MYTHS OF CRETE & PRE-HELLENIC EUROPE
By DONALD A. MACKENZIE
THE GRESHAM PUBLISHING COMPANY LIMITED
66 CHANDOS STREET COVENT GARDEN LONDON
This volume deals with the myths and legends connected with the ancient civilization of Crete, and also with the rise and growth of the civilization itself, while consideration is given to various fascinating and important problems that arise in the course of investigating pre-Hellenic habits of thought and habits of life, which are found to have exercised a marked influence in the early history of Europe.
In the first two chapters the story of European civilization is carried back to remote Palæolithic times, the view having been urged, notably by Mosso, that a connection existed between the civilization of the artistic cave-dwellers in France and Spain, and that of the Island of Minos.
It is shown that these civilizations were not, however, contemporary, but separated by thousands of years, and that in accounting for close resemblances the modern dogma of independent evolution is put to a severe test. The data summarized in the Introduction emphasize the need for caution in attempting to solve a complex problem by the application of a hypothesis which may account for some resemblances but fails to explain away the marked differences that existed even between contemporary civilizations of the Neolithic, Copper, and Bronze Ages.
To enable the reader to become familiar with the geological, ethnological, and archæological evidence regarding the earliest traces and progressive activities of man in Europe, who laid the foundations of subsequent civilizations, a popular narrative is given in the first chapter, the scientific data being cast in the form of a legend following the manner of Hesiod's account of the Mythical Ages of the World in the Work and Days, and of that of the Indian sage Markandeya's story of the "Yugas" in the Máhabhárata, and of Tuan MacCarell's narrative of his experiences in the various Irish Ages. Footnotes provide the necessary references.
Consideration is also given, in dealing with Cretan origins, to Schliemann's hypothesis regarding the "Lost Atlantis", and the connection he believed existed between the Mexican, early European, and Nilotic civilizations. It is brought out that the historical elements in Plato's legend are susceptible of a different explanation.
Cretan civilization has not yet been rendered articulate, for its script remains a mystery, but of late years a flood of light has been thrown upon it by the archæologists, among whom Sir Arthur Evans is pre-eminent. We can examine the remains of the palace of Minos; tread the footworn stones of the streets of little towns; examine pottery and frame a history of it; gaze on frescoes depicting scenes of everyday life in ancient Crete, on seal engravings which show us what manner of ships were built and navigated by mariners who ruled the Mediterranean Sea long before the Phnician period, what deities were worshipped and what ceremonies were performed; we can study a painted sarcophagus which throws light on funerary customs and conceptions of the Otherworld, and stone vases which afford glimpses of boxers, bull-baiters, soldiers, and processions; and we can also examine the jewellery, weapons, and implements of the ancient folk. With the aid of these and other data we are enabled to reconstruct in outline the island civilization and study its growth over a period embraced by many centuries.
It has even been found possible to arrange a system of Cretan chronology) approximate dates being fixed with the aid of artifacts, evidently imported from Egypt, and of Cretan artifacts found in the Nilotic area and elsewhere. The idea of the "Hellenic miracle" no longer obtains. It is undoubted that Crete was the forerunner of Greece, and that the Hellenes owed a debt to Cretan civilization the importance of which was not realized even by the native historians of ancient Greece.
Various problems arise in dealing with the growth of civilization in Crete and the influence exercised by it in Central and Western Europe.
These include the race question, the migrations of peoples from the area in which the agricultural mode of life was first adopted, the question of cultural contact, of trade routes on sea and land. of homogeneity of beliefs of common origin, and of the influence of locality in the development of beliefs and material civilization. In the pages that follow, these problems are presented in their various aspects, and such representative evidence as is available has been utilized with purpose to throw light upon them.
