If we sail from the Nile Delta northwestward across
the Mediterranean, our first glimpse of Europe will be the eastern tip
of Crete. Beyond it, we find a scattered group of small islands, the
Cyclades, and, a little farther on, the mainland of Greece, facing the
coast of Asia Minor across the Aegean Sea. To archaeologists, "Aegean"
is not merely a geographical term. They have adopted it to designate the
civilizations that flourished in this area during the third and second
millenniums B.C., before the development of Greek civilization proper.
There are three of these, closely interrelated yet distinct from each
other: that of Crete, called Minoan after the legendary Cretan King
Minos; that of the small islands north of Crete (Cycladic); and that of
the Greek mainland (Helladic), which includes Mycenaean civilization.
Each of them has in turn been divided into three phases, Early, Middle,
and Late, which correspond, very roughly, to the Old, Middle, and New
Kingdoms in Egypt. The most important remains, and the greatest artistic
achievements, date from the latter part of the Middle phase and from the
Aegean civilization was long known only from Homer's
account of the Trojan War in the Iliad and from Greek legends
centering on Crete. The earliest excavations (by Heinrich Schliemann
during the 1870s in Asia Minor and Greece and by Sir Arthur Evans in
Crete shortly before 1900)
were undertaken to test the
factual core of these tales. Since then, a great amount of fascinating
material has been brought to light—far
more than the literary sources would lead us to expect. But even now our
knowledge of Aegean civilization is very much more limited than our
knowledge of Egypt or the ancient Near East. Unfortunately, our reading
of the archaeological evidence has so far received limited aid from the
written records of the Aegeans.
B.C. A late form of this Minoan script, called Linear B,
which was in use about six centuries later both in
Crete and on the Greek mainland, was deciphered in the early
The language of Linear
Â is Greek, yet this apparently
was not the language for which Minoan script was used before the
fifteenth century B.C., so that being able to read Linear
Â does not help us to understand
the great mass of earlier Minoan inscriptions. Moreover, the Linear
texts are largely palace inventories and administrative records,
although they do reveal something about the history, religion, and
political organization of the people who composed them. We thus lack a
great deal of the background knowledge necessary for an understanding of
Aegean art. Its forms, although linked both to Egypt and the Near East
on the one hand and to later Greek art on the other, are no mere
transition between these two worlds. They have a haunting beauty of
their own that belongs to neither. Among the many strange qualities of
Aegean art, and perhaps the most puzzling, is its air of freshness and
spontaneity, which makes us forget how little we know of its meaning.
MINOAN SCRIPT AND LINEAR B.
In Crete a system of writing was developed about
The people who inhabited the Cycladic
Islands after about
B.C. buried their dead with marble idols of
a peculiarly impressive kind. Almost all of them represent a
standing nude female figure with arms folded across the
chest (fig. 119),
presumably the mother and fertility
goddess known to us from Asia Minor and the ancient Near
East, whose ancestry reaches far back to the Old Stone Age
(see figs. 35,45,
They also share a distinctive shape, which at first glance
recalls the angular, abstract qualities of Paleolithic and
Neolithic sculpture: the flat, wedge shape of the body, the
strong, columnar neck, the tilted, oval shield of the face,
and the long, ridgelike nose. (Other features were painted
in.) Within this narrowly defined and stable type, however,
the Cycladic idols show wide variations in scale (from a few
inches to lifesize) as well as form. This lends them a
The best of them, such as that in
have a disciplined refinement utterly
beyond the range of Paleolithic art. The longer we study
this piece, the more we come to realize that its qualities
can only be defined as "elegance" and "sophistication,"
however incongruous such terms may seem in this context.
What an extraordinary feeling for the organic structure of
the body there is in the delicate curves of the outline, in
the hints of convexity marking the knees and abdomen! Even
if we discount its deceptively modern look, the figure seems
a bold departure from anything we have seen before. There is
no dearth of earlier fertility idols, but almost all of them
betray their descent from the bulbous, heavy-bodied
"Venus" figurines of the Old Stone Age (fig.
In fact, the
earliest Cycladic idols, too, were of that type. We do not
know what made the Cycladic sculptors suppress the
traditional fertility aspects of their female idols until
they arrived at the lithe, "girlish" ideal of figure
Was there perhaps a radical change in the meaning or the
ritual purposes of these statues? We cannot even venture a
guess to explain the mystery. Suffice it to say that the
Cycladic sculptors of the third millennium B.C. produced the
oldest lifesize figures of the female nude we know, and that
for many hundreds of years they were the only ones to do so.
