According to the historian Thucydides, writing in the fifth century BC, it was the Cretan king Minos who built the first navy and dominated the known world (to the ancient Greeks, this meant the Aegean). Minos was the son of the god Zeus and Europa, the mortal daughter of the king of Tyre, in Phoenicia. Zeus was dazzled by her beauty and, for reasons best known only to himself, decided to appear before her in the guise of a snow-white bull. Unlikely as it may seem, the plan worked. Europa was tantalized by his enormous dewlaps and his gentle demeanour and began to play with him, decorating his horns with garlands of flowers. She even took to climbing on his back and riding him, but one day he suddenly plunged into the sea and swam away with her. He swam all of the way to Crete and, upon coming ashore, changed himself into an eagle and raped her.
The myth is widely believed to have developed around the seizure of the island by Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland in the 15th century BC and the triumph of the patriarchal sky god over the local mother goddess. But the cult of Zeus, the young god of the sprouting grain, was already ancient on the island long before the Greeks arrived on the scene as was the cult of the bull. The bull represented untamed nature against which mankind forever struggled. This ancient fertility religion had dominated the Eastern Mediterranean for thousands of years, ever since the Neolithic. As far as the Greeks were concerned, many of their gods and goddesses and much of their cult practice originated in the east, hence the connection with Lebanon and the Phoenicians.
Europa gave birth to three sons by Zeus—Minos, Rhadamanthys and Sarpedon—and, when he eventually abandoned her, she married Asterion, the king of the island. Their marriage was childless, however, and he adopted the boys as his own. After his death, he was succeeded by Minos who, with the help of Poseidon, gained control of the island. However, the king tried to cheat the god of his agreed reward, the sacrifice of a snowy white bull, and substituted a lesser animal from his own herd. As a punishment, Poseidon caused Minos’ wife, Pasiphaë, to fall desperately in love with the bull. She begged Daedalus, the legendary craftsman, to help her satisfy her passion. So he built a wooden cow, hollow with leather upholstery inside, so that the queen might lie inside and await her lover. Daedalus is shown (right) in a fresco from Pompeii, presenting it to her. The result of their unnatural union was the Minotaur, half man and half bull, whom Minos ordered hidden, along with his mother, at the centre of a maze beneath his palace at Knossos. This palace was known as the Labyrinth, a term that was apparently related to the pre-Greek word labrys and probably meant “House of the Double Axe.”
Minos and Pasiphaë had several other children, including Androgeos, Ariadne, and Phaedra. When Androgeos was killed by the Athenians, Minos went to war to avenge his death. He defeated the Athenians and extracted a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens who were sent to Knossos every nine years to be fed to the Minotaur. On the third occasion of the sacrifice, Theseus, the son of the Athenian king, offered to go in the place of one of the victims. When he arrived in Crete, the princess Ariadne instantly fell in love with him and offered to help him slay the monster. She gave him a sword and a ball of thread, which he unrolled as he made his way to the heart of the Labyrinth and killed the beast. He then retraced his steps, freed his comrades and they all sailed back to Athens, including Ariadne whom Theseus had promised to marry. However, when they reached the island of Naxos he left her sleeping under a tree and returned home without her. According to some versions of the story, she hanged herself in despair but, according to most others, she was rescued by the god Dionysus who married her. Theseus’ subsequent relationships with women left a lot to be desired—he raped young Helen when she was little more than a girl, he kidnapped and raped Hippolyta, the Queen of the Amazons and his second wife, Phaedra (Ariadne’s younger sister) hanged herself. Under the circumstances, being married to the god of wine was not such a bad deal for Ariadne.
For over three thousand years, these stories were virtually all that remained of the history of Bronze Age Crete and were dismissed as mere legends by scholarly opinion. But this all changed in the latter part of the nineteenth century with the publication of Heinrich Schliemann’s account of his excavations at Troy and Mycenae. These suggested that Aegean World had a long prehistoric past and that there might be some truth in them after all.
