History Lesson: The Fall of the Minoans


Craig Chalquist, PhD

Thirty-six hundred years ago, the island of Thera exploded with four times the force of Krakatoa. The blast hurled so much rock and pumice into the air that falling temperatures left their traces as far away from the Aegean Sea as Ireland, Denmark, and China.

Surrounded by the island arc now known as Santorini, the islet on which had stood the proud trade hub of Minoan civilization vaporized. Bronze Age builders of this hub had not recognized the island arc for the caldera of a large, ancient volcano. They had constructed the hub in its exact center. Today it resembles an eye without a pupil.

From the blast emanated a thirteen-meter-high tsunami that rolled down a hundred kilometers (sixty miles) of water to devastate the northern coast of Crete, wrecking boats in harbors and running upstream to choke vital crops with salt. The Minoans depended on the crops for food and silage and the boats for trade: at a stroke the wall of water sunk their economy and their main means of sustenance. Mixed with deadly sulfuric acid, ash that had buried fleeing Minoans on Thera began drifting down over Crete.

The Minoans hung on for another fifty years, but the shift in climate triggered by the largest volcanic eruption in recorded history darkened the skies and cooled global temperatures, wreaking havoc on crops worldwide. By the time the aggressive Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland invaded, resistance was feeble, and the once-mighty Minoans fell.

They had been an enterprising and energetic people, these weavers of an ocean-spanning network of commerce. Their central city on Crete had been the largest in Europe. The ruins at Knossos revealed sophisticated pottery and painting where astronomer priestesses had once conducted important rituals and made careful observations of the skies. Greek mythology remembered Minos, the legendary king after whom archeologist Arthur Evans named the fallen civilization, his daughter Ariadne, and Athena, whose original Minoan name, “Snake Goddess,” recalls a bare-breasted image excavated at Knossos. The evidence suggests that Minoan women enjoyed a wide range of rights and privileges, including public authority and matrilineal inheritance.

Not long before the end, images of sea life–the starfish, the octopus–began to appear in great profusion on Minoan ceremonial vases. Archeologists trained in the reductive and oversimplified habits of Western empiricism speculate that the purpose of this “Marine Style” was to ward off future disasters from the sea. If that were so, why start painting them so long after the eruption?

Social scientists are notorious for underestimating the wisdom preserved in art and myth. Is it possible that the Minoans correctly linked the decline of their fortunes with misguided attitudes toward the natural world, attitudes reinforced by rigidified institutions?

Perhaps it would be too much to expect the early Minoans to have realized they built a trade center in the middle of an active volcano, although history reveals many cases of indigenous shamans being warned away from dangerous places by dreams and events interpreted as oracles. Such accounts surface even today. When a tsunami struck the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in 2004, the indigenous populations remained intact because they had moved to higher ground. Tribal leaders said it was because Earth had told them to.

In the case of the Minoans, over time they probably came to view the ocean more as a resource than as a living being whose moods should be carefully attended to. Although female priests enjoyed a public presence, Minoan society sat under a solid hierarchy with male priest-kings on top controlling access to shrines and rituals and, therefore, the gods. These leaders even were said to be powerful enough to control Nature itself, an attitude the later Greeks would identify as ὕβρις: hubris.

The workings of the natural world offer other lessons besides the need for watchfulness. Ecosystems hold themselves together against severe trauma, a capacity known as resiliency, by relying on redundancy: multiple backups for food, energy, storage, communication, repair. Minoans on Thera felt the earthquakes and knew enough to run away, but they died buried in volcanic ash because they had failed to dock enough boats for an emergency. By depending primarily on trade, the Minoan economy lacked diversity; by depending on its fleet of boats, it found itself post-eruption without alternative transportation, communication, or revenue. Hubris toward the natural world had deprived them of the means to survive tough times.

Some of the more insightful Minoans must have realized this, and that realization emerged in at least two artistic expressions: the sea life painted on pottery in a final attempt to give the sea its cultural and spiritual due, and the ivory Kouros statue dug up at Palaikastro. Remarkably well-preserved, the largest statuary ever to surface on Crete depicted a young Zeus, whose birthplace was said to be on this island.

The Minoans who cast it not long before the Greeks landed had evidently abandoned the religion of the priest-kings and turned to a new, rising principle of divine authority, just as Zeus, backed by Gaia, had wrested control of the world from the giant, inflated Titans about to fall and suffer imprisonment in the lower Underworld. It is worth remembering that mythic Minos was one of their judges, and that the eruption, fallout, and lightning from Thera might have provided a backdrop for the Titanomachy, the war of the Olympians and Titans described in Hesiod’s great Theogony. Some believe the eruption echoed into Plato’s story of the fall of Atlantis and into the tale of Moses’ meteorologically signaled victory over the hubristic Egyptians.

In Palaikastro, archeologists also discovered the fragments of an inscription:

The Hymn to Dictaean Zeus

Hail! Greatest Kouros, Son of Kronos
master of all gone below ground
return to Dikta for the changing year
at the head of the divine pageant
and rejoice in our happy hymn,
which we blend with harps and pipes
and sing as we stand
round your well-walled altar.
for here they took you from Rhea,
babe immortal, the shielded wards
and beat the dance with their feet.
of Dawn’s fair light.
and the seasons were fruitful
when men served Justice
and prosperous Peace swayed all creatures.
and come now to fill our empty jars
come for our fleece and crops
and come to fulfil our fertile desires.
and come for our people and cities
come for our sea-faring ships
and come for new citizens and good Law.
(Trans. by J. A. MacGillivray)

Some changes of heart arrive too late to fill the empty jar. The Greeks stormed Crete, burned down homes and palaces, and transformed forever the history of the world and of the West.

It could be that another Greek myth tells us something else about the fall of Minoa:

Minos the new king asked for an auspicious sign from Poseidon. A giant white bull like those depicted in Minoan art rose out of the sea to be sacrificed, but, overcome with greed, King Minos decided instead to keep the gift from the sea for his own glorification. This decision elicited a deadly curse from the god of oceans and earthquakes. One result was the death of Minos’s son, who was gored by a bull at Marathon. Another was the Minotaur, penned in a labyrinth until Ariadne, daughter of Minos, helped the hero Theseus kill the beast.

Ariadne and Theseus were not the only escapees from Crete. Daedalus, architect of the labyrinth, got away too, but Minos found him in Sicily, an island situated roughly in geographic relation to Italy as Crete is to Greece. Daedalus had given himself away by how he cleverly strung a seashell: aligning his efforts with the wisdom of nature, he tied the thread to an ant that walked through it as confidently as Theseus, armed with Ariadne’s thread, had entered the labyrinth to kill the monster of Minos.

When the king came to Sicily to demand Daedalus from King Cocalus, Cocalus greeted him and offered him a bath in which to soak after his long journey. Daedalus had built the pipes, however, so, trapped by the architect of Olympus and the daughters of Cocalus, King Minos boiled to death. As with the civilization named after him, overheating in life lead to the chill of death.

After his demise King Minos took up position as a judge in the Underworld. How would he judge the environmental course our civilization has set?