Monday, 20 December 2010

The myth of Theseus and the minotaur

In the previous post, we commented upon the gentle reputation of the civilisation of Bronze Age Crete — a reputation based upon a low level of militarism, unusual freedoms for women, and relative social harmony. The Greeks, however, offer us a very different view of the Cretans in one of their most famous stories: the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur.

Theseus killing the MinotaurTheseus killing the Minotaur. Round Attic drinking cup, c.450–440 BCE.

This is a splendid and often-repeated tale, but is more than a figment of the imagination. It illustrates how any myth is partly rooted in material and social conditions. Marx described Greek mythology as “nature and the social forms already reworked in an unconsciously artistic way by the popular imagination.”[1] We shall discuss mythology in general another time — for the moment, let us examine one of its great examples.

The story

Beside the many images from the myth in Greek and Roman art, we have a narrative, because it is mentioned in several ancient texts. These differ in some of the details. One of the most substantial accounts is by Plutarch in his chapter on Theseus from Parallel Lives, in which the writer even considers variations on the story. There are also references in the Roman poet Ovid’s two great works, the Metamorphoses and Heroides, and a short account in Book IV of the Library of History by Diodorus Siculus, a Greek historian of the first century BCE.

The version I shall cite here, as the most pithy, is from the Bibliotheke (i.e. Library) attributed to Apollodorus of Athens [2]. This work, written between 100–200 CE, remains our single best source for many tales of Greek mythology.

According to legend, Minos was the son of the god Zeus and a mortal woman named Europa. He ruled a kingdom on Crete, using his powerful navy to impose Cretan rule across the Aegean and demand tribute from its peoples. The story of the Minotaur begins with the death of King Asterius, who had adopted and raised Minos.

Asterius dying childless, Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another.[3]

Diodorus expands upon Minos’s motivation: it was his practice to regularly sacrifice a bull to Poseidon, but this bull was of such “extraordinary beauty” that he wanted it for himself.[4] Some sources (e.g. Philostratus the Elder and Propertius [5]) describe it as being white or ‘snow white’. The Bibliotheke continues:

But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae [Minos’s wife] should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daidalos, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he introduced Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth.

Pasiphae with the minotaurPasiphae with the minotaur. Image from a drinking cup, c. 340–320 BCE.

The Minotaur, then, was the product of a strange, to us even comical, union — Minos’s wife, aroused by Poseidon with passion for a bull, disguises herself as a cow to entice it to have sex with her. Minos’s punishment for his impiety is a half-human, half-animal son who has to be isolated from society in the labyrinth: a maze one could never escape.

The Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way.

Later, Androgeus, the son of Minos (and half-brother of the Minotaur), went to Athens to compete in the games, and performed so triumphantly that he was “waylaid and murdered by the jealous competitors”. In a rage, Minos, “master of the sea”, attacks Athens.

[The Athenians] inquired of the oracle how they could be delivered; and the god answered them that they should give Minos whatever satisfaction he might choose. So they sent to Minos and left it to him to claim satisfaction. And Minos ordered them to send seven youths and the same number of damsels without weapons to be fodder for the Minotaur.

This dreadful tribute had to be paid (in the accounts of Plutarch and Ovid) every nine years.

The story then introduces Theseus, the founding hero of ancient Athens. His mother Aethra conceived him of two fathers simultaneously: the mortal king Aegeus and the immortal Poseidon, making Theseus a demi-god. He was not immortal, but was capable of superlative feats. Even before setting out to fight the Minotaur, he had defeated several fearsome adversaries.

And [Theseus] was numbered among those who were to be sent as the third tribute to the Minotaur; or, as some affirm, he offered himself voluntarily...

And when he came to Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, being amorously disposed to him, offered to help him if he would agree to carry her away to Athens and have her to wife. Theseus having agreed on oath to do so, she besought Daidalos to disclose the way out of the labyrinth.

And at his suggestion she gave Theseus a clue when he went in; Theseus fastened it to the door, and, drawing it after him, entered in.

The ‘clue’ is of course a ball of twine — “the famous thread” (Plutarch) — which Theseus can unravel as he goes so that he can find his way out of the labyrinth.

And having found the Minotaur in the last part of the labyrinth, he killed him by smiting him with his fists; and drawing the clue after him made his way out again. And by night he arrived with Ariadne and the children at Naxos.

There is a tragic epilogue to the story when Theseus returns home to Athens. He had agreed to raise a white sail on his ship upon his return, so that his anxiously watchful father would know he was safe. In fact he does not, and Aegeus, believing his son dead, throws himself off a cliff to drown in the sea. Ever since, that sea has borne his name: the Aegean.

Theseus became king and went on to have further adventures (see for example the Bibliotheke and Plutarch’s Theseus.) One of his less magnificent actions, according to most versions, was to abandon Ariadne, in spite of his promise to marry her, when they reached Naxos. Why he did this depends on the version one reads, and we shan’t be diverted by it here.

Unravelling the myth

How might this fabulous story, which works on several levels, be rooted in the history of the Bronze Age Aegean?

Let us begin with the Minotaur himself. Like Minos’s foster-father, his proper name was Asterius or Asterion, meaning ‘star’ or ‘starry one’. The Greek name for the Minotaur was Minotauros, derived from Minos (Μίνως) and tauros (ταύρος) or ‘bull’, i.e. the ‘bull of Minos’.

It is no accident that bull imagery should be associated with ancient Crete. As we’ve discussed, there is plenty of evidence that the bull was a significant symbol in Minoan culture, as attested by the images of bull-leaping and so forth. There are, however, no Minoan images of the Minotaur: he is a Greek creation.[6]

Although the Minotaur has his roots in Crete, he is also a more universal symbol. The Greeks’ own texts about the Minotaur do not dwell sensationally upon the gory details of the story — Apollodorus’s account is particularly spare — but the imagination is easily stirred by the concept: a half-human beast lurking within a dark and inescapable maze, hungry to devour the flesh of frightened and helpless young people. Since the first recorded story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, told us of that “terror to human beings” Humbaba, destructive and frightening creatures have stalked through our stories. Greek mythology teems with them: the Cyclops, Medusa the Gorgon, the Hydra, the Sphinx, Cerebus the three-headed dog and many more. The wicked and terrifying monster is an archetype universal to human cultures.

On another level, these creatures are identified in part with animality, symbolising the animal or savage aspect of human nature itself. The Minotaur is, in Euripides’ words, “A mingled form where two strange shapes combined, / And different natures, bull and man, were joined”, “a mingled form and hybrid birth of monstrous shape” (cited in Plutarch, my italics.) Diodorus refers to him as “this monstrous thing”. A later Roman writer, Virgil, referred to the Minotaur as the result of a “monstrous union”, the product of Pasiphae’s “unnatural love” (Aeneid, Book 6). When a heroic human being like Theseus — intelligent, brave, civilised — confronts the mythic creature, his or her victory represents our victory over the animal in ourselves.

In the myth’s terms, it is fitting that the wicked Minos who tyrannises the Aegean and demands human sacrifices should be associated with the half-animal Minotaur. The Greeks prided themselves on valuing reason over savagery, order over chaos, civilisation over barbarism. We will look at a further motivation for their making this association in a moment. But first let us look at how Theseus helps embody this contrast.

Theseus is strongly identified with Athens — he is the city’s legendary founder. By defeating various monsters he makes the region safe for civilisation. Theseus is credited with the synoikismos or ‘gathering together’, a process whereby a group of settlements combine to form a polis or city-state, and with the unification of Attica under Athenian rule. He also founded Athens’ constitution and many of its traditions. (One can read of some of his civic achievements in books 24-25 of Plutarch’s Theseus.) It is hard to imagine a greater contrast with the Minotaur, imprisoned in its dark lair awaiting human meat.

Of course, Theseus belongs to the aristocracy. This is a story of the ruling class — Aegeus, Theseus, Minos, Pasiphae, Ariadne and even the Minotaur himself. Theseus is rewarded for his victory over the Minotaur by his accession to the kingship of Athens. This may be the narrative logic behind the story’s epilogue, when Theseus’s failure to raise a white sail leads Aegeus to jump to his death — the old king must be removed so that Theseus may claim the throne on his return.

Another key symbol of the story is the labyrinth, built on Minos’s orders to house the Minotaur. As Apollodorus tells it:

Now the Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way [7]. The labyrinth was constructed by Daidalos... he was an excellent architect and the first inventor of images.

Daidalos (Latin: Daedalus) devised such a bewildering multitude of corridors that, according to the Roman poet Ovid, he “hardly could himself make his way out, so puzzling was the maze”.[8]

A labyrinth and a maze, though the terms are often used interchangeably, are technically not the same thing. A labyrinth is unicursal, i.e. it has a single route to the centre and back again. A maze is multicursal, i.e. it requires a person to make choices about which path they will take.

Nobody has ever discovered a labyrinth on Crete despite extensive excavations, although some scholars have made a case for a quarry near Gortyn as a possible inspiration. The only image from the Minoan period of a labyrinth is on the back of a Linear B clay tablet found at the Mycenaean site of Pylos; given that the text is about a delivery of goats, the image is unlikely to be very meaningful.

LabyrinthLabyrinth image from Minoan clay tablet. Photo: Marsyas.

