Who is this mystery goddess? The serpent-wielding woman of Crete.

This serpent-wielding Goddess belongs to the Minoan culture which pre-dated the Greeks in that part of the Mediterranean. The Minoan Culture was contemporaneous with ancient Egypt and Sumer, but their writings remain undeciphered. (Photo by Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons.)

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:

Here again, with snakes in hand, and an animal which appears to be a cat on her head, the ancient Minoan Snake Goddess.

And here, for comparison, the picture I posted two days ago of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. In this statue, created 1200 years later than the Snake Goddess, Athena is pictured with a snake by her side and a cat woman (Sphinx, a lion goddess) on her head. Coincidence? You decide.

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19 Responses to Who is this mystery goddess? The serpent-wielding woman of Crete.

  1. Pingback: Asherah, Part II: The serpent’s bride « Queen of Heaven

  2. Hi. I believe it is Hecate.
    My woman is a contemporary Hecate archtype, we have uncannily discovered. She saw this image while lying with her eyes closed and went to look for it online and went right to it and was shocked. We have strong evidence of other characteristics of the goddess Hecate and her connection with snakes.
    According to Wiki, the origin of Hecate is unknown. Her origins could have been near Thrace or Lagina, but could easily have been carried either to or from Knosses.
    Perhaps you can help us discover more with your knowledge of things.
    dennis

  3. Also, I have read that Hecate’s high priestess was Medusa, with an obvious connection to snakes and it could very well be that the Minoan goddess became Medusa.

    • Carisa says:

      Hi Dennis, thanks for reading. I don’t know much about Hecate, except that as I recall she was a Titan, an underworld goddess associated with death, ghosts, and witchcraft and with crossroads, where Greeks left offerings for her. According to one version of the Greek legend, Medusa was the priestess of Athena and her fearsome appearance was the result of a curse by Athena. I’ve written a bit about her on the blog here I think her origins are open to a wide variety of theories and I think it very likely she is related to the serpent goddess of Crete. Medusa was one of three Gorgons and Hecate was pictured with three faces.

  4. Erin R. Drake says:

    Carisa after having read two of your articles I thought about the story of Adam and Eve and the garden of Eden and wondered if you had noticed any similarities in the symbolism of that story in relation to your theories of Cybele, Medusa/Athena and the Minoan “Queen of Heaven”? The serpent who cons Eve into conning Adam into eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge? Did you notice that in the garden there is both tthe tree of knowledge a.k.a wisdom and tree of life, both personified traits of women. The serpent and Eve’s behavior in the story mimics the ideas you had about Medusa being Athena, in the form of which men feared her power. COuld the garden of Eden be just another example? Isn’t it also interesting that God has a feline beast in heaven? I do not think these are coincidences.

    • Carisa says:

      Hi Erin,
      Thanks for reading and for your insightful comment. To answer your question, I agree with you. I don’t think there are coincidences here. I think the stories of serpents and felines and the feminine as a source of life and wisdom all stem from earlier traditions which have been lost in the mists of prehistory. The cultures of Europe and those of the Ancient Near East continued telling and remixing these tales in ways which suited them. I think we can make guesses as to the original stories by noting consistent themes such as, for example, the serpent’s connection to trees and life, water and wisdom or the tendency of lions or cherubs (originally winged lions) to act as guardians of city gates, thrones of goddesses or kings, and sacred spaces. There does seem to be an increase, over time, in negativity toward both the serpent and the goddess associated with it. I have never been able to understand why the creator of life would make knowledge forbidden and can only suppose that Joseph Campbell was right when he called this a conspicuously contrived and counterfeit version of the old story. Still, the serpents of the ocean goddess Tiamat were being slain by the god of law and order (Marduk) already by Babylonian times, and Zeus found it necessary to swallow the original wisdom goddess in order to produce the more virginal Athena.

      If you haven’t read it yet, the second part of my series on the Canaanite/Hebrew goddess Asherah talks about serpent mythology and the story of Eve.

  5. Kno5I0 says:

    Nut or Newt is the beginning of all female Goddesses, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nut_(goddess). She is all of our Black African Mother. Blessings and peace be upon her for the love she gives eternally.

  6. Erin Drake says:

    I believe that the name of the snake Godess of Crete and Thera was Qe’ Ra’ Si’ Ja’ as her name has been found in linear B texts.

  7. jimmy2dogs says:

    Carisa,
    Thanks for this information. I’m re-reading The Iliad paying particular attention to divine intervention and stumbled upon your site. I know it is not always true but the assistance of the gods seems sometime to be a reward for courage. A motivational device.

