It is clear that in Crete a civilized and at one time powerful nation existed from at least 3000 (possibly from much earlier) down to about 1350, when some great calamity befell it, from which it never recovered.
Now both Thucydides and Herodotus speak of the ancient naval supremacy of Crete under a king Minos. Old myths tell of two Cretan kings of this name. One was the son of Zeus, a great lawgiver, who after his earthly life was made a judge (as Homer describes him) in the nether world.
The other Minos was said to be his grandson. He was the husband of Pasiphaë, and in his reign Daedalus built the Labyrinth for the Minotaur, whom the Athenian hero Theseus slew. Homer also speaks of this later Minos. He calls him the father of Ariadne and Deucalion and the grandfather of the Cretan hero Idomeneus, who fought at Troy, and says that he conversed as a familiar friend with Zeus, and reigned ‘for a space of nine years.’
Now it is almost certain that ‘Minos’ was, like ‘Pharaoh,’ a royal title, and that these kings of Crete or Cnossus were believed to be descended from the great Cretan god, the Dictaean Zeus, and it is thought that the king, as High-priest of Zeus, went up once every nine years to ‘converse’ with the deity in the Dictaean cave and to receive his laws (like Moses on Sinai). Moreover, research and excavation have made it clear that the old Cretan religion was closely associated with the bull, as is intimated by the myths of Europa and Pasiphaë. Bulls were doubtless sacrificed to Zeus, and the king-priest seems to have performed ceremonies in the disguise of a bullheaded monster – a fact that is probably the real explanation of the Minotaur and Pasiphaë myths. By some it is believed that the priest-king, when he entered the Dictaean cave at the end of his nine-years reign, was walled up there, or slain, and it is evident that at the bull-grappling spectacles given in honour of the Bull-god many human victims were done to death, mostly youths and maidens (as in the case of the sacrifices of first-born children to Moloch). It seems, therefore, that behind these old myths of the ‘Bull of Minos’ and Theseus and the Athenian youths and maidens sent every nine years (as Plutarch tells us) to be given over as victims to this Minotaur, there is a good deal of fact, and when Thucydides (who strongly condemns ‘careless investigation of truth’) tells us that Minos of Crete was the first monarch to acquire a navy and that he ‘made himself master of the greater part’ of the Aegean and ‘swept piracy from the sea,’ we need no longer doubt his accuracy nor the possibility of trustworthy traditions of the great Minoan Empire having reached the age of Pericles. That it was an empire founded on naval supremacy is remarkably confirmed by the fact that Cnossus possessed no fortifications. Moreover, the existence of numerous settlements named Minoa on the Mediterranean shores seems to prove it. One of these was on the island off Megara. In the Theseus myth Minos lays even Athens under tribute.
But before we draw conclusions in regard to this Minoan race and its connection with the early history of the Hellenic nation there is another group of evidence to be considered, namely, that which Egypt supplies.
Egypt and Crete
The earliest evidences of what is called Minoan civilization in Crete are perhaps a little later than the age (c. 3500) in which King Mena is said to have founded the first of the Egyptian dynasties, and the final fall of the Minoan Empire, about 1350, corresponds with the end of the XVIIIth Dynasty. In the age of the first two dynasties there was doubtless some intercourse between Egypt and Crete, but the only possible evidence of it consists in fragments of bucchero (black pottery) which have been found in very ancient Egyptian tombs. This pottery is believed to have come from Crete. On the other hand, very ancient vessels of syenite, some of which have been found at Cnossus, are believed to have come from Egypt. From the era of Cheops and other Pyramid-builders (IIIrd to XIth Dynasties) there is considerably more evidence of a similar nature; but it was not till about 2000, during the XIIth Dynasty, that the Cretan ware, especially the beautiful ‘Kamáres’ porcelain, seems to have been largely imported into Egypt. Indubitable specimens of this polychrome Minoan ware have been discovered in Egyptian tombs of this period, together with cylinders inscribed with the name of Amenemhat III, the last of the dynasty. It was this great king who built the Labyrinth near Lake Moeris in Egypt which very possibly was imitated at Cnossus by King Minos – unless indeed the Egyptian Labyrinth was suggested by the Cretan.
