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Christopher L.C.E. Witcombe

Women in the Aegean
Minoan Snake Goddess

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

Matriliny in the Aegean Bronze Age

The evidence outlined in the previous sections (Minoan Snake Goddess) supports the argument that women occupied a dominant position within the religious sphere of Minoan culture.

It could be argued they therefore also enjoyed superior legal and social positions, but this is more difficult to judge without written documentation. Circumstances on Crete would suggest that the Minoans lived in a matrilineal society. Although lack of sufficient documentation makes it impossible to substantiate this claim, circumstantial evidence from other more or less contemporary Bronze Age Aegean cultures can be found which lends support to this supposition.

It is clear that between the end of the Bronze Age and the emergence of Classical Greece the role of women in Eastern Mediterranean cultures changed drastically. Clues to the nature of this change are to be found in the myths and legends about the people and events which "historically" took place in the period of the Bronze Age but which were written down only much later.

In the intervening period, the central portion of which constitutes the Greek "Dark Ages" (from approximately 1200 to 900 BCE), the original native populations of the Eastern Mediterranean, or Aegean, were "invaded" by Indo-European intruders who brought with them heavily patriarchal and patrilineal social structures.

Even the ancient Greeks themselves, such as Herodotus, acknowledged that the Classical Greeks were not native to Greece but, as later writers recognized them, were the product of Indo-Europeans who superimposed themselves on the indigenous non-Greek, non-Indo-European, inhabitants.

This Indo-European "invasion" was already underway by the 13th century BCE when a primitive written Greek appears in Linear B, a script based on the earlier, and as yet undeciphered, non-Greek Linear A which was already flourishing on Minoan Crete as early as 1700 BCE. Linguists recognize that a number of ostensibly "Greek" names - such as Odysseus, Achilles, Theseus, Athene, Hera, Aphrodite, Hermes, Knossos, Mycenae, for example - are in fact non-Indo-European and belong to a pre-Greek language (or languages) that was spoken in Greece and perhaps throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, including Minoan Crete.

By the time the Bronze Age myths and legends began to be written down, starting in the 8th century BCE with Homer, the patriarchal Greek culture which had by then established itself on the mainland wished to see reflected in them its own social value system.

Yet, despite the patriarchal adjustments made to the stories, retained within them, like the pre-Greek identity hidden beneath the later "Greek" names, are clues which indicate that the original cultural context within which these stories were composed was a matrilineal one.

As was shown in the sections devoted to the Venus of Willendorf and to Menkaure and His Queen, the issue of whether or not patriarchy was preceded by matriarchy is a controversial one. With respect to Ancient Greece, one line of argument holds that matriarchy is a "myth" employed by the Classical Greeks to justify the historic claims of the patriarchal state. Matriarchy resulted from the absence of male rule; a situation which, on the domestic level, may be brought about by the breakdown of marriage, the collapse of the patriarchal family, and the destruction of the male-dominated household.

On the public level, the creation of matriarchy through the loss of male rule would result in chaos and disorder and the collapse of the state. Matriarchy represented the opposite of everything that was Greek, civilized, and "normal." In the Classical period, matriarchy was posited as the horrific and chaotic alternative to patriarchy and thereby served as a tool to explain and validate patriarchal institutions, customs, and values.

    NOTE: Much of the following discussion is drawn from Kenneth Atchity and Elizabeth Wayland Barber (see BIBLIOGRAPHY)

However, for the "myth" of matriarchy to have had some validity, and in order for a Classical Greek theatre audience to accept the fact that women such as Helen, Clytemnestra, Antigone, Iphigenia, Hecuba, Andromache, Penelope, Medea, Alcestis, and Elektra (fully half of all extant 5th century plays have powerful women in leading roles) could indeed threaten patriarchal social order or alter the course of history, it must have had some basis in historical reality. The "historical" situation of the majority of the myths and legends is the Bronze Age, during or near the end of the Minoan civilization, and the "reality" may have been not matriarchy per se but rather matriliny.

