Argument from “Absence” and Absence of Dialogue by Carol P. Christ

Carol in Crete turquoiseRecently in a conversation with a noted archaeologist and his male graduate student assistant, I proposed that the absence of war and the trappings of war, including images of larger than life-size warrior kings, suggested to me that we should not understand the social structure of ancient Crete on the model of patriarchal kingship. “Kings are always warriors,” I said, “yet there is no clear and convincing evidence of organized warfare in ancient Crete. And,” I continued, “because warrior kingship is not a ‘natural state,’ but one achieved through warfare and domination, kings must legitimate and celebrate their power through larger than life-size images of themselves. Such images were common in ancient Sumer and in ancient Egypt, but are not found in ancient Crete.”

The response I received was unexpected: both archaeologists seemed dumbfounded. “Is kingship always associated with war?” they asked. “Yes,” I responded, “this is a conclusion I reached many years ago while studying the cultures of ancient Greece and ancient Israel, and I have recently elaborated this theory in a series of essays on the blog Feminism and Religion ( See “Patriarchy as a System of Male Dominance Created at the Intersection of the the Control of Women, Private Property, and War”).”

This theory is not exactly new, but both archaeologists professed never to have heard of it—not to have heard of it and rejected it, but never to have heard of it. Unlike some archaeologists, both of them believe that the Goddess was the primary deity in ancient Crete and prefer to think that the society was not warlike. Indeed, the senior archaeologist told me a few years ago that the recently-questioned theory that ancient Crete was conquered by Mycenaean warriors seemed to have been proved by a discovery of Mycenaean warrior graves (complete with helmets and weapons) in the east of Crete near the city of Hania. This graveyard was dated to the time of the fall of the Minoan civilization, and to him it proved that warriors entering Crete from the tip of the Peloponnese overthrew it. Despite these points of agreement with feminist scholars, the archaeologists had never heard of the theory that patriarchy, kingship, and war go together like a horse and carriage–“you can’t have one without the other.”

My argument is that in the “absence” of larger than life-size (or even small) images of warrior kings in ancient Crete, we should not make the assumption that ancient Crete was ruled by kings. ”King Minos” was mentioned in the Iliad of Homer as having sent ships to aid the Greeks in the Trojan War. The Trojan War occurred several centuries after the Myceneans overthrew Crete. Despite the fact that Homer wrote several hundred years after that, the idea that Minos was the name or title of a Mycenaean king is plausible.

The excavator of Knossos, Arthur Evans, (mis-)named the culture he found “Minoan” after Homer’s King Minos. He then spent decades searching for him. Evans never found an image of a King, armed or otherwise, sitting on a throne or standing before an army. Finally—some would say in desperation—he reconstructed fragments of frescoes into the image he called the “Prince of the Lilies.” Evans stated that Crete was ruled not by the old and bearded King he had been looking for, but rather by a young “Prince.”

prince of the lilies
Princess of the Lilies or female bull-leaper?

Recently, scholars, including Michael Cameron, have questioned Evans’ reconstruction of the Prince of the Lilies. They point out that the crown on the Prince’s head more likely was worn by a mythical animal called a griffon. They note that though Evans believed that the Minoans followed the Egyptians in painting the skin of males brown, and females white, the so-called Prince has white skin! If Evans had followed his own theory, he would have had to conclude that his Prince is a Princess. A recent interpretation is that Evans’ Prince, sans crown, is a young female bull-leaper.

As the title of this blog indicates, my argument that there were no kings in Crete is an “argument from absence.” However, this argument is not pulled out of a hat, but is based on comparison with the imagery produced in cultures contemporary to ancient Crete known to have had kingship. I think there are good grounds for adopting it. If we find larger than life-size images of warrior kings in Egypt and Sumer, but not in “Minoan” Crete, should we not at least entertain theory that ancient Crete was not ruled by kings who lived in the “palaces” of Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia, Kato Zakros, and Archanes?

women under tree fresco
This miniature fresco shows groups of women–no Queen in sight–seated in the place of honor during ritual performances at the Sacred Center of Knossos.

And if rule was not by kings, then who ruled? Or more precisely, who governed? Recently, archaeologist Jan Driessen has suggested, based on analysis of architecture, that the societies of ancient Crete were matrilocal and matrilineal. If this is so, then perhaps we should consider the hypothesis that ancient Crete was an egalitarian matriarchy governed by grandmothers and great-uncles in systems that are appropriately called “participatory democracy” and have nothing to do with Kings or Queens.

