MYTHS OF CRETE & PRE-HELLENIC EUROPE
By DONALD A. MACKENZIE
THE GRESHAM PUBLISHING COMPANY LIMITED
66 CHANDOS STREET COVENT GARDEN LONDON
The Palace of Phæstos
The Great Messara Plain--Site of Phæstos--The Trial Pits--Neolithic Remains--The Whale's Backbone--Religious Significance of Sea-shells--Ancient Musical Instruments--The Iron Charm--Beliefs regarding Iron--Obsidian Razors--First and Second Palaces of Phæstos--Grand Stairway and "Hall of State "--Villa of Aghia Triadha--Famous Cat Fresco and Egyptian Prototypes--Sculptured Stone Vases--The King and his Warriors--Boxers and Bull-baiters--Procession on "Harvester Vase--A Painted Sarcophagus--Bull Sacrifice--Charioteers of Hades--Burial Ceremony--Priests and Priestesses--The Double--axe Symbol--Beliefs about Ravens and Doves--The Otherworld.
HAVING surveyed eastern Crete we return to Candia with some knowledge of the character of the ancient civilization which culminated in the palace glories of Knossos. It remains with us next to visit the southern part of the island., which is fragrant with the memories of Minoan Phæstos, and the city of Gortyna, established by the invading Greeks and rebuilt by the Romans.
We strike southward by the road which crosses and ascends the river valleys until we reach Daphnes, and find a break in the mountain spine of the island which leads us to the great Messara plain. The sea is shut off by rugged Kophino mountains that fringe the coast and divert the flow of the River Hieropotamos towards the west.
Phæstos had a strategic situation. Its palace stood upon a low mountain spur commanding the western approach to the Messara Plain. When the site was located by Professor Halbherr, the Italian archæologist, slight traces only remained of its ruins in a field of rustling barley. A noble panorama of mountain scenery is here unfolded before us. To the north-east is Mount Dicte, and to the north-west the greater Mount Ida, the monarchs of sublime and massive mountain ridges. "The outline of the mountains", writes Mosso, "differs little from that of the Apennines, but the blue colour is more intense. . . . Between the ridges the slopes fade in the distance till the blue blends with the grey of the sky. The villages look like eagles' nests perched on the cliffs, each girt round with a garland of olives, they too shading into blue. . . . Before the sun sets the shadows in the ravines of Ida deepen into indigo, and the rocks of the whole chain become violet--an optical phenomenon rarely seen in the Alps. The poets of classical Greece allude to this violet colour in the mountains round Athens. In Italy only the shadows become violet, but here in Crete the rocks are violet." 1
When the palace of Phæstos was excavated, it was found to be of smaller extent than that of Knossos. Beneath its ruins were found traces of an earlier building resting on a Neolithic deposit.
An interesting account is given by Mosso of trial pits he sunk below the latest palace floor to the virgin soil, with purpose to ascertain the character of the earliest strata. The deepest of these was 5½ metres on a slope of the hill while the shallowest was only ½ metre. Evidently the ground had been levelled for the foundations of the palace.
As at Knossos, it was found that the earliest settlers were in a more advanced stage of civilization than those in eastern Crete, who built stone houses and hollowed out rock shelters. This is of special interest in view of the theory, tentatively urged in some quarters, that there were settlements of peoples from North Africa and Anatolia in Neolithic times.
The deep pit at the western side of the palace yielded important finds. About 6 feet down, the foundations of a primitive dwelling were laid bare. On the floor was lying a portion of a whale's backbone, which, like similar relics from the Ligurian caves, may have been regarded as a charm. Lower down in the remains of a still older dwelling were sea-shells which had evidently a religious significance, as the Knossian shrine objects have indicated. Two varieties of well-baked pottery came to light--a dark and a red. Animal bones included those of the oxen, sheep, boars, hares, and birds. Certain pointed bone implements may have been potter's tools. The carved femora of great birds are believed by Mosso to have been mouthpieces of musical instruments--the pipes of Pan or a primitive bagpipe. 2 At a depth of 4 metres there was a roughly-shaped headless figurine of the mother-goddess. It has the characteristics of Cycladic and Trojan relics of like character. Near the figure lay a piece of magnetite. "According to the analysis", Mosso writes, "it consisted of oxydized iron. We may be certain that it was a sacred stone from the fact that the Neolithic folk had not made a weapon or a hammer of it. Possibly they believed it to be a meteoric stone: it was known at that period that these stones came from heaven, for they appear with a luminous track and fall to earth with a sound." 3
In Egypt iron was anciently known as "the metal of heaven". One theory of heaven was that it was formed of a rectangular plate of iron which rested either on the mountains that surrounded the earth or on pillars. This divine metal was used as a charm. In the Scottish Highlands it is supposed to prevent fairies and other demons from attacking mankind, and it serves a similar purpose in India and West Africa. The fact that Copts are forbidden to use it to exorcise demons indicates that it was of magical potency in ancient Egypt. Perhaps it was on account of its association with pagan religious beliefs, like the ear-rings worn by Jacob's wives, that it was not used in the construction of the Jewish altar.