A common feature of patriarchal and patrilineal cultures is "virilocality" (or patrilocality), which means that when a man and woman marry, the wife goes to live at her husband's family's residence. A distinguishing feature of matrilineal cultures is "uxorilocality" (or matrilocality), which means that the husband goes to live at his wife's family's residence.

Evidence of uxorilocality can be found in various myths and legends which are "historically" situated in the Bronze Age. For example, in the well-known story of Helen, when Menelaos first marries her, he travels to live with her in Sparta where he rules as king, even though Helen has two worthy brothers, Kastor and Polydeukes (Castor and Pollux). Menelaos attains the kingship of Sparta through his marriage to Helen who carries the bloodline of the Lakedaimonian throne.

When Helen is abducted by Paris and taken off to Troy, Menelaos, his position as king thereby made insecure, makes every effort to get her back, enlisting the help of all Greece. When during the course of the siege of Troy Paris and Menelaos agree to fight in single combat, the prize is not only Helen but "all her possessions." Later, after Helen's death, it is her daughter, Hermione, and not one of Menelaos' sons, who becomes the next ruler of Sparta.

Helen was the daughter of Leda who was ostensibly married to Tyndareus. Tyndareus, however, was not the father of Helen. Later tellers of the story, no doubt uncomfortable with Leda's evident promiscuousness and lack of adherence to patriarchal laws of male inheritance, interpolated the myth of Leda's seduction by Zeus as a more satisfactory explanation of her behaviour.

Leda's case is by no means unique. Bronze Age myths and legends are filled with important children whose mother is named but not their father. These children obviously had a human father, and one who wasn't necessarily the husband of their mother, but when the stories were retold this affront to patriarchal sensibilities was softened with the explanation that each child was in fact fathered by a god.

Helen's sister was Clytemnestra who moved away from Sparta to Mycenae when she married Agamemnon. However, in true matrilineal form, she feels no compunction after Agamemnon leaves for Troy of taking Aegisthus as her consort-king with whom she rules Mycenae. And doubtless she felt quite justified in having Agamemnon killed upon his return after he had committed the sin of murdering Clytemnestra's heiress-daughter Iphigenia.

Another possible instance of matriliny is to be found in the story of Penelope who, following the departure of Odysseus, appears to have been regarded as the heiress-queen of Ithaka whose hand was sought by the suitors hoping thereby to be made king. Crete is referred to several times in the story of Odysseus; he had visited the island in his travels and when he returns home to Ithaka while in disguise he tells everyone the "lie" that he had just come from Crete.

Minoan Crete, however, has also been suggested as the real identity of the island of the Phaiakans upon which Odysseus had been shipwrecked and where he met Nausikaa (Odyssey, Books 6 and 7). Although perhaps no more than a folk-memory by the time Homer was writing, the story describes a matrilineal society wherein, for example, Nausikaa invites Odysseus to marry her and settle in her family's residence (an uxorilocal arrangement). Moreover, Odysseus is instructed to supplicate not the king, Alcinous, but Queen Arete, implying thereby that it is the queen who will determine Odysseus' eligibility to marry the heiress-princess Nausikaa and thereby become king.

Other stories not narrated by Homer which illustrate matrilineal succession to the royal throne include the marriages of Atalanta, Hippodamia, and Jocasta. These and other clues embedded in Bronze Age myths and legends indicate patterns of marriage and inheritance which suggest that matriliny was to be found among pre-Greek Aegean cultures.

Minoan Snake Goddess
from Knossos, Crete
c. 1600 BCE
height 131/2 inches (34.3 cm)

(Archeological Museum, Herakleion)

Copyright © (text only) 2000
Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe
All rights reserved


1. Discovery

3. The Votary

3. Temple Repositories

4. Evans's "Snake Goddess"

5. Snake Goddess in Minoan Culture

6. Snake Goddesses on Crete

7. Fertility Deity?

8. Snakes, Egypt, Women & Magic

9. Snakes Charmers

10. Women in Minoan Culture