Snake Goddess

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Minoan Snake Goddess figurines c 1600 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum

Snake Goddess indicates figurines of a woman holding a snake in each hand found during excavation of Minoan archaeological sites in Crete dating from approximately 1600 BCE. These figurines were found only in house sanctuaries, where the snake appears as "the snake of the household", and they are probably related with the Paleolithic tradition regarding women and domesticity.[1] Evans tentatively linked the snake goddess with the Egyptian snake goddess Wadjet.


The younger snake goddess, from the palace of Knossos. Heraklion Archaeological Museum

The first 'Snake Goddess' figurines to be discovered were found by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1903, in the temple repositories[2] of Knossos. The figurines are made of faience, a technique for glazing earthenware and other ceramic vessels by using a quartz paste. This material symbolized in old Egypt the renewal of life, therefore it was used in the funeral cult and in the sanctuaries. After firing this produces bright colors and a lustrous sheen.

These two figurines are today exhibited at the Herakleion Archeological Museum in Crete. It is possible that they illustrate the fashion of dress of Minoan women: a tight bodice which left the breasts bare, a long flounced skirt, and an apron made of material with embroidered or woven decoration. The larger of these figures has snakes crawling over her arms up to her tiara. The smaller figure holds two snakes in her raised hands and a small animal is perched on her head, which seems to be the imitation of a panther.[3] These were usually symbols of an earth goddess.

In particular, one of the snake goddesses was found in few pieces apart, and was later filled with a solution of paraffin to preserve it from further damage.[4] The goddess is depicted just as in other statues (crown on head, hands grasping snakes and so on…) The expression on her face is described as lifelike, and is also wearing the typical Minoan dress. Also another figure found in Berlin, made of bronze, looks more like a snake charmer with the snakes on top of her head. Many Minoan statues and statuettes seem to express a sort of pride.[4]

Clay sculptures with raised hands and curling snakes were found in the "house of the double axes" in Knossos, in Asine, in Gournia, and in Myrtos. Objects with snakes curling up the sides of clay-tubes were also found in Cyprus and Palestine. [1]


Objects from the temple Repositories (Knossos) after its discovery in 1903

The snake goddess's Minoan name may be related with A-sa-sa-ra, a possible interpretation of inscriptions found in Linear A texts .[5] Although Linear A is not yet deciphered, Palmer relates tentatively the inscription a-sa-sa-ra-me which seems to have accompanied goddesses, with the Hittite išhaššara, which means "mistress". [6]

While the statuette's true function is somewhat unclear, her exposed and amplified breasts suggest that she is probably some sort of fertility figure. The figurines may illustrate the fashion of dress of Minoan women, however, it is also possible that bared breasts represented a sign of mourning. Homer gives a literary description of this kind of mourning, [7] and this was also observed by Herodotus among Egyptian women. [8]

The serpent is often symbolically associated with the renewal of life because it sheds its skin periodically. A similar belief existed in the ancient Mesopotamians and Semites, and appears also in Hindu mythology.[9] The Pelasgian myth of creation refers to snakes as the reborn dead. However, Nilsson noticed that in the Minoan religion the snake was the protector of the house, [1] as it later appears also in Greek religion. [10] Among the Greek Dionysiac cult it signified wisdom and was the symbol of fertility.[9]

.A woman (probably a goddess) holding snakes in both hands, from Gotland, Sweden
The Phoenician Astarte

Barry Powell suggested that the snake goddess reduced in legend into a folklore heroine was Ariadne (utterly pure or the very holy one), who is often depicted surrounded by Maenads and satyrs. [11] Some scholars relate the snake goddess with the Phoenician Astarte (virgin daughter). She was the goddess of fertility and sexuality and her worship was connected with orgiastic cult. Her temples were decorated with serpentine motifs. In a relative Greek myth Europa, who is sometimes identified with Astarte in ancient sources, [12] was a Phoenician princess who Zeus abducted and carried to Crete. [8] [13] Evans tentatively linked the snake goddess with the Egyptian snake goddess Wadjet but did not pursue this connection. Statuettes similar to the "snake goddess" identified as priest of Wadjud and magician were found in Egypt. [14]

Sacral Knot[edit]

