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Restoring faith: at the end of the 19th century, with religious belief under increasing attack, the British antiquarian Arthur Evans sought to 're-enchant' the world with his utopian interpretation of Crete's ancient Minoan civilisation.


In 1830 Auguste Comte laid out his scheme of the three phases of human development, culminating in the 'positive' stage in which belief in demons and gods would be supplanted by an understanding of natural laws. Just eight years later, Charles Darwin began his descent from a robust young man to a neurotic invalid as he wrestled with the atheistic implications of his theory of natural selection. Friedrich Nietzsche announced the death of God in 1882. In 1919, Max Weber unveiled his argument about the progressive 'disenchantment' of the world caused by the decline of religious belief.

Accompanying this ebbing tide of faith were repeated attempts to do something to slow down or reverse the flow--to 're-enchant' the godless universe. The most exuberant manifestations of this impulse stemmed from poets and artists, but scientists also proffered their own solutions to the 'anomie' of materialism. Physicists proposed vital links between electricity, animal magnetism and nervous fluid. Chemistry inspired Goethe's vision of love as elective affinity, linking human romantic desire with the attractive forces that structure natural substances. Biologists exhorted their followers to look to nature for moral guidance. By the end of the 19th century Romantic pantheism (the belief that God is identifiable with nature) had largely been supplanted by an eclectic neo-paganism inspired by anthropologists' and archaeologists' extensive catalogues of prehistoric rituals, myths and votive symbols.

Of all the peddlers of scientific spirituality, perhaps none was quite so passionately effective as the eccentric British antiquarian Arthur Evans, whose excavation and reconstruction of the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete began in 1900 when he was 49. For Evans archaeology was always as much about shaping the future as reconstructing the past. At the very beginning of his career, in the context of an uprising against the Ottoman rulers of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he had reconstructed the Roman past of the region in the image of his hopes for its peaceful and prosperous democratic future. By the time he came to excavate Knossos, this optimistic antiquarianism had taken on a more universal cast. Horrified by the geopolitical catastrophes unfolding around him, he offered his war-torn age a scientific vision of life before the fall; Minoan society reconstructed as western civilisation's earliest blossoming, a gilded infancy suckled by a benevolent mother goddess, a time of peace and plenty on a beautiful island protected by the sea.


The pacifism of the Minoan world was born of a deliberate political decision on Evans's part. The excavation of Knossos could only proceed after Crete had won its independence from the Ottoman Empire in the disastrous Greco-Turkish war of 1897. When Evans returned to Crete after the fighting was over, he found the island devastated by a series of Muslim-Christian massacres which had left the productive fields and peaceful villages that he loved in smoking ruins. He had already bought the olive grove under which Knossos lay buried and in the spring of 1900--after firing off a series of furious, despairing bulletins to the Manchester Guardian about the political situation--he began to dig.

In his first published report, Evans boasted that he had organised his excavation as a site of healing and reconciliation, employing both Muslim and Christian workers and insisting that they perform the Labyrinth dance together in the Great Court of Knossos in celebration of their shared pagan heritage. He also suppressed the evidence he had already amassed for Minoan military installations and set about resurrecting Bronze Age Crete as an unfortified idyll in the best British style--internally peaceful under the benign administration of the Palace of Knossos and protected from its enemies without by the 'wooden walls' of King Minos's legendary navy.

That the 'first Europeans' were unwarlike quickly became a cherished myth. As the 20th century launched conflicts of ever greater reach and ferocity, artists and intellectuals from many different walks of life began to celebrate the Minoan epoch as the pacifist precursor to Homer's militaristic age of heroes: a luminous, feminine, fairy-tale exception to an otherwise lamentable human record of violence and hatred. By 1915 the crisis of rationalism produced by the death of God had turned into a full-blown repudiation of scientific progress in the face of the 'civilised nations' systematically slaughtering each other's young. Evans's visionary reconstruction of Knossos was the product of a time and place in which poets, charged with the task of making sense of a culture-annihilating descent into war, became for a fleeting, fragile moment the acknowledged legislators of truth.

