Minoan State Formation, Religion, and Gender Roles: Opportunities for Discussion and Debate within the Classroom Or, Teaching the Minoans!

By Susan Lupack

Lecture for the Macquarie Ancient History Teachers’ Conference


I want to say that being here to talk with you all is a big thrill for me. Because this is my field, this is what I have devoted my life to (in addition to my children of course), and the thought of being able to share this with a large group of educators – people who are already spreading the knowledge of the Minoans and how amazing they are to the next generations – it’s a huge opportunity for me. But I was told that there is a book by Gae Callendar, also a Macquarie star, that is quite often used as a guide to teaching this material, but it was last published in 1999. So my basic aim is to give you some of the more recent thinking in the field on Minoan society, but also to share with you how I present some things in the classroom.

There are a couple of things that I try to get across to the students when I’m teaching. One is of course how amazing the Minoan culture was, but the other is how scholarly thinking works. I want to show them that scholarly opinion changes over time as new information is discovered, how that has to modify thinking, and also as our own culture changes – how the perspectives of the scholars change. This gives them the freedom to think for themselves – if these theories are not set in stone, then their ideas become more valuable. The next great idea could come from them – and that’s true. But of course those new ideas have to be based on the work that’s already been done.

One of the best places to do that is in discussing the theories on how the Minoan palaces came into being. What forces created them? [Myrtos] Because it is fairly true that there was comparatively not much going on in terms of social complexity and site hierarchy in the time before the palaces were built. The most impressive site we have, Myrtos, is a rambling site with nearly a hundred rooms and a shrine. I talk with the students about how there is no stand-out structure here – the inhabitants must all have been on an equal footing in terms of wealth. They seem to have shared a couple of looms and a grape press – so the means of production were shared communally, as was the shrine with the “Goddess of Myrtos.”

[Knossos] So then, in contrast, what comes next is quite startling. Knossos, in all its architectural and social complexity appears. (It seems like suddenly – in archaeological terms, “suddenly”– anyway because we haven’t got sites in between.) [Chronological Timeline] We’re going from 2200 to 1950. [Map] And it’s not just Knossos – now we get a whole network of different types of sites. This map is full, and it doesn’t even show the latest finds (but it is pretty good in that it does have different icons for the different sites). It shows how the Minoan population has spread over the island – there’s a network of sites at this point – and how the habitation sites are quite varied. You have the main palace site of Knossos, but also Malia, Phaistos, Zakros, and Petras – and two others, Monostiraki (Rethymnon) and Galatas (in between Knossos and Phaistos), all of which have very similar floorplans, with the Central and Western Courts. You also have large villa sites such as Ayia Triada and Tylissos, . . . and large town sites like Gournia and Palaikastro – with Gournia looking like it has a Central Court. Towns like this exist on their own like these two, but also you find them around palace sites, as at Malia.

Now, it’s not only the number of sites and the diversity of sites that is new, but we also have an administration to go with them. Records are being kept in Linear A of thousands of sheep and huge quantities of grain. These records show how integrated the economy of the island has become (if the similar architecture didn’t already show that). And the Minoan society has developed a taste for lovely frescoes, ceramics, cult objects, and seal stones and signet rings. All this depends on highly specialized skills. Craftsmen who devote their time to develop and hone their craft – and the market that is willing to pay for it. The trade networks that serve two functions – they act as a way to source the raw materials they need for those beautiful objects and the avenues through which they sell their own goods to raise the surpluses they need to finance such a lifestyle. We also see new types of cult sites: Peak and Cave Sanctuaries – before this we had little evidence for cult practice outside of the tholos tombs – funerary and ancestor cult.

So the question to pose in your classes is, How did all this happen – Knossos with its surrounding villas? Now, I have a few slides here with a lot of text on them. I generally avoid such text-heavy slides. But for the purposes of this talk, I thought this was probably the best way to do this –so you can have something to refer to later. Because I have compiled a few of the more influential theories on what we call “State Formation” – theories on what mechanisms were behind the formation of this complex society. And I think it is useful to bring this to the students because it shows how theories change – sometimes the changes reflect how the thinking of the time has changed, and sometimes it reflects the fact that new evidence has been found.

