The Role Of Women in the Minoan Culture Through Art
by Tess Drahman
The study of the Minoan Culture within the Bronze Age often revolves around the discussion of the Minoan religious matriliny and the worship of Goddesses. The Minoan Art and Culture was found during the Bronze Age of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. The Bronze Age lasted from 3000 to 1050 BCE. The Minoan Culture is divided into three phases, Early (3000-2000 BCE), Middle (2000-1600 BCE) and Late (1600-1050 BCE). (Hood). The Minoan religion was heavily involved with iconography and the depiction of women as Goddesses to worship was a supposedly common occurrence. These depictions include wall paintings, seals, stone-carvings, and sculptures. The art often combined the Goddesses and Gods with scenes of nature, as within the Minoan culture, the two were intrinsically linked.
Map of Minoan Crete
Studies from the mid-20th century have led to the belief that the Minoan religion was a “coherent, autonomous system of beliefs and practices,” however, it can still be considered a cult as specific practices and rituals would be carried out in palaces, caves, houses and other sanctuaries; places where most of the important Minoan art was held. (Oxford). These places were all designed to worship their Goddesses. This artistic devotion to a Goddess is what makes Minoan Art, and the idea of Matriliny in the Bronze Age, remarkable and vital to study. In this paper, I will discuss the role of the Goddess and how they relate to nature, fertility and matriliny through their role in Minoan art.
Although it is not clear to scholars the exact number of Goddesses worshipped, or if there was a single one that was worshipped more than others, it is clear to many, however, that women were more than likely to have held the dominant position within the Minoan religion. Not only do they appear more frequently in the art on Crete, and other surrounding islands, but within the art, women seem to be larger, more prominent, and participated in activities with as much fervor and bravery as their male counterparts. A great example of this is the “Toreador Fresco,” a restored fresco that was found in Knossos, one of the largest archaeological sites from the Bronze Age, and believed to be from 1400 BC, the late Minoan period. Here, men and women seem to be tumbling over a bull, which suggests that both sexes engaged in this “game or ritual that involves bravery, agility and skill.” Depictions such as this from other Mediterranean cultures would probably have shown only men performing this act but here, in the Minoan culture, the women are just as engaged as the men, which again, suggests that women played a large role in society. (Witcombe).
Toreador Fresco from the Palace of Knossos - c. 1400 BCE
When a Goddess was shown in Minoan religious art, the most frequent depiction was the Goddess as a Mistress of Animals and is often surrounded by monkeys, fish, lions, birds and even griffins. They are usually shown in a natural setting (Oxford), and when buildings or other constructed elements from Minoan culture are depicted, it is suggested that the Minoans wanted to create “one ritual whole” of both worlds. They were also often shown with water, as this was the Goddess’ gift. (Broude). This idea of combining the natural with the constructed world is important when discussing the role of the Goddess in the Minoan culture. The idea of an Earth Mother, a concept that comes from the Greeks, can be compared with this, but its roots can be seen from the Minoan culture, as the depictions seem to place the Goddess most often in a natural setting and with animals. (Witcombe).
The most famous example of the “animal Goddess” is the Snake Goddess, dated from 1600 to 1425 and comes from the Middle Minoan period. This particular piece is one of three faience statues of females that were found in the archeological site of Knossos. (30,000). British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered the figures in the Minoan Palace in 1903. (Witcombe). Faience, the material the statue was made with, is an “artificial vitreous material with a silicate body (made from sand or crushed quartz) and glazed surface layer, colored with metal oxides.” This method came from early Egypt and was often used in Crete to create objects used both in everyday life and religious art. The figures known as the Snake Goddesses are the most elaborate works of art made by faience, and this use of material makes the pieces unusual and unique. (30,000).
Snake Goddess from Knossos, Crete - c. 1600 BCE
The Snake Goddess is only eleven and a half inches tall and wears what we know today as being a typical Minoan costume for women. This consisted of a tight fitting bodice exhibiting exaggerated and exposed breasts and a flounced skirt with many layers that covers her feet. She holds two snakes tightly in each arm, stretched out to both sides of her body. (30,000). Evans, after his discovery, claimed that the statue was worshipped by Minoans as an “aspect of the Mother Goddess,” which would be in full support of the theory that the Minoan culture was a matrilineal society. (Witcombe). However, the significance is still unclear despite many theories. Since the Goddesses were discovered near the Throne Room of the palace it could be argued they were used in some sort of ritual or cult practice, but nothing is certain (30,000).
