Elatia Harris

Until 1967, when the excavations of Prof. Spyridon Marinatos began to bring it to light, the clock had been stopped on the settlement of Akrotiri, on the Aegean island of Thera – better known as Santorini – for about 3600 years. Volcanic ash from the largest geological event of ancient times, several hundred feet of ash that would have taken fully two centuries to harden, had both destroyed and preserved the town, setting it apart from history for a very long time.

The precise dating of the event is a difficulty – one of those problems that arise when there’s a spread between archeological and geological data.  Though the Egyptians – this would have been about the time of Queen Hatshepsut – suffered no damage on record from the eruption, its ashy traces blew northeast to Anatolia, helping to date it to around 1600 B.C.E.  Its effects, including a tsunami that pounded the northern coast of Crete, would have been marked with awe throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and may have made an impact on weather systems as far away as China.  Examining a satellite photo of Thera, it is easy to see the outlines of the caldera, the vast undersea crater around which the present island takes form. The Thera Eruption, as it is called, was not the first from this furious caldera, several hundred thousand years old — only the first to impinge on civilization.


Who, then, lived on Thera?  Not that it was in those days called Thera; the name came into use well after the eruption.  The Therans had much but not everything in common with the palace-dwelling Minoans on Crete.  Thera being the southernmost island in the Cycladic arc, just about equidistant from mainland Greece and Asia Minor and 70 kilometers north of Crete, its roots in Cycladic culture went deep. Of Minoans in general, we know what we can infer from archeological sites, but we cannot read their language, written in the tormenting and fascinating script called Linear A, at which scholars have puzzled ever since the Phaistos Disc was unearthed on Crete one hundred years ago.  Shards covered with Linear A have been found on Thera, too, tantalizing in their mute abundance.

One of the most baffling losses pre-history confronts us with is our not knowing how an ancient people referred to itself, or what its place was called by those who lived there. We don’t know Minoan place names, or what the Minoans called themselves, and the sound of their speech is but a guess. We do know that the time of their late flourishing — roughly the middle centuries of the second millennium B.C.E. — corresponded to a period of internationalism and vigorous trade throughout the eastern Mediterranean and Near East.

Blue_monkey_detail_thera_4 This was the Late Bronze Age, and many of its gorgeous refinements were fully present on Thera. In the harbor there were 50-foot ships of cypress, with resinated linen-covered hulls and benches for 30 oarsmen. Thanks to the same geothermal activity that would one day disastrously increase, hot water ran in pipes through multi-storied houses with stone stairs. Ventilation was understood, with light wells sunk in blocks of dwellings. Then as now in the Mediterranean, staples were stored in gigantic ceramic jars – olive oil, grain, dried figs. There was intricate and characteristic jewelry – out-sized crescent earrings, for instance – and there was perfume, of coriander, almonds, bergamot and pine. Weaving was so fine that garments could be woven sheer and then embroidered. There were blue-toned vervet monkeys from Egypt, tall stone vases for lilies, and sufficient paint for many radiantly colored and figured walls — had there not been paint, we would know very little of the rest.

Saffronthreads And there was saffron, the dark red thread linking so many ancient peoples.  Saffron is obtained by plucking the stigma — the female parts of the reproductive system of the saffron crocus – and drying it. The dried stigma are called saffron threads, and these are typically ground to a powder before or after being sold.  Harvesting and drying saffron is intensive labor, performed almost everywhere by women. Known and used since Neolithic times, the wild-growing crocus species that produces saffron, C. cartwrightianus, has given over to a cultivated species, C. sativus.  Numerous crocus species, some with mythological associations, bloom in the late winter, the spring and the fall.  C. cartwrightianus and C. sativus, with their petals of violet-blue, bloom in the late fall, a time of tremendous fecundity in both plant and animal life in the Mediterranean. It takes about 70,000 deep orange-red stigma to make a pound of saffron.  Always regarded as very, very precious, it is now mainly known as the world’s most expensive spice.  In its defense as a flavoring for food – the taste is epiphanial, and you only need a little.  More about that another time.  Its 4000-year history includes not only culinary applications, but use as a dye, a medicine, and a ritual substance.

