Log in

No account? Create an account

House of Names

Today, Simon and Schuster released Colm Toibin's latest novel, House of Names, about Clytemnestra and the murder of Agamemnon.  Anybody who knows me knows I've had this on pre-order since I heard about it months ago.  Because I live on the West Coast, I received my copy at midnight Eastern Daylight Time, and managed to finish it around 3 a.m.

Did I enjoy it? I'm not sure.  Toibin writes beautifully, but the story left me wanting.  There's a cool detachment about the prose.  Clytemnestra's sections are among the book's most effective.  Who can't sympathize with a mother whose plan to save her daughter from being sacrificed fails, and then spends three whole days being held underground with no food, water, or room to move--basically, being buried alive?  Who wouldn't want revenge?  She allies herself with Aegisthus, a powerful political prisoner, whose web of connections and malice run deeper than even she knows.

Orestes and Electra each have sections of the book.  Toibin starts to paint a vivid picture of Electra, but doesn't go far enough.  And his Orestes.  I enjoyed Orestes' first section, in which he's quickly forced to go from spoiled nine-year-old prince to prisoner to a five-year-stint in a remote place with his friends Mitros and Leander.  Leander is the not-Pylades of the novel, in that he fulfills the Pylades role of older friend, mentor, and, briefly, lover, but ends up usurping Orestes' male authority.  Perhaps that's what bothered me the most about the novel, aside from the abrupt and unsatisfying end.  Orestes doesn't take the insane route, rather the Hamlet-esque role of male impotence.  His motivation to kill Clytemnestra doesn't come from any innate rage but from some rather effortless and brief cajoling on Electra's part.  I would have liked for once to see a larger-than-life, dominant, enraged Orestes taking revenge and his birthright.  Yet since this is Clytemnestra's story, she gets the strongest emotions.

For a novel entitled House of Names, there are relatively few names in the text.  Toibin names his main characters, but you have to know the story to know that the palace is in a place called Mycenae, or that "the war" is the Trojan War.  We're not told where the old woman's house is, but from the geographical clues I would guess somewhere around the Isthmus of Corinth.  The gods remain distant, nameless, invoked by some but not entirely believed in.  It's a mythic world the characters inhabit, somewhere just outside time and place, and I wish there had been more.

Dolphins You Can Color

Where is that third and final installment of Minoan Pottery, you ask? I'm working on it, slowly.  It's just that I've been busy.

This weekend I had a chance to do some drawing, so I sketched and inked an image of Minoan dolphins that you could color, if you so desired.  Those rosettes continue to confound me, no matter how much I try.  I'd love to do a Minoan-themed coloring book one day, but first I have to figure out how to do it, and second, my drawing has to get a LOT better.  It would be something to get out there while my endless writer's block continues to thwart me.

dolphins (2)
Here comes another installment of Minoan pottery types.  Now, I mentioned earlier that I did a lot of research for Knossos.  Among the generous replies from archaeologists like Dr. Colin Macdonald from the Athens School and Dr. Alexander MacGillivray, I sometimes managed to get information from graduate students (henceforth referred to as GS) in Aegean studies.  Our conversations often went like this:

Me: So the people living/working in the Old Palace period at Knossos would have used these cups, right?
GS: Yes, yes.
Me: Thanks. Can I give you a shout out in the book acknowledgments?

Okay, well. I respected his/her/its wishes, but Knossos turned out to be a good book, so he/she/it had nothing to worry about.  Onto the pottery.

The Middle Minoan period saw the introduction of the potter's wheel, the construction of the first palaces, and the spread of Minoan pottery to other parts of the Aegean.  This is when Minoan pottery really gets Minoan.

Middle Minoan IA (2160-1900)

This is the Prepalatial Period at places like Knossos.  Peak sanctuaries like Mount Juktas were at their height during this period, and the first written inscriptions, on seals, date from this time.  Pithoi begin to appear, and, as far as archaeology tells us, Minoan pottery starts to be exported to the Peloponnese.

Spirals and whorls had started appearing on Minoan pots in Early Minoan III (2300-2160), but now with the potter's wheel potters could turn out some very fine pieces, including:

Kamares (MM IA) is named for the cave site where some of the first specimens of this delicate, eggshell pottery were discovered.  This is the first, great, polychrome ware, decorated in red/brown/orange, white, and blue/purple on a black background.  Favorite motifs were abstract floral designs and spirals.  Because they were so delicate, and the quality of the clay much finer than previously used, Kamares vessels were a kind of prestige ware used by the elite; they were used in the first palaces of the Protopalatial Period (1900-1700 B.C.)

Middle Minoan II (1800-1700 B.C.)

In MM II, Minoan pottery becomes more widespread in the Aegean; it is found in the Cyclades, as well as Egypt and the Levant.

