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Articles Blog

Agios, Nikolaos, Crete

Karyn Planett

The Myths and Minoans of Crete

Think of Agios, Nikolaos as merely a gateway to what is special about Crete. Crystal’s Shore Excursion Department has offered a variety of tours focusing on the Minoan culture, which flourished on Crete centuries ago. But why? What makes the Minoans worthy of such attention? Let’s start with the fact that the Minoans were Europe’s first civilization. A civilization, as distinguished from a tribe, is generally defined as a complex society, which includes the practice of agriculture and the presence of cities. So the society known as the Minoans existed from roughly 2700 to 1450 BC when the Mycenaean Greeks came to dominate the island.

Minoan Culture

The Minoans were a mercantile people, trading with mainland Greece, Cyprus, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and as far away as Spain. Their influence on the development of the Greek culture was in some ways greater than the Greeks on theirs.

One of the more interesting cultural “practices” was that of pederasty, used as a form of population control. Young men would take older male “lovers” in order to form relationships, which researchers believed to be erotic but not conjugal, that would distract them from the inevitable outcome of a heterosexual union. Think of it as a curious type of birth control.

It must be noted that Minoan women may not have been fully supportive of this plan so they usually wore robes open to the waist, leaving their breasts exposed. Nonetheless, the Greeks adopted pederasty and it became part of the legend of the Spartan armies. The soldiers of Sparta are the original Band of Brothers, said to have fought more ferociously in defense of their comrades because of the homosexual bonds that existed among their ranks. They are also often depicted fighting in the nude, a choice that seems to have spilled over to less warlike competition during the early Olympic Games.

Minoan Life

The Minoans were accomplished builders. Stone-paved roads connected their cities; their palaces were multi-story affairs with complex interiors. Homer recorded that, at height of the Minoan period, Crete had ninety cities. The palace sites of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia, and Zakros probably governed different parts of the island. At those sites and in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, you’ll find evidence of Minoan art, preserved mainly on pottery since other media will not have lasted, and Minoan religion. They worshipped goddesses almost exclusively perhaps because their contact with real women was so limited.

What you won’t find is knowledge of the spoken or written language of Minoans. Although more than 3,000 tablets have been discovered, there is as yet no reliable way to translate them. Consequently, much of Minoan history is consigned to myths later recorded by the Greeks.

Minoan Myths

A myth is a verbal history. Myths substituted for history books before there were written languages.They also served to explain things that the ancients found unexplainable. Much of the history of Crete is contained in the myths surrounding its earliest cultures.

One of the best known is the myth of the Minotaur. This is an X-rated tale that starts with King Minos who possessed a snow-white bull, which he meant to sacrifice to Poseidon. While he was procrastinating, his wife fell in love with the bull. She had a wooden model of a cow constructed, climbed inside, and proceeded to seduce the white bull. (Hard to imagine this is just a made up story, isn’t it?) The product of their steamy union was the part man, part bull called the Minotaur.

Now, this Minotaur was a fairly rambunctious youth, so Minos had an elaborate maze constructed to keep it under control—designed incidentally by the famous architect Daedalus who also designed milady’s voluptuous cow. Clearly, he was drinking out of both sides of the cup. The location of this maze, known as the Labyrinth, is generally thought to be on the same site as Knossos. It is the most visited place in Crete, though most visitors don’t know as much as you now do about why they’re there.

And The Rest…

The remainder of Cretan history is much less distinctive, as the island became a pawn in the battles between a succession of Mediterranean and European powers. At one time or another the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Venetians, Ottoman Turks, British, Italians, and Nazi Germany each held sway over the island. Crete has officially been part of Greece only since 1913 but because of the island’s unique origin, its population continues to cultivate a bit of the individualism that characterizes other Mediterranean island cultures like the Corsicans and Sardinians. It may be the only place on earth where proclaiming, “I’m a Cretan”, can be done with pride.

                                                                                  Karyn L. Planett