Written by: Rosella Parra
Snakes and women are two major motifs within Greek mythology and history in general. But, when people think of them in correspondence, they immediately think of Medusa. She, as an image of Greek mythology famous for her iconic head of snakes, has been portrayed in different films within pop culture and classical art. For generations, people have only been exposed to a mythological icon who isn’t real, but there’s a facet of reality to this image—an actual artifact of Greek history—the Minoan Snake Goddess. Tragically, people are not familiarized with the Minoan Snake Goddess, who’s simply another snake woman in Greek History. So people, especially the younger generation, are getting two different depictions of women in art and Ancient Greece. The Minoan Snake Goddess is a representation of who and what women really were in Minoan art.
Who is the Minoan Snake Goddess? The Minoan Snake Goddess is a figurine made of faience, a crushed quartz-paste material, in 1650 BCE on the island of Crete. She gets her name from the snakes she holds, which represent the “renewal of life.” She is depicted as both a priestess, a woman performing rituals, and a “Mother Goddess,” representing fertility, based on her attire exposing her breasts, her tiny waist, and her flounced skirt. This was typical fashion for a priestess and a Mother goddess. Thus, tapping into gender roles of Minoan civilization. Writer Georgia McDonnell acknowledged how Minoan fashion defines “gender roles and emphasizing idealized beauty that planted the seed for modern-day standards.” Hence, the snake goddesses’ fashion gave insight into gender roles and beauty standards for the Minoan era. Beauty standards portraying the pinched waist and hour-glass figure, which are still relevant in fashion today. Nevertheless, McDonnell argues the goal behind the pinched waist and hour-glass figure was “to achieve the epitome of a feminine aesthetic.” Like other sculptures and frescoes in Minoan art of women, the focus was the snake goddess body. .
The Minoan Snake Goddess wasn’t discovered until 1903 by Sir Arthur Evans, a British archeologist, in the Temple Repositories at the Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete. Evans discovered not one, but three Knossos figurines of the snake goddess. In August 2022, an anonymous reporter published an article in the journal Greek arguing how she’s a “mysterious” figurine in history because Evans discovered three snake goddesses. All three figurines were replicas of the same image, but they were made differently. The larger figurine exposed her bare breasts, but underneath her belt, known as a “sacred knot,” she didn’t have the rest of her body. Snakes were seen crawling up her arms and a snake rear up on her crown. Meanwhile, a smaller figurine didn’t even have a head or a left arm, but after she was restored by Evans, she held two snakes around her raised arms just above her crown, which consisted of a cat. Lastly, the third figurine was broken off at the waist and the cist, the burial chamber she was found in, contained another arm that could’ve held a snake. The idea behind Evans’ discovery of the three Knossos figurines acknowledges how the snake goddess has been reconstructed and reimagined many times.
So, where else has she been restored? The priestess image of her has appeared in additional Mycenaean and Egyptian frescoes, such as Ladies in Blue and The Prince of Lilies. Interestingly, Evans discovered both frescos at the Palace of Knossos before the Minoan Snake Goddess figurines. The Ladies in Blue has a group of three priestesses who have their breasts exposed through their Minoan dresses. Although there are no snakes visible, the priestess’s hair wraps around their heads like a snake. As for The Prince of Lilies, although a man and an Egyptian fresco, he too has an exposed chest and his skin tone is red, which was common for Egyptian frescos. Nevertheless, the style of the prince depicts Minoan frescoes. Despite these different representations mixing in gender, they continue to depict their exposed bare chests. Upon discovery, Evans compared and linked the Minoan Snake Goddess to Wadjet, an Egyptian snake goddess. Like Wadjet, the Minoan Snake Goddess has a “human-like figure who grasps two animals.” Her holding the two snakes in her raised arms depicts her performing a ritual. The idea behind her was not who she was as a person, but her representation of fertility and protection.
Within pop culture, the Minoan Snake Goddess isn’t broadcasted through the media. Unlike Medusa, who in 2010 appeared in the remake of Clash of the Titans and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Both films portray Medusa as a minor character, who’s a villain. t. She only appears in one single epic scene when the film’s hero, Perseus, who needs her head to destroy the Kraken, enters her lair. The films conclude with Medusa beheaded by Perseus, and he is praised as a hero for killing her. As a result, Medusa’s only perceived as a tool and an obstacle for Perseus. She’s just another monster he had to fight off and kill, so he can ultimately kill the Kraken.
The main difference between the Medusa and the Minoan Snake Goddess is that she’s only known for getting her head chopped off. Meanwhile, the snake goddess is a protector performing a ritual with her snakes, symbolizing fertility in art. Besides pop culture, Medusa is in classical art, which can be seen today in Florence, Italy. In the Piazza Della Signoria Benevento Cellini’s bronze sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa shows Perseus standing over Medusa’s body while holding her chopped off head. Also, at the Uffizi Museum, there’s also an oil on canvas portrait of Medusa’s head by Merisi da Caravaggio. He focused on the facial expressions of her severed head. Medusa is portrayed as a victim in both classical pieces of art.
The Minoan Snake Goddess is relevant to the art community today because unlike other classical artwork in Ancient Greece, she is in a position of power as a priestess. We know this from the evidence of her replicas that Evans discovered, and the depictions in Minoan and Egyptian frescoes. The Minoan Snake Goddess isn’t seen as a victim or a monster to men, unlike Medusa. It’s important for a younger generation to see a female figure with a woman’s body in a position of power, especially today in the 21st century, where feminism is openly expressed and encouraged through art.
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