Then Joshua built an altar unto the Lord God of Israel in Mount Ebal, as Moses the servant of the Lord commanded the children of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of whole stones, over which no man hath lift up any iron. 4
A piece of magnetic iron was found in the Neolithic stratum of Troy, which also yielded small ritual dishes like those of Phæstos. It has already been stated that the Phæstian ceramic sequence accords with that of Knossos. Obsidian knives gave indication, as elsewhere on the island, of trading relations with Melos before the age of metal. "These knives", writes Mosso, "cut so well that during the excavation I always kept one in my pocket to cut my pencil point." 5 They continued in use long after the introduction of bronze. An excavator informed the writer that he found a worker with an obsidian razor. Asked why he used it, he remarked that his father had done so before him. In Egypt the earliest razors were of flint. A small flint razor recently found in northern Scotland had a comparatively good shaving edge, as was proved when put to the test.
The ruins of the early palace of Phæstos were levelled, and formed in many parts a foundation for the later palace. Owing to this fortunate circumstance, pottery and other relics were preserved.
THE GRAND STAIRCASE, PALACE OF PHÆSTOS
The early palace was erected in the Middle Minoan I Period (c. 2200 B.C.), and the work of constructing the second begun in the Late Minoan I Period (c. 1700 B.C.). Excellent specimens were obtained from the first buildings of the fine Middle Minoan Kamares pottery. But other finds were of scanty character. A little gold lay beside charred wood. It probably "ornamented a small piece of furniture", as Mosso suggests. Remains were also discovered "of a cabinet with quadrangular tablets of very hard terracotta which fitted together, and some cornices in repoussé work with undulating designs, resembling the cornices which were in fashion at the beginning of last century". Evidently the Cretans, like the Egyptians, had excellent furniture.
The later palace was of less extent than its rival at Knossos, which, however, it resembled in many details. Nor has it yielded so many relics. The destroyers appear to have plundered it thoroughly before setting it on fire.
The most imposing feature is the "grand staircase", between 40 and 50 feet wide, which led up to the Hall of State, or Reception Hall. There is nothing to compare with this noble entrance at Knossos. It has been conjectured that state ceremonials were observed in the hall, the walls of which were probably decorated with frescoes. A small room leading off the hall is surrounded by stone benches, and may have been a "waiting-room" for guests and ambassadors. In the interior of the palace is a spacious central court, 150 feet long and 70 feet broad, surrounded by a maze of apartments, as is the one at Knossos. The theatral area was at the south-east corner.
About 2 miles towards the north-west of Phæstos, at the hamlet of Aghia Triadha, there was a smaller palace picturesquely situated on a sloping mountain ridge, and overlooking the sea. It is usually referred to as a "royal villa". The ceramic remains on the site indicate that it was occupied as far back as the First Middle Minoan Period. When the villa was erected in First Late Minoan times, portions of an earlier building were utilized. It was an imposing building, and was entered by a flight of steps. Around it stood in the first period a number of substantial houses, which may have been occupied by rich traders or Cretan aristocrats. In the second period the villa appears to have been a communal dwelling.
Like the Knossian palace, the villa was, when the destroyers had wreaked their vengeance upon it, not entirely plundered of its archæological treasures. Frescoes have been happily preserved. The most famous of these depicts a cat hunting birds in a marsh. It was evidently painted by one who had seen similar studies in Egyptian tombs at Beni Hassan and Thebes. The Cretan artists were inferior draughtsmen to their Nilotic contemporaries, but they were finer impressionists. In Egypt the cat is statuesque and cold; at Aghia Triadha the ferocity and murderous instincts of the callous animal are conveyed with impressive vivacity; the artist undoubtedly conveys the mood, although his technique is faulty. The Egyptian was essentially a stylist, and rarely produced the nervous art which was so characteristic of Crete.