In Greek art, we find very few nude female statues until the
middle of the fourth century B.C., when Praxiteles and
others began to create cult images of the nude Aphrodite
(see fig. 207).
It can hardly be coincidence
that the most famous of these Venuses were made for
sanctuaries on the Aegean Islands or the coast of Asia
Minor, the region where the Cycladic idols had flourished.
Idol from Amorgos.
ñ 2500 B.C. Marble, height
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Minoan civilization is by far the richest, as well as
the strangest, of the Aegean world. What sets it apart, not only from
Egypt and the Near East but also from the Classical civilization of
Greece, is a lack of continuity that appears to have been caused by
archaeological accidents, as well as historical forces. The different
phases appear and disappear so abruptly that their fate must have been
determined by sudden violent changes affecting the entire island. Yet
the character of Minoan art, which is gay, even playful, and full of
rhythmic motion, conveys no hint of such threats.
The first of these unexpected shifts occurred about
B.C. Until that time, during the thousand years
of the Early Minoan era, the Cretans had not advanced much beyond the
Neolithic level of village life, even though they seem to have engaged
in some overseas trade that brought them contact with Egypt. Then they
created not only their own system of writing but an urban civilization
as well, centering on several great palaces. At least three of them, at
Knossos, Phaistos, and Mallia, were built in short order. Little is left
today of this sudden spurt of large-scale building activity. The three
early palaces were all destroyed at the same time, about
1700 B.C., demolished, it seems,
by a catastrophic earthquake. After a short interval, new and even
larger structures appeared on the same sites, only to suffer
destruction, in their turn, by another earthquake about
B.C. These were abandoned, save for the
palace at Knossos, which was occupied by the Mycenaeans, who took over
the island almost immediately.
Minoan civilization, therefore, has a complicated
chronology. Archaeologists divide the period that concerns us into the
Old Palace period, comprising Middle Minoan I and Middle Minoan II,
which together lasted from
B.C. until about 1700
B.C. The New Palace period includes Middle Minoan III
(1700-1670 B.C.), Late
Minoan IA (1670-1620
B.C.), and Late Minoan IB (1620-1490/1450
B.C.). The eruption of the volcano on the island of
Thera (Santorini) occurred during the New Palace period, at the end of
Late Minoan IA. It did little damage to Crete, however, and ushered in
the Late Minoan IB period, which marked the peak of Minoan civilization.
For our purposes, we need only remember that the Old Palace period
coincides roughly with the Middle Kingdom and the New-Palace period with
the onset of the New Kingdom in Egypt.
The "new" palaces are our main source of information
on Minoan architecture. The one at Knossos, called the Palace of Minos,
was the most ambitious, covering a large territory and composed of so
many rooms that it survived in Greek legend as the labyrinth of the
Minotaur (see fig.
120). It has been
carefully excavated and partly restored. We cannot recapture the
appearance of the building as a whole, but we can assume that the
exterior probably did not look impressive compared with Assyrian or
Persian palaces (see figs. 102
There was no striving for unified, monumental effect.
The individual units are generally rather small and the ceilings low (figs.
so that even those parts of the structure that were
several stories high could not have seemed very tall.
Nevertheless, the numerous porticoes, staircases, and
air shafts must have given the palace a pleasantly open, airy quality.
Some of the interiors, with their richly decorated walls, retain their
atmosphere of intimate elegance to this day. The masonry construction of
Minoan palaces is excellent throughout, but the columns were always of
wood. Although none has survived (those in fig.
are reconstructions), their characteristic form (the
smooth shaft tapering downward and topped by a wide, cushion-shaped
capital) is known from representations in painting and sculpture. About
the origins of this type of column, which in some contexts could also
serve as a religious symbol, or about its possible links with Egyptian
architecture, we can say nothing at all.
Who were the rulers that built these palaces? We do
not know their names or deeds, except for the legendary Minos, but the
archaeological evidence permits a few conjectures. They were not warrior
princes, since no fortifications have been found anywhere in Minoan
Crete, and military subjects are almost unknown in Minoan art. Nor is
there any hint that they were sacred kings on the Egyptian or
Mesopotamian model, although they may well have presided at religious
festivals. The palaces certainly functioned as centers of religious
life. However, the only parts that can be identified as places of
worship are small chapels, suggesting that religious ceremonies took
place out of doors, as well as at outlying shrines. On the other hand,
the many storerooms, workshops, and "offices" at Knossos indicate that
the palace was not only a royal residence but a great center of
administrative and commercial activity. Shipping and trade formed an
important part of Minoan economic life, to judge from elaborate harbor
installations and from Cretan export articles found in Egypt and
elsewhere. Perhaps, then, the king should be viewed as the head of a
merchant aristocracy. Just how much power he wielded and how far it
extended are still open to debate.