Labyrinths appear on Cretan coins, but only from the last half-millenium BCE, long after Minoan culture had faded away. At the Egyptian site of Avaris, a Minoan wall painting has been discovered which combines four bulls with the decorative device of meanders: meanders are component parts of mazes, but this is not the same thing as an actual image of one. They seem to represent, if anything, the pattern of a tiled floor, perhaps a courtyard.

In my view, any attempt to find the ‘real’ labyrinth of the Minotaur — for example in the quarry at Gortyn — is on a wild goose chase. This doesn’t mean that there could not be some concrete precedent in Minoan culture that was suggestive to the Greek imagination.

A popular theory for the origins of this aspect of the myth is the impression made on the Mycenaeans who visited Crete by the intricate jumble of architecture in Knossos. The palace has actually been planned and constructed with great care. But with 1300 rooms connected by passages of varying sizes and many interconnecting rooms, it could have seemed (for all the exuberance of its form and decoration) like an intimidating maze to visitors.

But the labyrinth may not be so easily accounted for. The Greek word labyrinthos may derive from the pre-Greek labrys, referring to a double-headed axe which was the dominant religious symbol in Minoan civilisation. The ‘labyrinth’ would therefore be the ‘house of the double-headed axe’.

LabrysA golden Minoan labrys. Photo: Wolfgang Sauber.

The Minoans built courtyards decorated with the labrys, and some archaeologists have proposed that the bull games depicted in Minoan frescoes may at Knossos have been held in the paved central courtyard, or in the Theatral Area at the north-west. The confrontation between human and bull therefore might have a historical precedent, wrought by the mythic imagination into new form. Alternatively, ancient Greeks visiting the baffling site at Knossos may have mixed up the maze-like structure of the palace with the labrys that was so prominent there into a new conception. We don’t know.

There is a passage in Homer’s Iliad, sometimes seen as linking ceremonial dancing to a labyrinth at Knossos, which mentions

a dancing floor as well...
like that one in royal Knossos
Daidalos made for the Princess Ariadne.
Here young men and the most desired young girls
were dancing...
in lines
as though in ranks, they moved on one another.[9]

The Greek traveller Pausanius later describes “Ariadne’s Dance, mentioned by Homer in the Iliad, carved in relief on white stone.”[10] But this is weak evidence for a supposed labyrinth, even weaker for being conveyed through imaginative poetry centuries after the Minoans danced no more.

Several of the ancient accounts refer to something explicitly called, or very closely resembling, a maze. We have cited above Apollodorus and Ovid; Diodorus refers to a labyrinth “the passage-ways of which were so winding that those unfamiliar with them had difficulty in making their way out”. Whatever its obscure origins, the image of the Minotaur trapped in a confusing maze was well established among the ancient Greeks by the time the surviving accounts were written.

The lair of the Minotaur may have been as much a spiritual one — a dark and confusing place of the mind — as a physical construction. The ‘palaces’ of the Minoans were built to a different, more organic scheme to the orderly architecture of classical Greece, and may in the myth have functioned as a symbol of unreason, an appropriate companion to the half-animal Minotaur and the barbaric Minos. For this reason it is not hard to see why a labyrinth in the strict (i.e. unicursal) sense is less powerful as an image than a maze which one could never escape except by one’s own ingenuity and heroism.

Minoan Crete vs Mycenaean Greece

Daidalos (“cunning worker”), who receives his earliest recorded mention in Homer’s Iliad in the extract cited above, was, like Theseus, an Athenian. This might not be accidental. One of the symbolic oppositions suggested by the story is that of Cretans as animal and tyrannical, and of Athenians as civilised and rational. It is true that Daidalos was no moral paragon: he had fled Greece after murdering his talented young apprentice Talos in a fit of envy, and his career sometimes serves as a caution against the possible dangers of technology. But Daidalos was a craftsman renowned for his ingenuity. He helps Ariadne by supplying her with the thread that will save her beloved Theseus. He thereby stands up to the will of the tyrant Minos, and affirms the power of reason (the simple but ingenious solution to the problem of escaping the labyrinth) against chaos (the confusing maze with its flesh-eating half-beast). Minos persecutes and pursues Daidalos when he hears of his part in Theseus’s feat, but that is another story.[11]

Minos himself appears only in myth. Apart from a couple of ambiguous inscriptions in Linear A, we have no historical evidence of his existence. There may have been a historical individual who inspired his mythological namesake, or ‘Minos’ may have been a Cretan word for ‘king’ rather like the Egyptian ‘Pharaoh’, or he may be pure invention. There is a curious continuity in Minos’s story: he was himself fathered by a bull, in a sense, as this was the form taken by Zeus when he abducted Europa. Yet this act of lechery was typical of Zeus and must be understood differently to the curse of Poseidon.

In mythology Minos seems to play a dual role. On the one hand we have a constructive ruler who establishes a Cretan constitution and enjoys “familiar converse with great Zeus” [12]; on the other hand, a cruel figure described by the Greek geographer Strabo as “tyrannical, harsh, and an exactor of tribute”. This contradiction was noted by Plutarch:

For Minos was always abused and reviled in the Attic theatres, and it did not avail him either that Hesiod called him “most royal,” or that Homer styled him “a confidant of Zeus,” but the tragic poets prevailed, and from platform and stage showered obloquy down upon him, as a man of cruelty and violence. And yet they say that Minos was a king and lawgiver, and that Rhadamanthus was a judge under him, and a guardian of the principles of justice defined by him.

One response to this has been to see the mythological figure as two different kings, the first beneficent and civilised, the second tyrannical. Whatever one’s view on that question, it is a less than admirable Minos who appears in the Minotaur story. Minos rashly attempts to trick the gods by keeping the finest bull for himself, the sort of arrogance (or hubris) the Greeks strongly disapproved of; he is punished by the unnatural union of his wife with a bull and cursed with a half-animal son; and he attacks Athens and demands an appalling tribute in the form of seven youths and seven maidens, all virgins, who every year (or nine years, depending upon the version) are to be sent to the Minotaur to be eaten alive.

These acts of cannibalism by the Minotaur — who is, after all, half-human — are a potent symbol of ‘bestiality’ in the myth. Cannibalism was as much a taboo for the ancient Greeks as it is for us. There are plenty of illustrations in Greek myth of it being rejected or punished: for example, when Tantalus serves up his own son Pelops in a stew for the gods, the gods refuse to eat. When the father of the Olympians, Kronos, eats his children to prevent them challenging him for power, he is punished when Zeus is carried away to safety and later returns to overthrow him. Accusing someone of cannibalism was as effective a way to demonise them as it would be today.

Why would the Greeks seek to demonise the Cretans?

The story seems to refer back to the period when Crete was the pre-eminent civilisation in the Aegean, a period in which Greek cities — including Athens, which in around 1500 BCE was a Mycenaean settlement — lived in its shadow and perhaps even had to pay the Minoans tribute.

In his Histories Herodotus mentions the Carians, who occupied the Greek islands and were subjects of Minos, and says they paid no tribute. This was perhaps because they ‘filled his ships’ on demand: but Herodotus’ statement implies that other peoples did have to pay tribute, and he goes on, ‘Minos had subjected much land and was of good fortune in war’.[13] He and Thucydides both credit the Minoans with naval dominance of the Aegean, contributing to theories of a Minoan thalassocracy, or sea empire, in the region.

Whether Athens paid tribute to the Minoans of any sort, let alone in the form of human sacrifices, we can’t say. Modern archaeology has not discovered evidence that the Minoans attempted to dominate anyone, even where they had settled overseas. Minoan artifacts across the Aegean imply some level of cultural distribution, but this is not the same as political or military domination. The relative defencelessness of the towns on Crete itself implies an internal peace that is at odds with the incessant strife of the later Greek states, and with the walled citadels of the Mycenaeans.

The story, however, suggests a polarisation between a harsh Cretan power and a heroic civilised Athens. The equation of Crete with tyranny, animality and even cannibalism therefore acts as propaganda against a hegemonic foe — perhaps the second, oppressive version of Minos. Theseus’ defeat of the Minotaur, like Herakles’ subduing of the Cretan Bull and Theseus’s later killing of that animal, may be a symbol of the shift of power from Minoan Crete to Mycenaean Greece. It may also represent the overthrow of an archaic religious order with a new one. Theseus would then characterise not an individual so much as an episode of history.

We should take care not to equate the fledgling Athens contemporaneous with Bronze Age Crete with the Athens that achieved hegemony over the Greek world about a thousand years after Minoan civilisation was snuffed out. But we do not look to myths for historical accuracy. The story may be a dim reflection of a historical context, obscured by the intervening ‘Dark Ages’ and converted into a heroic narrative by the oral tradition. We may speculate about whether Theseus or Minos represent actual leaders, etc, but the story’s interest for us lies in how it characterises the two civilisations and what meaning this had for the Greeks.


The myth of Theseus and the Minotaur has been taken up by subsequent artists and reshaped for their own purposes. The Minotaur appears briefly in Dante’s Inferno, both Blake and Picasso made drawings of him, and the surrealist movement named a journal after him — to name just a handful of examples.

This is perhaps because the myth works on many levels. Most immediately it is a stirring tale. It also explores some profound psychological questions, and embodies such oppositions as reason and unreason, civilisation and barbarism, which fascinated the Greeks. It is also a political story, a form of propaganda that presents the Greeks as heroic, the decaying Cretan power as deserving overthrow. As such, it tells us more about the Greeks than about the Minoans.

