Monday, August 01, 2011

Knossos .. Gnosis!

The road goes on and on in a winding course through life .. but where do your paths take you .. what have you learned on your trip .. what does the journey mean to you .. and if we ever meet again, what will you teach me?

Minoan culture was the epitome of Western thinking and society over 3500 years ago. Strategically situated in the centre of the world, the crossroads at the dawn of recorded civilisation; an age when mythological creatures and fabled characters from historical dramas roamed the earth, when the rituals of kings and chiefs demanded obeisance from slaves and tradesmen and the daily reality of continued survival against the elements was paramount in the battle for the hearts and minds of ordinary people.

Crete was home to many of the most fabulous heroes from stories now mingled with folklore in a web of operatic complexity. From Hercules to the Minotaur, from Icarus to Aphrodite this island has been the setting for a hundred epic tales of magic and mystery, and more than a few stories of love, betrayal and the tragedy of heartbreak – so, it’s no wonder I was attracted to the island!

At the time that their art, stories and architecture was peaking Moses had yet to lead his people through the desert, the Buddha had not been born and it was to be another 1500 years before anyone would hear of a Caesar. Based on the island of Crete in the eastern Mediterranean, they were situated at an intersection of history where advancements in technology and ability were giving opportunity to form a cohesive society through acquired knowledge, and they certainly created a lasting impression.

It was the early days of state-organised agriculture, shipbuilding, and massive construction projects to fulfil the ambitions of sovereigns and employ the masses and exacting stonework was still using bronze tools (with regular iron use still a few hundred years away). However, our ancestors had learned to use the knowledge they gained from one thing and apply it to another. Locked in a constant struggle for supremacy of thought through the creation of a meaningful society these masters of the known world with their architects, craftsmen and poets carved a culture that we wonder at to this day; and the crowds do come in their thousands to marvel.

Palace of the Gods

The grand palace of Knossos, while ostensibly designed by Daedelus (he of the wax and feather wings) to house the king, was purposefully built as demonstration of the potential of the era of those old gods. It stands today as a living testimony to the discoveries and vision of renowned explorers and archaeologists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sir Arthur Evans, the distinguished British archaeologist, was the first to uncover the secrets of this majestic palace near Iraklion, the modern capital of the island, making his reputation in the process. Although much of the contemporary placement of the structural elements, and the reasons he devised for the various components of the building are debatable in light of new evidence, his work is indisputably perceived as a mastermind of organised scientific research.

Many of the world’s most ancient and colourful frescoes adorn the walls – though most are now copies, with the originals in the Irakleon or British museums. However, the sense of grandeur remains. The famous blue monkey and octopus reliefs (that I first saw in books at university while taking a course in Greek archaeology) occupy the same room, though whether they did in the days of the King Minos is open to discussion, and will perhaps never be known.

The throne room may not have been a place for meeting the ruler. It could have been a sauna or even a bathing room, with its deep pool surrounded by painted columns. The small-scale ‘throne’ surrounded by paintings of feminine creatures suggests a ladies chamber rather than a place for the king to meet dignitaries or execute justice.

A Load of Old Bull

The bull is a recurring figure in ancient literature and religion and has been associated with the Cretan version of the Sun God. Mithras, the main challenger to Christ in the first couple centuries of the modern era was often represented as slaying a bull. Ba’al, the opponent of Judaism in Mosaic times was a bull – as depicted in the Old Testament as the representation of a ‘golden calf’. Ushi-Oni is a bull headed creature from Japanese mythology while the Mesopotamians had Shedu, and most will have heard of the centaur, a variation of the half-man half-bull with a horse’s body and man’s head though it is occasionally portrayed with a bull’s body.

The massive mural of the bull that sits atop the hill is an enduring symbol of the sacredness of this beast and the myth of the Minotaur that once roamed the labyrinth beneath the palace. The beast was the offspring of the king's wife Pasiphaë and a white bull. Aphrodite had caused her to fall in love with the bull after it was presented to Minos from Poseidon as sacrificial offering that he kept instead of slaughtering, thereby incurring the wrath of the gods. Daedalus built a hollow wooden cow that Pasiphaë hid within to enable her to copulate with the bull, subsequently giving birth to the monstrous Minotaur.

Although there are engravings and paintings in other locations and times of Pasiphaë suckling the Minotaur as a calf-child, in Cretan accounts the creature was soon imprisoned by the king and regularly appeased with sacrifices of young men and unwed girls from Athens due to a contract with Aegeus the king of Athens (accounts vary from every year to every 3 or even 9 years), after Androgeos, the son of Minos, was killed on an expedition to the mainland city.

However, one year a handsome young man of extraordinary skill named Theseus (the son of Aegeus, for whom the Aegean Sea is named) came calling from Athens and the daughter of Minos, the princess Ariadne, took a liking to him and his foreign ways. When he chose to face the challenge of escaping the maze without being gorged in order to win the hand of the princess, she was determined to ensure he succeeded. Secreting a ball of string in his pocket she gave him the means to find his way back through the labyrinth once he had fought the fierce creature.

However, as with all great Greek myths tragedy follows success. Theseus had promised his father that if he beat the Minotaur he would be flying a white sail upon his return, but in his excitement at having defeated the bull-headed monster and won the heart of Ariadne, he forgot to erect the sail.

