Ariadne's Tribe: Minoan Spirituality for the Modern World

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Minoans and Etruscans: Is there a link?

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

The Etruscans are every bit as enigmatic a civilization as the Minoans. People like to speculate about the Etruscans and wonder who they really were and where they originally came from. Part of this process often includes the possibility that there's a connection between them and the Minoans. But is that really the case? Or can we even tell?

First, let me be clear that the two cultures don't overlap in time or space. The last major Minoan city, Knossos, was destroyed around 1350 BCE. Anything resembling Minoan culture on Crete that may have remained after the cities fell then disappeared altogether during the LBA collapse, around 1100 BCE.

The earliest trace of the Etruscans appears around 900 BCE, after the collapse was over and people were beginning to rebuild. And though the Minoans traveled all over the Mediterranean, they were centered on the island of Crete, while the Etruscans lived in northern Italy.

This timing has led people to suggest that the Etruscans, in whole or in part, may have been survivors of Minoan civilization who sought out new lands and a new life after the LBA collapse. This suggestion is bolstered by some perceived parallels between the two cultures.

So are there any real parallels, and how seriously should we take them?

Like the Minoans, the Etruscans were literate. But their script hasn't been deciphered - though with the Etruscans, we can technically read what they wrote, because it's in a variant of the Latin alphabet, the same alphabet you're reading right now. We just don't know what most of it means. Beyond a few recognizable deity names, the words are just gibberish to us because we don't understand the language that the script records.

Etruscan language inscription, Perugia, Italy
Etruscan language inscription, Perugia, Italy, 3rd-2nd century BCE
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

That's different from the Minoan language, which we can't read at all in either of its two scripts, Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs. I will note that some great research about Linear A is being done by Dr. Ester Salgarella, among others, but we're nowhere near a decipherment, not least because we don't have enough text available.

Linear A inscription, Siteia, Crete
Linear A inscription on clay tablet, Zakros, Crete
Image CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The two writing systems, Etruscan and Minoan, are not related - the scripts are completely different. Are the languages related, as some people have speculated? Honestly, at this point there's no way to tell. There's a hard mathematical limit to decipherment, and until we have a LOT more text in both languages, we can't even know what language family either of them belongs to. So cross your fingers that some archaeologists get lucky and find a couple big stashes of inscriptions in both languages.

Why else might people think there's some connection between the Etruscans and the Minoans? 

There are some fascinating similarities in the art. One of the most obvious is the schematic rendering of skin color by gender. In Minoan art, women's skin is white and men's skin is red, as you can see in the Bull Leaper fresco from Knossos at the top of this post. Etruscan art uses the same white/red color coding for male and female figures, as you can see in this Etruscan plaque that dates to 560-550 BCE:

Etruscan plaque from Cerveteri, 560-550 BCE
Image Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

This color scheme has a specific meaning in Minoan art and is not representative of actual skin color. We know from DNA evidence that the Minoans all had brown skin. It's possible, perhaps even likely, that the skin colors in Etruscan art have the same meaning that they do in Minoan art - not necessarily because the Etruscans and the Minoans are directly connected. But because the red/white symbolism and iconography was common all over the Mediterranean during the Bronze Age and Iron Age. In fact, that color pairing is still found today in folk dances around the Mediterranean, with very much the same meaning.

So the art may or may not denote a connection between the Etruscans and the Minoans. It's possible, but there's no way to know for certain.

What other bits of information might point to a connection?

A fair amount of DNA research has been done about the Minoans, enough that we now know their ancestors migrated down from Anatolia during the Neolithic era to settle on Crete. And DNA research suggests that at least some of them migrated to the Levant at the end of the Bronze Age, becoming part of the population that was later known as the Philistines. But very little DNA research has been done so far about the Etruscans, using the remains of very few individuals, so there's not enough evidence to conclude one way or another about their ancestry, including whether or not part of their population may have originally been Minoan.

One thing the Etruscans and Minoans do appear to have had in common is the high status of women in both societies. This aspect made both cultures stand out among the others of their respective time periods. So that's another possible thread connecting the two. And it's a major cultural marker, a substantial part of the value set of both cultures.

There are lots of tantalizing possibilities here, lots of ways in which the Minoans and Etruscans appear similar or could be connected. But none of it counts as hard evidence. And there isn't enough of it to amount to what we might call "circumstantial evidence," either, if we're honest.

Maybe one day we'll know more. But for now, any possible direct connection between the Minoans and the Etruscans will just have to remain a tantalizing mystery.

In the name of the bee,
And of the butterfly,
And of the breeze, amen.

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Laura Perry is a priestess and creator who works magic with words, paint, ink, music, textiles, and herbs. She's the founder and Temple Mom of Ariadne's Tribe, an inclusive Minoan spiritual tradition. When she's not busy drawing and writing, you can find her in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.


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