Why does the first great Greek civilization still serve as a source of inspiration for designers and artists? Beverley D’Silva investigates the origins of the Hellenistic resurgence among the prehistoric Minoans of Crete.
Corinthian columns, goddess and godlike statues, bone-white structures bleached by the sun, geraniums growing in cans of olive oil, and the obligatory cats lazing around – You’re not the only one who has dreams about everything Greek. According to Pinterest, the post-millennial Gen Z is particularly embracing the Hellenistic renaissance, a resurgence of interest in the Ancient Greek aesthetic. The website claims an upsurge in popular searches for terms like Ancient Greek jewelry (up 120%), Aphrodite-themed wallpaper (up 180%), and Greek statue art (up by a factor of three).
It is hardly surprising that Ancient Greece continues to have an impact and influence today. According to National Geographic, the phrase refers to the time period between “the end of the Mycenaean civilization (1200 BC) and the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC),” when the northeastern Mediterranean region was one of the most significant locations on earth. This is how Britannica defines the phrase. The Hellenes were great philosophers, writers, soldiers, actors, athletes, artists, and politicians. Their homeland was known as Hellas; the Romans later gave them the names Greece and Greek.
Greek civilizations were the “origin of much of the arts, science, politics, and law as we know them throughout the developed world today,” according to Roderick Beaton in his history book The Greeks.
Consider the works of Aristotle, who studied plants, animals, and rocks; Herodotus, who wrote histories; and Socrates and Plato, who studied philosophy. The Greeks invented democracy, the alphabet, the Olympics, geometry, mathematical calculations, health innovations (the Hippocratic oath is still a code of ethics for doctors), great architecture, such as the Parthenon, Temple of Zeus, and Acropolis; theater, with Greek comedy and tragedy; and language, with an estimated 150,000 English words still in use being derived from Greek words.
All of this is before we discuss religion and gods. What could be more fantastical than a family of superhumans, each in charge of a different facet of existence, living in a cloud palace atop Mount Olympus? Examples of such superhumans include Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, Apollo, and Poseidon. Some others, like Eric Weiner, the author of The Socrates Express, a book on ancient philosophy and travel, believe that the Ancient Greeks can teach us a lot about what is important in life today. He argues in an essay about how technology may trick us, particularly in regard to war reporting: “Examining the past can help us create a future that is more promising. especially the ancient Greek world.”
Weiner furthers: “Even though they were flawed, the Greeks valued moral excellence, beauty, and justice, and they fostered these values. We receive this because we value speed, connectivity, and portability.”
The earliest legendary Greek culture:
If the Ancient Greeks were high achievers, they did it by standing on the shoulders of far larger civilizations that came before them, such as the Mycenaeans, whose tale Homer chronicled in the epic tales the Illiad and Odyssey. The great Minoans, though, are undoubtedly more mystifying and fascinating. The Minoans lived on Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, from 2200 to 1450 BC. They were the first great Greek civilization and the first literary people in Europe. According to Beaton, they were an “advanced civilization” that resided in a “country of affluence and plenty.”
A highly sophisticated seafaring civilization was revealed by the discoveries in the ancient city of Knossos. These people produced exquisite jewelry, ceramics, sculpture, and frescoes.
who created beautiful jewelry, pot
When Minos Kalokairinos, an island resident and amateur archeologist, found the ancient city of Knossos in Crete in 1878, the Minoans came to light. After Sir Arthur Evans, a British archaeologist purchased the site in 1900, excavations began there. He and his group spent 35 years excavating five acres of ruins, revealing the oldest metropolis in Europe, the Minoan palace complex. An ancient seafaring civilization with complex drains, porches, and verandas to protect people from the elements was discovered. Evans named this civilization after the island’s King Minos, and it produced fine jewelry, pottery, sculptures, and murals depicting animals like dolphins and bulls.
Scholars and artists around the world showed intense interest when news of the Minoans appeared in the media. The French philosopher Georges Bataille and artist André Masson debuted their avant-garde arts publication, Minotaure, in 1933. The Minotaur is a mythical creature that lived in a labyrinth built by Daedalus and his son Icarus under the direction of King Minos. Max Ernst, André Breton, and Pablo Picasso all depicted the creature in their works. The physical strength and sexual vitality of the minotaur, as well as its associations with the unconscious, were features Picasso is said to have strongly compared to himself.
Fashion was also captivated by the Minoan style; in 1912, Spanish fashion and textile designer Mariano Fortuny established his reputation with a silk scarf called Knossos that was modeled after ancient Cretan garb. While Gianni Versace’s flamboyant, Hellenistic designs were his distinctive look and came to be associated with Greek decadence in the 1970s and 1980s, fashion designer Yannis Tseklenis’ fabrics, a major international brand, incorporated Byzantine manuscripts and ancient Greek vases.
Why do we seem to know less about the Minoans than other ancient civilizations, given their influence on artists? The Minoan civilization was relatively geographically constrained, being found within the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions; as a result, they didn’t have the same geographic spread as the Romans, for example, says Nicoletta Momigliano, Professor of Aegean Studies at the University of Bristol.
