This section will decribe the earliest history of the Greek civilisation. Most of this is shrouded in the mists of time but can be roughly divided into five periods:
- The First Helladic Period
- The Second Helladic Period
- The Minoan Civilisation
- The Mycenean Civilisation or Third Helladic Period
- The Greek Dark Ages
Most of the information we have is pertaining to the Minoan and Mycenean civilisations.
The Early Helladic Period
Between 3000 and 2000BC the Greek mainland was inhabited by a metal using civilisation. Little is known about the culture or religion of these agricultural people. What is know is that they disappeared in the second millennium BC, their villages were put to the torch or abandoned as mainland Greece was invaded by warlike tribes, the early Greeks.
The Middle Helladic
Period The Greek tribes settled down and fought amongst one another, trying to gain the most fertile bits of ground. The Greek soil is not rich, but crops like olives and grapes grow well. Sheep were herded in the mountains and fish caught from the seas. Trade grew with the Minoan culture South of Greece, and urbanised centres evolved.
The Minoan Civilisation
Possibly one of the oldest civilisations on this side of the world was founded on the Mediterranean island of Crete. 1,700 Years before the birth of Christ, 1,200 years before Buddha, when the Egyptian Middle Kingdom had declined into the political unrest of the Second Intermediate Period the palace centered culture of the Minoans grew into a Mediterranean power. Some 300 years earlier the first palaces were built and people were already living in cities.
Crete is a comfortable island, with rich soil and a great climate. However, as the population centers of Knossos, Phaistos, Malia and Zakros grew it became harder to feed the people. Many moved away from the island into the other islands of the Aegean Sea and took their culture with them, spreading its art and its values outward. Those that stayed behind more and more got involved into trade with the rest of the Known World. Soon Crete became the center of the trade in wine, oil, jewelry and other crafted goods. It also imported massive quantities of food and raw materials.
To support this trade it built a navy, one of the first cultures in the world to do so. The Minoan navy seems to have consisted of trade vessels only, however, the were able to defend them selves against pirates.
Its remote location and lack of close neighbours seems to have helped in maintaining the high level of culture over the years. Where other states suffered from warfare and invasions, the Minoans could expand their influence over most of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Today all that is left are the ruins of the palaces and cities, bits of temples still standing, jars and vases, scattered frescoes and stack upon stacks of unreadable records. The language they spoke seems to have been unlike Greek, something suggested to us by Homer, and written in a hieroglyphic like script, possible derived from the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The priesthood and various kings ruled the Minoan states. The role of the king seems to have been more that of a figure head than that of a potent monarch. People lived in large dwellings, where each family had one or more rooms. The people seem to have been happy and enjoyed life, as can be deducted form the surviving frescoes that show what look to be games and other such events. Most of the cities seem to have been unwalled, built mainly on hilltops and with only few defensive structures.
The Minoans had a matriarchal religion, one with only goddesses and no gods. It is unclear whether there was a single goddess, with many aspects, like the Celtic Maiden-Mother-Crone trinity, or whether they worshipped a number of different female goddesses. This religion may have resulted in a society where man and women were more equal than many other ancient civilisations.
In the 15th century BC disaster struck, when the volcano near to what is now the island of Thera erupted. The eruption was many times bigger than that of the Krakatao in 1883 and leveled several cities, additionally it created huge tidal waves that drowned a good many more of them.
The Minoans never recovered and were soon after conquered and absorbed by the newly risen Mycenean civilisation.
The Mycenan Civilisation
For four centuries the Mycenean Culture thrived. Grown out of the tribes trading with Crete their cities grew, their graves became more spectacular and their art more common. The warlords settled down and began to rule their little kingdoms. While they seem to have taken a lot from the Minoan culture, the Myceneans are quite a different people. Their kings are the undisputed rulers of their realms and were buried in splendid tombs, with immense wealth. Greedy for battle and conquest, their art concentrates ion warfare and the hunt. They’re raiding parties have troubled the Hyksos in Asia, the Egyptians and, after the decline of their civilisation, the Minoans on Crete. Their most famous raid, however, is the one on Troy.
Mycenean traders crossed the Mediterranean and don’t seem to have felt themselves above a little piracy on the side. Most of our knowledge derives from the writings of the likes of Homer and his recounting of the Illiad and the Odyssey. It is not strange this time is also known as the Age of Heroes.
Mycenean religion appears to have been a lot like the latter Greek religion, with Zeus or a similar sky god at the head of the pantheon. It might have involved sacrifices and it seems the Minoan goddesses were added to their pantheon after it was conquered.
Shortly after the sack of Troy, however, the Mycenean cities were abandoned. Some say they were conquered by the Dorians, who next settled in Greece, others say their civilisation collapsed under its own weight.
Whatever happened, Mycenean cities are exchanged for small agricultural settlements and the Greek Dark Ages begin…
The Greek Dark Ages
As the Mycenean cities fall or are abandoned, so their culture disappears. Strangely enough one of the things that disappears with it is the art of writing. Thus we don’t have a single written source from inside Greece from the 12th century BC till about 750BC. People seemed to have lived short, nomadic lives. Trade ground to a halt and for over 4 centuries Greece was a place life just seemed to pass by on its way to more exciting places.
At the end of the Dark Ages, people started, slowly, to gather into cities once more. Near the end of this time a blind storyteller, by the name of Homer, is said to have told two of the greatest stories ever: the Illiad and the Odyssey.