Friday, Oct. 17, 2008

Enter the Labyrinth

By David Luhrssen
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A hero descends into a subterranean labyrinth to battle a monster with a taste for human flesh. The ancient Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur is at the root of three thousand years of grim sagas and fairy tales and Gothic adventures on page and screen, not to mention role-playing and video games. The monstrous Minotaur was said to dwell on the island of Crete beneath the palace of King Minos, the ruins of which were uncovered a century ago by English archeologist Sir Arthur Evans.

The mysterious civilization of Minos is the subject of a fast-pace documentary, “The Minotaur’s Island,” out now on DVD. Narrated by the sexy and engaging Bettany Hughes, a British historian on her way to being the go-to hostess for productions on the ancient and medieval world, “The Minotaur’s Island” digs into an ancient civilization that boasted paved roads, indoor plumbing, magnificent palaces, brilliant frescos and an array of splendid artifacts that look astonishingly modern. The jewelry, cups and vases wouldn’t be out of place at an expensive Manhattan boutique and the women—judging from the frescos—would look great in an Anthropology ad spread.

Serious historiography underlies the documentary’s artifacts and eye dazzle. Hughes points out that Evans constructed a plausible and elaborate narrative of ancient Crete out of the bits and pieces he discovered. In his version of their history Crete was the first “European” civilization (a problematic description of an Eastern Mediterranean culture BC); he compared it to his own island kingdom as a mistress of the sea, a Bronze Age land of hope and glory. Since then, Hughes recounts, many other discoveries have surfaced and interpretations offered.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Sir Arthur and other archeologists of his time—apart from the thrill of finding lost civilizations—was the discovery of the physical basis of age-old mythology. The walls of Troy and the Palace of Minos once actually stood, raising the tantalizing prospect that the stories set in those places had some basis in actuality.

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