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Although it is now known almost exclusively as the site of a complex maze that housed the terrible monster called the Minotaur, the Minoan culture that flourished on the island of Crete beginning in the Bronze Age was in fact a highly evolved civilization with a matriarchal religion, beautiful art crafted in many different media, a sophisticated system of writing and complex and often belligerent relations with neighboring nations. It was far more than simply a maze with a monster. Research on Minoan Civilization examines the significant aspects of Minoan culture about 3000 years ago, at the conclusion of the culture's approximately two-thousand-year span.
History of Crete
The history of Crete is intimately entwined with the legends that surround its most famous - and most likely - legendary leader and so we begin our exploration of Minoan culture with an examination of the legend of Minos himself. The word "Minoan" itself derives from the mythical (or at least semi-mythical) "Minos". This ruler of the island kingdom was supposed to have been the son of Zeus, the king of the gods, and Europa, a personification of the land of Europe. It is important to note that the rendition of the story of how Minos came to power actually comes down to us from Athenian sources. Given that Athens and Crete were often at war, we must be somewhat cautious in how we read Athenian accounts of Minos and Crete.
With this in mind, the following are excellent topics for examining Minoan Civilization:
- How did the arts advance Minoan Civilization?
- What advantages did the Minoans have over other societies at this time in history?
- Explore one significant ruler from the early Minoan days, when Crete was a highly evolved civilization.
Like other powers that would arise in this region of the world, the Minoan culture was based in part on its people's ability to use the sea as a source of food as well as a series of trade routes. And, also like other Aegean cultures, Crete has left a lasting mark not only on its region but across the world because of the beauty of its art as well as the sophistication of its culture and religion.
By the time that Minoan culture reached the peak of its power and sophistication, it was known for elaborate palaces and beautifully planned cities as well as a number of different art forms, including Kamares ware, which featured light patterns on darker backgrounds, beautifully balanced pottery, elaborate seals and frescoes that depicted in exquisite detail both the mundane and sacred life of the Minoans.
Something of the beauty of Minoan pottery - far more obvious when one views pictures of the works that survive - can be derived from reading this description of it:
The decoration [on Kamares ware] is an elaboration of the white-on-black of the previous phase but the fabric is immeasurably superior, thanks to the introduction, probably from Asia Minor, of the potter's wheel.
The above passage helps demonstrate the skill of the Minoan artisans; however, of at least equal interest and importance is that fact that it describes the importance to the Minoans of trade. Not only did goods pass into and out of Crete, but ideas and skills were also passed along the trade routes, and one of the strengths of the Minoan culture was its willingness to set aside native ways of doing things when its people discovered that their trading partners had superior methods.
Minoan frescoes - which are created when pigment was applied to still-wet (or "fresh") plaster, which results in soft, almost dreamlike imagery - are one of the primary ways through which we have learned about Minoan culture, including Minoan religion because of the wealth of detail included in the images that the fresco artists created.
The depictions in these frescoes of a number of goddesses dressed in beautifully detailed garments have helped scholars to understand the matriarchal nature of Minoan religion. The frescoes also abound with symbols important throughout Minoan life, including the snake (which was linked to the chief goddess) and the bull, an animal important in many aspects of Minoan culture that may have been linked both to ideas about personal courage and to religious ritual.
By about 3600 BCE, Minoan culture began to spread across the Aegean and to the mainland of Greece, but the following century the Cretan culture that had grown out of its original Bronze Age settlements was defeated by mainland conquerors. After a brief period in which Cretan culture was invigorated by this invading culture, the Minoan world slipped into economic and political decline even as it bequeathed important parts of its culture to the Greek, including its advanced writing system now called Linear B.
The Minoan culture of Crete was able to last for centuries because of its strong economic basis in trade both locally in the Adriatic and far from its own shores. Its cultural influence - based in the skill of its artisans, its ritual and religious life, and the literacy of many (for the time) of its people - extended at least as far as its trade routes and has endured centuries after its decline.