Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.08.20

Cathy Gere, Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism.   Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2009.  Pp. x, 277.  ISBN 9780226289533.  $27.50.  

Reviewed by Nicoletta Momigliano, University of Bristol (
Word count: 3405 words

In this original, most readable, and at times mesmerizing book Cathy Gere provides an historical and intellectual context for Arthur Evans's discovery and reconstruction of Knossos and Minoan civilization. Above all, she illustrates the interpretation, reception and appropriation of Evans's Minoans by a glittering array of individuals, who shaped much of twentieth-century intellectual history. Beside the usual --archaeological--suspects (Heinrich Schliemann and Evans himself), Gere's subtle and well argued analysis links Knossos and Sigmund Freud, Pablo Picasso, Oswald Spengler, James Joyce, and Robert Graves, to name just a few of the fascinating characters who people the pages of this volume.

In the Introduction, the author explains that her aim is the opposite of archaeological: she is not searching for the "temples built by the people of the Bronze Age" but trying "to understand the temple builders of the age of concrete --the archaeologists, architects, artists, classicists, writers, and poets of the twentieth century A.D. who not only reconstructed Minoan Crete in modernist materials" (p. 5) but also "fashioned themselves as prophets" (p. 7).

The connection between archaeology, modernism, and modernity will come as no surprise to many readers of this review, since these themes have been discussed in a number of recent publications, including some specifically devoted to the reconstructions (intellectual and physical) of Minoan Crete as a modernist project, i.e. as a particular past "from which modern Europeans should wish to imagine their descent".1 These desirable ancestors were largely recreated by Evans's pen and what he called his "reconstitutions" of Knossos,2 which truly embody modernity in their use of that most-modern of building material, reinforced concrete. Modernism and modernity can help us to understand the production of archaeological knowledge at Knossos, but the archaeology of Knossos (as well as Troy and Mycenae) can also help us to understand the poetry of Graves and Joyce's Ulysses.

Modernist "prophecy", however, is an intriguing new prism through which Gere examines the relationship between Knossos and modernity, and in doing so she provides a captivating, charmingly idiosyncratic,3 and illuminating history of the rediscovery, reconstruction, and reception of Minoan Crete. Schliemann's and Evans's discoveries and, above all, their writings appear to be associated with an oracular style, a prophetic way of knowing the past, which also involved present and future, and was close to the literary styles of some modernist writers. To use Gere's words, "Modernist prophecy was at once a neoarchaic device for utopian world making, a visionary and intuitive way of knowing, and a rhetorical strategy through which to dismantle and reconstruct the Christian narrative of human origins...after the Biblical chronology had lost its credibility" (p. 7). Evans, and Schliemann before him, while unconsciously projecting onto the Aegean Bronze Age the anxieties and concerns of their times, provided new arenas in which modern utopias could be performed. Knossos, in particular, became "a site across which some of the most urgent political, spiritual, and aesthetic questions of the early twentieth century were asked and answered" (p. 5), such as the emergence of a post-Christian society, the relationship between genders, the rational (Apollonian) and irrational (Dionysian) impulses and outlooks (i.e., the modernist questioning of the legacy of Enlightenment's rationalism), the human desire for war and peace.

War and peace also arguably form the most important leitmotiv of this volume, and help to divide its time-frame into four basic periods, each structured around a war and its aftermath (namely the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, the Cretan insurrection of 1897, the Great War, and World War II), which are discussed over 7 chapters (and are preceded by the aforementioned Introduction and followed by a Conclusion).

