The mysterious ancient culture for now

Fashion was fascinated by Minoan chic too: in 1912, Spanish fashion and textile designer Mariano Fortuny created a silk scarf titled Knossos, inspired by Ancient Cretan costumes, which made his name. The textiles of fashion designer Yannis Tseklenis, a big international brand, featured ancient Greek vases and Byzantine manuscripts; while Gianni Versace’s bold, Hellenistic designs were a signature style, and became synonymous with 1970s and 80s Greek decadence. 

Given the Minoans’ influence on creatives, why do we seem to know less about them than other ancient civilisations? Nicoletta Momigliano, Professor of Aegean Studies at the University of Bristol, tells BBC Culture that one reason is “the Minoan civilisation was relatively circumscribed geographically, being found within the Aegean and Eastern Mediterranean regions – so they didn’t have the same geographical spread as the Romans, for example”. 

She adds: “Also the Minoans’ systems of writing – Linear A and Cretan Pictographic – have not been fully deciphered, and we do not know much about the languages they used. We have some written documents and can understand some of their content, but not much.” It’s difficult to decipher these texts, she says, because “unless you have something like the Rosetta Stone, you need to have lots of documents, just as when you decipher codes, as they did at Bletchley Park during the Second World War”.

‘Power, beauty and darkness’

But of all the finds at the Knossos ruins, one that caused the biggest sensation was the figures of the snake goddess. Found in 1903, the larger figure has a snake twining around its body and arms; a smaller figure holds snakes in each of her upraised hands. Both have bared breasts and bell-shaped skirts, said to suggest fertility and nature, while the snakes evoke the underworld.

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