Sunday, April 15, 2007

Women in Minoan Culture

Urbanization dramatically changes social relations. In place of real, biological relationships based on kinship, urbanized cultures organize themselves around more abstract, less stable, and inherently unequal lines. In particular, urbanized society is organized around "class," that is, economic function, rather than kinship. Economic function produces a kind of social inequality, as administrators, kings, and priests, come to occupy economically more important roles (distribution and regulation) than others. While there is really no such thing as social mobility in the ancient world, class is inherently unstable as a way of organizing society.

Urbanization also produces a split in human experience; life is divided into a public and a domestic sphere. In small tribal societies, this split is non-existent or barely evident, but urbanization produces a marked distinction between these two spheres. Almost universally, men dominate the newly formed public sphere: administration, regulation, and military organizations. Social inequality, then, gets established along sexual lines as well as economic function. This is a dramatic and traumatic change for any society to go through; literally, the entire world view has to adapt dramatically to account for this new inequality. For instance, most religions probably began as goddess religions; the new urbanized societies, however, develop god religions in their place.

Crete, so singular in everything else, seems to have avoided this. Not only does Crete seem to be a class-based society where there is little class inequality, archaeological evidence suggests that women never ceased playing an important role in the public life of the cities. They served as priestesses, as functionaries and administrators, and participated in all the sports that Cretan males participated in. These were not backyard sports, either, like croquet. The most popular sports in Crete were incredibly violent and dangerous: boxing and bull-jumping. In bull-jumping, as near as we can tell from the representations of it, a bull would charge headlong into a line of jumpers. Each jumper, when the bull was right on top of them, would grab the horns of the bull and vault over the bull in a somersault to land feet first behind the bull. This is not a sport for the squeamish. All the representations of this sport show young women participating as well as men.

Women also seem to have participated in every occupation and trade available to men. The rapid growth of industry on Crete included skilled craftswomen and entrepreneurs, and the large, top-heavy bureaucracy and priesthood seems to have been equally staffed with women. In fact, the priesthood was dominated by women. Although the palace kings were male, the society itself does not seem to have been patriarchal.

Evidence from Cretan-derived settlements on Asia Minor suggest that Cretan society was matrilineal, that is, kinship descent was reckoned through the mother. We live in a patrilineal society; we spell out our descent on our father's side—that's why we take our father's last name and not our mother's last name. While we can't be sure that Cretan society was matrilineal, it is a compelling conclusion since the religion was goddess-based.