What’s her name and what divine power did she represent? No one knows. Whoever made her did so in about 1600 BC on Crete, during a time when a people called the Minoans lived there. They did leave writings, called Linear A, but no one has deciphered them.
When women ruled the world? The impressive and predominantly feminine nature of the artwork of the Minoans excited the imaginations of those who first saw it. There was a popular theory, circulating from the late 1800s that the earliest cultures of Europe were matriarchal and that they had religions based – literally – on sex. These had been replaced, one way or another (but probably in a way that involved a lot of blood and gore), by patriarchal civilization. This idea was very exciting to the Victorian mind, naturally. Sex and violence sold a story just as well a century ago as it does today. Anyway, the man who discovered the relics of ancient Crete believed he had found proof that this theory was correct.
What do we really know about the people who made the Snake Goddess? The short answer is: not much. The longer answer is that she was found at the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, where a major urban seafaring culture thrived from about 3,000 BC until its overthrow by the early Greeks in about 1400 BC. Archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating their remains in 1900 and dubbed them the Minoans after the Greek legend of King Minos of Crete. The most extreme claims about this culture, made by Evans, were that it was the clearest known example of a matriarchal civilization and that it was an entirely or almost entirely peaceful civilization. Most scholars feel these claims are exaggerated. It’s worth noting, however that no one has ever actually disproved this theory. They’ve only — correctly — pointed out that there is no real proof the mythical matriarchy existed on Crete (or elsewhere.)
Leaving aside the matriarchal controversy, we are on much more solid ground in asserting the following very remarkable traits of this ancient culture:
1- The Minoans were a highly developed ancient urban culture whose wealthy civilization was built on a foundation of trade. They traded widely throughout the eastern Mediterranean, as far away as Palestine and Turkey and were even trading with Egypt at the time the Great Pyramids were being built.
2- There is little evidence of this being a warrior culture. Though some more recently discovered fortifications and weapons suggest it was not purely pacifistic, its artwork and other remains show no glorification of warriors, no hint of war, and no suggestion of killing or capturing enemies such as became highly favored topics in the art of the cultures of other places and of Greece in later times.
3- This society was relatively egalitarian. Uncovered remains of their dwellings show that there was a much more narrow gap between rich and poor than would be common in later civilizations — including our own.
4- We can’t say for certain what the political structure of the Minoans was, but the religion, according to the artwork which has been found here, appears to have involved primarily goddesses and to have been run by women.
So, a culture based on trade not conquest, where equality rather than hierarchy was the norm, and with a religion based on goddess worship run by women. That’s radical enough, frankly, for me. Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade, recommended the ancient Cretans as a model for our own cultural self improvement. I tend to agree.
What happened to the Minoans? The Minoan civilization had a string of bad luck in the middle of the second millenium BC (the 1,000’s). The beginning of the end for them happened when the Minoan owned island of Santorini suffered one of the largest volcanic eruptions on Earth in recorded history. The explosion turned most of the nice circular island into a thin C shape and then triggered a massive tsunami which wiped out the coastal cities of Minoan Crete. Remember this was a culture whose economy was based on seafaring trade, so that was probably a pretty big blow. Not long afterward the Minoans were conquered by the Myceneans, a warrior people who were the original Greeks. These were the people Homer later said fought the Trojan War. Their culture was probably originally quite different from Minoan as their early ancestors were Indo-Europeans (nomadic, possibly patriarchal people from eastern Europe whose language is at the root of the languages now spoken throughout the western world). But as warriors often do, they seem to have adopted a lot from the more advanced culture of the people they conquered.
Did they abandon or continue worship of the Snake Goddess? And if they continued it, did they give her a Greek name still familiar to us today? Could one of the Olympians be a Minoan memory? The Myceneans left writings which have been translated, called Linear B. Already here, according to these, are Poseidon and Zeus, as well as several goddesses. If they wrote down the Snake Goddess’ name, then the suspects for mystery goddess include: Diwia, a feminine form of Zeus’ name; Diktynna, a mountain and hunting goddess; a minor Greek goddess of childbirth; one of the Furies; and a Lady (Potnia) of the Labyrinth (Ariadne?). The Snake Goddess could be any of these or none, but I’ve left out my prime suspect. One more name on the list is Potnia Atana, most likely an early version of Lady Athena. Athena, of course is the Goddess of Wisdom, so if she were originally the Minoan Snake Goddess, then the Minoan Snake Goddess might well be the original Goddess of Wisdom. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll leave you with my final thought in the form of two pictures–one, again, the snake goddess, and next to it, for comparison, a picture I also included in my most recent post discussing the relationship of Athena and the snake-headed Medusa: