12 Dec 2009

The myth of the secular

"The context and state of the archaeological record have relegated peak sanctuaries to marginal areas in the study of Minoan society. This situation is worsened by our analytical tendency to separate religious and secular spheres and components of Minoan society - a condition no more viable for the Bronze Age than for the Classical Aegean."
Donald C. Haggis in Chaniótis, From Minoan farmers to Roman traders: Sidelights on the economy of ancient Crete (1999) p.74

First an Egyptian example

Since Egyptian language, politics and mythology are now well understood, Egyptologists are no longer as free as they may have been in the ignorance of the 19th or early 20th century to make false descriptions about Egyptian art and its origins. Najovits in Egypt, Trunk of the tree, Vol. 2‎ (2003) (see link) misapplies the word 'secular' on page 144 when discussing the art during the reign of Akhenaten:
"Even if it was not always the case, Amarna art encouraged a new type of art with secular, casual implications. Rather than primarily being an official, idealized art which praised the pharaoh and the gods, illustrated religious dogmas and served as 'equipment' for the afterlife, scenes such as relaxed, warm family life, intimacy and affection, playing, preparing food, farming and hunting came more to the forefront." (boldface mine)
The overemphasis on secularism misleads since the art of this period, as shown below, remained littered with religious motifs (ie. solar disks with extended arms, ankhs, lotuses, divine offerings, etc.). Thanks to Google Images, this can be readily seen by everyone. Anything but 'secular', the art behind Akhenaten's new heliocentric cult was indeed "an idealized art" of its own, naturalistic in defiance of the more polished art before it, which continued to praise both pharaoh and deity as it always had. No one can credibly insist that these scenes are in origin secular, nor secular on the surface. These scenes are simply not secular at all. More naturalistic, yes, but not secular.

Secularist views in Minoan studies

On page 275 of Pendlebury's The archaeology of Crete: An Introduction, first published in 1939, his secularist prejudice imposed itself upon his description of Minoan culture, but where verifiable facts in modern Egyptology amply limit this indulgently sanitized interpretation, the continued poverty of knowledge in Minoan studies concerning the exact politics, religion and language of the Minoans reduces standards (see link):
"Minoan art shows clearly that, while much of the artist's work consisted of depicting scenes of a religious or semi-religious nature, yet he certainly had a quick observant eye for wild life and a sense of the country which is unparalleled in antiquity. His natural vitality was expressed in his representation of such sports as boxing and the bull-leaping which, however much they may have become bound up with religion, must in origin have been purely secular, and the outcome of a love of physical exertion which is only now returning to the Aegean." (boldface mine)
Pendlebury's baseless insistance that bull-leaping scenes on Minoan frescoes must in origin be secular is an irrational assertion, and was even so when he first wrote it. Kyle, Sport and spectacle in the ancient world (2007), p.45 (see link) places Minoan bull-leaping rites in their proper religious context and in the context of the greater Mediterranean cultural complex:
"Bull games, with bulls sacred to or representing the Storm-god, seem to have been part of traditional Hittite religious ceremonies."
No shock there. The classical Greek tale of Theseus and the Minotaur already hints at the underworld symbolism of the Cretan bull and labyrinth motifs. It's lunatic on its face that any decent scholar would suggest that ancient people had randomly decided to leap over bulls for the sake of desperate heroism and stubbornly ignore religious motive behind the clearly non-rational act that would fully explain it all. Religious origins to seemingly 'secular' acts are seen throughout the world. Note for example the 'secular' Mayan ballgame inspired by the myth of the Hero Twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque.

Contrastively, the beliefs of Pendlebury and ilk have no basis in cultural reality nor even in rationality in general. It's the product of a stunted, overanalytical mind that demands unfairly that all ancient art, art which is by nature expressive and non-rational, must be reduced to purely non-religious origins and meanings, even when a religious interpretation is wholly unavoidable given a competent understanding of greater context.

Rodney Castleden in Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete (1990) on page 75 (see link) gives us a more realistic perspective on Minoan art:
"The naturalistic treatment of plants and animals is deceptive: it is often quite inaccurate. The rock-rose, for instance, is given six petals instead of five. Some plants defy identification. The mythic animals are an even stronger reminder that the fresco artists were depicting another world than the everyday one; it is a symbolic world where general concepts such as fecundity were more important than accuracy of detail. A favourite plant in the frescoes is the papyrus, treated in various decorative ways: but the papyrus did not, as far as we know, grow in Crete in the Minoan period, so the frescoes do not factually depict the Cretan landspace. The papyrus may have been a borrowing from Egyptian art which to the Minoans held some symbolic value. Certainly we should not see the Minoan frescoes as simple interior decoration."


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