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10-03-2015, 05:46


The presence of palaces on Crete since the Middle Bronze Age has led to the belief that some manner of ruler must have been present at least since the First Palace period. Sir Arthur Evans, inspired by the semidivine kings of the Near East, suggested that a "priest-king" ruled Crete, who reigned over the island from his palace at Knossos. However, Minoan iconography contains no pictures of recognizable kings. Evans originally identified such a monarch in a reconstructed fresco from Knossos known as the Lily Prince Fresco, which shows a striding male with an elaborate floral headdress (perhaps a crown) and jewelry. Since the original publication, though, it has been shown that the Lily Prince Fresco is actually an amalgam of three different frescos. The head with its fancy cap is actually the head of a sphinx. The two halves of the body—torso and legs—belong to females, which is evident from the white-painted skin (males were usually shown red; see chapter 9). The torso belongs to either a boxer or an acrobat; the legs are actually walking in the opposite direction from the torso. The entire fresco would have been dismantled and reconstructed long ago if not for the fact that Crete's largest travel agency had already adopted it as a logo. Nevertheless, with the removal of the "prince," the Minoan repertoire suddenly became king-free.

In its place, a new iconography of male authority figures was recognized. One example of this is a staff-bearing male recognizable on such Minoan items as the Chieftain Cup (see Image 7.1) and the Harvester Vase (see Image 4.1), both from Haghia Triadha. The other is an axe-bearing "priest-king" prominent on Minoan seal stones.

7.1 Chieftain Cup (Courtesy of Paul Butler)

The Harvester Vase shows a group of males carrying what appear to be winnowing tools. One male has what looks like a rattle and has his head back and mouth open as if singing; perhaps he is the group musician. Another man with longer hair than the rest wears an elaborate shawl and carries a long staff over his shoulder. The length of his hair, and his costume, make him stand out as the older member of the group, most likely the authority figure in charge of the scene. The scene on the Chieftain Cup is a much simpler affair. A taller (perhaps older) youth with elaborate jewelry stands before a smaller (perhaps younger) youth wearing a helmet and carrying a sword over his shoulder. The

Older youth holds a long staff in his hand, which he appears to be handing over to the younger fellow, whose hand is outstretched to receive it.

This pose of holding out a staff appears frequently in the Minoan glyptic art (art engraved on seals), where deities hold such implements or hand them to humans. The use of this staff as a divine symbol suggests it has an authoritative meaning. In similar art from the Near East, deities often extend staffs to men to show their investiture with kingship. As such, it appears that in the Mi-noan art the staff is an emblem of either kingship or queenship, or the authority of the person holding it. For the Harvester Vase, the interpretation is fairly straightforward—the staff-bearing male is the leader of the troop. However, we have no idea if this translates into "king," "priest," or something else. Concerning the Chieftain Cup, Koehl has argued that the scene is the final act of an initiation ritual, in which the young boy "graduates" to adult status in the community (Koehl 1995, 99-110). Thus, the helmet and sword show the boy-turned-man's adult status in the community, and the staff indicates either the authority of the male completing the initiation or the symbolic bestowing of power and authority onto the initiate. Once again, though, although the staff seems to imply authority, the type of authority (king, priest, etc.) remains open to debate.

An equally ambiguous figure is the axe-bearing male in the Minoan glyptic. This character, clearly an older fellow as indicated by his frequently appearing with a beard, routinely appears dressed in a distinctive wrap-around outfit that goes from shoulders to feet—a much more elaborate affair than the usual Minoan male garb of a simple kilt. Sometimes this figure seems to be a deity, as he stands next to fantastic creatures such as griffins. Often, the seals depicting these men have a bull's head on the reverse. As bulls were sacred in Minoan Crete, the males are interpreted as priests, and the bulls—or other animals they are shown holding, such as birds—as sacrificial victims.

Some have suggested that the axe the man holds is similar to the later European scepter, serving, like the staffs, as an emblem of authority. If so, then we might have here a portrayal of Evans's priest-king, a religious functionary who also wields some manner of secular power. However, as this figure never appears with other people, and as he is sometimes shown with fantastic creatures, it is difficult to tell if he is intended as a human at all or if he is a deity, possibly "imported" from the east where both his style of clothing and axe were common. In the end, it is perhaps safest to suggest that the staff-bearing individual represents an authority figure in the Minoan repertoire, be it a deity or human, and the axe-bearing priest-king is a (perhaps divine) character in need of further study.

