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).