The recovery of the Greek Bronze Age through archaeology began with the excavations of Heinrich Schliemann at Troy and Mycenae and Arthur Evans on the island of Crete in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Schliemann was driven by his desire to demonstrate the foundation of the Homeric epics in historical reality, while Evans reacted against the privilege of classical Greece by trying to show that classical Greek culture was almost entirely based on the earlier Minoans, who did not speak Greek and were not Greek ethnically. In many respects both excavators were later proven wrong, but the questions they raised remain fundamental: How much was Mycenean religion and mythology influenced by the Minoans? How did this influence work itself out in the transition from the Mycenean period (ended about 1100 BCE) through the reemergence of Greek cities in the Geometric and Orientalizing periods (about 900-650 BCE)? What proportion of Homeric religion and culture is a product of its Indo-European background, what proportion belongs to the Mycenean and Dark Age periods, and what proportion to the time that the epics were first recorded in writing (c.700 BCE)?
This link illustrates some aspects of Minoan culture on Crete and the island of Thera. For Mycenae, click Myceneans.



Excavation of Minoan culture began with Evans' digs at Knossos, on Crete, in the 1920s and 30s. Evans rapidly found evidence of a highly developed, sea-faring culture, with wide trade contacts, few fortifications, and (apparently) a dominant female goddess or goddesses. Minoans were also at least partly literate, with a writing script later termed "Linear A." Evans' finds at Knossos were later corroborated with the discovery of a series of palaces on Crete, at Phaistos, Malia, Gournia, and Kata Zakro. Unfortunately, Evans HEAVILY restored the architecture of Knossos before publishing his results, and most Minoan frescoes continue to be displayed with significant, and perhaps misrepresentative, restoration. At any event, military or violent imagery remains surprisingly understated in Minoan art, and most scholars agree that Minoan religion was more female than male centered, as far as we can tell. However, evidence for human sacrifice has been found in some Minoan peak sanctuaries, and frescoes from Thera, an island about 60 miles north of Crete, are more military in nature. In short, we need to find out a lot more about the Minoans, but there is no question that their language, art, architecture, and (probably) religion were substantially different from that of the Myceneans. Most scholars also agree that the Myceneans conquered the Minoans about 1400 BCE, and either destroyed or took over their palaces on Crete. The Myceneans were heavily influenced by Minoan culture, and adapted their writing system to produce Linear B. The implications of this for later Greek religion and mythology are still unclear.
NOTE: The chronology of Minoan culture is based on pottery styles and a series of layers of damage or destruction to the palaces themselves. We will simplify this into: Old Palace Period (1900-1700 BCE), New Palace Period (1650-1450 BCE), and Post-Palace period (1450-1100 BCE), in fact a period during which Knossos seems to have been inhabited by Myceneans.
A view of Knossos and the surrounding region from the air.













Like most Minoan palaces, Knossos is organized around a broad central court, but shows a surprising lack of hierarchy otherwise--that is, it is difficult to tell from just looking at the plan which 1 or 2 places are obviously the most important. On the plan, "The Grand Staircase," "Hall of the Double Axes," "Throne Suite," and "Queen's Megaron" are labelled--the names for these are the conventional ones coined by Evans, but we do not know what the actual use of these rooms was, nor do they have an obvious spatial relation with each other. We also don't know much about the multiple upper stories. On the west side of the palace, there was a bank of long, narrow storage rooms where many large "pithoi," (storage jars) were found, and there's no question that Knossos was a major center for the collection and distribution of agricultural goods.





A view of the palace from the NORTHEAST, showing the northern entrance ramp to the Central Court; the architecture and bull fresco were restored by Evans.





A view of a staircase leading up to the palace from the east side. Again, much restored by Evans, but it accurately shows the Minoans' mastery of building with stone, which they generally did not employ to build massive defensive walls.





A view from the roof of the "Throne Suite," on the west side of the central court, looking north toward a fairly small rectangular structure dubbed by Evans the "Initiatory Area."





The columns, tapering downward, that flank the staircase leading to the bottom of the "Initiatory Area." This conveys fairly well the Minoans' skillful use of columns to create a complex kind of symmetry--the three columns in the upper foreground are matched by three columns at three different levels in the bottom background.





Part of the "Grand Staircase" on the east side of the Central Court.





A reconstruction of the central light well, next to the "Grand Staircase," on the east side of the Central Court. The frescoes are copies from the Hall of the Frescoes, but again, the overall effect is probably pretty close to that of "real" Minoan architecture and decoration.





A view across the Central Court from the east toward the west side; the "Throne Room" is located to the right of the big staircase, down a floor.





A view into the "Throne Room" from the north side, looking south, with the Central Court to the left. Again, these upper stories have been entirely restored by Evans, as were the frescoes in the "Throne Room" itself. However, the shape of the columns, the paint scheme, and the use of timber framing are all "accurate," as far as we can tell from the evidence.





A reconstruction of the "Hall of the Double Axes," or "King's Megaron," on the east side of the Central Court.