If you have read this far, you might be wondering why I care so much about this question. The answer is that the idea that patriarchy and with it war and domination are universal and inevitable is a myth perpetrated by those who do not want to give up the power and privilege the patriarchal system has accorded to them. But like the title “Prince of the Lilies,” this idea is a fiction.

You might also be wondering whether I managed to convince the two male archaeologists that ancient Crete was not ruled by kings. That remains to be seen. I am stating the obvious when I say that for them to change their minds would be to go against the assumptions of most of their peers and would probably not win them any accolades. What I can report is that they proposed that we meet again “same time next year” to continue the conversation.

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Carol’s books include She Who Changes and and Rebirth of the Goddess; with Judith Plaskow, the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions and forthcoming in 2016 from Fortress Press, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Maureen Murdock.


Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women.

24 thoughts on “Argument from “Absence” and Absence of Dialogue by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thanks, Carol. Which came first, the overarching idea of an all-powerful male god like Yahweh or Zeus, or the male dominance in society of its kings as warriors? Because I love nature, I would prefer that Knossos tree in your illustration, as the godhead, or goddess — clearly, how protecting, how egoless and loving, it truly is.


  2. Dear Carol.

    It is truly extraordinary. I visited Crete for the first time in 1976. I was just at the beginning of understanding that partriarchy is neither inevitable nor universal and yet I could quickly see many of the things I know more surely now after studying Ancient Greek, researching archaology and visiting Crete (and other places) over the decades since.

    But the masculinisation of archaeology is evident in Malta, in Turkey, in many other places where bronze age, neolithic and earlier layers have been excavated and (badly) interpreted.

    Thanks for writing this. i get so furious walking around many museums and seeing how the artefacts are interpreted and presented to visitors who don’t know enough to doubt what they see.


    1. Yes. There is a trend in museums to downplay the Goddess and hide her away. Minoan religion is one of the last topics considered in the new displays in the Heraklion Museum, and it would be easy to miss the Snake Goddesses altogether. The Neolithic figurines are hidden in a corner, and the display says they are male, female, and animal, with meaning not known. However, the theory that the Prince of the Lilies is a fabrication is mentioned.


      1. PS, As this is a response to the “rebirth of the Goddess” among the likes of us, we can note that our movement is strong enough to have provoked a backlash. The Goddess was not controversial as long as She was viewed as historical artifact. But as soon as we said, hey wait, women had power and can have it again, the backlash started. This is why I said my archaeologist friends would not be rewarded if they allowed me to convince them that there were no kings in ancient Crete.


      2. Agree, no reward for those who think like us. Look what happened to Marija Gimbutas whose work is incredible.

        I noticed at Mnajdra in Malta there are interpretive signs suggesting that the ‘corpulent figures’ as they described them were comparable to sumo wrestlers!


      3. Thanks for this poignant article! Agree with you that the obvious seems hidden away, so deeply embedded in patriarchal paradigm thinking that “they can’t see the forest for the trees”. One of my inspirations was the vulva painting deep in the recesses of the Chauvet Cave in southern France (subject of Cave of Forgotten Dreams a 2010 film by Werner Herzog). Chauvet Cave contains the oldest human-painted images yet discovered. Some of them were crafted as much as 32,000 years ago. The vulva figure (which was apparently overpainted with a bull at a later date) is perhaps the oldest painting in the cave, and may be the earliest human painting known. It seems so obvious to me that this is the “source”, the womb of the Great Mother from which the animals painted throughout the cave come, return to, and perhaps are being honored to return from………….


  3. Thanks for writing this piece, Carol. I’m glad you clarified the source of the name “Minoan.” It’s good to know more of your June conversations with the archaeologists that evening on Crete after our wonderful fish dinner where you were surrounded by all the beauty of the Goddess. Sitting by the sea. After our labyrinth ceremony on the hillside overlooking the sea. I could go on and on…such a wonderful time.


  4. Be sure to report on your next conversation with those two guys. I bet readers of FAR blogs will be very interested to see what they have to say after (hopefully) thinking for a year about kings and war and grandmothers and peace.

