Article Information

Paper Intro

Pages One and Two


Listing of Illustrations


Cultural Comparison & Contrast Between
Minoans and Classical Athenians

Final Term Project

Professor Tisa Abshire-Walker
Anthropology 4: Prehistory
Copyright © 1996 B. A. "Collie" Collier


Minoan Religion

Lady of the Snakes

Lady of the Labyrinth

offering disc

We worship "Our Lady of the Labyrinth," a lunar goddess (Chadwick 125), rather than a war-like, vengeful father god. Our women take an important part in religious ceremonies, actively participate in public festivals, and engage in sports together with men. Our reverence for our Mother Goddess explains why Minoan women enjoy much more freedom than women do in classical Greece (Platon 181-2).

Our calendar, like our goddess, is lunar. Our artists show the moon priestesses of Crete near the commonly understood symbols of the moon: the spiral, the pearl, the snail which draws in its horns, the frog croaking to announce rain, plants which die down and lie dormant until spring, and the serpent. This is why you find most of the little statuettes holding a snake in each hand: She is represented not by being there in person, but via the icon. When you see a crescent moon in our art, represented as perhaps four days after new, you know we are thinking of her (Goodrich 94).

Our religion is closely bound up in our recreation, as the taurokatharpsia, or bull-leaping shows (Higgins 21). Most frequently bull dancing occurs in the large central courts of the palaces, and they combine excitement, skill, and religious fervor. They are designed not only for individual pleasure and salvation, but also to invoke the divine power to bring well-being to the entire society (Hawkes 124-5).

This is not the only way we intertwine our religion and entertainment -- music, singing, and dancing add to the pleasures of life. We have frequent public ceremonies, mostly religious, accompanied by processions, banquets, and acrobatic displays performed in theaters built for this purpose, or in wooden arenas (Platon 181-2). Religion for us is a happy affair, and we celebrate it in palace-shrines, in open-air sanctuaries on the tops of mountains, and in sacred caves. (Eisler 32).

Athenian Religion

The Athenians, of course, worship Athena, their special patron. However, even though they especially revere Athena, it is Zeus who is their Father of the Gods -- the leader and head of the family, so to speak. Athena is Zeus' daughter -- an impossible immaculate birth -- and thus closely emulates her father in some ways. Both are aggressive and war-like. Both believe women are second class citizens. Both patronize the pursuit of knowledge but readily shed the gloss of civilized behavior when it suits them.

Zeus is a patricide, an adulterer, and a rapist: he exemplifies domination and conquest. He is a good example of a hierarchical god -- bullying, demanding, vengeful, and arrogant, with a thin patina of self-righteousness. He is the perfect justification and role model for Athenian men. His daughter Athena is impossible for Athenian women to emulate (which is a useful thing for the Athenian men), and in fact is shown as basically a toady for the male gender, as well as a 'female' voice to justify the oppression of women.

These may seem rather brutal descriptions, so let us examine this more closely. I will use Aeschylus' Oresteia (a three part cycle of plays) to illustrate my words.

In the first of the plays, Agamemnon, our 'hero,' Agamemnon, tricks Clytemnestra, his wife, into sending him their youngest daughter Iphigenia. Once Iphigenia arrives, Agamemnon cuts her throat on an alter as a sacrifice. Later, Clytemnestra's advice to respect the defeated Trojan temples and people is deliberately disregarded by Agamemnon, and the city is wildly looted in an orgy of destruction, then burned. After the Trojan war, Agamemnon comes home with a new sexual favorite: a raped and captured Trojan priestess. Clytemnestra finally has had enough, so she kills Agamemnon.

The second play is The Choephoroe, or Libation Bearers. In retribution for his father's death and on Apollo's advice, Orestes kills his mother, Clytemnestra. She tries unsuccessfully to defend herself, and on her death he reviles and taunts her corpse. He is pursued by the Furies, the spirits of death and avengers of hell, and flees to Delphi (Apollo's sanctuary) to escape them.

In The Eumenides, Apollo tells Orestes that he cannot save Orestes from the Furies' rightful wrath. Thus Orestes must flee to Athens and plead his case before Athena (why Athena is chosen as final arbiter is never explained -- probably it is a salute to the city of Athens as the center of justice for the Greek world). The Furies accuse Apollo of causing this whole sorry situation, and he huffily banishes them from his temple. The scene shifts to Athens.

Here Orestes is pleading his case before the altar of the goddess Athena. He is not remorseful, and he admits to murdering someone (in this case, his mother) within his clan -- blood kin. Amusingly enough, he also tries to put some of the blame on Apollo, telling Athena that Apollo made him do it. The Furies correctly point out that Orestes murdered blood kin (his mother) while Clytemnestra did not murder blood kin (her husband). Apollo states that Zeus told him to advise Orestes, and then asserts that a mother is not the parent to a child, but rather only a nurse -- fathers alone are the blood kin of children. He uses Athena's birth from Zeus (sans mother) to prove his point. Then he and Athena vote that Orestes' matricide was justified, thus out-voting the Furies. Athena speaks:

For I did not have a mother who bore me;
No, all my heart praises the male,
May Orestes win over your tied vote
(Diner 36).