Middle Minoan III A and B (1700-1600 B.C.)

Keep in mind that earlier pottery styles like Kamares continued to be used; the Minoans didn't suddenly stop using older wares on January 1, 1800 B.C.  In fact, Kamares evolved into styles like Patterned and Floral Ware, which was less abstract and took inspiration directly from nature.  This is the Neopalatial Period, when all over Crete sites like Knossos and Phaistos were rebuilt following an island-wide destruction (probably an earthquake) severely damaged the Protopalatial sites.

Patterned Ware (MM III A and B) is an evolution from Kamares, in which we begin to see more realistic natural forms like lilies, palms, and papyrus.  This type of pottery further evolved into the Floral Style, whose motifs also appear in frescoes from the period; the Neopalatial saw the first Minoan-type frescoes.  There isn't much to distinguish these two pottery types, so I've lumped them together.


Next time: the Late Minoan and Minoan-Mycenaean periods, the Marine Style, and the Age of Effloresence.
One item I left off the list from my initial "Writing A Historical Knossos" post of two weeks ago is pottery.  That's because pottery is such a hugely important and complicated subject that it needs its own post--indeed, it's so complex that I will have to give the subject three separate posts.

Why am I writing these posts? Lately, I've been seeing a lot of bad writing about the Minoans.  Now I don't claim to be an outstanding writer, but I did spend a lot of time doing the research for Knossos and thought maybe sharing what I learned during the process might help somebody who would otherwise find the prospect too daunting.

Pottery, of course, is one of the ways in which archaeologists determine the dating of a site and establish a chronology.  Sir Arthur Evans established the basic Minoan chronology a century ago.  The main categories--Early, Middle, and Late Minoan--each have numerous subcatergories, which sometimes have additional subcategories.  I'm not a formal student of Aegean archaeology, so it's beyond my ability to get that detailed or technical, but I will cover the basics which any writer tackling this period should know:

Final Neolithic/Early Minoan I (3650-3000 B.C.)

What you ought to know about the whole Early Minoan period is that potters didn't use wheels; potter's wheels were invented in the Levant and made their way to Crete around the time the first palaces were erected.  Pots, cups, plates, and jugs were made by hand using the pinch pot method.  Here are the major types:

Pyrgos (EM I) is a patterned, burnished ware that's black, gray, or brown in color.  It was typically decorated with incised linear designs, possibly in an attempt to imitate wood.  Keep in mind that these early Minoans would have had wooden vessels, too, that haven't survived.


Incised/Scored Ware (EM I) features round-bottomed, dark jugs and bulbous cups and jars.  This style originated in north and northeastern Crete.  Its incised lines were more elaborate than Pyrgos ware, with vertical, horizontal, and herringbone patterns.

Early Minoan II (2900-2300 B.C.)

Potters start using colors on their ware beginning in EM II.

Koumasa (EM II) features geometric, slip-painted designs carried on from a south-central/northern Crete ware called Ayios Onouphrios Ware.  Koumasa is identified by its red or black designs on a white background.
beak spouted jug from southern crete, EMI 2600-2300 bce

Vasiliki (EM IIA-B) is named for the site where this ware was found.  Vasiliki Ware is characterized by the intentional mottling of its surface through the careful application of hot coals during the firing process and its elongated, elegant spouts.  This style could have been influenced by the use of similarly mottled stone cups in use during this period.


Early Minoan III (2300-2160 B.C.)

This period's pottery sees the introduction of checkered motifs, rosettes, spirals, and footed goblets.

In the next installment on the Middle Minoan period, we'll see the first wheel-thrown and polychrome vessels, the first pithoi, and the emergence of the Kamares and Floral Wares that accompany the rise of the Proto-palatial centers of Knossos and Phaistos.

The Bees of Malia

In 1915, archaeologists began digging at a site 45 km east of Heraklion and Knossos.  What they uncovered was the palace site of Malia, the third-largest in Crete after Knossos and Phaistos.

Unlike Knossos and Phaistos, Malia's ancient name isn't known.  Its Old Palace was built between 1900-1800 B.C. and destroyed 1700 B.C., and its New Palace went up circa 1600 B.C. and was destroyed around 1450 B.C.--in short, following the patterns of building, destruction, rebirth, and destruction that befell its larger counterparts.

Malia has yielded a variety of rich artifacts, some of the most splendid from the Old Palace-era cemetery nearby, called Chrysolakkos ("pit of gold") for the splendid objects farmers sometimes discovered there.  Of these, the most famous is the Malia Bee Pendant, which depicts two honeybees or possibly wasps storing honey in a comb.

The Bee Pendant, for which there are many reproductions you can buy and wear, features fine granulation; you can see the same technique on another bee pendant below.  I've often wondered if the circular drops held pearls.

