The Sea Raiders — Part 3. The Golden Age of Crete.

James Thomas
Jul 21, 2013 · 26 min read


The origins of “The Sea Raiders” saga continues with the following : Part Two — NARRATIVE, Chapter II“The Golden Age of Crete” of A.R. BURN’S Book Minoans Philistines and Greeks

(1930 ). Rreproduced in whole for the benefit of the reader.


His splendid Excellency Rekh-ma-ra, Governor of Upper Egypt under the great conquering Pharaoh Thothmes III, built for himself a splendid tomb after the manner of his country. On its walls he, like other high officials of Egypt of his time, bade the artists, who were to paint the frescoes, depict the nations of the four corners of the world, North and South, East and West, coming to lay their tribute at the feet of his master, the great king. So there they painted them : the Semites and the Negroes, and the people of the land of Punt on the Red Sea, and from the men whom the Egyptians called the Keftiu, “the people from beyond” from over the “Very Green”, the sea.

At the feet of the Vizier they lay their tribute down : packages oblong and cylindrical, piled high in great earthen-ware or metal bowls ; works of art in the shapes of animal heads — a lion, a deer, a bull ; large beads or jewels, strung in magnificent necklaces. Many apparently bring oil or wine, in pitchers and amphoras that vary in size and shape; but the shapes are uniformly artistic, and the material in some cases is silver or gold. The vessels themselves were no small part of the offering. A white-headed Egyptian (Rekh-ma-ra himself?) receives their goods, while a scribe at his side makes an inventory of them. Above is written: “The Coming in Peace of the Great Ones of Keftiu and of the Isles in the Midst of the Sea.”

Now some at least of the offerings — the heads of bulls and lioness, and some of the vases — are clearly objects of Aegean art. This becomes still clearer on inspection of other Egyptian tomb-paintings showing tribute-bearers of the same physical type and similarly dressed, notably those of Queen Hatshepsut’s councillor and minister of works, Sen-mut. The physical type and dress themselves, observed with the admirable accuracy of the best Egyptian art, suggest the same conclusion. It is a dark, regular-featured Mediterranean type; their black wavy hair is in part done up in an elaborate curl on top of the head, in part hangs in long strands over the shoulders. The dress is simple; merely an embroidered loin-cloth, hanging from a belt drawn tight about the slim waist, and soft-leather boots, laced up above the ankle; boots adapted, as has been observed, for walking through the ubiquitous scrub of an Aegean hill-side.

Those were the sea-farers, true brothers to the Cup-Bearer of Knossos and other Cretans known to us from Minoan Art, whose skill as workers in gold and silver, stone, ivory and the potter’s clay, was well-known in the prosperous Egypt of the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries B.C., and whose shipping Thothmes III himself, when in Syria in the year 1467, employed to transport timber from the coast of Phoenicia to the wood-less Egypt. For there was no native Phoenician sea-power in the land of Canaan then.

Thothmes III, like other Egyptian monarchs, claimed these Keftiu as subjects and their presents as tribute; which claim, coming from the non-maritime Egyptians, is merely imperial hyperbole. The “tribute” should rather come under the heading of customs receipts. M. Glotz well compares the jars of wine presented to Agamemnon in his camp before Troy by the Lemnian traders, before they did business with the host in general.

Minoan Crete traded not only with Egypt, but even, indirectly, with the distant Babylon and “the lands of Sumer and Akkad”. The silver cylinder from Mochlos remains as a relic of this commerce; and indeed, the oldest reference to the island world in a written document, of which we know, comes from the records of a Mesopotamian King. Twelve centuries before the tome of Thothmes and Rekh-ma-ra, the great conqueror Sargon of Akkad had stood on the Syrian shore and cast longing eyes towards “Ku-ki, the Tin-Land, which is beyond the Upper Sea”.

The Sumerian and Semitic push to the north-west, in which Sargon’s invasion forms an episode, was a movement of the first importance in the history of civilization. Before it began the merchants of Sumer and Akkad had no doubt for some time been aware that silver came to the, passing from hand to hand among the tribes, from a mountain-range in the north-west, and tin, it would be reported, from a yet remoter land. In the attempt to reach the sources of the supply of these desirable metals, they opened up direct communication with the comparatively distant west, and planted the seeds of civilization both in Asia Minor, afterwards the Hittite country, and in what was afterwards Phoenicia.

