. You don’t see men anywhere, so the women must have held all the power.” I’d like to dispel this myth, for myth it is, and it’s totally inaccurate. It’s based on the idea that all societies must be dominance hierarchy types and it fails to consider another type of society: the egalitarian culture, which is what the Minoans really had. That’s a society in which women and men are equals and all adults have the same standing regardless of gender. This myth is also based on a careful selection of Minoan art that in no way represents the enormous and beautiful collection we have from this ancient civilization. So let’s explore the accuracy (or lack thereof) of the women-in-charge myth by actually looking at the art of the ancient Minoans.
For us modern folks, it can be hard to understand the worldview of ancient people. They didn't know about outer space or the heliocentric view of the solar system, but they did their best to understand the world given the information they had at hand. In fact, the pre-Indo-European inhabitants of Europe didn't even think of the sky as a separate realm the way Indo-European cultures did. So what does that mean in terms of the way the Minoans viewed the cosmos?
You're probably familiar with the three-worlds cosmos that many pre-Christian Indo-European cultures had. The Norse version is especially popular, given that J.R.R. Tolkien adapted it for his own imaginary world. In the three-worlds view, the 'top' or upper world is the sky; the middle realm is the Earth and the area right above it where people and animals live; and the lower realm is beneath the Earth - the Underworld.
The ancient Minoans had a lot of opportunities for what I like to call Big Ritual. The priesthood of the temples at Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakro put on Mystery plays for the public, enacting stories from Minoan mythology at the solstice and equinoxes as well as at other festival dates. The cave shrines and peak sanctuaries were staffed by priestesses and priests who provided ceremonies for the public at the sacred times throughout the year. The more important inhabitants of the towns even had the prospect of attending large rituals within the temples themselves. But we modern folks don’t generally have access to that sort of event.
Sure, we have our altars and shrines at home, just as the Minoans and other ancient peoples did. But sitting in meditation with an altar is its own special kind of activity and doesn’t push the same buttons, if you see what I mean, as Big Ritual does.
When I tell people I follow a Minoan spiritual path, one comment that regularly comes up involves “those massive double-axe weapons.” Sometimes Wiccans will compare the labrys to the athame or the coven sword – a strong, sharp weapon that’s meant to signify the practitioner’s will, strength, passion and so on. But that’s not an accurate comparison. Yes, there have been cultures that used double-bladed axes as weapons, and very effective ones at that. And we know the Minoans made all sorts of bronze weapons for export; they may have been the world’s first major arms dealers, even though they probably had no military of their own.
But if you look carefully at the actual labyrses found in the ruins on Crete, the first thing you notice is that they’re incredibly flimsy. They are made of sheet metal, either gold or gold-plated, that’s not much thicker than tinfoil. Honestly, you could crumple most of them with your bare hands. That doesn’t strike me as a way to make a weapon.
We like to think of the gods as having always existed, time out of mind. In one sense they are timeless, of course, but in another sense they are closely linked to the cultures and societies of specific eras. It’s important to know when each deity ‘showed up’ and in what culture they did so, in order to understand which versions of the myths are the original ones and which are later alterations.
That’s right, later cultures came along and changed the earlier versions of myths, in most cases because they were taking over a society and wanted to downplay or even demonize its deities in favor of their own. You may be familiar with the way the writers of the Old Testament (the Hebrew Bible) depicted Asherah, Ba’al and other Middle Eastern deities as evil demons. You may also have heard about the ways the medieval Christian church condemned the European Pagan gods as evil spirits in the cases where they couldn’t manage to transform them into local saints. Well, these kinds of propaganda weren’t invented by the Judeo-Christian world; they’ve been going on as long as there have been people and pantheons.
Thursday is the holiday of Thanksgiving where I live in the U.S. As these things go, it’s a relatively modern one, instituted in the nineteenth century to help bring the nation back together after the Civil War (and please, let’s set aside the horrid historical revisionism about the Pilgrims and the native North American nations for the moment – I’m aware that many people choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving because of this issue). But the concepts on which Thanksgiving is founded are ancient. Essentially, it is the American harvest festival. And some of us find sacredness in that fact.
Across the world and throughout time, virtually every agrarian society instituted some sort of religious festival to celebrate the completion of the harvest. In many cases, these celebrations included the honoring of the Ancestors, both those recently deceased and those long gone. The Minoans were no different from any other ancient culture in this regard.