Anyone looking for the cultic aspects of saffron had better begin with Akrotiri. Though history’s most ardent kiss – language that we can read – has not yet been bestowed here, the images on the walls tell us a story of their own.

Xeste3ruins In the building known as Xeste 3, larger and more decorated than any other in town, is a two-storied chamber of frescoes – true frescoes, painted on wet plaster for a time-defying bond – depicting women and girls gathering saffron crocus blooms, bringing them in baskets to a saffron-cushioned goddess seated on a three-tiered platform. It is by far the most splendid and evocative cycle of paintings from the ancient world to be discovered in our time, and a match for almost any painting from pre-classical antiquity.  Since the Aegean Late Bronze Age was a time of complex cross-currents in artistic influences, striking parallels between the Egyptian and Minoan painting styles are to be expected.  The precision with which landscape elements as large as harbors and as small as individual flowers were imagined and represented on Thera, however, is without peer in either Minoan civilization or Dynastic Egypt.

Xeste 3 was probably a public building – on an ashlar wall there is an altar surmounted by a painted pair of horns tipped and dripping in red and, below, a lustral basin, both too large for domestic use.  If public or semi-public rituals were performed here, then to what end? And in whose propitiation?

Mistress of the Animals

Mistressoftheanimals_2 It is hard not to look at the goddess on the saffron cushion. Though her state of preservation is less than optimal, she is the focal point of the cycle. Necklaces with a duck and a dragonfly motif hang in an arc from her throat. Her blue and white costume is richly embroidered with a saffron crocus motif, the easily recognizable silhouette of the wild-growing C. cartwrightianus that is everywhere represented in Xeste 3 – clinging to rocks, garlanding its gatherers, piled into baskets, and patterning the creamy white field on which all the images are painted. The sheer visual inescapability of the crocus on these premises where rituals were enacted may represent its fragrance suffusing the atmosphere. A sign in Greek mythology of the presence of a deity is the scent of flowers, and one thousand years earlier on Thera, it may have meant the same, for the Greeks routinely endowed the Olympians with the attributes of far older gods.

To us, perhaps the most compelling aspect of the goddess is not her regalia, but her expression. Head turned in profile, her eye is starry with interest, her lips parted as if in speech with the blue monkey to her right offering a handful of saffron. A gryphon flanks her left, present only in paw and wing. While she commands girls to gather and bring her tribute, her companions are animals, on the same level of the platform as herself. We don’t know her name on Thera, but she is known to us anyhow: this is the Mistress of the Animals — potnia theron — one of the oldest goddesses of ancient times. A mountain deity of the Near East – the mountain here recalled by the three-tiered platform – potnia theron held sway over wild animals, the wild and the holy being, for purposes of propitiation, terribly similar. A fierce Nature Mother, she was allied with the animals, needing to be won over with worship to the side of the hunters. 

In her earliest known incarnations, potnia theron was wild and implacable to look at, anything but easy to sell on the idea that her creatures should be slaughtered to feed and clothe humans, and nothing at all like the luxuriously adorned beauty inclining her head to the ear of the monkey on the walls of Xeste 3.  It is probable that what we see represented here is the priestess of the cult – the most highly stationed woman in the town — standing in for the deity during the ritual, and in a moment of awful mystery, actually assuming her throne.  It was understood as a sacred performance, and doing just this was one of the major functions of cultic priests.  It still is, as, for instance, with the vicar empowered to forgive a penitent in the name of God at the end of a ritual confession, literally to hand out God’s forgiveness in His place.

Saffron from Thera

What role did saffron play here? In the thirty years since scholars began to study Xeste 3, their appreciation of this role has grown, but that is only to say conjecture ranges ever wider, for however lavish the visual clues there is a crucial absence of record. Perhaps, however, visual clues and the inferential processes they stimulate can point the way to an accurate understanding of what is seen.

