Monday, July 5, 2021

Of Mycenaeans and Men

This post will be more about the Minoans than the Mycenaeans, but I'm sure you'll agree the pun was utterly irresistible. I'm also thoroughly delighted that Breyer has given me another opportunity to use my Classics-adjacent degrees to nerd out about historical subjects I never expected to discuss on a model horse blog. And yet here we are! 

BreyerFest is once again virtual because of the on-going coronavirus pandemic. Happily, things on that front have dramatically improved in the last few months with the release of several vaccines, and I'm hopeful that we'll be able to gather in person in Lexington next year. In the meantime, I have really been enjoying the Horse of a Different Color theme for BF this year. Along with unusual equine coat colors, the theme is heavily interwoven with art history, and the inspiration for the special runs in particular runs the gamut from man's earliest cave painting art to pointillism and abstract expressionism. I plan to blog about a couple of the models, but I thought it would be fun to start with Knossos, the fantastic brindle pinto bull.    

(Photo by Breyer)

Students of art history and fellow Classics nerds will recognize the source of this piece immediately, the stunning Bull-Leaping Fresco (or Taureador Fresco) from the palace of Knossos (pronounced kuh-NOSS-us) on the island of Crete. The fresco is one of what is believed to have been a series of bull-leaping panels in that area of the palace. It famously depicts two women and a man in the act of leaping over the bull by pushing off the horns and flipping backward over the animal. One woman has already landed behind the bull while the man is in mid-air and the other woman is preparing to make her leap.  

Photo by Jebulon - Own work, CC0,

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who were the Minoans? What is Knossos and why are those people engaged in such a bizarre and dangerous activity?

The Minoans were a Bronze Age civilization centered on the island of Crete in the Aegean Sea off the southern coast of Greece. Minoan civilization is generally broken up to an early, middle, and late period spanning from around 3000-1100 BCE, well before the rise of the Greek city-states. The Minoans were the first major power in the Aegean and in the wider Mediterranean as well. Their trade network extended not only to mainland Greece and the nascent Mycenaean civilization there but also to the Levant and Egypt and possibly as far as the Iberian peninsula. 

Unfortunately, the earliest Minoan writing systems, Cretan Hieroglyphic and Linear A, have not yet been deciphered, and what we know about the earliest periods of Minoan civilization have been pieced together from the archaeological record, such as it is. Minoan life seems to have been centered around several large "palaces" on the island of Crete, and while they do appear to have been centers of political power, they also were cultural and religious centers as well as practical locations for storehouses. 

A digital reconstruction of Knossos as it might have been in its heyday (Source:

By around 1700 BCE, power in Crete seems to have become centralized at the largest palace, Knossos. Fans of Greek mythology will recognize it as the supposed home of King Minos and his infamous labyrinth and Minotaur. The sprawling palace with its many rooms and corridors certainly could have inspired the legend of the terrifying maze, and bulls were unquestionably important in Minoan society. Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who is responsible for much of the excavation and restoration of Knossos, coined the name for the civilization because of this mythic association. 

Minoan art and material culture had a huge influence on Aegean civilization, especially the Mycenaeans, and Knossos was an important center for both art and religion. Evans believed that the Minoans were a matriarchal society that worshipped a mother goddess, and the archaeological record seems to support this to some degree. There is also evidence of a consort for the goddess, perhaps akin to Cybele and Attis, Ishtar and Tammuz, etc, as well as a larger pantheon of gods, goddesses, and genius loci. 
Minoan goddess or priestess (Photo by C messier -
Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Snakes are traditionally associated with the mother goddess and her priestesses, but bulls also seem to have played an important part in Minoan ritual. In addition to the bull-leaping frieze, the roof-line of Knossos was decorated with stylized bull horns, and depictions of bulls, bull horns, bull-leaping, and bull sacrifices are common decorative symbols found on pottery, sculptures, frescos, drinking vessels, jewelry, and more. Why Minoan youths leapt over bulls is anyone's guess. Some scholars argue that the famous fresco simply depicts a scene from Minoan mythology and never really happened, while others believe it may have been a sport, a religious ritual, or both. (It is however perfectly physically possible to leap over bulls in various fashions. Youtube it at your own risk.)

Around 1450 BCE, the other Cretan palaces and some of the settlements surrounding them were destroyed by fire. Scholars speculate that earthquakes, an eruption of the volcano at Santorini (Thera), or invading Mycenaean Greeks from the mainland, if not a combination of all of these factors, had a hand in these events. Knossos seems to have thrived for about a hundred years longer, but the presence of Linear B tablets written in a proto-Greek script indicate that the Mycenaeans were indeed in control by that time. Minoan culture and power waned after this point, superseded by the Mycenaeans and eventually the mainland Greek city-states.    

Happily, though we don't know much more than the broad strokes of Minoan history and culture, much of their incredible art survives. It clearly has Egyptian influence, especially in the positioning of human figures and the way men and women are differentiated by color. But it also has a certain exuberance that breaks away from the rigid styles of Egypt in a way that is completely unique. I highly recommend looking through this Flickr album to see more examples of the friezes from Knossos (now in the museum at Heraklion) as well as a number of photos of the ruins of the palace as it stands (partially reconstructed) today.

Frescos at Akrotiri, a Minoan outpost destroyed by volcanic eruption
(Photo by Ricardo André Frantz

I am very much looking forward to adding Knossos to my collection, and combined with Boudicca from last year and Uffington from this year, I'll have quite a nice little archeologically themed herd. I just need to get my hands on a Lascaux now! 

Thursday, April 1, 2021

The Five-Gaiter Sorrel Phenomenon

Questions about "five-gaiter sorrel" models arise often enough that I thought it would be an interesting subject to tackle for this blog. As the phrase suggests, the color is named for the first Breyer model to wear it, the #52 "Commander" Five-Gaiter.