It is important for us not to oversimplify, for reasons of space, the complexity of the story. The myth of the Minotaur is not a simplistic account of a muscular hero defeating an evil monster, but part of a narrative continuum. Theseus and the Minotaur are partly both products of deeds that predate them and over which they have no control. It is how Theseus responds to the situation he finds himself in which determines his heroism. The characters are complex and sometimes contradictory. Daidalos devises the clever ruse of the thread, but he also built the labyrinth in the first place; Minos does not follow acceptable Greek practice by killing his cursed son by exposure, albeit keeping him in degraded conditions; the paragon Theseus (for whatever reason) does not honour his promise to Ariadne and later kidnaps another woman, Helen of Troy.

Being a myth, the story is of course elusive. There is no ‘correct answer’ to what it is all about, and there are other possible readings not explored here. This is the ambiguity of symbolic representations, which are not necessarily directed rooted in any concrete thing.

Anybody approaching this myth will, as Rodney Castleden commented, “inevitably be diverted and distracted to some extent by archaic images rising up from the mythic Knossos, the exotic city round which the Greeks wove fantastic legends.”[14] As well as this, and the limits of the archaeological evidence available, consider the timespans involved: arising in an oral tradition, the story was already centuries old when writers like Apollodorus or Plutarch recorded it. Even if there really was a King Minos, who lived at the peak of Minoan civilisation — say around 1600 BCE — he would have been dead roughly 800 years before even Homer’s work was first written down. The existence of different versions of the myth emphasises the elusive nature of imaginative narratives whose contact with archaeological fact is confusing and partial at best.

Trying to find concrete historical precedents for mythology always involves a great deal of speculation. Nonetheless, the scientific background to this story gives us fascinating insights into its possible origins and meaning. As two Aegean specialists put it:

The old legends, in short, may not have been nostalgic fantasies of a lost golden age spun out of whole cloth, but rather seemed to be dim memories of a very real, rich and vibrant civilisation...[15]

The story of Theseus and the Minotaur illustrates how mythology, for all its psychology and fancy, does not spring mysteriously from the imagination, but is a product of particular social and material conditions, even if the connection has become very obscure. And it shows that even a fairy tale has an ideological spin.

Further investigation
Apollodorus: Bibliotheke
Plutarch: ‘Theseus’ from Parallel Lives
The Theoi Project on the Minotaur, Ariadne and the Cretan Bull

[1] Marx, Introduction to the Grundrisse (1857–61).
[2] As it cites writers who lived after Apollodorus, the Bibliotheke cannot have been written by him. For this reason the writer is sometimes referred to as ‘Pseudo-Apollodorus’. The book survives in three books, plus an epitome by J. G. Frazer which summarises the lost part.
[3] Apollodorus, 3.1.3. From the translation by James George Frazer. The story continues in sections 3.15.7–3.16.2 and in the ‘Epitome’ 1.7–1.10. I have regularised the spelling of ‘Daedalus’ as ‘Daidalos’ for consistency with the rest of my article.
[4] Diodorus Siculus, Book 4, 77.2 of Library of History (1st century BCE). In the 40th of his Fabulae, Pseudo-Hyginus writes that the curse was laid on Pasiphae by Venus for failing for several years to make offerings to her.
[5] Respectively, Philostratus the Elder, Book 1 section 16 of Imagines, and Propertius, Book 2 poem 32 of the Elegies.
[6] The Cretan Bull features in another story of the ancient Greeks, the seventh labour of Herakles (Hercules). After it impregnates Pasiphae, the bull continues to rampage around the island, and Herakles was bidden to wrestle and capture it. It is later finally despatched by Theseus in one of his first adventures before he sails to confront the Minotaur.
[7] Apollodorus, 3.1.4. This phrase seems itself to be a quotation by Apollodorus from an unknown source.
[8] Ovid, Book 8 of Metamorphoses.
[9] Homer, Book 18 of The Iliad. I have cited the translation by Robert Fitzgerald.
[10] Pausanius, 9.40.3 of Description of Greece (2nd century CE).
[11] Which is also recounted by Apollodorus, introducing on the way the equally famous story of Daidalos’s son Icarus and his wings of wax. One can read about Daidalos and his career at the Perseus Digital Library.
[12] Homer, Book 19, line 178 of The Odyssey.
[13] Herodotus, 1.171 of Histories.
[14] Rodney Castleden, The Knossos Labyrinth (1990). We often see ancient Crete through a prism of Greek myth and legend.
[15] Donald Preziosi and Louise A. Hitchcock, Aegean Art and Architecture (1999).

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Grace in the Aegean: The art of the Minoans

Out in the wine-dark sea there is a rich and lovely island called Crete.
— Homer, Book XIX of The Odyssey

Archaeologists believe the first settlers landed on Crete in about 7000 BCE, and recent DNA research suggests they probably came from Anatolia in Asia Minor. We do not know what they called themselves, and the existence of their archaeological remains was not even suspected until the late nineteenth century. Yet between 2700 to 1450 BCE, Crete was the centre of one of the Bronze Age’s most vivacious civilisations [1]. The British archaeologist Arthur Evans [2] called their culture ‘Minoan’, after the King Minos famed in the myths of a later culture, the Greeks.

The Aegean Sea in the Bronze AgeThe Aegean Sea in the Bronze Age.
Map by Eugene Hirschfeld.

Lying near the coasts of Southern Europe, Africa and Asia Minor, Crete was influenced by cultural developments in the key centres of civilisation. Minoan civilisation was roughly contemporary with the Old and Middle Kingdoms in Egypt, the Sumerian Ur III dynasty in Mesopotamia, and the Indus Valley civilisations based around Harappa and Mohendro-Daro. Many miles away, the ancient Britons were completing Stonehenge (c.1500 BCE).

The heyday of classical Athens was still a thousand years in the future. Although civilisation had existed in the Middle East since around 4500 BCE, and a culture had appeared on the Cycladic islands to the north centuries in advance of the Minoans, there was no culture of comparable importance elsewhere in Europe until the emergence of the Greek people usually referred to as Mycenaeans — famous for supposedly fighting the Trojan War — in the same region around 1600 BCE.


With its small rivers and rocky hills, Crete doesn’t offer the easiest terrain for an agricultural society. But there was enough fertile ground for the Minoans to grow cereals, vines and olives. Although the island today is barren because of centuries of deforestation, in ancient times cypresses were abundant.

The sea served as a natural barrier against invasion and also as an opportunity to make money. Crete was well placed in relation to sea trading routes. The Greek historian Thucydides claimed that Minos was the first to build a navy:

And the first person known to us by tradition as having established a navy is Minos. He made himself master of what is now called the Hellenic sea, and ruled over the Cyclades, into most of which he sent the first colonies... and thus did his best to put down piracy in those waters, a necessary step to secure the revenues for his own use.[3]

With their merchant fleet, the Minoans came to dominate the Aegean, sailing for hundreds of miles in search of trade, from Spain in the west to Syria in the east. Goods flowed from Cretan harbours including wine, olive oil, tin, pottery, bronze artifacts and metalware. In exchange the Minoans received gold, silver, ivory, lapis lazuli and obsidian from Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and across the Mediterranean world.[4]

Minoan fresco imageTown with boats in the harbour. Minoan fresco image from Akrotiri on the Greek island of Thera (now Santorini), c. 1600 BCE.

Minoan colonies and trading posts were set up in the Cyclades islands due north of Crete — including Santorini, home of the famous site of Akrotiri — as well as mainland Greece and Asia Minor. It is possibly a measure of both the Minoans’ geographical isolation and the strength of their fleet that their coastal towns seem to have had few fortifications. Thus their period of ascendancy was called by Arthur Evans the Pax Minoica or ‘Minoan peace’ — a time when cities needed no walls. Like Gibbon’s Pax Romana, of course, such a peace if it existed would have been the product of military strength rather than pacifism — the Minoans did make weapons, and archaeologists have found watchtowers and fortifications on the island. But there is little evidence of warfare at home or overseas.

Historians generally speak of a formative period of Minoan culture from about 3000–1900 BCE, when Crete appears to have been divided into local regions. This was succeeded by a new system where power was centralised around a monarch, a period characterised by the building of grand palace complexes at Knossos, Phaistos, Mallia, Zakros, and other towns. These palaces, which had no fortifications, acted as the centres of commercial, cultural and social life. Historian Rodney Castleden summarised this civilisation as “very advanced in its orderly and bureaucratic organisation, showing a strongly rational and practical side with highly developed craft technologies, and yet it also possessed all the imaginative power and childlike freshness of a very young culture.”[5]

The so-called ‘palaces’ were the base upon which Minoan civilisation was built. Their significance was such that they influenced the naming of historical periods — whereas Evans created a chronology based upon Early, Middle and Late periods, an alternative system defines the early Bronze Age period as ‘Pre-Palatial’, the next the ‘Proto-Palatial’ or ‘Old Palace’ period, and the time of the rebuilt palaces the ‘Neo-Palatial’ or ‘New Palace’period. The old palaces were destroyed in around 1700 BCE: a natural disaster such as earthquakes is the most likely cause, as Crete’s main rivals at that time were not seafaring powers. Yet the palaces were quickly rebuilt, on a grander scale. In about 1450 BCE there was another wave of destruction of palaces and villas, from which the civilisation never recovered.

