Saturday, March 31, 2012

Ladies of History: The women of the Minoan Empire

Ladies have existed, in one form or another, since time immemorial.  That being said, however, one must wonder as to who the first real ladies were.  When did elegance and artistry become the goal, rather than the more basic concepts of fertility, which gave rise to such images as the Venus of Willendorf?  As for myself, I personally hand this accolade to the mysterious women of ancient Crete.  We don’t know much about their world or what function these beautiful women played, but the fact stands that they mark a change in the prerogatives of people, when beauty became the goal, rather than simple fecundity. 
The Minoan empire came into being circa 3650 BCE and remained that way for many centuries, before finally crumbling upon itself in the 1100s and being invaded by the neighboring Mycenaeans.  From what we can gather, the Minoans were quite powerful and, by virtue of their island home, found it possible to rely on their navy and the ocean to keep out invaders, thus allowing them to build beautiful, unguarded ‘palaces’ (whether these were in fact palaces or temple complexes or something else entirely is still up for debate).  These buildings were many stories high and beguilingly complex, with endless stairways and beautifully painted walls.  Indeed, some palaces were even equipped with running water and a prototype of the flush toilet.  Somehow, the Minoans managed to create a ‘state of the art’ world while most other people were still living in one story abodes made out of anything that would stay standing. 
Sadly, however, we truly know precious little about the Minoans besides what little we can dig up.  Their language, a strange, spiraling pictographic dialect known as Linear A, has proven untranslatable.  What modern historians and archaeologists have deduced comes largely from the art and artifacts left behind, in particular the gorgeous Minoan frescoes that decorate the palaces at Knossos and Phaistos.  Said frescoes focus on any number of themes, ranging from nature scenes to religious festivals, and it is in these frescoes that one can find images of the ladies of Crete. 
Dressed in elaborate skirts and bodices, hair decked in pearls, the women depicted in frescoes and statuettes are strikingly modern in aspect.  Looking at their lively, natural appearance, it seems hard to believe that these ladies lived during the Bronze Age.  Indeed, a French archaeologist, upon discovering a shard of fresco depicting a woman with rouged lips and kohl lined eyes, commented wonderingly that ‘she wouldn’t look out of place in Paris’, thus earning the image the title of ‘La Parisienne’.  As to who these women truly were and what function they played in Minoan society, the general consensus has oscillated between the depiction of goddesses (or priestesses dressed as goddesses for religious festivals) to the women being the nobility of Crete.  Certainly, these were women of very high standing, and depictions of such women often place them at the center and/or larger than any men in the frame, thus leading certain historians to suggest that the Minoan empire was matriarchal in nature, though definitive proof on that front remains lacking.
Regardless, however, the women of Minoan Crete set an early standard for beauty that is recognizable even to this day.  They are the first women we see wearing fitted garments (specifically the bodice and bolero jacket common to so many of the statues and frescoes).  In other images these women are often depicted in groups, heads inclined towards each other, looking for all the world like a modern clique of ladies sharing the latest gossip and news.  The ladies of Minoan Crete dance, officiate religious rituals, help bring in the harvest, and through it all they exude a natural and sometimes nearly supernatural elegance that we modern ladies should keep in mind as we go through our day to day lives.  After all, these women managed to be paragons of beauty without recourse to Botox or plastic surgery, and if they were able to achieve that in the Bronze Age then it shouldn’t be nearly so hard for us in the age of iPod. 
Source:   Fitton, J. Lesley. The Minoans. London: The Folio Society, 2002. 

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