Recently 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.”
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?
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.