Far into the north-west highlands Sargon led an expedition, to show that he had power to defend, even so far off, the agents of Babylonian business houses interested in the silver mines. He met and defeated Pamba, King of Garsaru, who came up to assist the people of the city of Kanis, secured the position of the Babylonian trading community there, and returned, bringing with him samples of several northern plants (the vine, the fig tree and the rose among them) which he introduced into Mesopotamia. The trading community at Kanis later become extremely important, as we know from the several hundred cuneiform tablets found there, mostly commercial correspondence, dating from the age of the Third Dynasty of Ur (about 2400–2200 B.C.). The use of cheques in this long-distance north-western trade introduces a strange note of modernity into our impressions of the advanced Sumerian civilization; as does the existence of a woman’s college at Kanis, to give the benefits of a sound Babylonian education to the daughters of the colonial commercial agents and managers of the silver mines.

From Phoenicia we have as yet no such early records, but it is highly probable that here, on the way to Sargon’s Tin-land, the same things were going on. Sargon himself has told us of his interest in the Tin-land, and indeed, if we could believe his royal boast, he even crossed the sea to invade and conquer it. It is not impossible that he may have explored as far as Cyprus.

The recent discoveries of a Sumerian civilization in the Indus region show us that the pioneers of town life in Mesopotamia were not afraid of long distances. At any rate, since the merchants of Sumer and Akkad planted colonies in and beyond the Tarsus in order to get silver, nothing is more likely than that they also occupied the ports to which the sailors of “Kaphtor” brought their European tin. Here, then, is the probable source of the tradition that Herodotos heard at Tyre, that the city was founded by colonists from the Persian Gulf about 2300 years before his time. This brings us to 2750 B.C., or just about Sargon’s period. Tyre itself as a matter of fact was probably a much later foundation; but of the earliest towns on the Phoenician coast the story may well be true. Gebal, the Greek Byblos, was known to the Egyptians as a thriving port in very early days, though the ships that came to it with merchandise seem not to have been its own but those of the Keftiu.

Such, then, was the trade which brought tin and occasionally Minoan pottery, to Cyprus and the Syrian coast, and silver, and Babylonian cylinder seals, and probably also such perishable things as “goodly Babylonitish garments” from the east to Crete.

Now in the fifteenth century B.C., Minoan Knossos was at the height of its prosperity and power; and if any Egyptian or Babylonian trader had cared to follow the tin-traders of Kaphtor home, instead of waiting for them to bring the precious metal to him, he might well have been surprised not only at the advanced and brilliant civilization, but at the very strength and numbers of the island race.

Getting back from Egypt in a sailing-vessel was a less easy matter for the “tribute”-bearers than going there, for the Annual Winds, as the Greeks called them, blow persistently from the north in those waters, the summer through; but at last it would be done, not without heavy labour at the oars, and the ship would be beached and drawn up beyond high-water mark, on the south coast of Crete, not far from Phaistos, at the very port which Menelaos in the Odyssey uses and which Sir Arthur Evans re-discovered not many years ago.

From the southern harbour, the way across the island to the northern capital lay up the hot but lovely mountain-girdled plain of Messara, until, after leaving on the right the royal palace of Phaistos on its rocky knoll, the travellers would turn left, northwards, up the hills towards the pass over the mountain backbone of the island. Pack animals carried their goods, no doubt; but the horse had been known in the island for some centuries, and important visitors could drive in a lightly built chariot more or less at their ease. Here our imaginary Egyptian might have observed that the chariots had their cars scientifically placed over the axle, as may be seen to-day in frescoes from Mykenai; it was a contrast to the bad Egyptian mode of construction, with axle and wheels at the extreme rear of the car, thus throwing a needless share of the weight upon the backs of the horses.


“Bull-Leaping”: From the Knossian Fresco. (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

It was no small achievement even to have built a road fit for wheeled traffic right across the mountain backbone of a large and rugged island; but the Minoan Monarchy had done it. It was no mere track, but a very fine piece of bronze-age engineering, with culverts and short stretches of viaduct where necessary, and probably fortified guard-posts at intervals in the twenty-mile stretch that crosses the hills. Historic Hellas never had such highways.

