Cosmic Erotica: The Shapes of Minoan Desire
“This is what we mean by ‘innocence’ and ‘naivete’; not that the child has no sexual feeling, but that this feeling has not yet been corrupted by [a] culture’s hatred and fear of nature, and that the child’s idea of self has not been reshaped to an humiliating image…
…We move beyond speech. Our bodies move past all the controls we have learned. We cry out in ecstacy, in feeling….In this world, to touch another is to express love: there is no idea apart from feeling, and no feeling that does not ring through our bodies and our souls at once.
This is eros. Our own wholeness. Not the sensation of pleasure alone, nor the idea of love alone, but the whole experience of human love. The whole range of human capacity exists in this love. Here is the capacity for speech and meaning, for culture, for memory, for imagination, the capacity for touch and expression, and sensation and joy….”
Susan Griffin, Pornography & Silence, 1981
Explore ancient Minoan Crete—where, from about 3000-1400 BCE, The West lived its longest period of relative peace and human progress—and you find a people in love with their world. Archaeology has a hard time nailing their religion down, but maybe in a sense (as a Native American friend once put it), they “had no” religion they could or wanted to separate from living. From the sitings of their towns to the frescoes on their walls, Minoan artifacts revel in nature: in the varieties and colors and delicate strength of plants, in the animal and human body; and,with the living connections among them all, so vibrantly clear across their arts and images.
That’s what I mean by erotic in these reflections (many more examples at http://ancientlights.org). In the Minoan world, desire is more than just the urge to have sex and/or procreate. The Minoan Erotic is a visible awareness and joyful embrace of both the small things and the overwhelming powers of nature that eternally drive, connect, and renew the worlds of life around and within us. All their forms of art and icon speak with each other, reach out, link together, articulate each other. From a simple bunch of leafy stems of grass or olive leaves to the lashes round the eyes of a ramping bull, they move, and they dance.
Nobody since has so closely, lovingly observed and captured those powers in their arts. And I cannot find another people who so celebrate even their own defeats in trying to master and control those powers and their world.
Minoan religion and arts are profoundly not interested in the self-perpetuating, power-hungry ego. What they celebrate is the opposite: the ritually-induced release from individuality, and an ecstacy of being that is overtly erotic and spiritual at the same time (ek-stasis, or “standing beyond oneself”)—a cosmos that both nurtures and ignores the individual, that vibrates with inseparable sexual energies and spiritual epiphanies.
Maybe such a powerful Erotic shouldn’t surprise us in a culture so devoted to ceremony, feasting and drinking, to dance and music, socializing and sports—or, among people so devoted to just looking good, from their men’s beautifully-woven kilts to their women’s tight-waisted bell-skirts (which unfold to the shape of a double-axe), open-breasted garments, elaborate makeup, jewelry and coiffures.
Swaying trees, flowering plants, ramping animals. Soaring birds and darting myriads of fishes, busy honeybees, thundering bulls, the rippling bright blue waters of their seas and mountain streams—all these subjects in Minoan arts revel in existence and in relation with each other. It shouldn’t surprise that a people who so loved motion and rhythm found ways to paint the crazy yellow flicker of sunlight in the sea, and a series of priestesses dancing for the public in a courtyard that instantly makes you think there is only one “animated” priestess—moving in many ways and places all at once. There’s one tiny fresco-fragment that shows part of a public water-fountain shooting up blue water and raining it back down, and you all but hear the trickling.
The scenes below, exquisitely rendered on a pair of golden drinking-cups, can show us several levels of a Minoan Erotic.
The olive and palm trees themselves on both cups are alive with observed details, with rhythms and textures of their own (unmatched in later art). A kingly bull walks into a cool leafy olive grove. (The premise even sounds like a joke’s first line.) Instantly he’s being seduced into capture by a cow, set up in his path by cunning human beings with the muscle and nerve to take him on. These were the people called boukoloi or “herdsmen,” “worshippers of the bull god” (from whom we derived the word bucolic).
The bait-cow lifts her tail with invitation (she must have been chosen for this dallying part when the moon was right): she smiles and nuzzles the big boy sideways. The dope is already in a daze. But, before Bull can remember where he thought he was going, his hind leg is looped with a snare, and the lady who fooled him into it has vanished. So much for Minoan utopias.
Yet look what happens on the matching (lower) golden cup. At center, the net snaps tight on Bull, and flings him ass over horns—yet, out of “the same body” you can see at left, he explodes right out of the net full-force, to toss and trample the clown who pulled this trick and stole his girl. At right, Bull takes off after her in his best flat-out flying gallop (the palm of victory his that day), and his back-hooves kick out some contempt behind him for those annoying human idiots. Now, where was I!
This is the story that a powerful rich somebody wanted immortalized in solid gold? Why? Perhaps these cups of unmistakable Minoan workmanship commemorate people killed in such perilous pastimes. Yet, they were found not in a Minoan tomb, but on the Mycenaean mainland (at Vaphio)—as if they were in use “above ground” in Crete but eventually taken away as golden booty. We might also conceive of a master Minoan artisan working in mainland circumstances, on commission or in captivity. Whatever the case, these are literally cups of good cheer in the face of failure. What they communicate is anything but funereal. They satirize the human will to mastery and, in characterizing the most powerful and dangerous creature on Crete, portray it as charged with sexuality, not to be tamed, blithely destructive and, above all, magnificent.
I don’t know who more than Minoans would devote such wealth, labor and acquired skill to a status-object engraved with the human farce—again and again, in sensuous rhythms that leap off the object into life, in laughter and unheard music that link and move every body in the scene. You can say, the more trivial the subject, the clearer the “message” that Somebody can waste such resources to show off. Or at least, you can say that.
Even their most sacred symbol, Labrys the double axe, became a wheel of life sprouting shoots. (And you can explore the Minoans’ natural, religious and cosmic wheel of lunar/solar time in the chapters of Calendar House, at Ancientlights.org). The organic and the symbolic, the body and the quick flash through it that we call life, must have each other: they are inseparable. Sir Arthur Evans observed that Minoans much-identified themselves with plants—a very different idea and experience of life than the ones we inherited (after the Minoans’ burial) from Homer’s heroes, down to the current crop of walled-up doomed imperial citadels, where elite egos rival in destructive competition on a planet of plenty.
The Minoan Erotic includes danger (ask Bull), suffering and loss. But even those images vibrate with a rhythm and life that is greater than their incidence. Minoan art sheds blood, yet every example flows in ceremonial context, with a meaning related to an aspect of life. All around them are natural and man-made medicines for pain, ways to share and celebrate the growth of a hard-earned knowledge—how the circles of their world fit into the cycles of the universe.
I hope these words and images lead you into Minoan civilization, and to find there a people and a way of being alive that are worthy of our learning and remembrance.