Why the Ancient Minoans?
Early reactions to Labyrinth seem to confirm that it’s something of a marmite book – people have either loved or hated it. I can understand that. I remember when Ursula LeGuin went through her feminist awakening-goddess-y-‘lets talk about weaving instead of war’ phase, and I hated it, because I was still in my own ‘whoa, spears are cool!’ phase. Not that I’m claiming any kind of equivalence to Ursula LeGuin of course, apart from the slow awakening to the fact that even the way we tell stories – the things we think of as being story-worthy – has been shaped by patriarchy and sometimes we need to expand our minds to be able to find other things worthwhile too.
Why on earth, when faced with all human history, did I choose to write about the Ancient Minoans? Historical novelas, as you know, tend to cluster into similar eras of interest, leaving vast swathes of the past untouched. Popular eras are the Regency (balls, duchesses, carriages,) the Romans (slaves, gladiators, Imperial decadence), and the Egyptians (mysterious, supernatural, full of gold.)
What all these eras have in common is that they were literate, and we have access to reams of information about what life was like there. This is sadly not true of the Minoans, who have left (so far) very few written records, and as far as I know some of those are still untranslatable. Meaning that we actually know very little about what their life was like, and such things as we do know are down to looking at their artwork and making an educated guess as to what’s going on.
So I repeat, why would I want to write in that setting?
Firstly, I’d have to say “Doesn’t it look beautiful!” Look at the sun. And the colours! Look at the ruins of palaces, with those iconic blood-red pillars standing out against that indigo sky. Can’t you almost feel the warmth already?
And now look at the artwork! Doesn’t this civilization seem a nice place to live? It does to me. If I imagine the sun-drenched shores and tamarisk-scented hills of Crete inhabited by these long-haired, long-limbed beautiful people in their colourful kilts and their ridiculous belled skirts, athletic people, bedecked with jewellery, gathering saffron among the flowers, of course I want to be there.
I find a lot of people are attracted by the glamour and the peril of times of war. They want to read about macho warriors doing manly things. But I’ve become a little bored by that, and I wanted to write about a civilization that didn’t seem to revolve around its warriors, or who it could kill.
Scholarly opinion is, as always, divided on what Minoan civilization was really like, but there seems to be a strong case for the Ancient Minoans being a civilization dominated by priestesses. Earlier archaeologists assumed from reading Greek literature that the Minoans were ruled by a king called Minos, but nowadays there’s a core of people who think they were ruled from a temple, by the priestesses, and ‘Minos’ was a religious title of some sort.
It’s all a bit vague and speculative, particularly as anything the Greeks said is being filtered through their own preconceptions. But I thought it would be interesting to explore a culture where being female is associated with power. What would it be like, being a man in that culture? Would it be easier for a genderqueer person, or harder, than a culture in which a person’s value was determined by how manly they were?
And what would that culture think when it came across a patriarchy like the Ancient Greeks? That culture clash fascinated me. If Minoan society was indeed peaceful and matriarchal, how on earth did it survive in a world full of societies that would have regarded it as abhorrent and against the natural order of things?
The answer for which drew me into a world of ecstatic goddess worship and drug-fuelled religious rites, a bit of hands-off research into the effects of opium smoke, and an enlightening crawl through the many early cults with ‘third sex’ eunuch/transgender or genderqueer priest/esses.
I was left with the realization that even the most peaceful places hold extraordinarily interesting stories, if you just look. I hope you enjoy mine!