Minoan Utopia or Minoan Catastrophe? Archaeological and Cultural Perspectives

The Ancient Sea: The Utopian and Catastrophic in Classical Narratives and their Reception edited by Hamish Williams and Ross Clare, explores the themes of utopia and catastrophe in the liminal environment of the sea, through the lens of history, philosophy, literature and classical reception.

To celebrate the publication of this new book, editor Hamish Williams and contributing author Guy Middleton have shared some insights on archaeological perspectives on the Minoan palace of Knossos.

The Archaeological Angle. The story of Sir Arthur Evans and the Minoan palace of Knossos in the early twentieth century is one of the staples of archaeology and archaeological history; an intrepid adventurer on a quest to discover the mysterious lost past – a scholar who found a palace and revealed to the world a whole new Bronze Age civilisation. For Evans, Minoan Crete was a peaceful and perhaps utopian society populated by willowy priestesses, dancing in leafy glades, sophisticated kohl-eyed beauties, and bull-leaping youths – protected from the outside world by Minos and his navy. Whatever the truth of a Cretan utopia, the Minoan myth we have today is one of catastrophe and destruction.

Evans, whose work gave him an intimate knowledge of Knossos, was not only concerned with Minoan life in all its splendour, but also with the periodic destructions that the Knossians and Minoans evidently had to deal with. Evans’ research had led him to consider the potential impact of earthquakes on ancient Cretan society. With ancient earthquakes already in mind, in 1926 he gained first-hand experience of an earthquake at Knossos, of which he wrote a vivid account in his 1928 volume of The Palace of Minos. The earthquake brought about destruction in the town of Heraklion, damaging hundreds of houses and forcing people to camp out. The regular earthquakes that Knossos and Crete had suffered in ancient, medieval, and modern times, he suggested, would have happened in Minoan times too. This could explain the state of some of the archaeological remains at the palace, the way that massive walls had fallen over in a way that seemed impossible to have been caused by human action.

For Evans, now, the architectural history of Knossos, and the whole of Minoan history, with its division into periods of Early, Middle and Late Minoan I, II and III, could be tied to earthquakes rather than humans (see Figures 1 and 2). These natural events could have significant impacts on society, as he knew from other episodes in Cretan history: “Nor can the possibility be ignored that these great natural convulsions had political consequences, and that they may have been productive of the uprising of depressed elements in the population, or of a change of dynasty […]. Did the wholesale havoc wrought by earthquakes – again and again repeated at intervals of not more than one or two generations throughout a large part of Minoan Crete – provoke desertion and emigration?.” Later on, the final destruction, ‘the last catastrophe of Knossos’, was also blamed on an earthquake – for how could any human enemy have possibly defeated the Minoans? Evan’s utopia could only have been destroyed by nature.

Shortly after Evan’s volume appeared, the Greek archaeologist S. Marinatos argued in 1939 that it was much more likely that the massive eruption of the volcanic island of Thera in the fifteenth century BC in combination with earthquakes was to blame for the destruction on Crete. The eruption spewed out huge quantities of volcanic ash and pumice and caused huge waves to radiate outwards, hitting the north coast of Crete and destroying ships and buildings as it swept over the coast and inland into the plains. Later, given the island’s weakened state, mainlanders moved in, but perhaps peacefully and over time.

In the twentieth century, the newly discovered ‘Minoan’ Thera and Crete inevitably became associated with Plato’s mythical utopia of Atlantis – an island that disappeared in earthquakes and floods. A careful discussion was made in a 1913 paper in the Journal of Hellenic Studies by K. T. Frost, as Evans’ work at Knossos was ongoing. Frost imagined that the Atlantis story was a memory of the political fall of the Minoans – not the disappearance of an island. But, with growing research on the scale of the Thera eruption and interest in the tsunami angle, the notion of a seismic, volcanic and watery destruction became widespread.

In his 1969 book The End of Atlantis and a 1976 paper, J. V. Luce developed Marinatos’ argument further. For him, the power of the eruption was sufficient to knock out all the Cretan palaces except Knossos, to cover the east of the island in ash that then caused agricultural failures, and to cause tsunami waves that destroyed Minoan shipping – it “was like a dagger plunged into the heart of Crete.” The devastated island of Crete was laid open to a Mycenaean takeover with a new mainland dynasty basing itself at Knossos. Luce spells out the impact of the apocalyptic nature of events:

Overnight she [Crete] lay crippled and defenceless, her protective shield of bases swept away, thousands of her citizens downed, the rest panic-stricken and starving. It was a knock-out blow. Minoan Crete was battered to her knees by the brute forces of nature, and never rose again.