Bees were sacred in Crete and in the Near East, and the Minoans kept beehives.  There was even, as some believe, a Minoan bee goddess named Melit, Melitta, or Melissa, though none of these names has ever been found on a list of Minoan deities.  If she existed, she was probably a minor aspect of some other goddess. 

The Harvester Vase?

Among the most famous of Minoan artifacts is a steatite vase, a ritual libation vessel known as a rhyton, called the Harvester Vase.  It was discovered in the royal villa at Hagia Triada, near Phaistos, in the south of Crete, and dates to 1500-1450 B.C.  Yet only two pieces of the original have been preserved: the neck and the upper body; the lower half has been replaced with black plaster to give observers a sense of the completed vase.

Most describe the scene depicted on the vase as a harvest sowing procession, with sowers, priests, and singers celebrating the earth's agricultural bounty.  However, there are some who interpret the scene as a military procession, with sailors, singers, and a commander in a scaled cuirass coming home from a successful raid; their "agricultural" hooks and winnowing rakes in this case were used to secure enemy ships during a maritime raid/boarding.  Hence, the question mark above.

The basis of the argument is that the hooks and rakes as shown are too flimsy for actual agricultural work, and that the men are really, really muscular, better suited to being soldiers than farmers.

I have to argue here that the adherents of this idea are very few, that the bottom of the vase which might have provided more information about the scene is missing, and that, hey, artistic license.  For example, if I with my less-than-stellar sketching skills draw someone shooting a bow, I may not get the archer's stance or the details of the bow and quiver quite right--but you would know at first glance that the figure was an archer.  The Minoans themselves would have understood the context of the scene, and probably wouldn't have quibbled about how sturdy the implements being portrayed actually were.  They could think symbolically, whereas we in the modern world with our camera phones and digital cameras and whatnot expect realistic images; our minds don't engage as much with the abstract as in earlier times.  I see the vase scene as depicting the exuberence of a successful harvest, with men coming back from the fields rejoicing.

But where are the women, you might ask.  Women helped with sowing and reaping right alongside the men, so why aren't they depicted on the vase?  Because the Harvester Vase is a libation vessel, it might be associated with men-only rituals.

Here, an artist has interpreted the scene on the vase as taking place in the courtyard of Knossos; that's the Tripartite Shrine in the background, and the farm tools have been replaced by sheaves of wheat.  If anything, this particular procession would have taken place at Hagia Triada or Phaistos--but that's me expecting absolute realism.

Minoan procession at the Temple at Knossos

Writing A Historical Knossos

Knossos is both a mythical and a real place.  You can do anything you like with the fantasy Labyrinth and its mythological denizens without apprehension; no one will call you out for inaccuracy.

Knossos the real site, however, is more complicated.  Want to write a historical novel with attention to the utmost accuracy?  Here comes the bullet list.

  1. The Tell.  Knossos occupies a tell site called Kefala Hill.  A tell is comprised of successive occupation layers going back thousands of years.  The earliest evidence of occupation dates to 6300-6100 B.C., the latest to 1200 B.C., when the site was abandoned.  During the Minoan period, terraces were built, maintained, and reinforced to support the weight of the temple complex.

  2. Inland.  Many writers place Knossos by the sea, probably due to a bit in the Theseus myth where Theseus dives after and retrieves a ring Minos tosses into the sea.  Actually, Knossos is six miles inland.  Today it's a suburb of Herakleion, from which it's a short bus ride to tour the site, but in Minoan times it was served by two seaports, Katsamba and Amnissos.  There's not much to see of Katsamba because it lies partially under the local airport, but you can visit Amnissos, where archaeologists have found some lovely artifacts and frescoes. 

  3. The Palace of Minos.  The idea that Knossos was a royal residence comes from Sir Arthur Evans, who, like Heinrich Schliemann, gave evocative names to the areas he excavated.  A hundred years on, however, we have a different understanding of Knossos.  It functioned more as a temple/administrative site than a residence.  Did anyone live there?  Probably.  We don't have the upper stories, after all, and I can see there being dormitories for some, but most of its staff would have lived in the town surrounding the temple complex.  Want a well-documented parallel to Knossos for a better idea of how the temple complex system worked?  Look at the temple of Karnak in Egypt.  In addition to its religious sanctuaries, Karnak had administrative offices for various officials, workshops, and storehouses. 