Saffron_gatherer_hi_res Most educated guessing about the meaning of the paintings in Xeste 3 has tended towards the interpretation that fertility rites are being enacted, or coming of age ceremonies performed, even that a goddess is overseeing the production of perfume or spice. The youngest looking members of the troop of saffron-gathering girls have curious coiffures not seen elsewhere among Cycladic and Minoan peoples – banded heads with shaven, blue-painted skulls and long black locks at the forehead, ears and crown. Boys on Thera are painted this way too – it seems to have been a youth thing, no doubt fraught with meaning.  Based on documented head-shaving patterns and rituals in Asia Minor, more than one scholar has concluded that Xeste 3 might be where the youth of Thera dedicated its hair to the gods – the offering of hair, symbolic of one’s strength, being in many places in the ancient Near East the maximum offering that one could make. 

These guesses speak to Late Bronze Age folkways in a general sense; initiations were known to take place at childhood’s end, spices were ground, plants were processed for perfume and incense, and what the ancients did with their hair – how they considered it –was deeply meaningful to them. What has been until recently overlooked is the specific focus on saffron in this large chamber.  It’s everywhere, and because the flower that produces it, the saffron crocus, is extremely accurately represented it cannot be a generic flower motif, for lilies, irises and other flowers are elsewhere in Akrotiri painted with the same careful and characteristic attention to plant anatomy. But these others are not shown being handled by humans.

Saffron_cheek Could the Xeste 3 murals pertain to the dyeing of luxury goods?  Prof. Elizabeth Wayland Barber observes in Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years (1994) that yellow was the color of women’s garments in the ancient world, with saffron the dye that produced those tonalities – from radiant warm yellow to deep orange-red – reserved for women of high status.  The use of saffron as a component in pigment goes back about 50,000 years to cave painting in Iraq, so the Therans were more likely simply to have used it as a dye than celebrated it as such. A young, blue-skulled priestess in a saffron robe is found on a wall of the West House, a nearby building at Akrotiri, and a long-haired woman suited in a tight-fitting saffron-colored costume raises her arm – signaling what? – on a wall of the House of the Ladies, also near Xeste 3.  Looking closely, it’s possible to see that the priestess’s lips and ear-tips are colored a deep orange-red, and on the cheek of the woman in fitted saffron clothing, there appears an emphatic red stain. Make-up? It’s probable that these facial markings are cultic, like the smudge of ash on the foreheads of Christians on Ash Wednesday, or the bindi on the foreheads of Hindu women, originally made of saffron paste, and a mark denoting both status and cultic affiliation.

Ebers_papyrus_color By the time of the Thera Eruption, yet another supremely important use for saffron was known.  It was powerful medicine.  In about 1550 B.C., in the XVIII Dynasty, the Ebers Papyrus, not only a medical treatise but perhaps the first known complete book of any kind, was rolled up and placed between the thighs of a body prepared for burial in Egypt. It consists of over 3000 lines of text written in the cursive script called Hieratic, with 811 prescriptions and diagnoses interspersed with spells and incantations. It recommends saffron powder blended with beer as a poultice for women in difficult labor, and recognizes saffron as a diuretic, as well.

Prof. Jules Janick of the Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture at Purdue University writes that “the early medical arts were associated with the search for knowledge about healing substances on the one hand and magic and religion on the other.  Plants with strong tastes and odors (herbs and spices) that were seized upon to alleviate illness and enhance food were considered sources of power, and became associated with ritual, magic, and religion. The prehistoric discovery that certain plants are edible or have curative powers and others are inedible or cause harm is the origin of the healing professions and its practitioners — priest, physician and apothecary.  For thousands of years the role of the priest and the physician were combined.” 

