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Equality for Minoan Men!

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.

There is a popular misconception that Minoan art contains almost exclusively images of women but this isn’t true. The narrow-waisted, bare-breasted female figures in statuary and frescoes certainly caught the eye of the Victorian-era men who ran the archaeological digs back in the days the culture of ancient Crete was rediscovered, but they are far from the only type of human images to be found. As far as I can tell, women and men are represented in roughly equal numbers in the artwork we have found so far. But of course, voluptuous topless priestesses get more publicity. Let’s examine the artwork in Nanno Marinatos’ excellent book Minoan Religion: Ritual, Image and Symbol. It’s considered one of the classics in the field and it offers 246 images for our perusal.

Let’s look at how the images in Ms. Marinatos’ book break down. Many of the illustrations in her book are of Minoan buildings or religious items that don’t depict people. But a large number of them, from seal impressions to frescoes to figurines, show Minoan people in a wide range of poses and settings. The count? 68 images of women alone, 62 of just men and 27 that include both male and female figures. Also, seven pictures of ancient Minoan items that have human figures on them, but we can’t tell for sure whether they’re male or female.

Ms. Marinatos’ book offers an accurate, broad representation of the finds we have from ancient Crete. Note that the numbers for representations of men and women are roughly the same. There’s no great disparity between them. Just as women are depicted in ritual settings, so are men. We can see young male figures in loincloths and older, bearded ones in long robes. Men make toasts and ritual gestures. Boys participate in puberty rites. To say that men are not represented in Minoan art, or are poorly represented compared to women, is incorrect. Some of my favorite images from Minoan art include the beautiful gold seal rings showing men and women participating in ritual together, invoking deities, enacting the sacred marriage and worshiping the divine in their ancient world.

I can understand the tendency to assume that one sex was dominant over the other in ancient Crete since that’s our modern paradigm. It’s also true that the Minoan pantheon is headed by female figures who don’t have male consorts. The Minoans’ version of Great Cosmic Mother-of-All is Urania. Her daughter is their Grandmother Ocean goddess, Posidaeja. And the Minoans’ Earth Mother goddess, whom they envisioned as the island of Crete itself, is Rhea. But below these overarching deities were male-female pairs who were thoroughly equal: Britomartis and the Moon-Stag, Pasiphae and the famed Minotaur, Amalthea and the Moon-Goat. They embodied the balance the Minoans emphasized throughout their society, and they appeared at an accessible level that the people could relate to. They didn’t represent the whole cosmos or the great big ocean or the entire land. They were right there, among the people, showing them that men and women can live and work together as equals to bring the sacred to life.

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 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, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Thesseli
    Thesseli Wednesday, 01 April 2015

    This article makes me think of this story -- http://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=197390707 -- an in particular this part: "We just heard a fascinating and disturbing study, where they looked at the ratio of men and women in groups. And they found that if there's 17 percent women, the men in the group think it's 50-50. And if there's 33 percent women, the men perceive that as there being more women in the room than men." In our society, we are so used to seeing so little female representation that anything even approaching equality seems dangerously skewed in favor of women. The "Smurfette Principle" (or the "Territorial Smurfette", if there are two women present) is taken as normal. Women make up half the human race but lots of people just can't see it.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 01 April 2015

    That's kind of disturbing, but I guess it's a reminder that what we think we see isn't necessarily the same as what's really there.

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