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!