Biographies & Memoirs


From what source, then, did the beauty of Helen whom men fought for shine out, or that of all women like Aphrodite in beauty?

PLOTINUS, On the Intelligible Beauty1 c. AD 260

What is desperately difficult to judge is how far the Minoans influenced the Mycenaean mind-set; particularly when it came to women and religion. And yet it is a compelling line of inquiry, particularly because, on Crete, the ‘fairer sex’ (in Minoan-Mycenaean art, women are painted white, men brown) appear prominent, dynamic and distinctive. When Arthur Evans began to dig at the site of Knossos in 1900, on Day 2 he found a figurine ‘goddess’ whom he immediately labelled Aphrodite. When frescoes were uncovered in the ‘palace-complexes’ women were found, clustering on the surface, often with symbols of divinity around them. Topless girls hurl themselves across golden signet rings, shaking trees, carrying armfuls of vegetation. Women collapse onto altars, they sit high on thrones.

I once had an ancient-history tutor with a taste for the sensational. One dismal, November afternoon my colleagues and I were gathered together for a slide show. It was pitch black, the air was fuggy, most of the class had their heads on their desks, ready for a snooze. Suddenly an extremely well-endowed, half-naked woman burst onto the projection screen. This was the famous (so-called) ‘Snake Goddess’ from Crete, a trenchant creature, with a wasp waist and furious, kohl-lined eyes, whose pneumatic breasts stood bare and proud above her tight bodice and flouncy, gaudily striped skirts. A giant snake coiled around her arms and neck. The image was bewitching. Billed as a goddess, this startling pin-up, three and a half thou-sand years old, seemed very much flesh and blood to me. Mortal or divine, she was clearly a symbol of female force and fecundity. I wanted to try to get to the bottom of her story.

My initial hunch about that goddess turned out to be right. The faience ‘goddess’ has four companions – two of whom exist only as small fragments. All five of these figures were found at the palace of Knossos on Crete by Arthur Evans and his team in 1903. Dating from around 1600 BC, at some point each had been carefully broken, and buried deep in a stone-lined pit along with sea-shells and many other curious items under the floor of a storage room. The dislocated remains were contained in what seems to have been one of the most sacred parts of the grand palatial complex. Clearly these women, had been, in some way, demoted. But they were too powerful to treat without respect. The figurines were laid to rest with precision and care, as one colleague put it, as though their executors were dealing with radioactive waste.

Edwardian archaeologists deified these women, assuming that since they were so exquisitely made, and seemed so powerful, they must represent supernatural creatures. It is now thought more likely that the ‘Snake Goddesses’ were in fact living, breathing votaries – the high priestesses in some kind of Minoan nature-worship or fertility cult.

If one manages to arrive early enough or late enough to avoid the crowds at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (walking past concrete pillars painted the same blood-red as the columns at the palace of Knossos just up the road) it is possible to spend a few quiet minutes with these famous female images from the Bronze Age. Delicately fashioned out of faience, the fierce bare-breasted women glare from their glass-fronted prison. All three are dressed in the height of fashion. Waists are cinched in by a girdle. Beneath these girdles there are aprons and full, pleated skirts reminiscent of crinolines.

Now the ‘Snake Goddess’ is visible everywhere in Crete. Cheap, boot-leg reproductions of her are on sale in back streets. In one of the nudist beaches on the south of the island a giant version has been painted on the outside walls of the concrete lavatories. Some scholars think that, in one sense, the Snake Goddess and her votaries would have been ubiquitous in Bronze Age Crete too. Whether she was divine or mortal, she speaks of a time when women were totemic. The Mycenaeans consolidated their interest in Minoans and took on board a huge amount of cultural baggage when they took over Crete around 1450 BC. And one of the cultural markers transposed to the Greek mainland was a delight in the representation of women.

If we look for the origins of Helen’s potency, I think the trail starts in Crete. The iconography of the island brims with so many female images that a few bold scholars insist Minoan Crete was a matriarchy. This might be going too far, but there is certainly something unusual going on in Crete when it comes to women and the powers and privileges they enjoyed.