On went the travellers across the high ridges between Mount Iuktas and the holy peak of Ida with its sacred caves; and so at last, after their forty-mile journey, almost from sea to sea, they used to descend into the northern maritime plain and see before them, sprawling over valley and hill-side by the rivulet of the Kairatos, the great city of Knossos. By way of a viaduct along the hillside and a bridge that spanned a tributary ravine, the road led up to the stately southern portico of the palace of the kings.

Here it forked, and a branch, for the use of the general public, led past the palace into the city — giving the royal officers every facility for observing all coming and going between the capital and the interior; while another branch, trodden by members of the royal household, by ambassadors, and by the King’s captains and messengers, led straight ahead into the Palace.


The Lion and the Bull, (Seal from Vaphio, near Sparta). (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

Cold water plashed into a horse-trough by the side of the way, and close by the fork in the road stood a pavilion, which appears to have been a guest-house or inn. Opening off the yard were bath-rooms where the traveller might cool his feet and wash off the fine white clinging dust of a Cretan road. Afterwards as he ate and drank I n a room, also opening off the inn yard, where hoopoes and partridges processed in a delicate and lifelike frieze round the top of a wall whose lower frescoes imitated timber pillars, the Egyptian visitor might marvel at his leisure, as he reflected further, on the very highly developed civilization of the “people from Beyond”.

To a stranger from the opposite direction — some hapless barbarian captive from the hills of Greece, for instance, destined for he scarcely knew what fate, once he was herded within the dreaded Palace of the Double Axe — the most striking thing must have been the sheer size of the buildings and the town, and the numbers of the thronging people. Especially awe-inspiring was the palace, two and three stories high, with its courts and magazines and staircases, and its inner rooms where only a deep light-well gave a glimpse of the blue sky, and its endless mazes of passages, whose turnings, left and right, and up and down too, seemed designed expressly to mislead the nocturnal footsteps of the slave who had to meet Minotaur in the morning and who was trying to escape. The town, too, with its tall houses packed together and extending over scores of acres every way, was a very different matter from the large village of hill-fortress that the slave had ever seen at home in Attica; for Knossos was a great bustling sea-port, even by modern standards a large town, and by comparison with any other human settlement in the Europe of that age, gigantic. It could challenge comparison with Egyptian Thebes or with the great towns of Mesopotamia. Its populousness is well illustrated by a fresco of a theatre packed with people, in commenting on which Sir Arthur Evans has given as his opinion that there were in Knossos nothing under one hundred thousand souls.

Even now, when levelled to the ground, the palace is imposing, and gives a striking impression of the human hive that it must have been in its prosperous days; with its throne room and its halls o reception opening of the great court; with its private living-rooms behind; with its magazines for all manner of stores, and especially for the oil that the king received as tribute from his subjects and trade, after the manner of the great monarchs of that age, by way of exchange of “presents” with his “brother” rulers over sea. There was plenty of other towns and palaces in Crete, but fifteenth-century Knossos dwarfed them all. Its royal archives remain, alas, unread, but nevertheless their study suggests important conclusions.

To quote distinguished archaeologists, the great mass of baked clay tablets includes “inventories of treasure and stores, and receipts for chariots, armour, metal vessels, ingots of copper such as have been found in store at Hagia Triada and singly in Cyprus and Sardinia; and smaller quantities of unworked gold, by weight. Other tablets contain lists of persons, male and female; perhaps tribute paid in slaves or in person as in the Greek legend of the Minotaur”.


The Minotaur, (Seal from Zakro). (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

There are also “longer documents, which suggest reports or despatches from local governors or representatives abroad”. ”Clearly, continues Myres, “we have to do with the details of a vast and exact administration, far more extensive than Cnossus itself would justify”; and the very bulk of the archives confirms the impression that “the later Greeks were right in the main, regarding Minos of Cnossus as a monarch who ruled the seas and terrorised the land, absolute and ruthless, if only because inflexibly just”.

This is the setting within which the Greek traditions of King Minos take their place; Minos, as the epics tell us , the “son” or “familiar friend” of the most high God; the great judge and lawgiver, the greatest monarch that this world had ever known; Minos, who was also from the point of view of the mainland folk, the subject of a quite different and a bitterly hostile tradition, as “Minos of the baleful heart”, a tradition preserved to us in full by the “aboriginal” Athenians, but one to which Homer alone once, in his reference to the story of Theseus, designs to allude.

