In the early 1900s at Knossos on the island of Crete, Sir Arthur Evans (1851-1941) began to uncover the ruins of one of the greatest civilizations of the Bronze Age. Not knowing what they called themselves, he called them Minoans, after the legendary King Minos of Crete from Greek mythology. What they called themselves, however, is among one of the many mysteries they left behind.
THE MYSTERIOUS MINOANS
Lasting from c. 2700–1400BC, the Minoans maintained cultural and trading ties with the other great civilizations of the Bronze Age throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. They had colonies on various Cycladic islands and were thought by Thucydides (c. 460–400 BC) to be the first great naval power in the Aegean. Yet mysteriously, they and their culture faded away around 1400BC; to be supplanted by the Mycenaeans of Mainland Greece (and the culture whose heroes inspired the Iliad and the Odyssey).
What’s more, in a time when all of the great civilizations in the “known world” glorified war, the Minoans left next to no evidence of their own military might. Instead, they left us art and artifacts rich in color, full of sophisticated designs, populated by elegant people, and set amidst elegant representations of the natural world. This is a sharp contrast to their contemporaries, who never missed a chance to inscribe their martial prowess on any surface they could find.
Likewise, there is little evidence of defensive walls or fortifications at any of the great Minoan centers. Even if they relied on the natural barrier of the sea to protect them from most threats, this alone could not account for the survival of their civilization for well over a millennia.
BULLS, DOUBLE-HEADED AXES, AND A BARE-BREASTED GODDESS
Certain symbols and motifs reoccur that have thus far also defied explanation. Bulls appear again and again in their art and artifacts. But what the animal represented to them is unknown. They also seemed to have practiced a sort of “bull-leaping” as seen in various depictions of youth vaulting over them in impossible feats of acrobatics. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the legend of the Minotaur (half-man/half-bull) in the Labyrinth (of Knossos) came to be tied to Crete.
Another symbol revered by the Minoans was the double-headed axe or labrys. One might suppose that over time, Knossos (or Crete in general), having once been known as the home of the labrys came to be interpreted as the place of the Labyrinth.
The repeated representation of a goddess of priestess, bare-breasted with her arms upraised and sometimes holding snakes also remains unexplained. Some have suggested that she represents a great Mother Goddess, possibly an early form of the Greek Titaness Rhea, the mother of the gods. Considering Zeus was said to have been born on Crete, and that the double-headed axe also came to be associated with him, there could be some truth to this.
What would help us in all of this would be if we had records written by the Minoans. Or at least understand those we do.
Both Minoan hieroglyphs (used c. 2000–1650BC) and Linear A (c. 1700–1400 BC), the Minoan system(s) of writing, have eluded our best attempts at deciphering them. The closest we have is Linear B (deciphered as an early form of Greek), which drew inspiration from Linear A but was used by the Mycenaeans as the Minoans had faded away.
Which brings us back to what they called themselves.
Unfortunately, unless Linear A yields its secrets to us, we may never know for certain. But we DO know what other civilizations of their day called them. Perhaps from that, we can move a little closer to an answer.
PEOPLE OF THE ISLANDS
Egyptian records speak of the Keftiu, or, the “People of the Islands” from the “Great Green Sea”. Prior to Evans’ discovery at Knossos, references on papyri as well as inscriptions and pictures of the Keftiu in the tombs of Pharaohs had puzzled Egyptologists. But once Knossos and other Minoan sites on Crete began to reveal their secrets, it turned out that the Keftiu were Minoans.
Inscriptions on the base of base of a statue at Amenhotep III’s mortuary temple lists a number of cities located in the Aegean under the headings of Keftiu and Tanaja (identified as Mainland Greece). Interestingly, the first two it lists for Keftiu (Crete) are Amnisa and Kunusa. These are respectively, Amnisos (the ancient port of Knossos) and Knossos itself. What’s remarkable is the closeness their names are to their Greek names. If the names on the inscriptions were so close with those names, could Crete itself have been named something close to Keftiu by the Minoans themselves?
It is entirely possible that at the very least, they went by a name that began with a “K” or hard “C” sound as we see in Keftiu. The Mesopotamian and Canaanite name for Crete was Caphtor (or Kaptaru). There are a number of references to items from Bronze Age Crete including one mentioning clothing and textiles made “in the Caphtorian manner”. Another tablet c. 1750 BC tells us how Zimro-Lim, King of the Mari, had “one pair of leather shoes in the Caphtorian style, which to the palace of Hammurabi, King of Babylon, Bahdi-Lim carried, but were returned.”
SO WHAT WERE THEY CALLED?
Again, we can’t say with any certainty what the Minoans called themselves. However, from what we do know, two possibilities present themselves.
The first is that they called themselves something completely different than anything we could ever imagine. Anyone in the future, for example, finding English records of Japan would have no clue that the Japanese call Japan “Nippon” and themselves “Nipponjin”.
However considering the close geographical proximity of Crete to Egypt and Mesopotamia, another compelling possibility emerges. Today the names of various countries and peoples differ from language to language, but most countries have a similar sound even in another language, especially when geographically close. Consider England and Angleterre (French), Inglaterra (Spanish), Angliya (Russian), etc. If a similar situation existed in the Bronze Age, we can hypothesize that if they were called Keftiu by the Egyptians and Captor by the Mesopotamians and Canaanites, they may have had a name that began with the sound of a K or a hard C. Ironically, the way Crete does, today.
So while we may not know precisely what they called themselves and their island home, until we’re able to decipher the Minoan hieroglyphs or Linear A, that might be as close as we can get. At the very least, it brings us one step closer to understand who the Minoans really were.
Cline, Eric H. 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed. Princeton University Press, 2014.
Cline, Eric. H. and Steven M. Stannish. “Sailing the Great Green Sea? Amenhotep III’s “Aegean List” from Kom el- Hetan, Once More.” Journal of Ancient Egyptian Interconnections, vol. 3:2, 2011 6–16, journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/view/111/109.
Cottrell, Leonard. The Bull of Minos. Pan Books, 1955.
Luis, Mireia Movellán. “Rise and Fall of the Mighty Minoans.”National Geographic, www.nationalgeographic.com/archaeology-and-history/magazine/2017/09-10/Minoan_Crete/.