In 1903, Sir Arthur Evans, excavating at the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, discovered fragments of faience statuettes depicting female figures holding snakes. Two of these statuettes were extensively restored and identified by Evans as a “Mother Goddess” and a “Priestess.” These figures became iconic images of Minoan civilization as soon as they were published, and ever since archaeologists, art historians, and feminist scholars have worked to determine their role and significance in Minoan culture.
Because written evidence is scarce, scholars have been forced to rely on ancient Minoan material and visual remains in order to understand the nature of Minoan religion. The goddess is thought to have been worshipped in Crete from circa 3000–1100 B.C.E. Early interpretations of her worship, endorsed by Evans, focused on a domestic cult practiced in houses and palaces. Subsequent excavations have revealed shrines with goddess figures located in towns or certain areas of palaces, suggesting that the sphere of the Minoan goddess extended to the official public arena.
There is still confusion as to whether images of Minoan goddesses represent a single goddess with varying aspects or multiple goddesses with different functions. The term “Minoan goddess” is often used to identify the visual evidence of an ancient religious concept that is not yet fully understood. It also remains uncertain whether some female figures are priestesses or worshippers rather than divinities, which complicates the question of identity.
Numerous clay figurines of goddesses and clay ritual equipment found in shrines outside the palace of Knossos suggest that Minoan goddess figures are primarily associated with snakes and birds, although this distinction is not exact and evidence exists for other possible associations. Bared breasts, and the bell shapes of some clay goddess figures, suggest a connection with fertility; the association with snakes evokes a chthonic or underworld aspect as well.
The “Snake Goddess” figurines that Evans excavated were manufactured from faience. Goddess figurines excavated later at other sites are clay and have simplified forms; they are often known as the “Goddess with upraised arms.” After Evans’s discovery, unexcavated figures of Minoan goddesses similar to those from Knossos appeared on the antiquities market and some were purchased by museums. Made of ivory, stone, and in one case, of terracotta, their authenticity has been challenged by a scholar in the field, Kenneth Lapatin. Of interest are the ivory examples, particularly those embellished with gold. This technique is known as “chryselephantine,” taken from the ancient Greek words for gold and ivory. A specialist in objects of this type, Lapatin has questioned these examples. At the time of their appearance and for many years thereafter, however, they were hailed as exquisite examples of Minoan sculpture and their colors of ivory and gold are used in the runner for the Snake Goddess in The Dinner Party.
Snake Goddess at The Dinner Party
The runner is decorated in both ivory and gold with brown and yellow accent colors. The snake motif is apparent in the images of gold snakes on the back of the runner and in the snake intertwined in the letter “S” on the runner’s front. The front of the runner echoes the Cretan figure, with a flounce that mimics that of the goddess’ skirt. Inkle-loom woven strips border the runner and are embroidered with patterns similar to those found in Minoan garments.
The plate is rooted in vulvar (or central core) imagery found throughout The Dinner Party, and is largely based on the color-scheme of Cretan Snake Goddesses statues. Echoing their gold and ivory tones, the plate contains four pale yellow arms growing out from a center form, “whose egg-like shapes represent the generative force of the goddess” (Chicago, A Symbol of Our Heritage, 60).
Translations, Editions, and Secondary Sources
Casteldon, Rodney. Minoans: Life in Bronze Age Crete. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.
Eisler, Riane. The Chalice and the Blade: Our History, Our Future. 1987; reprint ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Fitton, J. Lesley. Minoans (Peoples of the Past). London: British Museum Press, 2002.
Foubister, Linda. Goddess in the Grass: Serpentine Mythology and the Great Goddess. Victoria, British Columbia: EcceNova Editions, 2003.
Gimbutas, Marija. The Goddess and Gods of Old Europe: Myths and Cult Images. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.
Higgins, Reynold. Minoan and Mycenaen Art. New York: Thames & Hudson, 1997.
Lapatin, Kenneth. Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2004.
Macgillivray, J. A. Minotaur: Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth. New York: Hill & Wang, 2000.
Sprout, Barbara, ed. Primal Myths: Creation Myths Around the World. 1979; reprint ed., San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1991.
Stone, Merlin. When God Was a Woman. San Diego: Harvest Books, 1978.
Place Setting Images
Related Heritage Floor Entries
Minoan Archaeological Sites
Christopher L. C. E. Whitcombe—Minoan Snake Goddess
“Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses” by Kenneth Lapatin