Minoan Art & Culture
The Minoans' palaces were lavishly decorated with art, and the surviving paintings, sculptures, mosaics, pottery and jewellery at archaeological sites and museums across Crete demonstrate the Minoans’ extraordinary artistry. Minoan painting is virtually the only form of Greek painting to have survived through the ages; large-scale sculptures having disappeared in natural disasters like the great tsunami that swept over from Thira (Santorini) in 1450 BC. Minoan art inspired the invading Mycenaeans and its influence spread to Santorini and beyond.
Feature: Deciphering the Mysteries of Linear B
The methodical decipherment of the Linear B script by English architect and part-time linguist Michael Ventris in 1952 provided the first tangible evidence that the Greek language had a recorded history longer than any scholar had previously believed. The language was an archaic form of Greek 500 years older than the Ionic Greek used by Homer.
Linear B was written on clay tablets that lay undisturbed for centuries until they were unearthed at Knossos in Crete. Further tablets were unearthed later on the mainland at Mycenae, Tiryns and Pylos in the Peloponnese and at Thebes in Boeotia in central Greece.
The clay tablets, found to be mainly inventories and records of commercial transactions, consist of about 90 different signs, and date from the 14th to the 13th centuries BC. Little of the social and political life of these times can be deduced from the tablets, although there is enough to give a glimpse of a fairly complex and well-organised commercial structure.
Importantly, what is clear is that the language is undeniably Greek, thus giving the modern-day Greek language the second-longest recorded written history, after Chinese. Read Andrew Robinson’s biography, The Man Who Deciphered Linear B, to learn more about the fascinating life and great genius of Michael Ventris.
Jewellery & Sculpture
Jewellery making and sculpture in various media reached an exceptional degree of artisanship in the Protopalatial period. The exquisite bee pendant found at Malia displays extraordinary delicacy and imagination. Another Minoan masterpiece is a 15th century BC gold signet ring found in a tomb at Isopata, near Knossos, which shows women in an ecstatic ritual dance in a meadow with lilies, while a goddess descends from the sky.
Minoan sculptors created fine miniatures, including idols in faience (quartz-glazed earthenware), gold, ivory, bronze and stone. One of the most outstanding examples is the bare-breasted serpent goddess with raised arms wielding writhing snakes above an elaborately carved skirt. Another incredible piece is the small rock-crystal rhyton from the Palace of Zakros. All of the above are displayed at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
The art of seal-stone carving also advanced in the palace workshops. Using semiprecious stones and clay, artisans made miniature masterpieces that sometimes contained hieroglyphic letters. Goats, lions, griffins, and dance scenes were rendered in minute detail. Arthur Evans spent much of his first trip to Crete collecting these seals.
In the Postpalatial period, the production of jewellery and seal-stones was replaced by the production of weaponry, reflecting the influence of the warlike Mycenaeans.
Feature: King Minos & Daedalus
Minos, the legendary ruler of Crete, was the son of Zeus and Europa and attained the Cretan throne, aided by Poseidon. Homer describes him and his land in the ‘Odyssey’: ‘Out on the dark blue sea there lies a rich and lovely land called Crete that is densely populated and boasts 90 cities… One of the 90 cities is called Knossos and there for nine years, King Minos ruled and enjoyed the friendship of the mighty.’
Whatever his character might have been, his fate was ultimately interwoven with an Athenian master craftsman named Daedalus, who, having fled from Athens for murdering his nephew (for being more inventive), sought sanctuary in Crete. Minos was quick to utilise his skills, commissioning the inventor to design the legendary Palace of Knossos. It is said that Daedalus’ statues were so lifelike that they had to be chained down to stop them moving. However, the inventor’s talents were sometimes used to dark ends, as when Minos’ Queen Pasiphae, who had fallen in love with the white bull of Poseidon, urged Daedalus to make a hollow wooden bull that she might satisfy her enflamed desire with it. Meanwhile, with Knossos as his base, Minos gained control over the whole Aegean basin, colonising many of the islands and ridding the seas of pirates. Again his naval success was often attributed to the ingeniousness of Daedalus, whose successes included designing the prow of the modern boat.
Then, as with many great partnerships, the relationship soured when the infamous half-bull, half-human Minotaur was birthed by Queen Pasiphae as a punishment from the gods. Daedalus was called upon to create a prison strong enough to contain the monster which possessed the strength of an army. The inventor’s answer was to construct the labyrinth, an endless maze of tunnels, where the creature was fed with seven boys and seven girls from Athens every year.
When Daedalus and Icarus left Crete without permission, Minos was enraged. In their escape the inventor lost his son Icarus who famously flew too near the sun, his waxened feathers melting. Minos pursued him to the city of Kamikos, baiting the inventor with a challenge: a reward to anyone who could pass a thread through a shell. Overtaken by hubris, Daedalus solved the problem, but it was Minos who came to a nasty end not the wily inventor, who was under the protection of King Kokalios. After Minos threatened a war if the legendary father of flight did not turn up, the Sicilian king tricked the Cretan into bathing with his daughters – who promptly killed him with a device Daedalus had designed, a pipe that poured boiling water over his head. After his death the Cretan king became a dread judge in Hades’ realm, the Underworld.
As to whether King Minos actually existed and reigned, however, is open to debate. The Homeric reference enneaoros used to describe Minos could mean ‘for nine years’ or ‘from the age of nine years’. Was Minos able to create an empire in nine short years, or was he a long-reigning monarch who started his kingly career as a boy?