The Palace of Knossos
These Snake Goddesses are often used as, what is believed by many art historians, as concrete evidence that the Minoan Culture was one of matriliny. However, the association most often made between the religious Goddess and the figure as the Mother Goddess stems from the idea that the women represented in Minoan art are worshipped so vehemently because of their status as a fertility deity. There is some debate to this however, as it is suggested that it is difficult to tell which female figures are there to represent fertility and which are not. Perhaps every nude figure from this era could be because of fertility, but this is more than likely not the case. (Witcombe). I can see them being used for dual purposes. In my opinion, the Minoans used the symbol of the women to mean many different things, including fertility. With relation to bringing life into the world, and having a connection with the earth and animals easily fits in with what they worshipped, and this is why I think this particular snake Goddess is so important to look at.
Side View of the Snake Goddess
The puzzle of the number of Goddesses worshipped, and what their purpose was, can also be found at the Kavousi Excavations, which took place in 1987, where large depictions of women figures were found. It seems that these statues were used as objects of display and worshipped. The bodies are unshapely, but they are obviously women because of the large hips and exposed, but small, breasts, which are different than the Snake Goddesses whose breasts were much fuller. The arms are raised, with elongated fingers, and they are staring straight ahead. They are strong figures, and don’t feel feminine despite the breasts and hips.
Goddesses Found in Kavoursi Excavation
In Geraldine C. Gesell’s article “From Knossos to Kavoursi: The Popularizing of the Minoan Palace Goddess,” she explains the continued frustration with the worshipping of a single Goddess, or many different ones. She concludes that there is no way to determine exactly what these Goddess figures represent, and how many of them there are, but she argues the fact that all of these pieces of art related to practices and rituals which were associated with the Minoan religion and that these practices evolved into a very popular religion. She believes that these figures were Goddesses but the differences between them leave us with no conclusive evidence. It is still up to us as art historians to continue the discussion of who, and what, exactly, the Minoans worshipped. (Gesell).
Other images of women were seen on frescos and wall paintings and depicted similar themes. Two frescos named “Ladies in Blue” and “Ladies in Blue” were found in the Palace of Knossos during an archeological excavation Again, they have open clothing on top, which exposes their breasts, and have on necklaces, bracelets and hair ornaments. In “Ladies in Blue,” one of the women is holding a necklace in her hand. (Oxford). They all wear slight smiles on their faces, have very small waists and one is turning her head in a different direction. They hold their heads high, and seem to have an air about them, as if they know they are important and want to show it off. They could be Goddesses, or they could simply be women with a high place in society. Nevertheless, it is important to note these wall paintings as they are very different from the sculptures, but seem to have some of the same themes.
Ladies In Blue Fresco
The ongoing discussion of whether or not a woman’s role was to bear children, or something more important or religious, continues in many articles and studies by archeologists, historians and art historians. Barbara A. Olsen’s article “Women, children and the family in the Late Aegean Bronze Age…” discusses a different aspect regarding the woman’s role in the Minoan culture. She brings up the point that none of the art from the late Minoan period shows women as child-nurturers and are usually outside of domestic contexts. (Olsen). While this might confuse the idea of matriliny within the culture, it is still important to see this as a stepping off point regarding how women were viewed at this time. Just because women were not depicted in domestic roles in art did not mean they did not engage in domestic practices.
Unknown Minoan Fresco
However, it is interesting that this is not how they chose to represent women in their art. Instead, they were depicted as strong, fierce women who were connected with the natural world and exposed body parts. Even though no concrete conclusions can be made as to whether or not the Minoan culture was matrilineal or not, it is clear that women were respected, if not worshipped, as strongly suggested, and played a significant role in society. For me, this point is crucial as we historians try to uncover the truth behind their societal norms. They worshipped Goddesses, and believed that women were the givers of life, and I believe this is strong enough reason to agree with studies suggestions a matrilineal society. As we have little to no written reference, we must look to the Minoan art to uncover what took place during these times and the art of uncovering them, to me, makes the unanswerable questions worth the time to continue to try.
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