Life as a Minoan

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?

The Minoan Palace of Knossos on CreteLife as a Minoan at Knossos

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.

Europe’s First Civilisation

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.

These priest-kings built impressive palaces – Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros are the largest discovered to date – where they presided over a rich, artistic culture that was highly ritualistic

Bull-Leaping

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.

Minoan Remains at Phaistos on CreteMinoan Remains at Phaistos

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.

The Minoan Ages

Chronologically, archaeologists break down the Minoan civilisation into four main periods:

Pre-Palace Period (2600-1900 BC). Bronze Age culture develops on Crete.

Old Palace Period (1900-1700 BC). First Minoan palaces are built but are destroyed by earthquakes.

New Palace Period (1700-1450 BC). Grand new palaces are built and the civilisation reaches its height before a great catastrophe, possibly a tsunami, destroyed all the palaces simultaneously.

Post Palace Period (1450-1100 BC). After the destruction, Minoan civilisation declines as the Mycenaeans move in.

Daily Life as a Minoan

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.

The Minoan Palace at Knossos on CreteMinoan Frescoes at Knossos

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!

The Double Axe

The double axe was also a dual symbol, representing both the waxing and the waning of the moon and the religious and political power of the priest-king.

Catastrophic Ending

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.

The Snake Goddess

Another potent Minoan religious figure was that of the Snake Goddess, a woman holding a snake in each hand. Her bare breasts symbolised fertility while the snake, which sheds its skin, symbolises healing and rebirth.

The Legend of the Minotaur

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.

Where to Stay on Crete


Other Crete pages

  • Lonely Planet Crete

    Lonely Planet Crete is an excellent and thorough guide of almost 300 pages to the largest of the Greek islands.

  • Malia and its Minoan Palace on Crete

    Malia on the north coast of Crete is renowned for its nightlife and beaches but also has the Minoan Palace of Malia, one of Crete's many archaeological sites.

  • Crete Olive Oil Tour

    For a Crete olive oil tour Greece Travel Secrets visits Biolea, one of the few olive oil factories on Crete that you can visit.

  • Diktean Cave, the Birthplace of Zeus near Psychro on Crete

    The Diktean or Diktaean Cave, also known as the Psychro Cave, near the village of Psychro in eastern Crete, is said to be the birthplace of Zeus.

  • Kritsá, Lato, and Panagía Kerá

    The Byzantine Church of Panagía Kerá near Kritsa and not far from Ayios Nikolaos is one of the most famous in Crete, and close by is the site of Ancient Lato.

  • The Herb Man of Kouses

    Greece Travel Secrets visits the Cretan Botano herbs and spices shop near Matala in southern Crete in search of the herb man of Kouses.

  • Lasithi Plateau Drive

    This Lasithi Plateau drive on Crete starts in Neapoli and ends in Malia, covering a distance of 80 km (50 miles) and taking two to three hours.

  • Knossos

    Visiting Knossos near Iraklion is one of the best things to do on Crete, and this page has a history of the site with visitor information.

  • Our Hire Car in Crete

    The travel tale Our Hire Car in Crete describes what it’s like when you go driving in Greece and get off the beaten track, resulting in kindnesses.

  • Cretan Writers and Artists

    The most famous Cretan writers and artists include the painter El Greco and the author of Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis.

  • Where to Stay in Eastern Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets suggests where to stay in Eastern Crete with our favourite hotels in Zakros, Elounds, Sitia, Agios Nikolaos, Istron Bay, Myrtos, Neapolis.

  • Best Things to Do on Crete

    The best things to do on Crete and top things to see include the Samaria Gorge, the Minoan Palaces at Knossos and Phaistos, the towns of Chania and Rethymnon.

  • Amari Valley Drive

    This Amari Valley drive in southern Crete starts and ends in Ayia Galini, takes four to five hours and cover 100 kilometres or 62 miles.

  • Manousakis Wine Tasting

    We visit and tour the Manousakis Winery on Crete with a wine-tasting and a chance to buy their tsikoudia, sea salt, olive oil and other goodies.

  • Zacharioudakis Winery

    Greece Travel Secrets visits the Zacharioudakis Winery near Ancient Gortina in southern Crete, and does a vineyard tour arranged by our guide from Go Crete.

  • Matala Beach

    Matala Beach on Crete is a guest blog for Greece Travel Secrets from the We Love Crete website, inviting you to Awaken Your Inner Hippy in Matala, Crete.

