Of all the ancient now long dead civilizations the Minoan culture of Bronze Age Crete has a special hold on my feverish and fettered imagination. Like all things ancient, any ideas we have of yon olden days are much more about how we want to see and how we interact with the world, than they are about what the people who actually lived in ancient climes felt and thought. If only because our understanding about those long gone days is so shallow and fragmented.
"There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Cydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians."
As much as an island can be a crossroads, Crete was the crossroads of the Ancient North African and West Asian cultures. The stepping stone and ruminating place for the passing of culture onto the barbarous northern lands. Homer tells us that the island was home to many different groups, Achaeans, Cydonians, Dorians, Pelasgians as well as True Cretans. Adding the influences from merchant activity and Crete can pass for a member of the global village, a seemingly modern multi-cultural land.
Much has been lost from cataclysms and wars and revolutions and plain old forgetfulness. Sadly we do not know the older script of these eteokretes, Homer's true Cretans of the Odyssey. So we do not know what sort of language they spoke, was it part of the PIE language grouping, or an older style of speech lost in the dust of earthquakes and wars and ruins of massive relentless tsunamis? There is debate even about the meaning of Minos. Did this word mean king, or war chief, so that all rulers of Crete were called Minos? Did it mean more like ascetic? Or was it, as most assume, just another name among many?
The Minoans seem to closely match the imagined pagans dancing through the opium dreams of the Victorian decadent Algernon Charles Swinburne. Minoan arts holds an erotic orientalised fascination, a playful, exuberant sway over the imaginings of generations of artists and scholars. Exposed bosoms of matrons hailing the sun. Bull leaping male and female athletes glowing shiny and naked and well oiled and the sparkling sun bestowing countless kisses on the tips of frothy waves. Naked soldiers eating and drinking in laconic commons. A chanting, incantation hissing priestess holding over her head writhing snakes of prophecy and good fortune. The wild songs to the Great Mother wailing over the mud brick cities, across the wild mountains and the deep valleys cut, out over the wine faced sea.
Crete may have been one of the birth places of the infant Zeus. Where the Great Mother in her birth pangs dug her fingers into the rich volcanic soil on the flanks of Mt Ida (or was it on Anatolian Ida?) and brought
into being the Dactyls. Spirits of knowledge and metal melting and pouring and many magic crafts. They taught useful and helpful things to poor ignorant mankind. Wretched ones, mere bellies. Crete, where Daedalus built the cow shaped frame for the Poseidon unnatural love after the white bull cursed Queen Pasiphae. So mating she brought into the being the hideous Minotaur. Daedalus (of Joyce fame) then force built the labyrinth to house and keep from human eyes that part man part bull prodigy of that god toying unnatural union. Needing to flee from the enraged king he built wings of feathers and bees wax. The son of Daedalus disobeyed the father and fell to his death.
After seeing the new exhibit Theatre of the World at MONA, I felt that I had to bring along the rest of the family, who were sadly sick with colds when I first went. Knowing what to expect I made a beeline for a
surprisingly dark, small and claustrophobic room. In reality it was no more than a trick of weak lighting that made the room feel so small. What was in this small dark room that so caught my eye and imagination?
Recently I read an article about MONA which stated that the gallery had subverted the traditional gallery experience by not raising buildings to the heavens. Rather submersive the entrance took one down down to the underground. I can only agree with the weeping philosopher in saying that the way up/down are one and the same. Regardless I trundled my tired old frame down the stairs into the belly bowels of the limestone earth.
One often hears lurid tales in the more lurid mass media articles about the obsession with sex and death of the owner and staff of MONA. And one would think that I was joining in the general death loving frenzy by going into this one particular room. For the room contained some half a dozen various coffins and caskets. Caskets gathered from across time and history, across space and geography. All these categories fell into disrepair. However death that was not my desire, indeed I did not even understand that the object that so interested me was a coffin until later, assuming it to be a chest for linen. I stumbled upon the room, the object, and my eye and my will fell upon the octopus with her outstretched arms.
What however is a larnax? It is in this case a coffin, but it can also mean a chest, as in the case of Hephaestus, as mentioned in Iliad 18.413, it seems to be his silver tool chest.
From Samuel Bulter's translation.
The word also can mean a water trough, by this I assume the containers still seen on farms for watering horses, pigs, cows and etc. In the final passages of the Iliad the bones of Hector are gathered from the
And the white bones they gathered, brothers and comrades
Swelling sorrow flowing tears down their cheeks.
And the bones they placed into the golden urn, covered gentle
With shimmering, gleaming purple robes. They placed the urn
Into the hollow trench and covered smooth with close set stones.