She continues: “Additionally, the Linear A and Cretan Pictographic writing systems employed by the Minoans have not yet been fully decoded, and little is known about the languages they spoke. We have some written materials, some of whose substance we can understand, but not much.” She claims that it is challenging to understand these texts because “you need to have lots of documents, just like when you decipher codes, as they did at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, unless you have something like the Rosetta Stone.”
Darkness, beauty, and power.
The figurines of the serpent goddess, however, were the discovery at the Knossos ruins that generated the most excitement. A smaller figure has snakes in each of her uplifted hands, while the larger figure has a snake wrapping around its body and arms. Both figures were discovered in 1903. Both have bell-shaped skirts and bared breasts, which are thought to represent fertility and nature, while the snakes represent the underworld.
The snake goddesses are “the most importantly religious items from the Knossos Temple repository,” according to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in Crete, where they are on permanent display. They also raise the issue of whether matriarchy existed in ancient Crete. “Women were significant in Minoan religion, more than any other civilization, and we know this because the statues of the serpent goddess that have been found in Minoan contexts, and the predominance of priestesses in Minoan art,” explains Kelly Macquire in a podcast for Ancient History Encyclopaedia.
“It is probably the greatest deity of them all is the lithe-waisted, bare-breasted goddess commonly pictured on top of a pinnacle of rock, while wild animals or male humans gaze at her in devotion,” says Beaton in reference to Crete’s ancient palaces, of which Knossos was the largest. It’s unclear whether women were in charge of the island, but the author writes that it’s “striking that the Greeks of the classical age reserved prime positions for dominant females in their stories, while largely excluding women from public roles or positions of authority in real life.” He lists myths that “are full of powerful, feisty women,” including Clytemnestra, Electra, Medea, Medusa, and Minos’s “insatiable queen Pasiphae.
Artists have been seduced by the snake goddess figures, notably American feminist artist Judy Chicago. Her conceptual sculpture The Dinner Party (1974–1979) is a triangle-shaped table with 39 place settings, each of which represents a mythological, legendary, or historical woman. It is over 15 meters on each side. One of the sets pays respect to the snake goddess by embroidering her name on the table runner. The dinner plate, silverware, and chalice in the setting are all designed and colored in a way that, according to the Brooklyn Museum in New York City’s website, is “primarily based on the Cretan snake goddesses statues.”
Greek jewelry and clothing designer Sophia Kokosalaki drew inspiration from Minoan culture and the mystique of the serpent deity.
In more recent years, Greek fashion and jewelry designer Sophia Kokosalaki channeled the mystery of the snake goddess and Minoan culture in general, while fashion designer Mary Katrantzou infused her work with images of Minoan goddesses. Kokosalaki, who Vogue called “the designer who brought fashion fire and enthusiasm,” passed away in October 2019 at the age of 47. She was born in Athens and had her training at St. Martin’s in London, where she created her wildly popular luxury clothes and jewelry line while never losing her love for her native Greece and her parents’ native Crete. Since she first encountered the snake goddess mystery when she was six or seven years old, the woman claimed that she was her “favorite.” According to an interview with British Vogue, the goddess symbolized “power, beauty, and also an element of darkness [that] shaped my aesthetic early on” because of her “exposed breasts, and little waist.”
With her creations for the opening ceremony costumes for the Greek Olympics in Athens, in 2004, Kokosalaki’s reputation as a designer was cemented internationally, and her designs attracted famous admirers like Keira Knightley and Kate Hudson. Kokosalaki’s business partner and widower, Antony Baker, is now the company’s director and has taken on the role of designer for the business that they created together in 1999. According to his statement to BBC Culture, creating the designs himself has been simpler than hiring a designer. “I can definitely tell what she loved. Sophia told me before she passed away that she wanted me to continue the business for our daughter Stella “He claims.
Baker clearly carries on his late wife’s vision with the new collection (autumn/winter 2022/23), and the exquisite pieces, crafted in gold, silver, and pearls, were recently featured in Vogue. They draw inspiration from nautical artifacts connected to the Trojan War and Odysseus’ homeward journey, such as anchors, ropes, and ship sails. “I researched the Hades boat, the making of boats, and the lovely associations associated with that.”
Katerina Frentzou, the founder of Branding Heritage in Athens, who features modern Greek designers and artisans—among them, traditional weavers in Crete—shares this love of all things Cretan. Modern Minoan art, which included geometric and labyrinthine designs, lotus flowers, and bee emblems, was on display in Branding Heritage’s inaugural exhibition.
Designer Ergon Mykonos’ draped jacket over a gathered skirt with a bra top, trimmed with fabric printed with the snake goddess emblem, and Maria Sigma’s handwoven textiles inspired by the Minotaur and Asterion are among the designs in Branding Heritage’s collection, which will debut as a virtual 3D museum in September. Not to mention a clay pot by Lilah Clarke, the granddaughter of Theodore Fyfe, an architect on Arthur Evans’ team, that is adorned with a large octopus and combines old culture with contemporary sensibilities. The pot was inspired by a Minoan vessel.
After all, isn’t it what these artists and designers are producing right now? Channeling a culture because of the allure of mystery that it possesses and will continue to possess until we can comprehend its written records. We can continue to invent and think up new things until that time, which may not be a bad thing. According to Albert Einstein, “The mysterious is the most lovely thing we can encounter. It is where all genuine art and science originate.”