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How can you not be enchanted by the ancient Minoan civilization of the Mediterranean?  Besides being the incubator of classical Greece and all that we know and live as members of Western civ, it was filled with fabulous art, savvy traders and artisans, bare-breasted priestesses, and opium poppies.

The problem is that we know very little about the Minoans beyond what I’ve just said.  They left no literature beyond business records, and we can’t read that with much confidence.  The ancient Minoans are therefore a part of prehistory, not history;  no writing, no certainty.

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I just got around to reading Rodney Castleden’s MINOANS:  Life in Bronze Age Crete  (Routledge 1990).  I’d been avoiding it because it has been described by the academic world as a bit speculative and sensationalistic because Casteleden claims that the Minoans might have been a heavily-sedated culture of opium addicts and alcoholics who did their bull-jumping in an ecstatic high.

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I shouldn’t have worried.  “Sensational” doesn’t mean the same thing to academics as it does to you or me.

There are only three consecutive pages in Castleden on the possibilities of opium and poppies and an ecstatic religious life for the Minoans.  He may be correct.  He may not.  But even though he’s more of a popular writer than scholarly, MINOANS does a pretty stiff imitation of the lethargic world of university publishing.

In fact, I find little disagreement between MINOANS and the circa-1970-ish Willetts books on ancient Crete.

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Toss in Mellersh’s earlier THE DESTRUCTION OF KNOSSOS (Knossos was the lead temple/palace city of the heyday of Crete), and the only difference between the 1970 accounts and the one of 1990 is one of nuance.

Castleden asks us to ponder the possibility that Knossos and the other archeological sites were mainly religious in nature – temples, not palaces for kings or other secular rulers.  He tosses in opium.  He more strongly suggests that it may have been a female-led society, in keeping with our own changing sensibilities of the 1990 era.  He believes the Cretans may have been more warlike than popularly imagined.  He further suggests human sacrifice and even instances of cannibalism.

We just don’t know.  That’s the problem with prehistory.  Anybody can guess based upon scant and evolving evidence.

I like the idea of a stoned society plying the seas with artworks and craft items, jewelry and olive oil, leaping over bulls in a mystical trance, their cities and palaces and temples fundamentally undefended because of their placid and peace-loving ways.  Knossos certainly was beautiful:

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But I’m sure the reality is a little bit nastier.  I’m sure the jumpers were occasionally gored by the bulls, and I know for certain that those undefended palaces eventually fell to Mycenaeans from mainland Greece.  Our roots are from Greek genius and hubris, not Minoan hedonism.

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