It was in this hostile tradition of the mainland Greeks, who trembled at King Minos’ name, that the name of the Labyrinth, the king’s great palace, which in the Cretan Language meant “the place of the double Axe” — the sacred symbol that everywhere adorned its walls — came simple to mean a maze, and more especially that particular maze at Knossos, out of which no prisoner, it was said, had ever yet found his way back home. So, too, Minos’ Bull, the sacred animal over whose splendid horns trained boy or girl athletes vaulted or somersaulted as it charged — or failed to do so and were impaled and gored — while Minos and the lords and ladies of his court looked on, became for the haunted imagination of the subject folk the Minotaur, a nightmare monster, born of sin, which Minos kept in a secret lair and fed with the living flesh of those youths and maidens whom he demanded as tribute year by year.

The Greek tradition of Minoan imperialism, and of profound Cretan influence on the culture and religion of all but the most northerly Aegean shores, are indeed particularly varied and widespread, and in many quarters, though not in all, their soundness is proved beyond a doubt by archaeology. It is also archaeology that with no uncertain voice bids us refer the traditions to the fifteen century B.C.; for then, and at no later date, Crete was in truth the home of a culture whose influence was felt on every side.

“Minos”, so fifth-century Athens believed, “was the first of whom we hear that he possessed a fleet, and controlled the greater part of what are now Greeks waters, and ruled over the Cyclades. . . . And he drove out the Karians and installed his sons as governors; and he naturally supressed piracy so far as was possible, so that his revenues might come in better.” So, too, Bakchylides of Keos tells how Minos came with fifty ships of war, and colonised the poet’s native isle.


The Palace: a Hall and Stairway. (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

Later writers add a few details. Diodoros for example calls attention to the wide distribution in the islands and on the Asiatic coast of the Aegean, of the significant place-names “Minoa” and “Cretan Harbour”. Minos, he further adds, grew jealous of the reputation for fairness of his brother Rhadamanthys, who was associated with him in the kingship, and sent him abroad in order to be rid of him. So Rhadamanthys became governor of the Asiatic islands, and founded Chios and Erythrai.

Diodoros’ use of place-names as evidence has quite a modern sound; nor in his story of Rhadamanthys at Chios altogether to be despised, for it is local tradition. Erythrai with its significant name, “Crimson Beaches”, was presumably a centre of the purple dye industry and its attendant shell-fisheries. In the case of the Cyclades the evidence for actual subjection to a Minoan empire is conclusive. The archaeological evidence for the sixteenth and fifteenth centuries B.C. would suggest it even apart from the tradition. Cycladic culture at that time was simply, it had been said, “a colonial edition” of that of Crete. Some “sons of Minos” it will have been, who brought over to decorate his residency on Melos that Cretan artist, who there, executed the famous wall-painting of the Flying-Fish.

The place-name Minoa, which was the mane of the two ports on the north coast of Crete, recurs in the Cyclades three times — at Siphnos, Paros, and Amorgos. “Cretan Harbour” on the other hand is not otherwise known to us. Probably it was never the name of a town, but only that of various desolate but convenient coves or bays, and so the various extant Late Greek geographies and gazetteers have all passed it by. The name of Naxos, too, like that of Lesbian Methymna, was also that of a Cretan town.


The Cup Bearer, (Fresco from Knossos). (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

There was another Minoa on the east coast of Lakonia, whence the builders of Cretan palaces imported the beautiful porphyry stone of the Tayetos hills; there was a seventh in the Saronic Gulf, the inshore islet which, as legend said, had been the king’s headquarters when he besieged and sacked Nisa, near the later Megara.

And thereby hangs a tale — one of the two Greek versions of the story of how a woman betrayed the hero whose “virtue” was in his hair. King Nisos had his magical purple hair plucked by his daughter Skylla, who had fallen in love with Minos, and fell, as his fate was to fall when that hair was lost. But Skylla escaped less lightly than Delilah in the Hebrew version of the tale; for Minos, living up to his reputation for justice combined with cruelty, hung her by the feet from the stern of his galley, and so let her drown.

As for Minos holding Athens to ransom and levying his terrible tribute in human kind, is it not written in Charles Kingsley’s Heroes? But of Theseus and how he delivered the land from its terror, we shall have to treat more fully on a later page.

Eastward of Crete, the island of Karpathos was said to have been settled by “Some of Minos’ troops”; while the south-west coast of Asia Minor had a slightly different history.