First Theory was Evans’s (and others) Migration theory. New people from the Near East came into Crete in the Early Minoan period and introduced a new culture that became the Minoans. But – The changes were not actually as sudden as they appeared in his time. Now we see that the developments are based on earlier changes. Recent research on genomes has shown that the main influx of peoples occurred in the Neolithic period around 6000 B.C.

Second Theory: Renfrew (1972) proposes the first scientific modern view – the climate in Greece is a difficult one – lots of land is rocky, and the rain cannot always be relied on. So Renfrew thought that the introduction of what’s called the Mediterranean Triad of the olive, grape, and wheat could have given an agricultural opportunity to the people of the Early Minoan period – that this could have been the foundation of the new society. These crops can grow in less well-watered land – more marginal land – so the theory is that the smart farmers specialized in olives or vines and were able to generate surpluses, and with surpluses people were able to store extra food, and use that extra food to pay workers and craftsmen, and trade for more exotic and prestige items. The social hierarchy becomes steeper, and a culture geared toward fulfilling the needs of the elite is created. [Of course, you always have to imagine the agency of certain people who take advantage of the opportunities. The theories make it sound as if these things just automatically happen. But I try to stress to the students that there has to be a person who sees the opportunity, grabs it and runs with it.]

Now, the basic mechanism of this theory – the growth of surpluses and the taking advantage of them, could certainly have been a part of what went on in this time, but the catalyst that Renfrew hung his theory on has been shown to not have a real ground in reality – there is not that much evidence that the Mediterranean triad seems not to have been in place yet. Olive cultivation really starts in the Late Bronze Age – with the Mycenaeans. So this image of farmers taking advantage of more marginal areas to create surpluses does not work as the cause of this revolution. Also, farmers in tough conditions do not specialize in one crop, but rather they diversify.

Another theory that was put forward, also based on the difficulty and uncertainty of the crops, is called the Social Storage Theory (Halstead 1981, 1982, 1988). Halstead had the idea that certain farmers would store their surplus produce when they had it, in order to give it to others when there was a drought with the hope that the help would be reciprocated. Eventually, there were some who were more frequently in the giving position, and others who were more frequently in need of help, and inequalities arose in this way.

People have criticized this theory asking if it’s really how people act – would a group think to store their goods just in case another village didn’t do well, and hope for the same be done for them? But aspects of this theory has also been preserved and rethought out. Surpluses, as in the previous theory, is key to people moving forward. Because those surpluses can be exchanged for wages, prestige goods, and more animals – Halstead was the one to point out that surpluses can be stored in animals.

Van Andel and Runnels took a different tack from these two previous theories. They focused on the role of trade networks and improved technologies as the mechanisms by which the surpluses and elite status were generated. Problem is that there were many people in advantageous positions who did not become the leading communities (Cycladic islands), but still, these ideas seemed to be getting closer to a larger theory that sounded right, and John Cherry in the later 80s started to synthesize all of these theories taking the most logical bits of each and putting them together. Cherry also introduced the idea that religion had a large role to play.

[Religion Slide] And this last element, religion, has been seen in the last couple of decades as really being a key factor in the establishment and legitimization of the power of the elite. Religious festivals can be manipulated – they can be made more exclusive or more inclusive by the people in power – who gets invited to the feast after the sacrifice and who does not, [Central Court] who is allowed into the Central Court festival and who is only welcome at the West Court festival? We know the Central Court was a place where festivals were held for thousands of years, possibly even back to Neolithic times, and the setting up of the buildings that surround that ceremonial space has been proposed by Driessen as a way of screening off that area, controlling the admittance to the festivals held there. It’s not easy to get into this space, the entryways are narrow and easily controlled. So the people who get to see the rituals conducted in the Central Court can be controlled.

[Grandstand Fresco] And ritual events can be fashioned as a way of exhibiting power and highlighting the person, or family, or families, who are able to sponsor the festival. If we look at the Grandstand Fresco, we see a definite display of the elite women with their special dresses and jewelry. They are larger in scale than the rest of the spectators – the focus is on them. Of course, one of the most interesting things is that there is no one person that is the focus, there’s no king displayed here – it’s a group of women – implying that there was a group of peer families or clans that were on a more or less equal footing. There is a hierarchy within the society that is being displayed– the rest of the spectators are not as high in status as the central women – but they too are shown on a relatively equal footing as each other. This kind of depiction can indicate that the society could be characterized as something of a hetarchy – not a very steep hierarchy.