    Regards,

    Carlo

  8. Alan Carrier says:

    A seafaring Island Nation has many casualties at sea from storms. It is logical that the Matriarchal culture is a logical result of this condition. Inheritance, land ownership, proprietary trade contacts are all passed down to the mother or wife of the Sailor/captain of the ship. one only needs to look at early Cape Cod history through the epitaphs on the early gravestones to see the often catastrophic losses of husbands and sons at sea. homes and wealth stayed with the widow even if she re-married. It was exactly the same with the “Kfier” or Minoan culture. Female centered religious rites were the norm. Queen Jezebel is an additional example of the same cultural ethos which was the last surviving matriarchy. Even Moses was well aware of the snake as an integral part of the faith . I have been doing extensive research on the subject for some time.

  9. Ro says:

    You should alsi cobsider Hekate. Checj article Hekate Moving Through Darkness. I believe her to be the MOST likely greek representation of the Minoan Snake goddess. Or should I say the snake giddess is a reformation of Hekate before she was given the name Heka by Egyptians then Hekate by greeks.The EARLIEST representation of Heka was found in prehistoric tines. Since Minoan goddess came before Heka we should find her name BEFORE Minoan tines. Throughout the novement if pat society takung over mat society this amazing giddess who began as an actuak titan was lowered to dauggter of titans but still Goddess if ALL things..heaven earth life death rebirth the underworld love war etc was important enough to keep beung folded inti pabtheon after panthein while losing more abd nore piwer till we find her in Roman mythology as merely the gaurdian of the west gate (i believe id west)

  10. Ro says:

    West gate of hades, as patriarchal soc grew she was dimunished. But i believe SHE is the One u will find to be the ildest in her earliest prehistoric form as fertility godddess of ALL THINGS. Hekate Miving Through Darkness. Sorry about typibg I’m disabked abd have hand probs…

  11. Ro says:

    Athena is assiciated w/Hekate whi also is pictured w/snajes..more so than athena. LIONS TOO. Athena also came AFTER Hekate abd is considered part of her.

  12. Maya G. says:

    i believe the mystery goddess may be the ancient Greek goddess Gaea. Gaea is the oldest of the Greek deities, a Mother Earth type deity. snakes were regarded as sacred creatures to her because their bodies were always pressed against the earth. so that may be it.

  13. Pingback: אֲשֵׁרָה‎ | The grokking eagle

  14. Pingback: Marriage of Jesus 9 Reason for a new marriage | Stepping Toes

  15. Heather says:

    While it’s tempting to call this very powerful image of a trancing/invoking Priestess a Goddess, it’s wrong to slap a Greek Goddess’s name on a Cretan statue whose sophisticated culture predated the marauding Greeks by centuries. In Egypt there are ancient murals depicting stylish Egyptian women sporting the latest in Crete fashion. Sir Arthur Evans was so desperate to find Kind Minos (or evidence of any king really) on the heavily female-image laden Crete Islands that he painted over what was originally an ornately clothed female acrobat (on Cretan wall murals, women were -always- painted with white skin, men with red skin) & called it a “Prince.” Totally made up. Evans deservedly got a lot of flack later for his unprofessional “restoration jobs.” But it’s sad how history tends to gloss over Arthur Evans even greater faux pas of naming the “Minoan” culture after a mythical king (from a legend told by Greeks) whose remains were never found on those islands.

    What -is- found on the islands of Crete & the Palace/Temple of Knossos are murals & pottery showing scenes of two priestess/queens processing through their city in a chariot, two women of high status standing atop the highest city wall seeing off their navy, many coins, engravings, etc depicting priestesses/goddesses in ritual, & the evocative female statuary you’ve mentioned above. If any culture could be construed as matriarchal/matrilineal, Crete is a strong contender, especially if you can get it through your head that most matrilineal cultures are usually more gender-equitable than patriarchal ones. Be they the hunter gatherer tribes like the Dobe Kung! & Hadza, sophisticated queenships of the Ashanti & the Sudan, the priestess/shamans of ancient Thrace, or the matrilineal Korean & Native American cultures with their clan mothers, the argument of whether matriarchal/matrilineal cultures existed should be a moot point well proven by now.

  16. Rich M says:

    On: “Qe’ Ra’ Si’ Ja’” … this is an epithet of Artemis, who is the correctly identified goddess. In Crete, though, they called her Diktynna.

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