Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

Exploring ancient Knossos

Invicta invited archaeologist Josho Brouwers to provide commentary on the game’s depiction of Knossos. There is, as you might expect, a lot to talk about.

Josho Brouwers

Back when I was writing my series of articles about Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, I had hoped to also include video. However, technical reasons prevented me from doing so: whatever I tried, recorded video always ended up choppy and unwatchable, partially due to the age of my PC and also because the game perhaps seems to not be as optimized as it could be.

So when I was invited by Invicta to comment on the game’s representation of the court complex at Knossos, I leapt at the chance. Invicta has been doing quality videos about history for a few years now, and you may remember them from the article Roel Konijnendijk wrote about the Spartans. Invicta does good work, so be sure to follow them on Twitter or Facebook, and if you like their output, consider supporting them on Patreon.

The video focuses on Knossos as represented in the game’s Discovery Tour mode. This mode is meant to be educational and features no combat, allowing you to explore the game’s version of ancient Greece at your leisure, without having to fend off aggressive wildlife, bandits, and other assorted baddies. Historical figures like Herodotus and Aspasia tell you about each of the different locations in the game and present you with a simple quiz at the end to see what you’ve learned.

Does the game succeed as an educational tool? Well, yes and no. I was recently invited to give a brief talk about the game at the National Museum of Antiquities here in Leiden and, since time was limited to just ten minutes, I boiled it down as follows: while Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is rife with historical inaccuracies (some very deliberate as the designers riff on popular movies like 300 and 2010’s Clash of the Titans), it nevertheless feels authentic.

Feelings, of course, are subjective, but I can sort of explain why this archaeologist, at least, feels that Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is, for now, the next best thing to an actual time machine. While there are loads of mistakes, many of which I’ve touched upon in my earlier series of articles (like the armour, the Third Reich-style banners, the notion of a “total war” already in 431 BC, etc.), the overal impression in the game of ancient Greece as a place with various characters, colourful temples, independent cities, powerful politicians and wise philosophers, nevertheless comes across as mostly true to the source material.

However, the game’s representation of Knossos, one of the largest archaeological sites in Greece, is rather weird. So that meant I had a lot to talk about in the video. I prepared more than 5,000 words’ worth of notes and we ended up chatting for two hours that have mercifully been edited down to a half hour. But since you might be hungry for more, I’ll go over the different parts of the video and expand a little upon it.

The in-game tour and its stations

If you go take the game’s tour, you’ll come across different “stations” where you’re presented with lots of information about Knossos and the Minoan culture. A lot of the texts are rather disjointed. For example, at one point, the game writes that, “Palaces were built, destroyed, and then rebuilt, culminating in what archaeologists call the Neopalatial period, which began around 1700 BCE.” I wonder how much of this is intelligible if you know nothing about Minoan Crete and are unlikely to place a term like “Neopalatial period” (for a brief overview, refer to this article).

I cannot go over all the texts in the Tour, but I will deal with a few of the most egregious errors that I’ve seen. Again at the first station, there’s a reference that Knossos featured “temples”, but Minoan culture doesn’t have temples – in the sense of buildings dedicated to housing a cult statue of a deity – until Late Minoan IIIC (roughly the twelfth century BC). What they mean are shrines and/or sanctuaries.

This first station also reiterates a popular myth, created by Arthur Evans, the original excavator of the site, that the Minoans “exchanged ideas, usually through peaceful interactions instead of military conflict.” Evans referred to a Pax Minoica or “Minoan Peace”, but this ignores the fact that the Minoans had swords and helmets and almost certainly must have engaged in war, like all other civilizations in the ancient world, as more and more scholars are also starting to point out (e.g. Driessen 1999; Whittaker 2015).

The game’s representation of Knossos’ central court is strange. There are lots of features here that aren’t part of the archaeological site, and other important elements are entirely missing.

As an aside, it should probably be reiterated that when we speak about the “Minoans” we refer to what is essentially an archaeological culture, rather than a genuine “people” as such. We have little idea of what the Cretans in the Bronze Age called themselves, whether the inhabitants of Crete formed a single ethnic group or even that they identified themselves in a particular way. Cretans appear to be referred to as the Keftiu by the Egyptians and as Caphtor in the Bible (if the identification is correct), but perhaps this label only applies to a smaller group of the island’s inhabitants: we cannot tell based on present evidence. Similarly, we have no idea whether the “Minoans” conceived of themselves as ethnically distinct from the inhabitants of the Greek mainland.

