The figurines that came to be known as the Minoan Snake Goddess were first discovered in 1903 by Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, in Knossos; an ancient city in Crete. The figurines are dated around the Neo-Palatial time period, around 1700-1450 BCE. The figurines are of a woman, dressed in typical Minoan-style clothing for that time as well as wearing a crown. The figurines also depict the woman holding a snake in both hands with the face of the snakes facing hers. The figurines were found in house sanctuaries and in the temple repositories, allowing Evans and other archeologists to agree that the figurines were of a woman or goddess that the Mycenaean people worshiped daily.
Representation and Connection
Evans connected the figurines with other clay sculptures found on Crete dating to the Neolithic period, 5700 B.C. to 2800 B.C.. The clay sculptures and the Snake Goddess figurines are similar as both are depicted of women believed to represent fertility and earth as the symbol of a snake is seen throughout Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology as a connection to fertility, wisdom and the earth. This lead Evans and other archaeologists to conclude that the Snake Goddess figurines are figurines of a Mycenaean Goddess, representing the earth, birth and wisdom.
The figurines can be connected to multiple different cultures that were around before and after the rise and fall of the Mycenaean people. In Egyptian mythology, the symbol of the snake is seen in the Goddess Wadjet. Wadjet is depicted in Egyptian artwork as either a woman with a snake-like body, a body of a woman with a snake-like head or at times just a cobra wearing a crown. Wadjet is the Egyptian Goddess of childbirth, protection of women in childbirth and the entire land of Egypt. The Egyptian culture also impacted the architectural designs of Knossos as archaeologists have found unique architectural patterns belonging to Egyptian buildings and artwork in Knossos and other smaller cities on Crete. This shows that the Mycenaean’s learned and evolved some aspects of the culture in Egypt.
Wadjet, Seen with a cobra on top of her head.
In Greek mythology, the symbol of the snake was seen throughout it. Hermes, Athena, Demeter, and Asklepios are depicted or connected to the symbol.
Asklepios is a male God that has a connection to snakes. Asklepios is a hero and a god of medicine, and is depicted as always having a snake-entwined staff. This is further explained and understood as the snake is his scared animal and is as a sign of wisdom as the snake. In Greek myth, a snake healed a dying snake as it had the knowledge of healing and rebirth through the use of herbs.
Athena, Goddess of Wisdom and War, is depicted with a snake coiled around her shield in her statue; Athena Parthenos. This was seen as a sign of wisdom and a connection the chthonic power of the Goddess of Earth and to Athena herself.
The Goddess Demeter is depicted and linked to snakes through her devotions as the goddess of rebirth, childbirth, and the earth, much like the Snake Goddess figurines.
These aspects show how hugely the Mycenaean culture and artwork impacted future cultures of the Greek and Roman people that came after the fall of the Mycenaean people.
Affecting the Archaeological Field
The Snake Goddess figurines have impacted the archeological field of women in antiquity. The figurines changed the views of the civilizations during the figurines dominate times as most civilizations were viewed as male dominated cities and ruled by only men, yet the Minoan civilization worshiped a strong, unique female deity that represented women during that time and shaped how women were viewed in their culture. This proved to be a powerful change in women in antiquity as it showed that women had a powerful rule in the religious aspect of the civilization and that the Minoans lived in a matrilineal society. The figurines impacted future mythology and goddesses that were worshiped by the Greeks and Romans as the symbol of a woman holding or being closely linked to snakes are found in both mythologies.
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Lacking written sources (or at least written sources which provide any real insight into the culture) there is little in the archaeological record to contradict these fondly-held impressions which are derived largely in response to what we see in the physical remains of the Minoans - in statuettes such as the "Snake Goddess", in the frescoes and painted pottery, and in the architecture - and also what we don't see.
Conspicuous in their absence are the usual signs of a male-dominated society common to the Eastern Mediterranean in the second millennium BCE: no walled citadels, no fortifications, no temples to the gods, no large public sculpture, no clear evidence of a hierarchically structured society ruled by kings and priests, no boastful inscriptions.
Possibly when the Minoan script Linear A is deciphered a different view on the Minoan civilization will emerge, but until then the visual evidence alone describes an attractive, easy-going society centered on large labyrinthine palace-like buildings which seem to have served primarily, judging from the huge storage areas, as collection and distribution centers for a well-organized system of local agricultural production, and as the residence of local leaders and, possibly, artists and craftspeople. Who the leaders were is unknown, but circumstantial evidence indicates that women played a dominant role in Minoan religion and perhaps also in Minoan society.
One of the prime pieces of evidence in support of the view that women dominated Minoan culture is the "Snake Goddess." The grounds for this view were laid by Arthur Evans himself. It is clear from the model of Minoan religion constructed by Evans that he was influenced by the theories put forward by James Frazer in The Golden Bough (first published in 1890) that prehistoric religion centred on a dominant goddess of fertility whose young male consort's annual death and rebirth symbolised the decay and regrowth of vegetation.
Evans certainly supported prevailing views about the existence in the prehistoric period [see Earth Mother — Mother Goddess] of a Mother Goddess (identifying as such several Neolithic clay figures found at Knossos) and so, when the "Snake Goddess" came to light in 1903, he not only identified her as a "goddess" but also claimed that she was worshipped by the Minoans as an aspect of the Mother Goddess. Evans thereby provided the basis for the argument that Minoans lived in a matrilineal, or even a matriarchal, society.
6.SNAKE GODDESSES ON CRETE