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Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism

Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism

By Cathy Gere. Pp. x + 277, figs. 23. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 2009. $27.50. ISBN 978-0-226-28953-3 (cloth).

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Knossos is again at the forefront of publicity. In this book, Gere explores the impact of Minoan culture on the intellectual and artistic life of 20th-century Europe. The chapters develop dramatically, with titles such as “The Birth of Tragedy,” “Stand Up Tragedy,” “The Birth of Farce,” and “Ariadne’s Lament,” giving the impression that we are reading though a play in which Sir Arthur Evans is the chief protagonist, followed by supporting actors such as Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud, and Robert Graves. Paintings by Giorgio de Chirico and Pablo Picasso provide tantalizing visual interpretations of Greek myths centering on the Minotaur and Ariadne. Curiously, Paul Klee’s painting of Knossos (now in Berlin) is left out.

All this material would have made for an interesting study if Gere had conducted a serious investigation of Evans’ ideas and then traced their perception, reception, or misinterpretation by contemporary artists and intellectuals. Instead, she has operated in reverse gear, projecting ideas that were not Evans’ own onto his writings. She is not hostile, but she steadily undermines his scholarly credibility (240 n. 1). He has a “neurotic susceptibility to the forgers’ art” (135), he blurs fact and fiction, concocts “narcissistic creation(s)” (137), and is characterized by “delirious interpretative incontinence” (5). Gere provides a psychoanalytical interpretation: Evans redressed the trauma of losing his mother at an early age by inventing the matriarchal utopia of the mother goddess and her divine son—“straight out of Peter Pan” (123).

The concrete reconstructions of the multistory palace at Knossos provide ammunition for the thesis that Evans was excessively subjective. But apart from the fact that the reconstitutions are based on published evidence and plans, Gere (and others) do not confront that there was hardly an alternative if the material remains of upper floors were to be preserved. Concrete was the best if not the only solution. An example is the throne room. Gere says there was no justification for the reconstruction of an upper floor—“the throne itself had been discovered only inches below the surface of the mound” (109). Yet Evans (The Palace of Minos. Vol. 2 [London 1928] 502; The Palace of Minos. Vol. 4 [London 1935] 922) explains that he had found objects in the fill, evidently fallen from above; he had also found a staircase in the adjacent compartment. Most importantly, because the anteroom had remained without adequate protection from the elements until 1930, a solution for its conservation was urgently needed. On 3 April of that year, Evans wrote a letter to Spyridon Marinatos, then ephor of Crete. “I was glad to hear,” he wrote, “that you have not suffered more from the Earthquake, also that you are taking steps to secure an Earthquake proof [illegible]. That was promised by the Government after the 1926 Earthquake but never executed.... I hope to hasten to Crete so I shall have an opportunity of talking over these things with you personally. I want to have the Room of the Throne at Knossos better roofed over—together with Antechamber the Gypsum slabs of which are suffering greatly from exposure to dampness. M. de Jong has gone ahead to prepare this” (Athens, Spyridon Marinatos archives [unpublished]). This letter shows that an almost 80-year-old Evans was concerned with the protection of Knossos and not just with its reconstitution.

Further evidence for Gere’s portrait of a highly subjective Evans is a series of ivory figurines of mother goddesses, which he believed to be genuine but which today are considered forgeries. That he committed an error of judgment in this case must be granted, although he was not alone. At first, many scholars regarded the goddesses as genuine. Among them were Forsdyke, keeper of classical antiquities of the British Museum, Nilsson (The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and Its Survival in Greek Religion [Lund 1927] 269), and Wace (A Cretan Statuette in Fitzwilliam Museum: A Study of Minoan Costume [Cambridge 1927]. With the advantage of hindsight, we have the strong suspicion that these precious objects are fakes, but it is wrong to claim that Evans’ theory of a divine pair—goddess and son—was based on those forgeries alone. He had already arrived at the conclusion that the Minoan goddess was a Rhea type in “Tree and Pillar Cult” (JHS 21 [1901] 169), a dozen years before the fakes appeared. He noted there that the goddess is larger and more matronly than her male counterpart and that the latter may be her son (A. Evans, The Palace of Minos. Vol. 1 [London 1921] 159; see also CMS 1, no. 101; CMS 10, no. 261). For this reason, the role of the forgeries in shaping Evans’ ideas about Minoan religion ought not be overemphasized.