Minoan art

Minoan art is quite distinct from that of pre-Hellenic Greece. The surviving work, much of it in the museum at Heraklion near Knossos, covers a range of types, including fresco, pottery, jewellery, engraved seals and figurines. We have relatively little art from the Pre-Palatial period, the best work coming from the civilisation’s peak around 2000-1450 BCE.

The Minoans are famous for producing some of the most beautiful pottery of the ancient world, which finely demonstrates their rich decorative imagination. Minoan pottery has been found all around the Aegean and Mediterranean, including Cyprus, Syria and Egypt.

Minoan ceramicMinoan ceramic in the marine style. Photo: Andree Stephan.

The best known style is the Kamares Ware [6], a fine pottery decorated in reds, browns and whites with symmetrical patterns or stylised images of sea or plant life.

The designs show an admirable harmony between the painted forms and the form of the vessel. As time went by, the Minoans began to observe nature more closely, moving from linear patterns to birds, fish and flowers. Later in the island’s history arose the ‘marine’ style in which the ceramics were covered in sea creatures — this dates to after a volcanic eruption that probably caused destructive tidal waves and a new relationship to the sea, which we will look at in a moment.

Minoan metalworkers too were renowned, not least in their skill with bronze, the defining metal of the age. Minoan decorated swords were the finest in the Aegean. They produced fine jewellery — see for example the Aigina treasure, believed by some researchers to be the work of Minoan craftspeople.

Bee pendantBee pendant from the site of Mallia, demonstrating a command of the granulation and filigree techniques.

But some of the best-known works of Minoan art are fresco paintings. Fresco is the painting of plastered walls, usually found in palaces and villas. The artist would have prepared the wall with a layer of white plaster, then engraved the main elements of the composition onto the wall, adding the paint while the plaster was still wet. This differed from the dry technique of the Egyptians, demanding swift, fluid execution and spontaneity.

As a maritime trading civilisation, it is unsurprising that the Minoans left us some beautiful fresco images of their ships, wooden sailing vessels superior to any others on the Mediterranean. Perhaps because of this fleet and the protecting seas, military images are unusual in Minoan art. Until the attacks by the Mycenaeans in 1450 BCE, there is no real evidence that the Minoans fought wars with other any culture. This is in stark contrast to their contemporaries: the city states of Mesopotamia were constantly at war, celebrating their exploits on such works as the Stele of the Vultures, and Egypt covered tomb walls with images of military pomp.

The Minoans preferred leisurely scenes or sports. They loved to decorate walls with murals of dolphins, flowers and fish. Their art has a grace, movement and exuberance distinct from the art of Egypt and Sumer, and they enjoy decorative motifs, sinuous shapes and strong and sometimes improbable colours, as in the beautiful image of blue monkeys from Akrotiri. Their craftsmanship is second to none and delights in the beauty of natural things.

Blue Monkey frescoThe Blue Monkey fresco, Akrotiri.

The Minoans were skilled and sensitive architects, and the palaces count amongst their greatest works of art. The most famous is the palace at Knossos, often called the ‘Palace of Minos’, built facing the Aegean about five miles inland. A multi-storey complex of corridors, rooms and staircases built around a central courtyard, the palace boasted impressive plumbing as well as lovely frescos, columns and gardens. Visitors found its ‘agglutinative’[7] architecture of over 1000 rooms so confusing that it is thought to have inspired the myth of the Minotaur’s labyrinth. Knossos was an entire community, a centre for religion, pottery production and storage of trade goods, and a venue for festivals; there are workrooms, identifiable by the items left behind, for craftworkers such as potters and metalworkers. For this reason the term ‘palace’ is not adequate for describing these Minoan complexes. Of course, such structures are not static, and the site evolved over several millennia, starting in the Neolithic and ending probably about 1380 BCE when it was used by the Mycenaeans.

Sitting at the apex of a trading empire, the Cretan kings were extremely wealthy. It is therefore interesting that they appear to have ordered no sculpture, memorials, king-lists or other works to boast of their power and status. Knossos has been described as the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Minoan palaces: yet even there we find nothing like the mighty monuments to the god-kings of Egypt. We have no record either of a king Minos or of any other named monarch, male or female. One conjecture is that Minoan monarchs were, in the Anatolian tradition, ‘priest-kings’ who combined royal with religious authority. The sacred double-headed axe appears all over the Knossos palace and there are numerous small shrines, as well as the so-called Throne Room which was probably used for religious purposes. But this can’t necessarily hold true for all Crete. Historian R. F. Willetts has suggested that the apparent modesty of the Minoan aristocracy can be explained by a difference in religious emphasis: the Minoans did not seek to associate the king with the immortal gods, like the Egyptians or Mesopotamians, but rather worshipped a particular vision of nature. From this standpoint, images glorifying the king were unnecessary. But this leaves unresolved the question of a class emphasis.

One of the most pervasive symbols in Cretan art is the bull. We can trace this cult back to Anatolia — the bull imagery and remains used in shrines in Çatalhöyük may be the ancestors of Minoan religion. In Bronze Age Crete there are frescos of bulls; drinking vessels in the shape of bulls’ heads; bulls’ horns carved from stone. The Hagia Triada sarcophagus portrays bull sacrifice. Murals and sculptures depict the ritual sport of bull-jumping, where an athlete would somersault over a bull’s back while another held its horns. It is not certain whether this remarkable feat was actually practiced, but it appears in other cultures too, and the ubiquity of the image suggests some sort of confrontation between human and bull must have taken place. The bull was a religious symbol, and bull-leaping may have had some ritual purpose rather than mere acrobatics, perhaps linking virility and divine power. In the Grand Fresco at Knossos, crowds of people are seen around a three-part building, probably a shrine, decorated with bulls’ horns. Strikingly, women are shown participating in bull-leaping as well as men.

Arthur Evans and the remaking of Minoan culture

In discussing Minoan art we must bear in mind that many of the extant images and artifacts, such as the so-called ‘Prince of the Lilies’, are not the original works. Many are in fact reconstructions by artists connected to Arthur Evans. When we examine the frescos we notice that the remaining fragments of the original account for just a few square inches of the whole, and some images use fragments that did not even necessarily belong together. On visiting the museum at Heraklion in the 1920s, Evelyn Waugh found the works discordantly modern. “It is impossible to disregard the suspicion,” he wrote, “that their painters have tempered their zeal for accurate reconstruction with a somewhat inappropriate predilection for covers of Vogue.”[8]

The palace at Knossos was partly rebuilt by Evans. Visitors to the site may wander between columns and through multiple stories, but very little of this is original. The painted columns visible today, whose originals were made of wood, are made of twentieth-century concrete. Evans’ reconstruction work gave Knossos, as Cathy Gere remarked, “the dubious distinction of being one of the first reinforced concrete buildings ever erected on the island”[9].

Evans sometimes seems to have allowed his vision of Minoan culture — charming, goddess-worshipping, a kind of peaceful Eden compared to a rough mainland — to intervene between him and the evidence, and his restorations are plagued by dubious archaeology and sometimes downright forgery. While we may condemn him for interfering with the archaeological record, it was not so unusual by the standards of the time. And if the art of Knossos has been compromised, that of the Akrotiri site on Thera/Santorini is indisputably original.


Evans’ excavations turned up a number of clay tablets written upon in an unknown alphabet. It is very likely that writing arose in Minoan culture for the same reason it did in Sumer: to keep accounts. An early pictographic script, perhaps inspired by Egyptian hieroglyphs, was replaced in around 1700 BCE by one which represented sounds, i.e. a true alphabet, known as Linear A.

Linear A tabletClay tablet from Knossos with Linear A script.

Linear A was engraved onto wet clay tablets, much like writing in Mesopotamia. It has still not been deciphered, as it is unlike any other and there is a lack of contextual evidence. If there is imaginative literature among these writings, we cannot read it. We have no Minoan poetry, no songs, no history, no scripture. It is a great culture, but a silent one.

By around 1450 BCE, Linear A had been replaced by Linear B, which on Crete is found only at Knossos, and was adapted from the Greek of the Mycenaeans who by then controlled the island. Linear B has been deciphered, but the surviving documents are mostly records of tax and goods and tell us frustratingly little about the island’s history and literature.

One of archaeology’s more mysterious objects is the Phaistos Disc, excavated from the Minoan palace at Phaistos. A fired clay disc about six inches across, it is covered on both sides with spirals of stamped symbols. Although the symbols are generally assumed to be a script, they belong to none of the three writing systems mentioned above. They have never been deciphered. Because the symbols seem to have been impressed into the clay using 45 stamps, the disc was described by Jared Diamond as “by far the earliest printed document in the world”[10]. Such sophisticated requirements imply that the disc, whether Minoan or from some other culture, was no one-off.

Women and Minoan art

Women seem to have enjoyed higher status in Minoan culture than was usual in the Bronze Age. We have already made mention of Minoan women in our article on women in ancient art. Women served as administrators and priestesses as well as participating in the dangerous and athletic sport of bull-leaping. (Even if no one in Crete ever actually leaped over a bull, the presence of women as well as men in the imagery, e.g. the ‘Toreador Fresco’, is itself revealing.) Some archaeologists argue in addition that Crete was matrilineal, i.e. one’s descent was measured through the mother, not the father [11].

Women always play a massive role in any economy, whether or not it is acknowledged, and ancient Crete was no exception. A fresco in Akrotiri known as ‘The Saffron Gatherers’ shows us women collecting saffron, a high-value resource used as a dye to indicate wealth and status in the wearer.

