The Minoan Culture

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Minoan Fisherman
a Minoan fisherman with his catch of mackerel or tuna - this fresco was found at the city of Akrotiri on the Greek island of Santorini


Since we cannot yet translate the writings from Crete, Linear A, we must rely on their architecture and art to find out who the Minoans were. The beautiful frescoes that the Minoans left behind them reveal a sensitive culture, dependent on the sea, and alive to human beauty and the beauty of the world around them.

Much of what we know of the Minoans comes from their art and architecture. In sharp contrast to other Bronze Age societies, such as the Mycenaeans, Minoan art does not immortalize brutality or war. Their art celebrates everyday things that overflow with the joy of life. Entire walls were decorated with creatures and plants from the natural world around them, such as dolphins, swimming fish, monkeys, lilies, octopi, or birds and swallows. They glorified the everyday portraits of men and women going about ordinary tasks, whether fishing or gathering saffron.

The Minoans decorated their clothing and their bodies in keeping with this love of beauty and life. We see social groupings of slender women with long curly black hair in tight-waisted flounced skirts with tight bodices engaged in conversation. There are pictures of lithe young men, some naked, some in decorated kilts or loin cloths. They used cosmetics to further adorn themselves.

They didn't take life lightly however. A culture that depends on an unpredictable sea for its livelihood, and rejoices in the daring and extremely dangerous sport of bull leaping cannot take life for granted. And there must have mistakes and mishaps. And yet, in their art what we see is the grace and beauty of the acrobats. We do not see scenes of sadness or pain in Minoan art - even the dolphins seem happy and full of life.

We also see a society that is essentially egalitarian. The signs of exaggerated importance of some individuals (larger than life figures, elaborate burials for leaders) which we see in other Bronze Age culture are largely absent here. For example, in paintings where there is a princess as well as ordinary women, the saffron gatherers, there is no suggestion of awe or fear or undue importance. Although the Minoans clearly did not have a communist or socialist society, the wealth of the Minoan civilization was not concentrated in a wealthy few. All indications are that ordinary people lived very well and even modest homes were equipped with hypocaust heating systems, for example.

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