Evans's pacifist utopia was, of course, replete with contradictions. Beginning in 1906, he caused large areas of the Palace to be rebuilt in reinforced concrete, ending up with a complex of modernist pseudo-ruins that stand today as a monument to the questionable taste of his artists and architects. He used industrial methods and materials to reinvent the myths of antiquity; he was a racist who argued for the African origins of western civilisation, an ageing Boy Scout who championed the theory of matriarchy. But despite, or perhaps because of, their paradoxes and delinquencies, Evans's Minoans left their footprints all over the wilder shores of modernist culture, tempting James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Giorgio de Chirico, Hilda Doolittle, Sigmund Freud, Henry Miller and Robert Graves into the labyrinth of Cretan mythology in pursuit of answers to the riddle of human violence.



It was Evans's paper reconstructions of ancient Crete that reached deepest into the modernist avantgarde. In thousands of pages of lyrical prose and bewitching images he presented a full-blown theology of the ancient Cretan Mother Goddess in all her aspects. Manifesting as a dove, a mountain lion, a chrysalis, or a woman with snakes spiralling up her arms, Evans's Minoan goddess was a fertile virgin and peaceful warrior, ancestress of Artemis, Ariadne and Psyche. In the deep closet that sheltered his homosexuality, the archaeologist recreated the island as an invert's paradise of female deities, cross-dressing priests and girl athletes. From the Boer War to the Cold War, despairing pacifists, feminists and neo-pagans sought comfort in his vision of a world ruled by the feminine principles of birth, life and resurrection.


Evans worked at a time when the early Greeks were extolled as eugenically perfect specimens of the Aryan race, but he had no truck with this version of the origins of Europe. According to Evans, Minoan society was peopled by immigrants from Libya, Egypt and Anatolia, linked to sub-Saharan Africa in a network of peaceful commerce and reciprocal cultural influence. In 1933, a follower of Marcus Garvey (founder of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League) published an article entitled 'African Origin of Grecian Civilisation', claiming (horribly prematurely as it turned out) that Evans's discoveries had 'completely destroyed the ethnic fetish of the Caucasian race'.

No wonder, then, that a new generation would rediscover the consolations of Minoan pacifism in the wake of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. The great postwar prophet of ancient Crete was Robert Graves, whose White Goddess (1948) and Seven Days in New Crete (1949) reinvented Evans for the nuclear age and set the stage for the Minoans' serial metamorphoses into beatniks, peaceniks, hippies and feminists. By the 1980s popular interpretations of ancient Crete had become flagrantly political. For anti-nuclear activists, Crete was the last outpost of a peaceful, egalitarian, matriarchal, nature-worshipping civilisation that was destroyed by warmongering Aryan pastoralists sweeping down from the Caucasus mountains. For adherents of the 'Black Athena' thesis, who held that western civilisation originated in Africa, Bronze Age Crete was the essential link in a chain of cultural transmission connecting the Black pharaohs of Middle Kingdom Egypt with Classical Greece.

In the meantime, scholars were busy dismantling the more utopian aspects of Evans's vision. In the 1990s, groups of archaeologists began to revisit the fortifications and castles that Evans had written about a century earlier, before the disastrous Greco-Turkish war persuaded him to sacrifice his scholarly integrity for the cause of political reconciliation. Maybe because of the retreat of the threat of 'mutually assured destruction', the pacifist appropriation of Evans's work ran out of steam after the end of the Cold War and the Minoans were finally allowed to retire from their long career as the doves of the ancient world. The game is up and we can no longer seek our utopias in the Bronze Age, but perhaps the artists, writers, poets and psychologists who recreated ancient Crete in modernist materials have their own contribution to make to the history of that most elusive of human aspirations, the dream of peace.
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Title Annotation:TODAY'S HISTORY
Author:Gere, Cathy
Publication:History Today
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 1, 2009
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