Then follows the Dark Age of Egyptian history (XIIIth to XVIIth Dynasties), during which for some five centuries the Hyksos (a Canaanite or African nomad race) were the lords of Egypt. Of these so-called ‘Shepherd Kings’ the only one at all known is Khyan (‘Embracer of Lands’). His cartouche, carved on a lion, has been found even at Bagdad, and at Cnossus the lid of an alabaster box has been discovered bearing his name. After the Dark Age and the domination of the Hyksos (broken by the Wars of Independence) we have the famous XVIIIth Dynasty, founded by Aahmes in 1580. To this dynasty belonged the great monarchs Queen Hatshepsut, King Tutmes, and Amenhotep III, who extended Egyptian trade and influence into distant countries. In the numerous inscribed and painted Egyptian records of this era there figure many foreign races, and among these is one, that of the Kephtiu, which formerly used to be regarded as Phoenician, but which is evidently Cretan. In feature, in dress, and in the high coiffure with long down-hanging tresses, these painted Kephtiu bear a most striking resemblance to the type that we have in the ‘Cup-bearer’, and the name Kephtiu, which is said to mean ‘the men from beyond’ (i.e. from beyond the sea), is one that well suits the Cretans. Also the fact that these Kephtiu are depicted carrying, as tribute or gifts, gold and silver vessels very similar to the Vaphio cups confirms one’s belief that they are Cretans, all the more when one remembers that the era of this XVIIIth Dynasty corresponds to that of the great Palace at Cnossus, with its wonderful frescoes and other signs of an advanced civilization. Moreover, the evidence from pottery is here very strong, great quantities of Cretan ware of this period and of the succeeding centuries having been found in Egypt.
It is very striking that about 1400, the era of the sack of Cnossus and the fall of the Minoan Empire, the Kephtiu suddenly disappear from Egyptian records, and that some 100 years later, about the time of the Biblical Exodus, the names of a number of strange northern tribes are found, among whom are the ‘Aqayuasha’ – very possibly the Achaeans.
Not much later, again (c. 1200 – just about the time of the Trojan War), a great host of ‘people of the sea,’ leagued with the Hittites, threatened Egypt from the north-east, but they were defeated and dispersed by Ramses III. Among these invaders are mentioned Danauna (possibly Danai, i.e.Argives) and Pulosathu, who were probably Cretan refugees and identical with the Kephtiu – perhaps the Biblical Philistines of Kaphtor.
Egypt and Mycenae
During the later period of Minoan civilization (say 1700–1400) the Mycenaean civilization was probably at its highest, and to this period may belong the shaft-tombs on the acropolis of Mycenae. Amongst the relics there discovered we have already noted an evident Nile scene on an inlaid dagger-blade. But besides this the cartouche of the Egyptian Amenhotep III, the great king of the XVIIIth Dynasty, was found in one of the later vaulted tombs, as well as several pieces of porcelain inscribed with his name. Amenhotep reigned from 1414 to 1380, so it seems likely that these later Mycenaean tombs were built about 1400. The old Aegean (Pelopid?) kings of the earlier tombs were probably supreme at Mycenae, and in the rest of the Peloponnese, until about this date, when Mycenae seems to have been conquered by some foreign enemy. Shortly afterwards the same enemy seems to have sacked Cnossus.
The question now naturally arises, who were these invaders? And this question leads us to a still larger one, namely, what conclusions can we from all this evidence reasonably draw in regard to the early inhabitants of Greece, and those migrations and invasions and heroes and dynasties of which Greek myths tell so much, but which used to be generally regarded as quite worthless fables?
Firstly, then, who were these invaders who seem to have conquered Mycenae and some years later to have sacked Cnossus?
The old tradition, handed down to us by Herodotus, says that when Daedalus made himself wings and thus escaped to Southern Italy and Sicily he was pursued by Minos, and that, Minos having come to a tragic end in Sicily, a great host of Cretans set forth in ships to avenge his death; but they failed in their object and lost their fleet in a tempest and founded Hyria in Southern Italy, where they changed their name to Messapian Iapygians. Herodotus also learnt from the inhabitants of Praesos, in Crete, that after this national disaster ‘men of various nations flocked to Crete, destitute as it now was of inhabitants; but none came in such numbers as the Greeks.’ He places the death of this King Minos three generations before the Trojan War, say in 1330.
What truth there may be in this tale of a Cretan-Sicilian expedition one cannot say. Possibly it represents the general exodus of Cretans after the advent of ‘men of various nations’ from over the sea. Of these invaders, according to Herodotus, the Greeks (Hellenes) were the most numerous, and among the various nations which inhabited Crete in a somewhat later, post-Dorian, age the first that Homer mentions are the Achaeans, which looks as if then they were still the paramount race.