Gere chooses to use the figures of Dionysos and Ariadne as central themes of her book, suggesting that they were important to Evans. In fact, neither was. Dionysos features only once in the 3,000 or more pages of The Palace of Minos, and although Ariadne occurs more frequently, she is hardly as important as Gere makes her out to be. True, she is occasionally merged with the Minoan goddess, but more commonly her name is used as a playful and poetic label for places and objects: the “dancing floor of Ariadne,” “Ariadne’s bath,” “villa Ariadne,” or “the clew box of Ariadne.” Equally playful is the designation “the lair of the Minotaur” (Evans [1921] 335; [1928] 308–9). To fortify her claim, Gere states that Evans considered the throne of Knossos to have belonged to Ariadne, but if one checks the note, the reference is not to Evans but Harriet Boyd-Hawes, who recounts what she thinks he said in 1901 (77 n. 4). Who can verify this information? Indeed, Evans’ reports for 1900–1901 always refer to the throne as belonging to Minos. The entire Ariadne/Dionysos scheme turns out to be rather flimsy.

As for matriarchy, the word does not even feature in the index of The Palace of Minos. Since Evans supervised the indexing himself, it is doubtful that the omission is accidental; he evidently did not consider the concept of critical importance for his theories. Why, then, is Ariadne so emphasized by Gere? The answer is that without her, the dramatic link between Evans, the Dionysiac musings of Nietzsche, and the art of Picasso and de Chirico falls apart.

Also mistaken is the notion that Evans postulated a pacifist culture. Evidently what is misinterpreted here is the term Pax Minoica, a concept that Evans based on Gibbon’s view of the Pax Romana. According to Gibbon’s template, the Romans were not pacifists but formidable warriors whose orderly imperial rule in the age of the Antonines made possible a long period of peace to be established throughout the Mediterranean. Minoan Crete had a navy so powerful, Evans thought, that it became the active agent in a partnership of Egypto-Minoan relations (Evans [1921] 291). He even postulated a Cretan presence in the Egyptian delta, where Bietak has excavated Minoan paintings in a palace of Tuthmose III: “Had the Minoan lords some seaport at their own disposal in the Delta or its borders?” (Evans [1921] 291; see also M. Bietak, N. Marinatos, and C. Palyvou, Taureador Scenes in Tell el-Dab’a (Avaris) and Knossos [Vienna 2007]; M. Shaw, “A Bull-Leaping Fresco from the Nile Delta and a Search for Patrons and Artists,” AJA 113 [2009] 471–77; J. Younger, “The Bull-Leaping Scenes from Tell el-Dab’a,” AJA 113 [2009] 479–80).

The reconstruction of the “Priest King,” or “Prince of Lilies,” is another target of Gere’s criticism. Details cannot be discussed here for the sake of brevity, but let it be said that the model of Evans’ priest-king was not based on Frazer (cf. The Golden Bough [New York 1994] 22–5), as Gere assumes, but on the office of the Egyptian pharaoh, the intermediary between men and gods. The skin color of the figure is not white, as she claims, but ruddy (M. Shaw, “‘The Priest-King’ Fresco from Knossos: Man, Woman, Priest, King, or Someone Else?” in A.P. Chapin, ed., Charis: Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr. Hesperia Suppl. 33 [Athens 2004] 65–84). The reconstruction was not arbitrary. In fact, there exists no better combination of the three fragments of leg, torso, and crown than what Evans and the Gilliérons (father and son) have suggested. The alternative is to reconstruct three figures instead of one out of the same pieces—this is not the most economic solution.

In the final analysis, this book invites reflection on the nature of the transmission of ideas. The impression that Evans concocted a Minoan paradisiac utopia and that he falsified evidence has been picked up from negative biographies and recent trends of scholarship that discuss the production and consumption of the Minoans. Not infrequently, Minoan Crete is called a modernist project, and it almost seems that the actuality of this brilliant culture has ceased to be of interest. It is, according to Gere and others, only a product of Evans’ imagination. And as fewer and fewer people read Evans himself, and many more read what is written about him, distortions become established facts. The characterization of him as a racist—Gere asserts that “there is no denying Evans’s racism” (112), for example—appears with wearisome frequency in biographies and reviews, and each time there is less discussion of how the word is actually used in the Victorian period.

On a positive note, Gere’s demonstration of how Greek/Cretan myths were perceived and used by thinkers and artists, and how they were appropriated by feminist and new age writers, makes a fine contribution to the history of ideas. But all of this has little to do with Evans.

Nanno Marinatos
Department of Classics
University of Illinois at Chicago
Chicago, Illinois 60607

Book Review of Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, by Cathy Gere

Reviewed by Nanno Marinatos

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.Marinatos

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