By Patricia McBroom
October 26, 2022
Flowers painted on walls, young men holding fish, beautiful women collecting saffron to offer to the goddess. That’s what you see when you visit the Minoan remains on the islands of Crete and Santorini in the Aegean Sea.
It’s a happy vision of an advanced civilization preserved on wall paintings that are more than 3,000 years old.
I was in the Greek Islands, hopping from one to the other, in search of clues as to how gender equality changed to patriarchy in the centuries that preceded classical Greek society. What I really wanted to see was how to recover the conditions that gave women equal power, hoping that it will help us in the 21st century. After all, the Minoans were the last civilization in the Western world to have such a system. And we have to move beyond 3,000 years of male supremacy.
Never have I seen the transformation into male supremacy with greater clarity. From flowers and fish, the prehistoric artifacts change into weapons and gold. The Minoans had gold, but not like this! Those who conquered the Minoans in the 15th century BCE — the Mycenaeans — drowned themselves in the precious metal. Gold plates on the faces of dead men or the entire body; a gold crown almost two feet tall, a burial with 33 lbs of it. The sheer amount of gold left me gaping in wonder. As did the number of weapons that filled museum cases. These were the people, Indo-Europeans from mainland Greece, who finally ended female independence and authority in the West.
The epic conflict between Minoans and Mycenaeans in the Aegean would have been even larger if the Minoans had not already been weakened by years of coping with an enormous volcanic eruption on Santorini. Judged to have occurred around 1600 BCE, the eruption was the largest in 10,000 years — so big, it blew out the center of the island and sent ash half way around the world. Minoans on Crete starved while their major port on Santorini sank into oblivion under tons of ash. Now partially excavated, that port, Akrotiri, was once an urban, cosmopolitan center, flush with global trade, rich but apparently not segregated by class. There was no evidence of kings or royalty. A few of the buildings were huge, three story affairs constructed of stone and timber with many doors and windows, linked to a centralized sewage system that was centuries ahead of its time. One of the largest buildings in Akrotiri seems to have been an administrative center, according to my guide, Dionysios Flevotomos.
“We’ve come to believe that there must have been a more egalitarian form of government,” he said, as we looked down upon the site. “We think they had public assemblies here because the rooms were covered in frescos and there were no objects of daily use.”
I could not have have a better guide than Flevotomos who led our Road Scholar tour through the Aegean. His PhD in museum studies provided us a sweeping view of Greek history and, in particular, Greek prehistory, my main interest.
Santorini was in an excellent spot for a Minoan port, located midway between Turkey, and Crete, where the Minoans built an advanced civilization during the Bronze Age. Early archaeologists called their impressive structures “palaces” and decided they had a king (although a mythical one). Flevotomos, however, believes archaeologists have been blinded by contemporary patriarchal views and have projected those scenarios on what was probably a non-hereditary, elected leadership.
As we peered down at a circle of stones at Knossos on Crete, obviously a gathering place for an assembly, Flevotomos pointed out one larger wooden seat, which was probably meant for a leader. It was not elevated above the others in the circle, nor decorated in any special way.
“It’s not a throne,” he said. “This was not necessarily a hierarchical society.” By contrast, the Mycenaeans who conquered the Minoans in 1450 BCE, had kings, hierarchy and hereditary royalty who displayed their power with gold brilliance. As expected in a patriarchal society, the role of women sank, their power suppressed. Less cosmopolitan than Minoans, the Mycenaeans copied Minoan style, so the women on frescos wear the same headgear, but their vitality is gone. This was obvious to me in comparing women from the two eras. Before conquest, Minoan women appear energized and happy. Afterwards, the eyes, smiles and posture of the women have lost that vitality.
“They don’t seem happy,” I remarked after viewing the frescos. “Of course not. They were suppressed” said Flevotomos.
Often called “Europe’s first advanced civilization” the Minoans were the last to have a religion based on a goddess. She is evident from the wall paintings where she wears a crown and sits on a seat while priestesses and other women serve her. There are few signs of a god. In this way, the Aegean cultures, prior to conquest, resemble those in Eastern Europe, prior to the invasion of male-dominated nomads from the steppes (now Eastern Ukraine and Russia). The female-centered goddess culture survived longer in the Aegean than in Europe. But its end was in sight.
Mycenaean rule in Crete ended abruptly around 1170 BCE with a collapse of Bronze Age civilization throughout the region, due probably to drought, earthquake and invasion. The Dark Ages began as writing and civilization disappeared for some 400 years.
When light returned to the region, it brought with it classical Greece. Legend tells us that in 700 BCE, the male god, Zeus, was born in the mountains of Crete. From that point forward, the new deity took power over classical Greek civilization, while the earth goddess, who gave birth to Zeus, receded into the mists.
So what can we learn from this advanced pre-patriarchal Minoan society? How can we return equal power to women in a culture that is only beginning to move away from male supremacy?
One thing we can do is reshape our ideas of what is possible, based on a larger view of past human civilizations.
“We can’t take for granted that men have always had the power,” said Flevotomos. “It might have been different in prehistoric times (Minoans had writing, still undeciphered). I think we can learn from the Minoans. They may have had a more fair society than the one we inherited. They were not a consumerist society. They respected nature. Animals were hunted but also respected.
“Minoans were probably less aggressive. While they might have been in naval battles, they prevented wars among themselves. On Crete, they managed to reach consensus (among the different settlements)”
Patriarchal views from the 19th century have dominated archaeology until very recently, he said.
“It’s very important to be more open-minded, less biased. If we don’t take male power for granted, it might change the whole way we interpret the past and we might see those cultures where women were equal — or even more than equal.”