Plan of the Palace of Minos, Knossos, Crete. The palace is organized in
to east and west of a central court, and is on several levels:
1) stairway and theater area;
3) central court;
5) corridor of the procession;
6) throne room;
7) north pillar hall;
8) hall of the colonnade;
9) hall of the double axes;
10) queen's megaron;
11) queen's bath;
12) entrances and atriums.
Staircase, east wing. Palace of
Minos, Knossos, Crete, ñ.
122. The Queen's
Megaron, Palace of Minos. Knossos, Crete
The religious life of Minoan Crete is even harder to
define than the political or social order. It centered on certain sacred
places, such as caves or groves; and its chief deity (or deities?) was
female, akin to the mother and fertility goddesses we have encountered
before. Since the Minoans had no temples, we are not surprised to find
that they lacked large cult statues as well, but even on a small scale,
religious subjects in Minoan art are few in number and of uncertain
significance. Two statuettes of about
B.C. from Knossos must represent the goddess in one of
her several identities. One of them (fig.
123) shows her with three long snakes
wound around her arms, body, and headdress. The meaning is clear: snakes
are associated with earth deities and male fertility in many ancient
religions, just as the bared breasts of our statuette suggest female
fertility. Although the costume endows her with a secular, "fashionable"
air, there can be little doubt that she is a priestess (compare fig.
125). The style
of the statuette hints at a possible foreign source: the emphatically
conical quality of the figure and the large eyes and heavy, arched
eyebrows suggest a kinship—remote
and indirect, perhaps through Asia Minor—with
Mesopotamian art (compare fig. 99).
Minoan civilization also featured a cult centering on
bulls (see below). One of them is shown tamed on a splendid rhyton
(drinking horn; fig.
carved from serpentine stone, with incised lines to indicate its shaggy
fur, painted crystal eyes, and a shell-inlay muzzle, which create an
astonishingly lifelike impression, despite its small size. (The horns
are restored.) Not since the offering stand from Ur (fig.
have we seen such a magnificent beast in the round. Can it be that the
Minoans learned how to carve from the artistic descendants of
Mesopotamians more than a thousand years earlier?
123. Snake Goddess
(Priestess?). c. 1600. Museum, Heraklion,
124. Rhyton in the shape of a bull's head, from
ñ. 1500-1450 B.C.
Serpentine, crystal, shell inlay (horns restored), height 8 1/8"
Museum, Heraklion, Crete.
After the catastrophe that had wiped out the earlier
palaces, there was what seems to our eyes an explosive increase in
wealth and a remarkable outpouring of creative energy that produced most
of what we have in Minoan architecture, sculpture, and painting. The
most surprising aspect of this sudden efflorescence, however, is its
great achievement in painting. Unfortunately, the murals that covered
the walls of the new palaces have survived mainly in fragments, so that
we rarely have a complete composition, let alone the design of an entire
Amazingly enough, the settlement at Akrotiri on the
island of Thera has been extensively excavated and a large number of
earliest Minoan examples we have. They belong to the Late Minoan IA
period (that is, 1670-1620
B.C.), although they vary considerably in subject and
style. Of these, the most remarkable is the scene of a young woman
offering crocuses (the source of saffron) to a snake goddess, nicknamed
"The Mistress of the Animals," who is seated on an altar with an oil jar
What an astonishing achievement it is, despite its fragmentary condition
and the artist's difficulty with anatomy. (Note the awkward rendering of
the maiden's left arm, for example.) The contrast between the girlish
charm of the crocus bearer and the awesomeness of the goddess could
hardly be more telling. We would recognize the latter's special status
even without the snake in her hair—
which makes her a clear forerunner of the Medusa—or
the griffin behind her.
Crocus Girl (left)
and "The Mistress of the Animals" (right).
Mural fragments from Akrotiri, Thera (Santorini).
