Chasing the Minotaur

I went to Crete because of a book and a puzzle.

The book was Mary Renault’s The King Must Die/The Bull from the Sea bilogy (is that a word?) and in it, Theseus volunteers to be part of the annual tribute of young men and women sent to Crete to participate in the pretty much fatal sport of bull-leaping. Renault describes the love-locked, wasp-waisted Cretan guys and the ladies with their flounced dresses elegantly cinched under their boobs (which look, to modern eyes, suspiciously bulbous) and then goes on to chronicle how it all – literally – blew up.

The puzzle was the Minoan’s Linear A script, which to this day hasn’t been deciphered (mainly, so an archaelogist I met on the bus told me, because there isn’t enough of it around). Back when I was an Ancient History honours student I was fascinated by the idea of cracking a language that had eluded the experts (even though I bet you 100 to 1 it would just be a bunch of accounts ‘Theseus owes Minos 10 gold splonders for 3 acres of thread…’ that sort of thing).

It’s one of those weird things that Westerners do (like going out in the midday sun in the tropics) to visit piles of tumbled stone and try to imagine there the glory that was. So I took myself to the Palace of Knossos, the reputed seat of King Minos and (underneath it) the Labyrinth, lair of his wife’s bull-headed offspring the Minotaur. Helpfully, the 19th century guy who dug the whole thing up (one Arthur Evans) had done some re-decorating, as they did in those days (he it was who painted the pillars that famous dark red, and put pictures on the walls) so my imagination didn’t have to work as hard as it might have. It’s also possible that he got it wrong…oh well. The original pics are in the museum, and Mary Renault was right – Cretan lads were pansies. Lovely tupperware though.

I also took the bus across the mountains to the erstwhile fishing village of Chora Sfakion, where they swoop right down into the aquamarine sea for miles and miles. Trapped on Crete when the Germans landed in WW2, Aussie troops had to make the same trip without benefit of bus (or road) so that the Brits could evacuate them by sea. Lots of them got left behind and ran into the hills (or nicked dinghies and made for Africa, or got captured). I feel for them. I also ran (strolled) into the hills, Samaria Gorge to be precise, and though stunningly scenic it is rough country and bloody hot! In fact Crete, in summer, is crushingly hot and arid, much like the Australian outback, but with slightly more goats (and fewer roos).

While in Chania, I finally got to see the (roughly 4000 year old) Minoan cruiser that Theseus got herded on to in Athens with the rest of the tribute lads and lasses. Well, a replica, but still…

Do you ever sit next to a mountain and wonder, what’s it thinking? Because it feels to me sometimes like they are thinking… massive, slow, deep-rooted sort of thoughts, like hmmmm. Or maybe I just ate too much lunch…


  1. Yes, I absolutely feel that mountains have ‘mana’, a Maori noun meaning prestige, authority, control, power, influence, status, spiritual power, charisma – mana is a supernatural force in a person, place or object (copied from the Maori online dictionary). Take your pick 🙂

  2. Never made it to Sfakia, it looks stupendous. There was an idyllic isolated monastery on the southern coast maybe 50km further east though, and it was a place to linger all day long. You telling me Evans thought up those dolphin frescoes? God, what an idiot.

    1. Yeah, if one had a car or boat exploring would be easier. No no, Evans copied the dolphins etc and put them where he thought they would look nice. Which they did.

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