One is told of the Palace of Knossus outside Herakleion in Crete. One goes with other tourists to park in the hot farmland near by, passing the olive or orange trees. One pays one’s admission, walks with the processions of tourists – some come on guided tours or buses – up through the guides in many languages, offering for exorbitant fees, to share their knowledge of the civilization here. Thousands come in the summer heat.
Stone steps have been reconstructed, walls put together. There are a very few frescoes, re-imagined from fragments. The guides talk learnedly of the priest-king, a youth with a long feathery crown, looking a bit like an Aztec if one has seen some native American performances in the American southwest. A reading of the curator’s note reveals some skepticism: some have thought that he may be a woman. The “king” has a leisurely, almost dancing posture, carries no weapons.
The Acropolis in Athens is set on a hill. It is made to survey the territory. The Temple of Poseidon on a hill by the sea was designed to observe enemy navies, particularly the Persians, who ravaged the Temple before the Athenians won their victory at the Battle of Salamis. This palace is set is a valley. No military function is alleged on any of the signs. He is the dream king of a dream kingdom.
But the rooms have been carefully reconstructed. There is a “king’s room,” a “queen’s room.” Some ancient pots, pithoi, survive in another room to store olive oil or other goods perhaps. The French guide speaks knowledgably, the German rattles on.
Sir Arthur Evans seized and reconstructed this place. Another British colonialist, he knew how it must have been. One floor resembled to him something from the Italian Renaissance – 3400 years afterwards, never mind – so he reconstructed it like that. He was in ancient Europe as it seemed to the British Empire. The Oxford-Harvard IQ tester and eugenicist, W.F. McDougall (my mother had him as a teacher briefly; “Dougall Dougall” he was called as a nickname; he used to flick at the few girls in Harvard Yard with his umbrella and a brisk “Out of my way wench!”) knew civilization in the wilds of Africa and high IQ – an Englishman, he said, comes up to you even there and asks for a Times of London. All the world exists to breed Englishmen. 1700 BC or 1700 AD; an Englishman knows what an Englishman knows.
Two other English gentlemen helped Evans reconstruct this place. They had stone stairs built for future visitors. They knew. They carefully explained what each room was. “Archaeologists” - perhaps happy boys, imitating Conan Doyle’s great detective Sherlock Holmes, making deduction after deduction…
The palace is a big source of income for the Cretans. Tourists come to see it. There is an admission fee. The guides get an income. It must be, so it is said, that a patriarch rules. The setting is not the Iliad; there is no war. But never mind. Some Hellenic curators have suggested, cautiously but firmly, on the signs how much the scene was produced by Evans, how little evidence, outside his own mind, there seems to be for much of it, how many obvious, alternative interpretations one might hint at.
One almost forgets that the minotaur was there on the lower floors, consuming the 7 boys and girls sent from Athens as a sacrifice, until Theseus came and slew him. What was the bull there in Crete anyway? One neglects to mention the labyrinth below the palace with its thousand rooms. There is no way for the tourists to get lost, the stairs all lead somewhere and out. A tour is a tour.
In 1976, however, a German professor named Wunderlich published The Secret of Crete, pointing out that labyrinths elsewhere in the ancient world were burial sites. He makes a few other useful observations, such as that the supposed drainage pipes invoked by Evans don’t seem elaborate enough to have brought any water from the outside.
In the Archaelogical Museum at Heraklion, a few objects survive, including the fragments of what Evans took to be the boy “priest-king.” Two of these are fierce women, breasts bare, one holding two snakes, the other with the snakes circling her arms. For the tourist market, these objects have been reproduced, the women smiling, faces undarkened, breasts enlarged.
Even the curators in the museum refer to the women’s fertility. Breasts will do that to some men. But Greek women uncovered their breasts in fierce mourning at death (later on, Priam’s wife, for cxample, in Homer, does so over the slaughter of her son Hector). The snakes are perhaps a symbol of the underworld (they dispatch one to the underworld; my son saw one curled in the shade under a rock as we walked up to Knossus). Wunderlich has the interesting thought that perhaps snakes and rodents consumed some of the food left out for the dead, that seeming sign of communication between worlds.
The energy that these statues have is not such that you want to get close to them. They are between-world spirits, spirits of the fierce passage of dying, perhaps like female Tibetan guardians sucking blood from skulls.
A few fragmented frescoes in the National Archaelogical Museum reveal monkeys playing among crocuses (Evans couldn't deal with that one), and dolphin fragments and the head of a woman (“La Parisienne” it is called – she seems to have a lot of lipstick – good to see something from one’s life in the fragments – and may be a dancer or “priestess.” But the few scenes are casual scenes of everyday life, at least the monkeys or the fish. Crete was, after all, an island.
Wunderlich suggests that the living Cretans wanted the dead Cretans to be entertained with scenes of daily life. If the dead are so entertained, perhaps they will leave the living alone. It is hard to know what is true here. But Wunderlich is on the track of something. As the novelist John Fowles said, he was “a cat among the pigeons.”
Sir Arthur Evans has all the psychological and historical insight of, say, Hollywood. This palace is Disneyland without the self-awareness. Or perhaps it is Iraq and Iran according to Dick Cheney. It is a true monument to English imperialism.