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Minoan snake goddess figurines

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

Two Minoan snake goddess figurines were excavated in 1903 in the Minoan palace at Knossos in the Greek island of Crete. The decades-long excavation programme led by the English archaeologist Arthur Evans greatly expanded knowledge and awareness of the Bronze Age Minoan civilization, but Evans has subsequently been criticised for overstatements and excessively speculative ideas, both in terms of his "restoration" of specific objects, including the most famous of these figures, and the ideas about the Minoans he drew from the archaeology. The figures are now on display at the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (AMH).

The Knossos figurines, both significantly incomplete, date to near the end of the neo-palatial period of Minoan civilization, around 1600 BCE.[1] 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.[2]

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

The combination of elaborate clothes that leave the breasts completely bare, and "snake-wrangling",[3] attracted considerable publicity, not to mention various fakes, and the smaller figure in particular remains a popular icon for Minoan art and religion, now also generally referred to as a "Snake Goddess". But archaeologists have found few comparable images, and a snake goddess plays little part in current thinking about the cloudy topic of Minoan religion. Several scholars have also argued that these figurines are not really holding snakes in their hands, or as many snakes as Evans thought, but some other items.[4]

Knossos figurines[edit]

The smaller figure before "restoration"

The two Knossos snake goddess figurines were found by Evans's excavators in one of a group of stone-lined and lidded cists Evans called the "Temple Repositories", since they contained a variety of objects that were presumably no longer required for use,[5] perhaps after a fire.[6] The figurines are made of faience, a crushed quartz-paste material which after firing gives a true vitreous finish with 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.

The larger of these figures has snakes crawling over her arms and up to her "tall cylindrical crown", at the top of which a snake's head rears up. The figure lacked the body below the waist, one arm, and part of the crown. She has prominent bare breasts, with what seems to be one or more snakes winding round them. Because of the missing pieces, it is not clear if it is one or more snakes around her arms. Her dress includes a thick belt with a "sacred knot".[7]

The smaller figure, as restored, holds two snakes in her raised hands, and the figure on her head-dress is a cat or panther. However, as excavated, she lacked a head and the proper left arm was missing below the elbow. The head was recreated by Evans and one of his restorers. The crown was an incomplete fragment in the same pit, and the cat/panther was another separate piece, which Evans only decided belonged to the figure some time later, partly because there seemed to be matching fittings on the crown and cat. Recent scholars seem somewhat more ready to accept that the hat and cat belong together than that either or both belong to the rest of the figure.[8]

A third figure, intermediate in size, is broken off at the waist, but the lower part is comparable. The cist also contained another arm that might have held a snake.

Other Minoan figures[edit]

Minoan terracotta votive figure holding a snake or snakes, Kania, Gortyna, 1300-1200 BC, AMH

Another figurine now in Berlin, made of bronze, has on her head what may be three snakes, or just tresses of hair. She seems to be a priestess or worshipper rather than a deity, as she is stooped slightly forward, and making the Minoan worship gesture of a facepalm with one hand and the other brought up to the chest or, in this case, the throat. The one breast visible has a prominent nipple, so is presumably intended to be bare. This is probably Late Minoan I, rather later than the Knossos figures.[9][10]

Later still are some terracotta votive offerings, probably representing the goddess rather than humans, in at least one case "snake-wrangling" and with snakes rising from the diadem or headress. This type of figure often has attributes rising from the headress, typified by the Poppy goddess (AMH).


The tremendous impact of the Knossos figures, once published by Evans and in a book by the Italian doctor Angelo Mosso, quickly led to ingenious fakes. A figure in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts with an ivory body and gold snakes twined around the arms is now generally regarded as a fake. It was bought by the museum in 1914.[11][10][12]

Another figure, in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, is a small steatite bare-breasted female figurine with a snake engraved around her headdress, and holes pierced through her clenched fists, presumably to suggest these held snakes. This is also now regarded as a fake. It was bought by Henry Walters from a dealer in Paris in 1929, and left to the museum in 1931.[13]


Evans' reconstruction of the "Snake Goddess Shrine": Objects from the Temple Repositories at Knossos, including the two figures, soon after discovery in 1903.[15]

Emily Bonney regards the figures as reflective of Syrian religion which had a brief impact on Crete, when "the elites at Knossos emulated Syrian iconography as an assertion of their access to exotic knowledge and control of trade."[4]

The figurines are probably (according to Burkert) related to the Paleolithic traditions regarding women and domesticity.[16] 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.[2]

Detail of the larger Knossos figure; the parts below this are reconstructed.