When one thinks about classical art, one thoughts are often drawn to the rigid poses of the Egyptians, or the mathematically precise statues and architectures of the Greeks, or rather the lovingly intricate folds of senatorial robes. In thinking of classical art the mind does not usually jump to ideas of naturalism, and even less does the idea of abstraction come into the conversation. Or if abstraction is thought of, it is of the geometric designs of the 'Dark Age'.
What did set Minoan art apart from other cultures? One element being the sense of motion not often seen in the older monumental art of Egypt and Babylon. A sense of asymmetry. Objects would be purposely skewed off centre. Lines would take on a life of their own and would bend and twist and arabesque across the surface to be covered. Colour, when viewing the recovered artifacts seems to be almost non existent, but in reality the ancients loved colour and used it with a lack of inhibition that would make the most radical fauvist blush.
So what was drawing my mind? A simple baked clay Minoan casket from about 1350BC. What was it I liked about this piece? The symbol of the octopus with long tendril tentacles reaching out in wavy lines from
the body of the beast. Much Minoan art used these realistic images from nature. With the octopus being a common subject. Within a traditon of lines and formed like the constant waves upon the island, the constant motion and rolling tumble of storm and fair, the octopus sometimes appeared as natural, sometimes as little more than abstracted lines of tentacles rolling, undulating the constant swell. The constant surge wearing away at beaches and rocks the background to a tradition of movement and playfulness.
The always in the background threat of earthquake and tsunami to more than once wipe out all that was gained and forced the people back upon themselves. Great fire belching volcanoes sending out rolling waves to rumble mindless over the city walls, across the land, deep into the rich farmlands.
So this tension of natural and abstract moved across the generations with the creature becoming no more than a one sided line. In a similar way that we have moved along until we are no more than one sided adjuncts to the machine, and one sided dreamers of shopping schemes.
This could be seen as a model for our modern art. Once we drew things. Since the Renaissance a certain type of artist spent their entire lives defining with mathematical perversion the role of line and shadow. Now some of our artists are happy with no more than a collection of lines and a random splashing of colour. In this way we can see the dogma that I spoke of before. What is true for us was true for those who came before us, and what our ancestors did, so we are still doing.
So in a darkened room exhibiting the concern of MONA with coffins and caskets and all things deadly, I was able to admire this 3000 year old coffin, decorated as it was with asymmetrical designs and swirls. And
of course I wondered about the body that was stuffed into such a small casket, as well as wondering what the original colours were, who had made this object, who cried and what rituals were performed. The size and shape of the object. How was the body meant to fit? Were bones broken? Was it meant to represent the chest where people would keep their few belongings? Was it Egyptian in origin, does it represent the box in which Horus the husband of Isis was tricked into entering. The chest that became his coffin. This box which floated down the Nile and into the great sea beyond. Which Isis found bound in the giant tree trunk supporting the ceiling of a palace of a local king. Her cries of pain so profound and powerful as to cause the death of children.
I stood and thought about thinking, about the way in which this simple object made me think about the past and the future. But mostly I liked the way that this one small thing silent out of the pages of history seemed to me to be like a snapshot, a photographic object, which was able to stop time and movement. Like the photograph a newspaper or a political party uses of their opponent. Head back eyes half shut mouth open in laughter, to display the worst aspect of the candidates character and appearance. This Larnax, while not being shuttered in motion to cause embarrassment, does represent a frozen moment. A slice of life. A Series of questions. The moment when the practise of art was in the process of moving from one generation to the next. A moment of death, maybe an old patriarch or even older matriarch passing, and the wrinkled craftsman, out of respect for an old friend, makes one last casket in the fading style. The moment when the artist was surveying what had gone past and what was valuable to keep, to preserve. The moment younger hands took the reigns, when younger talents took over the workshop and studio.
A moment of tradition captured, made solid. A moment in the movement of art made solid. A moment in an anonymous individual's life. That moment of death. Did he or she pick out the casket themselves? Was it chosen after death? Was the object a rushed job due to a sudden accident, or illness? Was the casket chosen after a long and happy life, or a short and brutal one, a life of mediocrity? So many particulars, so
many questions. Questions which may or may not have answers, questions which I do not have the resources to even begin to answer.
All of this and more.
This description came from the email sent to me from MONA concerning
my tour of the museyroom.
Larnax (chest-shaped coffin)
Crete, Late Minoan Period, c. 1325 - 1275 BCE
Fired clay with painted decoration
95 x 122 x 49 cm
The custom of chest-shaped, clay coffins, or larnakes, is believed to
have originated in ancient Crete. The deceased would have been laid in
a flexed position and the gable-shaped lid secured with cords. The
shape may well have been based on wooden storage chests used within a
domestic context but, if so, none of those survive: recent scholarship
has identified Egyptian linen chests as the probable model