COSMOS EROTICA: The Shapes of Minoan Desire


Cosmic Erotica: The Shapes of Minoan Desire

Agrimi or wild goats, Middle Minoan II sealstone

“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 the overwhelming powers of nature that eternally drive, connect, and renew the worlds of life around and within us.

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.

Knossos Labyrinth in Crete (circa 1600 BCE), a ceremonial site inhabited since The Stone Age

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.

A Minoan trader in Egypt and a Cretan woman in a flounced kilt

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.

Minoan-made golden ‘Vaphio Cups’ with scenes of a failed bull-capture

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). Into this garden baited with a trap walks a kingly bull. 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), 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, too—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.

A master sculpted this fool: A Minoan harvester at left trips and falls in a raucous music-accompanied parade with their olive poles. One side of the 'Harvesters Vase' from Agia Triada, Crete (c. LMI or 1600BCE, Heraklion Museum)

A master sculpted this fool. A buck-toothed Minoan harvester at left trips and falls in a raucous music-accompanied parade with their olive poles. His friend looks back laughing at him. One side of the ‘Harvesters Vase’ from Agia Triada, Crete (c. LMI or 1600 BCE, Heraklion Museum)

Minoan lyra-player with dancers

Late Minoan Marine Style and a Vegetal Labrys-Wheel

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.

Spring corn poppies, Lasithi Plateau, Crete

Late Minoan gold ring from Archanes near Knossos

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.

Minoan women and men on sealstones possibly of ‘sacred marriage’

Minoan bowl from cave of Eileithyia near Amnisos, midwife holding mother

Small Minoan things speak most powerfully. This bowl comes from the little cave near Amnisos the ancient Minoan harbor, sacred to their Goddess of mothers and childbirth, Eileithyia—and shows a midwife (human? divine?) giving tender support.

Clay model of a Minoan round-dance

        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.

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About Dr Jack Dempsey

Always good to hear from you! A life-long freelance writer/editor, Brown University Ph.D. (in Native & Early American Studies)---novelist ("Ariadne's Brother," "People of the Sea"), historian and biographer ("New English Canaan," "Thomas Morton," "Mystic Fiasco" and more), producer ("Nani: A Native New England Story"), Book Editor/Public Speaking Coach: Bentley University Adjunct Assistant Professor of English, Media Studies & Communications (Best Part Time Prof 2010). Latest works? Scientific nonfiction on the lunar/solar calendar of ancient Minoan Crete---"The Knossos Calendar: Minoan Cycles of the Sun, the Moon, the Soul & Political Power" (Iraklion, Mystis 2016), based on lectures drawn from "Calendar House: Clues to Minoan Time from Knossos Labyrinth" (2011). Come and enjoy multimedia resources including filmed Native American interviews at ANCIENTLIGHTS.ORG
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12 Responses to COSMOS EROTICA: The Shapes of Minoan Desire

  1. Hello! This is my first comment here so I just wanted to give a quick shout out and say I truly enjoy reading your posts. Can you suggest any other blogs/websites/forums that cover the same topics? Thanks!

    • Thanks very much for writing, Karyl—so glad you enjoy! I’m not sure what you mean by “the same topics” since there are several different ones here—There are lots of other works at my main website ANCIENTLIGHTS.ORG about both Minoan civilization and Native/Early American subjects (film archive too), and there’s a Forum for discussions on each too. These WordPress pages are I guess for works that need to be something different from the familiar scholarly or formal writing approaches….What are your observations/thoughts on the Minoans’ apparent conceptions of the Erotic? Agree/Disagree? I haven’t seen many/any true archaeologists go into that area for all the analyses they do….

  2. Carol P. Christ says:

    I agree.

  3. Visit THE ARIADNE INSTITUTE if you’d like to share the journey of a lifetime through the actual and profoundly beautiful Minoan landscape as we find it today—a whole world of empowering spiritual traditions returning to our midst through the works and guided tours of Carol Christ and others. This is where it’s at in studying Minoans now—understanding their culture and cosmos in the midst of Crete’s ecology and land-features, from its caves to the peak sanctuaries. An excellent list of Links also at their website! http://www.goddessariadne.org/goddesspilgrimage.htm

  4. bodryn says:

    You do an excellent job of convincing me I would really like to know more about the Minoan civilization. This is partly made attractive by my memories of reading those Dialogues of Plato years ago in college and even though it was the English translation, those characters came very much alive and sounded so contemporary in their philosophical concerns. It would be very enjoyable, for example, to read a fictional account of life in that milieu. I remember reading some Poul Anderson fiction based on ancient historical figures. I might also wonder if James Michener wrote any of his novels on the Minoan civilization.