Here Athena shows where her true allegiance lies -- with the new patriarchal social system.

The Furies call upon Mother Night to see the injustice that has been done -- the law of the land has been set aside by the 'modern' gods, and justice itself has been scorned. Terrible retribution must follow. In order to forestall this fate, Athena asks the Furies (or Erinyes) to abandon their former roles as hideous avengers from hell, and to become the "Eumenides," or the Sweet Old Ones. Metaphorically declawed, the new Eumenides accept Athena's offer, and the play ends.

In this three part play cycle, Agamemnon is depicted as a 'hero,' one who delights in war and conquest. He ignores the advice of his wife, cares nothing that he has assassinated his own daughter, and takes a priestess (who was raped in the temple, desecrating the very altar!) as property, as part of his fair share of loot from the conquered city. His actions are not seen as reprehensible. He is acting correctly for his status and his culture, and he is a representative in the play of all Greek men, Athenian included.

The devalued role of women, as shown by the Oresteia, can be seen in Agamemnon slitting his daughter Iphigenia's throat in order to appease the gods -- and no man there steps forward to prevent such a disgusting act; in Clytemnestra's helpless grief and rage at being tricked and deliberately, repeatedly flouted and ignored, leading to her murdering her daughter's assassin; and in Athena's aligning herself with the dominant, conquering gender and culture -- patriarchy. It is significant that Orestes confesses freely to his mother's murder, and also that he never shows any remorse -- it is his father, not his mother, that is of importance to him, that he finally claims as his sole parent.

I have taken the time to closely describe the Oresteia because I think it accurately captures the essence of the Athenian attitude towards both their religion and their culture. The gods are there to be placated; one comes to them as a supplicant. They are the cultural norms manifest, and they glorify that which both they and the culture most appreciate. Men are dominant because the gods have made it so; women are second class citizens because that is the correct way of things in the world. All men are equal, due to the democratic vote, but obviously some are more equal than others, and so hierarchies spring up. Warfare and killing become expressions of obedience to the gods' desires, and makes those conquered somehow less than human. To penetrate (an inherently male act) becomes a symbol of conquering, of establishing dominance -- and thus women are by definition never able to be anything but submissive (Torjesen 182). Needless to say, in such a culture the need to dominate breeds rampant fear and uncertainty: today's prosperous citizen is tomorrow's war casualty -- or worse, merely a slave.

So what has caused us to be so different from the Athenians? Where did we and they diverge, that we ended up so different? There's no way to know for sure, but after our discussions, my compatriot and I have come to some tentative conclusions.


We Minoans are not without influence in the world. Egyptian records call us the "Keftiu." We are sea traders, and any that follow in our boat wakes will be learning from our experiences and traditions. At Ugarit, in the land of Canaan, they know "Caphtor" as the great center of arts and crafts. Because of them, the Hebrews, who are deeply indebted to the literature of Canaan, will hear of Crete. Homer mentions the "Iardanos" in Crete in his writings -- there is speculation that the name of the Hebrews' Jordan River probably comes from the Cretan word for river. The Hebrews will be more directly influenced by the Philistines, who will dominate Palestine for a long time, and whom ancient tradition will trace to Crete -- "the remnant of the island of Caphtor," according to Jeremiah.

Athens may seem to be the cradle of your civilization... but remember it was we who influenced them, and even they are conquered in the end by the Spartans. The Spartans themselves, while conquerors, cannot approach us for high-spirited free-living -- we are much more enterprising than the Spartans ever become; we who with our love of art and sport have yet the energy, skill, and valor to build and maintain a greater empire than Sparta ever wins; and who leave memories of a gracious way of life that other Greeks cherish, whether or not they are directly stimulated by knowledge of it (Muller 80).

When you see our art, remember our more egalitarian way of life, our appreciation of both genders. Yes, we are different from Athens in that respect, and I think it is quite significant. In a society like the Athenians, where there occurs a total domination of women by men, women end up being treated with contempt. As one of your own anthropologists said,

[T]o the extent that either sex is disadvantaged, the whole culture is poorer, and the sex that, superficially, inherits the earth, inherits only a very partial legacy (Mead 272-3).

Or to quote Carl Schurz, one of your philosophers, " cannot subvert your neighbor's rights without striking a dangerous blow at your own."

So if anyone tells you your city-state or your nation requires warfare, or the subjugation of some class of people in order to exist -- remember us, and tell them they're wrong. What we have created can exist again. Our city-states in Crete are legendary for wealth, superb arts and crafts, and flourishing trade. We have developed new technologies and a larger and more complex scale of social organization, including increased specialization, and we have done it in a more complete, less brutal fashion than any other civilization on Earth. If you feel that your cities are in a destructive downward spiral, if your natural resources dwindle and your gods are extinguished one by one with the slow death of your dreams and your spirits, remember us -- and try a new way of living. Try our way.


  • Paper Intro
  • Pages One and Two
  • Bibliography
  • List of Illustrations used in the paper
  • Collie's Bestiary
  • Societies and Subcultures page
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