Cretan Musings

A column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year at her home in Crete, researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there.  In this contribution she writes about the Neolithic Goddess.

Much published material on the Goddess in Crete concentrates, with some justification, on the Minoan period (approx. 3500-1100 BCE), which represents the flowering of the Minoan culture throughout the Bronze Age. However, this sophisticated culture did not just spring up out of nowhere. Prior to the Minoan period was the Neolithic, beginning about 7000 BCE and continuing until the pre-Palatial period at the beginning of the Bronze Age in 3500 BCE.

The earliest settlers on Crete arrived about 9000 years ago, probably by people arriving by sea from Anatolia (modern day Turkey and further east). Their economy was already based on farming, with domesticated animals and cultivated crops, and they spun and wove cloth. They lived in villages in the open, often on low hills such as Kephala hill at Knossos and Phaistos, and sometimes for part of the year in caves.They built simple rectangular houses of sun-dried mudbrick, and buried their dead in caves and rock shelters, most notably in ‘The Gorge of the Dead’ at Zakros, which continued into Minoan times.

Rock shelters at the Gorge of the Dead at Zakros

They made stone vessels and stone and bone tools, and lived in small social groups, that researcher Costis Davaras (“Guide to Cretan Antiquities” – Eptalofos, 1976) believes were matrilinear. They were evidently already Goddess-celebrating people, as some figurines have been found, made in stone and clay. The most famous of these is the beautiful figurine 15cm (6in) high, found at a settlement near Kato Chorio, north of Irepetra in east Crete (now in Heraklion Museum).

The Kato Chorio Neolithic Goddess

She has a beak-like nose, clearly-defined breasts and arms, and her legs curled around each other in a serpent-like way. She is at once awesome and homely, and remains one of the best-known icons of the Goddess from the Neolithic period. A reproduction of her sits in our house in Makriyalos, guarding the building when we are not there.

However, what is not so well known is a stunning Goddess figure from the Neolithic period (dated to approx. 4500-3200bce), found at Pegadia (Poseidonia) on the island of Karpathos, the neighbouring island to the east of Crete that lies between Crete and Rhodes. It is thought that the same people who first landed on Crete in the Neolithic period also landed on Karpathos, so there was a strong familial link between the two islands.

The Karpathos Goddess

The Karpathos Goddess (now on display in the British Museum) is much larger than the Kato Chorio figurine, being 66cm (2ft 2½in) high, but it also shares a beaked nose and well-defined breasts. It also has a distinctive pubic triangular marking, representing its genitalia, and unlike the Kato Chorio Goddess there are no legs (there seem to have been none originally, not broken off). It was carved from local grey limestone without the use of metal tools, only stone hammers, stone blades and abrasives. Dyfri Williams (“Masterpieces of Classical Art” – British Museum Press, 2009) says that there is a light incision representing the eyebrows, that shows that the eyes and other features may originally have been painted.

He suggests that she was probably a sacred object, used in a ‘cult’ context, rather than as an offering in a tomb, and that she may have represented a Goddess rising from the earth or sea. He concludes that she “remains essentially unparallelled: a truly remarkable representation of what is surely a divine mediator in the human world, whether as mother-Goddess or love-Goddess”.

These two Goddess figurines from the Neolithic period, one from Kato Chorio on Crete and one from Karpathos, are rare remaining examples from this remote period that tell us that the inhabitants of these southern Aegean islands from the very beginning were Goddess-celebrating peoples. They reach out to us across a vast distance of time, and still speak to us as directly as when they were first carved.