Detail from The Saffron GatherersDetail from ‘The Saffron Gatherers’, c.1500 BCE.

Women’s relative equality may be because of the absence of military threat, giving far less impetus to the development of a male warrior discourse and thus a greater role and respect for women. It is tempting when looking at images of young women somersaulting over bulls with the men to conclude that women enjoyed considerable freedom. The so-called ‘Grandstand’ fresco at Knossos shows a crowd of both men and women attending a festival — the biggest figures are all female, well-dressed, animated and enjoying themselves.

As for religion, Minoan art provides us with faience figurines of a ‘snake goddess’[12], and frescos such as on the sarcophagus at Hagia Triada on which women priests outnumber men. No images of male deities have been found from the peak of Minoan civilisation. The apparent prominence of women in Minoan religion has led to conjecture that the principal deity or deities of Minoan Crete may have been female, e.g. an earth or mother goddess. Through animal sacrifices, the Minoans appealed to the goddess to avert the familiar Bronze Age tragedies of failed crops, disease, shipwreck, and so on. The prevalence of women in such imagery has led to conjecture about Minoan religion being in some way the worship of women, even that ancient Crete was a ‘matriarchal’ culture based upon the status of the Goddess. But the prominence of a female goddess, if this is how the figurines may be interpreted, does not allow us to conclude anything of the sort, any more than the absence of old people in the frescos means that Minoans never grew old.

The reality is that we don’t know what is going on in the Grand Fresco, or who the snake-carrying women are, or what sexual relations were in Crete. There are no records of kings, and there are no records of queens either. What we see depicted in art does not necessarily correlate to actual roles or relationships in society, so to extend what we know to a general pre-eminence of women is untenable. We may tentatively conjecture that women pre-dominated in the religious sphere of Minoan life, and no more.

The problem of Minoan art

Cretan class society included a ruling class of nobles and priests, a middle-ranking class of artisans, officials, etc, a mass of primary producers, mostly farmers and labourers, and a bottom layer of slaves. Its social structure therefore resembles that of other cultures of the era. Yet the art of the Minoans is sometimes regarded as an enigmatic puzzle. Arnold Hauser commented that it “presents the sociologist with the most difficult problem in the whole field of ancient-oriental art.”

In all this vast period in which the abstract geometrical style predominated, in this unchanging world of strict traditionalism and rigid forms, Crete presents us with a picture of colourful, unrestrained, exuberant life, although economic and social conditions are no different here than anywhere else in the surrounding world. Here too despots and feudal landlords are in power [13], here too the whole culture is under the aegis of an aristocratic social order, exactly as in Egypt and Mesopotamia — and yet what a difference in the whole conception of art![14]

Every ancient economy was built above all upon agriculture. The great majority of Minoans laboured on land owned by a small minority of landowning aristocrats: where the latter enjoyed latifundia and fine villas, most Cretans lived in small mud-brick houses. As such, Crete was no different to the other early civilisations to the east.

Our response to this contrast between the Minoans and elsewhere must begin by pointing out that the art was not as radically different as all that. The range of cultural artifacts — pottery, wall paintings, figurines, tablets — is of course basically the same. Although Minoan designs have a lighter touch than the Egytian, we know that the two civilisations were in contact. In a tomb in Thebes dating to about 1500 BCE, foreigners described as ‘chiefs of the Keftiu and the isles in the midst of the sea’ are depicted bringing gifts to the Pharaoh Tutmosis III. Unlike the Egyptians they wear long hair and kilts and carry distinctive Minoan-style ‘oxhide’ ingots. These people, believed to be Minoans, were respected by the Egyptians — who were often dismissive of foreigners — for their skills in seafaring and trade. We can see a possible debt to the Egyptians in similarities in Minoan wall decorations: they show people from the side, never frontally; like the Egyptians they paint men and women in different colours (red and white respectively); they draw humans in a more stylised way than animals; they ignore perspective; and so on. The Egyptian influence should not surprise us, as its culture was widely admired in the ancient world.

There are other similarities too. Though Egyptian figures are certainly more rigid, their animal and plant images can be just as lively and colourful as the Minoans’, as the images from the tomb of Nebamun beautifully illustrate.

Nonetheless Minoan art does show a greater emphasis on spontaneity and invention, and is more secular and informal. It is less constrained by rigid conventions and geometry, and undoubtedly has, like any culture, a distinctive character of its own. The absence of battles, kings, boastful inscriptions and historical events in its art is surprising for the time. We need to recognise such distinctions without falling into the crude formulations sometimes used in the past, such as posing cultured Minoans against barbarous Mycenaeans.

Hauser’s first explanation for the particular character of the Minoans’ art is the relatively modest role of religion in their society. Minoan shrines seem to have been small, even in the palaces, kept in people’s homes or built in out of the way places like hills and caves. There is nothing like the great cult of the dead seen in Egypt, or the grandiose works that went with it. There was therefore less impetus towards sternly imposed conventions.

He also admires the urbanity of the cultural life that arose around the palaces:

The freedom of Cretan art can also be partly explained by the extraordinarily important role which city life and commerce played in the island’s economy... city life was probably nowhere so highly developed as in Crete.

Minoan urban centres were small compared to some of the imperial capitals to the east, but this should not be surprising given the much bigger territories of those cultures, and according to one historian the Aegean urban communities were “comparable in scale and almost certainly complexity, to many of their Eastern contemporaries.”[15] In this urban context, art was still principally created for the ruling aristocracy, yet there was a little more room for spontaneity and elegance, especially when religious convention was less strict. And he concludes with an observation on the character of the Cretan ruling class:

The special character of Cretan art must be seen first of all in relation to the fact that, in the Aegean, in contrast to other areas, trade, above all foreign trade, was concentrated in the hands of the ruling class. The unstable spirit of the trader, fond of making innovations, was able to make its way less hampered than in Egypt or Babylonia.

Willetts offers a different perspective. Noting that there is evidence of collective social organisation in the earlier phases of Minoan culture, he observes that the palace complexes represented a comparatively closely-knit and collective society and would have supported many specialists from their stored surplus. He comments:

Elsewhere, in the older centres of Bronze Age civilisation, this kind of dependence on the specialists seems to have resulted in a marked loss of freedom and prestige... The increasing diversity of specialist production under the economic and commercial stimulus of the Minoan palace centres may well, on the contrary, have resulted rather in an extension of such freedom and social prestige. The tenacious collective traditions of the past still appear to have exercised an enormous influence in the flourishing high period of palatial Crete.[16]

The ‘palace’ was the centre of Minoan life: of trade and agriculture, but also of art. It was perhaps this union of trade and culture, in a context of long internal stability, that gave Minoan art its urbane liveliness.

Crete’s geopolitical situation may also have exerted an influence. With the natural protection of the sea and backed by their fleet, the Minoans had little need to fear invasion. In the absence of a warrior class, not only were women’s rights better than in most Bronze Age cultures, but art was less constrained by the military and religion.

The Thera eruption

How the Minoan civilisation came to an end is an ongoing debate in archaeology. The most plausible theory relates not to economics or geopolitics but to a natural disaster.

The Aegean area is geologically unstable: it sits upon the meeting of two great tectonic plates, the Eurasiatic and African, causing both earthquakes and volcanic activity. Sometime between 1650-1600 BCE (the date is disputed), the island of Thera, eighty miles to the north of Crete, was hit by one of the ancient world’s mightiest volcanic eruptions. Evidence for this catastrophe can be found as far away as China and Ireland. The consequences for Crete would have been disastrous: a great wave would have hit its cities and shattered its navy, and hot ash would have blighted its crops. (The partial sinking of Thera may have given rise to the myth of Atlantis, which we will explore in another post.) The only reason the remarkable site of Akrotiri survived is that it was buried under ten metres of ash and pumice, like an Aegean Pompeii.

Despite this cataclysm, Minoan culture did not simply stop after 1600 BCE. But their view of the world must have been profoundly affected. After the Thera eruption and tidal wave, sea creatures proliferate on Minoan pottery, implying a new relationship to the sea. Archaeologist Colin MacDonald has suggested that decline was exacerbated by social breakdown, the authority of Minoan monarchs and religious leaders dashed by their powerlessness to prevent the disaster. Thus the Minoans had already been weakened in multiple ways when they were confronted by the external threat of the Mycenaeans. Evidence of intrusion from the mainland around 1450 BCE can be seen in new styles in pottery and in palace and tomb architecture. When the Knossos palace was finally destroyed in the mid-14th century BCE, it was not rebuilt.

The ‘eruption’ theory still leaves us with a puzzle: why would the eruption bring the Minoans to their knees, but leave the Mycenaeans, also an Aegean people, perfectly capable of organising and executing an invasion?


It seems likely that a series of blows struck by natural forces and invasion were to blame for the decline of Minoan civilisation. By about 1400 BCE, the Minoans had been displaced by the reputedly more warlike Mycenaeans as the dominant culture in the Aegean. Tablets from Knossos were now written in Linear B, a script used for Mycenaean Greek, and art moved to a more geometric style. Whatever the precise turn of events that caused their decline, the Minoans’ material civilisation disappeared almost completely. They make hardly any appearance in the histories of the ancient Greeks. For over thirty centuries their civilisation survived only in myth until the Cretan archaeologist Minos Kalokairinos initiated excavations in 1878, followed by Arthur Evans in March 1900.

