With not a few global friends, I share the aim of bringing Minoan ways and values into our living. With a 2000-year record of successful civilization (not to mention their longer positive influences), Minoans should be the starting-point among the ancestral teachers we choose for building the future.
I’d like to suggest how central the Minoans’ sense of time was to their success. So, for thinking forward, here is a survey of recent evidences for the workings of time in Minoan culture, some ideas on what they can do for us, and a short list of sources from the experts.
A Few Basics
The calendar that we build from cycles of the seasons, sun, moon and stars structures and organizes what we do with each day and year. From farming to finance, calendrics is such a powerfully useful tool toward accomplishment that it’s no wonder every ancient society created these systems. Working with time can empower us as well.
The bad news is that cycles of the sun and moon don’t match in simple numbers. Without a calendar that harmonizes both, nature’s cycles and human life-activities fall out of step. The good news is that whatever we conclude from evidence of Minoan time, a regular and enthusiastic share of Festival was essential to tracking it, and served as the oil that made almost everything work—from their lives in farming, fishing and gathering to their social, cultural, religious and political ways.
The biggest finds in Minoan archaeology are cupboards filled with little drinking cups. You might say that between booze and schmooze, Minoan festivals—rhythmic intervals of special days set aside from the usual labors of production—smoothed over the rough mathematical edges between the cycles of sun and moon. (The big word here is intercalation.)
Further, because the sun and moon were supreme powers of nature affecting all life, leaders had everything to gain by incorporating their phases and cycles into social events, spiritual rites and festivals—thus seeming to “deploy” them and nature as proofs of their understandings, like cosmic sanctions on what they wished to communicate. New decades of research from Nanno Marinatos, Emilia Banou, Alexander Macgillivray and others seem agreed that central Minoan symbols (the Labrys or double-axe, the horned mountain) relate in multiple sophisticated ways to the sun, moon and stars.
Equally crucial to Minoan long-term success, festivals also smoothed relations among Crete’s fiercely-independent regions, channeling rivalry into social gatherings and competitions from sports to dances, feasts and ceremonies (grandmother of The Olympic Games): something like what we see today in traditional Bali.
In sum, Minoan calendar-based festivals were/are practical and symbolic steps out of ordinary time in which they observed, fostered and celebrated harmonies between nature and their ways of life.
Multiple Clues to Minoan Time
In 2009, Finland’s Marianna Ridderstad published a 42-page survey on every known clue to Minoan astronomy. It cites a dissertation on 167 objects whose features and patterns appear to describe different aspects of heavenly bodies’ real cycles.
Clearly, this shows that from flat and standing stones incised with “cups” to tiny seals, plaques, pottery, jewelry, painting, and the alignments of buildings themselves, Minoan Crete’s independent regions had multiple lunar/solar calendars serving local life. Some appear to track the planet Venus, others “The Hunter” constellation Orion—which, observed with Minoan eyes, forms a glorious double-axe.
We also know that Knossos and The Labyrinth (or House of the Double-Axe)—raised and rebuilt not by kings, but by the bonds and shared ceremonies of multiple Minoan clans—was in many ways the center of Crete’s “sacred economy” and symbolic life for twenty centuries.
So, it makes sense to explore Knossos for clues to a possibly-central Minoan calendar: not one that dominated the rest of Crete’s heterarchy or web of equals, but rather, synchronized them in crucial ways described above. In later Classical days of very fractious Greek communities, that was still the practical and political function of official Olympic Games and “the world’s first computer,” the remarkable Antikythera Mechanism: harmony with nature and ways that worked proactively against conflict.
“The” Knossos Calendar: The Findings
Every calendar declares a New Year Day as the anchoring-point of its count through cycles of seasons, moons and suns. In the case of Knossos, two thoroughgoing works of research each declare a different Minoan New Year, and hence two different central calendric systems. Let’s begin with the view that Autumn Equinox was the anchoring-and-renewal point of a central Minoan calendar.
Since the 1990s, Swedish astronomer Dr. Goran Henriksson of Uppsala University, Dr. Mary Blomberg and their colleagues have produced rich groundbreaking research into the calendric alignments of Minoan buildings. At Knossos, they worked in the reconstructed west wing of the site’s labyrinth of halls, corridors and stairs surrounding the open central court. Their sightings proved that a person looking out (eastward, and up a rising hill toward sunrise) from the inner end of the west wing’s “Corridor of the House Tablets” saw the sun rise on both Spring and Autumn Equinox aligned along the northern (left) edge of the doorway.
