Cretan Musings

A new column by GA! editor Cheryl Straffon who spends part of her time each year at her base in Crete, researching and celebrating the Minoan Goddess there. In the first contribution she poses the question – Was there ever a Snake Goddess of Crete?

The Snake Goddess is perhaps one of the most universally known iconographic representations of Minoan Crete [illustrated below right]. Slightly less well known but just as striking is the second Snake Goddess [illustrated below left]. Both were made of faience and found by Arthur Evans in what he called ‘The Temple of Repositories’ at Knossos, dating from the the Neo-Palatial period (approx. 1700 BCE). They undoubtedly represent an important aspect of Minoan religious art. But are they all they seem?

Snake Goddess1
Snake Goddess2

“That a powerful Goddess of nature was the chief deity of the Minoans was recognised already by Evans and has never been seriously questioned”, says Nanno Marinatos, the acknowledged expert on Minoan religion. But she then adds: “More controversial is the issue of whether there were many goddesses or only one with several manifestations”. If there was indeed a ‘Snake Goddess’ worshipped by the Minoan people, then might we not expect to see more evidence of Her? It perhaps needs to be pointed out that the two ‘Snake Goddesses found at Knossos are the only ones of their kind. No others were found there, or indeed at any other Minoan Palatial site. Many seals have been found depicting the Goddess as ‘Lady of the Animals’, associated with, in particular, goats, deers, lions, birds, fish, dolphins and the mythical griffin – but never snakes. There are no snake Goddesses in surviving Minoan frescoes, engraved gems or seal rings.

Undoubtedly, snakes, along with other animals and birds, were held sacred by the Minoan people. For example, at Mt. Juktas Peak Sanctuary several finds were made on the altar by the sacred rock chasm. These included a gold amulet decorated with a scorpion and a snake and several clay worshipper figurines. There were also more modest offerings, hand made out of clay, which included a snake, a bird and a birthing woman. In the Neo-Palatial era there was definitely a cult of the sacred snake as a chthonic symbol of the Underworld. Tubes have been found that were probably shelters for snakes, and a vase discovered at Malia in the shape of a honeycomb encircled by a snake. But all of this does not add up to the existence of a Snake Goddess, universally worshipped, or indeed a particular Goddess associated with snakes at all.

So our two ‘Snake Goddesses’ from Knossos, placed in a Temple Repository at the height of the Palatial period, seem to be unique. However, there is a problem with them. Although we see them now as complete Goddess figurines, they have in fact been extensively restored. It is not widely known that they were found in a very fragmentary state, amongst gold foil, fragments of worked ivory and rock crystal, bronze and stone implements, numerous bones and shells, and clay sealings, inlays and plaques. When the material was sorted by Evans, it became clear that the fragments of at least five faience statuettes had been recovered.

Of the two that have been restored, the most famous one [right] had her head and most of her left arm missing. These missing parts (including the snake) were in fact fashioned and attached by Halvor Bagge, a Scandinavian artist employed by Evans. The crouching feline (cat?) on her head is in fact original, though it was not found with the statuette, but incorporated by Bagge into it. It is true that one extant arm was holding a snake, or at least a possible snake, but its head was missing and was also fashioned by Bagge.

The second figure [left] with undulating serpents knotted at her waist framing her bare breasts, was also restored by Bagge. She was found only preserved to the hips, and the lower portion is entirely modern and was based on the remnants of a third statuette with horizontally flounced skirt and decorated apron (on display in Heraklion Museum along with the 2 ‘Snake Goddesses’). Her neck, most of her face and the snake’s head on top of her headdress are also modern. Although they often shown equal in size, in fact the left hand figure is larger than the right hand one. Evans suggested that the left hand one was a Goddess, while the right hand one was a Priestess. Others have suggested Mother and Daughter, but neither explanation seems likely. The reality is that they are probably just two (heavily restored) figurines from a number found in the same place. They are the only two that have evidence of snakes on their bodies, and much of these are modern reconstructions.

In the post-Palatial period, after the fall of the Minoan culture and the take-over by the Myceneans from the Mainland (1450 BCE onwards), a new type of clay Goddess figurine appears, with rounded bases and upraised arms. These Goddesses are frequently shown in association with snakes, either entwined around their bodies and/or depicted in their headdresses. Good examples were found at Kannia near Gortyn and at Gornia in the post-Palatial shrine there. At Gortyn there were Goddesses holding snakes and with snakes in their headbands, and at Gornia there were 3 statuettes found of Goddesses with snakes wrapped around their bodies. But once again there does not appear to be a particular ‘Snake Goddess’, rather that the Goddesses are shown with many iconographic symbols, most of which are interchangeable and combined together in various combinations. These include birds, poppies, double axes and horns of consecration, as well as snakes. These were all symbols associated with the Goddess in Minoan times, so we are probably seeing an attempt to revive or continue the old religion by the Myceneans, rather than any attempt to introduce ‘new’ Goddesses, such as a Snake Goddess.

So where does that leave our Snake Goddess of Crete? By looking at the reality behind the myth, it seems to me to be far too simplistic to say that there was ever a Snake Goddess per se. It seems far more likely that at Knossos specifically there was a cult of the Priestess of the Temple invoking serpent energy, which was incorporated into two of the statuettes or votive offerings that were stored close to the so-called “Throne Room” (or sacred shrine) there. It is ironic that the most well-known and iconographic image of a ‘Goddess’ in ancient Crete has in fact been taken out of context and its significance distorted. This does not diminish or minimise the importance of the Goddess, whose ubiquitous images can be found everywhere in Minoan and Mycenean Crete, but it does mean that perhaps we should stop calling her the ‘Snake Goddess’ and perhaps start referring to the statuettes as The Priestesses of Serpent Energy.

“Minoan Religion” – Nanno Marinatos [Univ. of South Carolina Press, 1993].
“Mysteries of the Snake Goddess” – Kenneth Lapatin [Da Capo Press, 2002]