Mystery shrouds the Minoans: we don’t even know what they called themselves, ‘Minoan’ being the term given by archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, in honour of the mythical King Minos. They are thought to have been possibly related to the pre-Greek, Pelasgian people of western Anatolia and the Greek mainland, and to have spoken a unique language unrelated to the Indo-European ones.
Evidence uncovered in the island’s grand palaces indicates they were a peaceful, sophisticated, well-organised and prosperous civilisation with robust international trade, splendid architecture and art, and seemingly equal status for men and women. The Minoans had highly developed agriculture, extensive irrigation systems and advanced hydraulic sewerage systems. The accounts and records left behind suggest that their society was organised as an efficient and bureaucratic commercial enterprise.
Although the evidence for a matriarchal society is scant, women apparently enjoyed a great degree of freedom and autonomy. Minoan art shows women participating in games, hunting and all public and religious festivals. They also served as priestesses, administrators and participated in trade.
In Crete, Minoan painting is virtually the only form of Greek painting to have survived; large-scale sculptures having disappeared in natural disasters like the great tsunami that swept over from Thira (Santorini) in 1450 BC. Minoan art inspired the invading Mycenaeans and its influence spread to Santorini and beyond. At the same time their inscrutable written hieroglyph system, Linear A, provides another indication of a culture that was very advanced. The Cretan hieroglyphic was the system of writing used in the Protopalatial period that later evolved into Linear A and B script. The most significant example of this writing is on the inscrutable 3600-year-old terracotta tablet known as the Phaestos Disk, which has been the object of much speculation since it was discovered at Phaestos in 1908. The disk, about 16cm in diameter, consists of an Early Minoan pictographic script made up of 242 ‘words’ written in a continuous spiral from the outside of the disk to the inside (or the other way round). The repetition of sequences of words or sentences has led to speculation it may be a prayer. It has never been deciphered.
As far as the spoken language of the Minoans goes, this too remains unclear. While Mycenaean-era Linear B records something that is definitely an archaic form of Greek, Linear A may well be a script for something completely different. Scholars have speculated that it may have had connections with pre-Greek Mesopotamian tongues, but unless more samples are found, it will remain a mystery.
Feature: No Bull
The bull was a potent symbol in Minoan times, featuring prominently in Minoan art. The peculiar Minoan sport of bull-leaping, where acrobatic thrill-seekers seize the charging bull’s horns and leap over its back, is depicted in several frescoes, pottery and sculptures. Scantily clad men and women are shown participating in the sport, which may have had religious significance. One of the most stunning examples is the Middle Minoan bull-leaping fresco found at the Palace of Knossos, which shows a man leaping over the back of a bull with a female figure on each side. Another prized bull is the carved stone rhyton (libation vessel) in the shape of a bull’s head, with rock-crystal eyes and gilded wooden horns.
Pottery techniques advanced in the Early Minoan years. Spirals and curvilinear motifs in white were painted on dark vases and several distinct styles emerged. Pyrgos pottery was characterised by black, grey or brown colours, while the later Vasiliki pottery (made near Ierapetra) was polychrome. In the Middle to Late Minoan period, the style shifted to a dark-on-light colour technique.
Highly advanced levels of artisanship developed in the workshops of the first palaces at Knossos and Phaestos. Kamares pottery, named after the cave where the pottery was first found, was colourful, elegant and beautifully crafted and decorated with geometric, floral, plant and animal motifs. Human forms were rarely depicted. During the entire Middle Minoan period, Kamares vases were used for barter and were exported to Cyprus, Egypt and the Levant.
With the invention of the potter’s wheel, cups, spouted jars and pithoi (large Minoan storage jars) could be produced quickly and there was a new crispness to the designs. The most striking were the ‘eggshell’ vases with their extremely thin walls.
In the late Neopalatial era, marine and floral themes in darker colours reigned. After 1500 BC, vases sprouted three handles and were frequently shaped as animal heads, such as the bull’s-head stone rhyton (libation vessel) in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. The decline of Minoan culture saw the lively pottery of previous centuries degenerate into dull rigidity.
The Minoans were not given to building colossal temples or religious statuary. Caves and mountain peak sanctuaries appear to have been used for cult or religious activity, and were probably only visited once a year for a particular ritual (like the many tiny chapels you see dotted around Greece). Tables and jars found around these sites suggest agricultural produce was left as an offering. Minoan spiritual life was organised around the worship of a Mother Goddess. Often represented with snakes or lions, the Mother Goddess was both healer and the deity-in-chief, while the male gods were clearly subordinate.
The double-axe symbol that appears in frescoes and on the palace walls at Knossos was a sacred symbol for the Minoans. Other religious symbols that frequently appear in Minoan art include the mythical griffin and figures with a human body and an animal head. The Minoans appear to have worshipped the dead and believed in some form of afterlife, while evidence uncovered in Anemospilia suggests that human sacrifice may also have taken place.
The Famous Frescoes
Minoan frescoes are renowned for their vibrant colours and the vivid naturalism in which they portray landscapes rich with animals and birds, marine scenes teeming with fish and octopuses, and banquets, games and rituals. Although fresco painting probably existed before 1700 BC, all remnants vanished in the cataclysm that destroyed Minoan palaces around that time. Knossos yielded the richest trove of frescoes from the Neopalatial period, most of which are on display in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Only fragments of the frescoes survive but they have been very carefully (and controversially) restored and the technique of using plant and mineral dyes has kept the colours relatively fresh. Minoan fresco painters borrowed heavily from certain Egyptian conventions but the figures are far less rigid than most Egyptian wall paintings.
