The People of the Sea

“I don’t care how much gold Pharaoh Khamose has offered. You can tell him from me that the People of the Sea will not allow their ships to be used to carry his armies or those of any other nation.” The voice of King Minos – the first to carry that name – rang out over the head of User, the Egyptian plenipotentiary, who stood a little way off, his head politely inclined as he listened to the answer to his request.

“Are you quite sure that there is nothing Egypt can do to change your mind, Sovereign?” replied User, glancing at the king’s two brothers Rhadamanthus and Sarpedon for some sign of weakness or disagreement. “Your fleet is the largest and most powerful in the world.”  The brothers’ faces remained expressionless.

“We have never involved ourselves in military matters – and I don’t intend to start now,” said Minos. “The subject is closed.”

User bowed and silently withdrew from the royal chamber.

Minos sat down on the carved gypsum throne against the wall whilst his two younger brothers sat on gilded wooden stools on either side of him.

“Was that wise, brother?” said Sarpedon.

“I agree,” said Rhadamanthus. “We should not anger the Egyptians. They have a huge army and we have none.”

“What can they do about it?” said Minos. “You heard the man. They cannot transport their soldiers without our ships.  We are quite safe here in the middle of the sea.  How will they invade us – fly?”

“The risk is minimal and they would pay us handsomely,” said Sarpedon.

“We are the world’s traders,” said Minos. “We already have as much of their gold as we can possibly use.”
“One can always use more gold,” said Sarpedon.

“Enough, brothers,” said Minos. “I am the first among us. It is decided.”

“We’ve not heard the last of this,” said Rhadamanthus as he and Sarpedon rose to leave the chamber. “The world is changing.  We should arm ourselves.”

“We are sailors not soldiers,” said Minos. “I put my faith in our command of the sea-lanes and in the protection of the Great Mother as I have always done.  No enemy has ever crossed these shores and none ever will.  Now leave me in peace.  Tell Rusa to come and see me on your way out.”

The royal architect swiftly appeared: “Sovereign?”

“Rusa, old friend, it has not been a good day.  How are the plans progressing?  Have you got anything to cheer me up?”

“Yes, Sovereign, I might have.  I have been thinking about the problem of the colonnades in the palace.  We know that stone columns crack when the Great Mother shrugs and the earth trembles.  But if we use wooden columns I believe they will continue to stand just as the cedars do in the forest.”

“Will they not try to grow again – put down new roots – and disturb the very foundations.”

“I believe not.  Not if we turn the trunks upside-down, Sovereign.”

King Minos and Rusa happily continued exchanging ideas until supper time about the design and technicalities of building his palace at Knossos.

“Rusa, it will be magnificent.”

“A great king deserves a great palace, Sovereign.”

“You know I don’t enjoy flattery, Rusa. But thank you anyway.”

Later that evening, Minos made his way alone to the small stone building that served as the entrance to the Great Mother’s temple deep in the cave that stretched back into the rocky hill behind.  Bira the high priestess was standing in the doorway when he arrived.

“You knew I was coming?” said Minos.

“She knew. She knows everything,” said Bira. “Come in, Sovereign. Have some wine. Tell me what is on your mind.”

Minos sat on a stone bench and gratefully took the proffered cup.  “Priestess,” he said. “You know that I have always tried to live in accordance with Her wishes.  She has favoured me greatly with power and wealth in this world.  I believe she has always protected me and the People of the Sea but I am concerned. Nation fights against nation and the Egyptian Pharaoh wants to involve us in his military escapades.  I have refused but my brothers think differently. They say we should take his gold, that we should arm ourselves.  I know that they are wrong but what should I do to defend our land? What does She want me to do?”

“Sovereign,” said Bira. “You have served Her as faithfully as any man could.  I will ask Her on your behalf what She wants from you to preserve your line and protect the people.  But beware.  You and your heirs must do whatever She demands or the consequences will be terrible.  Are you willing to undertake whatever she asks of you?”

Minos sat silently for several minutes. “For her protection, I will do whatever she demands,” he said.  Then he stood up and returned to his own quarters, the road lit by flickering torches in sconces on the walls of the buildings that lined the way.  He lay beside his queen, Pinaruti, and closed his eyes but he did not sleep until nearly dawn.