  • Hiking the Samaria Gorge

    Hiking the Samaria Gorge on Crete, one of the best things to do on Crete, by Greece Travel Secrets.

  • Touring the Lyrarakis Winery on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets tours the Lyrarakis Winery on Crete and learns about Crete grape varieties such as plyto, dafni, vidiano, vilana, mandilari and kotsifali.

  • Margarites

    Margarites is known on Crete for its pottery, with ceramics shops and workshops lining the streets of this charming small town not far from Rethymnon.

  • Keramos Studios in Zaros

    Keramos Studios in Zaros on Crete is an inexpensive two-star hotel/guesthouse with one of the best breakfasts on the island using food from the family’s farm.

  • Rethymnon in Western Crete

    Rethymnon is the third-largest city in Crete and has a Venetian fortress, Archaeological Museum, Old Town area and Venetian harbour,

  • Ancient Gournia Minoan Site in Eastern Crete

    Ancient Gournia is a Minoan archaeological site between Agios Nikolaos and Sitia in Eastern Crete where the visitor can see evidence of a maze of back streets.

  • Making Rakomelo on Crete

    Greece Travel Secrets visits Crete and learns about making rakomelo from Jorgos Kourmoulis in Agouseliana.

  • Sir Arthur Evans, archaeologist at Knossos on Crete

    Sir Arthur Evans is the archaeologist famous for the excavations he made at the royal palace of Knossos on Crete.

  • Western Crete in Five Days

    Western Crete in five days allows time to visit Chania and Rethymnon, enjoy the beaches, hike the Samaria Gorge and see the monasteries at Arkadi and Preveli.

Enjoy this page? Please pay it forward. Here's how...

Would you prefer to share this page with others by linking to it?

  1. Click on the HTML link code below.
  2. Copy and paste it, adding a note of your own, into your blog, a Web page, forums, a blog comment, your Facebook account, or anywhere that someone would find this page valuable.

Latest Posts

  1. Popular Paliokastritsa on Corfu Gets New Marina

    Greek Tourism Minister Vassilis Kikilias and Corfu Mayor Meropi Hydraiou inaugurated this week a new 103-berth marina at Alypa in Paliokastritsa. “The project will bring added value to the cosmopolita…

    Read More

  2. Poll: Cost-conscious Greeks Prefer Beach Holidays This Year

    Financially pressed Greeks are choosing beach holidays this year, according to a study released by Athens-based research firm Focus Bari in collaboration with YouGov. Carried out in July on a represen…

    Read More

  3. Costa Navarino Welcomes the ‘Democracy and Happiness Weekend’ in September

    World acclaimed authors, innovative thinkers and award-winning thought leaders will gather at Costa Navarino in Messinia in September to participate in the “Democracy and Happiness Weekend”, a cultura…

    Read More

  4. Chios State Airport to Get Long-awaited Upgrade

    The Greek Transport Ministry recently announced that the “Omiros” state airport on Chios will receive 9.6 million euros in funding to significantly upgrade infrastructure and expand facilities. The wo…

    Read More

  5. SKY express: New Routes from Athens to Milan, Munich and Sofia

    Greek airline SKY express recently announced the expansion of its network of destinations by adding new routes from Athens to the popular cities of Munich, Milan and Sofia. “We have announced the expa…

    Read More

  6. Vessels from 45 Countries Cross Greece’s Corinth Canal in July

    Vessels from 45 countries crossed Greece’s Corinth Canal in July after it reopened to transit, the country’s public assets authority said Thursday. One of the country’s most-visited sites, the Corinth…

    Read More

  7. Shopping Tips for Crete

    These shopping tips for Crete include advice on buying souvenirs like ceramics, icons, jewellery, leather, weavings, wood carvings, and food and drink.

    Read More

  8. Corfu Shopping Tips

    These Corfu shopping tips include advice on buying souvenirs like ceramics, jewelry, gold, silver, wood carvings, and food and drink, with tips on haggling.

    Read More

  9. Tinos: Island of Miracles

    The Virgin, the art of marble crafting, the vernacular architecture, the rich interior, and of course the north wind. Maya Tsoclis writes about her island.

    Read More

  10. Six Days of Sailing in the Dodecanese

    If you're looking for a time machine, the waters between Crete and Rhodes are where you should sail.

    Read More