Thursday, September 23, 2010

Mythology or Fact?

The Bull-leaping Fresco from the palace at Knossos, Crete

This week in my Art History class I learned about the Aegean Civilizations of the Bronze Age. The Aegean were the civilizations that populated modern day mainland Greece (Mycenaean), modern day Crete (Minoan), and the islands in between (Cycladic). Of course, Greek Mythology is a vivid source of inspiration for writers, designers, and artists of all types, but more and more discoveries in archeology point to the fact that many myths have a basis in fact.

For instance, most everyone knows the myth of the Trojan Horse, but archeologists have discovered a city that matches the descriptions of the Homeric Epic.

The Minoans were a relatively peaceful, seafaring people. Their palaces were lavishly decorated with beautiful frescoes (such as the one pictured above) and ornate sculptures and pottery (pictured below).

As is clear from the sculpture above and an artist's rendering below, the Minoan woman's wardrobe consisted of an open-fronted bodice and a layered skirt in many bright colors. Upper class Minoan women were women of leisure, and lived in the lap of luxury. Women enjoyed many rights rarely seen in other cultures of the time, including serving as priestesses. Their open bodices indicate the liberal views towards them, and the respect held for their life-giving properties.

Minoan Palace Scene by Thomas Baker

One of the many entertainments offered the Minoan court at Knossos would have been athletic events such as those pictured in the Bull-leaping Fresco. There were different types of bull-leaping, but the one pictured above is seen in the diagram below. The athlete would face the charging bull, grab onto the horns and - as the bull reared its head - would perform a somersault, leap off the bull's back, and finally land behind the bull. Pretty damn impressive, if you ask me. It has been suggested that many modern men's gymnastic events, such as the pommel horse, the vault, and the still rings have their origins in this ancient art.

If you're aware of the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, you might be thinking this seems like a bit of a coincidence. Remember, King Minos (for whom the Minoan Civilization was named) did have his palace at Knossos. Though a labyrinth has never been discovered anywhere on or near the sight, take a look at this plan of the ruins and an artist's reconstruction:

Some archeologists have suggested that Homer's mythological labyrinth may have been inspired by the Palace itself. That courtyard you see in the pictures was where the Bull-leaping was held. Perhaps the legend of Theseus battling the Minotaur were, in fact, an exaggeration of a real boy's trials to travel from Athens to Crete to compete against the Minoan Bull-leapers.

Ultimately, it is widely believed that the Minoans met their demise after a major volcanic eruption on Santorini. Apparently this was one of the biggest eruptions in recorded history. This eventual demise is also considered one of the inspirations for the Atlantis myth.

I find these sorts of things absolutely fascinating. It is no small leap of faith to think that myths could be based on actual facts. In the years that go by, and in an era where people fully believed in magic and a whole Pantheon of vengeful gods, stories are naturally misinterpreted and purposefully exaggerated to glorify or vilify historical figures or people. Also, in an era where kings ruled without the reigns of a parliament, parables and myths would have been the only way for people to speak their minds about the misdoings of royalty.

It's also not hard to believe that we ourselves may have misinterpreted certain things about these cultures and their stories. Some of these cultures have words that mean both "king" and "god". Many cultures worshiped their leaders as deities, so perhaps the entire pantheon of gods and all of those myths are based on real kings and queens of yore. I would be completely fascinated to learn about these people. History is one of my greatest passions. I'd be an archeologist I weren't so lazy...!

"Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake."
-Robert Penn Warren

Nostalgically Yours


  1. Brilliant post! Just love history!

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