Readers cannot fail to be impressed by the note of modernity which prevails in the story of Cretan life. It is emphasized to a remarkable degree in Minoan art. In this connection the coloured illustrations in the present volume. by Mr. John Duncan, A.R.S.A., are of peculiar interest. In preparing these designs Mr. Duncan has deliberately sought to follow the style of the Minoan artists themselves, as displayed in the relics of frescoes, and in pottery, seal engravings and impressions, recently unearthed. The colours are confined to those used by the native craftsmen, while the decorative borders are essentially Cretan in character. In the Plate facing a suggestive parallel is drawn between Celtic and Minoan patterns and symbols. It will be noted that the Celtic treatment of complicated patterns of common origin is more thorough and logical than the Minoan, as, for instance, when we compare No. 3, which has incomplete curves, with the finished and exact No. 4. The examples dealt with include a symbol of the Egypto-Libyan goddess Neith.
The note of modernity in Cretan art inclines us perhaps to be somewhat generous and enthusiastic in our praises of it. An eminent archæologist has declared that "it yields to none that was contemporary and hardly to any that came after it". This is a strong claim, especially when we give consideration to the extraordinarily full and varied art of Egypt.
In Crete, for instance, we do not meet with the skilled technique and psychological insight of some of Egypt's notable portraiture in stone, nor with faces of such high intellectual and moral qualities; nor do we meet with the masculine energy, the disciplined ferocity and brilliant directness of appeal that characterize the finest products of Assyrian art; nor can we help noting the absence of the idealistic tendencies of Greek art, with its aim to visualize mental and spiritual impressions, its moral ascendancy, and its preoccupation with the idea of beauty of form and character.
No doubt it is because Cretan art is infused with a lyrical carelessness and freedom, not only in subject, but also in execution, that it makes a very special appeal to modern eyes. There are certainly notable instances of excellency in delicate modelling, a love of colour--who can refrain, for instance, from admiring the golden afternoon effects of Vasiliki pottery?--a delight in natural objects, a marked absence of formalism in the best work, and an extreme and arresting grace, especially in the ivory work.
Yet it is possible to overestimate the artistic value of such works as the "Harvester Vase", with its liveliness of movement and expression, and to commend even its defects, and forget that there are finer examples of low relief in Egypt, where the artists have left us in no doubt as to what they meant; it is possible also to infuse our art criticisms with archæological enthusiasm, as when, for instance, we gaze on the fresco of the Cup Bearer, which is an impression of a very ordinary, good-looking, young man, with formal eyes, and hand and arm out of drawing. Yet while, as a whole, Cretan art is very unequal, there are a few masterpieces which set it on a high level. The ivory figurine of "The Leaper" is one of these. Its Parisian elegance and Greek-like accuracy and beauty of modelling take the eye at once. It is much worn, but the unbroken parts exhibit fine craftsmanship.
The bones and muscles of the arm and hand especially are expressed with the modesty and animation of nature; there is none of the gross exaggeration so often found in Assyrian art. Another outstanding masterpiece is the bull's head in steatite. We are struck by its fine dignity, the noble poise of the head, the alert eye, the mobility of the pricked ears, and the combination of naturalism with simplicity, grace, and loftiness of treatment. A contrast is presented by the other bull's head in plaster relief, with the magnificent blaze of the great eye and the exhausted gasp of mouth and nostrils; the noble animal has evidently fallen a victim in the ring; it is powerful and grand even when death takes it. Special mention may also be made of the goat suckling its kid, an admirable piece of realism characterized by grace and insight.
The spirit of naturalism pulsating in Cretan art is also found in Palæolithic art, of which two notable examples are given from the cave paintings. These remarkable relics of the Pleistocene Age are typical products of Palæolithic art, the advanced condition of which suggests a long history, and even the existence, in such remote times, not only of devoted personal study, but also of an organized system of training. The civilization reflected by such an art must have been of no mean order. Evidently it met with disaster during the Fourth Glacial Period, but subsequent discoveries may yet demonstrate that its influence was not wholly lost to mankind.
D. A. MACKENZIE