A Good Life or a Good Death?

Jun 18th, 2012 | By | Category: Articles

The first great civilisation of the West was that of the Greeks. The more romantically inclined may even consider it the finest attempt we have yet made, forgetting that it was based on slavery and the subjugation of women. Nevertheless, despite the social or political shortcomings our modern age may consider it to have embraced, a civilisation that can claim to be the birthplace of philosophy, literature, theatre and modern democracy has, by anyone’s standards, got to be doing something right. But Greek civilisation did not spring fully formed Athena-like from the head of Zeus. It has its own history some of which echoes enigmatically out from the extraordinary body of mythological writing for whichGreecebecame so justifiably famous. More still has been handed down by the Greek historians and yet more uncovered by archaeology.

The first of the great civilisations to emerge in Greece was the Minoan on the island of Crete. Stone Age settlers had arrived in the sixth millennium. By 2,300BCE the inhabitants of the island had not only emerged from dwelling in the caves that pimpled the landscape but were confident and rich enough to build private villas with painted walls and the large Palace complexes of Knossos and Phaestos. Although their writing, a syllabic script known as Linear A, has never been deciphered, Minoan art and archaeological excavation of the palaces has revealed a unique culture. The palaces, for example, were never fortified and the Minoans in general seem to have developed no particular military capability or ambition; it seems their island was their fortress and their trading status their security. Moreover, excavation of the palaces has revealed an attitude to life that has caused some to consider the Minoans of this period as the first Western hedonists.

The material culture that has survived the footfalls of time offers us interesting clues regarding the nature of Minoan religion, the principal feature of which seems to have been its matriarchal nature. The Minoans worshipped a supreme Mother Goddess. Their religion was probably polytheistic in that many different representations of goddesses have been found and polytheism was the religious currency of the age. However, the counter view, that they are all representations of the same Goddess has been occasionally voiced. In one form, for example the goddess is portrayed as a Lady of the Beasts, a deity mastering or overcoming the animal kingdom, whilst in another she is a Mountain Mother, protecting all creation. These aspects of the goddess, but particularly the former seem to have a direct connection to an Indus Valley deity depicted as Lord of Beasts who had been prominent a thousand years earlier in the Indian subcontinent and who re-emerged in the later Indian tradition as the great god Siva. It raises the question, perhaps, of where the later Cretan migrants had come from, or at least who they were getting their own religious influences from. A commercial world carries much more than just goods and materials from port to port.

Around 1600BCE the region suffered the devastating volcanic eruption of Santorini. Earthquakes brought about by the eruption destroyed the Cretan palaces whilst tsunamis devastated ports and harbours. But Minoa’s final downfall, however, around 1400BCE, was not due to natural causes but to the invasion of the Mycenae, new kids on the block and a mainland civilisation that were to write the next chapter in the history of Greece.

The civilisation of Mycenae that dominated Greece for the next three centuries was an Indo-European culture from which the modern Greeks derived if not their biological lineage then certainly their mythological one. It is theMycenaeand their turbulent history that forms the background to Homer’s Iliad and its famous-infamous campaign againstTroy. And it is in the telling and re-casting of these events and in the philosophical enquiries of the main characters that many would later establish exactly what it meant to be a Greek.

But the Mycenae brought not only violence and a new language with them, but also a new religion, the worship of the patriarchal sky-god. The supreme God in the Mycenaean pantheon was Dyeus, just a breath away, of course, from the Zeus into which his name would more famously develop. The settling of theMycenaeinevitably brought them into contact with the Goddesses of their indigenous neighbours and the syncretistic nature of Mycenaean religion resulted in the elevation of certain indigenous Chthonic or Earth Gods into the pantheon as well as other cross-cultural fertilisation. Hera, a non-Indo-European (and in all probability Minoan) deity, for example, becomes both older sister and wife of Zeus whilst the Indo-European Demeter assumes a Chthonic status in her role as Goddess of seasons and the Earth’s fertility. The marriage of Zeus and Hera seems almost the union of two dynasties, a coming together of the old and the new and recognition of the status quo.

In true Mycenaean style cultural assimilation went hand in hand with the advance of its empire across theCycladesand eventually toCrete. Yet so intertwined had Mycenaean culture become with its Cretan counterpart in the centuries prior to its invasion, that despite its sudden eclipse Minoan culture and the Minoan Goddesses lived on in the mythology of their victors.

The dualism between the matriarchal Helladic, Cycladic and Minoan cultures and the patriarchal Mycenaean expressed itself in other ways. Mycenaean religion was not only sky-bound but focussed on the cohesion of the group excluding outsiders and re-enforcing the sense of the community and the social status quo. The other indigenous religions, though, were earth-bound and individualistic, dealing in fertility and bringing the adherent into the circle of the mystery of creation and life. These competing outlooks, synthesised in the later Greek religion were probably best expressed in the buildings that each society concerned themselves with. In the Minoan tradition the palaces celebrated light and the pleasure of existence. In the later Mycenaean tradition the rulers concerned themselves not with palaces but with monumental tombs, stockpiling gold and treasure to be buried with them. The Minoan, it appears, sought after a comfortable life, the Mycenaean a comfortable death. And at the heart of this attempted synthesis, out of the irreconcilable tension between the two come the questions that have preoccupied Western Civilisation ever since… is religion a social or individual concern, does it deal with matters of Earth or heaven, is it life-enhancing or life-denying?

One Comment to “A Good Life or a Good Death?”

  1. john hunt says:

    In this tension, I guess Christianity is traditionally focused on the individual, and heaven – but at least the cathedrals are there for future generations, rather than the cumulative (and extorted) wealth they represent being buried underground……

Leave a Comment