Then, 11 days after Autumn Equinox, they saw the sun rise along its southern (right) edge—with the light striking an up-curved “bowl-like stone” laid into the corridor’s inmost flooring-stones. Fill its curvature with a little water, and reflected sunlight touched one point of a small double-axe sign cut into the lower wall, some inches away.
Sighting a New Crescent Moon on that 11th day offered “the special value of predicting the [same] phase of the moon at the following Autumn Equinox” (2000: 83)—and hence, an anchoring-point for the counting of one “official” or central Minoan year.
Dr. Henriksson’s teams have documented matching alignments in calendric astronomy at the ritual site on Mount Juktas overlooking Knossos. On their website’s “Drawings” page, you can see their chart showing simultaneous tracking of the Orion/Double-Axe constellation as another marker of Autumn Equinox at Knossos. And, it’s well-established that the much-later historical Greek calendar also began at Autumn Equinox. Although the sun’s life-giving powers were by then in annual decline, the return of Crete’s seasonal rains were something for the summer-parched land to celebrate.
A few points to consider as you compare this with the second body of evidence and finding, just below:
The Knossos west wing’s “area of the well-known pillar crypts” is “the generally recognized center of cult” for the building, they write (2001: 614). While this can also be said of the wing’s Throne Room Complex just a few steps away, and of the Central Court itself, the corridor and doorway that host these calendric alignments existed since original “Old Palace” times (perhaps 2000 BCE).
But, in the view of renowned archaeologist Sinclair Hood, most of the west wing was “leveled and reconstituted” at some point between 1700 BCE and “New Palace” constructions 100 years later. Were these doorway-alignments built-in from the first, or noticed and put to use in a later period, when Knossos surely already had a central calendar?
Was the curved flooring-stone installed on that spot for the purpose of holding water, or was its water-reflective aspect discovered by accident, and marked with the double-axe in the nearby original wall? Nor, crucially, can we know the original height of the doorway allowing (or not) observation of these alignments: the vertical doorway measured by these studies is a 20th-century reconstruction supervised by Sir Arthur Evans.
The above “Corridor” alignments include an 11-day disjuncture between actual Autumn Equinox and the sighting of a New Moon that anchors and begins a new (year’s) counting-cycle. Notice also that, on this New Year Day, the sun is in Autumn decline but the moon is rising into a new cycle: not perhaps the best-possible harmonizing of lunar/solar time.
The Henriksson team’s Autumn Equinox New Year has an independent ally whose studies are based in Cretan ecology. Dr. Sabine Beckmann is one of the all-time sharpest natural observers, archaeologists and multi-dimensional creators in Minoan Studies, born in Germany and today the welcoming creator of Kroustas Forest Historical Landscape Park in southeastern Crete (where you can hike trails among “mountain Minoan” living-sites in the countryside). In 2006, Beckmann published “Conscious of Time: Minoan ‘Calendar’ Symbolism in the ‘Blue-Bird Fresco,’” which was found at Knossos outside “the Labyrinth” proper in the “House of the Frescoes.”
Beckmann with others considers this fresco “a religious landscape,” and if it is, it likely has calendric reference. She views plants and flowers as “an expression of the Minoan view of nature: a sacred whole, its cycles of life and death including plants and animals.” This agrees in turn with Sir Arthur Evans’ view that Minoans much-identified themselves with vegetal life. Here is Beckmann’s own summary, and you can see why in effect she agrees with Henriksson’s team. She is “reading” the fresco-wall left-to-right, as a “synopsis of a whole year cycle” of Cretan flowers:
…Crocus/saffron standing for the renewal of nature/life in Autumn (not Spring, as usually suggested!) after the first [return of the] rains; Iris unguicularis for the end of winter and sowing time; lilium candidum for a time of passage before harvest and the dry death of nature in summer; pomegranate for beginning and end of summer/autumn, surviving drought and death until the beginning of the next year cycle; mint for the height of summer and the importance of knowing humid places for agriculture in a country with months without rain….Some basically important calendrical moments for agriculture—as beginning and end of the time the soil is arable and humid enough for sowing, or harvest—could thus be integrated into a wider symbolism of life, together providing a mythical context for spiritual and practical living.” (from “Beyond the Moon: Minoan Calendric Plant-Symbolism, 2012)
Beckmann, meanwhile, has been typically open-minded toward other theories of Minoan New Year. Let’s move to explore one more research-finding—that Winter Solstice was New Year Day at Knossos—with an immediate contrast to both that is architectural.
