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Philistines, Cypriots, and Minoans

The majority biblical tradition states that the Philistines came from the Caphtorim, while a straightforward reading of Genesis 10:14 would have them derived from the Casluchim. What can we know about these two ancient peoples or regions?


Turning first to Caphtor, I have already noted that most scholars associate this term with Crete. Bimson, however, suggests that it is in fact Cyprus. He points to bichrome ware made with Cypriot clay as an indicator of the presence of Philistines in the Levant in the Late Bronze Age. Long before the reign of Ramesses III (around 1200 BC in conventional chronology), a new style of pottery (“bichrome ware”) appeared in the coastal strip of southern Palestine. Neutron activation analysis proves it was manufactured from Cypriot clay. The pots could have been brought by traders rather than by immigrants, but the emergence of Cypriot-style tombs in the same region at about the same time provides “compelling evidence for the settlement of Eastern Cypriot groups in southern Palestine” (quoted from W.H. Stiebing).

These Cypriot immigrants were “Philistines,” or at least members of the same basic cultural horizon. Dothan, it will be remembered, has noted how the Medinet Habu depictions of Philistines suggest cultural ties to Cyprus. Nor is this view of Philistine origins unique to Bimson. See, for example, Karageorghis’ “Exploring Philistine Origins on the Island of Cyprus,” BAR 10:02 (Mar/Apr 1984). The discovery of Cypro-Minoan script from the Iron Age Philistine city of Ashkelon is another piece of evidence linking the Philistines with Cyprus.

It seems beyond dispute that there is a connection between the Philistines and Cyprus. If a connection with Crete is also warranted (and I believe it is) it may well be that Cyprus was the immediate launching point for the Philistine immigration to coastal Palestine. This would be in complete harmony with what is otherwise known about the world of the ancient Mediterranean. This does not, of course, settle the question of whether biblical “Caphtor” is to be equated with Crete or with Cyprus. The Philistines may have come originally from Crete but by way of Cyprus.


If the identity of the Caphtorim is a puzzle, that of the Casluchim is even more. Nearly everyone locates the Casluchim somewhere in Lower Egypt or adjacent areas of North Africa. The Targum places them in the region later known as the Pentapolis, the northern section of Cyrenaica. The Septuagint has Chasmonim in Genesis 10:14, which some have equated with the Nasmonim of the Gulf of Sidra.

It may be easier to accept the view that Genesis 10 should be emended to take the Casluchim out of the equation, but I prefer not to fiddle with the text if it can be avoided. In this case, I believe it can be. Other interpretive options are available, as I hope to demonstrate.

The first step in this interpretation is to acknowledge that there are good reasons for seeing a cultural connection between Crete and Cyprus in the Bronze Age. Cretan civilization was the earliest known maritime power. We usually call this civilization “Minoan” (a term coined in the early 20th century by Sir Arthur Evans), though we have no idea what the ancient Cretans called themselves since their language is lost to us. The Minoan civilization established commercial relationships with important sites throughout the Aegean and eventually the entire eastern Mediterranean. The Minoans had a trading colony in Ugarit in the Middle Bronze Age. Cyprus would have been a highly desirable halfway point for Minoan travel to and from this Syrian city.

In fact, Cypriot culture was obviously influenced by Minoan at least by the Late Bronze Age, as evidenced by the Cypro-Minoan syllabary, which shows clear derivation from Minoan Linear A.

If the Philistines came most immediately from Cyprus, and Cyprus was within the Minoan sphere of influence, is it possible to place Philistines on Crete itself? Amazingly, the answer seems to be yes. The evidence for this has recently been advanced by Bryan G. Wood in “The Genesis Philistines” (reviewed here). According to Wood, the famous Phaistos Disk, a 6.5 inch diameter, half-inch think baked clay disk with undecipherable inscriptions on both sides, makes possible a Cretan-Philistine connection. This artifact dates from about 1700 BC in conventional chronology. Among its many symbols, the disk has a depiction of a warrior in a feathered headdress, which Wood claims is

very similar to the depiction of the later Philistines in reliefs on the wallsof Rameses III’s mortuary temple in Medinet Habu, Egypt (T. Dothan 1982: 22; T.and M. Dothan 1992: 35-36). This is not an isolated find, as identical signs, including frontal views of the feathered warrior, have been found inscribed on an axe found in a cave in Crete (Robinson 2002: 306-307).