The Knossos frescoes suggest Minoan women were white-skinned with elaborately coiffured glossy black locks. Proud, graceful and uninhibited, these women had hourglass figures and were dressed in stylish gowns that exposed shapely breasts. The bronze-skinned men were tall, with tiny waists, narrow hips, broad shoulders and muscular thighs and biceps; the children were slim and lithe.
Many of the frescoes show action scenes, from boxing and wrestling to solemn processions, saffron gathering to bull-leaping.
Crete is a powerhouse for music, dance and the visual arts, going back millennia. From priceless Minoan sculptures to homegrown mountain musicians playing the lyra (lyre) in tavernas, this massive island has developed its own ways of living, loving, lamenting and showing it all to the world through the arts. Prepare to browse museums, read local lit while you sunbathe, seek out frescoed chapels, or dance in the streets – this is Crete!
Dancing has been part of social life in Crete since the dawn of Hellenism. Some folk dances derive from the ritual dances performed in ancient Greek temples. Dancers are also depicted on ancient Greek vases and Homer lauded the ability of Cretan dancers.
Cretan dances are dynamic, fast and warlike, and many of them are danced by groups of men. Dances for women are traditionally related to wedding or courtship, and are more delicate and graceful. Like most Greek dances they are normally performed in a circle; in ancient times, dancers formed a circle to seal themselves off from evil influences. In times of occupation, dancing became an act of defiance and a way to keep fit under the noses of the enemy.
The most popular Cretan dances are the graceful and slow syrtos and the pentozali. The latter was originally danced by armed warriors and has a slow version and a faster one that builds into a frenzy, with the leader doing kicks, variations and fancy moves while the others follow with more mild steps. Another popular dance is the sousta, a bouncy courtship dance with small precise steps that is performed by couples. The maleviziotiko (also known as kastrino or pidikto) is a fast triumphant dance.
Dancing well is a matter of great personal pride, and most dancers will take their turn at the front to demonstrate their prowess. Be aware that cutting in on somebody’s dance is absolutely bad form, as families have usually paid for the dance (this is how Cretan musicians often make their living).
The best place to see Cretan dancing is at festivals, weddings and baptisms. Folkloric shows are also put on for tourists in many areas. Although these are more contrived, they can still be a decent show.
The artistry of the Minoans ranks with the best in human history. During a brief artistic renaissance on the island that lasted from the 8th to 7th centuries BC, a group of sculptors called the Daedalids perfected a new technique of making sculptures in hammered bronze, working in a style that combined Eastern and Greek aesthetics. Their influence spread to mainland Greece. Cretan culture went into decline at the end of the 7th century BC, though there was a brief revival under the Romans, a period notable for richly decorated mosaic floors and marble sculptures. Then came the paintings and frescoes that culminated in the renowned Cretan School of painting.
Greek painting came into its own during the Byzantine period, which lasted roughly from the 4th century BC until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. Much Byzantine art was destroyed in popular rebellions during the 13th and 14th centuries. In the 11th century, émigrés from Constantinople brought portable icons to Crete, but the only surviving example from this period is the icon of the Virgin at Mesopantitissa, now in Venice.
From the 13th to the early 16th centuries, churches around Crete were decorated with frescoes on a dark-blue background with a bust of Christ in the dome, the four Gospel writers in the corners, and the Virgin and Child in the apse. They also feature scenes from the life of Christ and figures of saints. Many fine frescoes can still be seen today, albeit moodily faded. The great icon painter of the 14th century was Ioannis Pagomenos, who worked in western Crete. Examples of his frescoes can be found in the churches of Agios Nikolaos in Maza, where he’s also buried, and in Agios Georgios in Sfakia. The best-preserved Byzantine frescoes on Crete are in the Church of Panagia Kera at Kritsa in Lasithi province.
The Cretan School
With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Crete became the centre of Greek art as many Byzantine artists fled to the island. At the same time, the Italian Renaissance was in full bloom and many Cretan artists studied in Italy. The result was the ‘Cretan School’ of icon painting that combined technical brilliance and dramatic richness. Artists drew inspiration from both Western and Byzantine styles. In Iraklio alone there were more than 200 painters working from the mid-16th to mid-17th centuries.
The most famous and internationally successful of these artists was El Greco, who was heavily influenced by the great Iraklio-born Michael Damaskinos (1530–91). Damaskinos’ long sojourn in Venice introduced him to new techniques of rendering perspective. The centrepieces of the collection of the Museum of Christian Art in Iraklio are six Damaskinos icons. The third star in the trio of Cretan top artists is Theophanes Strelitza (aka Theophanes the Cretan), who was a prominent mural painter of the day, though all of his frescoes are in mainland Greece.
The fine arts have a relatively low profile in Crete today. Though contemporary artists and artisans work and exhibit on the island, many live and work in Athens and abroad. Rethymno’s Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the island’s leading galleries for local artists, as are the municipal galleries around Crete. Private art galleries can be found in Hania and Iraklio.
Feature: El Greco the Cretan
One of the geniuses of the Renaissance, El Greco (‘The Greek’ in Spanish), was a Cretan named Dominikos Theotokopoulos. He was born in the Cretan capital of Candia (present-day Iraklio) in 1541, during a time of great artistic activity, following the arrival of painters fleeing Ottoman-held Constantinople. These painters had a formative influence upon the young El Greco, giving him grounding in the traditions of late-Byzantine fresco painting.