Three stone vases, with figures sculptured in relief, which were found in the villa, are triumphs of Minoan art. On one is a group of warriors with shields, and two outstanding figures, one posed stiffly with outstretched right arm, and grasping a long staff or lance as if issuing a military order, and the other with a drawn sword resting on his right shoulder, standing at attention. The second vase is divided into four zones, in which appear the figures of boxers, bulls, and toreadors. Some of the boxers wear helmets, and others are bare-headed; they all appear to have something equivalent to the boxing-glove on each of their hands. The bull-baiter is seen leaping between the horns of the rearing bull. In Crete, as in Plato's "Lost Atlantis", the sport or religious ceremony of bull-baiting was conducted without weapons. The gymnast seized the approaching animal by the horns and turned a somersault over its back, coming down behind the animal. Various representations of this feat are shown on seals found on Cretan sites and at Mycenæ. Sir Arthur Evans found at Knossos ivory figures of leaping gymnasts who were probably bull-baiters. On a gold cup from Vaphio, which is preserved in the museum at Athens, are two figures of bulls. One is charging furiously, while a female gymnast grips the left horn under one arm and the right horn between her legs. A male gymnast is falling off its back. The other bull is caught in a net. A Knossian fresco depicts two women and a man attacking a bull.
The third vase from Aghia Triadha is called by some archæologists the "Harvester Vase" and by others the "Warrior Vase". Round it marches a carved procession of animated human figures who are evidently taking part in a ceremony. That this ceremony was of religious character seems certain, because one of the men is holding up before him the Egyptian metal rattle called the sistrum, which was used to summon the god and charm away demons in Egyptian temples, and is referred to in the chants. "Do we not behold the excellent sistrum-bearer approaching to thy temple and drawing nigh," called the Isis priestess, invoking Osiris. . . . "Behold the excellent sistrum-bearer and come to thy temple. Come to thy temple immediately! Behold thou my heart, which grieveth for thee. Behold me seeking for thee. . . . Lo! I invoke thee with walling that reacheth high as heaven." 6
This sistrum-bearer on the vase has not a pinched Cretan waist, and may represent an Egyptian. He is singing or wailing, as are also three of his immediate followers who may be women with upper garments of leather. Perhaps they are invoking the spirit of the slain corn-god.
The procession appears to be led by a long-haired elderly man, wearing a bulging robe decorated with a scale pattern and heavily fringed. He carries a long round-handled staff over his right shoulder. Is he a priest, or a victim in a wicker-work cage who is about to be sacrificed? All the figures are marching in step--performing, in fact, a sort of Germanic "goose step", and most of them carry three-pronged forks, the prongs being attached by cords to the long handles. These resemble the harvesting-forks still in use in Crete. Some of them, however, are fitted with short scythe-like blades, which may have been used either for cutting corn or pruning trees. A single figure--evidently a youth, is stooping low and grasping the thighs of a man who turns round with open mouth as if shouting defiantly a ceremonial utterance of special significance.
Those who see in the procession the celebration of a naval victory hold that the three-pronged implements are really weapons. But no such weapons have been found in Crete. If the ceremony was not a harvest one, it may have been connected with the spring-time invocation of the deity of fertility. Mr. Hall, who regards the vase as one of "the finest pieces of small sculpture in the world", sees upon it "a procession of drunken roistering peasants with agricultural implements." 7 "Extraordinary technique was required". write Mr. and Mrs. Hawes, "to represent four abreast, each seen distinctly, one beyond another. The Parthenon frieze presents no more difficult problem in low relief." 8
THREE VASES, SCULPTURED IN STONE, FOUND AT AGHIA TRIADHA
The largest of the three is known as the "Boxer Vase", and measures 18 inches high. The "Harvester Vase", on the left hand of the centre subject, is shown on a larger scale in plate facing. The other small vase (actual size, 4 inches high).
