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 the welfare of the Minoan household. Since the snake is also symbol of the underworld deity, the Snake Goddess has some chthonic aspects as well.
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 Egyptian religion, and linked the Snake Goddess with Wadjyt, the Egyptian cobra goddess. From his point of view the attribute of the goddess — a snake — was a form of an underworld spirit, which had domestic and a friendly significance. M.P. Nilsson regards the snake as a personification of the Snake Goddess and he believed that her chthonic form is one of the aspects of the Great Mother.
There are discussions concerning the functions of the Snake Goddess. There is no real archaeological evidence in Crete to support her household role, and there is almost no support for the chthonic aspects. 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, was discovered between some grave items. Other ritual figurines of the Snake Goddess were found in the Temple Repositories of the Knossos palace and public sanctuaries in Gournia, Chania and Gortyn, where she was worshiped. Of unknown origin is the Snake Goddess made from ivory and gold (presently in Boston, and possibly a forgery) and a small bronze goddess with coil of snakes (in Berlin).
Two famous faïence Snake Goddesses from Knossos belong to the New-Palace period (about 1600 BCE). Besides the ritual function, they are among the best examples of Minoan art with its dominant features — naturalism and grace. They are presented as the ladies of the palace court, dressed in 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, as the mother goddess and her daughter, or as the human attendants of goddess, as well as the women personifying the goddess.
Totally different ritual objects of the Snake Goddesses came from sanctuaries of the Post-Palace period (1400-1100 BCE). They are made of cheaper material, terra-cotta, and show her 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 — consecrating horns or birds.
Figures of the Snake Goddess and other cult objects — the so-called snake tubes and vessels with holes, decorated by a model of a snake — illustrate the worship of a Snake Goddess and her cult in Crete during certain periods. It seems that this cult came into existence from a very early Minoan age, derived from the Egyptian belief system, but with a strong Near-Eastern influence too. In Egyptian mythology, the snake was a personification of the goddess Kebechet, who personified the purification of water in the funeral cult, and the snake was a protector of the pharaohs after death. In Sumerian and Old-Babylonian literary tradition the snake was a wise creature and an granted miraculous herbs for eternal youth and immortality. A similar idea is contained in the Cretan myth of Glaucus, where the snake knows the herb of rebirth and resurrection.
It is possible that the worship of the Minoan Snake Goddess was in some context the rebirth, resurrection, or renewal of life. This cult flourished mainly in Knossos during the New-palace period and in the Post-Palace public sanctuaries. It is sure that idols, made at Knossos from faïence and with a high artistic level, had an important function in Minoan religion. We have to take into consideration that the material of the New-Palace Snake Goddesses — faïence — symbolized in old Egypt the renewal of life, and therefore was used in the Minoan funeral cult and in sanctuaries.
The Post-Palace Snake Goddesses, worshiped in small public sanctuaries, probably had a more popular role. These ritualistic objects were influenced by Mycenaean culture. The attribute of the snake had a strong significance in the belief system of the entire Aegean region at that time. The terra-cotta models of painted snakes were found in the cult center of Mycenae and the motif of snakes appear among the decoration of vessels for funeral cult from the Late Mycenaean cemeteries in the mainland and in the islands of Rhodes, Kos and Cyprus.
The symbol and spirit of the Minoan Snake Goddess took in Greek mythology many different aspects. 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 Asclepius, probably due to its knowledge of the herb of rebirth, resurrection and eternal youth, and generally it was the symbol of superhuman power of the god. But the snake also had negative role as an originator of the death and as an avenger in the company of mythical creatures.
- Alexiou, S. n.d. Minoan civilization. Heraclion, pp. 78, 101.
- Burkert, W. (1994). Greek Religion. Cambridge, Massachusetts, p. 40.
- Davaras, C. (1976). Guide to Cretan Antiquities. Athens, pp. 294-297.
- Evans, A. 1921-36. Palace of Minos: I-IV. London, pp. 140-61.
- Nilsson, M.P. (1927). The Minoan-Mycenaean Religion and its survival in Greek Religion. Lund, p. 336.
- Sakellarakis, J.A. (1993). Herakleion Museum. Athens, pp. 36-38.