The mysterious Eteocretans

Acrobatics over a bull in unknown circumstances, probably ceremonial, in the Palace of Knossos, photo credit: Wikipedia

There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the wine-dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities. They have not all the same speech, but their tongues are mixed. There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Cydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians.” This is how Homer describes Crete many centuries after the collapse of the Minoan civilization, when almost all trace of the majestic palaces, the busy harbors, and the populous villages of Minos’ realm had disappeared. And yet something remained…those “great-hearted native Cretans”, also known as Eteocretans (from the Greek word ἐτεός, meaning “true, real”).  

The disastrous expedition

The ancient authors believed that the Eteocretans were the genuine inhabitants of the island. Herodotus knew that Crete was once occupied entirely by non-Greek peoples. When King Minos died in Sicily, his people embarked on a grand naval expedition to avenge his death. The campaign ended in disaster, with most men dying of famine, drowning in the open sea, or settling in Sicily. Only the people of Praisos and Polichna remained home when the fleet sailed against Sicily, thus becoming the only genuine Minoan survivors in a land inundated by Greeks.

The Minoan eruption

Modern historiography has also attempted to explain the sudden end of Minoan power around 1450 BCE by invoking a mysterious disaster. Arthur Evans, who found ample evidence of destruction by fire and systematic looting among the ruins of the palace, argued that Knossos destroyed the other palaces on the island, but then fell prey to an earthquake. Spiridon Marinatos attributed the calamity that befell the people of Crete to the eruption of the volcano of Thera, followed by a series of earthquakes and devastating tsunamis.

Fashion solves the mystery

The third theory that tried to account for the end of the Minoan world placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Mycenaeans. As the Minoans attempted to address the results of whatever natural (or manmade) disaster had befallen them, the Mycenaeans expanded their trading networks and pushed the Minoans from their traditional trading routes and markets. The change was so dramatic and marked that the Egyptian artists working in the tomb of Rekhmire, vizier under Thutmose III (1504-1450 BCE) felt the need to alter the paintings of foreigners bringing gifts to the pharaoh; the original cod-piece of the Minoans was replaced by the decorated kilts of the Mycenaeans.

Mycenaeans at Knossos

Sometime after 1450 BCE the Mycenaeans sailed to Crete from mainland Greece, took over the island and established themselves at Knossos. They also brought their own language with them, as evidenced by the presence of several thousand tablets with Linear B script (rather than Linear A that had been employed by the Minoan scribes since 1600 BCE). The new rulers of Knossos exercised control over much of the island but their power could not protect them from the final disaster that struck around 1375 BCE. The cause is unknown, but beyond that date, the palace of Knossos was no longer a seat of power. 

The survivors

Evans did not find any noticeable number of human remains among the ruins of Knossos, so it would seem that the native population was either carried off into captivity or somehow managed to escape to other parts of the island. A few years (or decades) later, some survivors returned to the ruins of the palace and rebuilt their shrines on a much-reduced scale. Most people though seem to have turned their backs to the remnants of the past, seeking shelter and continuity in hard-to-reach mountain sites elsewhere on the island. 

Minoan refugees

The village of Karphi got its name from the neighboring peak of the Lasithi plateau. What was originally a peak sanctuary became a community of refugees who expended great effort to construct a small market town below a jutting peak. It must have been bitterly cold in the winter, but at least here the Minoans could preserve their culture, language, and religion. Vrokastro, overlooking the Gulf of Mirabello, was another settlement of refuge on a hill that was much more comfortable than the frigid heights of Karphi. The town developed gradually as the inhabitants added rooms and warehouses to their original small houses. The end result gave the impression of a labyrinth but the town had proper drains on the side of the street, a feature of Minoan urban architecture since the old imperial days. 

Home of the Minoans

These communities were eventually abandoned (Karphi probably by 900 BCE). During the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic period, it was the city of Praisos that came to be seen as the true home of the Eteocretans. The city may have first been settled in the 8th century BCE. It occupies two hills at a much lower altitude than the refuge settlement of Karphi. By 700 BCE it was a settlement of some significance; eventually, the territory of Praisos reached all the way to the north and south coast. The city was prosperous enough to mint its own coins, but such wealth attracted the envy of the city of Hierapytna that managed to destroy Praisos in the late 140s BCE.

The language of the Eteocretans

Material traces of the Minoan past of Praisos are difficult to identify. Some guard towers, a possible shrine, sections of the acropolis walls, a few tombs, and pieces of pottery. What we know most about the Eteocretans is their language. In the early twentieth century, archaeologists working at the site of ancient Praisos discovered five inscriptions on stone, written in the Greek alphabet, but in a language that was not Greek (a sixth inscription was found in Dreros, in the north of eastern Crete, near the present town of Neapolis). It is possible that these inscriptions may very well preserve a survivor of the old Minoan language.

Another Rosetta Stone?

But what a feeble survivor! There are only 422 letters in the Eteocretan inscriptions (less than the total number of characters of the previous paragraph). The inscriptions are truncated and the words are divided only in half of them. The only saving grace of this state of affairs is that the Dreros inscription is bilingual (there is a Greek text carved on the stone). The problem is that the Greek text was added as much as fifty years after the Eteocretan section (600 BCE) so it may have nothing to do with the Eteocretan inscription. All six Eteocretan texts were discovered with Greek inscriptions whose content reveals them to be official documents, so it seems possible that these mysterious words may also contain bureaucratic passages.  And yet, they are the last authentic voice of the Minoans.

If you like what you just read, check this out! 

The Minoan Civilization - Mentor - Study abroad in Greece
Link to The Minoan Civilization – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

The Minoan Civilization – Mentor – Study abroad in Greece

This module covers the archaeology of prehistoric Crete, a fascinating period that witnessed the emergence of a complex society.

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