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Minoan Snake Goddess ca. 1700 – 1600 BC

This small glazed earthenware statuette is one of the most frequently reproduced images of ancient religious art.The object was discovered in the early20th century during the excavations undertaken by the British archaeologist, Sir Arthur Evans (1851–1941), at the site of the great Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Evans’s pioneering work at Knossos, his nomenclature of the Minoan civilization (after the legendary King Minos of Knossos), the chronology he developed for the various phases of this civilization (ca. 3500/3000 – ca. 1050 bc ), and his theories about and reconstructions of Minoan art and architecture have provided the foundations for subsequent scholarly work as well as intense dispute about this ancient culture. The Minoans appear to have been a prosperous and peaceful civilization who engaged in trade and commerce with other ancient peoples in the Aegean and Mediterranean world, notably the Egyptian, Syrian, and Cycladic cultures. The Minoans were great builders, and a number of impressive residential and ceremonial centres (or palaces, Knossos being the largest) were constructed beginning ca. 2000 bc. Frescoes, pottery, metalwork, engraved seals, figurines of animals and humans in clay and ivory, jewellery of gold, bronze, and gemstones all survive in abundance and give evidence of a high degree of sophistication and skill with art production in a wide range of media. Much scholarship has been devoted to the topic of Minoan religion, based on numerous representations in Minoan art of scenes involving god and goddess figures, priest and priestess figures, worshippers, ritual offerings, and processions. Objects that appear to be cultic/ceremonial in nature have been found in abundance not only in the several palaces but also in caves and sanctuaries located in the hills and mountains. Altars and offering tables, votive figurines, ritual libation vessels, and symbols such as double-axes, bull’s horns, and heraldic animals are the most common forms in the artistic vocabulary of Minoan ritual practices. Some scholars believe that Minoan palaces were deliberately laid out and oriented toward the peak sanctuaries in the neighbouring mountains where caves devoted to worship of a nature or fertility goddess were located. Whether as Mistress of the Animals, Goddess of Nature, Fertility Goddess, Bird Goddess, or Water Goddess—solo or accompanied by a Warrior/Hunter God—the female goddess figure dominates the imagery of Minoan religious art. Whether she is one goddess with several different aspects or several different goddesses is unclear. The glazed earthenware statuette of the Snake Goddess in the Archaeological Museum in Heraklion, Crete, demonstrates many aspects of her traditional imagery. On engraved seals, wall paintings, and in other media, the same forms appear: the long flounced skirt, narrow waist, tall silhouette, and bared breasts. When the figurine was found in the early excavations at Knossos, it was broken in several places. The head of the figure and the head of the one original snake were missing as well as most of the figure’s left arm. These missing pieces were created and attached to the figurine by an early 20th-century artist/conservator employed by Sir Arthur Evans. Although the head is not original, the beret/cap and cat/feline form atop the beret were found in the excavations (although not with the figurine) and were attached to the reconstructed head to make up the ensemble as it exists today. In spite of the frequency with which this image is reproduced, the Snake Goddess per se is otherwise a relatively rare subject in Minoan art. Several other statuettes do exist of similar figures with outstretched arms twined with snakes, but several of these are modern forgeries loosely based on this one reconstructed example and a few other examples with secure ancient origin. Although there seems “ample archaeological evidence for a predominant female deity (or deities) on Crete,” the attention given to the cult of the Snake Goddess in particular has tended to overshadow and dominate the discussion. It is wise to remember that for the periods of prehistory without written sources, much remains a matter of speculation. Indeed, “until Minoan writing is deciphered, the precise nature of early Cretan religion must remain uncertain.” (Kenneth Lapatin) 

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