Witchy Wednesdays: Exploring Minoan Goddesses

I am totally doing this Witchy Wednesday thing out-of-order.  Some  of these prompts I really like but I don’t have the kind of time I want to put into writing them now. Especially the picture ones, because my cameras aren’t installed.  So, for those posts, I’m just waiting until I DO have the time.  Also, I apologize for any crap-ness of this post I’m still running a low fever, had an eventful weekend at the ER but I feel lucky I still have my tonsils…  Well, sort of anyway. I am 100 percent happy nothing involved sticking a needle down my throat and “draining” anything but I feel like the tonsils may not be saved in the long run.

And also I hope everyone had a Merry May/Happy Beltane!

The Minoan civilization was a Bronze Age civilization on the island Crete.  Today, Crete is a part of the Greek Aegean Islands.  Arthur Evans discovered the palace Knossos on Crete in the early 20th century and inspired a new era of Atlantis speculation.  I don’t know about Atlantis – my personal thoughts on that would be that Atlantis is much more likely to be Santorini; regardless the Minoan Civilization is fascinating due to its impact on later Hellenic civilization.  One of the biggest contrasts between traditional Hellenic society and the Minoan civilization is the difference in the role of women in society.

When I traveled in Greece I was lucky enjoy to explore many of the Aegean Islands, Crete being one of them.  Unfortunately, I can’t find any of my pictures.  I’ll have to go back someday and be sure to take more and better photos. One of the benefit of not having photos, I am aware of what stood out for me personally in this experience. I remember the “sacred cave” surrounded by honey jars and beer jugs. This shows how sacred honey and bees were in Minoan culture (very probably they drank a form of mead, or honey wine as well).  Also, I remember that the most impressive rooms in the palace were the Queen’s Quarters (including an indoor toilet with plumbing). Finally, the beautiful frescos of bare breasted, pale women – queens or priestesses decorating the palace.  Now, the tour guide did not hint at any kind of evidence of a matriarchal society, but the impression one gets from viewing the frescos does suggest a matriarchy.  Women are depicted in positions of power: sitting on thrones, dancing, with the labrys and all bare breasted and very pale.  Men however are often tanned and usually laboring, women overseeing their work.  While I don’t like the neopagans myth of a matriarchal golden age in history this does suggest that this one place, on Crete, was a matriarchal society of skilled weavers, sailors, and tradesmen.

Minoan Snake Goddess figures from Heraklion Archaeological Museum from Wikipedia.

Minoan Snake Goddess figurines c 1600 BCE. Heraklion Archaeological Museum

One area of Minoan society were it’s difficult to ignore a matriarchal trend is in the religion. Minoan religion seems to be full of goddesses.  There are various kinds of goddesses found in Minoan society but the snake goddesses are perhaps the most famous.  There are many snake goddesses depictions which are often interpreted as a mother goddesses with her daughter.  Snakes are associated with death and fertility and an Egyptian goddess Wadjet.  These particular figures, were found at the palace of Knossos in a chest that was thought to be a shrine.  There are many other depictions of the snake goddess found in Minoan ruins, which indicates this particular goddesses’ importance.  I think that the association with death, birth, and fertility associated with the snake goddess seems most likely.  Snakes were symbols of immortality all over the ancient world and perhaps the open breasted clothing is simply a Minoan fashion, but that does suggest somewhat a fertility cult or emphasis on the breast.

The “Butterfly” goddess or double axe wielding goddess is another common symbol in Crete.  This goddess, or priestess, depicted in open breast dress with a double-sided axed (called a labrys) in each hand.  Interestingly, to add to the matriarchal society theory, the labrys is not depicted being held by men in classical Minoan society. The double axe is almost always held by a woman.  This woman may have been a goddess, or simply a priestess depicted in an ancient ritual. It’s important to note that while many versions of the Minoans are a matriarchal fantasy where everyone lived in peace and wealth, evidence of human sacrifice has certainly been found on Crete.  Even in Hellenic myths, we hear evidence of human sacrifice in the labyrinths of Crete.  There is a huge labyrinth at Knossos and labyrinths can be found at other ancient palace remains throughout Crete.

