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A Bit of a Rant: The Minoans weren't Greek!

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

One of the biggest misconceptions about the Minoans, the people who lived on the Mediterranean island of Crete during the Bronze Age, is that they were Greek. They weren't. Let's look at where this misunderstanding comes from and find out who the Minoans really were.

First of all, it's a good idea to distinguish between modern national boundaries and ancient cultures. The island of Crete has been a part of the modern nation of Greece for about a century, so most school history texts lump the two together simply because it's easier to divide the world up based on the modern map we're familiar with. And because of the great antiquity and popularity of Crete's history, the modern nation of Greece is more than happy to include it in their PR, including such spectacular events as the opening ceremony to the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

A lot of Minoan deities, both gods and goddesses, have ended up in the Hellenic Greek pantheon through the very common process of borrowing. Rhea and Dionysus are obvious examples but there's a pretty good chance that Athena, Poseidon, Aphrodite, and several others also began their existence among the Minoans or came into existence as syncretisms between Minoan and Greek deities. Like many other cultures, the Greeks happily borrowed deities from practically everyone they came in contact with. So it's easy to see why people might think the Minoans were Greek.

But Crete was settled in Neolithic times (6000-5000 BCE) by people who came down from Anatolia and has been continuously occupied since then. DNA analysis shows that the Minoans were part of Old Europe, the original inhabitants of the continent who came there in successive waves during Paleolithic and Neolithic times. In other words, they weren't Indo-Europeans, but were there before the Indo-Europeans.

The Greeks, in contrast, were Indo-Europeans. The Mycenaeans, the earliest Greeks, came down through Greece to the Mediterranean and came into contact with the Minoans around the middle of the second millennium BCE, after Crete had already been settled and populated for more than four thousand years and had already built up cities, towns, and temple complexes all over the island.

The two cultures influenced each other (OK, if we're honest, the influence mostly went in the direction of the Mycenaeans borrowing lots of their cultural markers from the Minoans: art style, writing, deities, clothing style, and so on) and continued in contact, and apparently conflict as well, until Minoan civilization collapsed and the so-called Greek Dark Ages began.

An awful lot of what we know about the Minoans has filtered down to us via the Greeks - Homer and later writers who lived centuries after the fall of Minoan civilization - because we simply can't read any of the texts the literate Minoans left behind. Linear A, their writing system, has yet to be deciphered, though we can read Linear B, the script the Mycenaeans used that's an adaptation of Minoan Linear A.

So Minoan mythology often gets lumped in with Greek mythology simply due to the fact that the remnants of it that are easy to access were written by the Greeks. But including Minoan mythology in with Greek mythology makes about as much sense as including Celtic mythology in with Roman mythology because the Romans were the main ones who wrote about the Celtic gods and goddesses. The two cultures were separate and distinct. We should honor them both by recognizing their individuality.

So no, the Minoans weren't Greek. Please make a note of that. Thanks.

In the name of the bee,

And of the butterfly,

And of the breeze, amen.

Last modified on
I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a particular passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; my most recent work is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, I enjoy gardening and giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • Thesseli
    Thesseli Wednesday, 12 October 2016

    Calling the Minoans 'Greek' is kind of like calling Native Americans 'European settlers'.

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 12 October 2016

    Exactly!

  • Aryós Héngwis
    Aryós Héngwis Thursday, 13 October 2016

    It's not quite the same thing. For one thing, modern Greek genetics are hardly uniform and show quite a bit of influence from Africa rather than the European mainland (the predominant Y-chromosomal haplogroup in Greece, for instance, is E, rather than R or I, the haplotypes most commonly associated with Europe). And while mtDNA haplogroup H is most common in both Greece and most of Europe (and among the Minoans, according to the article linked above), it's also strongly associated with Middle Eastern populations that do not speak Indo-European languages.

    Conversely, the genetic profile of American Indians is almost completely different from that of white settlers, suggesting a much starker displacement of the original population. The most common Y-chromosomal haplogroup among the indigenous peoples of the America is Q, for instance, rather than R, and the most common mitochondrial haplogroup is A, rather than H.

    This is not to say that Laura's point is incorrect; she absolutely is right that the Minoans are not Greek. The Minoans preceded what we understand as Greek culture by several centuries, spoke a different language, and according to most of the evidence had fairly distinct practices. They should be regarded as a separate people from the Achaeans just as she says in the same manner we should regard the Sumerians as a separate group from the Akkadians who replaced them. But comparing their fate to that of the American Indians is likely ill-advised.

    Sources

      1. http://www.eupedia.com/europe/european_mtdna_haplogroups_frequency.shtml 2. http://www.eupedia.com/europe/european_y-dna_haplogroups.shtml 3. http://www.eupedia.com/europe/Haplogroup_Q_Y-DNA.shtml 4. http://www.khazaria.com/genetics/indigenous-americans.html

  • Thesseli
    Thesseli Friday, 14 October 2016

    Wow, way to overthink a humorous observation... ;)

  • Agnes Toews-Andrews
    Agnes Toews-Andrews Saturday, 15 October 2016

    Here is a little info . . .As far as Aphrodite is concerned, she was born in Mesopotamia. She did not come into existence in Crete. She is also known as Astarte, in the M.E. Inanna and Ishtar. I am a reincarnation of her. In that lifetime about 8000 years ago, I traveled around a lot; and by my own 'wings', an apparatus attached to my back pack. I am Niburian/Pleiadian hybrid. I spent a lot of time on the Isle of Cyprus, that was one of my homes . . .

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