Nonetheless the Minoans’ influence outlived them. The Minoans were not Greeks, but they can count the ancient Greeks among their cultural descendants. The art, architecture and religion of early mainland Greece show a Minoan influence. From the Minoans, the Mycenaeans learned to make bronze and finely-crafted artifacts, and adapted their own script from Linear A. The debt is even symbolically represented in myth: it is on Crete that Zeus spent his childhood. As a baby he was carried off to protect him from the infanticide of his father Kronos, and was hidden in a cave on Mount Ida until he was ready to take over as the ruling deity of the Greek world.

The excavation of Minoan Crete had the stunning effect of extending European civilisation back into antiquity — partly contemporaneous, even, with that of Egypt. But although Minoan Crete was the first major civilisation to appear in Europe, I would argue that to stress Crete as the first ‘European’ civilisation is to misread the geopolitics of the ancient world. It should rather be seen as the westernmost expression of a development lasting thousands of years that began in, and spread from, Mesopotamia and Egypt, which also includes Syria, the Levant and the eastern Mediterranean. This region is connected by geography and trade, but also by cultural transmission. Crete is, as Michael Wood put it, the “stepping-stone between Europe, Asia Minor and Africa”.

Further investigation

Learn about the Akrotiri site from the Thera Foundation:
See a gallery of images from Akrotiri on Wikimedia Commons:
Watch the BBC’s 2001 documentary Ancient Apocalypse: The Minoans on YouTube (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).
Explore the Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean.

[1] Along with the Cycladic culture and the Mycenaeans, the Minoans represent one of the three main Bronze Age cultures of the Aegean.
[2] After becoming fascinated by Minoan clay tablets, Evans initiated excavations on Crete, uncovering Knossos in 1900 (although he was not the first to dig there).
[3] Thucydides, First Book, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE).
[4] We should never under-estimate how ‘joined up’ the ancient world was. See for example the late Bronze Age shipwreck discovered near Uluburun in Turkey, which was carrying a remarkable assortment of international goods from northern Europe, Africa and Mesopotamia.
[5] Rodney Castleden, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (1990).
[6] ‘Ware’ is a term used by archaeologists to refer to ceramic styles.
[7] The choice adjective comes from R. F. Willetts, The Civilisation of Ancient Crete (2004).
[8] From Labels (1930). Cited in Mary Beard, ‘Knossos — Fakes, facts and mystery’ (2009).
[9] Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism (2009). For a riposte to Gere’s book, see Nanno Marinatos’ book review in American Journal of Archaeology (April 2010).
[10] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel (1998).
[11] As we’ve pointed out before, this should not be confused with ‘matriarchy’ or rule by the mother, itself a concept that is often mistaken to mean general ‘rule by women’.
[12] Bear in mind that these have also been partially ‘restored’ by Evans’ team.
[13] Incidentally, Hauser’s use of the term ‘feudal’ here, like his references elsewhere in his book to an ancient ‘bourgeoisie’, is completely inappropriate. Both terms belong to different modes of production that would not emerge until centuries later.
[14] Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, vol 1 (1951).
[15] Todd Whitelaw, ‘From sites to communities: defining the human dimensions of Minoan urbanism’ in ed. Keith Branigan, Urbanism in the Aegean Bronze Age (2001).
[16] R. F. Willetts, op. cit.

Friday, 5 November 2010

The meme delusion

We have argued for a model of cultural evolution based upon humans’ material engagement with the world. There is another, currently fashionable, theory of cultural transmission we need to consider: the meme.

This theory was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and has since won support from other writers including Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore. The concept is simple enough: to explain cultural development, apply the process of natural selection. As it offers an easy mechanism for explaining an formidably complex process, it has met with a certain success, and been described by one supporter as “a major paradigm shift in the science of the mind.”[1]

Does this theory help us to understand cultural evolution?

The theory of memes

The basis of meme theory, or memetics, is that we may extend the process of Darwinian evolution to include cultural processes as well as genetic ones. Dawkins chose the term ‘meme’ for its resemblance to ‘gene’, and its reference to the Greek mimeme or ‘that which is imitated’. A meme is a unit or pattern of information that can be stored in the memory and transferred from one person to another, and is one of the constituent parts from which culture is made. In his book Dawkins gives some examples of memes: “tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” In fact, it appears that almost any ‘unit’ of culture, on any scale, can be a meme. In a talk in 2002, Dennett refers to ‘justice’ and ‘Catholicism’ as memes.[2]

Because the person who first supplied the meme will continue to host it, the process is one of replication — the meme reproduces itself across a growing number of individuals. As Dawkins explains it:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.[3]

The meme therefore can be seen as a kind of parasite or ‘mind virus’, capable of spreading from any individual to any other.

Like living organisms, memes are in a struggle for survival. The memes with the strongest adaptive value, i.e. which have the greatest probability of being reproduced, survive for many generations, the outcome being influenced by the biases of human minds and by other competing memes. Some memes prove better at replicating themselves than others. Dawkins lists the main mechanisms for this success as longevity, fecundity and fidelity: the longer a meme lasts, for example when you write it down, the more copies that can be produced of it, the more accurately the meme is copied, the greater the chance that it will be replicated often.


The analogy drawn in memetics between Darwinian evolution and cultural evolution has some profound flaws.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is such a powerful idea that it is not surprising that some have tried to extend it to other processes, much as postmodernists took modernist theories about language and tried to expand them into a general philosophy. Justifying memes, Dawkins writes: “I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene.”[4] Dennett claims, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: “In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.” The attempt to extend natural selection beyond the evolution of species has been termed Universal Darwinism.

The problem here is that we are left with a reductionism which attempts to lever a particular biological process, based upon heredity, mutation and selection among living organisms, into fields where it does not belong. Even if one sees the analogy as purely metaphorical, living organisms are not the same as poems, or jingles, or the concept of justice, or the Catholic religion, nor are the same laws applicable. The mechanism is simply not relevant.

Cultural processes can resemble biological ones to an extent. Like organisms, culture has to be replicated across generations. In the process it undergoes changes, perhaps analogous to the mutations which underlie natural selection. However interesting this may be as a metaphor, it is inappropriate to try and use it to construct a serious theory of cultural transmission. Humans ‘make themselves’ through their material engagement with the world: genetics and culture are inter-related parts of this process, but we should not pretend they work in the same way. Merlin Donald commented:

[The meme] is an oversimplifying notion thought up by a geneticist as a way of ‘explaining’ cultural evolution without engaging in any psychology. This is why sociobiologists love memes — they can continue to avoid the complexities of psychology and physiology, as they always have.[5]

By what process does any meme survive for more than an instant, given that a dozen people playing Chinese Whispers can’t make a phrase come out the way it started? There is no mechanism for keeping the meme stable — the fidelity that Dawkins considers important.

It is hard to know if a meme even exists. How, for example, do we define a meme? Is it a poem? A phrase or sentence? A word? Who decides, on what basis, and how do we test the hypothesis? The philosopher Mary Midgley has been particularly damning:

They are not physical objects. But neither are they thoughts or ideas of the kind that normally play any part in our experience. They seem to be occult causes of those thoughts. How then do they manifest themselves? What makes us think they are there?... Invoking such extra stuff is as idle as any earlier talk of phlogiston or animal spirits or occult forces.[6]

It seems a meme can be pretty much anything a memeticist fancies, from wearing a baseball cap backwards to socialism. The archaeologist Timothy Taylor observed, “it is not, in short, a clearly defined concept, nor one that really solves anything.”[7] Catholicism, or communism, or whatever, cannot be reduced to being ‘an idea’ or ‘a meme’. These are huge, complex ideologies with a history, rival intellectual currents, and material bases in society.

Dawkins has himself accepted that memes are not the same as genes and has attempted to add nuance to his invention. Since The Selfish Gene first appeared in 1976 he has added the comment: “whether the milieu of human culture really does have what it takes to get a form of Darwinism going, I am not sure... My purpose was to cut the gene down to size, rather than to sculpt a grand theory of human culture.”[8] But in ironically meme-like fashion, the idea has spread beyond him into even stranger territory.

In his book Virus of the Mind, the computer programmer and poker player Richard Brodie suggests that many of the world’s problems are the result of mind viruses, spreading like a plague to give us “the cycle of unwed mothers on welfare, the Crips and Bloods youth gangs and the Branch Davidian religious cult.” Or, “starting with the inner cities and quickly spreading, the mind viruses infecting many children are pushing them into hopelessness, single motherhood, and gang warfare.”[9] Silly though Brodie’s book is — Dennett himself has described most writing on memetics as “awful” — it illustrates how memetics takes forms of social behaviour and reifies them into agents that cause human behaviour. The reactionary implications are clear. If one wants to address the problems experienced by single “unwed” mothers, a good beginning would be the introduction of universal free childcare; inner city youth could be spared hopelessness by employment programmes and social investment; stress could be reduced by a reduction in working hours. But following Brodie, the response must instead be to disinfect oneself of parasitic units of information, which can’t even be proved to exist! In other words: do nothing.

Memetics is no less bizarre in the work of Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine. For Blackmore, a meme is not ‘an idea’ but strictly ‘that which is replicated’, units of information which will get copied if they can. Living symbiotically with these parasites, humans are meme ‘machines’ with no free will or consciousness, hosts used by memes so they can replicate themselves. Our big brains were created by memes to this end.