  4. The Labyrinth. So Minos hires Daedalus to build the Labyrinth.  Here's the question: which Labyrinth? Notice that I'm capitalizing "Labyrinth."  That's because it's original, Greek meaning is "Place of the Double Axe."  If you visit Knossos, you'll see the stylized "horns of consecration" everywhere.  If you visit the archaeological museum in Herakleion, you'll see depictions of the ceremonial double axe, which is called a labrys.  There are at least three or four phases to the Minoan occupation of Knossos; the first, or Prepalatial Period, lasted from 1900 to 1700 B.C.  Yet much of the splendor we associate with Knossos comes from later periods; frescoes were not part of the original decoration.  So again: which Labyrinth do you want to write about?

  5. Daedalus. There's a Linear B tablet from circa 1380 B.C. which refers to the "Daidalion," the "structure of Daidalos" or the "structure that Daidalos built."  People in the 14th century B.C. certainly knew of someone called Daidalos or Daedalus who was associated with the Knossos temple, but who he was remains a mystery.

  6. Infrastructure.  Knossos had drains and light-wells to provide drainage and to circulate light/air, respectively.  Pier-and-partition doors allowed chambers to be shut against the cold in winter, and opened for light/air, and for ritual uses; these types of doors still exist in Crete today.  Chambers were small and dark, and lit by oil lamps which don't provide a lot of illumination.  Excavation has turned up a ground-floor bathtub or two, and evidence of privies; these tubs might be evidence of ritual activity rather than occupation.  In places, the temple complex rose four or five stories, and a conservative estimate gives Knossos about 3,000 rooms.  Some were sealed off at various periods, usually after a natural disaster, and not used again.  Yet to the Mycenaeans, who took over Crete circa 1450 B.C., the place must have seemed a maze, hence the shift in the meaning of the term "Labyrinth."

  7. The Mycenaeans.  It has long been thought that the Mycenaeans invaded Crete and subdued the Minoans.  Recently, though, this model has undergone some revision.  The Mycenaeans might traded with and even lived among the Minoans, becoming part-Minoan themselves; the so-called "conquest" might have been a more peaceful transition than previously thought.  So the old trope of Greek men/sky gods/evil rapists/killers versus Minoan priestess-queens/mother goddesses/good nurturers is just that, a trope that should be retired.

I think that's a good list for now.  No doubt I've forgotten something.  I still intend to write about Knossos again, but the problems in doing so--aside from my chronic writer's block--I'll leave for another post.

La Parisienne

The famous La Parisienne fresco fragment is part of the larger Campstool Fresco series found in the western part of the Knossos complex, in what might have been an area for common dining or ritual feasting.

Another example of recreating a fresco based on very few surviving fragments.

La Parisienne has distinctive white skin, painted lips, and coiffed hair that led that would have been right at home in turn-of-the-century Paris, thus her label.  The sacral knot at the nape of her neck indicates she is either a goddess or priestess.

What also strikes me about La Parisienne is her nose. In profile, she has quite a honker.  She doesn't have that typical Minoan profile with the more gently curved nose you see, for example, in the Saffron Goddess or other frescoes of Minoan women.  And with the women who people the Minoan frescoes, I always suspect that the artist is drawing on the faces of real individuals, so La Parisienne could have been an actual woman who lived over 3,000 years ago.

I'd relegated this observation to the back of my mind until last night when, watching FX's new series Taboo, I saw that same nose on actress Oona Chaplin.

Oona's quite lovely and distinctive, and I suspect she resembles La Parisienne.  She also reminds me of digital reconstructions of Cleopatra VII from the coinage.  Cleopatra has a rather unflattering profile, but from the front she has pleasing features.  La Parisienne might have looked like her, also.


Snowfall in Knossos

Crete in the southern Aegean generally isn't a place you'd associate with ice or snow, except in the highest places such as Mounts Dikte and Ida, but lo and behold, just last week I came across this recent photo from lowland Knossos:

Richard Vallance and other archaeological-minded individuals whom I follow on Twitter, and who have spent time on Crete, have assured me that the image has not been photoshopped, that it IS snowing at Knossos, and that this phenomenon happens very rarely.

This isn't the first year in recent memory that snow has fallen in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean.  Snow fell on the pyramids of Giza last year, and in Jerusalem.  We attribute it to climate change, whether man-made or no.  Knossos may very well see more snow in the coming years.

Of course, that got me to thinking about the Minoans.  It's certainly odd to imagine the sun-loving Minoans dealing with snow, but as the Minoan period lasted from about 3000 B.C. to 1450 B.C. when the Mycenaeans took over Crete, snow must have fallen on the lower elevations at some point back then.  Global temperatures would have dropped worldwide after the massive Thera eruption, much more powerful than the 1815 Tambora eruption that caused the infamous Year Without A Summer.  And there was climate change at the end of the Bronze Age, around 1200-1100 B.C.  There were periods of drought, which we know about from tree-ring and ice-core samples, and from Hittite, Egyptian, and other, contemporary sources.

