We don’t know exactly who the people were who lived in the Cyclades in the Early Bronze Age. There is no direct written evidence from the time of the Cycladic culture; the first writings in Greece, the Minoan Linear A- and the Mycenaean Linear B-script, appear around 2,000 and 1,400 BC respectively (after the Sumerians had already developed cuneiform writing around 3,300 BC). We know that the first Greek tribes appeared on the Greek mainland around 2,000 BC. They first travelled to the islands at around 1,500 BC (with the beginning of the Mycenaean epoch); before that, the islands were populated by other ethnic groups that used various languages.
Ancient historians reported that “pelasgian” tribes lived on the islands and also on the Greek mainland and in Asia Minor before the immigration of the Greeks, which is understood as a collective term for several pre-Greek peoples (the word is perhaps related to pélagos, the Greek word for sea). These early inhabitants of the Cyclades are often called Leleges, which, like the word “barbarians”, is probably an onomatopoeic description of the incomprehensible “babbling”. Further peoples, who lived in the Aegean region, are the Hittites, the Luwians, the Lydians, the Tyrrhenes etc… The relationships and distribution of these different peoples, however, is still unclear.
Mesopotamia: Origin from the East
The cradle of our European culture was Mesopotamia, where a progressive Stone Age culture, that had disovered the cultivation of plants and domestication of animals, existed already around 10.000 BC. It is from this area that the cultivation of wheat, barley, lentils, peas and other useful plants such as wine, almonds, figs etc. originated. An important change in daily life came through the domestication of goats, sheep, pigs and (around 6,500 BC) cattle. The production and use of Bronze started around 3,300 BC – the beginning of the Bronze Age in this region, earlier than anywhere else.
Numerous similarities between the Neolithic culture of Mesopotamia and the cultures of the eastern Mediterranean area prove a contact between the two areas. The early cultures in Greece and other regions received crucial impulses from the Mesopotamian culture. Thus the various cultivated plants and domestic animals, but also crafts and techniques as well as aspects of religion gradually spread from Mesopotamia throughout the Middle East to Anatolia and Asia Minor and also to Egypt, Cyprus and Crete. From Asia Minor they advanced comparatively early into the Aegean, then to the Greek mainland and further north. Despite this obvious fertilization from the Orient, however, the early culture of the Aegean region shows many independent features that justify its demarcation as an independent culture.
From the Aegean Sea, the Bronze Age culture was brought by the Cycladic and Minoan peoples to the western Mediterranean region, where it fertilized the local cultures which at that time were still in a Neolithical stage. From here the knowledge of metallurgy and thus the transition to a Bronze Age culture gradually spread along the western European coast to the north – at the same time it also advanced from the Balkan towards central and northern Europe, where the Bronze Age started more than 1000 years later than in the Aegean.
The special development in the Aegean Sea
The cultural development in the Aegean region took from the Early Bronze Age on quite a different course from most of the neighbouring regions. In the Orient and in Egypt with their endless deserts and mighty rivers, the fate of mankind depended above all on sufficient rainfalls, and man was at the mercy of the forces of nature, seemingly defenceless and helpless, but was also regularly endowed with overflowing wealth and abundant fertility. Especially in Egypt the society and the form of government developed in analogy to this overpowering forces of nature into an absolute kingdom with an almighty godlike king, while little importance was given to the individual: Mankind had to submit to the will of the distant, even unattainable gods without a possibility of influence except through its ruler, the godlike pharao.
In contrast to this, the fate of mankind in the Aegean with its many small, sparsely inhabited islands seemed much more friendly, manageable and personal, and was easier to oversee and understand. The society here put the main weight on the individual; accordingly the gods were formed in the image of the humans with their desires and weaknesses, flaws and virtues. The environment was more variable and demanded always new and different strategies and solutions. Especially for the shipping which was vital for the islands, man had to strive to understand his environment and to analyze and predict natural phenomena such as the weather and the movements of stars and planets. Trade brought the people of comparatively small communities into contact with a variety of other cultures, putting their own worldview into perspective. Man turned towards the world in a rational, analyzing, creative process. Only against this background can we understand the great achievements of the ancient Greeks in the fields of science, technology and philosophy that provided the basis for today’s modern world.