Sarpedon, another brother of Minos, and his rival both in love and politics, was compelled after a dynastic struggle to flee from home with his partisans, and it was they who, mingling with the native “Termilia”, founded the small but powerful nation state of Lykia. The city of Miletos, whose name is, again, the same as that of a Cretan town, was also said to have been founded by this refugee movement.


The Snake-Goddess. (Gold and Ivory statuette in Boston Museum). (From Minoans Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

Other traditions of Cretan settlement, not mentioning Minos, existed among other places at Kolophon, where, as at Erythrai, we are definitely told that the Cretans formed one element in a cosmopolitan seaport, and, of all places, in the Troad. Here, though the archaeological evidence shows close contact with the Minoan world, it also shows that the towering walls of Ilios defended a culture that was at bottom quite independent — native Anatolian, with connections also with Thrace and the north-west. Yet the tradition is strong, and comes to us from an early and usually well-informed Greek poet, Kallinos of Ephesos, who lived in the early seventh century. He attributed the introduction of the worship of Apollo Smintheus, Apollo the Mouse-God, which, as every reader of the Iliad knows, was strong in the Troad, to a colony of Teukrians from Crete.

It is at any rate true that the god’s epithet or title has in its termination the -“nth”- sound characteristic of the old Cretan, Karian, and South Aegean Language; that Mount Ida in the Troad bears the same name as the Cretan sacred mountain; and that the neighbouring Tenedos, where Apollo Smintheus “ruled in might”, as Homer says, there remained in use as a symbol throughout historic times — figured on coins of the island, and famous in a proverb, with explanatory myth attached to it — the Double Axe of Crete.

The “Axe of Tenedos” was used as a proverb for brutal abruptness. The name Sarpedon also turns up in the north Aegean; there was a Sarpedonian Crag on the coast of Thrace, whose eponymous hero was said to have been killed by Herakles. Photios’ dictionary explains it as meaning “great” or “powerful”. Apollo Sarpedonios and Artemis Sarpedonia were worshipped on the coast of Kilikia (Cilicia), where there was also another cape Sarpedon.

Lastly as regards Asia, the rich mythology of Rhodes told how the arts of civilization were introduced there by the Telchines, the webbed-fingered mermen-elves of Crete, who could control the weather and change their shapes; and the worship of the gods by the less uncanny children of the Sun, whose legend was also told in historic times in Praisos, the last stronghold of the pre-Hellenistic language of Crete.

(Cretan Kouretes, the famous culture-heroes and legendary priests of Zeus, were said to have played the same civilizing part on the mainland of Karia.)

Rhodes was also the scene of the Dolorous tale of Althaimenes, son of Katreus, a Cretan prince called in the story of Minos or of Kres. Althaimenes fled from home and colonized Rhodes, in fear of an oracle that he should kill his father; and presently Katreus in his old age longed to see his son, and set sail; and reaching land after nightfall, he and his company were taken for hostile raiders, and in the fighting the prophecy was fulfilled.

But a difficulty arises: the archaeological evidence does not in Asia, as in the Cyclades, confirm the traditions. In Rhodes, at Miletos, at Kolophon, Erythrai, and Phokaia, and at various other points along the coast, there have been found plentiful traces of contact with Mykenai in the fourteenth century, after the fall of Knossos; but practically nothing that can be connected with Knossos in its prime.

The pure archaeologist would therefore bid us let drop the doubtful evidence of some Greek geographer’s report at twentieth or fiftieth hand, and keep to the solid certainties of potsherds and their distribution.

But yet, the traditions are extraordinarily persistent; and reasons for their invention, at so many different points along the coast, are lacking; and there is no subject on which oral tradition is more likely to be reliable than on the question, “Whence did our ancestors come?” And to jettison evidence is not the same thing as critical caution.

On the whole it seems best to accept the traditions, while taking it as proved, negatively, by archaeology that the Cretan colonies in the Ionian region were, as compared with those in the Cyclades, short lived and small.

It must be remembered that, if founded in the middle of the fifteenth century, at the height of the Knossian imperial age, they will have had only some fifty years of life before the true Minoan art came to an end and markets were everywhere flooded with the mainland wares, which Mykenai began to produce in vast quantities for export. At many a Romano-British site that has been excavated, remains of the earliest period known to us from history have been scanty to vanishing point, as compared with those of later generations; it may be so here, too.