So for those of you readers and budding authors who still insist that Minoan women went around bare-breasted year-round, here's some serious food for thought.  Weather is a thing that happens.

Three Ladies With No Heads

I've posted about the Ladies In Blue fresco before, back when I did a watercolor reproduction of the trio.


In researching the Saffron Goddess and Tiryns Double-S frescoes, I learned something intriguing about the Ladies In Blue that I'm surprised and a bit embarrassed that I hadn't noticed before.

Nothing of the Ladies' heads survives.

That's right.  Look at the patches of original fresco material.  You may even have to find a larger image of the fresco if you can't click on the one above and blow it up.  Not a single piece comes from any of the three Ladies' heads.  We know that there are three ladies, we know how they're oriented, and how they're dressed.  We even have an idea of part of the hairstyle from a surviving piece of the shoulder tress, but the rest of it--the elaborately coiffed hairdos with the pearls, the bandeaux, and the pin curls--that comes from the conjecture of Sir Arthur Evans and the Gillierons.

The faces, hairdos, and other, added details came from comparable works discovered elsewhere at Knossos.  The three faces come from the male figures of the Cupbearer Fresco; it's difficult to tell because of the color difference, with the males being rendered in reddish-brown, the ladies in chalk white.

It was for this sort of thing and other, worse infractions such as outright forgery that gave Evans and the Gillierons the dubious reputation they now have in the archaeological community.  Evans shaped the popular perception of the Minoans in a way that reflected his own sentiments, and that we still haven't been able to fully shake off.  The original Ladies In Blue fresco as painted by its ancient Minoan artist might very well have looked just like the "reconstituted" view of them, but we can't say for sure.
My latest painting is a reproduction of Emile Gillieron Sr.'s watercolor rendering of the Double-S and Papyrus Frond fresco found during the 1910-12 archaeological excavations at Tiryns.

P1040107 (2)
Gillieron was educated in Basel, Munich, and Paris before moving to Athens to become an archaelogical illustrator; he also designed the commemorative stamps for the 1896 Athens Olympic Games.  He worked for Heinrich Schliemann, then for Schliemann's successor, William Dorpfeld.  Eventually, he and his son came to work for Sir Arthur Evans reproducing frescoes from Knossos.

It was this work at Knossos that garnered both Gillierons an unfavorable reputation for forgery.  They may very well have contributed to the forgeries that came out of the Minoan excavations, but as they were in Sir Arthur's employment the blame for that ultimately rests with Evans himself.  Gillieron Sr. in fact had an excellent eye for piecing together delicate fresco fragments, and his work on this Tiryns fresco, large portions of which have survived, attest to his skill.  The original watercolor is a riot of spirals and fan shapes.  Originally the fresco got me to thinking of cogs and wheels, but I wasn't looking at it in a Mycenaean context.  This isn't how the Minoans rendered papyrus fans; the Mycenaeans had their definite ideas about what kind of decoration they liked in their palaces.

Frescoes like this formed the friezes the Mycenaeans preferred and used as decorative dadoes in their palaces.  You can tell the work is Mycenaean by the colored bands at the top and bottom, which you don't really see in Minoan artwork.  While you might argue that certain frescoes at Knossos bear this distinction, it's important to remember that the last great phase of the Knossos cult-administrative center was headed by Mycenaeans with Mycenaean tastes.

My version is more brightly colored, as it might have been when first painted.  And, yes, it IS straight when properly photographed and adjusted.  I'm not sure I like the result.  Mycenaean decoration seems very garish to my modern eyes.

The Griffin Warrior of Pylos

In the summer of 2015, archaeologists working in a previously unexplored field near the palace of Nestor at Pylos in southwestern Greece discovered an intact, early Mycenaean shaft grave burial dating to around 1500 B.C.  Within the tomb lay a single individual, a man surrounded by a wealth of weapons, gold jewelry, and other prestige objects.  He might have been an early Pylian king, or a prominent local leader of some kind who helped found the early Pylian state, and he lived around the same time as the kings, queens, and other elite of the Mycenae Grave Circle A shaft graves; he may even have known some of them.

The man, dubbed "the Griffin Warrior of Pylos" from an ivory plaque bearing a griffin found on his body, was 30-35 years old at the time of his death.  Because the shaft grave roof had collapsed in antiquity, crushing his skeletonized remains, forensic anthropologists could not determine his cause of death or what diseases or injuries he might have had.  Remarkably, however, his skull was intact enough to do a facial reconstruction.

Among his grave goods were many gold, bronze, and silver vessels, but no ceramics.  He had six combs, including a very fine ivory one (below).  Perhaps he, like later, Classical warriors, attached great importance to combing out his hair before battle.  He had a boar-tusk helmet, at least two swords, a gold-hilted dagger, hundreds of semiprecious and gold beads, numerous carved seal stones, a bronze mirror, and several gold seal rings in the Minoan style, including one that is the second-largest such ring ever discovered.