Archaeological Museum, Athens
The flat forms, silhouetted against the landscape,
recall Egyptian painting, and the acute observation of plants also
suggests Egyptian art. If Minoan wall painting owes its origin to
Egyptian influence, it betrays an attitude of mind very different from
that of the Nile Valley. To the Minoans, nature was an enchanted realm
that provided the focus of their attention from the very beginning,
whereas Egyptian painters could explore it only by loosening the rules
that governed them. The frescoes at
include the first pure landscape paintings we know of. Not even the most
adventurous Egyptian artist of the Middle Kingdom would have dared to
devote an entire composition to the out-of-doors. Our example (fig.
is a surprisingly successful
evocation of the dunes along the coast of Thera, but our artist has
invested the scene with a lively fantasy and sense of beauty that
bespeak the same sense of wonderment we found in the confrontation
between mortal and divinity.
Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera.
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
Marine life (as seen in the fish and dolphin fresco in
was a favorite subject of
Minoan painting after 1600
B.C., and the marine feeling pervades
everything else as well. Instead of permanence and stability, we find a
passion for rhythmic,
undulating movement, and the forms themselves have an
oddly weightless quality. They seem to float, or sway, in a world
without gravity, as if the scene took place under water, even though a
great many of them show animals and birds among luxuriant vegetation, as
well as creatures of the sea. We sense this even in
"The Toreador Fresco,"
the most dynamic Minoan
mural recovered so far (fig. 127).
(The darker patches are the
original fragments on which the restoration is based.) The conventional
title should not mislead us. What we see here is not a bullfight but a
ritual game in which the performers vault over the back of the animal.
Two of the slim-waisted athletes are girls, differentiated (as in
Egyptian art) mainly by their lighter skin color. That the bull was a
sacred animal and that bull-vaulting played an important role in Minoan
religious life are beyond doubt. Scenes such as this still echo in the
Greek legend of the youths and maidens sacrificed to the minotaur,
half-animal, half-human. The three figures in all likelihood show
successive phases of the same action. But if we try to "read" the fresco
as a description of what actually went on during these performances, we
find it strangely ambiguous. This does not mean that the Minoan artist
was deficient. It would be absurd to find fault for failing to
accomplish what was never intended in the first place. Fluid, effortless
ease of movement was clearly more important than factual precision or
dramatic power. The painting, as it were, idealizes the ritual by
stressing its harmonious, playful aspect to the point that the
participants behave like dolphins gamboling in the sea.
"The Toreador Fresco."
B.C. Height including upper border ñ.
24 1/2" (62.3
cm). Museum, Heraklion,
The floating world of Minoan wall painting was an
imaginative creation so rich and original that its influence can be felt
throughout Minoan art during the era of the new palaces. At the time of
the earlier palaces, between
1700 B.C., Crete had
developed a type of pottery (known as Kamares ware after the center
where it was discovered I that was famous for its technical perfection
and its dynamic, swirling ornament, consisting of organic abstractions
tilled with life (fig. 128).
This in no way prepares us for the new repertory of
designs drawn from plant and animal life. Some vessels are covered
entirely with fish, shells, and octopuses, as if the ocean itself had
been caught within them (fig.
Monumental sculpture, had there been any, might have
retained its independence, but the small-scale works to which the Minoan
sculptor was contined are often closely akin to the style of the murals.
The splendidly observed mountain goat carved on a stone vase (fig.
leaps in the same "flying"
movement as the bull of "The Toreador Fresco." (These mountain
goats, too, were sacred animals.) Even more vivid is the relief on the
so-called Harvester Vase (fig.
131; the lower part is lost): a procession of
slim, muscular men, nude to the waist, carrying long-handled implements
that look like a combination of scythe and rake. A harvest festival?
Quite probably, although here again the lively rhythm of the composition
takes precedence over descriptive clarity. Our view of the scene
includes three singers led by a fourth who is swinging a sistrum (a
rattle of Egyptian origin). They are bellowing with all their might,
especially the "choirmaster," whose chest is so distended that the ribs
press through the skin. What makes the entire relief so remarkable—in
fact, unique—is its
emphasis on physical strain, its energetic, raucous gaiety, which
combines sharp observation with a consciously humorous intent. How many
works of this sort, we wonder, did Minoan art produce? Only once have we
met anything at all like it: in the relief of workmen carrying a beam
(see fig. 84),
carved almost two centuries later under the impact of
the Akhenaten style.
Is it possible that pieces similar to the
Harvester Vase stimulated Egyptian artists during that brief but
Beaked jug (Kamares
style), from Phaistos. ñ.
5/8" (27 cm).
Museum, Heraklion, Crete.
Palaikastro, Crete, ñ.
1500 B.C. Height 11" (28
Leaping Mountain Goat, on a
vase from the palace at Kato Zakro.