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.[17] The Pelasgian myth of creation refers to snakes as the reborn dead.[18] However, Martin P. Nilsson noticed that in the Minoan religion the snake was the protector of the house,[16] as it later appears also in Greek religion.[19] Within the Greek Dionysiac cult it signified wisdom and was the symbol of fertility.[17]

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.[20] Hans Georg Wunderlich related 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.[21][22] 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.[23]

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,[24] and this was also observed by Herodotus among Egyptian women.[21]

The snake goddess's Minoan name may be related with A-sa-sa-ra, a possible interpretation of inscriptions found in Linear A texts.[25] Although Linear A is not yet deciphered, Palmer[clarification needed] relates tentatively the inscription a-sa-sa-ra-me which seems to have accompanied goddesses, with the Hittite išhaššara, which means "mistress".[26]: 256, 263 

Emily Bonney argues that the goddess isn’t holding the snakes at all, and thus could not be seen as a ‘Snake Goddess’. Instead, “she stands with arms raised, holding either end of what appears to be a long cord that hangs nearly to her feet”. This fits well with the Syrian iconographic tradition of similar images as in the Figure 10 of her article. Citing Nanno Marinatos,[27] she argues that these images were meant to represent the goddess opening her skirt to display her sexuality.[28]

According to Bonney,

“In any case, HM 65 [Evans' famous reconstructed statuette] is not holding a snake, but a spirally-striped object that could not have been a snake, as Evans knew. ... [He] knew that snakes never have ‘peppermint stripes’.[29] Indeed the textured surface of the upper original portion of the ‘serpent’ seems to reflect the craftsman’s intent to depict a twisted object such as a rope or cord.”[30]

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.[26]: 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.[26]: 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).[31]


The 1979 feminist artwork The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago features a place setting for a "Snake Goddess".[32]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ German; this is the boundary between Middle Minoan and Late Minoan
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ German's term
  4. ^ a b 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.
  5. ^ Witcombe: 2; German
  6. ^ Hood, 133
  7. ^ Witcombe: 4; Hood, 133
  8. ^ Witcombe: 2; Hood, 133; German
  9. ^ a b Hood, 112
  10. ^ 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.
  11. ^ Boston: "She has long been admired by many experts, but some have questioned her authenticity. Her face has been seen as "too modern-looking," and her hips too narrow for a Minoan woman. Scientific testing has proven inconclusive... about 1600–1500 B.C. or early 20th century". In 2021 it was not on display.
  12. ^ In 2002, one author still regarded it as "probably genuine" - Castleden, Rodney, Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete, p. 5, 2002, Taylor & Francis, ISBN 9781134880645, google books
  13. ^ "Snake goddess", Walters, "The joining method, style, and material make the authenticity of this piece doubtful... 16th century BCE or early 20th century".
  14. ^ Boston
  15. ^ Witcombe: 3
  16. ^ a b Burkert, Walter (1985). Greek Religion. Harvard University Press. pp. 23, 30. ISBN 0-674-36281-0.
  17. ^ a b "snake worship". Columbia. The free Dictionary.
  18. ^ Graves, Robert (2012). "Chapter 1: The Pelasgian Creation Myth". The Greek Myths (Penguin Classics Deluxe ed.). Penguin. ISBN 9780143106715.
  19. ^ Nilsson, Martin (1967). Die Geschichte der griechischen Religion [The History of Greek Religion] (in German). Vol. 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.[page needed]
  20. ^ Powell, Barry; Howe, Herbert M. (1998). Classical Myth. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc. p. 368. ISBN 9780137167142. with new translations of ancient texts by Herbert M. Howe
  21. ^ a b 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.)
  22. ^ Lucian of Samosata (200). De Dea Syria [On the Syrian Goddess]. 4.
  23. ^ Witcombe: 8
  24. ^ The Iliad, transl. by R. Lattimore. (1970) University of Chicago Press,Phoenix Book p.437 (Book XXII 77-81)
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ a b c Schachermeyer, F. (1964). Die Minoische Kultur des alten Kreta [The Minoan Culture of Ancient Crete] (in German). Stuttgart: Kohlhammer Verlag.
  27. ^ N. Marinatos 2000, The Goddess and the Warrior: The Naked Goddess and Mistress of Animals in Early Greek Religion. New York: Routledge.
  28. ^ 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. p.180
  29. ^ MacGillivray, J.A. 2000 Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill and Wang. p.223
  30. ^ 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. p.178
  31. ^ Witcombe: 9
  32. ^ "Place Settings". artist Judy Chicago. Brooklyn Museum. Retrieved 6 August 2015.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: others (link)


Further reading[edit]

  • Gere, Cathy. Knossos and the Prophets of Modernism, 2009, University of Chicago Press.
  • Lapatin, Kenneth, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History, 2002, Houghton Mifflin ISBN 0618144757

External links[edit]