    Is the professional reluctance to accept matrilineal and/or matrilocal government also the reason why we don’t see much of Old Europe in museums? I, too, get real tired of warrior kings in prominent places in museums. Gimbutas and her work have been the subjects of books written especially to refute her. I have declined to review these books.


  5. A second thought. Carol, you’re right, of course, but if we lose “King” Minos, do we also lose those cool stories about Pasiphae and the Bull and the Minotaur and the Labyrinth and Daedalus and Icarus? My busy little mind is already stringing up an alternative story. Can I name the Queen after you?


    1. I teach those stories as analogous to Genesis, patriarchal retellings of earlier stories, intended to discredit the earlier religion and its symbol. Sure female and male bull-leapers must have loved the bulls they trained and played with–but sex between a woman and a bull is nothing more or less than an ancient male pornographic fantasy!!!


      1. I’ve started “your” story. No pornography, but maybe some time travel and some literary allusions. Daedalus as a traveling cowboy…………….


  6. This is fascinating, and all of this stuff has been around for decades. But male archaeologists can be out of it on an epic scale I guess. Of course men want women to believe that we have never had lands, cultures, power free of male control. How convenient for them…. that’s why we have radical lesbian feminism today, and the culture this powerful force created for all women who want to be free.

    Anyway, thanks for writing about all of this Carol, you explain this stuff very clearly and I really enjoy reading your work. So much of this stuff is written in a dry-as-dust academic manner, maybe male centric academics like to hide the ideology behind the so-called “research.”


  7. P.S. I like the way you describe the absense of kings and what this means. Absense of is a great place to be intellectually, because the opposite of war is not peace, peace is a system in and of itself, and has nothing to do with war. No warriors, no helmets, no swords or statues of males twice the size — think of that statue of Saddam Hussien in modern times. When there is none of that, but legions of female centric figures, and groups of women together under a tree, well me thinks there is more :-)


  8. I would like to know who those two archeologists are. And I wish I could have been a “fly on the wall” to that conversation. Fascinating article. Yes, academic discourse within each discipline tends to be extremely narrow, so I’m not surprised they had never heard of such a theory. And it is good to hear that they didn’t just dismiss you. Who knows–perhaps you planted a seed which will root in the halls of conventional archeology? Just don’t expect them to credit you with a footnote if they actually let themselves be influenced by your conversation!


  9. Great article. I’m glad to see Jan Driessen come along to say”that the societies of ancient Crete were matrilocal and matrilineal. That follows what feminists have been saying for more than a century, starting with Jacquetta Hawkes in the 1940s! and probably even Jane Harrison in the early 1900s…


    1. Max, thanks for your mention of Jane Harrison, an author no matter how outdated, who taught me so much, I just wish there were someway to thank her!!


      1. I dedicated one of my books to Jane Ellen Harrison, foremother. However, while she recognized the matrifocal substratum or origins of Greek religion, she theorized that matriarchy was based on magical thinking, not the higher light of reason. So she did not and could not bring herself to criticize or reject “the Greeks.” It is sometimes difficult to figure out what she is saying about the relationship of matriarchy and patriarchy: to this reader, it appears that her heart wanted to affirm matriarchy but her head told her not to go there. See


  10. Whenever I read a book of mainstream archeology related to the ancient world and anything related to women or goddesses, I just know that before the end of the introduction or preface there will be a paragraph about how the writer has no connection to theories about matrilocal, matrilineal, or matriarchal culture. I love your comment that this just shows the power of the “rebirth of the Goddess” movement because you are so right. As with so many other things, I do believe that in the long term the obvious and the true will win out and in a generation or so everyone will wonder how these archeologists could ignore what was right in front of them.


  11. Its very interesting. If king Minos is a later invention there is a lot to investigate in mind and body. I feel that somehow we already know, but we have to translate our knowing to a different contemporary language and that is hard work. But so enlightening! Thank you for your work. So inspiring!
    I curious about the male ( and female) enthroned figures in ancient Europe. Do you see them as god/goddess figures? I´ve noticed a similarity of the enthroned males to male fertility gods in norse mythology. These figurues are from patriarchal cultures, but maybe they have an old heritage, which i suspect……..I´m ivestigating…..


  12. I am always so frustrated by the belief you stated ” the idea that patriarchy and with it war and domination are universal and inevitable”. Your analysis here helps counter that belief so well. It is, as you said, a myth which continues to support the powers that be. Thanks for the great article.


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