Chapter 1, "The Birth of Tragedy, 1822-1897", provides a prologue to Evans's Knossos. The story, rather conventionally for this most unconventional book, starts with Schliemann's life and work --the German businessman turned archaeologist, whose excavations, to use Gere's words, "established the very existence of pre-Hellenic civilization and inspired a school of archaeology that gave material shape to mythical location" (p. 17). Albeit as a marginal criticism, I would argue that Schliemann's own work, and his very belief that Greek myths contained a great deal of historical truth, are not as original and as ground-breaking as is often portrayed in scholarly and popular histories of Aegean archaeology,4 a notion unfortunately reinforced in this volume. Schliemann's achievement is perhaps best understood in the context of the works produced by earlier scholars who had already started to explore the pre-Hellenic past not only through textual analysis (e.g. Karl Otfried Mueller in his Prolegomena zu einer wissenschaftlichen Mythologie and Die Dorier) but also excavations (e.g. François-Sébastien Fauvel and Georg Gropius). Thus, by starting with Schliemann's life and work, part of Chapter 1 treads on ground that is most familiar to Aegean Bronze Age archaeologists and Classical scholars alike, but Gere interestingly juxtaposes Schliemann's archaeological exploits with Nietzsche's prophetic visions of a post-Christian future of Dionysian neopaganism (Birth of Tragedy) as well as "wars such as there have never been on earth" (Ecce Homo). As she convincingly argues, Schliemann's excavations gave "flesh and blood" to the philosopher's Homeric heroes and their healthy pagan morality, his "blond Germanic beast" (p. 36), but it would be only three decades after the Birth of Tragedy that his theories would be used to interpret pre-Hellenic Greek religion, i.e. only when Evans's excavations at Knossos would be used to provide a material background to Nietzsche's Dionysian past and future. In short, Chapter 1 presents Schliemann and Nietzsche as two of the great modernist prophets linked to Knossos, because their works and appropriation by racial theorists in Germany (e.g. the hailing of Schliemann and Agamemnon as Übermenschen) and by later classical scholars, artists, and writers elsewhere prepared the background for the creation of a Dionysian, ecstatic, and feminine Knossos as an antithesis to Mycenaean-Homeric Teutonic militarism.

Chapter 2, ironically entitled "Stand-up Tragedy, 1851-1899", shows the beginning of the Nietzschean Übermensch's long (and, at times, comic) journey into pacifism and femininity via the new stage created by Evans's Knossos. This chapter, like the preceding, also partly explores very familiar territory, namely Evans's life until the start of his momentous excavations at Knossos, from his early upbringing and intellectual relationship with his father, to his travels and work as a political correspondent in the Balkans in his early youth, his marriage to Margaret Freeman, his Keepership of the Ashmolean Museum, and his first travels in Crete. It concludes with a discussion of the political situation in the island at the end of the nineteenth century, namely the 1897 insurrection and subsequent establishment of the Kretike Politeia under a High Commissioner appointed by European powers. The main point of this chapter is to underline that Evans's militaristic interpretations of Cretan archaeology of the mid-1890s were replaced by a more pacifist stance after he witnessed the atrocities committed by Christians and Muslims during the Cretan insurrection and its aftermath: "out of the violent hell of the struggle for Cretan independence was born the pacifist paradise of Minoan Crete" (p. 67), a paradise dominated by a Great Mother Goddess, who turned out to be none other than Ariadne --the most holy.

With Chapter 3, "Ariadne's Lament, 1900-1913", one enters less familiar territory, especially with Gere's analysis of de Chirico's paintings devoted to this Cretan heroine. As Gere rightly reminds us, Evans chose Minos as the ultimate symbol of the Cretan civilization, which he was uncovering and reconstructing at the same time, but he was equally fascinated by Ariadne, whom he had even ventured to place, albeit very briefly, on the famous Knossian throne, before restoring it to her father (p. 77, citing Harriet Boyd Hawes). Evans's fascination with Ariadne, and especially with her dances, runs side by side with his belief in prehistoric matriarchy and monotheism centred upon a Great Mother Goddess, theories that had gained wide currency from the mid-nineteenth century.5 Evans not only claimed to have discovered Ariadne's dancing floor at Knossos, but also linked it, in his characteristic evolutionary mind-frame, with the Athenian annual festival dedicated to her husband, the Great Dionysia --thus setting the scene for the fulfilment of Nietzsche's prophetic theories--as well as to traditional peasant dances (pp. 82-5). The Nietzschean Dionysian implications of Evans's interpretations, however, were worked out not by the British archaeologist himself, but by his contemporary, the classical scholar Jane Harrison, and were even given flesh by the dancer Isadora Duncan. On the one hand, Harrison celebrated irrationalism, the Great Mother Goddess, and the Minoan origins of the cult of Dionysos in some of her most famous works, such as Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion and Themis, in which this god became "the descendant of a female principle that required not taming or sublimation but rather reinstatement in all its Cretan glory" (p. 91). On the other, Duncan embodied Nietzsche's prophetic theories in her impromptu dance down the flights of the reconstructed Grand Staircase of Knossos --her performance expressing the "post-Nietzschean enthusiasm for the modernity of the Greek spirit" and showing how "liberated femininity...could insinuate itself into the new tragic age " (p. 95). The chapter concludes with two sections: one on the unification of Crete with Greece in 1913 and the Great War, and the other on the aforementioned de Chirico's pre-war paintings of Ariadne. Although de Chirico took drawing lessons in 1899 from one of Evans's collaborators at Knossos, Emile Gillieron (père), this was before the Swiss artist started working for Evans in the Minoan capital: the link between the Italian artist's paintings and Knossos is less direct and at the same time, deeper. Apart from the modernist look of some of the buildings in de Chririco's paintings, which remind one of Evans's restorations, it is really de Chirico's pacifism that links his works and Evans's, for "de Chirico's Nietzsche is the Nietzsche of the devotees of Knossos--not the philosopher of war or the inventor of the Übermensch, but the tormented prophet of modernism whose nihilism was the antidote to an exquisitely painful moral sensitivity" (p. 101).

