In the famous poem The Odyssey, Homer highlights an island surrounded by the deep blue sea, abundant with 90 cities and various languages. He’s talking about Crete, the southernmost Greek island. This island is not only the cradle of one of Europe’s ancient civilizations but might also be what inspired the Atlantis legend.
Around 3000 BCE, the Mediterranean witnessed the rise of the Minoan Civilization, one of its era’s most influential and perhaps the first thalassocracy—an empire commanding the sea. Dominating for nearly 2000 years, this empire peaked in the Middle Bronze Age between 2000 and 1450 BCE. The Minoans’ unique art, architecture, and influence on neighboring cultures play a crucial role in shaping Western European civilization.
The Dolphin fresco from Knossos
King Minos stands at the heart of many Cretan myths and legends. He was the offspring of Zeus, the god of thunder, and the Phoenician princess Europa. In a bid to woo Europa, Zeus transformed himself into a gentle white bull. Entranced by this bull, Europa mounted its back, only to be whisked away to Crete. There, she gave birth to their children, including Minos.
Ascending to the throne of Crete, Minos received guidance directly from Zeus. Under his leadership, Crete’s navy grew powerful, eventually overcoming the competing city of Athens. A widely known myth tells of Minos demanding Athens to send 14 young Athenians to Crete. Their grim fate? To be offered as sacrifices to the terrifying Minotaur, a creature with the body of a man and the head of a bull, residing in the island’s labyrinth.
Bull rhyton from Kato Zakros, a site on the eastern coast of Crete
While these legends emerged after the decline of Minoan civilization, they showcase the esteem later Greeks held for Crete.
While Crete played a pivotal role in ancient Greek civilization, researchers only recently began delving deep into its cultural history. The first glimpses of a potent Bronze Age civilization emerged in the 19th century. Then, in the early 1900s, British archaeologist Arthur Evans stumbled upon expansive ruins in Crete. He named the discovered civilization “Minoan,” paying homage to the mythical King Minos.
By the 3rd millennium BCE, Crete stood as a vital hub in a vast trading network. It sourced copper from the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands, and tin from Asia Minor. Together, these resources facilitated the production of bronze, elevating the Minoans’ status and influence.
The subsequent millennium witnessed the construction of grand palaces across Crete. Among them is the splendid Palace of Knossos, associated with King Minos. More modern digs show that during this time, Crete had vast urban developments, with Knossos seemingly having a dominant role. It was a period marked by prosperity.
The Palace of Knossos, the largest Minoan palace
As the Minoans’ culture and trade extended across the Aegean, it influenced communities on nearby islands. Cretan styles became a trend in the eastern Mediterranean. Initially, local elites purchased Cretan pottery and textiles to flaunt their status. But over time, distant island societies began adopting Crete’s standard weight and measurement systems.
Minoan scripts further attest to their influence. Arthur Evans found an ancient script known as Linear A, believed to be Minoan Crete’s local language. Another script, Linear B, derived from Linear A, was decoded in the 1950s and is the earliest identified form of Greek.
Minoan religious practices remain somewhat mysterious, but glimpses into their beliefs emerge from their art, architecture, and relics. These materials showcase religious ceremonies and rituals, including pouring libations, presenting food offerings, participating in processions and feasts, and engaging in sports events like bull-leaping. Some historians suggest that the Minoans participated in human sacrifice, and there are claims that they may have even practiced cannibalism.
Bull-Leaping Fresco found at Knossos
The reasons behind the Minoan civilization’s downfall are still under discussion. While places show traces of fires and damage around 1450 BCE, Knossos remained unscathed until roughly a century later. Some speculate that the ascent of the Mycenaean civilization on the Greek mainland led to Minoan’s decline. Others believe natural calamities, like earthquakes, tsunamis, or the eruption of Thera (today’s Santorini), played a role, though the eruption’s exact timing and its relation to Minoan’s end are ambiguous.
Most likely, a combination of environmental challenges and economic rivalry weakened the society, allowing the Mycenaeans to exploit the situation. By 1200 BCE, many Minoan sites were deserted.
Words of wisdom
“May you live every day of your life.” ―Jonathan Swift
“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ―Isaac Asimov
“And empty words are evil.” ―Homer, The Odyssey
“Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold, happiness dwells in the soul.” ―Democritus