Another decorated object found at Aghia Triadha is a sarcophagus of limestone shaped like a chest, which has been assigned to a period prior to 1400 B.C. It is 52 inches long, 18 inches broad, and 32 inches in depth. The body which it enclosed must have lain in a crouched position, like the bodies placed in the pre-Dynastic Egyptian graves and in those of the Late Stone and Bronze Ages in Western Europe. The sarcophagus had been covered with plaster on which were painted scenes of undoubted religious significance. At either end are chariots. In one, which is drawn by two griffins, a woman is escorting a swathed pale figure, apparently the deceased, on the way to the Otherworld; in the other, which is drawn instead by horses, are two female figures. A long panel on one of the sides is unfortunately badly damaged. It appears to represent a sacrificial scene. A bull is being slain, and a man plays on a double flute while its blood pours into a vessel. The panel on the other side is in a good state of preservation, and affords an interesting and suggestive glimpse of Cretan funerary services. At one end the swathed figure of a youth stands before a tomb or shrine beside a conventionalized representation of the sacred fig tree. In front, and facing the deceased, a priest approaches carrying the model of a boat--perhaps the "ferry boat" of Hades in which the soul is to reach the "Isle of the Blest", after crossing the valleys and mountains like the Indian Yama and Babylonian Gilgamesh. Two priests follow behind, carrying offerings. Turned in the opposite direction are three priestesses, or, as some think, two priestesses and a priest. The first pours a red liquid, either wine or the blood of the sacrificed bull, into a large vessel placed between two erect posts on pedestals. These posts are surmounted by double axes on each of which a raven is perched. The second priestess carries a couple of vases suspended from a pole, one in front and one behind, which is carried on her right shoulder. The third figure--either a priestess or a priest--plays a seven-stringed lyre held high in front.
The costumes are of special interest. Facing the deceased the three priests wear robes suspended from their waists which terminate with tail-like appendages. These are evidently the skins of animals. Egyptian priests wore panthers' skins. The first priestess, who bends down beneath the double axes, likewise wears an animal's skin, but she has also an upper garment with half sleeves and a broad blue sash which comes down under her left arm to the waist. Probably this sash formed a St. Andrew's Cross on the back like the plaid on the Petsofa figure, which Professor Myres has compared to the Scottish plaid. The second priestess wears a long blue gown suspended from her shoulders and reaching her ankles. The bodice has a floral edging and the gown is decorated. She wears a flat round cap, and appears to have a sash like that of the first priestess. The lyre player is similarly attired, but has no sash, and the head is bare.
In the next chapter the significance of the tree-pillars and double axes will be dealt with. Here it may be noted that the ravens take the place of the doves as the birds of the Mother Goddess. The reason is obvious.
Doves symbolized fertility and immortality, while ravens were associated with destruction and death. In the Scottish legends regarding Michael Scott, ravens and doves, flying from opposite directions, approach his corpse after death. The fact that the doves are the first to alight is taken as an indication that Michael's soul will go to heaven. The ravens are the messengers of Satan. Throughout Europe and Asia the ravens are birds of ill omen, who foretell death and disaster. They were associated in Greece and Italy with Apollo, the great patron of augurs. Crows were similarly of ill repute. According to some writers, a number of them fluttered over Cicero's head on the day he was murdered. Dark and melancholy birds were evidently regarded as forms of the spirits of darksome Hades. They were, it would seem, associated from an early period with a sepulchral cult. So were doves. Perhaps the raven cult believed in a gloomy after-life in a Hades as dismal as that of Babylonia, while the dove cult had hopes of ultimate happiness. In Egypt both the cults of Osiris and Ra believed in Heavens and Hells. The Ra cult associated their Paradise with the sun: it was a place of everlasting light; while their Hell was a place of darkness, lit for but a single hour in the twenty-four by the sun's rays. In it lost souls were tortured in pools of fire, or they remained in the place of outer darkness, where they suffered from extreme cold.
In this religious scene on the Cretan sarcophagus, the raven spirits of Hades, perched above the double axes, appear to be receiving a propitiatory offering of blood or wine. It may be inferred, therefore, that they could be prevailed upon to show favour to the dead. The kings and heroes of the Greek epics were transported to the "Island of the Blest", while others had to sojourn in gloomy Hades. Perhaps the Cretan who was interred in the sarcophagus was regarded as being worthy of a happy fate in the after-life. He was, no doubt, a youth of high birth. In Egypt the paradise of Ra was reserved in early times for kings and queens and their families.
1 Palaces of Crete and their Builders, pp. 57, 59.
2 Dawn of Modern Civilization, pp. 69, 70.
3 Palaces of Crete and their Builders, p. 29.
4 Joshua, viii, 30, 31.
5 Dawn of Mediterranean Civilization, p. 89.
6 The Burden of Isis, by J. T. Dennis, pp. 21 et seq. and 29 et seq.
7 The Ancient History of the Near East, p. 54
8 Crete, the Forerunner of Greece, p. 129.