B.C. Limestone, originally
covered with gold foil, length of goat
Harvester Vase, from Hagia
Triada. c. 1550-1500
B.C. Steatite, width 4 1/2" (11.3
Along the southeastern shores of the Greek mainland
there were, during Late Helladic times (c.
B.C.), a number of settlements that corresponded in many
ways to those of Minoan Crete. They, too, were grouped around palaces.
Their inhabitants have come to be called Mycenaeans, after Mycenae, the
most important of these settlements. Since the works of art unearthed
there by excavation often showed a strikingly Minoan character, the
Mycenaeans were at first regarded as having come from Crete, but it is
now agreed that they were the descendants of the earliest Greek tribes,
who had entered the country soon after 2000
Tombs and Their Contents
years, these people had led an inconspicuous pastoral
existence in their new homeland. Their modest tombs have yielded only
simple pottery and a few bronze weapons. Toward
1600 B.C., however, they suddenly began to bury
their dead in deep shaft graves and, a little later, in conical stone
chambers, known as beehive tombs. This development reached its height
toward 1300 B.C. in
impressive structures such as the one shown in figures
built of concentric layers of precisely
cut stone blocks. Its discoverer thought it far too ambitious for a tomb
and gave it the misleading name Treasury of Atreus. Burial places as
elaborate as this can be matched only in Egypt during the same period.
Treasury of Atreus, Mycenae, Greece,
Section, Treasury of Atreus
The Treasury of Atreus had been robbed of its contents
long ago, but other Mycenaean tombs were found intact, and what they
yielded up caused even greater surprise: alongside the royal dead were
placed masks of gold or silver, presumably to cover their faces. If so,
these masks were similar in purpose (if not in style) to the masks found
in pharaonic tombs of the Middle and New Kingdoms (compare fig.
There was considerable personal equipment—drinking
vessels, jewelry, weapons—much
of it gold and exquisite in workmanship.
Some of these pieces, such as the magnificent gold
vessel in the shape of a lion's head (fig.
show a boldly expressive style of smooth
planes bounded by sharp ridges which suggests contact with the Near
East, while others are so Minoan in flavor that they might be imports
Of the latter kind are the two famous gold cups from a
Mycenaean tomb at Vaphio (figs.
and 136). They must
have been made about 1500
B.C., a few decades after the lion
vessel, but where, for whom, and by whom? Here the problem "Minoan or
Mycenaean?" becomes acute. The dispute is not as idle as it may seem,
for it tests our ability to differentiate between the two neighboring
cultures. It also forces us to consider every aspect of the cups. Do we
find anything in their style or content that is un-Minoan? Our first
impulse, surely, is to note the similarity of the human figures to those
on the Harvester Vase, and the similarity of the bulls to the
animal in "The loreador hresco."
To be sure, the men on
the Vaphio Cups are not engaged in the Cretan bull-vaulting game
but in the far more mundane business of catching the animals on the
range, but this subject also occurs in Minoan art. On the other hand, we
cannot overlook the fact that the design on the cups does not quite
match the continuous rhythmic movement of Minoan compositions and that
the animals, for all their physical power, have the look of cattle
rather than of sacred animals. They nevertheless differ only in degree,
not kind, from the wonderfully sturdy leaping goat in figure
It would seem, on balance, that the cups are by a Minoan
artist working for Mycenaean patrons.
and imaginative, if hard to confirm in detail—runs
about as follows: between 1700
B.C., the Egyptians were trying to rid themselves of the Hyksos, who had
seized the Nile Delta. For
this they gained the aid of warriors from Mycenae, who returned home
laden with gold (of which Egypt alone had an ample supply) and deeply
impressed with Egyptian funerary customs. The Minoans, not military but
famous as sailors, ferried the Mycenaeans back and forth, so that they,
too, had a new and closer contact with Egypt. This may help to account
for their sudden prosperity toward 1600
B.C. as well as for the rapid
development of naturalistic wall painting at that time. In fact, such a
theory is supported by the recent discovery of a large group of Minoan
frescoes in Egypt. The close relations between Crete and Mycenae, once
established, were to last a long time.
134. Rhyton in the shape of a lion's head, from
a shaft grave at Mycenae, ñ. 1550 B.C. Gold, height 8" (20.3 cm).
National Archaeological Museum, Athens
135, 136. Vaphio Cups. ñ. 1500 B.C. Gold, heights 3"; 3
1/2" (7.5; 9 cm). Shown actual
size. National Archaeological Museum, Athens
MYCENAE, CRETE, AND EGYPT.