Chapter 4, "The Concrete Labyrinth, 1914-1935", can perhaps be described as partly cultural history and partly psychoanalysis of some of Evans's reconstructions both at the site of Knossos and in the pages of his Palace of Minos, i.e. from the physical "reconstitution" of the Throne Room, to the racial and racist implication of the reconstructed Captain of the Blacks fresco in the pages of his magnum opus (Gere interestingly reminds us here that the Black Athena thesis was anticipated by George Wells Parker in his 1917 article "On the African Origin of Grecian Civilisation"). This chapter also includes a discussion of Evans's fanciful interpretation of other iconic Minoan images (the "The Grand Stand", "Priest King", and "Taureador" frescoes) and his acceptance of a number of fakes, such as the "Boston Goddess" and the "Boy-God", all put at the services of his pacifist and matriarchal vision of prehistoric Crete. Other scholars have discussed the notion that Evans's vision of a Mother Goddess-Boy God "dual monotheism" (to use a term coined by D.G. Hogarth) was largely influenced by nineteenth-century theories about matriarchy, Victorian idealisation of motherhood, and the loss of his own mother at a tender age.6 Some readers will not be entirely persuaded by Gere's psychoanalysis, but to my knowledge no other author has attempted such a precise juxtaposition and discussion of events in Evans's childhood with his scholarly writing, and she should at least be given credit for providing a more subtle and attentive reading of Evans's pages than many archaeologists who have devoted much of their life to his idolisation or character assassination. In a similar vein, some readers may perhaps feel that Gere's portrait of Evans as an out-and-out pacifist is perhaps rather one-sided, and that a more nuanced discussion of Evans's Pax Minoica could have been presented. In other words, Evans, as Gere herself and others before her have recognized, was man full of contradictions: despite his undeniable pacifism, he was not completely oblivious to the militaristic and imperialistic traits of his beloved Minoans, since, after all, he believed that they had conquered and ruled much of the Aegean. Evans, whose knowledge of ancient history was remarkable, modelled his Pax Minoica on the Pax Romana, which he could hardly have conceived as a peaceful enterprise.7 These, however, are minor points: it is clear that Evans's pacifist message was the stronger and certainly the most enduring. The chapter concludes with some original and intriguing remarks about Evans's interpretation of butterfly depictions on Minoan and Mycenaean artefacts, such as the "Ring of Nestor", in terms of representations of the Minoan soul or "psyche". Gere describes Evans's writings on this subject as updated Keatsian romanticism, and convincingly suggests that it was precisely Evans's archaeological method and rhetorical style that made his work close to that of modernist literature: it was his "combination of magic, mythology and science, the distillation of sexual essences and symbolic archetypes, the central obsession with the figure of woman--that left its mark on the Dionysian art of the twenties and thirties" (139).

This forms the nexus with the following Chapter 5, "Psyche's Labyrinth, 1919-1941", which focuses on the relationship between Schliemann's and Evans's work and modernist literature, art, and psychoanalysis --from Joyce's Ulysses to Spengler's Decline of the West, and from Merezhkovsky's The Birth of Gods to Kazantzakis's The Odyssey: a Modern Sequel, via T.S. Eliot's essays, Picasso's paintings, and Miller's Colossus of Maroussi. It is in this period between the two World Wars that Crete's femininity and pacifism become more and more entrenched beyond the archaeological world. The main focus of the chapter, however, is the fascinating psychoanalytical encounter between Freud and the American-born Imagist poet Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), and their reception and appropriation of Minoan Crete in their works. For Freud, on the one hand, Minoan Crete represented the earliest, pre-Oedipal, mother-fixated phase in human history that corresponded to a stratum in the brain: it was an important element in his theory of inherited memory, which found its fuller expression in his Moses and Monotheism. For H.D, on the other, Minoan Crete represented an archetype of the soul's transformations and liberation of female sexuality (as discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). The chapter concludes with the outbreak of World War II, the battle of Crete, and Evans's death.

