Minoan Snake Goddess ca. 1600 B.C.E.
This figurine of a woman holding a snake in either hand with a cat sitting on top of her head was discovered by Arthur Evans in the original excavation of the Pallace of Knossos. Other examples of this motif have since been discovered, reinforcing the idea that the small sculpture portrays a deity of some kind. The theory of the sculpture's identity is further supported by both the existence of an Egyptian snake goddess named Wadjet, and the animals associated with later Greek Maenads whose cult worshiped Dionysos. Snakes are were associated by Egyptians, Mesopotamians, and later cultures world-wide as symbolizing regeneration because of the fact that they shed their skins and can form a circle by biting their own tails. Regeneration of the changing seasons is important for agriculture, which is aslo often symblized by female fertility, so the snake goddess may embody both these symbolic associations.
There is now plenty of archeological evidence linking the Minoans with the Egyptians. Not only has Minoan pottery been discovered in Egypt, but there is also a Middle Kingdom tomb that was painted by Minaon artists and the suggestion that a Minoan princess married an Egyptian prince. This particular snake goddess sculpture was created using a technology that the Minoans must have gotten from the Egyptians. Faïence, aslo known as Egyptian paste glass is essentially a ceramic glaze thick enough to sculpt with. It is a fussy medium that can produce shiny vitreous sculptures. Faïence work is typicaly small in scale and not very detailed. The snake godess with her hallow body and extended limbs is an exceptionally detailed faïence peice. Her outfit with it's open bodice and intricate skirt is thought to be representative of fancy Minoan fashion.
Dionysos, the Greek god of wine had a particularly cultish following that was especially popular with women. The cult may have originated on the Isle of Naxos, which is close to Crete and according to myth, is where Theseus abandoned the Minoan princess Ariadne who helped him navigate the labyrinth. Also Acording to myth, Ariadne was happy to stay on Naxos where she went on to mary the god Dionysos and become his high priestess. Pumas somewhat like the one perched on top of the sculpture's head, and even more so leopards, are associated with Dionysos. Snakes too are a Dionysian animal. Olympias, Alexander the Great's mother, was considered something of a witch because of her beauty, her power over King Philip, and her cult worrship of Dionysos. She also surrounded herself with live snakes, even in her bedroom.