In 2001, UK archaeologist Lucy Goodison demonstrated that in the west wing’s equally central Throne Room, the original alignment of its southern doorway brings direct sunlight in to touch the throne (the most magisterial sign of Minoan authority we have), precisely on Winter Solstice, “the sun’s birthday” because from that moment of maximum weakness, its powers wax toward their cyclic peak. (Goodison’s floor plan, throne in red.)
The throne of Knossos—by no evidence, ever moved from its original place—is positioned in space according to solar time. Its face presents what scholars agree are a lunar crescent and a solar (or, stellar) disk, time’s cosmic symbols. And, on the corresponding day of Summer Solstice, the light of the sun reaching and beginning to fall from its cyclic peak passes through the chamber’s northern door, to fall in the mysterious “lustral basin” or dark dry stone pit that lies opposite the throne. This complex embodies the real life-cycle of the sun.
Meanwhile, the throne’s crescent moon, paired with the sun-disc, makes us ask—If these appear together here, is there a real cyclic point in time that includes and harmonizes them? The answer is Yes, and in turn, that answer links the throne room’s calendric structure with many other central and common Minoan artifacts.
When do we see, with practical precision, a New Crescent Moon in the sky on Winter Solstice day? Our first clue is also built into the throne. The polished stone slab of its carefully-carved back-rest presents 4 curves or waves on each vertical side (8), and a 9th curved point at its peak. Do these features—like many identified in other objects by archaeo-astronomers—denote the number 8 or 9? And doesn’t later myth say that “King Minos” ruled here in unique cycles of “8 or 9” years?
What makes both numbers correct is an actual lunar/solar cycle of just this kind (still going on in our own skies), that ends and begins again every 8½ years, with a New Crescent Moon in the sky of Winter Solstice Day. On that day, the cycles of sun and moon match (harmonize), the pair of them just beginning a new journey from darkness to light and back again.
But don’t forget the throne room’s door for sunlight on Summer Solstice. What lunar phase, then, matches the sun at the peak of its power and beginning of its decline? The only answer can be Full Moon.
And so we have two pair—a doubled pair—of complementary moments in the cycles of the moon and sun: New Moon at Winter Solstice and, exactly 6 months later, Full Moon at Summer Solstice. When you see those paired events, their moments of harmony will repeat with sharp precision 8½ years later. Along the way—moon by solar year, along a series of 18 solstices—the moon’s particular phases are also extremely regular. So here we have a calendric astronomy both visible and useful in its daily, annual and long-term consistencies.
The Henriksson team first suggested that Minoans saw Labrys the Double-Axe in our constellation Orion, and they know the traditions of “Minos Enneoros” or “the 9-year king” (2000: 86). While Orion/Labrys doesn’t exclusively signify Autumn Equinox, they show (so far) no further indications of that system in Minoan artifacts, in the central throne or the omnipresent double-axe. In dialogue with Henriksson, he told me he was unaware of Goodison’s throne room discoveries.
But, grasping this real 8½-year cycle and its signs in the throne room’s architecture, look again at the double-axe. Most examples we have are practical chopping-tools, with the virtues of balance and a blade that turns around to double usefulness. And here is that increasingly-visible Minoan doubling pattern again. Its form produces the same “4 points to a side” we saw in the throne—for when we turn it around, we have 4 more (8), plus a 9th point in the center at the peak of the handle.
Hence the two most central and authoritative Minoan artifacts (the throne and double-axe) point alike to a real cycle of practical lunar/solar time: a system that likely structured Crete’s agricultural-festival life, and functioned to maintain the Minoans’ clear archaeological “lack” of identifiable, entrenched, hereditary, omnipotent male kings.
These numbers, patterns, signs and systems appear where they should (like a good mainstream calendar) across the spectrum of Minoan remains, which you can judge for yourself in the chapters of Calendar House: Clues to Minoan Time from Knossos Labyrinth. (Published at Ancientlights.org, and essentialized in The Knossos Calendar: Minoan Cycles of the Sun, the Moon, the Soul & Political Power, Iraklion: Mystis Editions 2016).
