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Friday, April 1, 2016

Minoan Snake Goddesses


This faience female figurine from Knossos on Crete (Neopalatial Period, 1750-1490 BC, when the palaces that had been destroyed ca. 1750 BC were rebuilt) belongs to the “snake goddess” type, which is found in various media, including pottery, frescoes, and seal engravings, at Minoan sites.  Faience is a technique that seems to have been borrowed from Egypt.  Egyptian faience contained no clay.  It was instead a quartz-based composition which, when fired, developed a colorful glaze.

The figure holds a snake in each of her outstretched arms; an animal sits atop her headdress (the head and left forearm are modern restorations).  She wears the costume that we see in Minoan frescoes: the flounced, bell-shaped skirt, the short apron, and the open bodice.

The 11 ½” tall statuette was found in 1903 by Sir Arthur Evans in the West Wing of the great palace at Knossos.  He called it the “Priestess or Votary.”










Along with that statuette he found another, larger one (13 ½”), which he called the “Mother Goddess.”  Her costume is similar to the one above but her arms are lowered, and the snakes that she holds are curling down her arms; another snake is winding around her tall hat.  This figurine, too, is heavily restored: the face, left arm, and skirt are modern.






The statuettes that Evans found caused a sensation.  Forgers saw an opportunity, and soon some fourteen fakes were to be seen in museums and private collections.  One such fake is the “Boston Snake Goddess,” the subject of an engaging exposé by Kenneth Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History (2002).  This figurine had raised doubts in the past.  But Lapatin makes a very strong case that it was fashioned by the Swiss artist Émile Gilliéron, the man who had restored the faience “Mother Goddess” and “Priestess or Votary” for Sir Arthur Evans. 



Especially odd, he notes, is the damage to the left side of the face: “Ivory is subject to flaking, and part of the left side has sheared away.  Yet the present features—eyes, nose, and mouth—are centered on what remains.  This should not be the case: if the piece was damaged after carving, the surviving features should be off center” (180).  Lapatin’s contention was corroborated when Carbon-14 tests returned a date of 1450—AD, not BC!  Visit the website of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and you will read that its date is “about 1600–1500 B.C. or early 20th century.”




What does the “snake goddess” type represent?  Suggestions abound.  Are they goddesses of nature or fertility?  Is there one goddess or several?  A household goddess?  Perhaps they are not goddesses but priestesses performing a ritual.  Or are they worshipers?  So many questions.  The truth is that there are no clear answers.  For the likely religious context of the figurines see Gesell.

Gesell, Geraldine. “From Knossos to Kavousi: The Popularizing of the Minoan Palace Goddess.” ΧΑΡΙΣ: Essays in Honor of Sara A. Immerwahr (2004) 131-150.
Lapatin, Kenneth. Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. 2002.
Lapatin, Kenneth. “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses,” Archaeology 54.1 (2001) 33-36.

- Lesley Ehmer

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