El Greco went to Venice in his early twenties, joining the studio of Titian, but he came into his own as a painter after he moved to Spain in 1577, where his highly emotional style struck a chord with the Spanish. He lived in Toledo until his death in 1614. Many of his famous works, such as The Burial of Count Orgaz (1586), are in Toledo but his paintings are in museums around the world. View of Mt Sinai and the Monastery of St Catherine (1570), painted in Venice, hangs in Iraklio’s Historical Museum of Crete, next to the tiny Baptism of Christ. You can see Concert of Angels (1608) at the National Gallery in Athens.
A marble bust of the painter stands in Iraklio’s Plateia El Greco, and there are streets, tavernas and hotels named after him throughout the island. A small museum dedicated to El Greco has been established in the village of Fodele, in a house he allegedly spent time in as a child. The 2007 biopic El Greco was partly shot in Iraklio.
Crete has a rich literary tradition that sprang from the Cretan love of songs, verses and wordplay. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, the island experienced a tremendous literary flowering under Venetian rule. The era’s greatest masterpiece was undoubtedly the epic Erotokritos, written in Cretan dialect by Vitsentzos Kornaros of Sitia. More than 10,000 lines long, this poem of courtly love is full of nostalgia for the dying Venetian regime that was threatened by the rise in Turkish power. Revolving around the troubled love story between Erotokritos, an adviser to King Heracles, and the king’s daughter, Aretousa, it is an intricate tale of love, honour, friendship and bravery. The poem was recited for centuries by illiterate peasants and professional singers alike, embodying the dreams of freedom that enabled Cretans to endure their many privations. Many of the verses were incorporated into Crete’s beloved mantinadhes (a style of traditional Cretan rhyming couplets). It is considered the most important work of early modern Greek literature.
Contemporary Cretan writers include Rhea Galanaki (b 1947), whose prize-winning The Life of Ismail Ferik Pasha (1989) has been translated into six languages; it’s a story about the clash of Christianity and Ottoman Islam in Crete.
Ioanna Karystiani (b 1952), who wrote the screenplay for the Greek film Brides (2004), received the Greek National Award for Literature for her novel Mikra Anglia (Little England, published in English as The Jasmine Isle, 2006). Also made into a film, it describes the lives of a sailor’s family on the island of Andros. Other Cretan writers include Minas Dimakis, Manolis Pratikakis, Yiorgis Manoussakis and Victoria Theodorou.
The most famous novel written by a non-Greek but set in Crete is The Island by Victoria Hislop. The historical novel set in the leper colony on Spinalonga Island was Newcomer of the Year at the 2007 British Book Awards. More recent fiction includes The Girl Under The Olive Tree (2013) by another Brit, Leah Fleming, which takes place in Crete during WWII.
Greece’s best-known and most widely read author since Homer is Nikos Kazantzakis (1883–1957), born in Crete amid the last spasms of the island’s struggle for independence from the Turks. His novels, all of which have been translated into English, are full of drama and larger-than-life characters such as the magnificent title character in Zorba the Greek (1946) and the tortured Captain Michalis in Freedom and Death (1950), two of his finest works. Along with Zorba, The Last Temptation (1953) was also made into a film. Zorba the Greek takes place in Crete and provides a fascinating glimpse into the harsher side of Cretan culture. Kazantzakis had a chequered, and at times troubled, literary career, clashing frequently with the Orthodox Church for his professed atheism.
Kazantzakis may be Crete’s most famous writer, but it was Odysseus Elytis (1911–96) who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1979. One of his main works is Axion Esti – It is Worthy (1959), a complicated poem that deals with existentialist questions and the identity of the main character’s country and people. It was set to music by Mikis Theodorakis and to this day is one of the best-known poems and songs in Greece.
A noted contemporary of Elytis was Rethymno-born Pandelis Prevelakis (1909–86). He was primarily known as a poet, but also wrote plays and novels. His best-known work is The Tale of a Town, a nostalgic look at his home town in the early 20th century.
Feature: Nikos Kazantzakis
Crete’s most famous contemporary writer is Nikos Kazantzakis. Born in 1883 in Iraklio, the then Turkish-dominated capital, Kazantzakis spent his early childhood in the ferment of revolution and change. In 1897 the revolution against Turkish rule forced him to leave Crete for studies in Naxos, Athens and later Paris. It wasn’t until he was 31 that he turned his hand to writing, by translating philosophical books into Greek. He travelled throughout Europe, thus laying the groundwork for travelogues in his later literary career.
Kazantzakis was a complex writer and his early work was heavily influenced by philosophical and spiritual thought, including the philosophies of Nietzsche. His relationship with religion was equally complex – his official stance being that of a nonbeliever, yet he studied and wrote about religion and religious figures.
Kazantzakis' self-professed greatest work is The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (1938), an opus of 33,333 iambic verses, and a modern-day epic loosely based on the trials and travels of ancient hero Odysseus (Ulysses). It was only much later in his career, though, when Kazantzakis turned to novel writing, that his star shone brightest. Works such as Christ Recrucified (1948), Kapetan Mihalis (1950; now known as Freedom and Death) and The Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas (1946; later renamed Zorba the Greek) made him internationally known. Zorba gave rise to the image of the ultimate, free-spirited Greek male, immortalised by Anthony Quinn in the 1964 movie.
Kazantzakis died of leukemia in Germany on 26 October 1957, while travelling. Despite resistance from the Orthodox Church, he was given a religious funeral and buried in the southern Martinengo Bastion of the old walls of Iraklio. There is a museum honouring him in Myrtia.
Cretan music is the most dynamic and enduring form of traditional music in Greece today, and on the island it remains the most popular music, staving off mainstream Greek and Western pop. You’ll hear it accompanying weddings, holidays, harvesting and any other celebration. Crete’s thriving local music scene generates successive generations of folk performers who perform regularly and produce new recordings of traditional songs, as well as contemporary styles based on Cretan tradition. You’ll also find Cretan music on the world-music scene as a genre in its own right.
Instruments & Musical Styles
Cretan music has been influenced by many musical traditions over the centuries and resembles eastern modal music. The lead instrument is the lyra, a three-stringed instrument similar to a violin that is played resting on the knee. It is often accompanied by the eight-stringed laouto (lute), which keeps the rhythm for the lyra. Other traditional instruments include the mandolino (mandolin), the askomandoura (bagpipe), the habioli (wooden flute) and the daoulaki (drum). The bouzouki, so associated with Greek music, is not part of traditional Cretan music.
One of Crete’s favourite forms of musical expression is the mantinadha (a style of traditional Cretan rhyming couplets), which expresses the timeless concerns of love, death and the vagaries of fate. Thousands of mantinadhes helped forge a sense of national identity during the long centuries of occupation. Mantinadhes rely on the decapentasyllabic (15-syllable) count of Byzantine vernacular literature going back at least to the 12th century. The best ‘rhymers’ at Cretan festivals would tailor their songs to the people present and try to outdo each other in skill and composition. These days, young Cretans continue the tradition, and mantinadhes are still part of the modern courtship ritual, albeit often via mobile-phone messages. The best-known piece of Cretan Renaissance literature, the 17th-century Erotokritos by Vitsentzos Kornaros, consists of language and rhyme consistent with mantinadhes, and continues to inspire Crete’s musicians today.
Another popular form of music is rizitika (patriotic songs), which are centuries-old songs from western Crete, especially the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) region. They are thought to have derived from the songs of the border guards of the Byzantine Empire, though their roots may be even older. Many of the rizitika deal with historical or heroic themes. One of the most popular is the song of Daskalogiannis, the Sfakiot hero who led the rebellion against the Turks in 1770; it has 1034 verses. The period of German occupation in WWII also produced a fertile crop of rizitika.
Traditional folk music was shunned by the Greek bourgeoisie during the period after independence when they looked to Europe – and classical music and opera – rather than their eastern or ‘peasant’ roots. However, a new wave of entehni mousiki (artistic music) that emerged in Athens in the 1960s drew on urban folk instruments such as the bouzouki and created popular hits from the works of Greek poets.
Acclaimed composer Yiannis Markopoulos (from Ierapetra) upped the ante by introducing rural folk music into the mainstream. He’s best known internationally for his composition for the TV series Who Pays the Ferryman? Markopoulos was also responsible for bringing the icon of Cretan music, the late Nikos Xylouris, to the fore. The latter’s career was tragically cut short in 1980 when he died of a brain tumour at the age of 43. With his superb voice and talent on the lyra, he remains the biggest-selling and most revered Cretan musician. During the junta years, Xylouris’ music became a leading voice of the resistance. He came from a great musical family in Anogia, a village that has spawned many musicians and which has a good museum today.
Xylouris, Thanasis Skordalos and Kostas Mountakis are considered the great masters of Cretan music, and most current musicians follow one of their styles. The most prominent Cretan musician today is the legendary Psarantonis (Antonis Xylouris, brother of Nikos); he’s known for his unique style of playing music and is instantly recognisable from his wild beard and mane of hair. Psarantonis still performs – everywhere from the smallest Cretan village to the clubs of Athens and the international festival circuit. In addition to the Xylouris family from Anogia, another famous musician from the village is Loudovikos Ton Anogion.
An intriguing figure of Crete’s music scene is Ross Daly (of Irish descent), a master of the lyra and the creator of a high-calibre world-music workshop in Houdetsi.
The excellent sextet Haïnides is one of the more popular acts to emerge from Crete in recent years, playing their own brand of music and giving memorable live performances around Greece. Other leading figures include Mitsos and Vasilis Stavrakakis and contemporary musicians such as the band Palaïna, Nikos Zoidakis, Stelios Petrakis from Sitia, Papa Stefanis Nikas and Yiannis Haroulis. Other names to watch include Australian-born Sifis Tsourdalakis and Belgian-born Mihalis Tzouganakis.
Popular artists of Cretan origin playing mainstream Greek music include the talented Manos Pirovolakis with his rock-lyra sound. One of Greece’s most famous international performers, Nana Mouskouri, was born in Hania, though her family moved to Athens when she was three years of age.
The Cretan Way of Life
Cretans are a very distinctive clan of Greeks, with their own spirited music and dances, remarkable cuisine and traditions. Proud, patriotic and fierce yet famously hospitable, Cretans maintain a rich connection to their culture. They will often identify themselves as Cretans before they say they are Greek, and even within different parts of Crete people maintain strong regional identities. Exploring beyond major tourist centres, you'll meet Cretans speaking local dialects, creating regional delicacies, and combining the old world with the new.
You can still see men – usually the older generations, and usually in the villages – stroking, fiddling and masterfully playing with the de-stressing worry beads called komboloï. An amalgam of the words kombos (knot) and leo (to say), komboloïa (plural) may look like prayer beads, but they have no religious purpose and are only used for fun and relaxation. There just seems to be something soothing about flicking and flipping those beads – some people also use them to help them stop smoking.
Komboloïa were traditionally made from amber, but coral, handmade beads, semiprecious stones and synthetic resin are also widely used. No exact number is prescribed but most komboloïa have between 19 and 23 beads strung up on a loop. There’s a fixed bead that is held between the fingers, a shield that separates the two sides of the loop, and a tassel.
The vast majority of what you see in souvenir shops is plastic but there are also prized rare and old komboloïa that can be worth thousands of euros and are considered highly collectable.
Lifestyle & State of Mind
Centuries of battling foreign occupiers have left Cretans with a fiercely independent streak, residual mistrust of authority and little respect for the state. Personal freedom, regional pride and democratic rights are sacrosanct and there is a strong aversion to the Big Brother approach of highly regulated Western nations. National laws are routinely ignored. Guns, for example, are strictly regulated in Greece, yet the evidence suggests that Cretans are stashing an astounding arsenal. Several smoking bans (the last one was introduced in 2010) have also been widely flaunted. When it comes to road rules, many visitors are surprised to learn that they even exist. Despite hefty fines, wearing a seatbelt is treated as an optional inconvenience; creative and inconsiderate parking is the norm; dangerous overtaking is rife; and you may well see people riding motorbikes helmet-less as they chat on their mobile phones.
These days, though, the resilience of Cretan culture and traditions is being tested by globalisation, market forces and social change. The Cretan lifestyle has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. As Cretan society has become increasingly urbanised, living standards have improved significantly; Cretans are conspicuously wealthier and the towns have more sophisticated restaurants, bars and clubs. In the shift from living a largely poor, agrarian existence to becoming increasingly urban dwellers, Cretans are also delicately balancing cultural and religious mores. The younger generation is highly educated and most speak at least some English.
As with most households in Greece, Cretans have felt the brunt of higher living costs since the introduction of the euro, while recent austerity measures to tackle the country's economic problems have taken some of the shine off their famously relaxed disposition. Still, Cretans have a work-to-live attitude and pride themselves on their capacity to enjoy life. They enjoy a rich social life, and you'll often see them dressed up and going out en masse for their volta (evening walk), and filling tavernas and cafes with family or their parea (group of friends). The Greek Orthodox Church, its rituals and celebrations are still deeply influential in Cretan society, including among the young and urban.
Unlike many Western cultures where people avoid eye contact with strangers, Cretans are unashamed about staring and blatantly commenting on the comings and goings of people around them. Few subjects are off limits, from your private life and why you don’t have children to how much money you earn and how much you paid for your house or shoes. And they are likely to tell you of their woes and ailments rather than engage in polite small talk.
City vs Countryside
Generational and rural/city divides are major features of modern Crete. In rural areas, you will see shepherds with their flocks, old women riding on donkeys, and men congregating in the kafeneia (coffee houses) after their afternoon siesta. Mountain villages are repositories of traditional culture and you’ll still occasionally see older folk dressed in black vraka (baggy trousers) and leather boots.
In general terms, the major population centres of the north attract companies, industry and universities, whereas agriculture accounts for the bulk of economic activity in the less-populated interior and south. The mountainous southwest has some of the more traditional villages on the island.
But even pastoral life has changed. While people still live off the land – and provide for their families in the cities – subsistence farming has mostly given way to commercial production. Well-to-do farmers drive pick-up trucks and shepherds can often be seen tending to their flocks while chatting away on their mobile phones. In the fields, foreign workers are also a major part of accomplishing the grunt work.
No matter where you are, though, you'll find that a pride and connection to food and local produce, from mountain herbs and honey to regional dishes and cheeses made uniquely in each village, are vital to Cretan daily life.
Cretan society is still relatively conservative and it is uncommon for Greeks to move out of home until they are married, apart from leaving temporarily to study or work. While this is slowly changing among professionals, lack of economic opportunities and low wages are also keeping young people at home.
Parents strive to provide homes for their children when they get married, with many families building apartments for each child above their own homes. Construction is often done in a haphazard fashion depending on cash flow, which accounts for the large number of unfinished houses you encounter throughout the island.
Extended families often play an important role in daily life, with parents preferring to entrust their offspring to the grandparents rather than hiring outside help.
Cretans who moved away to other parts of Greece or overseas maintain strong cultural and family links and return regularly to their ancestral land. Even the most remote mountain villages are bustling with family reunions and homecomings during national and religious holidays, and Cretan weddings and baptisms are huge affairs.
Hospitality & Tourism
The Cretan people have a well-justified reputation for hospitality and for treating strangers as honoured guests. They pride themselves on their filotimo (dignity and sense of honour) and filoxenia (hospitality, welcome, shelter). If you wander into mountain villages you may well be invited into someone’s home for a coffee or even a meal. In a cafe or taverna it is customary for people to treat another group of friends or strangers to a round of drinks (however, be mindful that it is not the done thing to treat them straight back – in theory, you will do the honours another time).
Surprisingly, this hospitality and generosity diminish in the public sphere, where customer service is not a widely lauded concept. The notion of the greater good can play second fiddle to personal interests, and there is little sense of collective responsibility in relation to issues such as the environment, though that is starting to change with the younger generation.
Crete takes in more than 3.5 million visitors annually, which has an impact on both the environment and the economy: the majority of tourists come on package trips and are sequestered in northern-coast all-inclusive hotels. The over-development of much of northern-coast Crete has left hotel owners susceptible to larger trends in the travel world, whereas smaller places elsewhere on the island experience less volatile swings as the economy waxes and wanes. New EU grants have been given to promote green tourism and restore historic buildings and traditional settlements, and there is a growing awareness that sustainable, ecofriendly tourism will pay dividends as the tastes of foreign visitors change.
Cretans often deal with the seasonal invasion of foreign tourists by largely operating in a different space-time continuum to their guests. They will often tell you a particular place is ‘only for tourists’, and that’s normally their hint to you to avoid it. From April to around October, many Cretans live in the hurly-burly of the coastal resorts and beaches – running shops, pensions or tavernas – and then return to their life in the hills for the autumn olive and grape harvests, or in the cities.
While many tourists eat early in the evening (by Greek standards, at least) in restaurants along a harbour or beach, Cretans drive out to village tavernas or frequent known local favourites, for a dinner that begins as late as 10pm. Nightlife goes equally late.
Feature: Roadside Shrines
Buzzing around Crete’s winding country roads, you’ll see them everywhere: dollhouse-sized chapels on metal pedestals by the roadside. Called kandylakia, they come in all shapes and sizes, some simple, some elaborate, some weathered, some shiny and new. A votive candle may flicker behind tiny dust-encrusted windows, faintly illuminating the picture of a saint. They are especially prevalent in hairpin turns, blind curves and on the edges of precipitous slopes, and though they have often been put there by the families of those who died in an accident on this very spot, some are also set up in gratitude by those who miraculously survived such accidents or to honour a particular saint. As you’re driving, recognize these symbols of both tragedy and happy endings as a reflection of those things important to Cretans: family, faith and tradition.
Cretans have a reputation for their fierce fighting ability (they have battled with invaders for centuries, after all) and for having Greece's most notable gun culture. Estimates have indicated that one in two Cretans owns a gun, while others suggest there could be over one million weapons on Crete – more than the island’s population.
At Cretan weddings and celebrations volleys of gunshots occasionally punctuate events. Some musicians refuse to play in certain areas unless they get an assurance that there won’t be any guns. At one time, acclaimed composer Mikis Theodorakis led a campaign trying to change the island’s gun culture. But, today, road signs riddled with bullet holes are the first inkling that you are entering the mountain country that was historically a stronghold for Crete’s resistance fighters, particularly around Sfakia in Hania and Mylopotamos province in Rethymno. Sfakiots are aware of their reputation, though, and you'll find T-shirts in their souvenir shops with images of the bullet-riddled signs.
After the exodus of Crete’s Turkish community in the population exchange of 1923, the island became essentially homogeneous and its population virtually all Greek Orthodox. In recent years, though, Crete has become an increasingly multicultural society, with migrants from the Balkans and Eastern Europe, especially Albania, Bulgaria and Russia, filling labour shortages in the fields of agriculture, construction and tourism. The total foreign population is now about 11%.
Since 2015 Crete has taken in some 50,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq. Economic migrants are a relatively new phenomenon for Crete, which, like most of Greece, is struggling to come to terms with the new reality and concepts of multiculturalism. While there are tensions and mistrust, immigrants appear to have fared better in Crete than in many other parts of Greece.
A small group of English, German and northern European expats has also settled and bought property on Crete, though they live on the more affluent fringes, and there are some foreigners married to Cretans.
The Orthodox faith is the official and prevailing religion of Crete and a key element of local identity and culture. While younger generations are not necessarily as devout as their elders, nor do they attend church regularly, most still observe the rituals and consider the faith integral to their identity. Between 94% and 97% of the Cretan population belongs at least nominally to the Greek Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox religion held Cretan culture, language and traditions together during the many centuries of foreign occupation and repression, despite numerous efforts by the Venetians and Turks to turn locals towards Roman Catholicism or Islam. Under Ottoman rule, religion was the most important criterion in defining a Greek.
Despite growing secularism, the Church still exerts significant social, political and economic influence. The year is centred on the saints’ days and festivals of the religious calendar. Name days (celebrating your namesake saint) are more important than birthdays, and baptisms are an important rite. If you’re invited to a name-day celebration, it’s a good idea to bring a present, but don’t be surprised if it won’t be opened until you’ve left; any meal or offering of food, sweets or drink is usually paid for by the celebrant.
Hundreds of privately built small chapels dot the countryside, while the miniature roadside iconostases (chapels) are either shrines to road-accident victims or dedications to saints.
Women in Society
The role of women in Cretan society has been complex and shifting since Greek women first gained universal suffrage in 1952. While traditional gender roles are prevalent in rural areas and among the older generation, the situation is much more relaxed for younger women in cities and large towns. Entrenched attitudes towards the ‘proper role’ for women are changing fast as more women are educated and entering the workforce. Still, although some 40% of Greek women are in the workforce, they struggle when it comes to even finding the career ladder or earning the same as their male counterparts. There are few public programs to help them balance careers and motherhood.
Paradoxically, despite the machismo, Cretan society is essentially matriarchal. Men love to give the impression that they rule the roost and take a front seat in public life, but it’s often the women who run the show, both at home and in family businesses.