Though contemporary archaeologists would never do what he did, Evans was certainly not working in the dark when he reconstructed Knossos. The Minoans left behind many representations of their architecture, in terracotta tiles, wall frescoes, and the little clay models below. A lot of the features incorporated in the reconstructions are illustrated in these models--downward tapering columns and timber framing, for instance.





Evans found fragments of many frescoes at Knossos, and these became the basis for elaborate reconstructions. On the bottom left, you see a reconstruction based on very few surviving pieces; on the left, a large chunk of actual Minoan painting, showing a girl apparently dancing. She illustrates the open-bodice dress style common in depictions of Minoan women and goddesses.





Another famous fresco from Knossos, illustrating two women and one man involved in some sort of bull-vaulting sport. Women are conventionally shown with white skin, and men with red, in Minoan painting; careful scrutiny shows that the man's posture is phyically impossible. There is little doubt that bulls were very important in Minoan religious life--some building models show entire rooflines marked with bull horns. But what it meant when Minoans sacrificed bulls, or vaulted over their backs, is still not at all clear.





For comparison, here is a miniature fresco from a house in the town of Thera, buried by a volcanic eruption ca.1550 BCE. This painting has little restoration, apart from being pieced together, and it shows boats departing from a small town or palace.





We know that Minoan palaces were highly decorated with frescoes, and we also have a great deal of Minoan pottery. On the left is an example of a "krater" (wine-mixing vessel) from the old palace period at Phaistos, about 1800 BCE; on the right is a "marine style" amphora from Knossos, new palace period, about 1450 BCE.





The Minoans also left behind an enormous quantity of little seal stones and gems, used to mark ownership of chests and jars. These are examples from the new palace period at Knossos, showing (top) two men with a bull, (middle) a female goddess(?) flanked by two griffins, with a double-axe motif above, and (bottom), a man and a lion. It is not yet clear what sort of religious or mythological scenes these stones might depict.





A famous "Snake Goddess" figurine from Knossos, new palace period. She holds a snake in either hand, her bodice is open, as it often is in the depiction of "court" women, and a panther-like creature sits on her head. It is interesting that no corresponding male figurines have been found, or equally impressive depictions of male gods in frescoes or on gems.





Knossos was a major storage and distribution center, and however unmilitary the Minoans appear in their art, controlling agricultural wealth in bronze age societies usually involves some degree of force. Here is a view of the storage rooms and large pithoi on the west side of the palace.





The famous "Harvester Vase," from Aghia Triada in south central Crete (new palace period), showing harvesters returning from the fields singing, with big sheaves of grain. While agricultural labor is often depicted negatively in later Greek writing and art, this positive depiction is again typical of the Minoan attitude toward life and nature--as far as we can tell. We do not have enough skeletons or other kinds of evidence to get a picture of diet, labor, life expectancy, or disease in Minoan culture, but if we were to find out that most led lives of poverty and grinding labor, this would make an interesting contrast with their art. On the other hand, if we were to find out that life expectancy was significantly better in Minoan Crete in comparison with other agricultural societies like classical Greece or Rome, this would tell us a lot about their social organization.





The Phaistos disk, with hieroglyphs on both sides, from the new palace period . These glyphs are related to Linear A, which (we think) used individual signs to refer to syllables (rather than distinct letters). The Myceneans would adapt Linear A into Linear B, used to write an early form of Greek, but Linear A itself has still not been deciphered. However, the Myceneans used Linear B almost entirely for record keeping--and we suspect that the Minoans may have used Linear A for the same purpose.





Finally, an artist's rendering of what Knossos might have looked like at the end of the new palace period. Many of the features (formal gardens, the absence of fortifications, the use of bull horns, the column shapes and painting, multiple stories) are firmly established.





While the overall effect of Minoan religion and myth on the Myceneans and later Greek myth is not clear, the bull--a central element in Minoan religious artifacts and painting--remained strongly associated with Crete, and Zeus was nurtured by his mother, the goddess Rhea, in a cave on Crete, perhaps a nod to the importance of "mother goddesses" in Minoan religion.

This temple metope from the Archaic period (c.600 BCE) shows Europa being carried from Tyre, in modern-day Lebanon, to Crete, where they would make love and produce Minos, the king of Crete.





A red-figure vase ca.480 BCE, found in Etruria, depicting Europa's abduction.





Minos married Pasiphae, but unfortunately failed to sacrifice a prime bull sent to him by Poseidon. As a result, Pasiphae was afflicted with a terrible passion for the bull, which she consummated thanks to a mechanical cow produced for her by Daedalus. The result was the Minotaur, a creature with a bull's head and the body of a man. Below you see the baby Minotaur reaching for his mother's breast...a truly bizarre scene. Red-figure vase, produced in Etruria, ca. 340 BCE.

Having lost a son that he entrusted to the Athenians' care, Minos insisted on a yearly tribute of young men and virgins (or sometimes just virgins), which he fed to his Minotaur--the minotaur was now all grown up and living in the Labyrinth, another construction by Daedalus. However, the young Athenian hero Theseus defeated the Minotaur and released Athens from the tribute. Red figure vase from Etruria, ca. 470 BCE.