Sir Arthur Evans
Contrary to popular opinion, Arthur Evans did not ‘discover’ Knossos nor the Minoan civilization—although he did give it its name. A number of travellers had already identified the ruins just inland from Heraklion as the site of ancient Knossos and the Labyrinth from Classical descriptions. Trial excavations were undertaken there in 1878 by the aptly named Minos Kalokairinos who came from a wealthy family of Heraklion merchants. He uncovered painted walls and pottery similar to that unearthed by Schliemann at Mycenae but the local authorities prevented any further digging. They feared that the finds would be expropriated by the Turks (who still ruled Crete) and taken to Istanbul. But in 1894 he showed his finds to Arthur Evans who had come to the island in search of information about the strange inscriptions he had seen on tablets in Oxford and Athens. As it turned out, these were written in the early Greek Linear B script and Kalokairinos was able to show him more examples (left) along with other material excavated at Knossos. After seeing the site for himself, Evans was determined to dig there. He even had a name for the civilization whose remains he expected to find. He called it ‘Minoan’ after the legendary king of Crete and spent the rest of his life trying to define it.
Arthur Evans was born in 1851 in Hertfordshire England, the son of Sir John Evans, one of the fathers of prehistoric archaeology, and was brought up among archaeologists and antiquarians. He possessed an unusual amount of toughness and discipline, having served as war correspondent for the Manchester Guardian in Bosnia during the 1870’s. While in London in 1878, he saw an exhibition of Schliemann’s material from Troy and visited him in Athens five years later. A distinguished scholar, he was curator of the Ashmolean Museum from 1884 to 1908 and became extraordinary professor of prehistoric archaeology at Oxford in 1909. He visited Crete for the first time in 1894 where he met with Minos Kalokairinos and visited the site of Knossos. Three years later he purchased the land on which the site of Knossos was located and spent the rest of his life excavating its remains and interpreting them.
Evan’s Excavations at Knossos
The site stands on a knoll between the confluence of two streams and is located about five miles (8 kilometres) inland from Heraklion on Crete’s northern coast. Excavations did not begin until the spring of 1900— two years after Crete gained her independence from the Ottoman Empire. Evans started work in the area investigated by Kalokairinos 20 years before and immediately came upon the remains of what he described as the ‘Throne Room of Minos’. Walls with painted frescoes appeared mere inches below the surface—apparently undisturbed for over 3000 years. They survived to a height of about two metres and were lined with gypsum benches. On one side was a gypsum throne and on the other a sunken room which Evans called a ‘Lustral Basin’. Over the course of the next four years, most of the ten-acre site had been excavated— although work would continue off and on until 1930.
The site proved to have been continuously occupied from the Neolithic Period (c. 7000 BC) until its destruction in the 13th century BC nearly six thousand years later. Evans was struck by the apparent absence of fortifications around the site and took this as confirmation of the ‘Thalassocracy of Minos’ described by Thucydides. As the product of the Victorian Age and the Pax Britannia, he found it easy to identify with a civilization whose power apparently derived from control of the sea-lanes and the trade that flowed along them.
His results and methods have come under criticism since his death in 1941. In part this is due to the standards of his day. He and his assistant, Duncan Mackenzie, had to personally supervise anywhere from 50 to 180 men and obviously could not be everywhere at once. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that there has been more than a little controversy over the recording and interpretation of the evidence. Normally, any questions raised subsequently can be cleared up by further excavations. Unfortunately, any such work has been effectively precluded by the major restorations undertaken by Evans on what was, after all, his property. Many of these can be justified in the name of conservation—the throne room and its frescoes (left) would have suffered irreparable damage if left exposed. Structural elements, such as the columns that support the Grand Staircase, had been made of wood that had long since rotted away. They were replaced by cement versions. However, Evans went well beyond this and restored many elements that had not survived—the layout of the upper storeys of the East and West wings, for example. Much of the work was planned and directed by the artist and architect for the British School of Athens, Piet de Jong'
Altogether, Evans’ restorations provide a very rewarding experience for most visitors, giving them a much more vivid impression of what the site must have looked like in its heyday than its ‘bare bones’ would have presented. However, it is also true that they have largely precluded further excavation of much of the palace using more modern methods to recover information that would have escaped Evans and to resolve problems in interpretation. Nevertheless, he remains a true giant in his field and will be forever famous as the man who brought the Minoans and the glories of their unique civilization to light.