Both goddesses have a knot with a projecting looped cord between their breasts. Evans noticed that these are analogous to the sacral knot, a name given by him to a knot with a loop of fabric above and sometimes fringed ends hanging down below. Numerous such symbols in ivory, faience, painted in frescoes or engraved in seals sometimes combined with the symbol of the double-edged axe or labrys which was the most important Minoan religious symbol. [15] Such symbols were found in Minoan and Mycenaean sites. It is believed that the sacral knot was the symbol of holiness on human figures or cult-objects. [16] Its combination with the double-axe can be compared with the Egyptian ankh (eternal life), or with the tyet (welfare/life) a symbol of Isis (the knot of Isis).[17]


Wadjet had a famous oracle in the city Per-Wadjet (Greek name Buto). According to Herodotus this may have been the source of the oracular tradition which spread to Greece from Egypt.[18] The serpents were considered the protectors of the temples and the chthonic masters of the ancient earth goddess. In Greece the old oracles were devoted to the mother goddess. According to a Greek legend Apollo came to Delphi carrying Cretan priests, and there he possessed the oracle after slaying the serpent Python, the daughter of Gaia.

Comparison to other goddesses[edit]

Other goddesses probably associated with the "snake goddess" are:

  • The ancient Egyptian goddess Renenutet, who often appeared in the form of a hooded cobra.[citation needed]
  • The Phoenician goddess Tanit, worshipped as a patron goddess of Carthage.[citation needed]
  • The Indian snake goddess Manasa, literally meaning "of the mind", or "conceived in the mind", or "power of the mind" is the tutelary deity of snakes and fertility, worshipped mainly in Bengal an the eastern parts of India.
  • Diktynna, aka the Cretan "Mistress of the Wild", is a possible identification.[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Walter Burkert (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. pp.23,30 ISBN 0-674-36281-0
  2. ^ Bonney, Emily M.. "Disarming the Snake Goddess: a Reconsideration of the Faience Figurines from the Temple Repositories at Knossos." Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. 24.2 (2011): 171-190.
  3. ^ F.Schachermeyer.Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta.(1964).W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart. p.143
  4. ^ a b A Statuette of the Minoan Snake Goddess: Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz L. D. C. Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin , Vol. 12, No. 73 (Dec., 1914), pp. 51-55 Published by: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston Article Stable URL:
  5. ^ Harald Haarmann: Das Rätsel der Donauzivilisation - Die Entdeckung der ältesten Hochkultur Europas, Verlag C.H. Beck oHG, Munich, 2011, p. 241, ISBN 978-3-406-62210-6.
  6. ^ F.Schachermeyer (1964) Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta, pp.256,263, W.Kohlhammer, Stuttgart
  7. ^ The Iliad, transl. by R. Lattimore. (1970) University of Chicago Press,Phoenix Book p.437 (Book XXII 77-81)
  8. ^ a b H.G. Wunderlich (1994). The secret of Crete. Efstathiadis group S.A. p 260, 276 ISBN 960-226-261-3 (First British edition, publ.1975 by Souvenir Press Ltd., London)
  9. ^ a b Columbia. The free Dictionary
  10. ^ Zeus Kresios in the guise of a snake is regarded the "protector of storehouses". A snake is the "good daemon" at the temple of Athena on Acropolis,etc: Martin Nilsson (1967). Die Geschichte der Griechische Religion Vol I . C.H. Beck Verlag Munchen
  11. ^ Barry Powell. Classical Myth with new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. Prentice Hall Inc 1998. p 368
  12. ^ Lucian of Samosata (200 AD): De Dea Syria 4
  13. ^ Lucian of Samosata (200 AD): De Dea Syria 4
  14. ^ Cristopher L.C.E Whitcombe. Minoan Snake Goddess". 8:Snakes, Egypt, Magic and women(External links)
  15. ^ F.Schachermeyer.(1964)Die minoische Kultur des alten Kreta.W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart. p 161,163
  16. ^ F.Schachermeyer (1964) Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta.W.Kohlhammer Verlag Stuttgart. p 163-164
  17. ^ Cristopher L.C.E Whitkombe. Minoan snake goddess". 9:Snake charmers (External links)
  18. ^ Herodotus.Histories. II 55 and VII 134

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