Music was around on the island of Crete in prehistoric times, and has gone on evolving to the present – whilst retaining all the elements of its original nature: it is one of the most ‘pure’ expressions in Greece, and indeed in all Europe.
On Crete and its musics, very many past scholars and artists have voiced their opinions, demonstrating the value and significance of music in the distant past. Plato on his ‘Laws’ and ‘Minos’, Euripides in ‘The Cretans’, Sophocles in ‘Daedalus’, Herodotus in his Histories, Aristotle, Isocrates, Thucydides, Plutarch, Diodorus Siculus .. each and every one expressed their admiration for the pre-Greek Minoan civilization.
Typical in his opinion is Strabo, the well-known geographer of the ancient world: he makes mention in his works of the heights achieved in dance and music in Crete’s ancient past, which are reflected in their laws on music, poetry and dance.
Just about all the historians agree, more or less, that the Phyrrikios, Taurine, Orsitis, Epikridios and the Crane – indeed all the old sacred and secular dance forms are Cretan or owed to Cretan influences.
The Mainland Mycenaean culture which followed and inherited the Minoan went on to set down the basic ground rules for the spiritual wonders of classical antiquity, employing amongst other sources elements of Minoan musical practice. Evidence for this can be gleaned from musicological data that has survived somehow or other the passage of time and the island’s eventful history to play a part in modern music and dance.
The musical story of Crete begins – in myth – with the birth of the father of the Olympian deities, Zeus, in the high and proud mountains of Crete. The Kouretes, mythical Cretan warriors, covered up the baby’s cries (to protect him from his father Kronos) by dancing and beating their weapons loudly and rhythmically.
Later, Theseus arriving at Delos in his flight from Crete performed a dance with his companions in which he imitated the spiraling twists and turns of the Labyrinth at Knossos. This is the famous Crane dance, which can still be met with on many a Greek isle.
Comments and observations to do with Cretan music are almost without end. Typically, Sophocles, in his ‘Ajax’, refers to the Knossian Dance as of great report and spectacularity.
Historically documented too is the story of Thales, who saved Sparta from a great pestilence thanks to his music. With the rise in importance of the Greek mainland many elements of Cretan music and dance became an integral part of the overall Greek traditions. An example of this is the 7-string lyre and the double-flute that accompanies a funeral procession – as depicted on the Aghia Triadha sarcophagus. The famous Shield of Achilles was decorated, according to Homer, with a party scene at the Palace of Knossos. Tradition has it that Glaukos, son of Minos, was buried with his flutes, on which he was a virtuoso player.
Knossos and Crete in the Minoan era were known not only for their feasting, but also for warlike dances in armour – such as the famed Phyrric dance.
The first to compose love odes was the mythical Cretan kitharist Amitor: from that time on his name was given to all players of the kithara... Amitorides.
One of the ancient Greek rhythms, the Paean, was also known as the Cretan... it is still employed today in the rizitika songs: take to Sparta by Thales. Renowned in the past too was the Cretan musician Mesomides (2nd century AD), the lyric poet and musician by appointment to the Emperor Hadrian: he was the composer of numerous hymns – to Nemesis, to Calliope of the Muses and to the Sun. These three hymns have the ancient musical notation written above the text: they are almost the only ones to have survived from the past.