Dennett too has claimed this:

A human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.[10]

Memes are conceived as independent replicators: cultural transmission in this conception is external to what people do, a product of quasi-organisms that have their own drives and reproductive interests. This is again a reification of our consciousness. Mind and body are inseparable, both from each other and from their wider natural and social environment: ideas cannot be set free to roam around pursuing their own interests. In reality, no idea is independent. Ideas originate in human engagement with the material world.

To return to Blackmore: if the first sort of replicator is genes, and the second is memes, she argues that a third one has appeared, ‘technomemes’ or ‘temes’. Temes are forcing us to make more computers and technology: our belief that the internet, etc, are created by ourselves is an illusion.

Yet humans are not machines or passive hosts. The only reason Blackmore can conceive of ‘temes’ is because human praxis has created technologies and ideologies that make such conceptions possible.

Memetics therefore fails to provide a model for cultural change. Ideas survive because they have a material basis, which is often simply to say they have power on their side. Marx pointed out long ago:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.[11]

To try and say that Paleolithic egalitarianism (‘primitive communism’) was overthrown because its memes lost out in competition with the thrusting new memes of class society would be gibberish. To understand culture we need to understand its background in biological evolution, but we also need to understand the processes of history and of class-structured power. When Marx commented “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist”[12], his formulation was crude, but his point is important — the major transformations of human society are brought about by the development of forces of production, from which an ideological superstructure arises. Ideas spread because we are social animals who grow up in an ideological context, i.e. we pick up social conventions, language, etc from our culture. It is true that people sometimes accept ideology passively. But people also actively challenge social conventions, mould new language, select and reject based upon their concrete experience.

This is a materialist, scientific way of understanding the transmission of culture and of ideas, and there is a vast body of evidence to support it. Memetics adds nothing to our understanding of how this works.

Remove psychology, history, class and economics from cultural theory and we are left with a theory open to all sorts of reactionary nonsense. In the talk already referred to (see video below), Dennett wastes little time turning his attention to “toxic ideas”, such as “fanatical Islam”, at the same time complacently suggesting that in the US “bad” memes exist only on the fringes. He compares dangerous memes to the diseases that killed millions of people when European imperialism arrived in the New World. Yet moments after describing some memes as toxic, he claims that memetics is “morally neutral”. This is completely incoherent.

Theorists like Dawkins and Dennett enthusiastically promote science at the expense of religion, yet the meme, based upon units that cannot be defined or tested, is ironically no more scientific than ‘intelligent design’. Memetics is a pseudo-science that actively obstructs the serious discussion of the inter-relationships of biology, production, class, ideology and culture.


Fans of memetics take pleasure in supposedly exposing ‘uncomfortable truths’ about human nature and consciousness. Their dehumanising approach to people can be seen as another expression of the general anti-humanism and pessimism in bourgeois thought in the era of US decline and capitalist crisis. Real humans are not passive machines hosting abstract memes but active beings who constantly grapple with the ideas that surround them, including culture.

Rejecting memetics does not mean, as Dennett contends with characteristic pretension, that one is uncomfortable with the implications of Darwinism. It is rather a question of asserting good science over bad. Furthermore science always has political implications, and memes tend to the reactionary side because they obscure the real dynamics of society and culture. It is the truth that is progressive.

Dawkins has made a genuine if rather hardline contribution to genetics, but the meme, unproven yet still the beneficiary of a great deal of hot air, is one of his least useful ideas. Blackmore has identified the great problem of the age, not as imperialist warmongering, famine, increasing inequality, racism, shortage of clean drinking water, or the global warming that will kill and displace millions if not resolved — no, our real problem is memes that threaten to merge us with technology and turn us into ‘teme machines’. The fantasies spun in the ivory tower of memetics would be merely comical, if they were not such a bizarre distraction from the questions facing us in real life.

Further investigation

Read Dawkins’ chapter on memes at
Daniel Dennett’s presentation to TED2002 (despite the strapline, not an idea worth spreading):

[1] Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind (1996).
[2] See online video of Dennett’s talk on memes at the 2002 TED event. I have embedded the video at the end of the article.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976).
[4] ibid.
[5] Merlin Donald, ‘Material Culture and Cognition’ from ed. Renfrew & Scarre, Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage (1998).
[6] Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (1993).
[7] Timothy Taylor, The Artificial Ape (2010). See also his discussion of defining memes for chair design on pp159-160.
[8] Footnote to chapter 11 in the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene.
[9] Apparently Brodie has “deliberately disinfected” himself of the memes he caught as he grew up, blessing him with the splendidly clear thinking he shares with us today.
[10] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991).
[11] Marx, from Part 1B of The German Ideology (1846).
[12] Marx, Chapter 2 of The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

Friday, 29 October 2010

Defining the mind

I reproduce a passage by Colin Renfrew on how we should best understand and define the human mind, which I think is entirely correct and sits comfortably within a Marxist framework.

At this point it is necessary to point out that the notion of ‘mind’... can be a misleading one if we assume it to be the structural opposite of ‘matter’ or of ‘body’. There is often a tendency to assume a dualism of the kind developed by the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes where mind is contrasted with matter, and body with soul. An unduly mentalist approach tends to equate mind with brain, and to situate mind and its workings exclusively inside the human cranium. But the notion of mind encompasses intelligent action in the world, not merely cogitation within the brain...

The mind as embodied, extended and distributed

[An earlier discussion] makes the point that the brain exists in the body and that the mind is embodied. Weight has first to be perceived as a physical reality — in the hands and arms, not just in the brain within the skull — before it can be conceptualised and measured. The mind works through the body. To localise it exclusively within the brain is not strictly correct.

Moreover, we often think not only through the body, but beyond it. The blind man with the stick apprehends the world more effectively with the stick than without. The draughtsman thinks through the pencil. The potter at the wheel constructs the pot through a complex process that resides not only in the brain, but in the hands and the rest of the body and in those useful extensions of the body, the turntable and, indeed, the clay itself. In each of these cases, the experience of undertaking a purposive and intelligent action extends beyond the individual human body, and well beyond the individual brain. We can speak of an extended mind.

Furthermore, the intention, when we undertake a purposive action, is not always simply the product of a single individual. It can be shared. In a team game, like football, the action is the product of a number of people working together but not necessarily led by a single individual. The same principle that a new outcome can be the result of collective rather than individual action or intention arises in many instances of group behaviour. This can be seen in the archaeological record: it can be the case for a decorative style, which develops through the production of figured textiles, or of painted pottery or of woodcarvings by a number of craftspersons. Working together they arrive at a shared style, which is not simply the production of any one individual and then copied by others. Different people within the group make their own contributions, which are in some cases taken up and incorporated within the developing style. This may be regarded as a broadly cooperative endeavour with a range or distribution of individuals all cooperating. Here it may be possible to speak of a distributed mind.

This discussion makes clear that ‘mind’ is a rather complex topic. Rather than defining it more closely, it may be profitable to focus upon the human actions and activities in which our cognitive faculties (our minds) have an active role — processes of material engagement.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Symbolic communication, part 4: The cultural evolution of signs

Homo sapiens was the product of an evolutionary leap. But our cognitive abilities did not spring into existence overnight. As we have discussed, there was a gap of thousands of years between our species’ first appearance 150—200,000 years ago and the widespread use of fully modern behaviours, arguably beginning with the art of the Upper Paleolithic — a gap too short to be explained by evolutionary change. This places mature symbolisation in the ‘tectonic phase’ of human development. If language and other processes had developed a new capacity in us, it took a certain amount of time before our species began, for the first time in Earth’s history, to really explore its potential and produce art.

This means that as well as searching for the distant Stone Age origins of our symbolic capacity in tools, fire, language, etc, we also need to explore how that capacity itself evolved over subsequent millennia to help give us art, institutions and religion.

There is no consensus among scientists about when language and the use of symbols arose, how far it represents a genetic development and how this ties in with cultural evolution. The likelihood seems to be that the capacity for using symbols developed in pre-sapiens humans, and that the process was accelerated by cultural transmission. We did not go from a bit of engraved ochre to the Turner Prize overnight, it was part of a process — which is still underway — of the ratchet effect of cumulative cultural learning. Although Darwinian evolution continues, the dominant mechanism of change in human beings and their societies has become culture: a hugely faster process.

Cognitive archaeology

One of the most useful fields of research here is the relatively young science of cognitive archaeology, a branch of archaeology which seeks to understand where human minds come from: how consciousness evolved and how people thought in the past. We have already made reference on this blog to the work of such figures as Merlin Donald and Michael Tomasello.

Cognitive archaeologists have proposed that the changes were brought about by cultural transmission, defined by Michael Tomasello as a process “that enables individual organisms to save much time and effort, not to mention risk, by exploiting the already existing knowledge and skills of conspecifics.”[1] Uniquely, humans evolved a form of social cognition that made them capable of cultural evolution, i.e. to accumulate modifications over time in a way other animal species cannot. Each of us enters the world as a sentient animal very similar to our ancestors of 150,000 years ago. To take the example of language: our genome gives us an inherited capacity for language, but we will not be able to speak one unless it is taught to us by culture.[2]

Humans’ faculty for cultural learning depends, in Tomasello’s view, upon our ability to recognise our fellow humans as conscious beings with intentions and mental lives like our own, an ability which develops in infants from around 9–12 months old.