Since then, researchers have attempted to find more evidence to add to the picture, searching for evidence of ash-fall, pumice, and marine life for evidence of the volcano and possible tsunamis.

Not everyone agreed with Evans or the catastrophist line. In his The Archaeology of Crete (1965), J. D. S. Pendlebury reinforced the idea of an island-wide disaster that saw the simultaneous destruction of sites around Crete. But rather than seeing earthquakes as responsible, he argued that people were to blame – either native Cretans rising up against mainland Greek invaders, who had taken over the Minoan centres earlier on or, conversely, oppressed mainlanders rebelling against their Cretans masters. He stressed that the reasons for the destructions must have been ‘purely political’, given that Minoan culture continued after the destructions. In the same year as Luce’s paper came out, G. Cadogan argued, like Pendlebury, that Cretan sites had been devastated in conflict – probably by attacking Mycenaeans from the mainland. The idea of a Mycenaean ‘invasion’ of some kind still lurks in the archaeology of LBA Aegean, though the concept of a ‘Mycenaean Crete’ is problematic and neither ‘Minoan’ nor ‘Mycenaean’ should be used as ethnic descriptors.

Much more recently, archaeologists Jan Driessen and Colin MacDonald (1997) surveyed the destructions on Crete and concluded that rather than a single event, they could have taken place over two generations. As with Pendlebury and others, they see the hand of people at work, not nature. However, they do assign a role to the eruption of Thera as a cause of change on the island. Like Evans, Marinatos, and Luce, they note the potential psychological effects of the eruption of Thera, the noise, the sight, ash-fall, pumice, and waves, as well as the physical impacts. Local areas may have taken the lead in responding, looking to secure food supplies, creating a less stable political situation on the island. Uncertainty and insecurity probably grew.

Despite the fact that we now have a much more nuanced understanding of the changes on Crete in the Late Bronze Age, the apocalyptic version remains eye-catching. Even the BBC made a documentary about it in 2001 (aired several times since), entitled Mystery of the Minoans, as part of their Ancient Apocalypse series. A National Geographic article from 2021 also used the disaster angle as a hook, though focused on reporting new evidence for a Thera-generated tsunami at Çesme-Bağlararası on the Turkish-Aegean coast, northeast of Thera. Another recent paper finds evidence for a tsunami to the north of Thera (Paris et al. 2022).

Certainly, the drama and thrill of catastrophes and disasters makes them appealing and logical-sounding explanations for big historical changes, as we can see at the moment the devastation wrought by the Turkey-Syria earthquakes. But we must be cautious – most natural disasters have not led to the collapse of civilisations, even if they have been catastrophic for victims and communities. Digging down into the changes that took place in Early, Middle and Late Bronze Age Crete, we realise that the picture is much less neat and tidy than once thought; change is complex and constant.


Cultural Stories. Sir Arthur Evans’ excavations at Knossos from 1900 onwards and his early writings on the Minoans have had an enormous impact not only on the archaeological field of Minoan Studies but also on the broader cultural sphere. This wave of interest in all things Minoan has commonly been referred to as ‘Cretomania’, a kind of Neo-Minoanism, comparable with Neo-Classicism, Philhellenism, and the Egyptian Revival. The influence of ‘the Minoan’ is represented across a vast range of both literary and non-fictional texts: for example, in travel writings where self-reflective narrators, such as Henry Miller or Christopher Somerville, typically walk over the hallowed ground of Knossos, Phaistos, and other ruins; in speculative fiction genres where Minoan spheres are imaginatively recreated, from science fiction such as Poul Anderson’s The Dancer from Atlantis (1971) to horror such as Stephen King’s Rose Madder (1995); and the subtle resonances of the Minoan are often felt obliquely in the works of literary fiction writers such as Nikos Kazantzakis and Lawrence Durrell, among others. In the early years of Cretomania,the influence of the phenomenon on the visual, performative arts was perhaps greater than on narrative texts: thus, the serendipitous similarity of the reconstructed Minoan artwork to the naturalistic, flowing, decorative, pacific ethos of Art Nouveau at the end of La Belle Epoque; and the possible influence of Art Deco (or Bauhaus) on Evans’ own later architectural elaborations on the palace at Knossos. Neo-Minoan representations in the cinematic arts have been less widespread – and perhaps less interesting. Apart from the odd decision by a succession of film-makers (including Wolfgang Peterson) to consistently characterise various representations of Troy as vaguely Minoan, including the pervasive ‘Horns of Consecration’ on the Trojan fortifications, there was no great Minoan swashbuckler in either the epic 1950s or 2000s – and we have been left with B-movie sword-and-sandal epics such as Minotaur, The Wild Beast of Crete (1960) and amateur horror films such as The Devil’s Men (1976). Most recently, Minoan environments have been recreated in the interactive realm of video games, including Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018), as well as some low-budget efforts on Steam, including Depths of Fear: Knossos (2014) and Medusa’s Labyrinth (2016).