The Sacred Grove and Dance Fresco also has no single focus – again you have a group of prestigious women, this time performing some sort of action, maybe a dance, but maybe, see how they’re gesturing? Maybe hailing or saluting whatever is happening off to the left, where all the spectators are looking – I think it would have been the enacted epiphany of the Goddess – which is probably what’s happening on this gold signet ring. I discuss these two frescoes with my students and then asked them to compare them with an image taken of Ramses the III repelling the Sea Peoples. The questions I ask are on the right. That elicited some very good responses.

[Grandstand Fresco] All of this talk leads to a discussion of the importance of festivals and religion in general, and what that religion consisted of, but it also brings up the question of the status and role of women in Minoan society, and through these two, you can raise the question of, “What was the throne room used for? Who sat on the throne at Knossos?” Was it the king of Knossos, perhaps a Priest King as Evans thought? Or was it a high priestess enacting the role of the Goddess? Gryphons surround the throne who symbolically provide divine protection for whoever it was – protection and also divine sanction for whatever power they were wielding, whether it be religious or secular, or both.

Before we can start to answer this question, we have to look at the nature of the rooms surrounding the Throne Room. [Slide] Back in the Central Court, Throne Room entrance (pier and door partitions) with its Façade of the Tripartite Shrine and the entry into the Temple Repositories, [Slide] where the Snake Goddesses were found and other treasures like this faience plaque of a wild goat suckling its kid. Behind the repositories was another couple of shrine rooms, and the Pillar Crypts [Slide] which are thought to involve the worship of a kind of chthonic deity from the funerary cult. [Slide: Plan] The Throne Room itself overlooks a Lustral Basin, which served as a kind of liminal space for rituals. [Slide: images with Lustral Basin]

[Goodison plan of Throne Room] The nature of the Throne Room has been illuminated (a little pun there) by a scholar named Lucy Goodison, who has shown that the Throne room and its lustral basin were built in order to catch the rays of the rising sun at midsummer and midwinter so that they shine directly on the throne or on a person standing in the lustral basin – the effects can be made more startling with the sudden opening of the doors into the antechamber.

The enacted epiphany of the goddess seems to have been a very important element of Minoan religion, and it is possible that it was the high priestess acting the part of the goddess who sat was revealed to the audience with midwinter’s morning light. The priestess could have come into the room from the Inner Sanctuary and slipped into the seat right before one of the attendants opened appropriate door to let the sunbeams shine directly on the throne.

[Mountain Goddess slide] But another possibility presents itself with a sealing that represents the Goddess of the Mountains, or Mistress of the Beasts, Potnia Theron, shown here standing on top of a mountain, flanked by lions, with a built shrine to her left (perhaps representative of a peak sanctuary). She’s holding out a staff, a staff of power or authority to a male figure who is holding his right hand to his head in a gesture that devotees are often shown in. This could very well be interpreted as the Goddess conferring power upon the male figure, who is the one who holds the highest position at Knossos. It looks like the power from nature is being brought into the built-up city.

[Master Impression] And this impression finds support from the seal, called the Master Seal Impression, where we see a mature male figure standing atop a cityscape, as we saw the Goddess on top of the Mountain. Many of the buildings have horns of consecration on them – a religious symbol – so it is clear that his power is founded on religious power. Could it be that, despite all the prominent female figures, there was a male ruler of Knossos? There is a load of female iconography, [Slide: Bulls] but I think it is possible to see the male element in Minoan society as being represented by the bull – the horns of consecration and the bull-leaping. If you have, as the thinking goes now, a more hetarchical society, where it might have been a group of elite families who ran the society, and the leadership role was flexible, then you don’t need or want prominent images of THE King, because the person who filled that role changed, and there was potentially a good deal of jockeying for that position.

So, in the end, instead of calling the main building at Knossos a “palace” it may be more likely that it was a communal ceremonial center, and in that case, whoever did sit on that throne, their actual residence was likely to have been one of the little palaces or villas that surrounded the cult center, whether that person was a high priestess or a male chief of the local elite families. (And one last note, I imagine that there may have been heavy competition for both of these positions!)

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