The Minoans as Hippies (and an Etruscan Thought)

When I was an undergrad, one of my professors liked to compare the Minoans to the hippies of the 1960s. My teacher isn’t the only one who has made this comparison. In fact, recently Minoan lilies were cleverly dubbed “the ancient equivalent of flower power.”1

My teacher pointed out that the Minoans were very interested in nature (as evident in their art, which often depicts animals and plants) and used opium. And I think one could even (jokingly) say that the bright colors in some of the frescoes (like the hills in the Spring Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera, before 1630 BCE, shown above left) are “psychedelic.”2

I don’t mind the hippie comparison, especially if it can help students to differentiate between the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. I do think it’s important, though, for students to know that the comparison isn’t perfect. For example, the fact that the Minoans had fortifications (despite what Sir Arthur Evans argued) and were possibly involved in human sacrifices suggest that these people weren’t all about love and peace.

Speaking of Minoans and the Spring Fresco, I was struck today about how there are some similarities between this painting and a tomb painting from the Etruscan period (“Boys Climbing Ricks and Diving,” from Tomb of Hunting and Fishing in Tarquinia, late 6th century BC, shown right). Both paintings depict brightly colored hills (with the mounds divided into multiple colors). In both cases, the hills are adorned with spindly vegetation (the Spring Fresco depicts stylized lilies, but I don’t think there is enough detail to identify the Etruscan plant). Additionally, the two paintings have birds darting about in the air. I know that over 1,000 years separate these frescoes (not to mention that they are from different geographic areas – the Minoans were on islands in the Aegean Sea and the Etruscans were on mainland Italy), but I think the similarities are interesting.

1 Mary Beard, “Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery,” in The New York Review of Books (August 13, 2009). Available online here.

2 However, I only make the psychedelic comparison with students as a joke. It has been noted that the bright colors of the rocks are actually quite naturalistic. “The colors may seem fanciful to us, but sailors today who know the area well attest to their accuracy, suggesting that these artists recorded the actual color of Thera’s wet rocks in the sunshine, a zestful celebration of the natural world.” See Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 92.

  • heidenkind says:

    Those rocks always make me think of Dr. Seuss books.

  • M says:

    Me too, heidenkind! I actually was going to write about how they seem Seussian, but then I forgot to add that point after writing my second footnote. I'm glad you added that. 🙂

  • H Niyazi says:

    I've always been fascinated by these pre-classical societies. It's amazing we have a remnant of them at all.

    UK Historian Bettany Hughes did a great show on it, exploring Crete and the Palace of Knossos – which you can see here:

    Ancient Worlds – The Minoans

    Kind Regards

  • M says:

    Thanks for this link, H Niyazi! I started to watch it, and I'm excited to see the rest of the documentary. It looks interesting. For anyone who is interested, another documentary on the Minoan Palace of Knossos is found here:

    (I was reminded of this clip when viewing the beginning of H Niyazi's clip. The scenes recreating the Theseus/Minotaur battle are a little similar in costume and setup. They're both low-budget scenes, but they're still entertaining.

  • LeGrand says:

    This post just really rang so true for me today. I was just teaching minoan art two weeks ago, and have always described them to my students as the hippies of the aegean (because I had the same teacher you did!). I love the comparison but really try to stress the hippieness comes more from a love for nature (and opiates!) and not pacificism.

    To make the point, I always show them examples of minoan weaponry seen in their paintings. So of course grading exams this week, I got to read over and over that they were peace loving pansies who never went to war! Ah well. Like you say, at least they know they aren't mycenaeans.

  • e says:

    This post brings up a whole other subject (at least in my mind). It makes me think about/wonder about other famous pieces of art that were created when the artist was "high". Do you have any famous examples?

  • M says:

    LeGrand – yay! You teach the hippie method too! CF would be so proud. Even though students sometimes do get confused (too bad some your students got a little too excited about the comparison), I do think it's a good distinction, for the most part.

    e: Interesting question! I don't know of any examples of the top of my head, but I'll let you know if I can find some. Along these lines, though, I did go to a show at the Whitney which was devoted to psychedelic art. I'm pretty sure that some of the artists in the show were high when creating a couple of these pieces (or, on the other hand, one was supposed to be high when viewing the pieces) but there isn't a famous example that stands out to me.

  • Olga says:

    I love your blog. Thanks for sharing with me; glad to be here.
    I am really interested in the natural ingredients that were used in different time periods. I wonder why they stay so bright for such a long time. Natural ingredients are supposed to bleach easily, no ?

  • e says:

    That's very interesting. 🙂

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.