All our evidence, I think, points to the Achaeans as the conquerors of the Mycenaeans and other Aegean peoples, and as the sackers of Cnossus, and points to the period 1400–1200 as that during which these northern invaders (of whom we have already heard much in connection with the Homeric age and the sixth city of Troy) extended their conquests over Greece and as far as Crete. That these Achaeans (perhaps the ‘Aqayuasha’ of Egyptian records, of whom we have heard) made themselves lords not only of mainland Greece but also of the Aegean, and perhaps Crete, seems probable also from Homer’s statement (quoted by Thucydides) that Agamemnon, the great Achaean king, ruled not only over all Argos but over ‘many islands.’
The second and larger question which we must endeavour to answer is, what conclusions we may reasonably accept in regard to the races which inhabited Greece before the advent of the Achaeans. We have already seen that they were probably a dark-haired, lithe-limbed people, such as we find the ancient Cretans to be depicted, and we have spoken of them as the ‘Aegean’ race. Let us now hear what old Greek tradition says about these early inhabitants of Greece, and their conquerors, the Achaeans.
At the beginning of his history Thucydides, after speaking of the continual migrations of the tribes of ancient Greece, mentions the ‘Pelasgian’ name as that which was most widely applied to these tribes. Long before the time of Thucydides these Pelasgians had been frequently mentioned by Homer, who speaks of them in Thessaly, Boeotia, Attica, and even in the Peloponnese, and also in Asia Minor (possibly aboriginal Phrygians, fighting on the side of the Trojans) and in Crete. He gives the epithet ‘divine’ (heaven-descended? aboriginal?) to these Pelasgians. Moreover, he applies the epithet ‘Pelasgian’ to the northern (Thessalian) Argos, and to the Zeus whose oracle was at Dodona, in Epirus.
Herodotus also tells us of Pelasgians who built the old walls of the Athenian Acropolis, and it seems certain that the original lords of what was later the Athenian Acropolis were those Pelasgi or Cecropes whom later ‘autochthonous’ families of Athens claimed as their ancestors.
It seems not impossible that these ancient Pelasgians were of the same race as the Etruscans or Tyrrhenians, called Tyrseni (perhaps ‘Tower Men’) by the Greeks.30 It is also not impossible that the Pulosathu of Crete (the Philistines?), of whom we have already heard, were Pelasgians; and, lastly, it is quite possible that the Turusha, one of the oversea tribes mentioned as having invaded Egypt about 1300 together with the Aqayuasha (Achaeans?), were these Tyrseni or Etruscans.
However this may be, it is not surprising that formerly all writers on Greece accepted the word ‘Pelasgian’ as the most satisfactory name to cover the unknown tribes inhabiting Greece at the time of the Achaean invasions. But of late years this name has met with disfavour, for it is evident that the newly discovered ‘Aegean’ race was not identical with the Pelasgic, and it is our knowledge of this so-called Aegean race that now allows us to reconstruct and repeople to some extent that obscure ‘mythical’ age formerly regarded as unworthy of the attention of the historian.
The only satisfactory answer, therefore, that we can give in regard to the pre-Achaean inhabitants of Greece is this: there were doubtless also other peoples (such as these Pelasgians), but in the southern parts of Greece the main race, and the only race that we really know anything about for certain, was this Mycenaean, or Aegean, race, to which probably the Cretans were closely related. They were a dark-haired, long-headed people, not of Semitic origin, but possibly with some affinity to the Egyptians. They lived in Greece in what is called the Bronze Age – that is, before iron came into general use – and perhaps before bronze was invented, which could not have been until tin was brought from western lands (from Spain, and perhaps even from Britain). Before tin was procurable to mix with their copper, which they obtained in abundance from Cyprus and also from Chalcis, in Euboea, they were obliged to make their weapons and tools of copper, or of stone or obsidian. In early times possibly some of these Aegean folk (e.g. at Orchomenus, Tiryns, and other marshy places) dwelt in lake-villages, like the Stone Age inhabitants of other parts of Europe. The northern invaders, the Achaeans, seem to have introduced the more general use of bronze for weapons and armour. Then, about 1250, iron, which hitherto had been among Aegean peoples a rare material for rings and small ornaments, began to be used for sharp-edged tools (as we find it in Homer), and gradually won its way into general use. Possibly the arts of smelting and of forging iron (graphically described in the Odyssey, ix. 391) may have been introduced by the Achaeans; but the metal may have been found less commonly by them in Greece, which may account for its comparatively rare mention by Homer.
During this Bronze Age (that is, before the advent of the northern invaders) there were in Greece doubtless other important cities, besides Mycenae and Tiryns and Amyclae and Orchomenus, inhabited by Aegeans or Pelasgians or whatever else we may call these early races, but, except in a few cases, their memorials have utterly perished.