When considering Knossos it’s easy to be led astray. What is it? A palace? A labyrinth? Much of it has been extensively reconstructed, and the original site was itself built over the remains of a much older palace in about 1700 BC. Knossos is a beguiling mixture of myth and history, remains and reinvention, and it is this as much as the stories and legends associated with it, that make it such an attractive destination.
Like many children, I grew up fascinated by the story of the Minotaur: the chilling tradition of sending seven youths and seven maidens on a voyage from Athens to Crete to meet their ends as food for the terrifying Minotaur. The monster himself is a tragic figure –trapped the dark labyrinth, both man and bull, but, at the same time, neither. I have to admit I never took to Theseus. It was, of course, noble to risk his life by going to Crete as a sacrificial youth himself, in an attempt to kill the Minotaur and put an end to the cycle so many young deaths. But the double whammy of abandoning Ariadne on Naxos (after she had disobeyed her father and facilitated Theseus’ exit strategy with her ball of thread) and forgetting to change the ship’s sails from black to white as a sign of victory and thereby causing his father Aegeus’ death, was just too much for me. They displayed the clear actions of a jock. Still, it is not Theseus, nor even the Minotaur who is the real villain of the piece: that role goes to King Minos himself, who seems to be the true cause of the many sorrows. As addenda to the story, my mother told me Minos’ labyrinth really existed –she had seen it. I imagined it a huge cavernous underground maze, decorated with ancient red graffiti, snagged fibres from Ariadne’s yarn still trailing in the breeze. I was in two minds whether it would be sensible to go to the cage of such a scary beast and the home of such a wicked man but I was also filled with curiosity to be that close to myth.
About twenty years later I find myself, not aboard a black sailed ship with fourteen virgins, but on an aeroplane leaving rainy Manchester. I now know that Knossos is not just the huge and impossible maze once imagined. Still, I cannot shake my conviction that is, somehow, The Labyrinth. This is, I suppose, natural. It was the Romans who first linked the location with the legend because of its labyrinthine structure. The word labyrinth itself derives from the depictions of the double-headed axe called labrys, painted around Knossos. An evolution of association makes Knossos inextricably linked to the labyrinth, even if only through the imagination over the ages.
I hear a holiday rep describe Knossos to her group thus: “Now to me the Minotaur story sounds like something the locals cooked up after one too many shots of Raki. But this was King Minos’ house, where he actually lived.” There tends to be a confusion that myth is history and history is myth when it comes to ancient Greece. It’s the interplay between the two –exemplified by Knossos– that grips you.
Knossos was a palace. This term is itself misleading, conjuring up images of Disneyland or aristocratic leisure. Knossos Palace was the administrative centre of the Cretan Bronze age civilization dubbed ‘Minoan’, after King Minos, by the major excavator of Knossos, Arthur Evans. Little is known about the Minoans. Probably eastern in origin, they appear to have settled on Crete around 2000 BC, although Crete has already been inhabited for about four centuries prior to that. Minoan culture operated around such palaces: centres of trade, commerce and religion. Interestingly, they do not appear to have been military bases. There are four Minoan palace sites on Crete: Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Kato Zakros, all built in the seventeenth and sixteenth centuries BC, on top of older ruins. Knossos appears to have been the largest and oldest palace and it was inhabited for about a hundred years after the others had been subsumed by later cultures. Thus Knossos is likely to have been both the hub of Minoan activity and the zenith of Minoan culture.
Present day Knossos is a vast complex of square, interweaving chambers, following on from one another in a decidedly maze-like way. It is easy to see how the labyrinth connection has been sustained, especially with regard to the cisterns, which snake out in every direction. The many surviving storerooms also add to this aesthetic. Of course, these structures had purposes beyond disorientating visitors. Indeed they fulfilled crucial needs. As a centre of the entire surrounding area, it was necessary for much food to be stored at Knossos, not least as offerings for the king and the gods. Wine and olive oil too were vital for both libations and provisions, as the massive surviving pithoi vases recall. The hugest surviving pithos is situated on the eastern side of the site, near the many workshops –which are themselves testament to the numerous craftsmen who must have lived and worked within the palace.
