Modern Minoan Paganism: Walking with Ariadne's Tribe

Walk the sacred labyrinth with Ariadne, the Minotaur, the Great Mothers, Dionysus, and the rest of the Minoan pantheon. Modern Minoan Paganism is not a reconstructionist tradition, but a journey in relationship with Minoan deities in the contemporary world. Ariadne's thread reaches across the millennia to connect us with the divine. Will you follow where it leads?

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Snakes! Why did it have to be snakes?

When I mention the Minoans of ancient Crete, the first thing that comes to mind for many people is the famous Snake Goddess statues. For us modern folks, they are icons of this ancient civilization. But what, exactly, do they represent? If we're really honest, the answer to that question is, "We're not sure."

There are many theories, of course. I think that falls under the rubric of "Everyone has an opinion." But we simply don't know for sure because we don't have any Minoan-era documents that tell us anything about these figurines. Linear A, the script the ancient Minoans used to write their native language, has never been deciphered. And the few documents we have that are written in Linear B, the script that records Mycenaean Greek from the time toward the end of Minoan civilization, don't say anything about snakes.

But we can piece together a little information about these interesting figurines based on other Minoan archaeological finds. And we can use that information to incorporate the Snake Goddess into our practice of modern Minoan Paganism.

Besides the obvious (the snakes), the first thing I notice about the Snake Goddess is that she has her arms raised out to her sides. This is a posture associated with priestesses, not worshipers, in Minoan cultures. Sacred postures were an important part of Minoan religion; they help us figure out what's going on in a given scene. Gestures with the hands upraised and/or forward indicate a priest or priestess who is embodying the deity during ritual. Here's another 'snake goddess' in a similar pose:

 

Minoan terracotta Snake Goddess

  

So we can reasonably assume that these figurines are, indeed, goddesses (or priestesses being possessed by the goddess during ritual) and not worshipers. But exactly what do the snakes stand for?

One thing I find very interesting is that there I have so far found no snakes depicted in other Minoan art (frescoes, pottery, seal stones and rings) - only on the female figurines. Snakes have long been associated with the Underworld since they magically appear out of holes in the ground. Minoan religion had a major Underworld/ancestral component, so perhaps this is an Underworld goddess, maybe Ariadne herself in her guise as the Queen of the Melissae, the ancestral bee-goddesses. A lot of us who practice modern Minoan Paganism use the Snake Goddess figurines to represent Ariadne. But she's not holding bees; she's holding snakes.

The term Snake Goddess presumes that the snakes are her attributes and not a representation of something else. But it's possible the snakes represent the animal form of her consort. Ancient art sometimes depicts goddesses with the animal form of their consorts as a way of symbolizing the hieros gamos, the sacred marriage of the two deities.

Dionysus is associated with snakes in Greek mythology, and that may be a holdover from Minoan times, a reference to his ability as a psychopomp to journey to the Underworld. Or there may be a Minoan snake god we haven't discovered yet. Every year, archaeologists find even more stuff we didn't think existed, so we certainly can't say we know it all.

Or the snakes may be the goddess' attributes, in the same way that lions are Rhea's animals. Since ancient times, snakes have symbolized wisdom, and especially the wisdom of the Goddess in her many forms. Though the snake (the famous evil serpent) has been vilified by the Abrahamic traditions, the serpent has a long and ancient history of representing the special wisdom of the Sacred Feminine.

I'd also like to point out that we modern folks have a tendency toward either/or thinking - the snakes are either the god or the wisdom of the goddess. But before the good/evil duality became such a major force in society, both/and thinking was far more prevalent. It's quite possible that the snakes stand for more than one thing. They may have several overlapping meanings that reflect on each other.

Four millennia out, we only have fragmentary evidence to work with. But snakes were definitely a thing. Here's a figurine just covered with snakes:

 

Minoan Snake Goddess with tall headpiece 

We can pick apart the details of these lovely figurines and analyze them for hours, but the fact is, we can't be absolutely sure what they symbolize. So where does that leave us? With our own choices to make. What does the Snake Goddess mean to you? How does she speak to you? What place does she have in your spiritual practice?

Remember, even with images and deities whose official form and function we know in great detail, each of us has our own personal interpretation. No two people think alike or believe alike. What matters, ultimately, is that you're able to connect with the divine in a way that has meaning for you.

To join the discussion about modern Minoan Paganism and ancient Minoan civilization, pop on over to Ariadne's Tribe.

In the name of the bee
And of the butterfly
And of the breeze, amen!

 

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I'm an artist, writer, and lover of all things ancient and mysterious. The Minoans of Bronze Age Crete have been a passion of mine since a fateful art history class introduced me to the frescoes of Knossos back in high school. My first book was published in 2001; one of my most recent works is Labrys and Horns: An Introduction to Modern Minoan Paganism. I've also created a Minoan Tarot deck and a Minoan coloring book. When I'm not busy drawing and writing, you can find me in the garden or giving living history demonstrations at local historic sites.

Comments

  • tehomet
    tehomet Tuesday, 22 March 2016

    I was lucky enough to visit Crete, many years ago. I got chatting to a local guy and he mentioned that the one thing he knew about my home country was that there were no snakes there. I said that was true and wondered if he and his fellow Cretans were very laid back about snakes, as they are used to them. He shook his head, and said that his people have a healthy respect for snakes and give them a wide berth. I asked if this was because the snakes might be poisonous? He said that wasn't the reason.

    'If you kill a snake,' he said, 'your house will fall down.'

  • Laura Perry
    Laura Perry Wednesday, 23 March 2016

    Wow, how interesting! So the reverence for snakes has come all the way down to the present day, even if it doesn't look quite the same as it used to. Thanks so much for sharing!

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