Aegeus, watching for his return saw the ships from a distance and seeing no white sail assumed Theseus dead. In despair at the loss of his son he flung himself from the cliffs into the sea in a deliberate act of suicide. In retrospect it would have been sensible to be certain, and perhaps this is part of the moral – that hasty decisions can be regretted, however the typically intricate plots of Grecian myths often rely on these sudden extreme deeds.

The Way Back to the Future

Too often in our age these fabulous stories are not told from parent to child, nor are they taught in school they way they were only a couple generations ago. Without the skilled technical apprenticeships past generations were afforded, or a foundation in classical studies the English education system has become pointlessly mired in government established teaching methods and wishy-washy course studies. Greek, and particularly Latin, along with history and geography, were required subjects when I attended high school, however now there seems to be so much emphasis on civics and citizenship, sex education and anti-bullying behaviours that there simply isn’t space in the curriculum for ancient languages (the building blocks of grammar and key to understanding etymology), geography or the history of myths and origins of belief systems.

Whether you have read Homer’s Odyssey, seen some of the comedy/tragedy plays of the famous ancient authors or simply enjoyed watching the Adventures of Sinbad, you will have an idea of the mythology and history of this island paradise. Familiarity with the tales of Zeus and Poseidon, Apollo and Artemis, Talos, the man of metal who guarded the shores, Aphrodite and Daedalus, the designer of the palace who was interred due to his part in the bull affair, and his son Icarus who flew too close to the sun on his wings of wax during their escape, brings a real sense of appreciation for storytelling.

Once encountered, these tales give children a feeling of wonder while stimulating their imagination, and these magnificent sagas have historically played a part in our understanding of morality, relationship development and acquired wisdom – teach these stories and we can potentially eliminate so much of the anti-social behaviour that plagues modern schools, for it is the lack of connection with intelligent literature and art and no tangible link to history and social mores that causes youngsters to seek other outlets for expression. It isn't surprising to learn that the highest levels of teenage alcohol consumption and pregnancy are in the nations that have dissolved classical studies and removed vocational and technical courses from their link to advanced education.

The chronicles of heroes such as Hercules and Achilles and epic poems such as the Iliad teach us about ourselves and provide valuable insight into our own history and culture. Many of the stories in films and books released today are simply variations and retellings of the original ancient narratives but are simply perceived as temporary distractions. Without these fables we are a shadow of what we were, we become trapped in a present without substance, a life that exists without reference to its own wondrous evolution. We formed these narratives in universal metaphors that still retain a magical quality resonating with significance, and we would do well to return a portion of the education of our children to the importance of considering the traditional arts of their past, a history we now deny them.

Understanding where we came from and how we think about relationships with each other and the world about us is as important today as then. Even if we reduce everything to scientific fact, as humans we still crave anecdotes that amuse, enchant, beguile and entertain, for we are the story. We are the narrative of life as it slowly unravels like the ball of string to lead us home from the travails of everyday life to realise our dreams, and without the thread of a tale how can we understand who we are and how we arrived?

All of Life is Magical

The truth is that there are no ancient mysteries and no hidden knowledge. No magic words or symbols that unlock vast untapped potential in the spirit world have been shrouded in secrecy; the revelation is all around us, the natural environment and the human mind disclose all potential, accompanied by an organic and innate experience of self. The clues are here for all to see, if only we would open our eyes and realise what it all means.

All the wisdom of the ages is available to anyone willing to explore the world within and outside, for the created world is merely an extension of our capability to produce tangible structures from ideas that begin as formed thoughts – even science must recognise the truths inherent in the narrative, for we are the sum of our parts and not exclusively reflexive beings. One simply has to trust the trip and explore the farthest reaches of potential to understand that all knowledge is within us and accessible by connecting with others through a shared experience of open minds.

We struggle against ignorance with the search for philosophical and mathematical reality; with scientific examination of the physical world and spiritual exploration of our inner experience people are discovering the vastness of space, the microscopic organisms and enormous complexities that populate the cosmos and of course, the infinite expanse of mind.

It is a story that will never end and it is our responsibility to give credibility to potential and consideration to all life that we share this universe with, both in the past and the future while remembering that we live here and now in the present, and the present is a gift.

Open that gift and share it with the world – for as the future relies on the past we all depend on the shared wisdom of the ages to remind us where we come from. If we don’t know that we surely can’t say where we are going. Let’s keep that knowledge of ancient humanity alive, for they were we in ages past struggling for truth in a confusing world. As we too search for a way to make sense of the world today we need to remind ourselves of those myths and stories we created to inform and transform our sense of identity, and hopefully we can ensure an enlightened future paradigm guided by wisdom and knowledge of self: a complete self, living in reality but enthused by the narrative of dreams, aware and responsible for our place in this world today.

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I've been too busy over the past couple months to complete the changes to the Blog I'd hoped to make but was encouraged to at least post a couple articles I'd written but not published .. so, here's one of them - I thank you for reading. Minor apologies for the preaching, but with the freedom to teach culture and language one earns abroad the more narrowly focused the education system in the UK appears to be - oh, how I despised teaching secondary school there with its stifling and pointlessly exam-based curriculum that has reduced knowledge to a set of job-based criteria and teaching culture to unrelated over-simplified rituals and ethics devoid of explanation. University degree courses in England are wonderful for specialisation and expertise in one field, but useless at creating links between the various liberal arts and human sciences that are necessary for a well-rounded base of knowledge. Teaching courses and education generally suffer because of this tunnel vision. I am ever grateful for opportunities discovered in other places.

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