A Mycenaean Ship Maneuver Depicted on a Minoan Shipwreck Fresco

‘Tipped’ off by a great little blog post by Polyxenos over at Polyxenos – Abstractions and Musings, I know you will be equally fascinated to learn of a Bronze age Minoan fresco from Akrotiri (Santorini) that appears to depict a Mycenaean shipboard war tactic described in Book 15 of Homer’s Iliad.

Polyxenos notes, “Classical literature is often littered with visual descriptions of singular moments recorded by paintings or sculpture, and even more conspicuously, Mythology.”

“Of course,” he continues, “Ekphrasis is quite common in parts of ancient Greek literature, but a description of warfare from Homer’s Iliad that is also displayed in a painting from the Minoan-era is even rarer.”

Polyxenos guides us to Homer’s narration of “the ferocious onslaught of Hector and the Trojans and in true Homeric style, he describes the event in over several books with seemingly tangential yet highly pertinent details that add more colour to his verse in a cool and satiated style.”

So the Trojans swept over the wall with a loud yell,
driving their chariots on, and began a close-combat fight by the sterns:
the Trojans from chariots, with double-edged spears,
and the Achaeans, after climbing high on to their black ships,
with the long jointed pikes that they had lying in the ships for fighting at sea,
clothed at their point in bronze.

[Anthony Verity’s translation of Homer’s Iliad, Book 15]

“Verity writes in his endnotes,” explains Polyxenos, “to how a Theran fresco displays this phenomenon, where pikes are used on ships, being glued together. I confess I have no idea how they would have been used in such a context, but it is the display of it in painting that captures my imagination.”

Finding Parallel Pikes on the Akrotiri Shipwreck Fresco

Following up on the lead provided by Verity, Polyxenos researched Theran frescoes and quite cleverly discovered a very interesting depiction that closely parallels Homer’s description.

“The image below shows,” says Polyxenos, “after much looking, what I think Verity alludes to in his endnote to the above quote:”

Detail of Akrotiri Shipwreck Fresco, ca. 1600 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Detail of the Minoan Akrotiri Shipwreck Fresco, ca. 1600 BCE. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Polyxenos’ image was rather unclear, so I have taken the liberty to crop an image which I found on Wikimedia, white balancing it, enhancing the contrast slightly, and sharpening the focus a bit in order to view the shipwreck scene more clearly.

The staves, or pikes as Polyxenos refers to them, are clearly sticking out from the two ships on the left, with three or four pikes apparently lined up side by side and fastened together in such a way as to create a formidable weapon against anything approaching the ship.

This clearly parallels Homer’s reference in Iliad 15, to “the long jointed pikes that they had lying in the ships for fighting at sea,” don’t you agree?

Ajax Staves off the Trojans from the Achaian Ships

Let’s return to the Iliad, this time consulting Church’s 1911 publication, The Story of the Iliad. Here we see Homer’s description of the Greeks using the ship’s pikes as weapons come to life as Telamonian Aias/Ajax staves off the Trojans, illustrated by the incomparable John Flaxman:

Ajax Defending the Greek Ships Against the Trojans - Illustration by Flaxman, 1911 from Church's The Story of the Iliad. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ajax Defending the Greek Ships Against the Trojans –
Illustration by Flaxman, 1911 from Church’s The Story of the Iliad. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then Teucer rushed to seize his arms, but Hector cast his spear.
Teucer it struck not, missing him by a little;
but Amphimachus it smote on the breast so that he fell dead.
Then Hector seized the dead man’s helmet, seeking to drag the body among the sons of Troy.
But Ajax stretched forth his great spear against him, and struck the boss of his shield mightily,
driving him backwards, so that he loosed hold of the helmet of Amphimachus. 

[Chapter XVI, The Battle at the Ships, from Church’s The Story of the Iliad]

DNA Analysis Finds Minoans & Mycenaeans Genetically Similar

In light of recent DNA analysis showing that Mycenaeans and Minoans were genetically similar, it should come as less of a surprise that their shipboard warfare tactics were similar, too.

Indeed, learning that “Genetically, the Minoans and Mycenaeans had the most in common with early Neolithic farmers from Greece and Turkey” goes a long way towards explaining why Hektor and Achilles both spoke the same language!

I’m very interested in the impact that this new DNA analysis will potentially have on the historically- and currently-held notion that the Mycenaeans overthrew the Minoans. For, as the researchers found, “The genomes of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans were also similar to those of modern Greek populations and to each other — for the most part.”

In fact, this goes even further towards explaining why a Minoan fresco, ca. 1600 BCE, could realistically depict a Trojan War-era, ca. 1200 BCE shipboard defensive tactic, described by a Greek epic poet some 400-500 years later!

A Literary Evolution of a Single Race?

So, I’m wondering, does this new analysis imply that “Minoan” Linear A and “Mycenaean” Linear B may represent a literary evolution of a single race of people?

How many neatly categorized archaeological sites and finds, as well as the wealth of history books and academic papers, will experience an interesting revolution if we ultimately recognize “Minoans” and “Mycenaeans” as one and the same people?

“A convincing contextualized decipherment of Linear A tablet HT 1 (Haghia Triada)” (c) Richard Vallance Janke. Source

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4 thoughts on “A Mycenaean Ship Maneuver Depicted on a Minoan Shipwreck Fresco

  1. I’ve seen the Akrotiri fresco and did not even consider there was a Mycenaean ship drawn. I will now need to have a closer look!
    I had read about the DNA references between the Minoans and Mycenaean’s, and it does make logical sense there is a connection between them. I am not sure if you’ve seen the documentary about Pavolpetri, it does seem to tie in with the influences the Minoans had on early Greek culture, so there must have been liaisons as well.

    Liked by 1 person

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