In the sixteenth century B.C., Mycenae thus presents a strange picture.
What appears to be an Egyptian influence on burial customs is combined
with a strong artistic influence from Crete and with an extraordinary
material wealth as expressed in the lavish use of gold. What we need is
a triangular explanation that involves the Mycenaeans with Crete as well
as Egypt about a century before the destruction of the new palaces. Such
The great monuments of Mycenaean architecture were all
1400, when Linear
Â script began to appear, and
1200 B.C. Apart from such
details as the shape of the columns or decorative motifs of various
sorts, Mycenaean architecture owes little to the Minoan tradition. The
palaces on the mainland were hilltop fortresses surrounded by defensive
walls of huge stone blocks, a type of construction quite unknown in
Crete but similar to the Hittite fortifications at Bogazkoy (see fig.
101). The Lion
Gate at Mycenae (fig. 137)
is the most impressive remnant of these massive
ramparts, which inspired such awe in the Greeks of later times that they
were regarded as the work of the Cyclopes, a mythical race of one-eyed
giants. Even the Treasury of Atreus, although built of smaller and more
precisely shaped blocks, has a Cyclopean lintel (see fig.
Another aspect of the Lion Gate foreign to the Minoan
tradition is the great stone relief over the doorway. The two lions
flanking a symbolic Minoan column have the same grim, heraldic majesty
as the golden lion's head we encountered in figure
Their function as guardians of the gate, their tense,
muscular bodies, and their symmetrical design again suggest an influence
from the ancient Near East, We may at this point recall the Trojan War,
which brought the Mycenaeans to Asia Minor soon after
It seems likely, however, that they began to sally eastward across the
Aegean, for trade or war, much earlier than that.
The center of the palace, at Mycenae and other
mainland sites, was the royal audience hall, called the megaron. Only
its plan is known for certain: a large rectangular room with a round
hearth in the middle and four columns to support the roof beams (fig.
It was entered through a deep
porch with two columns and an antechamber. This design is in essence no
more than an enlarged version of the simple houses of earlier
generations, for its ancestry can be traced back to Middle Helladic
times. There may have been a rich decorative scheme of wall paintings
and ornamental carvings to stress its dignity as the king's abode.
137. The Lion Gate, Mycenae, Greece.
Plan of a Mycenaean megaron
As in Crete, Mycenaean temple architecture was
confined to modest structures with cult statues set apart from the
palaces, which also included small shrines. A wide variety of gods were
worshiped in them, although their exact identity is sometimes a matter
of dispute. Mycenaean religion incorporated not only Minoan elements but
also influences from Asia Minor, as well as deities of Greek origin
inherited from their own forebears, including a number of the later
Olympian gods such as Poseidon. But gods have an odd way of merging or
exchanging their identities, so that the religious images in Mycenaean
art are hard to interpret.
What, for instance, are we to make of the exquisite
little ivory group (fig.
unearthed at Mycenae in 1939?
of the piece—its
richly curved shapes and easy, flexible body movements—still
echoes Minoan art, though the carving has an unmistakably Near Eastern
air (compare figs. 91
The subject, however, is strange indeed. Two kneeling
women, closely united, tend a single child. But whose is he? The natural
interpretation would be to regard the now headless figure as the mother,
since the child clings to her arm and turns toward her; the second
woman, whose left hand rests on the other's shoulder, would then be the
grandmother. Such three-generation family groups are a well-known
subject in Christian art, in which we often find St. Anne, the Virgin
Mary, and the Infant Christ combined in similar fashion.
It is the memory of these later works that colors our
view of the Mycenaean ivory. Yet we search in vain for a subject in
ancient religion that fits our reading of the group. On the other hand,
there is a very widespread myth about the divine child who is abandoned
by his mother and reared by nymphs, goddesses, or even animals. His name
varies from place to place and includes Bacchus and Jupiter. We are thus
forced to conclude that our ivory in all likelihood shows a motherless
child god with his nurses. The real mystery, however, lies deeper: it is
the tender play of gestures, the intimate human feeling, that binds the
three figures together. Nowhere in the entire range of ancient art
before the Greeks do we find gods—or
people, for that matter—expressing
affection with such warmth and eloquence.
Something quite basically new is reflected here, a
familiar view of divine beings that makes even the Minoan snake goddess
123) seem awesome and
remote. Was this change of attitude, and the ability to express it in
art, a Mycenaean achievement? Or did they inherit it from the Minoans?
However that may be, our ivory group opens up a dimension of experience
that had never been accessible to Egypt or Mesopotamia.