Bee goddesses were also found at Crete.  While it’s unknown if there was a separate “bee goddess” or the bee was depicted in a humanized form (as a woman) due to its importance in society.  I find this interesting because of bee’s social organization seems to mirror Minoan society.  Worker bees are men, palace frescos depict men as laborers in overseen by pale women.  The center of the bee’s social world is the queen thus all bees are ruled by queens – this may have been true at least in that Minoan society was defiantly matrilineal (trace family lines through the mother). Also, bee goddesses are found elsewhere in Greek religion.  The Melissea were Greek priestesses who worshiped the bees.  Originally they were nymphs but they became to minor goddesses and played a part in many myths.  Perhaps they began on Crete or have a connection to the Minoan religion.

The Minoan civilization also appears to be connected to Dionysos, aside from the Melissea.  Many of the symbols of Dionysos: the bull, the snake, and the bees are seen in the Minoan culture.  While gods play a small part in the Minoan culture, Dionysos in a minor player in Demeter’s cult (which is also a mother-daughter centered cult). Maenads  are said to dance with snakes in the way that the snake goddess is depicted in Minoan art. If nothing else, the clearest connection between Dionysos and Crete is his sacred bride, Ariadne who is a Cretan princess. Perhaps this connection is why I am so interested in these goddesses.

I do not worship these goddess, and I don’t want to even give anyone the impression that I do.  First, I don’t have any idea HOW to worship them since not very much is known in reality about them.  There is little evidence from the Minoans themselves about the purposes of these figures.  Keep in mind, in a thousand years Barbie may be considered a goddess and most people would insist she is merely a toy.  So, archeologists make a lot of assumptions about practices and beliefs based on objects found and they are always separated from their context unless we have written evidence from the people in these societies.  That doesn’t mean I don’t think anyone can or should worship these goddesses, this is just how I feel about it.  I might like to honor these goddesses, but as it is, I don’t have much to go on.

I was drawn to learning about these goddesses because of their connection to Dionysos. I cannot say for sure how connected Dionysos is to the Minoan civilization on Crete, because after all they were overtaken by the Mycenae and Ariadne could culturally be Mycean as easily as Minoan.  Upon diving deeper into the cult of Dionysos and the Minoan culture I see more connections but I have no authority to say definitively that Dionysos is connected to the Minoans. I do find Minoan culture useful to explore as a Maenad though.  It gives me an “image” of powerful priestesses in an ancient Greek context.

The Minoan goddesses can be re-invented for veneration in neopagans religions with some care.  This is an excellent opportunity to reclaim her-story and look for positive role models and examples in the ancient world.  While touring the palace at Knossos, my tour guide never once mentioned matriarchy, matrilineal and any evidence of female power was ignored.  However, looking at the images many people asked questions about gender.  The tour guide saw this ancient culture through his own patriarchal lens, and we as Neopagans can see through our own feminists or revisionists lenses.  Whenever we engage in revisionist history we have to remember to keep our revisiting in check, only go on evidence that is actually there, but it can be done.  I think Knossos and the Minoan culture is one place this could easily be done and goddesses and female priestesses could be re-claimed and re-invented to create new gender positive religious mythologies and viewpoints.


About Pixie

I'm just your average 20-something trying to figure it out. I am also a theologian, yogi, witch, pagan, dirty hippie, activist (progressive politics), feminist, knitter, environmentalist, and friend. I've also been accused of being a hipster - I am not sure about that. I am sometimes happy to be Gen Y (go Harry Potter) and most of the time confused (seriously guys... ) by everyone else. My hobbies including knitting (and maybe crochet), quilting, recycling, cooking, writing, reading, and biking. I'm finishing up a masters in public policy and when I worked worked in political nonprofits as an activist.
This entry was posted in Feminisms, Goddesses, History, Paganism, Witchy Wednesdays, Women's Mysteries and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Witchy Wednesdays: Exploring Minoan Goddesses

  1. ❤ the book "Dionysos: Archetypal Image of Indestructible Life" by Karl Kerényi touches on this as well. Well worth the read in case you haven't gotten to it yet 🙂

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