What was daily life as a Minoan like on Crete, living in palaces like the ones at Knossos, Malia, Phaistos, and Zakros, and what were their religious beliefs?
Greece may be the birthplace of the Olympic Games, but long before the first torch was carried through a stadium in classical times, Cretan athletes awed the crowds by turning somersaults over the horns of charging bulls.
Crete was the home of Europe’s first civilisation, which flourished here from around 3000 BC until 1100 BC. Amazingly, it lay hidden until, the 20th century, when the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans began excavating Knossos.
He called this ancient race the Minoans, after the mythical Greek King Minos. It seems, however, that Minos was a title, not a personal name, rather like the Egyptian Pharoah, and at least 22 rulers bore this name.
The Minoans loved games and athletic contests. Bull-leaping satisfied both their appetite for sport and their religious obligation. The athletes would grab a charging bull by the horns, somersault over its back, and land on their feet with arms raised in victory. Both men and women took part in these dramatic feats, which required great courage, agility, and skill.
Impossible? Spanish bullfighters claim that it is, and some scholars believe that the bull-leaping scenes featured in Minoan frescoes may be only symbolic. Indeed, bulls had a strong religious significance in Minoan society. They represented virility and were depicted on vases and in figurines, , and enormous sculpted ‘horns of consecration’ adorned the palace walls.
Ceremonial drinking vessels called rhytons were carved in the shape of a bull’s head. In sacrificial rites thought to be connected to agricultural cycles, a bull was captured and bound, its throat cut, and its blood drained into these sacred cups. This ritual honoured the bull and connected the Minoans to its divine life force.
Bull-leaping, whether or not it actually occurred, may have symbolised the triumph of man over the unpredictable forces of nature.
Much of what we know about the Minoans has been gleaned from their beautiful artworks. Impressive frescoes once decorated the walls of the palaces showing, people, animals, and scenes of daily life as a Minoan.
The paintings, incorporating movement and sensuality, were skilfully executed in vibrant colours made from plants, minerals, and shellfish. The artists painted women’s skin white and men’s red. We therefore know from the frescoes that women played an important role in society.
Exquisite sculptures, pottery, mosaics, and decorative arts suggest that the Minoans lived an ancient version of the ‘good life’. Their palace homes had roof terraces, light wells, baths, and sophisticated plumbing systems. They were well fed, with huge granaries and giant vessels, called pithoi, to store wine and olive oil.
The Minoans were also great seafarers, trading their agricultural produce far and wide to acquire copper and tin to make bronze, and gold, silver and precious stones to make jewellery and works of art.
One of the most curious facts about their palaces is that they were built without fortifications, suggesting the Minoans lived peacefully and did not fear enemies. At their height, the Minoans are thought to have numbered over two million people, a figure four times greater than the population of Crete today!
This great civilisation came to a sudden end around 1450 BC when some unknown catastrophe occurred that destroyed all the palaces at the same time. Many scholars believe that the volcanic eruption on the nearby island of Santorini created a deluge of tidal waves, earthquakes, and fires on Crete, which could explain the charred remains found at some of the palaces.
Others favour theories of outside invaders, such as the Mycenaeans, or an internal rebellion against the palace rulers. Whatever the cause, within about 200 years the Minoans had all but disappeared, though the reason may always remain a mystery.
Poseidon, god of the sea, sent King Minos a white bull, but when he later requested that it be sacrificed, Minos could not bring himself to kill the beautiful animal. In revenge, the angry god caused the king’s wife, Pasiphae, to fall in love with the bull and their mating produced the Minotaur, a hideous creature with a bull’s head and a man’s body.
Minos kept the monster in a labyrinth beneath the palace, and every nine years fourteen youths were shipped from Athens and fed to the Minotaur.
When Theseus, son of the king of Athens, heard of this he vowed to stop the slaughter. Volunteering to be one of the victims, he entered the palace and then seduced Minos’s daughter, Ariadne, who gave him a sword and a ball of thread to enable him to find the bull, kill it, and then retrace his way out of the labyrinth.