Apart from merely illustrating the sheer prevalence of Neo-Minoanism in the arts and in broader cultural discussions, scholars such as Nicoletta Momigliano and Cathy Gere have been interested in the logic behind these reimaginations – the meanings behind this modern myth. There are many intriguing routes to take here. The Minoan seems, in general, to have served as a representational battleground in which various ideas and cultural constructs can be set against one another: for instance, the masculine versus the feminine; the Occident/West versus the Orient (involving European identity-making); and the rational/conscious versus the irrational/unconscuious mind (wherein the archetypal symbols of the Minotaur and the Labyrinth play their part). One particular tension in Neo-Minoan representations which relates to our volume on The Ancient Sea is that between utopian and catastrophic narratives. These are two of the oldest cultural narratives in the human imagination, dating back to golden-age myths and apocalyptic myths, representing the constructive drive for perfection and the fear of destructive annihilation. While these narratives might appear to be mutually exclusive, opposing cultural narratives, what modern Neo-Minoan mythmaking shows us is how closely they are, in fact, related. How could such a perfective seafaring civilisation as Minoan Crete suffer so catastrophic a fall? Digging deeper into the narrative appropriations of utopia and catastrophic collapse, we can track the ideological motivations which various thinkers and writers discovered behind the Minoan.

In Evans’ quasi-utopian essay titled ‘The Minoan Age’, his Minoans exhibit perfective qualities which are reminiscent of a Victorian-English self-romanticisation: they are benevolent traders of high culture and the sophisticated arts around an impressive, wide-spanning sea empire, which stretches even to the Iberian edges of the Western Mediterranean – and perhaps beyond. Evans’ utopian Minoans also function more broadly as a cradle for modern European civilisation. These hypercivilized people boast advanced technologies (e.g. hydraulics) to rival the innovations of Bronze Age Egypt, so inverting the principle that civilisation awakened in the East, in the Fertile Crescent – from ex oriente lux to ex occidente lux. Yet despite their scientific excellence, Evan’s Minoans do not seem to be marred by the modern tension between the secular/materialistic and the spiritual; they are characterised by Evans as a religiously devout people, governed by pacific priest-kings. The pacific quality of the Minoans has become a common marker of their utopian nature in post-Evansian representations; however, there is some debate among scholars as to the nature of Evans’ own pacific islanders – in contrast to Gere’s focus on a more absolutely peaceful people, Momigliano points to more of an imperial-imposed peace, a pax Minoica.

Yet one problem for Evans was explaining how so ideal a coastal utopia could ever have collapsed. As we have already seen, Evans’ personal experiences of an earthquake in Crete provided him with a clue: a natural catastrophe, a random historical event that would absolve his Minoans of any responsibility for their fall. Alternatively, in ‘The Minoan Age’, Evans draws on an old Western motif by linking Orientalism with decline and fall – effectively shifting the blame for Minoan collapse to the corrupting influences of the East. Then again, in other texts which he penned Evans seems to be at pains to de-emphasize collapse and catastrophe and to focus instead on Minoan continuity: such that we can see Minoan revivals in Classical Greece, in Rome, in the Enlightenment, and even at the turn of the twentieth century.

Not all twentieth-century writers have been so convinced of Minoan Crete’s utopian status. The English humorist and novelist Evelyn Waugh regarded the newly reconstructed palace in Knossos as the stuff of nightmares, the abode of a tyrannical, ruthless leader. So too in his posthumously published children’s novel At the Palaces of Knossos (1988), Nikos Kazantzakis characterizes Knossos as nothing less than a prehistoric instantiation of the Ottoman Empire, filled with oriental bazaars, traders, and, naturally, despotic tyrants; needless to say, the catastrophic destruction of this quasi-Ottoman civilisation at the hands of raiding Athenians and Dorians (‘healthy Northerners’) is a welcome event for the post-colonial Cretan writer, who was so concerned with the ideal of freedom in his writings. It is only through the catastrophic death of Minoan culture that the Classical virtues and greatness of Athens can be born, of which Theseus is characterised as the progenitor. The catastrophe of Minoan collapse is necessary.