    • Hello Bodryn, and thanks for visiting and writing! I enjoyed what your own WordPress page asks about “for whom is this world for”—the banksters or the people? If you are looking for fiction set in the Minoan world, I humbly think you’ll enjoy Ariadne’s Brother: A Novel on the Fall of Bronze Age Crete (Athens: Kalendis 1996), which tells the “Theseus & Ariadne” myth from the Minoan side: it has been well-received if not very widely noticed (that’s another story). Surely, Minoan Crete was our Western beginning where we actually “got it right” for a very long time before patriarchy and imperialism launched us into the nightmare called “history”—so what happened and why don’t we know about it? Also I’ve been writing a sequel to that work which follows Minoan survivors into their next adventures via Cyprus and Palestine, called People of the Sea: A Novel of the Promised Land. Both works are available at ANCIENT LIGHTS dot org, and your critical comments and discussion would be very welcome indeed. Meanwhile, the question on your web page prompts me to suggest that you check out (here on my WordPress site) the article and proposal for action called “WOOP: We the Workers of the World Walk Out On Profit,” published here last year. In short, it proposes that the core problem in our world is Profit itself (which means taking more than you give in any transaction), and that each and every one of us has the direct power to change that via taking control of our own daily labor. Hope you enjoy, and I look forward to hearing more from you! Peace—

  5. Angela R. says:

    This is fascinating. I’m a senior undergrad at IU and I’m working on my thesis–it’s an exploration of images of Minoan males from seals, figurines, frescoes, and metalwork. This reading gave me some food for thought. The scholarship on Minoans is often simply a catalogue of costumes/hairstyles/age grades or focuses on one specific extraordinary work, but your writing is broad and definitely reminded me of why I fell in love with the Bronze Age. Thanks for writing!

    • Iasu, Angela, and thanks for writing as well to you! I’m really glad you enjoyed “Cosmos Erotica” and found that it had something to offer to your thought about the Bronze Age and your studies for your thesis—would love to know more about your focus and arguments if you care to share them. I think you’ll find more about depictions of Minoan males studied in Chapter 8 of Calendar House: Clues to Minoan Time from Knossos Labyrinth, which is available for free at Ancient Lights dot org, and focuses on how a limited Minoan style “priest chief” became an almost-omnipotent “king” in Mycenaean times. One of the things that most strikes me out of their centuries of representations is that their men can appear so all-around masculine, strong and vibrant, and yet there are maybe only 1-2 images that can even remotely be construed as anything close to a “king.” (The “Master Impression” from near Chania, and the “Boy God” from Palaikastro, are two near-exceptions, both of them dated relatively late.) Have you worked through Nanno Marinatos’ studies from Thera to Minoan Religion and her much criticized Minoan Kingship? I rarely agree with her findings but love to learn from her keen eye and broad comparative knowledge. It’s a wonder still that the Minoans could endure so long and present such a “mystery” as to what really held them together, without the familiar trappings of terror such as Pharaohs presented—unless, of course, their central secret was calendric, as many have supposed and Calendar House tries to show….I have many strong friendships with native Cretans very proud of their Minoan differences from the rest of Greece, and I always found them naturally in synch with those ancient models: walking their little kids hand in hand through the market, able to cry as well as laugh, play and fight, so ferociously free and tender, and the meanest little village house a wellspring of generosity. Finally for now, I put this article here on my “Crazy Pages” trying to separate its more intuitive readings from the different evidentiary methods in House, but it would be great if both together could help to pull a few analytical aspects back into professional considerations; for I’m not sure that pure, cold, hard science is ever going to know them completely. I’m really glad to have a new friend and colleague in these studies and look forward to hearing more from you! A happy and successful 2013 to you—-Jack

  6. Susan D'Angelo-Guglietta says:

    Hello Dr. Dempsey

    I read with much sympathy your heartfelt and compassionate words regarding Eve WIlkowitz. I worked for Macmillan publishing company for a few years and knew Eve. As a matter of fact, she worked across from me. I was always intriged by her disappearance that led to her murder and remember a story that was written in the New York post a few years ago. Your love and caring for her through your words depicts the simplicity of Eve’s beauty as a young girl rising to adulthood. There is no justice in this workd where so many young people are taken away from loved ones for no reason. Your friendship with Eve was cut short and yet you express your love for her in the present moment with beautiful memories. Thank you for your continued memory of dear Eve.

    • Hello Susan—I really appreciate your writing about these memories of Eve that we share, and I wonder if you, too, can hardly believe that we lost her 33 years ago this week. I remember how many friends Eve had at Macmillan, that it was a work-place full of laughter even as we were producing first-rate textbooks, and it’s really something that you remember her with tenderness after so many years. In fact, I think 3 or 4 other former Macmillan people have also written to remember her over the years, and all of them spoke of her warmth and kindness to everybody around her. I don’t know if you have seen another page I posted about her at my professional website called Ancientlights.org, but that or something like it has been up on the internet from the first, because I will always be hoping that somebody who knows something will eventually come forward with some kind of truth that might lead to at least a sense of some justice. Surprisingly, back in the mid-1990s, two detectives from Suffolk County Homicide actually came to my home near Boston one spring day and took a DNA sample, showing that this case was not forgotten and they were/are doing what they could to solve it. I also know that Eve’s younger sister, with a fine family of her own now, will appreciate that many people like you still remember her.

      Please do let me know all or anything you remember about the “story in The New York Post” that you mentioned (my email is jpd37@hotmail.com). And, again, I am very glad to know that Eve’s memory lives on in her friends. She certainly changed my life completely and for the better, and through all these years, through all the books and works that I’ve accomplished, she continues to be my spirit’s guiding light—never letting me forget the value of a single human life, and the knowledge that her “everyday” natural kindness is what endures. Please feel most welcome to write anytime, and I wish you all good things and every blessing.

  7. karen tate says:

    Would love to interview on Voices of the Sacred Feminine Radio to discuss the Minoans….please contact me.
    Karen TAte

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