The seal ring above particularly fascinates me.  There's a wealth of detail and iconography in this image of worshippers encountering divine figures at a seaside shrine.  Just look at the workmanship of the waves!  Initially I thought this and the other rings were included in the burial as shiny objects acquired on a raid (this was the period when Mycenaeans might have raided Minoan coastal sites prior to the 1450 B.C. takeover of Crete), but upon later research and reflection I see a different view.

Of all the Mycenaean kingdoms, Pylos had the strongest economic, aesthetic, and cultural ties to Crete.  The Griffin Warrior was buried with objects corresponding to scenes depicted on the seal rings.  The Pylians understood Minoan religious iconography and incorporated it into their own culture.  These rings must have belonged to the Griffin Warrior all along.

The prospect of the Griffin Warrior owning rings depicting goddesses troubles me because I haven't been able to wrap my head around these intricate status objects. If you check out my earlier posts about Aegean Bronze Age seals, I talk about portrait seals and how they only depict men.  Does that mean that only men used them?  Did the Minoans understand portraiture as we do?  The portrait seals depict such individuals that they must be of real people.

I've thought about this.  Why no portrait seals of women?  In the Minoan and Mycenaean worlds, a woman's likeliest route to power was through the priesthood.  Women controlled access to the spirit realm.  Rings have been found showing priestesses carrying vestments, either to clothe a goddess or to don them herself in order to channel one.  A priestess whose job it was to bring about the epiphany of a goddess would be the likeliest candidate to own a seal ring depicting an interaction with a goddess; she has no need for an individual portrait seal.

A prominent figure like the Griffin Warrior would have been both warrior and priest, especially if he was a king.  He owned and wore a goddess seal ring.  So I must be wrong, unless the Minoans and Mycenaeans viewed the matter differently.  He also had a seal ring depicting a bull, a symbol of male potency.  The later rulers of Mycenae, warrior-king-priests also, set two lionesses rather than lions above their citadel gate.  Gender differences seem not to have mattered when it came to the great powers.  In the ancient world, you feared and took care to placate both the gods and the goddesses.

So I'm back to Square One trying to understand this particular class of seal rings.  How and by whom were they commissioned?  Was it just a matter of being able to afford one, or did you have to be one of the priestly elite?  We think of the wealthy and powerful as having just one, recognizable seal, such as those pressed into red wax to seal important letters or to sign weighty documents such as the Magna Carta.  Why did the Griffin Warrior have six, then?  How would he have used them?


Before reading Woven Threads and working on the Saffron Goddess from the last post, I hadn't known that the Minoans used murex purple in their frescoes.  Yet having also learned that murex shells could yield quite a bit more purple dye than previously assumed, I was pleased to find traces of it in the blouse of the Saffron Goddess and elsewhere.

If you blow up the image you can see the crocus stamens picked out in light purple on the seated goddess's pale blue sleeves.

Traces of fresco purple have been found at Knossos, Akrotiri, and Pylos, the Mycenaean kingdom with the closest ties to the Minoan world.  The Mycenaeans didn't use purple in their frescoes, but then, the quality of their wall art doesn't match the Knossians or Therans in terms of intricacy and delicacy; as imitators in this particular instance, they're copying form without substance.  You can see it here, in a procession of women from Thebes.

women fresco

Purple may have been too expensive for the Mycenaeans to use for wall decoration, or they may have had other ideas about decorating their palaces.

However, the Mycenaeans must have used purple elsewhere, probably in their textiles, because they had a word for it: po-pu-re-yo, which is very close to the later Greek puperea, which is the Linnean species name of the murex which produces the dye.

The Saffron Goddess

This week, I attempted some artwork to relieve the space between painting pieces of miniature furniture.  The subject I chose was the Saffron Goddess from Xeste 3 in Akrotiri.  From previous posts, you know I've developed an interest in the elaborately patterned textiles the Minoans and Therans produced, but it wasn't just the decoration I wanted to highlight.

Oftentimes, frescoes are reconstructed based on very little surviving material, at times so fragmentary or scant that I have to wonder how the restorers know what the missing parts of the fresco looked like.  The Procession Fresco at Knossos, for example, was reconstructed with only a narrow strip of surviving fresco on the bottom (the darkened, shaded areas) to hint at what's happening above.

Sir Arthur Evans had to look to better preserved images elsewhere to reconstitute this particular fresco.  A good deal of that happened at Knossos; you can never be sure whether you're looking at a genuine Minoan image or a modern construct.

The Akrotiri frescoes are much better preserved due to the volcanic nature of their burial.  The Saffron Goddess fresco is more complete than what I show, and even extends to the left with a blue monkey and young female worshipper offering crocuses in a field of saffron.

