Minoan snake goddess figurines

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Minoan Snake Goddess figurines, c. 1600 BCE, Archaeological Museum, Heraklion, Crete

"Snake goddess" is a type of figurine depicting a woman holding a snake in each hand, as were found in Minoan archaeological sites in Crete. The first two of such figurines (both incomplete) were found by the British archaeologist Arthur Evans and date to the neo-palatial period of Minoan civilization, c. 1700–1450 BCE. It was Evans who called the larger of his pair of figurines a "Snake Goddess", the smaller a "Snake Priestess"; since then, it has been debated whether Evans was right, or whether both figurines depict priestesses, or both depict the same deity or distinct deities.[1]

The figurines were found only in house sanctuaries, where the figurine appears as "the goddess of the household", and they are probably (according to Burkert) related to the Paleolithic traditions regarding women and domesticity.[2] The figurines have also been interpreted as showing a mistress of animals-type goddess and as a precursor to Athena Parthenos, who is also associated with snakes.[1]


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

The first two snake goddess figurines to be discovered were found by Arthur Evans in 1903, in the temple repositories of Knossos.[3] The figurines are made of faience, a technique for glazing earthenware and other ceramic vessels by using a quartz paste. After firing, this produces bright colors and a lustrous sheen. This material symbolized the renewal of life in old Egypt, therefore it was used in the funeral cult and in the sanctuaries.

These two figurines are today exhibited at the Herakleion Archeological Museum in Crete. 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, which seems to be the imitation of a panther.[4]:143 These were usually symbols of an earth goddess.[citation needed]

In particular, one of the "snake goddesses" was found in a few scattered pieces, and was later filled with a solution of paraffin to preserve it from further damage.[5] The goddess is depicted just as in other statues (crown on head, hands grasping snakes etc.). The expression on her face is described as lifelike, and is also wearing the typical Minoan dress. 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 pride.[5]


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.[6] 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".[4]:256, 263

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

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.[7] The Pelasgian myth of creation refers to snakes as the reborn dead.[citation needed] However, Martin P. Nilsson noticed that in the Minoan religion the snake was the protector of the house,[2] as it later appears also in Greek religion.[8] Within the Greek Dionysiac cult it signified wisdom and was the symbol of fertility.[7]

Barry Powell suggested that the "snake goddess" reduced in legend into a folklore heroine was Ariadne (whose name might mean "utterly pure" or "the very holy one"), who is often depicted surrounded by Maenads and satyrs.[9] 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 an orgiastic cult. Her temples were decorated with serpentine motifs. In a related Greek myth Europa, who is sometimes identified with Astarte in ancient sources, was a Phoenician princess whom Zeus abducted and carried to Crete.[10][11] Evans tentatively linked the snake goddess with the Egyptian snake goddess Wadjet but did not pursue this connection. Statuettes similar to the "snake goddess" type identified as "priest of Wadjet" and "magician" were found in Egypt.[12]

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, his name for 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.[4]:161, 163 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.[4]:163 ff 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).[13]


The feminist artwork The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago features a place setting for a "Snake Goddess".[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ogden, Daniel (2013). Drakon: Dragon Myth and Serpent Cult in the Greek and Roman Worlds. Oxford University Press. pp. 7–9. ISBN 9780199557325 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ a b Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. pp. 23, 30. ISBN 0-674-36281-0.
  3. ^ Bonney, Emily M. (2011). "Disarming the Snake Goddess: a Reconsideration of the faience figurines from the temple repositories at Knossos". Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology. 24 (2): 171–190. doi:10.1558/jmea.v24i2.171.
  4. ^ a b c d Schachermeyer, F. (1964). Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta [The Minoan Culture of Ancient Crete] (in German). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag.
  5. ^ a b "A statuette of the Minoan Snake Goddess. Gift of Mrs. W. Scott Fitz". Museum of Fine Arts Bulletin. 12 (73): 51–55. Dec 1914. JSTOR 4423650.
  6. ^ Haarmann, Harald (2011). Das Rätsel der Donauzivilisation. Die Entdeckung der ältesten Hochkultur Europas (in German). Munich, DE: Verlag C.H. Beck. p. 241. ISBN 978-3-406-62210-6.
  7. ^ a b "snake worship". Columbia. The free Dictionary.
  8. ^ Nilsson, Martin (1967). Die Geschichte der griechischen Religion [The History of Greek Religion] (in German). 1. Munich, DE: C.H. Beck Verlag. 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.[full citation needed]
  9. ^ Powell, Barry; Howe, Herbert M. (1998). Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc. p. 368. with new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe
  10. ^ Wunderlich, H.G. (1994) [1975]. The Secret of Crete. Efstathiadis group S.A. pp. 260, 276. ISBN 960-226-261-3. (First British edition, published 1975 by Souvenir Press Ltd., London.)
  11. ^ Lucian of Samosata (200). De Dea Syria [On the Syrian Goddess]. 4.
  12. ^ Witcombe, Cristopher L.C.E. "Chapter 8: Snakes, Egypt, Magic and women". Minoan Snake Goddess. (external links)
  13. ^ Witcombe, Cristopher L.C.E. "Chapter 9: Snake charmers". Minoan Snake Goddess. (external links)
  14. ^ "Place Settings". artist Judy Chicago. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 6 August 2015.CS1 maint: others (link)

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