Chapter 6, "The Rebirth of Comedy, 1942-49"--thus entitled because the late modernist reconstructions of Minoan society discussed here "represent both a farcical and poignant distillation of Evans's prophecies of peace" (p. 178)--traces in more detail H.D's Minoan modernist pacifism and feminism in her unpublished manuscript "The Majic Ring" [sic] and her epic trilogy of war poems; it also analyses the Minoan elements and inspirations in Robert Graves's Seven Days in New Crete and The White Goddess. For both writers Minoan Crete symbolised the opposition to the atrocities of the present, "a prelapsarian past pointing the way to a future utopia" (p. 178), and with their pacifism and celebration of femininity they anticipated by twenty years the pacifism and counter-culture of the 1960s.

Chapter 7, "The Birth of Farce, 1950-2000", traces the often preposterous appropriation of Evans's Minoans from post-war times to post-modernity, from flower-lovers to warlike Minoans, starting with the archaeologist and art-historian Henriette Groegenwegen-Frankfort, who, in her influential work, Arrest and Movement, celebrated Minoan grace, spontaneity, and communion with the rhythms of life and nature, and opened the floodgates to even more beatnik reinventions of prehistoric Crete. The chapter continues with the Jungian classicist Karl Kerenyi, who underlined the Dionysian character of the Minoans and turned them into peaceful opium users à la de Quincey, a vision largely shared by the archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes, who further stressed their femininity and sexual liberation. The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas extended this matriarchal paradise to the rest of prehistoric Eurasia, and Minoan Crete became a last bastion of happiness before it succumbed to Aryan hordes of war-like patriarchs. In this chapter Gere also makes brief reference to Evans's Minoans in the Black Athena controversy, rightly noting that Evans's belief in the strong Libyan and Egyptian links with the Cretan world do not quite fit Bernal's European chauvinistic scheme.

With the last quarter of the twentieth and the early twenty-first century Gere returns to the work of archaeologists rather than the appropriations of artists, writers, psychoanalysts, etc., and charts their revisions of some of Evans's most cherished ideas: his pan-Minoan theory of Minoan domination of the Aegean till the end of the second millennium BC (exploded by the decipherment of Linear B); the critique of Evans's use of his own evidence (see, e.g., Palmer's half of On The Knossos Tablets); the discovery of evidence suggesting that the Minoans practiced human sacrifice and, worse, ritual cannibalism; and last but not least, the challenging of the very notion of Minoan pacifism by various scholars, including those involved in the ongoing "Minoan Roads" programme. This project comprises in its investigations the remains of roads and fortified buildings to which Evans had attributed a military nature in the mid-1890s. The Minoans have thus come back full circle to being the warlike people of Evans's early travels in Crete, before they were turned into peaceful priest kings and priestess-queens or flower-loving and drug-using hippies by the horrors of the wars, which punctuated European and world history from 1870 until the Cold War.

The Conclusion curiously starts with what reads like an introduction: a retrospective reflection on how this work emerged, a summary and explanation of the unifying themes, partly repeating and partly clarifying what has already been discussed in the introduction. It concludes, however, very appropriately, with a look at the past, present, and future, and its own prophetic utterance, by offering this work as a prehistory of the future, i.e. as an "attempt to reconstruct a relatively benign ancestry for the twenty-first-century revival of the essentialist synthesis" (p. 234). In other words, in the late nineteenth century, with the acceptance of Darwinian evolutionism, human history came to be seen as "little more than an extension of natural history" (p. 233). This attitude has seen a revival after the discovery of DNA, and recent advances in mapping genetic codes and histories: "evolutionary pressure", genetic and neurological data are nowadays utilized more and more for reductive, deterministic explanations of our complex social behaviour. Will this new genetic determinism be used to reinforce racist views, or will it be used in a more liberal way? People like Evans, Freud, and H.D. used the same essentialist material available to fascist ideology, but represent a more "benign ancestry" because they championed opposite political ends: pacifism, philo-Semitism, and feminism.

To sum up, this is a rich, brilliant, and well-researched volume, which is also a pleasure to read. In describing Freud's work, Gere remarks on his ability to create a system of correspondences between past, present, and future almost like a "mystical totality of signs, a system of correspondences within which any aspect of life was intelligible in relation to a great web of parallels and resemblances..." (pp. 170-1), which interestingly reminds one of descriptions of the Renaissance Wunderkammer or Cabinet of curiosities as "ordered by sympathy, allegory, and correspondence".8 I think there is something of this wondrous quality in Gere's ability to discover links, connections, and underlying meanings in a dazzling array of archaeological, literary, and artistic works as well as between past, present, and future.