At the tour’s second station, there’s not so much an error as there is a missed opportunity: there is no explanation that the Kephala Hill on which the court complex is located is actually a tell, a hill that has been formed as the result of thousands of years of continuous occupation. It’s also the reason why you have to go up to get to the site – in the game, you rather mysteriously have to walk down to reach the palace’s central court.

The game also claims that the site covers an area of around 13,000 square metres. This is not correct: the site measures approximately 150 by 150 metres which means it covers a total surface area of around 20,000 metres square. The central court, which the game suggests was “probably used for ceremonial activities”, was also an important way to link the different parts of the court complex, and it should be noted that all of the major “palaces” on the island featured a central court that was twice as long as it was wide.

Bronze Age columns taper down towards the bottom, whereas classical columns become wider close to the base. Here, however, the shape of a Bronze Age column is rendered in stone, complete with drums (!) and even fluting, as if they were classical. In reality, Bronze Age columns in Crete were made of wood. Stone half-columns rather than free-standing ones are known from the later Mycenaean tholos tombs on the mainland (e.g. the Treasury of Atreus). Fluting is only encountered – as far as I know – on later miniature columns made in ivory and found at Mycenae (see French 2002, p. 71 fig. 27).

At the second station, it is also noted that “The Minoan palace centers collapsed when Krete was overrun and conquered by a Mycenaean invasion from mainland Greece.” This is a little outdated, though I admit I’ve also made this error in earlier writings. At the end of the Neopalatial period, there’s widespread destruction across the entire island – too widespread and too thorough to be attributable to an invading force, but rather, as some scholars have suggested, indicative of some kind of societal upheaval, a rebellion of some sort against the dominant social order. Afterwards, we do encounter Linear B, the script used by the mainland “Mycenaeans”, so that it seems clear that the elite, at least, had been replaced. Whether these Greek-speakers had come to the island or were already there is unclear, but they seem to have been “Minoanized” as much as, if not more so than they “Mycenaeanized” Crete (cf. Dickinson 2019, pp. 37-39).

There’s a minor mistake at the third station, where they suggest that the ground floor of the complex was completely “dedicated to economic activities”, which isn’t true. There’s also a funny mistake where they write that the “Horns of Consecration” were “hung prominently in the West Court.” Crucially, these “Horns” didn’t “hang” – they were made from stucco or (lime)stone, so they were usually quite big and heavy. They also weren’t limited to the West Court. The game also states flatly that the inhabitants worshipped a “Mother Goddess”, which is not uncontested; it’s almost certain that a large variety of different deities were worshipped, of which a goddess associated with nature – Artemis? Rhea? – was one.

At the fourth station, the game writes that, “During the Middle and Late Minoan period, Minoans buried their dead in a terracotta coffin known as a larnax.” Again, I don’t think the average reader would know what the Middle and Late Minoan periods are (again, see my article here), so this needed an editor to check the text.

These columns are more in keeping with what we know from the Bronze Age, made of wood and painted. Columns were made of a single tree trunk, turned upside down.

The game goes on to claim that larnakes “had domestic uses as well, functioning as either bathtubs or storage chests.” I think the writer got confused here: larnakes come in two shapes: chest-shaped and tub-shaped. Larnakes were normally used as coffins but, rarely, also appear to have been used as general containers. They were not actually used as bath tubs, as far as we know.

The remaining four stations – half of the total! – deal entirely with the myth surrounding Theseus and the Minotaur. The text here is all over the place and some weird claims are made in places, such as the fifth station, where the game claims that “bull-leaping scenes are believed to have decorated the walls above ceremonial bull-rings.” As far as I know, no archaeologist has ever identified any specific area or place positively as a “ceremonial bull-ring”. In fact, one of the problems concerning the Minoan bull-leaping rituals is where exactly they took place. Some have proposed the bull-leaping happened in the Central Court, but this seems unlikely because the ground was paved.

As an example of how disjointed the text here is, the game doesn’t actually mention Theseus until the final station, and even then it’s not explained who he was (a prince, son of Aegeus, king of Athens) and why he went to Knossos (to kill the Minotaur and thereby end Athenian servitude to Knossos). At least they mention Ariadne, King Minos’ daughter, and her thread. Weirdly, however, the game suggests that Theseus was able to kill the Minotaur because of it: “Armed with this thread, Theseus entered the Labyrinth, killed the Minotaur, escaped the maze, and set sail for Athens with Ariadne by his side.” Not exactly how I would have phrased it!