As I said above, I wasn't just interested in the intricately patterned textiles, but the nature of reconstructing anicent imagery from fresco fragments:

What also fascinates me about this image and one other from the Xeste 3 group is how sheer some of the fabric is.  In the original, you can see how meticulously the artist depicts the color of the sheer linen and how its very pale blue distorts the color of the underlying textile.  You can get a better sense of the sheerness from the Necklace Bearer:

I haven't seen anything like this from the Knossos or Mycenaean mainland frescoes, even though such fine weaves were possible with existing looms.  I wonder if the Therans specialized in the manufacture of diaphanous cloth.

If you think you've seen the Saffron Goddess depicted here before, you have.  I used her as the basis for a painting of Danae a few years ago.
I am currently reading Woven Threads: Patterned Textiles of the Aegean Bronze Age, by Maria Shaw and Anne Chapin.  It's a scholarly, more budget-friendly alternative to Bernice Jones' Ariadne's Threads, but lest you think it's a lesser book, it isn't.  The emphasis here is on pictorial depictions of Aegean patterned textiles, many from fresco fragments that have never been published.  The evidence is there for various fabric techniques, including quilting, tablet weaving, sheer linens and wools, embroidery, and possibly beading.  Did you know that the Mycenaeans favored more practical decorative bands on plain garments to the elaborately patterned textiles worn by the Minoan elite?  It reminds me of our more recent ancestors, who, in an age before mass-produced, store-bought clothes, regularly recycled laces, ribbons, and other trims.

It turns out that you could squeeze a good deal more purple out of murex shells than previously thought.

How did those fresco artists depict those wonderful patterned fabrics? With Egyptian-style grid-lines incised into fresh plaster, of course.  And how do the Minoans and Mycenaeans differ in their depictions of luxury textiles?  Mycenaean artists copied Minoan styles in the beginning, with the flounced skirts and elaborate processions, but you can see Mycenaean fashions creeping into the scene, with a stiffness the Minoan paintings don't have, until finally the artwork is fairly crude, heavily outlined, simplified, lacking the earlier richness of detail.

I love rich textiles, though my skills at embroidery and beading are rudimentary at best.  One day I'd love to write about a woman working in the Aegean textile industry, but meanwhile I have managed a bit of description.

Once, a scribe showed me the sign for woman: a curve suggesting a face, a loop for the dress and arms, two dots for the breasts.  That is how the tally takers record women of our kind in clay and wax; only the high-ranking women, the priestesses, have their names recorded.

There are other signs for us, too--we are the workers in wool or linen, spinners, finishers of cloth, and the palace must keep track of how many rations we receive--but the kindly old scribe who showed me the woman-sign got in trouble for indulging me even that much.  I am sure there is even a sign for my name, though I would not know what that looks like.

My mother called me Arachne, for the spider that was once a woman, who once challenged Potnia Athena to a weaving contest and lost.  I suppose my mother thought she was being clever, or hoped I might have more talent at the loom than she, or had been told that "Arachne" was a good Hellene name for a weaver's daughter.  She was one of the many women of Asia the old king brought back to Pylos, and knew no better.


The Minoans and Mycenaeans loved scent.  Those who could afford it wore frankincense, myrrh, and saffron.  There was also expensive oil of lilies and oil of roses, but other, less exotic ingredients such as coriander and thyme were widely available.

The Mycenaeans acquired their perfumed oil industry, complete with its ubiquitous stirrup jars, from Minoan Crete and Cyprus.  Perfume manufacturers would have used olive oil rather than alcohol as their base, but for some scented products there is evidence that certain perfumers, known as "unguent boilers," manufactured fragrant creams.  From the Linear B tablets, we know that perfumed oil was known as we-a-re-pe (used with the corresponding ideogram for oil, OLES), and cream was called po-ro-ko-wa, (with the ideogram for unguent, AREPA.)  Sometimes cream was listed as a liquid measure, where it might have had the consistency of a lotion, where not as much solid fat was used.

Pylos tablet Un 267 records a transaction between Alxoitas and an unguent boiler named Thyestes:

Thus, Alxoitas gave to Thyestes the unguent boiler aromatics for unguent destined for boiling: coriander AROMATIC 576 liters, cyperus (cypress) AROMATIC 576 liters...16 units, FRUITS 240 liters, WINE 576 liters, HONEY 58 liters, WOOL 6 kg, MUST 58 liters.

There's no mention of olive oil, and the fact that Thyestes is producing unguent means we're dealing with scented cream.  Some of the listed goods must have been Thyestes' fee for his services, but we're looking at large quantities of ingredients and product here, so this was evidently a large order, possibly meant for export.