In villages, men and women still tend to occupy different spheres. When not tending livestock or olive trees, Cretan men can usually be found in a kafeneio (coffee house), playing tavli (Greek backgammon), gossiping and drinking coffee or raki. Although exceptions are made for foreign women, the kafeneio is a stronghold of male chauvinism and generally off limits to Cretan women.
The older generation of Cretan women is house-proud and, especially in villages, spends time cultivating culinary skills. Most men rarely participate in domestic duties (or certainly don’t own up to it).
Nature & Wildlife
Crete is an island of geographical contrasts to say the least – you could swim in Vaï’s palm-fringed bay and hike in the snow of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) on the same day. As you pass through its myriad caves, gorges and plateaux, and up and down its stickleback mountains and vast coastline, Crete feels like many countries rolled into one. It’s no surprise, then, that the island has a dizzying biodiversity of flora and fauna, from monk seals to golden eagles.
While Crete is known for its large population of sheep and goats, the island is also home to some endemic fauna, including hares, rabbits, weasels and its own subspecies of badger. You are unlikely to catch sight of the big-eared Cretan spiny mouse, but you never know. The island also has a large population of bats, insects, snails and invertebrates. Other local species include the tiny Cretan tree frog and the Cretan marsh frog.
Between May and September, female loggerhead sea turtles arrive to lay their eggs on sandy beaches, especially in the north, For more information, contact the Archelon Sea Turtle Protection Society of Greece (www.archelon.gr).
The southern coastline, with its steep underwater cliffs, is home to the Mediterranean Sea’s most significant population of sperm whales, who gather, feed and possibly mate in the area year-round. It’s also abundant with squid, on which the giants feed. Keep your eyes open while on boat trips. Groups of striped dolphins, Risso’s dolphins and Cuvier’s beaked whales frequent waters off the southern coast. Bottlenose dolphins are often spotted in the shallow waters off Paleohora between Gavdos and its tiny neighbouring islet of Gavdopoula.
The Cretan Sperm Whale Project, run by the Pelagos Cetacean Research Institute (www.pelagosinstitute.gr), monitors the whale population.
Crete flies high in the bird world. It lies on the main Africa–Europe migratory routes and well over 400 species have been recorded on the island, including both resident and migratory species. Along the coast you’ll find birds of passage such as egrets and herons during spring and autumn migrations.
The mountains host a wealth of interesting birds. Look for blue rock thrushes, buzzards and the huge griffon vulture. Other birds in the mountains include alpine swifts, stonechats, blackbirds and Sardinian warblers. The fields around Malia host tawny and red-throated pipits, stone curlews, fan-tailed warblers and short-toed larks. On the hillsides below Moni Preveli you may find subalpine and Ruppell’s warblers. The Akrotiri Peninsula is good for birdwatching – around the monasteries of Agias Triadas and Gouvernetou you’ll find collared and pied flycatchers, wrynecks, tawny pipits, black-eared wheatears, blue rock thrushes, stonechats, chukars and northern wheatears. Migrating species, including avocets and marsh sandpipers, can be spotted in wetland areas such as Elafonisi. The Kavalli Islands off Xerokambos in the southeast are an important breeding ground of the Eleonora's falcon.
Crete blooms in every sense of the word, with an estimated total of about 1750 plant species, of which around 170 are endemic. The island’s gorges are mini botanical gardens and their isolation has helped preserve many species.
Along the coast, sea daffodils flower in August and September. In April and May, knapweeds are in flower on the western coast and their purple or violet petals provide pretty splashes of colour on sandy beaches. At the same time of year in eastern Crete, especially around Sitia, watch for crimson poppies on the borders of the beach. At the edge of sandy beaches, you’ll find delicate pink bindweeds and jujube trees that flower from May to June and bear fruit in September and October. In the same habitat is the tamarisk tree, which flowers in spring.
If you come in summer, you won’t be deprived of colour, since milky white and magenta oleanders bloom from June through to August.
On the hillsides look for cistus and brooms in early summer, and yellow chrysanthemums in the fields from March to May. The rare endemic blue flowers of Anchusa caespitosa, a type of bugloss, are only found in the high peaks of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains).
Feature: Endangered Species
Crete’s most famous animal is the agrimi or kri-kri, a distinctive wild goat with large horns often depicted in Minoan art. Only a few survive in the wild, in and around Samaria Gorge and on the islands of Agioi Theodoroi off Hania and Dia off Iraklio.
You may spot a lammergeier (bearded vulture) – one of the rarest raptors in Europe, with a wingspan of nearly 3m – in Samaria Gorge or hovering above the Lasithi Plateau. A few golden eagles and Bonelli’s eagles are also recorded in these areas and elsewhere, including the Kato Zakros region. Much good work has been carried out by various organisations in rehabilitating raptors such as bearded vultures and eagles and releasing them into the remoter areas of the Lefka Ori (White Mountains) and other ranges.
Crete is battling to protect its population of loggerhead turtles, which have been nesting on island shores since the days of the dinosaurs. The island also has a small population of the rare and endangered Mediterranean monk seal, breeding in caves on the south coast.
Feature: Exotic Animals of Crete
Although you might not spot them, Crete is home to a variety of exotic animals, among them the European rattlesnake (non-venomous), dice snake, cat snake and whip snake. There are also three kinds of scorpion. Arachnophobes should stop reading now, as there are black widow and Araneus spiders in Crete, though instances of people being bitten are scarce. Finally, about 30 different types of shark are found in the Mediterranean, some of which are seen in waters around the island.