The Ancient Snake Goddess of Crete

Minoan Snake Goddess
by Dr Alena Trckova-Flamee, Ph.D.

The Snake Goddess was one of the Minoan divinities associated closely with the snake cult. She is called also Household Goddess due to her attribute of the snake, which is connected with welfare of the Minoan house. But the snake is also symbol of the underworld deity, so the Snake Goddess is related to chthonic aspects too.

The first, who identified this Minoan Goddess and who described her domestic and chthonic role and her cult, was A. Evans. He tried to find parallels in the Egyptian religion and linked the Snake Goddess with an Egyptian Goddess of the Nile Delta, Wazet (Wadjyt). From his point of view the attribute of goddess – snake – was a form of underworld spirit, which had a domestic and a friendly significance. M.P. Nilsson hold a snake as personification of the Snake Goddess and he believed, that her chthonic form is one of the aspects of the Great Mother.

But at the present time there are discussions about the functions of the Snake Goddess. In Crete does not exist a real archaeological evidence for her household role and there is almost no support for the chthonic aspects too. A small offering vessel of the Pre-Palace period in the shape of a female figure with a snake coiled around her body from Koumasa, came to light between some grave goods. But the other ritual figurines of the Snake Goddess were found in the Temple Repositories of the Knossos palace and public sanctuaries in Gurnia, Khania and Gortyn, where she was worshipped. Unknown provenience is the Snake Goddess made from ivory and gold (in the Boston museum) and a small bronze goddess with coil of snakes (in the Berlin museum).

Two famous faience Snake Goddesses from Knossos belong to the New-Palace period (about 1600 BCE). Besides the ritual function, they are among the best examples of the Minoan art with its dominant features – naturalism and grace. They are presented as the ladies of the palace court, dressed in the typical Minoan clothes with a long skirt (flounced, or with an apron) and a tight open bodice. The snakes crawl around the body of one the goddesses and appear in each hand of the other. These statuettes are interpreted sometimes as the goddess and her votary, the mother goddess and her daughter, or the human attendants of goddess, as well as the women personified the goddess.

Totally different ritual objects of the Snake Goddesses came from sanctuaries of the Post-Palace period (1400-1100 BCE). They are made from cheaper material – terracotta – in the position with raised hands, extremely stylized in accordance with the manners of this period. Their symbol – a snake – is often mixed with the other sacred signs: horns of consecration or birds.

Figures of the Snake Goddess and some other cult objects – so called snake tubes and vessels with wholes, decorated by a model of snake – illustrate the worshipping of a Snake Goddess and her cult in Crete during some periods. It seems that this cult came to existence from very early Minoan age, derived from the Egyptian belief system, but there was the strong Near-Eastern influence too. In the Egyptian mythology the snake was a personification of the goddess Kebechet, symbolized the purification by water in the funeral cult, so the snake became a protector of the pharaohs in their death. In the Sumerian and the Old-Babylonian literary tradition the snake was a wise creature and an expert for miraculous herbs of the eternal youth and immortality. A similar idea is contained in the Cretan myth about Glaukos, where the snake knows the herb of rebirth and resurrection.

It is possible, that the worshipping of the Minoan Snake Goddess was in some context to the rebirth, resurrection or renewal of the life. This cult was flourishing mainly in Knossos of the New-palace period and in the Post-Palace public sanctuaries. It is sure, that mainly Knossos’ idols, made from faience with a high artistic level, had an important function in the Minoan religion. We have to take into consideration, that the material of the New-Palace Snake Goddesses – faience – symbolized in old Egypt the renewal of life, therefore it was used in the funeral cult and in sanctuaries.

The Post-Palace Snake Goddesses, worshipped in the small public sanctuaries, kept probably a more popular role. These ritual objects were influenced by the Mycenaean culture. Their attribute of the snake had a strong signification in the belief system of all Aegean region at this time. The terracotta models of painted snakes were found in the Cult Center of Mycenae and the motif of snakes appear between the decoration of vessels for funeral cult from the Late Mycenaean cemeteries in the mainland and in the islands Rhodos, Kos and Cyprus.

The symbol and spirit of the Minoan Snake Goddess took in the Greek mythology many different features. The snake had a protective and beneficial role on the shield of Athena, it represented the chthonic power connected with the Goddess of Earth, it was the attribute of Asklepios, probably due to its knowledge about the herb of rebirth, resurrection and eternal youth and generally it was the symbol of superhuman power of the god. But the snake could have a totally negative role too as an originator of the death and an avenger in company with the mythical creatures.

Article created on 19 February 2000; last modified on 22 December 2002.
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