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Women in the Aegean
Minoan Snake Goddess

Christopher L. C. E. Witcombe

6. Snake Goddesses on Crete

Maybe because Minoan Crete is singularly lacking in any artistically interesting sculpture, art historians have tended to single out the "Snake Goddess" for particular attention, causing us thereby to perceive it as being perhaps more important, and as occupying a more significant place, in Minoan culture than it warrants.

In the same way that the "Venus" of Willendorf, has come to epitomize Palaeolithic sculpture [see The Venus of Willendorf], so the "Snake Goddess" is today regarded as a particularly important manifestation of Minoan religion, art, and society.

However, despite the attempts of Evans and later researchers to provide a satisfactory religious context for the figurine, the fact is that there is little (archaeological) evidence to support the existence in the Minoan religion of a "snake" deity. Around the time of Evans' discovery other finds of figurines made elsewhere on Crete were identified as, or associated with, the "snake goddess," but these are not always convincing.

The discovery made a year or two earlier by the American archaeologist Harriet Boyd of a crudely made terracotta female figurine with a snake wrapped around her body, right shoulder, and arms in a shrine at Gournià, dating to 1350-1200 BCE, was subsequently identified, following Evans' discovery, with the snake goddess, as were the fragments of five or so female figurines discovered by the Italian excavator Federico Halbherr in the cemetery at Priniàs near Gortyna, which showed, in some cases, a snake represented in relief on the lower arm (first published by Sam Wide in 1901 [see Sam Wide in the BIBLIOGRAPHY]).

A vase with the forms of a woman found at Koumasa (now in the Archaeological Museum, Herakleion) with a rope-like attachments marked with horizontal lines and circling the neck like snakes dating to around 2600-2200 BCE has been put forward as the prototype for the "snake goddess." The striped attachments, however, might be arms and a necklace rather than a snake.

In the case of the Koumasa vase, Evans' discovery may be said to have influenced the interpretation of the forms and shapes and enabled the identification of the piece as a "snake goddess."

A similar situation applies to the four clay female figures in long skirts unearthed at Palaikastro and now in the Archaeological Museum, Herakleion. Three of the figurines hold their arms outstretched while the fourth, according to R. M. Dawkins, holds a striped snake in her arms [see Dawkins in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

Largely on the basis of Evans' find, the group was enthusiastically identified as the "Snake Goddess" attended by three votaries. A more judicious examination of the figurines, however, suggests that the central figure, around whom the three other figurines can be joined as in a circle dance, is holding not a snake but a lyre.

Among the many examples of cult objects such as the double-axe, the sacral knot, the sacral horns, sacred pillars, sacred trees, birds (doves), and beasts (bulls, lions, goats) seen painted in frescoes or on pottery, sculpted in reliefs, and engraved in seals, the snake appears only rarely.

Evans interpreted the snake as a form of the spirit of the Nether World and therefore identified the goddess as a chthonic deity. However, despite this underworld association, Evans maintained that the snake, and the goddess, should not be invested with any malignant significance. On the contrary, he argues that the snake has a friendly and domestic aspect. Lacking entirely any archaeological evidence in support of this view, he cites the European tradition among peasants of treating the snake as a benign household genius which in Herzegovina and Serbia was fed milk and treated as a domestic pet.

However, Geraldine Gesell argues that the snake goddess was not a household goddess as no snake goddess has ever been found in a true domestic context. Rather, the "Snake Goddess" had the broader function of universal Mother or Earth Goddess and was thereby principally a fertility deity [see Gesell in the BIBLIOGRAPHY].

7. A FERTILITY DEITY?



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

(Archeological Museum, Herakleion)


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

MINOAN SNAKE GODDESS

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, Magic, & Women

9. Snake Charmers

10. Women in Minoan Culture

Excursus. Matriliny in the Bronze Age

   BIBLIOGRAPHY