This understanding of others as intentional beings like the self is crucial... because cultural artifacts and social practices — exemplified prototypically by the use of tools and linguistic symbols — invariably point beyond themselves to other outside entities: tools point to the problems they are designed to solve and linguistic symbols point to the communicative situations they are designed to represent. Therefore, to socially learn the conventional use of a tool or symbol, children must come to understand why, toward what outside end, the other person is using the tool or symbol; that is to say, they must understand the intentional significance of the tool use or symbolic practice.[3]

Without symbols, we could not represent the experiences of others, itself demanding that we are aware of the minds of others. This gives humans “the ability to share a virtual common mind” (Deacon). The ways in which we may use symbolic communication to represent our own states of mind, but also other people’s states of mind, are infinite, but when we use symbols, we do not conjure up our own unique language — we borrow the conventions from our social context.

The use of symbolic representation is thus a social, collective activity and sociogenetic in nature. We are born into a world of culture and learn about the relationships and conventions within it. Symbols show us how previous generations have tried to categorise, reimagine and understand the world, and communicate it to others. They also introduce us to a multiplicity of perspectives. Tomasello comments on how a dog might be portrayed as an animal, a pet, or a pest, depending upon what the person wished to communicate about it. Symbols are not a direct sensory record but an interpretation, one way amongst many others in which someone has tried to place a meaning on something. Over a long period of historical time, symbols accumulate a legacy of meaning within a society. Thus symbols “free human cognition from the immediate perceptual situation... by enabling multiple simultaneous representations of each and every, indeed all possible, perceptual situations” (Tomasello).

Institutional facts

One of the consequences of symbolic behaviour centres upon ‘institutional facts’. It is worth turning here to Colin Renfrew’s discussion of symbols in Prehistory:

Human culture is based upon the use of symbols, in words and in material form. Initially they were used for things that were evidently there in nature — like birds or the sun — things that the philosopher John Searle would call ‘brute facts’. But they can also be used to indicate realities that are not, in quite this way, facts of nature but rather what can be termed social facts. For instance this hat can be my hat, and that hat is your hat. Those attributions of ownership are what Searle would term ‘institutional facts’, which are of a very different kind.

This simple and perhaps seemingly trivial distinction turns out to be a very important one when we come to understand how human culture is constructed...

It is no exaggeration to say that society is organised by means of symbolic categories — and it is important also to note that different societies organise themselves by means of different symbolic categories. Symbols are used, for instance, for measuring the world and for planning. They are dependent upon the formations of new forms of social relations, which themselves rely upon the use of symbols to structure and to regulate inter-personal behaviour. Symbols of authority are needed in any society of a sufficient size so that we know who everyone is personally — we need to recognise the policeman or the ticket inspector or the bank clerk for the role they play. At the superficial level we recognise the policeman by his helmet, or the ticket inspector by his or her uniform or badge, and bank clerks by their mode of dress and the place in which they sit: these are the symbolic indicators. But, at a more basic level, these social roles are dependent upon institutional developments: the formation of a police force, or the development of a transport system, or the institution of banking.[4]

Symbols are not only what we speak with and what we daub on cave walls — they are what we think with too. It is wrong to conceive of symbols dualistically as mental counterparts to a physical ‘reality’. The police officer’s uniform does not only symbolise a special kind of individual but introduces a new concept, or a new relationship: that society has created a body of men and women who by social agreement are granted power to restrain the actions of others. This in turn is predicated upon the institution of private property, the protection of which makes up 90% of the modern police officer’s work.

A symbol does not merely recreate material reality in an alternative form. It represents the creation or discovery of a new kind of reality. Let us take the example of gold. Today it is taken for granted that gold is a highly valuable metal, but its earliest known use as such dates back only as far as about 4500 BCE at the Varna necropolis in Bulgaria.

Varna goldGold items from the Varna necropolis. Photo: Yelkrokoyade.

Gold has relatively little use value, being too soft to be used in most practical applications; its value in human societies had its origins in various things which we needn’t discuss here. But as Renfrew points out:

the value assigned to a piece of gold, while in one sense arbitrary, is, for those who accept it, a reality. It... may be termed an institutional fact. For the societies that accept it, the value of gold is indeed a reality, and a reality by which one can live and govern the practice of one’s life.

Whereas for Paleolithic humanity, gold was at best a fascinatingly shimmery material, for some early civilisations it had become, at worst, a good reason to kill people. In other societies, the principal material of value was feathers, or precious stones. There is no literal physical reality in which gold or any other material is a valuable commodity. “Without ceasing to be a part of material reality,” wrote Voloshinov, “such an object, reflects and refracts another reality.”

A £10 note is not literally worth £10, because its cost of production is just a few pence. Once accepted as a symbol of value, however, people can use it to purchase £10’s worth of goods. The note, and the goods we purchase, appear to us to be actually worth £10. Because the money can claim £10’s worth of goods, and the goods can be exchanged for £10, it seems to the person that the value of £10 is inherent in the money and goods themselves. In fact it is a social reality, part of what Marx would have termed ‘social relations’. This brings us to what Marx termed commodity fetishism, a phenomenon where people mistake social relationships for relationships between things.[5] In the same way that some tribal cultures attribute particular objects with a mysterious power inherent in the object itself — the fetish — so people invest objects with inherent values or powers that they do not in fact possess. A £10 note is really a symbol made of paper and ink.

The establishment of gold as a valuable commodity then made it possible for gold to emerge in some societies as a ‘universal equivalent’ — a commodity used to measure the value of all other commodities — and thus to allow the creation of money, itself a symbol of the value created by a quantity of socially necessary labour time. Thus we see how new concepts emerge out of other, existing concepts.

It would be a mistake to think that such processes are purely mental constructs. They also depend upon humans’ material engagement with the world — in the case of gold, their discovery of gold, their exploration of its properties, their invention of mining techniques, and so on. Likewise, class society grew out of the creation of a social surplus via the agricultural revolution, and a layer of people who won control over that surplus. (We have already commented on the way in which symbols and art can be recruited to reinforce a particular class structure, for example in conspicuous displays of wealth and power.) Through their own actions, humans create or discover social relationships, ideas, values and, by doing so, expand their own cognitive and intellectual capacities. Marx recognised this long ago:

Labour is, in the first place, a process in which both man and Nature participate, and in which man of his own accord starts, regulates, and controls the material re-actions between himself and Nature. He opposes himself to Nature as one of her own forces, setting in motion arms and legs, head and hands, the natural forces of his body, in order to appropriate Nature’s productions in a form adapted to his own wants. By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature.[6]

To a Marxist, it is immediately apparent that the concept of institutional facts, indeed symbolism by its very nature, is inseparable from ideology.

Of course, quite what the people of past cultures meant by their symbols is sometimes very difficult for us to decipher. For example, images that seem to resemble vulvae are very common in Paleolithic parietal art.

Paleolithic engraving of a vulvaPaleolithic engraved symbol resembling a vulva. Photo: Calame.

Archaeologists can offer all sorts of theories for why artists carved such images onto rock surfaces, relating to the obvious themes of sexuality, fertility, rebirth and so on. We can put forward educated hypotheses based upon the referent, the wider archaeological context, and analogous practices in other cultures. But what these images actually meant to their Stone Age creators is impossible to know for sure.

In our article on ideology, we commented: “Society provides art with its raw material, with its range of possibilities. But art is not dictated to by economic conditions. If it was, it could in our society only reflect capitalist ideology. In fact, because it has strong relations with many different strands of the superstructure — such as philosophy, religion and psychology, not to mention the artist’s own idiosyncratic experience — and because many of these strands will be in contradiction, art is able to assert a degree of independence.” This holds true for symbols in general, because the relationship of a symbol to its referent is arbitrary. Terrence Deacon commented:

Because symbolic representation maintains reference irrespective of indexical attachment to any particular experiences, when an idea or a narrative of someone’s experience is reconstructed by another, it can be regrounded, so to speak, by interpreting it in terms of the iconic and indexical representations that constitute the listener’s memory. Symbolic reference is interpreter-dependent, because each interpreter independently supplies the nonsymbolic ground for it.[7]

Each person can bring their own individual meaning to a symbol or work of art. Hence the importance of cultural conventions in providing powerful, widespread and enduring accounts of how symbols should be understood. With Paleolithic art, it is precisely these conventions that have been lost.


Humans broadly share their cognitive powers with other primates, with an important exception — an adaptation enabling us to recognise the intentionality and consciousness of others. This adaptation enabled a unique process of cultural evolution, through which we interact with the world through the mediation of symbolic and cultural artifacts. These artifacts embody the perspectives of the people who created them and bequeath the knowledge and ideology of past generations to the present, helping to form an accumulation of culturally transmitted experience.

Long continuity in cultural practice then led to shared ideas, concepts and conventions, which in turn conditioned the cultural trajectories of different social groups (the Egyptians as compared to the Mesopotamians, and so on). The shared conventions became institutional facts governing how members of the group inter-related, and related with other groups, and how people related and engaged with the physical world.

[1] Michael Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (1999).
[2] One area of great interest to cognitive archaeologists is the means by which individuals store cultural information using the memory, and the later impact of external storage in the form of writing systems.
[3] Tomasello, op. cit.
[4] Renfrew, Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind (2007).
[5] The appearance of commodities makes it possible to turn art itself into a commodity, which we will study another time.
[6] Karl Marx, ‘The Labour-Process And The Process Of Producing Surplus-Value’ from Capital, vol. 1 (1867).
[7] Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain (1997).