Our material evidence for religion in pre-history is localised, any generic description of worship has to be one part analysis, two parts speculation. But because Helen’s world – both material and spiritual – was coloured and informed by that of its Minoan predecessors, and because the Mycenaeans seem to have been in charge there between around 1450 and 1200 BC, it is well worth looking at the evidence that Crete yields. Figurines, seal-stones, pottery tables and frescoes appear to give us clues to the beliefs and lives of the five hundred thousand or so people who lived and worked on the island.2

At a time when matters spiritual were so inalienable a part of the real, living, breathing world, it is no surprise that religious belief was manifest in gutsy, vivacious, mettlesome displays. Religion seems to have been high drama, circus, seance, rock concert and May Day rolled into one. And if the evidence for Crete is anything to go by, the highest class took an active and leading role in these heady religious practices. Some suggest that Bronze Age aristocracies may even have held power not by virtue of high birth but through earning their stripes as specialist mediators between the people and their deities.

Religious ritual was certainly central to a number of the palace-complexes, such as Knossos, Malia and the fine palace on the south of the island, Phaistos. To get to the palace of Phaistos one has to turn away from the Greek main-land, face south and travel down towards the Libyan Sea. Here the landscape is flatter, stranger: the road passes giant rocks marooned in the landscape – ‘cheese-pies’, locals call them (although you get the feeling these stones would have represented something less cosy to the early Cretans) – and then heads towards the coast, winding through the fertile Messara Plain to the palatial complex of Phaistos itself which, perched on a ridge and now surrounded by pine-trees, is reached by a steep climb. Hot dry winds whip around the site but the lively environment is balanced by a still, colossal presence to the West, the sacred bulk of Mount Ida with its trademark twin peaks.

I had come here to look for those early images of Minoan women that informed Helen’s Mycenaean world.3 A round pedestal table and clay bowl found in the palace at Phaistos, dating from around 1900 to 1700 BC, have both been lovingly designed and executed – so far, they are unique, suggesting they played a part in religious devotion. Perhaps they were brought out at certain times of the agricultural year to please the gods who filled the fields with wheat, brought olives to the trees and grapes to the vine. Both the bowl and the table are decorated with designs of women who seem to be dancing – their arms arc and sway, their skirts are full, some of the figures look as if they have beaks. One, centre stage, holds up a plant in bloom.

On seal-stones, carefully etched miniature scenes record processions and parades. Young women carry baskets full of orchard boughs and gather around trees that look as though they are in pots on a constructed plinth. The immediate impression is that these feisty, voluptuous girls are both honouring and marshalling nature: commanding animals and birds. Archaeologists have given them names such as ‘Mistress of the Animals’, ‘Mistress of the Birds’, ‘Mistress of the Horses’.

In Minoan representations of nature, it is women who are ever-present, women who appear to be in charge. And, perhaps as a consequence, women elsewhere in Minoan iconography are given great respect.5 One very damaged fresco from Knossos, the Procession Fresco also in the Heraklion museum,6 shows a seated female figure – perhaps a goddess who has taken the human form of a high priestess – being escorted and worshipped by both men and women. The acolytes walk backwards in deference to this sublimely decorated being.

Female divinities seem to have been worshipped with the most frenzied devotion at extreme points in the landscape. The Bronze Age populations of Crete used their palaces and towns as religious centres, but they also travelled out to locations which, for them, had a predominantly religious function; the peaks of mountains, the banks of rivers or deep into the bowels of the earth. Shrines, sanctuaries and altars, some of which still survive, were built on these wild spots – but elsewhere nature’s architecture was more than adequate to host Minoan devotions.

In these wildernesses the only clues we have to human activity are the small votive offerings left behind, items such as a tiny baked clay ox, or a woman who seems to be praying – standing with her arms pressed to her chest or her fist to her forehead in an act of adoration. Terracotta scarab beetles have been found, and, somewhat bizarrely, model weasels. One offering found by Arthur Evans in the Psychro Cave near Lasithi in Crete, is a plump, crawling baby, just under 2 inches long (5 cm) with a wonderfully pudgy bottom. The child’s head is lifted enquiringly. Archaeologists also unearthed representations of disjointed legs or arms. In Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches today, remarkably similar metal versions are offered up when someone has a broken arm, a leg ulcer, breast cancer, and so on. Tamata the Greeks call them. It seems extremely likely that the pre-historic clay versions served the same propitiating purpose. Layers of ash on a number of the sites suggest that rituals there were accompanied by great fires.7

In Crete, museum curators tell a charming story of a young boy who drew their attention to one particular find – and site. Exploring in the Skotino Cave, just to the east of Heraklion and about an hour’s walk inland, the child came across a tiny damaged bronze statuette of what seemed to be a man carrying a goat on his shoulders. The figure was three and a half thousand years old.