Notably, when we double the numbers again—like the doubled double-axes that otherwise lack explanation—those cycles of lights also reach out to comprehend cycles of shadows, or lunar/solar Saros eclipses that occur with clock-precision every 18 years. These shadows, in form and color, are part of the throne’s tableau, too. No leaders could claim the sanctions of heavenly lights without a knowledge of their shadows.
For the record, the much later Greek proof of Saros Cycles is called the beginning of science. These patterns of time appear also in others’ first-rate scholarship on Cretan and Greek civilizations: Malcolm Cross’ The Creativity of Crete, Florence and Kenneth Woods’ study of Homer’s astronomy in Homer’s Secret Odyssey, and new science on the Antikythera Mechanism published in Nature. When many independent studies begin to reveal the same patterns, there is usually something of substance in their midst.
What, then, do you think? Which of these bodies of evidence and findings suggest, to you, the Minoans’ most likely central calendar?
There is no inherent contradiction between a cycle anchored at Winter Solstice and another at Autumn Equinox. Given the vexing irregularities of all systems, Minoans probably used every body of observations they had, plus a raucously engaging festival life, to keep their society in harmony with nature and functioning smoothly.
Minoan Time as a Teacher and Instrument for Change
What is time? Does it even exist? Or is it an illusion in the present (the only here/now we always have) through which the seasons of nature and our souls cycle eternally? Minoans left us plenty of human progress, but no Mayan-like counting of years and ages—only ways to keep ourselves in harmony. How much destructiveness do we embrace in the present for a chimera of “eventual progress” (toward what, exactly)? “Minoan time” has a number of meanings and useful implications.
If we read the Knossos throne’s moon and sun as female/male (or both), they can have sanctioned both women and men on that seat of power. Alternation is another hallmark of Minoan sacred patterns, as gender-egalitarian as their self-images. Calendrically and otherwise, moon and sun have their own lives but inform each other’s, sign and countersign, dance, join and dance away from each other again–“lovingly compelled, yet free,” as Nietzsche put it in a poem in The Gay Science.
The Minoan centrality of cyclic time suggests that even supreme powers in nature have risings and fallings, or in a word, limitations. As above, perhaps so below. The Minoans’ “lack” of entrenched kings, and the constitutional time-limits on power that later historical Cretans wove also into their laws, might not surprise us as reasons for their success in keeping mostly-at-peace with each other. For years of study, a kind of Minoan Motto has come to me: People are good, unless they get too much power.
But we cannot imagine Minoan Crete (neither primitive nor utopian) as an accidental achievement. The Minoans’ cosmos, calendar, economy and spiritual life reflect choices for complementarity rather than conflict. Their power-sharing politics and festivals worked proactively to keep different communities closely connected, where heterarchal bonds of kinship, gifting, and diplomacy with known others could do the most against violence and war.
When kings and states wandered away from the contexts of nature’s cycles and into text-based ideology, we seemed to lose The Garden. What we need is a culture that helps us to remember and keep our dignity because we are in it. The Minoans’ arts put you there: they manifest moments of observative vision that lift us toward new conceptions of what we are and can be.
If Knossos astronomy served as the Minoans’ chronometer, guiding (like the Mechanism) when and which community would host the next festival, what about a modern global version of this? New studies of the early Olympics, rooted in Minoan time and customs, confirm that even the most antagonistic city-states took part because they gained more than olive-crowns for athletes. While today’s Games founder in the face of a global terror-machine, never has the planet so needed an aggressively positive international program, a “sacred secular space” to close the dangerous distances among us and foster crucial new cooperations.
Cancer is the only thing in nature that “grows forever.” If human being has a future, we need to stop “learning” from the idealized but all-devouring Catastrophe Cycle (History) bestowed on us by “charismatic” kingship—a mile of needless blood for every inch of progress.
Put the full-bloom Minoans where they belong (if we care about facts), on the front pages of education. Suddenly we seem to know what happened to us. Most “dangerously,” if the norms of true civilization were changed (by catastrophe, violence and luck), they can be changed again.