In Robert Graves’ novel Seven Days in New Crete (1949), his Minoan utopia is, in one sense, a female-governed paradise, where a class of intelligent, telepathic women holds sway and where men are generally reduced to a subservient station. Superficially, Graves’ representation might resonate with other later Neo-Minoan texts focusing on a feminine utopia, especially during and just after the counterculture movement of the 60s and 70s, a place replete with powerful snake goddesses and inverted gender hierarchies. Unfortunately for those seeking clear meanings, Graves’ story is simply far too idiosyncratic to be reduced to the contextual dictates of his time (e.g., his exposure to feminist ideas through his first wife Nancy and, later, through his muse Laura Riding), and his female-governed society in New Crete is less the prescriptive subject of a utopia than the object of his own creative poetic persona and desire, seeking inspiration in the muse. Graves’ utopia is more a retaliation against the Platonic, rationalist utopia, which effectively evicts poets from its walls, and a jubilation of poetic creativity and irrationality. It is also a distinctly anti-modern utopia, a retrotopia shirking international trade and imperial globalisation, and here we can see the post-WWI pessimism of Graves’ lost generation: namely, the distrust of scientific rationality and the resulting machine. And yet even this feminine, creative, retrotopian, somewhat conservative (inland) utopia has to come to an end. Graves’ New Crete must collapse. His rationale for decline and fall points, on the one hand, to the rising genre of dystopian fiction, in the sense that all utopias can tend towards dystopias and autocracy; on the other hand, Graves simply feels that utopias are a bit boring, not creative enough for a poet.

In Mary Renault’s masterly work of historical fiction The King Must Die (1958), the bull-leaping golden age of Minoan Crete has already been relegated to the past by the time her hero Theseus has arrived on the island. While there are a few signs of a once-utopian Minoan past, most notably, in the architectural scale and intricacy of the palace at Knossos which astounds Theseus, the story is primarily one of Minoan decline and fall, which measures the once utopian elements through their present-day decay. The famous Minoan aesthetic sophistication has devolved into meaningless ornamentation and decadence, reflected by the pervasive dinner parties and feasts; the once great thalassocracy is now manned by hired mercenaries and vain youth and is ripe for the picking; the quintessential Minoan sport of bull-leaping is tainted by ‘match-fixing’; the chief priestess, Ariadne, ‘fakes’ the traditional religious rituals; and King Minos himself becomes a physical symbol of decay, suffering from leprosy. In the climax of Renault’s historical fiction, imperial Minoan Crete suffers collapse as Theseus sails away. So, why did her Minoan Crete have to fall? On the one hand, we can see Renault, who was a stickler for historical accuracy, engaging with several of the scholarly speculations of her day, in such a way that The King Must Die assembles several hypotheses for Minoan collapse, including natural disaster (earthquake and tsunami), foreign invasion, religious decline, and a class revolt. On the other hand, as with Kazantzakis, we should discern what kind of world order emerges after the decline and fall of Knossos, which seems founded in Renault’s generally liberal worldview: Minoan collapse opens up a new world of mobility, interculturality, and gender fluidity, as championed by Theseus and his Cranes.

Evans, Kazantzakis, Graves, Renault – only four variations on a theme, out of hundreds. It is arguable than in more recent times utopian depictions of Minoan Crete have become less common, and nightmarish imaginations have taken hold: for instance, Stephen King’s vaguely Minoan temple in Rose Madder (1995), while in recent revisionist, feminist historical fiction, such as Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018) or Jennifer Saints’ Ariadne (2021), Knossos is an oppressive place of violent masculine tyranny from which female protagonists need to escape. These imaginings are nothing new. The potential for Minoan Crete to represent the unsettling, the strange, the horrific draws on the symbolic, psycho-therapeutic appropriations of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, captured in, for example, Lawrence Durrell’s The Dark Labyrinth (1947). Even in the latter novel, however, where the dark Minoan milieu symbolises the frightening domain of the unconscious, of unwanted psychopathologies rising to the surface, the utopian image of Minoan Crete emerges anew: not as an external social utopia but a kind of Buddhist Shangri-La, where modern characters such as the Trumans can find peace from the turbulence of the twentieth century in a kind of pure being.

Find out more about The Ancient Sea on the Liverpool University Press website.

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