To the presence of this seemingly Philistine figure on Crete, Wood adds evidence of an early Cretan presence at Gerar (identified as Tell Haror, 17 miles east of Gaza). He states,

Of particular interest is a Minoan graffito found in the sacred precinct dating to ca. 1600 BC. Analyses of the sherd determined that it originated in Crete, most likely the south coast. There are four Minoan signs on the graffito, inscribed prior to firing, which represent a bull’s head, cloth, branch and figs. In addition to the graffito, an unusual chalice of Canaanite shape and fabric was found in a room on the east side of the sacred area. What makes the chalice unusual is its high arching handles, a well-known feature of Minoan chalices, but not of Canaanite.

This find suggests that the Minoans were living in Gerar‚ the city in which Abraham and Isaac encountered Philistines in Genesis 21 and 26‚ and had possibly been for a significant time prior to 1600 BC. Painting Minoan-style reliefs would hardly be among the first tasks undertaken by settlers. It would probably only be done after the city had been firmly established. (I should note here that I favor a lower chronology for the ancient world which would place the Tell Haror graffito at several centuries greater distance from Abraham. I’ll address the issues of chronology and possible anachronisms in the next installment.)

Finally, although the language of Linear A has yet to be deciphered, the phonetic values of many of the signs can be determined by comparison with later Linear B. Interpreted in these terms, there are a couple of well-attested Philistine names (Padi, Ikausu) found in Linear A inscriptions from Crete.

Crete: An African Connection?

Is it possible to link Cretan culture with Egypt? If the Philistines are to be associated with Minoan culture and if Genesis 10 is taken to be in any sense an accurate representation of the ethnography of the ancient world, this question must be addressed.

Very little is known of Cretan history before the beginning of the Early Minoan period, conventionally dated to ca. 2600 BC, although several reputable scholars hazard a guess that there were early migrations from North Africa. Crete has been inhabited as far back as the Neolithic period, ca. 6000 BC. Apparently, most of the early settlement was from Anatolia, but there is also evidence that Crete had a racially diverse population. Differing skull-types discovered at Cretan excavations suggest that such diversity existed. From a later period, Homer (Odyssey 17:175-177) noted at least five different tribes or ethnic groups on the island with each of them speaking a different language. It is possible that Crete was made up of many or at least several separate states at an early stage in its history. In Homer’s day, Crete was

a fair, rich land, begirt with water, and therein are many men, past counting, and ninety cities. They have not all the same speech, but their tongues are mixed. There dwell Achaeans, there great-hearted native Cretans, there Kydonians, and Dorians of waving plumes, and goodly Pelasgians.

Of the five tribes Homer mentions two are late Greek-speaking arrivals: the Achaeans and the Dorians. Native Cretans (or “Eteocretans”), Kydonians, and Pelasgians were likely all present on Crete before the arrival of the Greeks in the Late Helladic period. Eteocretans and Kydonians may have been related groups (in mythology, Kydon was the son of Minos, Crete’s founder and first king). The Pelasgians were also to be found throughout the Aegean and on the Greek mainland. They apparently originated in Anatolia and may have been Crete’s original Anatolian ethnic stock. Known in later Greek literature as Pelasgoi, they were originally called Pelastoi (Iliad 16:233; the earliest attested form of the word has “t,” not “g”)‚ a likely origin for the Egyptian term Peleset and the Hebrew Pelishtim. Since many believe that the indigenous population of Crete had both Anatolian and North African roots, this leaves Eteocretans and Kydonians as possible candidates for descendancy from Mizraim (Ge 10:13-14).