Minoan culture was a dynamically creative, world-exploring steady state, with their world’s best average living standards, fostered by an oikonomia (“household”) in which all members gained. Their 2000+ years failed to leave evidence of slavery, destructive exploitation, vicious in-fighting, or preying on their neighbors: their “successors” the patriarchal Mycenaeans devoured each other after a few hundred years, their kings and crimes propping up a system of profit and privilege with all those too-familiar fatal features.
Minoans can inspire and light this crucial turn in our path as the clearly-successful ancestral teachers we should study and imitate: Minoans, Canaanites and Philistines, Celts, Etruscans, Native Americans and more, who by no coincidence honored powerfully learned women.
A small gentle stream, working with time along the lines of least resistance, moves mountains.
Banou, E., 2008 (June). “Minoan ‘Horns of Consecration’ Revisited: A Symbol of Sun Worship in Palatial and Post-Palatial Crete?” In Mediterranean Archaeology and Archaeometry, Vol. 8, Issue 1: pp. 27-47
Beckmann, S., 2006. “Conscious of Time: Minoan ‘Calendar Symbolism in the ‘Blue Bird Fresco.’” In Tampakaki, E. and A. Kaloutsakis, eds., Pepragmena Th’ Diethnous Kritologikou Synedriou, Elounta, 1-6 Oktovriou 2001. A3: Proistoriki Periodos, Techni kai Latreia. Irakleio, Etairia Kritikon Istorikon Meleton, pp. 65-82. This and her 2012 “Beyond the Moon” are also available online at http://www.academia.edu
Blomberg, M. and G. Henriksson, 1996. “’Minos Enneoros’: Archaeoastronomical Light on the Priestly Role of the King in Crete.” In Alroth, B. and Hellstrom, P., eds., Religion and Power in the Ancient Greek World: Proceedings of the Uppsala Symposium 1993. Uppsala University, pp. 27-39
–, G. Henriksson and M. Papathanassiou, 2000. “The Calendric Relationship Between the Minoan Peak Sanctuary on Juktas and the Palace at Knossos.” In Obridko, V.N. and T.M. Potyomkina, eds., Proceedings of the Conference “Astronomy of Ancient Civilizations” of the European Society for Astronomy in Culture (SEAC) and National Astronomy Meeting (JENAM). SEAC: Moscow, pp. 81-92
Blomberg, M. and G. Henriksson, 2001. “Archaeoastronomy: New Trends in the Field, with Methods and Results from Studies in Minoan Crete.” In Journal of Radioanalytical and Nuclear Chemistry, Vol. 247, pp. 609-616
–, 2011. “The Evidence from Knossos on the Minoan Calendar.” In Mediterranean Archaeology & Archaeometry, Vol. 11, Issue 1: pp. 59-68
Cross, M., 2011. The Creativity of Crete: City-States and the Foundation of the Modern World. Oxford: Signal Books
Goodison, L., 2001. “From Tholos Tomb to Throne Room: Perceptions of the Sun in Minoan Ritual.” In Hagg, R. and R. Laffineur, eds., Potnia: Deities and Religion in the Aegean Bronze Age. University of Goteberg, Aegaeum Vol. 22, pp.77-88
Macgillivray, A., 2007. “The Stone ‘Horns of Consecration,’ or ‘Twin Peaks.’ In Driessen, J.M. and L.H. Sackett, eds., Palaikastro: Two Bronze Age Wells. British School at Athens Supplement Vol. 43: London, pp. 177-180
–, 2008. “Making Time for Minos: Evidence of Time-Keeping in Minoan Crete.” Summary of Lecture Presentation via Minoanseminar.gr, The Danish Archaeological Institute at Athens
Marinatos, N., 1995. “Divine Kingship in Minoan Crete.” In Rehak, P., ed., The Role of the Ruler in the Prehistoric Aegean. Liege: Aegaeum Vol. 11, pp. 37-48
–, 2010. Minoan Kingship and the Solar Goddess: A Near Eastern Koine. Urbana: University of Illinois Press
Ridderstad, M., 2009 (October). “Evidence of Minoan Astronomy and Calendrical Practices.” Published on the Internet via West Virginia University History of Astronomy Discussion Group, at https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0910/0910.4801.pdf . Author: c/o Helsinki University Observatory, P.O. Box 14, FI-00014 University of Helsinki, Finland—and, email@example.com
Wood, F. and K., 2011. Homer’s Secret Odyssey. Gloucester UK: The History Press