The high priestess prepared.  She fasted for three nights and days; only a few sips of water passed her lips.  During this time, her maidens scoured the hills for wild crocuses from which they carefully picked the stamens, taking great pains to leave all the plants alive and otherwise undamaged.  They pounded the minute stems of saffron into a yellow paste which they dried in the sun until it turned into powder – a small cupful in all.  They took fresh white pigment from the storage jars in the temple and mixed it with freshly pressed olive oil to make an ointment.  They washed and dried their mistress’s long flounced skirt.  They put out bowls of goat’s milk to feed the temple snakes and draw them out from the crevices and dark recesses of the cave where they usually lived so they could catch them and put them into a basket beside the altar stone.

At nightfall on the fourth day, two of them went to dress the high priestess. Bira was waiting for them, wide-eyed and weary in her room, faint from lack of food. They helped her to her feet, stripped off the loose cotton robe she had been wearing, held her arms and led her down the stone steps into the lustral bath. Pink and white oleander blossoms floated on the surface of the warm perfumed water. They rubbed her skin clean with soft sponges, washed her hair with jugs of sage-infused water, and gave her a cup of cold water and a fibrous stick to rinse her mouth and clean her teeth.

The two handmaids led the high priestess back out of the bath and dried her with linen towels.  When she was quite dry, one of them smeared Bira’s arms and upper body with the white ointment they had prepared earlier . The other brought out the freshly laundered skirt, held it open for Bira to step into, then cinched it tight under her breasts. The high priestess was ready. The bath had revived her and she walked unaided along the underground passageway deep into the cave to the altar.  The basket-full of snakes had been tipped out into the hollowed out altar stone where they wriggled and writhed in a hissing, seething knot.  Bira knelt alone in front of the altar and raised both hands above her head to greet the Goddess.

“Great Mother,” she said. “Oldest of All.  Your servant Bira comes to ask what you demand of Sovereign Minos to preserve his line and protect the people.  He has given his word to do whatever you ask of him. What must he do?”

Her words fell away into silence.  Bira dipped a beaten bronze spoon into the cup of saffron powder standing beside the altar and tipped the contents onto a small charcoal brazier that glowed red hot nearby. Soon, wreaths of thick pungent yellow smoke poured into the air. Bira leaned forward and breathed in the fumes. She inhaled them deep into her lungs and waited for the familiar but always terrifying effect of the drug.

For several minutes nothing seemed to happen.  Then her field of vision began to contract and her focus darted around first on the glowing charcoal in the brazier and then onto the snakes on the altar.  As her pupils dilated, the scales on the snakes glinted and glittered like multi-coloured gems.  Her hearing became so acute that she could clearly hear each snake tongue slip back and forth through the air as they flickered and darted in and out.  As she watched and listened, the brilliant gems started flowing together as if they had become one rainbow-coloured snake and the sound of their tongues grew louder and louder until it hurt her ears.  Her body began to shake and judder, her eyes rolled in their sockets.  She felt the veil between the worlds rip as if she herself was being torn in two.  She screamed in agony; the veil disappeared and her naked soul came into the raw presence of the Goddess.  The rainbow-coloured snake – one of Gaia’s many forms – reared up before her and uttered silent words that passed into her body and were spoken through her mouth.

What was said made perfect sense to her though to the temple maid, attending her from the far side of the cave, it seemed as though her mistress was speaking in many different wild and incomprehensible voices. Time had no meaning for Bira in that place: the Great One’s utterance might have taken minutes or hours.  When the voices stopped, the high priestess felt her body draw itself up to its feet and begin to dance.  She did not will it, she witnessed it, powerless to stop herself.  Her feet stomped.  Her hips gyrated.  She moved faster and faster, whirling and swaying until she fell to the ground.  Her back arched, her pelvis thrust spasmodically to and fro in that most primordial of all rhythms.  She grunted and squealed – animalistic rutting sounds – louder and louder. Then with a final shriek, she lost consciousness and slumped into a silent heap.  She lay there, completely inert, for some time.  Her attendant who had seen this many times before knew that it would be dangerous to wake her: the high priestess must find her own way back to this world.

She squatted beside her mistress and waited for some signs of life to appear.  When her mistress’s eyelids eventually fluttered open, she reached down and helped her sit up. The bitter after- taste of the saffron smoke always made Bira feel nauseous.  She vomited several times into the bowl that the temple maid held out for her.  She looked around her as her face was washed with a damp cloth and she drank a few mouthfuls of water.  Then, confident that her vision and hearing had returned to normal, she allowed herself to be helped upright.  “Let King Minos know that I have his answer,” she said. “I will tell him in the morning.”