What else can be known? There are Greek traditions that the Libyans originally came from Crete and/or settled in Crete, although I must hasten to state that the historicity of these traditions is strenuously contested by some, who see them as resulting from a linguistic confusion between Mat Libu, the Assyrian name for the Lycians of Asia Minor, and Libya. At any rate, one of these Libyan groups was the Garamantes, whom Robert Graves (The Greek Myths, vol. 1, pp. 33-35) states originally lived in the Fezzan region of Libya, south of Cyrene. In other words, the Garamantes lived just south of the region of Africa associated with the Casluchim, the ancestors of the Philistines according to the Genesis Table of Nations.

All of this, it must be emphasized, is purely speculation. No one can say for sure that the Eteocretans came from North Africa or were somehow culturally connected with Egypt. There is, however, an abundance of circumstantial evidence for a Cretan-Egyptian connection that has been noted since Sir Arthur Evans first excavated Knossos. Redmond notes several symbols shared by the two cultures:

  1. The ankh.
  2. Hathor-like images such as cows suckling calves.
  3. The resemblance between the Minoan “Snake Goddess” figures and Wadjet, the Egyptian Nile goddess represented as a snake. (For a fuller explanation, see Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe, Minoan Snake Goddess. Witcombe states, “It is clear that the Minoans borrowed much their culture and various cult practices from Egypt. Numerous Egyptian objects of one kind or another were found by Evans at Knossos. The most spectacular discovery was the lower part of a diorite statue of a seated Egyptian figure identified from the hieroglyphic inscriptions as a priest of Wadjyt.”)
  4. The orientation of the palaces on Crete was determined in relation to Sirius, as was the position of Hathor’s temple on the Nile.
  5. Both cultures celebrated the New Year at the early rising of Sirius in July.

Additional features might be noted, including:

  1. Donald A. MacKenzie, Myths of Crete and Pre-Hellenic Europe, cites the affinities between the Cretan Zeus and Egyptian Osiris.
  2. Sir Arthur Evans believed that Cretan Linear A script was similar to Egyptian hieroglyphics.
  3. Evidence from Cretan murals indicates that the costumes the Minoans wore were similar to those of the Egyptians.

These connections led Evans to speculate that during the unsettling time of the military unification of Upper and Lower Egypt, refugees from Lower Egypt may have immigrated to Crete.

Looking beyond the immediate Egyptian sphere, Wendy Logue argues that North Africans traveled to Crete (and possibly Thera) at the high point of Minoan civilization in the Middle Bronze Age. Unlike Egypt, where black African figures are often depicted paying tribute, the Minoan blacks are depicted participating in Minoan rituals, suggesting they had been thoroughly integrated into Cretan society.

Additionally, Afrocentrist scholars often point to African origins of Cretan civilization, and not entirely without warrant. Runoko Rashidi points to North African or Egyptian connections in the Neolithic and Egyptian predynastic periods. He cites Sir Arthur Evans, who was convinced of African migrations to Crete and noted “the multiplicity of these connections with the old indigenous race of the opposite African coast.” He also points to H. R. Hall, like Evans an Oxford-educated scholar, who stated,

While the majority of the original Neolithic inhabitants of Crete probably came from Anatolia, another element may well have come in oared boats from the opposite African coast, bringing with them to the southern plain of Messara the seeds of civilization that, transplanted to the different conditions of Crete, developed into the great Minoan culture, a younger more brilliant, and less long-lived sister of that of Egypt.”

With reference to Cretan burial customs, Hall continues,

So numerous, in fact, are the points, of comparison presented by the contents of these early interments with those of predynastic Egypt that, far-fetched as the conclusion might appear at first sight, I was already some years since constrained to put forth the suggestion that about the time of the conquest of the lower Nile Valley by the first historic dynasty some part of the older population had actually settled in this southern foreland of Crete.

If nothing else, this suggests it is not far-fetched to propose some sort of cultural tie between Crete and predynastic Egypt.

Next: Philistine Anachronisms.



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