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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

Required caveat: This paper has been written to as closely as possible match the requirement of being a spoken history by a member of Minoan society, who can also apparently travel selectively through time. There are statements and beliefs in this paper that do not necessarily exactly match those of the paper's author, although she admits to considerable empathy. Mileage may vary.

I'm a novitiate in training for the Lady of the Serpents, but please don't worry -- I'm quite comfortable with your culture's mode of dress. I'm here to give you a quick overview of my informal discussions with a very pleasant Athenian priest on how a culture's art, social organizations and general world view can be affected by its religion. We came to some interesting conclusions as we compared our respective cultures, and I'd like to briefly review them for you.

The most obvious difference between Minoan and Athenian culture can be seen in our respective art styles. Let us first examine the Minoan style of art.

Minoan Art

Everyone loves our art. Scholars say it is distinguished by a free, humanistic spirit the more remarkable in view of its antecedents -- somehow the Minoans escaped from the prevailing bondage to 'miracle, mystery, and authority' (Muller 77). Other scholars refer to it as "purely delightful (Hawkes 114)" "lively and joyful (Eisler 30)" unique in our "delight in beauty, grace, and movement" and our "enjoyment of life and closeness to nature (Platon 161)" as depicted by our artistic traditions. Normally rather dour scholars have described our art as "the most inspired in the ancient world (Sir Leonard Woolley, as quoted by Hawkes 73)." From all over the world you can hear statements like "the enchantment of a fairy world" and "the most complete acceptance of the grace of life the world has ever known (Hawkes 73-4)."

So what is our artistic tradition like? Our frescoes in the royal palace directly manifest the humanistic quality of Minoan art. They depict the life of nature and civil society, freshly observed and joyously felt. They include scenes of handsome, slim-waisted youths and maidens engaged in bull-leaping, and groups of bare-breasted women holding animated conversation. Similarly Minoan sculptors never strain for grandeur but confine themselves to small figures, making lovely statuettes in ivory and faience. Their subjects range from goddesses to naked little boys. Ornamental art displays the same fresh, lively fancy; pottery in particular has a variety and grace lacking in the Orient, where it has become a routine industry (Muller 77). Our pottery shows a cheerful joie du vivre, with even the huge clay pithoi carrying etched-in dots and wavy lines in a variety of natural patterns, while ceramic vases swirl with multicolored, twisting patterns and multiple decorative spires. "Minoan artists were ... never so bound by convention as were Oriental artists, and they seem to have known much more joy in creating (Muller 77)."

Frescoes and painted murals are common in our buildings, from life size to miniature. In the frescoes, scenes from either nature or everyday life are most frequently shown. One of the most well-known frescoes is the famous bull- leaping scene at the great palace of Knossos. It is beautiful. The border simulates variegated, multicolored stone (Hawkes 134-5). The bull dancers are graceful and athletic, with two women and a man shown. They take turns, working in teams, grasping the horns of the charging bull and vaulting over its back. There are other famous paintings in the palace. One depicts a long haired youth, unarmed, naked to the waist, crowned with peacock plumes and walking among flowers and butterflies (Eisler 37). Elsewhere we can find a dramatic mural of a woman -- the Goddess manifest in her high priestess, the Cretan queen -- who stands at the center while two approaching processions of men bear tribute to her. Everywhere one finds female figures, many of them with their arms raised in a gesture of blessing, some of them holding serpents or double axes as symbols of the Goddess (Eisler 31).

In fact, women are the most frequent and central subjects of our fresco and mural art, and the most frequently portrayed in the arts and crafts. Usually they are depicted in the public sphere (Rohrlich-Leavitt 46, 49). Also, there are many frescoes with simple pastoral themes: multi-colored partridges amongst roses, griffins in fields of lilies, multicolored waves filled with sporting dolphins. Marine and land plants, religious ceremonies, the cheerful life of the court and the people -- all serve as subjects for the brilliant frescoes. Furthermore, nowhere will you find the name of an author attached to a work of art -- we believe we should glorify the Lady with our works, not ourselves -- nor will you find our art used to record the deeds of a ruler (Eisler 36). There are no statues or reliefs of those who sit our thrones. Instead, the worship of nature pervades (Platon).