Also the Ionian coast has been by no means thoroughly explored as yet, especially below the surface; and lastly, we are not told here, as we are elsewhere, that the colonies formed part of the Minoan empire. They were planted probably by mere groups of traders, living — as some of the traditions expressly say — among a native population that was presumably much larger. And it is possible to trade without trading either in works of art or in the finest quality oil or wine, such as the gay painted vases may be presumed to have contained.


Vase from Crete — Middle Minoan Period. (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

By way of parallel — we know that the sailors of Knossos voyaged as far as the islands off the north coast of Sicily, whence they brought back the unique “Liparite” stone to be used by the artist-craftsmen of Crete; but neither in Italy nor Sicily do any earlier than fourteenth-century Aegean potsherds occur to bear witness to these voyages. And for all the tomb-paintings of Sen-mut and Rekh-ma-ra and Menkheperreseneb, scarcely an Egyptian object of their age has been found in Crete. Egypt exported to Crete, among other things, foodstuffs; Crete to Egypt, European tin; Crete to the west, in exchange for tin and liparite and such raw materials, probably such perishable goods as luxury textiles, embroidered or purple-dyed. None of these goods leave any trace that can ordinarily be discovered by the spade. The negative argument in archaeology seems likely, therefore, to be just as dangerous as the “argument for silence” in the criticism of written records.

To return from this troublesome but necessary digression: westward also, beyond the Greek mainland, Cretans were certainly trading, as we have just seen. A Minoa on the island of Corfu looks like an advanced post on the Adriatic sea-way towards the Bohemian tin-land and the amber-coast of the still remoter north. Beyond the Lipari Islands, too, at least one daring voyage brought Aegean pottery to the region of Marseilles. Towards the end of the fifteenth century, then, the Minoan dynasty ruled an empire covering at least the Cyclades and Southern Sporades, while its fleets terrorized and held to tribute some sections of the mainland coastal regions by their raids.

(There is perhaps significant absence of Minos-Legends in connection with the neighbourhood of Mykenai and the powerful fortresses of Argolis.) Beyond, lay an outer ring of small Cretan colonies and trading stations and factories extending the cultural influence of Knossos still further, but not subject to the empire politically; probably in very much the relation of a historic Greek colony to its metropolis, and sometimes potentially hostile, like Lykia under its Sarpedon-dynasty, or like the now powerful — over-powerful? — Mykenai. But danger from any of these quarters can never have seemed particularly pressing; too securely, over all the south Aegean, had the Minoan octopus spread his tentacles.

The navy that had accomplished all this was manned by Leleges, the natives of the empire’s island provinces and of the Karian coast-region, who being poor and hardly maritime folk rendered this service to Minos in lieu of tribute. They were apparently uncivilised enough to be tractable under Cretan leadership, and probably retained their warlike spirit better than the peaceful townsfolk of the larger island.

Behind their “wooden walls”, the princes and princesses of the Minoan house, and the lords and ladies and captains and rich merchants of the ports, lived delicately in their un-walled open towns. Even at the capital, a guardhouse of no great dimensions was the only fortification thought necessary for the royal palace on the side towards the sea. The palace itself, a huge shapeless conglomeration of haphazard walls and roofs, could have had few claims to architectural dignity except perhaps when approached by the southern portico; but it was not with a view to external appearances that it had been built. It had been built, or rather had grown up over a period of centuries, with a view to internal convenience; and no doubt that object was attained.

New wings, new blocks, new walls and passages and staircases, were built as they were wanted without reference to other considerations. A palace is meant, the practical Minoan would have said, not to be looked at but to be lived in. A Greek of a thousand years later might have been disposed to argue the point; but the Minoan Cretan would have had little respect for the opinions of a people content to live so uncomfortably — without proper drains, for instance — as the later Greeks in many respects did. For his own part, e devoted all the powers of his quick and fertile brain to the service not of ideals but of his own comfort. He had his reward.

His applied science at all events was far above the Hellenic or even the Hellenistic level. Out of doors we see it in his roads and bridges, both in Crete and in the Argolid; indoors, in the bathrooms and latrines and drainage system of the great palace, which, the situation being complicated by the fact that the place lies partially on the slope of a hill, gave him full scope for the exercise of his skill in hydraulic engineering. It is an amazing contrast to the primitive and malodorous discomfort in which the builders of the Parthenon were content to live.