Beneath the western storerooms, majestic red pillars flank a shrine –though we do not know to whom. The religious function of Knossos is debatable but the palace certainly contains many possible shrines and temples. Minoan religion is thought to have been centred very much on female deities. Images of the famous Cretan Snake Goddess were found in the rooms now known as the Temple Repositories, on the west side. Sacrifices were likely to have been carried out here, among other areas, and recent discoveries near Knossos have led some to suggest that human sacrifice was practiced in Minoan culture. Although this is not at all certain, it does takes us back to the idea of the seven youths and seven maidens sent from Athens each year. Images of the double axe heads decorated the pillars adding to the religious atmosphere, as it is likely to have been an apotropaic symbol to ward off the evil eye.
The frescos adorning the palace walls may also have had religious significance. The Prince with the Lilies fresco is painted on the wall of a west corridor thought to have been the pathway of ceremonial processions. The fresco, reconstructed from fragments, depicts an androgynous youth, wearing a crown and necklace flanked by lilies. The style is reminiscent of eastern, particularly Egyptian, art, as is that of the fresco depicting processional youths carrying vases. Yet, on another more intuitive level, you can recognise the beginnings of the European tradition. Perhaps this reveals the fine line between burgeoning and developing culture that the Minoans embodied. The wall paintings also shed light on Minoan customs. The so-called taurokathapsia fresco, depicting youths jumping over a bull, reflects the Cretan game of bull leaping, where young men and women tested their strength against the might of the bull by trying to grab its horns. Offering cups in the shape of a bull’s head were also found on site –the cultural connection between Cretans and bulls is clear but elusive.
The frescos that originally decorated Knossos have been safely stowed away in the nearby museum, their reproductions are mainly found in the Fresco Room –which is itself heavily reconstructed. This slightly fake atmosphere makes it even harder to remember that frescos were not originally huddled in one room but spread throughout the palace. Indeed, it is debatable how much we can call any of the Knossos frescos original as local artists were employed to restore them extensively at the turn of the century. It is hard to know where their work ends and the Minoans’ begins. Still, looking at the mysterious imagery, you do feel close to a time and culture now far out of reach in a deeper way than is possible from reading a text book, revealing the more positive side of Arthur Evans’ extensive renovations.
Aside from the Fresco Room, the most famous and most popular chamber is the Throne Room, so called because of the small, yet magnificent, alabaster throne placed against the wall. Just who sat in this throne is unknown. While the King would be the most logical
conclusion, the room also contains a lusteral basin suggesting it had a religious function and so it was perhaps a seat for the high priestess. Low benches are set against three walls and were probably seats for priests. In the neighbouring chamber, known as the Anteroom, are more benches, another throne, this time wooden, and also a porphyry basin. So perhaps the King sat on one throne, the Priestess on the other. Paintings of griffins adorn the Throne Room walls. The creatures, set against a deep red ground, have leonine bodies, heads of eagles and serpentine tails and had a mystical significance adding weight to the idea that the room had religious purposes. Yet, the beasts look so majestic it that they seem equally appropriate as decoration for a King’s room.
The royal chambers on the eastern side of the palace are also splendidly decorated; most striking is the beautiful marine fresco in the Queen’s chamber, or megaron, where fish and dolphins swim above the doorways. The nearby King’s chamber is similar in layout and decoration but on a bigger scale. It is easy to imagine the King and Queen granting audiences in this area, especially in the nearby hall (where axe decorate the wall) and where the remains of a wooden throne were found. The hall is in fairly close proximity to a chamber containing a little clay bath, likely to have been the Queen’s bathroom. This shows a more intimate side to palace life, reinforcing the words overheard by the tour guide –this was the King’s, and the Queen’s, house.
What is the difference between myth and history, when it comes down to it? Some might say that myth is probably fictional where history is probably not, but I don’t think that’s the crux of it. History is often about telling the story, just like myth. The very word history comes from istoria meaning narrative. The difference is that history usually has one fixed version of events where myth, by its very nature, can encompass many. In the same way Knossos’ mythical associations are broad enough not to negate its historical value, which remains inextricably linked to legend itself. Where does myth end and history begin or vice-versa? It sounds very complicated but visit and you’ll understand. Read up a little on Minoan culture, browse the Minos-related parts of Robert Graves, listen to a tour guide if you want to. But when you are walking around peering at the odd renovations by the original features under the sweltering Cretan sun, invariably getting lost, you are walking in the shadows of Minoans and Minotaurs, all at once.