Careful examination will also show you that there are few depictions of hunting, with 'heroes' and nobles painted larger-than-life. The frescoes don't show constant scenes of kings trampling their enemies underfoot in perennial warfare. Instead of depicting the awful 'majesty' of gods and god-kings, or commemorating royal triumphs, royalty and gods are the same size as everyone else in the paintings. Our art is not dominated by oppressive religious themes or royal god-kings. Unlike the Egyptians, the Athenians, or other 'statist' societies, we have no need to build great temples or tombs, no colossal statues of gods or kings -- none of the monumental forms that are so impressive, and finally oppressive (Muller 77). Our only great building is the palace, and this is not designed primarily to awe.

Some scholars have described Minoan life as "perfectly expressive of the idea of homo ludens" -- of "man" expressing our higher human impulses through joyful and, at the same time, mythically meaningful ritual and artistic play. Others have tried to sum up Cretan culture with words and phrases like "sensitivity," "grace of life," and "love of beauty and nature (Hawkes 45; Platon 148, 161)." We are a rich, technologically and culturally advanced civilization in which all the artistic media -- in fact, life in its totality as well as death -- are deeply entrenched in an all-pervasive, ubiquitous religion (Buchholtz & Karageorghis as quoted by Eisler 36). In marked contrast to other contemporary, 'high' civilizations, this religion -- centering on the worship of the Goddess -- both reflects and reinforces a social order in which the fear of death is almost obliterated by the ubiquitous joy of living (Hawkes 73). Ours is a society in which the whole of life is pervaded by an ardent faith in the goddess and her Nature, the source of all creation and harmony (Platon 148). In Crete a spirit of harmony between women and men as joyful and equal participants in life pervades (Eisler 31).

Athenian Art

Athenian sculpture tends towards "statist" art: it is dominated by oppressive religious or royal themes; it tends to glorify heroes, gods, and/or kings; the themes depicted are usually warfare, combat, or hunting; it follows stylized forms (e.g. the "hero" is larger than others). It is meant to make the common man feel both small, and yet also a part of something larger and more majestic; to justify the actions of those in power; and to prove the importance of the rulers of the land. It decorates great temples, tombs, and/or colossal statues of gods or kings -- all of the monumental forms that are (still) so impressive, and finally oppressive (Muller 76).

Pausanias describes some Athenian paintings in his Description of Greece. He mentions a temple to Aphrodite, in Athens, as being painted on the inside: "Of these screens the part opposite the doors is only covered with dark-blue paint; the other parts show pictures by Panaenus." He describes the paintings' subject matter -- it shows exclusively 'heroes,' gods, and women who have been conquered by men (such as Achilles killing Penthisilea and Ajax raping Cassandra). Pausanias comments on Panaenus:

...a brother of Pheidias; he also painted the picture of the battle of Marathon in the painted portico at Athens.
On the uppermost parts of the throne Pheidias
[sic] has made, above the head of the image, three Graces on one side and three Seasons on the other. These in epic poetry are included among the daughters of Zeus. ... The footstool of Zeus, called by the Athenians thranion, has golden lions and, in relief, the fight of Theseus against the Amazons, the first brave deed of the Athenians against foreigners.

There is no comment by Pausanias, of course, that Zeus raped the mothers of the Graces and Seasons. Nor does he comment that the Amazons came for their queen, who had received Theseus with honor and blessings, and was given in return theft, lies, murder, and abduction. No, that shameful episode is referred to as "the first brave deed of the Athenians against foreigners." Thus here we have preserved for all to see, in a temple dedicated to a goddess of love (of all places), extensive treatments of warfare, hunting, the abuse of women, and the glorification of the people who do these things.

Pausanias writes later, extensively, on one painting in particular. It is in a building he refers to as the "Club Room," near a temple, where the men get together to drink and talk about life. They do so... in a room decorated with scenes from Hades and the sack of Troy. How depressing.

Athenian vase painting is also stylized, to the degree that it comes in two recognizable forms. There is the original black background vase painting, created due to the dyes used. Following that came an innovation: "red-figure" painting. Vase painting I find noteworthy mostly because approximately 70% of the artwork concerns sex of one form or another -- with men always dominant. A large percentage of the rest of the subject matter concerns what I have referred to as "statist" art: scenes glorifying warfare and hunting (Perseus Encyclopedia: Amphorae).

