Vertigo from a Minoan Fresco


In the flow of life we sometimes forget that all things have a history. Trace even a word back far enough and you stumble into a dense forest of human hands and minds, one that sometimes stretches back thousands of years.

But even so, there are points past which the ancient path vanishes and we can walk no further. And it is those cultures we end up finding over and over again — the Indians, the Greeks, the Chinese, and more — that we call classical.

I'd like to focus on the Greeks. As a Classics minor I learned about the Etruscans and the Phoenicians and the Egyptians, all precursors to and influences on Greek civilization in their own ways. But other than the Egyptians, none of these cultures felt real to me, since I felt them only in footnotes and the occasional artifact.

Years later, while traveling in Greece, my friend insisted on a detour to Crete to see the remains of the Minoans, one of the pre-Greek civilizations. I knew nothing about them beyond the name and a few myths, and I found little to enjoy in what was left of their city walls. So I resigned myself to the next stop: the Archaelogical Museum of Heraklion, the largest collection of Minoan artifacts in the world.

I was unprepared for what came next.

It was the pottery first, exuberantly painted with tentacles and spirals. Then the sculptures, the gold-horned bulls and silver vessels, that had survived in excellent condition and dazzling color. The gold necklaces with their intricate linework and scalloped shell motifs. But most of all, it was the pristine frescoes that reached across the ages and said: we were alive, and we were here.

A civilization I had never heard of, older than the Greeks, older than Vedic India, had so much of its material culture survive in such excellent quality that in moments it became alive again.

The Minoans were so powerful and wealthy that even after their decline, they lurked ever onward in the Greek subconscious as an exotic and dangerous people. Their love of bulls became the minotaur. Their love of dense palace walls became the labyrinth. And it was in their capital palace at Knossos that the minotaur was said to dwell.

But for a moment, they were real before me in their ancient land, and I wish I could convey how dizzying that felt.