From an archaeological point of view, this volume complements and adds considerably to a relatively new but growing body of more reflective and multidisciplinary approaches to Aegean Bronze Age archaeology.9 While the focus is on Knossos, Evans, and his influential vision of Minoan Crete, the author has interesting things to say also about Schliemann, Troy, and the Mycenaeans. For these reasons, and despite the author's statement that her aims are not archaeological, this volume should be required reading for any Aegean Bronze Age archaeologist (whether established scholar or student) who pays attention to the history of her/his discipline. It will also appeal to Classicists with an interest in pre-Hellenic and pre-Classical Greece, and their reception. Factual errors are few and do not have implications for the overall argument, such as the mistaken idea that the term 'Minoan' had not been coined by 1895 and, by implication, was later invented by Evans (p. 65), while in fact it has been in use since the 1830s;10 typographical errors are more abundant (but the blame should rest with the publisher, professional proof readers and copy-editors --not with the author).


1.   D. Preziosi, 2002. "Archaeology as Museology: Re-thinking the Minoan past", in Y. Hamilakis (Ed) Labyrinth Revisited: Rethinking 'Minoan' Archaeology (2002), p. 32. For some recent literature on archaeology, modernity and modernism see e.g. J. Thomas, Archaeology and Modernity (2004); J. Schnapp, M. Shanks, and M. Tiews, "Archaeology, Modernism, Modernity", Modernism-Modernity 11.1 (2004) 1-16; J. Papadopoulos, "Inventing the Minoans: Archaeology, Modernity and the Quest for European Identity," Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 18 (2005) 87-149; Y. Hamilakis and N. Momigliano (Eds), Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the 'Minoans' (2006).
2.   A.J. Evans, "Work of reconstitution in the Palace of Knossos", Antiquaries Journal 7(3) (1926): 258-267.
3.   Idiosyncratic in the sense that it reflects Gere's own choice of primary sources, i.e. archaeologists, poets, historians, etc. and the works (whether texts or paintings) to be discussed in this volume. Other scholars writing similar histories of the rediscovery, reconstruction and reception of Minoan Crete would, no doubt, make equally idiosyncratic selections.
4.   See e.g. C.W. Ceram, Graves, Gods and Scholars (first published in 1949); P.M. Warren, The Aegean Civilizations (1975); W.A. McDonald and C.G. Thomas, Progress into the Past: The Rediscovery of Mycenaean Civilization (1990); J.L.Fitton, The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age (1995).
5.   E.g. R. Hutton, "The Neolithic Great Goddess: A Study in Modern Tradition", Antiquity 71 (1997): 91-9.
6.   C. Morris, "From Ideologies of Motherhood to 'Collecting Mother Goddesses'", in Hamilakis and Momigliano (Eds) Archaeology and European Modernity: Producing and Consuming the 'Minoans' (2006): 69-78; for the term "dual monotheism" see A. Peatfield, "Minoan Religion", in D. Huxley (Ed) Cretan Quests: British Explorers, Excavators, Historians (2000): 141.
7.   On Evans's familiarity with Roman history see Joan Evans Prelude and Fugue: An Autobiography (1964): 97.
8.   J. Thomas, Archaeology and Modernity (2004): 15
9.   E.g. J.F. Cherry, D. Margomenou, L.E. Talalay, Prehistorians Round the Pond: Reflections on Aegean Prehistory as a Discipline (2005); P.Darcque, M. Fotiadis, O.Polychronopoulou, Mythos: La préhistoire égéenne du XIXe au XXIe siècle après J.-C. (2006).
10.   See N. Karadimas and N. Momigliano, "On the term 'Minoan' Before Sir Arthur Evans's work in Crete (1894)", Studi Micenei ed Egeo Anatolici 46.2 (2004): 243-258. Other minor mistakes include the following: (p. 1) the Villa Ariadne stands west and northwest, not north of the palace; (p. 71) Chania, not Candia (modern Herakleion) was the main administrative centre or 'capital' of Crete at that time; (p. 93) the "1976 Aerial Atlas of Ancient Crete" was in fact published in 1992, as correctly reported in the relevant notes and bibliography; (p. 105) suggests that Evans started writing The Palace of Minos at the start of the Great War, but there is archival evidence showing that he had started planning and indeed writing a draft of it at least 4 years earlier: see N. Momigliano, "A note on A.J. Evans's The Palace of Minos: a Comparative Account of the Successive Stages of the Early Cretan Civilization as Illustrated by the Discoveries at Knossos", in P.P. Betancourt, V. Karageorghis, R. Laffineur and W.-D. Niemeier (Eds) MELETEMATA: Studies in Aegean Archaeology Presented to Malcolm H. Wiener as he enters his 65th Year (1999): 493-501.

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