The model pictured in the 1963 catalog is a typical
shade of "five-gaiter sorrel." (Yes, it's reversed.)

Produced from 1963 to 1986, the sorrel Five-Gaiter comes in many variations. Most are a matte medium brown color with a darker brown or charcoal mane and tail with grey hooves. The body color however can range from a light cafe-au-lait shade to very dark chocolate and just about everything in between.

Light, medium, and dark sorrel Five-gaiters (Light and medium from ebay,
dark courtesy of Carrie Brooks)

Though the sorrel Five-Gaiter was only ever pictured in matte in the Breyer catalogs, a handful of glossy examples are known. The mold was still available in glossy alabaster and palomino when the matte sorrel was released in 1963, so it's possible that the earliest sorrels produced were also glossy. Or they may have been factory goofs. Whatever the case, they probably date from the beginning of the run in 1963. The earliest sorrel five-gaiters in both matte and glossy often have factory hand-painted eye whites. Semi-gloss examples are also known.

A glossy variation with eye whites

Only a few models were officially released in this color, and oddly enough, they each were assigned a different name for the color. The first was the #114 "Cheyenne" Western Prancing Horse which was also first produced in 1963. Though the color is basically identical to the sorrel Five-Gaiter color, it is listed as bay in the catalog. Aggravatingly, this "bay" colorway was never pictured in the Breyer catalogs, but we know from extant models that they are generally medium brown horses with darker brown or charcoal manes and tails and grey hooves. Some have reddish tones to their color. 

Photo courtesy of Identify Your Breyer

The #96 Shire was introduced in essentially the same color in 1972 as "honey sorrel." They differ only in that their hooves are not painted because they are obscured by the leg feathering of the mold. 

The Shire as pictured in the 1975 dealer catalog

It should be noted that in the early years, Breyer did not understand the distinctions between chestnut, sorrel, and bay, and used them more or less interchangeably for models that were uniformly brown, models that were brown with darker brown manes and tails, and models that were brown with black manes and tails. For the purposes of this post, regardless of what Breyer called the color, sorrel is brown with a darker brown or charcoal mane and tail and grey hooves. Bay is brown with a black mane and tail and black hooves.

This confusion may be the source of the oddball "five-gaiter sorrel" models that have turned up in a couple of runs that were supposed to be bay. The rarest and most desirable of these is the five-gaiter sorrel Fighting Stallion. Very few are known to collectors, leading to speculation over the years that they may have been a very small special run. However, the 1968 collectors manual, though sepia-toned, distinctly shows a sorrel model with grey hooves, not black.

Breyer seemed to prefer the alabaster Fighting Stallion for their catalogs, and the bay colorway does not appear again until 1972. The model pictured then clearly has black hooves. 

In color photos, the difference is quite clear. The grey-hooved sorrel is a clear, lighter shade of brown while the black-hooved, black mane-and-tailed bay is a richer, often redder shade of brown. Variations of both colors exist although neither seem to vary quite as dramatically as the sorrel Five-Gaiters pictured above.
Sorrel on the left (courtesy of Steffanie Bodamer) and bay on the right (eBay)

The fact that the five-gaiter sorrel Fighting Stallion was pictured in the catalog doesn't disprove that it was a small special run, but it adds credence to the idea that the color may have been a variation, accidental or otherwise. While it is possible the color was intentional, it's equally likely to have been a simple mistake. The bay Fighting Stallion had been available since 1961, and the bay Western Prancer since 1963. It's possible that someone who had been painting "bay" Western Prancers was asked to also paint some bay Fighting Stallions, not knowing that "bay" meant something different for each model. Perhaps Breyer simply decided to alter the color shortly after production began. We'll probably never know. But the catalog evidence does at least give us a rough idea of when these models were made.

The other five-gaiter sorrel models are the Family Arabian Mare, Stallion, and Foal, and while they are hard to find, they are more easily found than the Fighting Stallions. 

Five-gaiter sorrel Family Arabian Mare

Like the sorrel Five-gaiters, the Family Arabians vary in shade.

Sorrel Family Arabian Stallion variations
(courtesy of Kindra Rader)

The five-gaiter sorrel Family Arabians can be distinguished from the bay Family Arabians not only by their grey hooves but also by their bald faces. The bays all have black hooves and stenciled face markings.

While the glossy bay Family Arabians are pictured in early 1960s Breyer catalogs, the matte versions were never shown. The change-over from glossy to matte varied depending on the model and color, but matte (palomino) Family Arabians first appear in Breyer catalogs in 1966. This likely gives us a rough idea of the production for the five-gaiter sorrel models---the mid-1960s. No examples that I'm aware of have been found with USA stamps, so they can't have been made any later than 1969. (The USA stamp was added in 1970.) And they may have been made as early as 1963 like the Fighting Stallion. 

As with the sorrel Fighting Stallions, no evidence about the origins of the sorrel Family Arabians has come to light, so we don't know for sure if they were accidental variations or a special run. I personally am inclined to think they were a deliberate run of some sort since a fair number have been found by collectors. But why the run was made and who it might have been for is a mystery.

I also know of two extra special oddities from the five-gaiter sorrel Family Arabian run, a glossy version of the mare and foal. The foal is a test from the late Marney Walerius' collection. Marney was a hobbyist who did consulting work with Breyer beginning in about 1969. She was allowed to bring many test runs home from the factory, including this foal. The glossy mare was found by a collector in the Chicago-area many years ago, and it's a pretty close match to my foal. I can't help but wonder if there's a stallion out there somewhere, too!