Halloween 2016

As I mentioned in last week's post, I am working on my surprise Halloween costume which I will immediately find fault with the second I see myself wearing it in the photographs my mother took.  Yes, I tried it on before the photo shoot, and everything seemed okay, but that darned camera lens just adds fifty pounds...

Enough with the kvetching and onto the costume.  This year, I chose the most bad-ass female from ancient times you could possibly think of.  No, not Boudicca, which I might do sometime because I think I might make an awesome Boudicca, etc.  A Saka-Scythian Amazon warrior horse archer.  Now there's a costume NOBODY else is doing!  The kind of costume where people look at it and in bewilderment ask, "What are you supposed to be?"  I used to get that a lot as a kid.  Nothing much has changed since I started doing costumes again.

A Saka-Scythian warrior woman because, why the hell not? I know how to shoot, and an Amazon from the Eurasian steppes doesn't require boob armor, the wearing of which would kill any woman dumb enough to fight in it.  The costume itself is easy to assemble, though in parts I had to be resourceful.

I made the tunic, sleeves, and leggings from scratch.  The tunic is the work of a few hours.  If you're smaller, an oversized t-shirt works just as well; all you have to do is apply the large rick-rack trim.  You can buy tribal leggings, but if you want matching sleeves you'll have to make the set from scratch.  All you need is about 2 1/2 yards of the right stretchy cotton-polyester fabric and a pair of close fitting jeans or leggings you already own to trace the pattern.

The boots came from my closet, the Turkish silver necklace and earrings from World Market at a deep discount, and the rabbit-trimmed leather bag from a Ren Faire many, many years ago.  The leopard skin cape is just printed fabric cut to mimic an animal skin, with the paws tying the cape in front.  I made the cap from scratch, too, from felt, fake fur, and coin trim.  The quiver with strap is an old UPS box covered with colored paper and red duck tape, and felt.

The belt was the big project.  Amazon women in Greek myth always have amazing war belts.  Mine is felt applique, hand-worked embroidery, and beads and mirrors on felt backing.

The bow is a real bow--a toy, actually, bought from a mall kiosk for $10--and it shoots.  I painted and decorated it with tribal-looking artwork.

The tattoos on my face and hands are from a blue eyeliner pencil.  I experimented with it before settling on a design.


So there you have it.  Whether I will win any awards for this, I can't say, but I thought while looking in the mirror that I looked pretty bad-ass.

Until the camera went and added fifty pounds, that is.

What's New, Kangaroo?

Yes, I know I've been absent almost a month, but it's for a good cause.  I'm busily finishing my costume for this year's Take Back Halloween contest.  I'm not telling you what it is, only that my fingers are sore from embroidering all those felt-applique deer.  Time will tell if I look bad-ass or ridiculous.  You can enter your guesses below, or wait until Halloween to see how many extra pounds the camera adds.

The Heanos

Look up the subject of Minoan fashion and you'll inevitably come across that website/article/comment claiming that the Minoans were the first people to make and wear fitted garments, as evidenced by the tailored open bodice.  I made this mistake, too, when writing Helen's Daughter; there's a scene where Helen fits Hermione with a wedding bodice.

It took the publication of Bernice Jones' book Ariadne's Threads and some further digging into ancient costume to figure out that the Minoans didn't tailor their clothing; what you see in the artwork is an idealized representation.  What the women are actually wearing is a garment called a heanos.

The heanos is a knee-length shift with a deep vee that can be pulled open to reveal the breasts, or closed, depending on the occasion.

In my sewing room I have a half-finished heanos, but I'm not about to photograph myself wearing it.  Nobody wants to see my cholecystectomy scars, really.

This is how it would have looked when worn, as demonstrated by the ladies in the left hand side of the artwork:

You would have wrapped the flounced skirt around the waist of the heanos.  So Minoan women's clothing was much looser and probably more comfortable in the Mediterranean climate than a fitted ensemble would have been.  And a heanos is very simple to make.

The Agamemneion

The Agamemneion is a shrine located on the left bank of the Chavos river at Mycenae.  It was first erected in 700 B.C., though it is unclear whether Agamemnon was the original focus of devotion.  The first votives, such as the inscribed pot below, appear much later, after the shrine was refurbished in the fourth century B.C.

Agamemnon had hero-cults elsewhere in Greece.  One of the most curious comes from Amyklai, Sparta, where from 700 B.C. he was worshipped along with Cassandra (known locally as Alexandra).  Strange, to find Agamemnon receiving honors alongside a Trojan princess in Sparta, when his wife, Clytemnestra, was herself a Spartan princess.

Orestes also had a hero-cult in Sparta.

Latest Month

May 2017



RSS Atom
Powered by LiveJournal.com
Designed by Lilia Ahner