The theory that diseases had natural rather than supernatural causes would not be expounded until Hippocrates, more than 1200 years after the Thera Eruption.  The notion that healing properties inhered in plants with or without divine intervention likewise belonged to a later, more rational era.  In the long meanwhile, medicine was magic assisted by careful observation.  And on Thera, the magicians were women.

Saffron_garland_2 In 2004, Dr. Gordon Bendersky, a cardiologist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Susan Ferrence, an art historian at Temple University, published in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine an acclaimed article, “Therapy with Saffron and the Goddess of Thera,” in which they propose that the Akrotiri frescoes suggest the Therans had developed saffron as a versatile medicine.  Citing not only that the women in the frescoes are picking crocus flowers and emptying their elaborately detailed stigma — where its medicinal phytoactivity is concentrated — from small baskets to large ones, but that facing the goddess there is a seated girl with a bleeding foot and her hand to her head in the gesture that, in the Egyptian painting that influenced the artists of Akrotiri, indicates suffering, Bendersky and Ferrence hypothesize that “the program of Xeste 3 does not merely include the secondary medicinal value of saffron, but in fact emphasizes its primary therapeutic function, and exhibits the production sequence in cultic recognition of its precious curative value. The frescoes express a divinely encouraged concept – the medicinal healing that is the major function of saffron.”

Since ancient Eastern Mediterranean healers and worshippers often invoked a deity to potentiate a medicine, the paintings may promote the belief that the goddess depicted has conferred curative properties on the saffron. Benderski and Ferrence argue for the interpretation that saffron as a medicine could have originated on Thera at a slightly earlier time than the Ebers Papyrus catalogues its use, or at the very least, that Akrotiri was a major production center.  Interviewed for the New York Times about the findings presented by Bendersky and Ferrence, Dr. Ellen N. Davis, a professor of archaeology and specialist in the Mediterranean Bronze Age, said, “It’s the most valuable and convincing study of the medicinal uses of saffron in the ancient Mediterranean world.”

Over the next three and one half millennia, there would be written records from many cultures and countries about the use of saffron to treat over 90 illnesses – among these, menstrual disorders, melancholy, libido loss, eye diseases, liver diseases, wounds, joint pain and headache. Saffron appears in the botanical dictionary at Ashurbanipal’s library and in the Song of Songs. Alexander the Great bathed his battle wounds in it, Cleopatra bathed in it before meeting her lovers, Ayurvedic and Tibetan physicians prescribed it, and Western researchers have begun to study its active ingredients to determine whether its Bronze Age reputation as a curative substance is supported by modern science.  In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, saffron or its derivatives – crocin and crocetin – were shown to have anti-tumor activity against different malignancies in humans and animals both in vivo and in vitro. The potential success of saffron against many of the ills it was used to treat in antiquity has been confirmed by phytochemical studies and experimental evidence.

Was a Bronze Age island town capable of processing and packaging enough saffron to make it a major manufacturing center?  Bendersky and Ferrence point out that very little saffron would be necessary to achieve a therapeutic dose – just a few milligrams – and that there is such a thing as too much saffron, as the ancients would have known.

In 2006, two years after Bendersky and Ferrence had published their paper, a 3200-square-foot perfume factory dating to 2100 B.C.E. was discovered by an Italian team of archeologists at Pyrgos on Cyprus.  The complex had been destroyed by a major earthquake in 1850 B.C.E., but perfume bottles, mixing jugs and stills were preserved underneath the collapsed walls.  This discovery has enlarged once again our already impressive understanding of Bronze Age manufacturing and trade capabilities, and suggests that several hundred years later on Thera there would have been few technological obstacles to producing commercial quantities of saffron-based medicines.

The Thera Eruption

In the three decades that the world has been aware of it, Akrotiri has seen inevitable comparisons with Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E.  But the accuracy of the comparison is for many reasons imperfect. The Pompeiians were famously caught by surprise, the devastation occurring in the middle of normal town life, as the ash-preserved fallen figures attest.  Quite plainly, people dropped what they were doing and fled for their lives, with no time to gather up their valuables.  At nearby and slightly wealthier Herculaneum, they ran to the sea, where many of their bodies were found huddled along the coast.  Yet it was a much, much smaller eruption that caused all this destruction than the one 1600 years earlier on Thera. For the Theran Eruption, there had been years – perhaps decades — to prepare.

