The Human Journey
Pre-Axial Thought in Greece

Pre-Axial Thought


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photo of Franchthi cave entrance 1997
Franchthi Cave

Evidence of very early settlement on the Greek Islands comes from findings in the Franchthi cave, overlooking the Argolid Sea in the Peloponnese. Occupied from about 20,000 BCE through the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, this cave contains some of the earliest evidence of agriculture in Greece. Hunter gatherers were probably the first inhabitants, but from around 11,000 BCE non-native food, such as almonds and lentils appear, and obsidian items from this cave have been found on the island of Melos 80 miles away by sea. Even this early, these island peoples were involved in long-distance sea travel. Around 6000 BCE, evidence of domesticated animals and plants appears in the archaeological record at the cave, and large fish bones indicating deep sea fishing. The cave was apparently abandoned in about 3000 BCE.

Map of Greece
Map of Greece
Cyclades figurines
3200 - 1500 BCE
Click here for information on the Cyclades Figurines
Click Here for a Map of Minoan Crete

The Minoan civilization (2600 - 1450 BCE)
The Minoan civilization on the island of Crete just south of the Greek mainland is considered the origin of Greek culture. The Minoans wrote in a hieroglyphic script known as Linear A. Anthropologist Sandy MacGillivray suggests that its origins were ancient Iran, which would indicate that the Minoans were more Asian
than European.

Too little evidence of their writing remains, so the picture we have of these people is very scant. We don’t know what they called themselves. The term Minoans comes from Greek myths concerning a legendary king of Crete, Minos, who supposedly ruled a vast sea empire. As far as we know they were the first Europeans to use a written language and to construct paved roads. Their society included highly-cultivated artisans, skilled civic engineers and they were excellent ship builders and sailors. Their maritime empire included Spain and parts of modern day Turkey, and rivaled that of their contemporaries, the ancient Egyptians.

Linear A fragments
Linear A incised on tablets found in Akrotiri, Santorini

They were the first sea power in the Aegean and had uncontested control from 2100-1600 BCE. Trade winds worked to their advantage assisting their vessels, loaded with perfumed oils, wine, textiles, jewelry and fine crafts.  Loaded vessels sailed from the Greek world to Asia Minor, Syria, the Levant and Egypt, returning with foodstuffs, textiles and raw materials. They had a large fleet, which was useful for both trade and defense. It is likely that they used their naval power as defense, strategically placing vessels among the islands near them to protect their isolated position. Their palace citadels had no fortified walls because there was no major threat to their security for approximately 500 years.

Egyptian Hieroglyphs on papyrus
Section of the Book of the Dead depicting the
Weighing of the Heart

Dynastic kings, possibly under the name of Minos, united the island by 2100 BCE and taxes supported the arts, crafts, trade, and government. Like the Egyptians, with whom they traded from at least 1525 BCE, their art shows people in profile, never frontally. But Minoan figures are much more natural looking than the still figures of Egypt.

The Minoans painted their spectacular frescos using wet pigments requiring quick execution. This technique demands great skill and fluid brush strokes appropriate to depict the movement of life that they favored. Minoan art, and especially pottery, shows a prosperous and peaceful society of men alongside women. Perhaps because of this, women were much freer and enjoyed a more equal status than elsewhere in the region at the time. There appears to have been little that was restricted from women. As seen on many of the beautiful frescos they often worked side by side with the men.

Minoan bull leaping fresco
The Bull-Leaping Fresco from the Great Palace at Knossos, Crete

Minoan religion featured female deities, such as the snake goddess and quite possibly had priestesses presiding over temple rituals. As was typical with pre-Axial religions, their world was suffused with the divine and charged with religious meaning. They worshipped trees, sacred stones, and springs and their rituals included animal sacrifices. There is some evidence – for example, at the sanctuary at Anemospilia (Archanes) some seven kilometers south of Cnossos - that strongly suggests that the Minoans indulged in human sacrifices. Their society was probably matrilinear.

For more on their religion, see:

Click here for more information on the Island of Thera

The Volcanic Eruption
In about 1630 BCE a massive volcanic eruption on the island of Thera, about 100 km north of Crete, destroyed much of the island. It seems likely that the resultant tsunami waves leveled many of Crete’s cities, that shock waves destroyed its navy and volcanic ash killed its crops. Whatever the details, this eruption weakened the Minoans and left them vulnerable to frequent and growing raids from the Greek mainland. For a PBS presentation on the Minoans click here.

By 1450 BCE, the cities of Crete were burned and the palace at Cnossos was in ruins. The Mycenaean Greeks had taken over.

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