Vase from Crete — “Palace-Style”. (From Minoans, Philistines and Greeks. A.R. Burn, 1930).

So it was also with the Minoan and his art. He built no Parthenon; nor did he ever carve a life-sized or colossal statue out of marble. He preferred a quicker medium. Nearly always, too, his art is domestic, intended to gladden the eyes of the owner in his house; seldom or never to express the spirit of a whole people, under the sky. So the glories of Minoan art are its gold repousse cups and inlaid dagger-blades, its splendid bull’s head rhyton and its dainty ivory statuettes. Very appropriately it is in painting and in the art of the statuette — not in architecture nor in full-sized sculpture — that Minoan art most completely comes into its own, in the beauty of that demure ivory of the Goddess with the snakes, or the extraordinary grace of the little athlete from Knossos, in the act of swinging clear over the horns of the charging bull.

In painting, nothing could surpass the satisfactory purity of the best Minoan plant designs, stem and leaf and flower, on some Middle Minoan or “great palace period” painted wall or vase, or the vividness of the picture of marine life in the fresco of the dolphins at Knossos or the flying fish from Melos, or the vase from Melos with the slender water-flower whose stalk almost seem to sway before the gazer’s eye in the slow movement of the current. Even the slimy octopus becomes attractive, treated as the Minoans treated him. Nor less satisfying to the eye are the ornamental mouldings of their ceilings or their frescoes of themselves. It is, after all, first and foremost through these great wall-paintings with their charging bulls and flying limbs, their fashionable court-ladies and dapper prince or page, that we seem to know the “Minoan race” as men and women who really lived and moved.

Of the Minoans’ higher thought and literature we can know nothing; but it is not probable that there was ever much to know. Their religion seems to have remained very much the same through a full two thousand years, and their government a theocratic despotism throughout that period. As to their language, it vanished with little resistance and almost without trace before the superior claims of the Aryan Greek.

Sir Arthur Evans has guessed at the existence of a pre-Homeric Minoan epic, on the somewhat flimsy ground that certain Minoan seals may represent scenes from the “heroic” legends; but a language that possessed a literature of any merit ought surely to have offered more resistance to an invading tongue? Short poems one can well imagine to have been quite in the Minoan vein, but it is little likely that that practical and comfort-loving nation ever launched out upon the bitter waters of persistent thought.

Even Minoan taste could lapse at times. It is unwelcome news that the steatite vase from Hagia Triada was formerly covered over with gold leaf. The carven stone needed no such cosmetics. Nor, it appears from finds in the later palace at Knossos, was the Minoan mind troubled by the knowledge that the surface of the apparently marble slab before him was as a matter of fact only of cunning painted stucco — an anticipation of what may be termed the Grand-Hotel Style in architecture that one discovers with regret. In other respects, too, before the fifteenth century was out, some weaknesses were making their appearance in Cretan civilization.

The latest “palace period” art, fine as it is, has passed its greatest stage. Palace art had long ceased to have its roots in the national life; swift changes of style bear witness to self-consciousness and to the influence of fashion, not tradition; and now, in “Late Minoan II”, the changes are in a direction that was ultimately to be disastrous.

There is tendency towards formalism; “the artist, anxious to give free rein to his fancy, abbreviates certain essential details, for instance, the heads of human figures”; and simultaneously the freshness, reserve, and eye for detail of the earlier art “gives way to broader designs, executed freely and with a grand carelessness. The marine motives of octopuses, shell-fish, dolphins and the like…are still in use, but in a degenerate form. The Patterns are no longer reserved in zones or restrained within natural limits; they all — cuttle-fish, lilies, and other naturalistic motives — run riot over the surface of the vase in the grand manner of incipient baroque”.

Apart from these intangible “things of the spirit” there were perhaps already other signs of darkening skies. At Gournia, for example, the site in eastern Crete where the narrow streets, that wind between the houses up the side of the hill, give so vivid an impression of a Minoan provincial town — there was no Second Late Minoan period. Gournia was sacked and burnt. It looks as if the Minoan navy was no longer the only sea-power in the Aegean; as if there were others — some predatory maritime folk, who were fully alive to the possibility that the Minoan fleet might be taken at a disadvantage, off its guard, or that circumstances might arise when it would need, and would not be able, to keep guard everywhere at once.


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