The Palace of Knossos saddles the hill of Kephala – a linear stack of stones that looks from the side like a Jenga set in a permanent state of collapse. This site was the political core of the Minoan civilization, the first European city, and its remains remain one of the best reasons to fly to Crete. Mr. Blarney toured Knossos with a fellow journalist of this magazine as well as our illustrious editor. (That’s right: we’re all friends in real life, and it is as much fun to write as to read.)
Sir Arthur Evans, a ‘private adventurer’ and heir to a paper mill fortune – which he used to buy up antiquity where he found it – was responsible for the main excavation of Knossos. He bought the site personally and began a project of ‘inventive restoration’ in 1900. It is reconstruction by reckoning. Our guidebook passively chides some additions that Evans made, while the explanatory signs provided by the Greek government call bullshit on absolutely everything.
In these four square miles of limestone, gypsum, mud-brick and rubble supposedly lived King Minos, the monarch who enraged Poseidon and thus brought about the infamia di Creti: the Minotaur. It is strange how the ancient gods seem to have proto-human emotions that are only binary: either violently angered or violently pleased (yet always horny).
For those who need a Minoan mythical refresher, the salient points are as follows. Poseidon helped Minos to the throne and, (for reasons known only to himself) wanted a very particular snow-white bull sacrificed. Minos (for reasons known only to himself) thought a bull is a bull is a bull and sacrificed another one. Poseidon, rendered bull-less, became vengeful, and made Minos’s wife, Pasiphae, fall head over hooves in lust with the animal. She instructed Daedalus, seemingly the palace handyman, to build a hollow wooden cow within which she could clamber to trick the bull into congress. The offspring of this union was the Minotaur – a half-bull-half-royal beast that had to be hidden for shame. Daedalus was commissioned to construct a labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, and was then imprisoned to prevent spoilers.
Minos required that seven Athenian youths and seven maidens, drawn by lots, were sent every seventh year – seemingly to be devoured by the Minotaur. The apparent hero, Theseus, arrives and Ariadne, Minos’ daughter, rather hastily falls in love with him. Her poor attempt at seduction is the presentation of a ball of thread, which she instructs him to unfurl through the maze to find his way back. Theseus kills the Minotaur and is able to retrace his steps where others have failed – which brings me to what is most interesting about the myth. The youths and maidens are not eaten by the innocent beast, but consumed by the labyrinth. Theseus finds their bodies not gored but gaunt, starved of light and food. Process has eaten them, not monstrosity. They have been destroyed by the puzzle.
Meandering around the stones you feel as if the palace, with its 1,300 rooms, might itself have been the labyrinth, embellished into mazy complexity by myth. What is clear is that the labyrinth was deified – there are offerings of honey in jars Daburinthoio potniai; “to the goddess of the labyrinth”. Her sign, the labrys, is etched in the walls of these rooms that birth hallways exponentially. To the Minoans there was something sacred about this convolution. I imagine them sitting before the two frescoes in the Shrine of the Double Axes praying in harmony, listening to chants and bells. I feel them feverishly searching around the complex, exhausted by intricacy, praying to the great designer and seeking what promise lay at the centre.
Speaking of which, I’ve been applying for a US VISA. My guide through the maze of the US Immigration system was an attorney; this highly paid Ariadne’s advice was just as platitudinous as the original’s: he insisted that getting the right VISA was key. There are alphanumeric VISAs of baffling numerousness, which have very specific requirements for their issue. By way of illustration, a sample:
– A-1 visa: for ambassadors [naturally]
– D-2 visa: crewmen on a fishing vessel with home-port in the U.S. who intend to land temporarily in Guam. [Guam is a colony – despite it never being called that – of the US located in the Western Pacific. Apparently enough fishermen need to stop in Guam for this to be a thing]
– O-1: aliens of extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics. [The application form for the O-1 visa is masterful in its intimidation. There is a section for a candidate to fill in ‘any internationally recognised prizes or awards (e.g. Nobel)’. However, these strictures do not apply to catwalk models. I sat next to a Croatian woman in the American embassy who was painfully symmetrical. While waiting I asked her what VISA she was on. She raised her O-1 form, looked through me and merely said ‘I am an extraordinary alien’. I couldn’t help but agree].
The US Embassy in London, like Knossos, defies dimension, its fenestration like an Excel spreadsheet. It was London’s first purpose built embassy – before its construction HM Government would just toss scraps of the Monopoly board to other countries and let them get on with it. The queue for visas begins before dawn; people coil tightly across Grosvenor Square holding passports and paperwork. After five hours inside, I wind through the building and out onto the street, crossing the threshold from American soil back into Grosvenor Square. In my passport is a freshly minted VISA, and I’m feeling bullish.