The next day, Bira called upon Minos in his quarters.  He was alone and expecting for her.  He invited her to sit beside him.  He poured beakers of water for them both and waited for her to speak.

“The oracle was very clear, Sovereign. The Great One knows that you are Her faithful servant.  She is pleased with you and offers you an eternal compact. In each generation, the king’s eldest son will follow his father onto the throne and the king’s eldest daughter will serve in Her temple as high priestess.  Do this and she will preserve your line and protect the people. But in return for this, you and your heirs must acknowledge that you rule only in Her name. To seal this compact you must make a ring of pure gold with a certain design which She has shown me.  She will invest this ring with her power and you and all the kings that follow must wear it.  Comply with her demands and she promises you much.: You will be remembered as the wisest of rulers. The name Minos will ring down the ages. Your palace at Knossos will become a thriving city, the whole kingdom will prosper, and the People of the Sea will be kept from harm. Break the compact and she promises disaster in equal measure.”

“I have already given my word, High Priestess.  The compact will be made and kept.  I will arrange for Eteri, my goldsmith, to sit with you so you can tell him the design.  He is a good man and an excellent craftsman.”

Bira nodded. “I will be pleased to do so.”

“As for gold, I have a nugget of the purest quality which was given to my grandfather as a guest-gift when he visited the Egyptian court many years ago when it was still a peaceable kingdom like our own.  The Pharaoh told him that it had been in his treasury for as long as anyone could remember.  It came with a story that a young shepherd found it out in the hills one day.  It has never been moulded or cut by human hands.”

Bira smiled. “I’m sure the Goddess will be pleased with such gold.  Now, Sovereign, I should like to go. I am tired and I would like to speak with Eteri while the image is fresh in my mind.”

“Of course,” said Minos. “Thank you.”

Eteri was every bit as good a craftsman as Minos had promised.  He listened intently to the high priestess as she described the images that the Goddess required the ring to bear.  As she spoke, he scratched tiny sketches onto a piece of broken pot and showed them to her to check that he had understood her exactly.  When they finished, Eteri returned to his workshop and started work.
First he made a clay mould of the blank ring in two parts – the bezel and the hoop. Then he smelted the gold nugget in his forge to remove any trace of impurity and poured some of the searing molten metal into the moulds.  When it cooled, he broke open the clay mould, cleaned the casting with a hardened bronze scraper and smoothed the blank ring into shape.  Next, with deft strokes of a heated bronze gouge he engraved the face of the ring with the images that Bira had described: the naked Goddess and her young lover, the sacred trees and fruits, the priestesses in their flounced skirts, the voyage to the secret island beyond the sea. The figures appeared swift and true without any difficulty, as if his hand was inspired. He smoothed away the burrs and held it up to the light.  He found himself smiling as the whole scene unfolded before his eyes.  Finally, he reheated the crucible and used a pin-prick to make hundreds of tiny spherical golden granules which he soldered to the hoop of the ring in five rows.

It was done.

He had faithfully represented the images that the Goddess had determined but this last flourish was the pure expression of his own craft.  A week after he had begun, he presented the finished ring to the king.  Minos held it in the palm of his hand and looked at it closely.  The scene was so lifelike that out of the corner of his eye, the figures seemed to dance.

“Eteri,” said Minos. “This is the finest work you have ever done.  Rest assured, I will pay you well.”

“Sovereign,” replied the goldsmith. “To have made the ring is reward enough. I will take no payment.”

“I told Bira that you were a good man and an excellent craftsman. You have proved me right on both counts.  I promise you will not be forgotten when the ring is dedicated to the Goddess at the next full moon.”

“Thank you, Sovereign,” said Eteri. “That is more than I could ask.”

Two weeks later, just before midnight with the full moon high in the sky, the royal court assembled in Knossos.  Bira the high priestess – her temple maidens close by – stood behind a plain stone altar in the centre of the area that Rusa, the king’s architect, had marked out for the central courtyard – the heart of the new palace.  A decree had been issued inviting all-comers and the crowd had started to gather at dusk.  Hundreds of people stretched away from the altar in all directions; noble families, dignitaries and courtiers at the front; people of lesser rank behind them; citizens and common folk bringing up the rear.