The Thracians on Naxos
Apart from Asia Minor and the eastern Mediterranean area, the Cycladic culture was closely related to peoples from the North Aegean and the Balkan. After the first settlers in the Neolithic and Early Bronze Age, who probably originally came from the easternmost Mediterranean region and maybe the Orient (see above), Thracians from northern Greece seem to have settled on the Cyclades during the Early Bronze Age. Ancient Greek historians report that Naxos was settled by Carians, a Thracian tribe that spread to Asia Minor.
The Thracians had developed a remarkably sophisticated Neolithic culture in Romania and Bulgaria (as well as possibly in the area of the Black Sea, which was flooded around 6,500 B.C. when an opening was created to the Mediterranean Sea) with cities of up to 10,000 inhabitants (!). Similarities with the Cycladic culture can be detected, for example, in the pottery (in both cultures spiral-shaped patterns were very common), in the domesticated animals and the crops, and in the fact that female idol figures were made. The Thracian inhabitants of the Eastern Balkans developed a noteworthy metallurgy already in the 4th millennium BC; the oldest, very impressive gold treasures of this region (e.g. the treasure of Varna) originate from this time.
Historic references to the Carians and related tribes
Close relationships between the Cycladic inhabitants and the north-eastern Aegean existed especially in the middle and late phase of the Cycladic culture and in the later epochs of the Bronze Age (Minoan and Mycenaean epochs). Carians and Pelasgians are said to have fought alongside the Trojans in the Trojan War (probably based on events that took place around 1,200 BC). The ancient historians reported that the Carians were excellent seafarers and travelled the entire Aegean Sea until King Minos subdued them, as indeed the Cycladic culture was replaced by the Minoan culture when Crete gained supremacy over the Aegean Sea around 2,000 BC. Later, the Carians settled in parts of Asia Minor (Caria). In the 7th century BC they emigrated to Egypt, one of the numerous references to the relations of the Aegean peoples with Egypt. Other Aegean peoples also undertook major migrations, for example the Tyrrhenians (according to legend Tyrrhenian pirates kidnapped Dionysus as a young god near Naxos) who emigrated to Southern Italy, where they formed the Etruscan tribe.
The Aegean languages
Not much is known about the languages spoken by the pre-Greek inhabitants of the Aegean. Some pre-Greek languages are classified as non-Indo-European languages. However, Thracian is certainly Indo-European; also Carian is said to have been an Indo-European language. From the pre-Greek languages a number of words have survived until today, especially place names (which by the way proves a continuous settlement and local tradition over at least 5,000 years). Characteristic for the pre-Greek words are the letter combinations -ss- (e.g. thálassa (sea), kyparíssi (cypress), Parnassos…), -tt- (e.g. Lykabettos), -nth- (e.g. Corinth), -ns- (e.g. Tiryns).
Symbols used in the Indo-European culture
Certain characteristics and symbols connected to the ancient farming culture run like a common thread through European history. People first worshipped a Mother-Earth Goddess as the “mother who gave birth to the world” and the goddess of fertility, which they depicted in stone or clay idols. Later, she was replaced in her role as the main goddess by a male god. This god found his most expressive symbol in the male bull, bursting with strength and life (especially in Mesopotamia and in Crete and later for example in Spain). Other symbols of the main male god, who was worshipped also as the weather maker, were the lightning (e.g. Zeus), the (Minoan double) axe and the hammer (Thracian symbol, Thor,…). A popular symbol was also the acorn as phallus symbol and symbol of life force, as well as the egg. From the very beginning, the grapevine was also connected with a special meaning.
One of the most important symbols of the Cycladic culture, but also of many other early cultures, e.g. the Thracian and the Celtic, was the spiral, which was very often used for ornaments. The spiral symbolizes the course of the sun and the stars, the course of time, the unfolding universe. The simple, expanding spiral stands for the life that develops and grows, for the life that learns (as opposed to the constant circle). In the Cycladic culture, the double spiral stood for the increasing and decreasing of the length of day and night over the course of the year. It symbolizes the course of the seasons and the annual, Dionysian return of spring, the rebirth of life. It is the symbol of energy, of vibration, of infinite movement.