From Fig Leaves to High Fashion… Mycenaeans and Phoenicians 4


When the the Hebrews made their Exodus out of Egypt around 1400 B.C., the Minoan civilization suddenly collapsed.  Though the cause is not clear, it is suspected that a devastating earthquake and tsunami, brought on by the volcanic eruption of the nearby island of Thera, destroyed much of their fleet as well as their crops.  In their weakened state, the Minoans became easy prey for their Mycenaean neighbors who took advantage of the situation and swooped down from the north to conquer them.  Enlisting the help of the Minoans, the Mycenaeans quickly built their own fleet of ships and assumed dominance of the seas.

The Mycenaeans, who were much more aggressive than the Minoans, became fabulously wealthy through shrewd trade deals and outright piracy.  As the two cultures melded together, Mycenaean women began wearing the distinctive brightly colored Minoan wrap skirts; they didn’t, however, share the same lack of inhibition as the Minoans and adapted their blouses to cover their breasts.


Reconstructed Mycenaean Mural (around 1600-1100 BC), Athens Museum

While some Mycenaean men appear to have worn loin skirts similar to the Minoans, it was more common for them to wear short-sleeved tunics with a belted waist.  As aggressive warriors, Mycenaean armor became their most distinguishing costume.  Wrapped in bronze plates from the neck to the thigh with bronze leg guards and helmets made from boar’s tusks, they were a formidable sight indeed.

Giuseppe Rava's illustration of a late Bronze Age Mykenaean elite/noble warrior in full 'Dendra' style armour, circa 12th c. BCE.

Mycenaean warrior in full ‘Dendra’ style armour, circa 12th Century BC, Giuseppe Rava.

The Mycenaean civilization was divided into a number of independent city-states scattered throughout the Greek islands and mainland. These city-states, which included Mycenae, Pylos, Tiryns, and Athens, had rather tenuous relationships but were known to unite in such common endeavors as the Trojan War in 1200 B.C.  Shortly before the the Trojan War broke out, a group of people known as the Sea Peoples began wreaking havoc throughout the Mediterranean.  It remains unknown exactly who these Sea Peoples were but it appears that they may have been an independent confederation of people from a number of civilizations that included the Philistines and the Phoenicians.  By the time of the Trojan War, this mysterious group of marauders had already destroyed the Hittite Empire, conquered the coast of Palestine, and shook the foundations of the Egyptian Empire.  After fighting the Trojans for ten years, it is believed that the Mycenaeans allied themselves with the Sea Peoples in an effort to conquer Troy once and for all.   Their alliance came at a cost, however, and after the fall of Troy the Mycenaeans were obliged to continue raiding other civilizations with the Sea Peoples in order to avoid being attacked themselves.  Whatever role the Mycenaeans played with the Sea Peoples, the result was widespread turmoil as cities were sacked, populations displaced, and trade disrupted.  Even though the Mycenaeans alliance with the Sea Peoples helped them to avoid an actual attack, the aftermath destroyed their trade and crippled their civilization and in their weakened state, a new wave of Greek tribes, the Dorians, moved in and took over much of Greece.  For a time, a period of anarchy and poverty settled over the Greek world and much of their culture and language was lost.  Over time, however, the Mycenaeans and Dorians worked together to build a whole new culture, laying the foundation for a creative and vibrant civilization that would one day set the course for the rest of the world.

While the Hebrews struggled to build their nation in Canaan during the time of the Judges, the Mycenaeans rose and fell, making way for the Phoenicians to step forward as the unrivaled force on the seas.  Not only were the Phoenicians highly skilled shipbuilders, mariners, and warriors, but they had also developed the first phonetic alphabet – the origin of most phonetic alphabets today.   The Phoenicians were also highly skilled craftsmen in glass, fine linen, and purple dye and became avid traders.  However, they were also incredibly aggressive and were known to take over civilizations by force in order to exploit them.  Though most of their trade was carried out within the Mediterranean region, there is evidence that they ventured into the Altantic Ocean and made their way along the west coast of Africa, Europe, England, and even as far as North and South America.  When Solomon became the king of Israel around 970 BC,  he allied himself with Hiram, the Phoenician king of Tyre.  Together they expanded global trade, science, and architecture which brought their kingdoms incredible wealth and knowledge.


Phoenician Style Dress for Women

The Phoenicians became highly skilled at weaving both linen and wool, and discovered how to extract a rich purple dye from the Murex snail.  Tyrian Purple, as it became known, was the grandest of all dyes and was greatly prized not only for its rich color but because it did not fade; in fact, it became brighter and more intense with weathering and sunlight.  It was also the most expensive dye to produce and was literally worth more than its weight in gold.  Collecting and processing the dye, however, was far from a regal occupation.  Because each snail produces just two small drops of the milky-looking secretion the

A small amount of dibromindigo as a powder, and its effect on a piece of fabric

A small amount of Tyrian Purple as a powder, and its effect on a piece of fabric.

dye is derived from, it took as many as 10,000 snails to make enough dye for just one cloak.  The secretion came from a small gland inside the snail and although there were methods of milking it from the snails, it was such a time consuming process that dye producers found it easier to simply crush the snail to get at the gland.  The crushed snails were then left out in the sun to rot before painstakingly collecting all the oozy smelly glands.  By carefully timing its exposure to sunlight, dyers could create a wide variety of shades, the most prized being very dark black-purple.  The smell from the rotting mollusks was so atrocious that no one could bear to live nearby and women whose husbands chose to become dye makers after they were married were given legal grounds for divorce.





A Phoenician Woman

Like most people from this time, the Phoenicians of Tyre clothed themselves in simple tunics and shawls.  They developed their own style by adding interesting asymmetrical capes and wrapped skirts of richly dyed fabrics

Phoenician Men

Phoenician Men

heavily adorned with ornate embroidery and trims that they used to show off their wealth.  Men usually wore carefully pleated skirts that they held in place with a belt and ornamental clasps.  Women draped themselves very carefully from head to foot in long tunics tied with a belt.  Sometimes they would add a frilled or spiraled skirt or heavy cloak.   Phoenician women were greatly devoted to the use of personal ornaments, and it was probably from them that the Hebrew women picked up the fashion that the prophet Isaiah denounced so fiercely.

Isaiah 3:16

The Lord says,
    “The women of Zion are haughty,
walking along with outstretched necks,
    flirting with their eyes,
strutting along with swaying hips,
    with ornaments jingling on their ankles.

Phoenician Woman

Phoenician Woman


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