King Minos and his queen, Pinaruti, followed by Rhadamanthus, Sarpedon and their consorts processed into the courtyard.  Over their formal court attire – to keep out the night air – they wore identical finely-woven undyed woolen cloaks held at the neck with golden clasps.  Servants carried blazing torches to light the way;  musicians clashed bronze cymbals and blasted long sonorous notes like the bellowing of bulls on great horns to inform the crowd to make way for the royal party; two kilted young men walked in front bearing ceremonial double-headed axes; immediately behind them came the bull-leapers – sons and daughters of noble families – carrying olive branches to lay before the altar.  Minos himself carried a tall rhyton of wine from which to pour a libation to the Goddess.

The throng parted, cheering Minos and his queen as they passed by.  When they reached the front, the high priestess raised her arms in prayer, the cymbals and horns ceased their clamour and everyone fell silent.  The axe-bearers stood on either side of the altar; the bull-leapers placed their olive branches on the ground. Minos poured the libation and gave the rhyton to a servant to hold.

In the hushed silence, Bira took the ring that Eteri had made from a pouch by her side. She raised it high in the air, leaned her head back and looked up at the full moon.  “Mighty Goddess.  Tonight as you commanded, we dedicate this ring – made with loving devotion by the hand of your servant Eteri – to be a sign and a token of the eternal compact between you and the People of the Sea.  As long as we are true to you, may you protect us.  As long as Sovereign Minos and his heirs bend their knees to you, may his line rule with glory.” She placed the ring on the altar. “Bow your head, Sovereign. Kneel before the Goddess.”

Minos stepped forward and  bowed deeply before the altar.  Then he raised his head and knelt with his arms upraised.  As he did so, the mass of people in the courtyard followed his example.  “Great Goddess,” said Minos in a clear, strong voice. “You are the giver and taker of life. I rule only in your name.  So long as I live, I will follow your ways.  When she is of age, my eldest daughter will serve you in the temple I will build in my palace of Knossos.  When my time comes to return to you, I will pass the ring to my eldest son to rule in your name also.  I faithfully swear that I will do all that you have commanded. May my line prosper for as long as they are true.” His words hung in the air, audible to all in the absolute silence of the courtyard.  Then the  ground beneath them shook in a faint tremor.

She had heard.

Suddenly, lightning flashed down from the cloudless sky. The air crackled with electricity and a ball of light hung over the altar. Thunder cracked and boomed around the courtyard.  The crowd waited for the first heavy raindrops of a summer storm but no rain fell.

She had spoken.

As the thunder and lightning died away, the ring on the altar began to sparkle and glow with an inner fire.  A glimmer at first, the light grew more and more intense until it almost hurt the eye to look at it though it was impossible to look away. The figures on the ring seemed to grow in size and move.  The boat bobbed up and down on the waves; the branches on the trees bent under the weight of their fruit; the priestesses swayed their hips and danced; the Goddess and her lover joined together in her sacred grove.

She was here.

Neither Minos nor anyone present could say how long the scene lasted. Only the movement of the moon and the stars above Knossos marked the passing of the night.  Slowly, as the first light of dawn crept into the sky, the radiance of the ring faded and the figures became still once more.

Bira, the high priestess, was the first to speak. “Arise, Sovereign. Take the ring. It is your to wear.”

Minos lowered his hands to his sides and stood. He took the ring off the altar and slid it on to the third finger of his left hand. He kissed the ring then raised his left hand high in the air and turned around to show it to the crowd who chanted with one voice: “Minos. Minos. Minos.”

“The compact is sealed,” he boomed above the din. “For as long as we serve Her, the Goddess will protect us.  The People of the Sea will prosper for all time.”

For a long time it seemed as though Minos had spoken truly.  Knossos became the first of the great Cretan palace-cities, followed by so many others that Homer referred to Crete of the hundred cities. His hot-headed younger brothers left him in peace and took their ambitions overseas where they founded their own dynasties: Rhadamanthus among the Boeotians in Greece and Sarpedon among the Lycians in Asia Minor. Minos himself ruled well and wisely – his reputation as a law-giver was such that after his death it was said that he had become a judge in the underworld. His name became synonymous with the People of the Sea – to this day we call them Minoans. The ring was passed down many generations of kings as eldest sons followed their fathers on to the throne and eldest daughters served the Goddess in her temple.

But nothing lasts forever and a thousand years after the life and death of the first King Minos, his line faltered.  Another Minos came to the throne, claiming for himself the name and reputation of his great ancestor.  However, this Minos did not revere the Goddess and the sacred compact that had for so long protected the land and its people was broken.

Copyright Geoff Mead 2011