The snake goddess representing the mother goddess, 1650 B.C., Faience
Height: 34.3 cm (13 1/2 in.)
The Heraklion Archaeological Museum
But to focus on 'Mycenaean' Greek culture – in spite of its obvious appeal through its connection to Homer – is to miss half the story. Because the Mycenaean cities of mainland Greece were, in fact, preceded by a magnificent palatial society on the island of Crete which originated an incredible five and a half thousand years ago, and flourished over two thousand years. Ruins of its palaces, houses, and roads were uncovered by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans between 1900 and 1903. Following Schliemann's lead in connecting his archaeological discoveries to Greek myth, Evans called the civilisation he had discovered 'Minoan' – after the legendary Minos, king of Crete and father of the Minotaur.
The Minoan Snake Goddess is one of the most well-known artefacts from the Minoan era. She is made of faience, a type of glazed ceramic ware; dressed in a flounced skirt with a girdle around her waist and a bodice which exposes her breasts, she is holding a snake in each hand. Evans labelled this figure a 'snake priestess' – he dubbed another, larger figure the 'snake goddess'. Yet there is a significant problem with the identification – one which we will come upon again and again as we continue through the series. As we saw with Schliemann's Agamemnon, it is tempting to want to ascribe a story to an object – particularly to an object which draws us in as compellingly as this one does. Why is she holding snakes in her hands? Is she a goddess or merely a priestess? Why are her breasts bared, and is this a reflection of the dress worn by Minoan women or merely a cultic symbol, perhaps a connection to fertility?
And this is where we come upon one of the greatest difficulties of all: the fact that we have, as yet, been unable to decipher the written records of Minoan civilisation. Whereas the Mycenaean script, known as Linear B, was deciphered between 1951 and 1953 by Michael Ventris and John Chadwick, the Minoan language (Linear A) remains, as yet, unreadable. So, to me, perhaps one of the most interesting questions raised by the Minoan Snake Goddess is: how do we go about interpreting objects in the absence of other evidence – and in particular, texts? The usual recourse is to identify unknown or hard-to-interpret artefacts as having religious significance – perhaps because it is in describing something 'religious' that we find it easiest to explain away the difficulties of identification. And yet, to me, it is often in addressing the complexities and apparent paradoxes presented by an object head-on that we come closest to understanding it.
With the Snake Goddess, then, I try to see her – not as either a goddess or a priestess – but as a woman who transcends both the mortal and the immortal realms; who connects the lived experiences of real Minoan women to an understanding of the connection between fertility (often represented by snakes) and femininity. Rather than being an absolute statement of the nature of divinity, to me, she's posing a question: how do humans relate to the divine? What does it mean to be a woman? How can we understand female fertility and its connection to the natural world? It's a question she is still asking us today – and still challenging us with.