History changes, I'm telling you. OK, the things that actually happened way-back-when don't really change, but our interpretation of them sure does. It's amazing how much our understanding of ancient Minoan culture has changed in the century or so since Sir Arthur Evans first uncovered the ruins of the temple complex at Knossos.
For instance, Evans was caught up in the ancient Egypt craze that had been bubbling along for decades as early archaeologists began uncovering Egyptian artifacts and translating Egyptian hieroglyphic texts. He considered Egypt to be the high civilization of the ancient world. So when he discovered that the Minoans - who flourished at about the same time as Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt - had complex architecture, paved roads, enclosed sewers, and other markers of a 'proper' civilized society, he assumed they had borrowed it all wholesale from Egypt.
When I was a kid my mom used to write my name in permanent marker on the tag inside my jacket so everyone would know it was mine. We monogram pillowcases and purses; we register the serial numbers of electronics with the manufacturer. We sign deeds to homes and titles to cars. There are many, many ways to identify things as 'ours' these days, but have you noticed that they all involve writing?
In ancient Crete, most people couldn't write. Sure, they had a writing system, the famous-but-still-undeciphered Linear A (and a hieroglyphic script to go along with it, also still undeciphered). But as was common in the ancient world, only the scribes and perhaps a few wealthy people knew how to write. Writing simply wasn't necessary for most people in their daily lives. But it was necessary for the big temple complexes - they had to keep track of all the donations people made, how much each plot of farmland and orchard produced every year, and so on. So they wrote things down on clay tablets and probably also on papyrus as well, though none of the perishable papyrus has survived as far as we know (I'm still hoping for a secret cache in a sealed jar somewhere). But the Minoans also did the ancient version of writing your name on your jacket tag: They used seals.
Most of what we know about the ancient Minoans was literally dug up out of the dirt. We've uncovered temple complexes, villages, towns, and all the furniture, dishes, and other items you'd expect to find in people's homes, workshops, and places of worship. But there aren't any Minoans around any more who can tell us what all those things were used for, so the archaeologists have to make educated guesses based on where each particular object was found.
Over in Ariadne's Tribe (my discussion group about modern Minoan Paganism) we frequently post images of lovely Minoan pottery that appears to have been randomly described as a 'ritual object.' Then we consider the possibility that the item isn't really a ritual object, but the archaeologists didn't know what else to call it and 'ritual object' sounds impressive when you're writing an academic paper.
Modern Minoan Paganism harks back to the Minoan civilization of ancient Crete: its beautiful towns, its sprawling temple complexes, its sacred caves and mountaintops. We know about the ancient Minoans - the way they lived, worked, and worshiped - because of a century's worth of efforts by archaeologists to uncover the remains of this fascinating ancient culture.
But sometimes these irreplaceable traces of ancient civilization are endangered by the modern desire for profit. A luxury holiday resort development that was turned down by the Greek government in 2011 has now received approval and will soon begin construction in Cavo Sidero, the beautiful wild peninsula on the northeastern coast of Crete. I understand the reasoning: The Greek economy is still in dire straits and anything that will bring in tourist income looks like a saving grace.
When I mention the Minoans of ancient Crete, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is the famous Snake Goddess statues. For us modern folks, they are icons of this ancient civilization. But what, exactly, do they represent? If we're really honest, the answer to that question is, "We're not sure."
There are many theories, of course. I think that falls under the rubric of "Everyone has an opinion." But we simply don't know for sure because we don't have any Minoan-era documents that tell us anything about these figurines. Linear A, the script the ancient Minoans used to write their native language, has never been deciphered. And the few documents we have that are written in Linear B, the script that records Mycenaean Greek from the time toward the end of Minoan civilization, don't say anything about snakes.
If you participate in ritual, you're probably familiar with the idea of sacred postures. Many modern Pagan traditions include gestures such as the "Osiris pose" (arms crossed over the chest with hands on the shoulders) or the "Goddess pose" (arms raised to the sides with hands up and palms facing forward). Ancient religions included sacred postures as well. One of the most famous is the Minoan salute, shown above, with the right arm raised and the loosely-curled fist placed with the back of the hand against the forehead (all images in this post are from Wikimedia Commons).
Those of us who practice modern Minoan Paganism have worked extensively with the Minoan salute. Like other sacred postures, if held for a while, it will induce a gently altered state of consciousness. Belinda Gore and the folks at the Cuyamungue Institute in New Mexico have studied the effects and uses of ecstatic postures for years; I reviewed Belinda Gore's excellent book on ecstatic postures a while back. It turns out, the use of ritual postures goes back to the Stone Age and each one induces an altered state with a slightly different focus. And the Minoans had a whole collection of postures they used, not just the famous salute. Over in Ariadne's Tribe, we've been experimenting with these postures for a while and sharing our experiences so we can have an experiential window into ancient Minoan spirituality.
The ancient Minoans revered the sea, and that makes perfect sense. After all, they lived on an island just south of Greece. Granted, it's a fairly large one as islands go: about 260 km (160 miles) long and 60 km (37 miles) wide. Still, the weather on Crete has always been mediated by the sea. And the Minoans plied their trade, becoming the wealthiest merchants of their time, by sailing large ships around the Mediterranean and even out the Straits of Gibraltar, up the Atlantic coast of Europe.
The merchants made their living on the sea and throughout the many centuries of Minoan civilization, the people relied on the sea as a source of food. But I think the Minoans also appreciated the beauty of the marine world, with its varied and fascinating plant and animal inhabitants. For instance, as far as we know they didn't eat dolphins, but there are a lot of dolphins in Minoan art, and not just the famous fresco at the top of this page. Here's a lovely stirrup jar with a leaping dolphin on it (all images are from Wikimedia Commons):