Of course, there is a certain irony to this search for the Minoan male authority figure, as most Minoan portrayals of authority figures were female. In fact, the notion of a Minoan matriarchy is still prevalent in some literature, although notions of any ancient matriarchies have now come under serious debate. Nevertheless, females, be they women or goddesses, do appear prominently in Minoan art, far outstripping males in most categories.

Amusingly, the most important datum in the search for Minoan royalty has

7.2 Throne Room at Knossos (Roger Wood/Corbis)

No human portrayals in it at all. This is the throne in the so-called throne room of the palace at Knossos (see Image 7.2). This elaborately frescoed room has a fancy, carved-stone throne attached to one of the walls. Griffins rest on either side of the throne. Evans originally believed that this was the priest-king's seat and that the griffins' presence confirmed that this king was somehow beyond mortal realms. However, parallels in Minoan art show that the character usually standing or seated between a pair of griffins was a female (Rehak 1995, 109-110). So it seems more likely that the person intended to sit on the Knossos throne was not a "king" but a "queen."

Of course, there are no easy answers in Minoan studies. The females portrayed between griffins, by the very fantastic nature of the griffins themselves, may have been goddesses. Who then, or what, actually sat on the Knossos throne? Perhaps the throne served as a seat for a deity, and no actual human sat there. Or, as is usually suggested, perhaps a priestess serving as a manifestation of a goddess sat on the throne during religious rituals. In such a

7.3  Above: Grandstand Fresco, Knossos (Kathleen Cohen/Herakleion Archaeological Museum)

7.4  Below: Sacred Grove Fresco, Knossos (Kathleen Cohen/Herakleion Archaeological Museum)

Case, did the Minoans have a priestess-queen instead of the priest-king? Or did they have a secular queen who used divine imagery to enhance her perceived power and closeness to the gods, as Medieval patrons had their portraits placed in paintings of the Holy Family? Such questions are not yet resolved.

Nevertheless, other art confirms the power of women in Minoan society, although whether these artworks are to be understood as secular or religious is debatable. In the Knossos Grandstand Fresco (see Image 7.3) and Sacred Grove Fresco (see Image 7.4), as well as much glyptic art and the (later) Haghia Tri-adha Sarcophagus (see chapter 8), females have the positions of prominence

And control (Davis 1995, 14). In the First Palace period's Sacred Grove Fresco, women and men congregate in what is identified as one of the Knossos palace courtyards. In the center of the scene are trees, possibly sacred in nature. Below the trees on the courtyard floor are fully depicted women (head to foot) with their arms raised in a gesture of praise and/or prayer. Past the trees, in the courtyard seating, are partially portrayed women; outside of this group are men, often only shown as faces in the fresco. At least part of this division of the sexes must be for ease of painting. Huge swaths of white paint are detailed with female faces, swaths of red with male. Nevertheless, one must note the detailed portrayals of women actually enacting the ceremony and the division of first-class and second-class seating between the females and males in the seating area. Clearly the women, and not just the "priestesses," have the higher status in this image.

In the Second Palace period's Grandstand Fresco, two groups of women are seated on either side of a tripartite shrine. Around these women, in what appear to be the "second-class" seats, are the faces of men, who are portrayed much smaller than the far more prominent females. The palatial setting argues against the notion that the females are goddesses, leaving us with the idea that their larger size compared to the men is due to their greater importance (a common artistic motif in both Egypt and ancient Turkey). As with the Sacred Grove Fresco, this Knossian image portrays a higher status for women than men.

In the end, we have little idea concerning who "ruled" the Minoans, or even if any one person did, king or queen. Tradition claims an especially important role for Knossos and its supposed king Minos, but throughout Minoan history the other palaces were often just as wealthy as Knossos. Some have argued that all the palaces belonged to the king of Knossos, who used them as bases of operation throughout the island. Others have argued that there must have been several rulers on the island, each controlling his/her own territory through their personal palaces. The fact that neither the conquest of Knossos circa 1450 b. c.e. nor its destruction around 1375 brought about the total downfall of Minoan civilization suggests that there was some independence among the different palatial regions, and even independence among the cities and villas. It is entirely possible that the notion of monarchy did not even exist in Mi-noan society.