A closer look at Knossos

As regards the game’s representation of Knossos itself, I point out in the video that it looks only vaguely like the remains that are currently visible on the site. There’s no Throne Room, but a Grand Staircase of sorts has been included (the beginning of which features the Procession Fresco that’s from a different part of the site; it doesn’t help that that same fresco is copy-pasted onto other parts of the site, too). Of course, in the game, their version of the Grand Staircase leads down to the “Labyrinth of Lost Souls” (why that name?) where the player will run into the Minotaur. There are also giant stone statues here, the likes of which are unknown from the Aegean Bronze Age.

The site’s North Pillar Hall is present in the game, sort of. The proportions are completely off and the square pillars of the original site (partially restored) are interpreted as the bases on which round columns stood. These round columns also appear to be made of stone! If remains of stone columns had been found here, then Evans would have surely remarked on them. It looks weird when compared to what’s presently visible on the site, and the game obviously gets it wrong.

Moreover, during the Classical period, Knossos wasn’t abandoned, but was a flourishing city-state that minted its own coins. On the top of the Kephala Hill was a temple dedicated to Rhea, an earth goddess and mother of none other than Zeus (who had himself been born on Crete). When Evans started his excavations at Knossos, he had to remove this temple to unearth the remains of the Minoan court complex. So if the developers of the game had wanted to stay true to history, they would have had to include a classical town and have the hill topped by a classical temple.

A minor point, perhaps, but this deer doesn’t look to me like any of the wildlife one would encounter in Greece, past or present. This rather bulky creature looks rather more similar to the American elk than the more slender European deer native to the Aegean.

In any event, in the game, you enter the site from the south. At the archaeological site today, you enter it from the west, arc around the southwest corner, and then enter the central court. The game suggests large parts of the site that have been preserved are simply not there for some reason, and add other stuff, like the massive stairs along the court’s northern edge. The West Court is also absent or at least not in the game in any recognizable form. Note that the large ashlar blocks in the West Court that are there today are made of concrete: whatever happened to the original blocks that Evans claims were there – if they were ever there! – is a mystery.

Aside from archaeological mistakes, there are also some errors with regards to the game’s flora and fauna. Some of this is excusable. For example, the game’s environment features lots of prickly pears, a type of cactus. While cacti are indeed a common sight in the Mediterranean today, they are not native – like most true cactus species, they originally come from the Americas.

Similarly, there are large deer with dark fur that roam the game’s version of ancient Greece, but they strike me as distinctly non-European. Greece has three species of deer that are native to it: fallow deer, roe deer, and red deer. None of these are quite as massive as the ones in the game. The deer in the game look perhaps most like the red deer, but the massive necks and shaggy fur are more than a bit weird: they’re far closer in appearance to the American elk, complete with the darker colour of the fur. I assume that the developers borrowed the model from another game – maybe Far Cry Primal? – and stuck them in here, thinking most people wouldn’t notice.

The landscape also looks off. The actual site is located in what is essentially a bowl, surrounded by eroded hills typical for the Mediterranean. In the game, the area of Knossos features sort of craggy mountains and dusty slopes, not at all like the pleasantly green landscape of the actual site. Since distances in the game are all made much shorter than they are in real life, the sea also appears to be much closer than it really ought to be.

Closing remarks

So lots of comments! I could, in all honesty, keep going for another few thousand words, but you no doubt have other things to do. So I will leave it at this and hope that you find it useful. As I stated before Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey isn’t perfect, especially not when it comes to how it treats the Bronze Age, but if just 1% of all players become interested enough to check out some of the real history and archaeology behind the game, to engage with the ancient world in a meaningful way, I’d say that it has served its purpose.

One final thing that’s worth highlighting is the fact that when it comes to ancient Greece, one cannot, apparently, deal with the subject without reference to the Greek myths. The story of Theseus and the Minotaur has nothing to do with the Peloponnesian War. Crete, in fact, played no role in the Peloponnesian War. It’s therefore kind of strange that the developers decided to include Crete anyway, except of course that they clearly wanted to include mythological elements.

By contrast, the game completely ignores Asia Minor. It’s not included on the map at all. This is rather mystifying when you realize that Asia Minor had a more important role to fill in the Peloponnesian War, especially because of the Persian presence there. Perhaps a technical or artistic issue prevented the developers from including it: they would have needed to add a lot of extra land and would almost certainly have been forced to add invisible walls or probably cliffs to prevent players from going too far west.