To put it bluntly, Athenian art serves the city-state. However, to be fair I should point out that, while it is a product that glorifies the state, it is nowhere as absolute in character and stylization as Egyptian art. There is still some freedom, some freshness in Athenian artwork -- it is not completely circumscribed by ritual. Two examples should suffice to describe this. Firstly, in sculpture, weight is often depicted off-center, giving the statue a more naturalistic look. Secondly, Pausanias mentions a painting in Athens:

As you go to the portico which they call painted, because of its pictures.... This portico contains, first, the Athenians arrayed against the Lacedaemonians at Oenoe in the Argive territory. What is depicted is not the crisis of the battle nor when the action had advanced as far as the display of deeds of valor, but the beginning of the fight when the combatants were about to close.

As can be seen by the above quote, the painter chose not to portray the usual timing of such paintings, but rather one of his choosing. Thus we can see that while it was considered slightly odd, a slavish adherence to exact artistic standards was not required of the classical Athenian painters.

Minoan Women

Let's take a look at how Minoans treat women. Women and men share equally in the benefits of the society, and in comfort and status. Our social organization began with the matrilineal genos, or clan, and succession passes through the female line (Platon 177) -- as is only logical, since it is women who give birth. Naturally, Crete is our motherland, not our "father" land. Indeed, 1500 years after the passing of our civilization, Cretans will still refer to her as such (Plutarch, as quoted by Muller 80).

However, it would be misleading to describe Crete as a matriarchy -- we are more a partnership of genders; we strive to appreciate everyone's abilities, rather than having one gender oppress the other. You can see this by our lovely and comfortable clothing: women wear long dresses with flounced skirts, tight waists fitted to the figure, puffed sleeves, dainty shoes, complicated coiffures of curled ringlets, and golden jewelry. Men wear graceful and practical clothing that accentuates their forms -- and very nice forms they are. In front of their ears, both men and women wear long ringlets separated from the rest of their hair, long side locks that sometime reach down to the waist. Athletes are quite distinctive: they are tall and lithe, with slender, flat bodies, very broad shoulders, long arms, tiny waists (certainly about 20" or less), and muscular thighs. They tend to wear snug, red-and-green loincloths (Eisler 35; Goodrich 90).

As our clothing shows, we are not ashamed of our bodies -- practicality and freedom of movement is as important as aesthetics. Both genders participate in physical exercise and sports, and why not, if we are enjoying ourselves? You may consider our frequently bare-to-the-waist style of dress odd -- but we often wonder why you cover yourselves up so much. Don't be ashamed of your bodies! Don't you think that an enthusiasm for sports and dancing, a frank appreciation of the other gender, and a creative love of life might contribute to a more generally peaceful and harmonious spirit in your life? (Eisler 35) Wear clothing that you find comfortable!

Athenian Women

In classical Athens, women's lives are restricted, tied closely to the home and family, with little contact with the outside world -- and certainly no participation in Athens' much vaunted democracy. Respectable Athenian women almost never leave their homes, except to be a veiled audience to the male-run religious ceremonies. Marriages are arranged by the girl's father and the prospective bridegroom, who is usually at least a decade or two older. A woman's path to honor is seen solely in her ability to bear children -- preferably sons. For most of their lives women live in the back of the houses with the children, and their husbands live in the front. Frequently there is little to no communication between the spouses (Amos & Lang 146-7).

Indeed, women are classed with children as a category of person that must be cared for, rather than as self-reliant adults. When writing of the raising of children, Aristotle states,

The officials must therefore be careful that there may be no sculpture or painting that represents indecent actions, except in the temples of a certain class of gods to whom the law allows even scurrility; but in regard to these the law permits men still of suitable age to worship the gods both on their own behalf and on behalf of the children and women.

Thus we can see that the Athenians believed women and children belonged in the same class: that of persons who cannot think critically.

There is, however, one class of women that is worth noting: the hetairai. A hetaira is a "trained and paid companion who accompanied upper-class men to the symposiums. (Perseus Encyclopedia: Aspasia)" This group appears to be the only type of women that are treated as anything approaching equals to men; they are also possibly the only women with self respect and self reliance in the entire city. Aside from them, it appears that the intellectual capabilities of Athenian women are quite firmly stifled.

Aspasia, Pericles' hetaira, was the most famous of hetairai, and a woman whose advice he apparently often took. Sadly, this was later used against him. In Pericles' defense, Plutarch takes pains to point out that Pericles was not influenced by Aspasia, but rather that he simply loved her:

However, the affection which Pericles had for Aspasia seems to have been rather of an amatory sort. ... Twice a day, as they say, on going out and on coming in from the market-place, he would salute her with a loving kiss.

Thus it can be seen that women were also considered unfit to give advice.


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