Minoan Crete

Introduction to Minoan Crete Part 5

In my last article, I mentioned the splendid work the craftsmen did in Minoan times. If you remember, craftsmen were highly respected and their skills were much in demand, especially by the royals of ancient Crete. Archeologists and historians are still awed at the decorated palaces, such as Phaistos, Mallia, and Knossos.

The palace of Knossos covers somewhere around six acres. In its center, it has a large, open courtyard; to the west side were the apartments where the king and his courtiers carried out royal functions; on the east side were the private apartments where the king and his family lived away from the public eye.

To approach the palace, one used a bridge, but this was no ordinary bridge across a twenty foot span of water. The approach was awe-inspiring with the bridge crossing a stream and short valley. There were times when the bridge was extremely busy and others when the bridge was empty of wayfarers (since one must keep in mind that ancient Crete was nowhere near as populated as our modern world is). Once a wayfarer crossed that bridge, he entered the palace and his purpose and rank destined his path through the building.

Important visitors entered Knossos from the northwest. Actually, this is called the "oldest road in Europe" and visitors may still see it as they approach the northwest entrance. Trees shaded the "theatral area" or an open space edged on two sides by progressively rising stairs. The king sat on a dais overlooking a considerable audience.

Higher born visitors passed through the entrance gate and turned right. They were immediately challenged by palace sentries. Minoans may not have had much in the line of defenses against sea-borne invasions but within the palace, a great deal of care was exercised not to allow those who had no business within the royal palace. The visitor had to walk through a narrow gate, then pass along an inclined ramp enclosed by thick walls before he entered a pillared forecourt. For any of you intending to visit Knossos, this ramp is still in existence along with a fresco of a head of a charging bull. Once past the guards, the visitor entered the main courtyard itself.

The first sight evidenced by the visitor would have been pillars - some made of wood and painted a russet color, some with bright blue or black painted pediments (architectural decorations like those found above doors). The pillars were wider on top than on the bottom - a fact no one has explained to archeologists' satisfaction.

Pillars must have been worshipped in Minoan Crete. Did you say worshipped? Yes, I suppose that word might be a bit strong to use. Perhaps I should have said they were seen as objects with deep meaning. They impressed the ancient peoples' minds - much like a throwback to their primitive ancestors. However, this is not a very satisfactory answer.

Another explanation to believe that pillars were an object of inspiration is the nearby cave close to Knossos called Eilythyea. This cave was found littered with votive offerings left behind by earlier cave men. It was also filled with natural pillars.

Have you ever been in a dark cave, its ceiling lit only by muted candlelight or by a small fire? Did the sight of the stalactites and stalagmites speak to your heart? If they did, then it's little wonder that ancient peoples looked at pillars with awe-inspiring wonder.

The last explanation for the "pillar cult" of Minoan Crete is that these peoples loved the sight of trees. What can be more impressive than a majestic tree towering above you as it stands tall against the background of the sky that seems to have come suddenly all too close for the height of the tree? Early men worshipped trees not only for their size and grandeur but also because trees bore a variety of fruits. Now it makes perfect sense that a people who worshipped trees could also worship pillars.