On the satellite map of Thera, two small islands in the crater can be seen – these are Nea Kameni and Palaia Kameni, and one may sail out to them to be closer to where the catastrophic eruption was centered, on a small island now vanished that was just to the north.  Here, the eruption that many times surpassed Vesuvius occurred.  It was four times bigger than even Krakatau in 1883, and roughly commensurate with the eruption of Mt. Tambora in 1815, which occasioned the well-documented “Year of No Summer.”

A geological event of this size cannot have gone unheralded, and it did not. A series of warning earthquakes must have prompted a mass evacuation from Thera. Only one body relating to the eruption has been found, on the island of Therasia just off northernmost Thera. If, as at Herculaneum, there are human remains on the coast of Thera – people who were not evacuated in time – they have yet to be found.  The kinds of metal artifacts that gave such a vivid picture of life at Pompeii have not been unearthed at Akrotiri – neither jewelry, nor weaponry, nor even a frying pan. Items of this kind were carried away by the Therans.  All they left, really, were their jars of grain and their painted walls.

Flotilla It is not known where they went, or what kind of life they made as migrants to foreign shores, only that they got away in fairly good time.  While there is no reason to suppose that, panic-stricken, they plied their oars through hissing seas, there is the awful pathos of their foreknowledge: the mouth of hell would open to swallow up their world, and no Mistress of the Animals or Saffron Mother endowing plant parts with the magic to heal was any match for that.

Young_priestess_3 To judge from the buckled stone stairs at Akrotiri, the warning quakes coming five or ten or twenty years before the eruption were hugely damaging, but not so bad it wasn’t worth it patching things up.  Everywhere in town during that interval, the work of repair was undertaken, even continued up to the time of the eruption, and the sheer scope of these repairs would have taken an organized and numerous population considerable effort to effect. In a bedroom of the West House, the location of the young priestess of the red-tipped ears and saffron robe, two vessels full of dried plaster and a third of dried paint were found; this room was in the process of redecoration when Akrotiri was abandoned once and for all.

None of those who left it, or their children, or their children’s children, would make a return trip, for once the ash from the volcanic plume reaching 40 kilometers into the sky had settled over the island, it would be sterile, every last plant extinguished, and uninhabitable for several hundred years.  Akrotiri, a world still striving for order and beauty when it came to its long-foreseen end, would go missing even from memory as the subsequent history of the island transpired.

River Around 1100 B.C.E., the Phoenicians came, then the Dorians, the Athenians, the Romans. The island was called Kalliste — “beautiful one”— and Strogyli – “round one.”  In the middle ages, Venetian crusaders called it Santorini, after Saint Irene, a martyr of the Eastern Church.  This is the name that has stuck, although the Greeks call it Thera or Thira, too.  The unquiet caldera, the most active volcanic center in the South Aegean, last erupted in 1956, and will do again; sulphur and steam are often seen rising from Nea Kameni, dead center in the peaceful dark blue bay.  For many hundreds of years now, the saffron crocus has been back. You would find villagers to say it has always been there.  It is gathered every October, the stigma plucked from it and processed – a small local industry, run by women.



The White Goddess, by Robert Graves
The Masks of God, Vol. 3: Occidental Mythology, by Joseph Campbell
Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religion, by Walter Burkert

Online Resources:
Beautifully designed and well-maintained site, rich in visual content relating to Akrotiri and Thera. Many learned articles posted on the Thera Eruption as well as on topics more specific to art, architecture, religion, social organization, technology.
Lectures on Prehistoric Archaeology of the Aegean from Dartmouth College. Excellent, readable overview.
Lectures on the History of Horticulture, Lessons 1 –26, by Prof. Jules Janick of Purdue University