The Skotino Cave is 160m deep. I have stumbled deep into the interior across the rugged cave floor, its rocks covered in a mixture of mud (the consistency of melted chocolate) and sage-green slime, in order to try to appreciate the extreme sites in which women worshipped and were revered. The further in one travels, the more the light itself colours – one is passing through air but quickly the sensation is of being underwater, of walking in a soft, green aqua haze.

There is a percussive soundtrack of trickles, splashes and drops; stalactites and stalagmites are still growing. Some minerals have formed monstrous globular masses in the cave’s centre. Any visitor is dwarfed by these giants and the tortured bulk of the rocks inside, their surfaces thrown into relief every now and then by the odd clump of bright green moss and algae. Each patch of vegetation waits for its appointed moment of glory: once a day shafts of sunlight hit a line whose surfaces are not blocked by the Gormeng-hast forms of the cave’s interior. For an hour or so points on the cave wall are bathed in light and the plant life that clings there has a brief, frenetic window to stay alive and produce its vital chlorophyll. It is in places such as this that we have to try to understand the spiritual landscape of pre-history.

One persuasive interpretation of the female imagery on Bronze Age seal-stones and pots and figurines is that women were held responsible for nature’s good health – for the germination of the seed and the ripening of the corn. A society that has moved from hunting and gathering to farming finds that nature, in its newly domesticated and artificial form, depends on the farmer as much as he does on it. So when nature becomes an agro-business, nature’s CEOs, women, need to be kept on side. Grain supplies are stored in the palace-complexes of Knossos on Crete or Pylos on the Greek mainland and were perhaps guarded by priestesses, the klawiphoroi, the ‘keepers of the keys’.

Knossos has been identified as the mother of all grain stores.8 Many hundreds of pithoi were found lining its labyrinthine storerooms. Someone must have walked through those pregnant, malty chambers organising what went where, deciding how the wheat and barley and olives should be stored, saying what proportion was due to be offered back to the gods, marshalling the rations of a civilisation. The Grandstand and Temple frescoes from Knossos imply that women were present in the palace in huge numbers. This painted female host surely escapes its earlier identification as a chorus of dancing girls or a harem of silent, dutiful wives. The attractive woman from the Campstool Fresco, christened ‘La Parisienne’ by Evans’ team of excavators because she seemed the height of coiffeured urbanity, was almost certainly not there to be decorative. It is as likely that such women received the harvest, blessed it and then controlled its use and redistribution.

That would have been a powerful position to be in. Consider how fragile food production was in the Bronze Age. The panic caused by the prospect of seven years of famine in Egypt is well documented – but it has been calculated that it would take just two years of bad harvests to clear out the warren of food storage rooms in Knossos – the same or even less at the palaces of Pylos and Mycenae. The sex that controlled nature’s larder would have been a phalanx to keep sweet and on side. Women were important, perhaps because they had some kind of privileged access to the mysteries of nature and the spirit world; they mattered. And a woman like Helen, if she stood out from the rest thanks to a god-given natural beauty, would have mattered a great deal indeed.

It is helpful to turn to the fuller, more eloquent data of the Hittites to get a feel for the tangible benefits high-powered religious women would have enjoyed in the Eastern Mediterranean. Contemporary Hittite sources describe temple-priestesses as a suitable match for a king. Some of the tablets give us an idea of just how much corporeal wealth women at the top of the religious (and, by default, temporal) pile, could accumulate.

As well as the SAL SANGA, the high priestess, in the temples there were also women of some influence called SAL.SUHUR.LAL. In about 1400 BC we hear of one particular woman of the temple called Kuvatalla – who had gifts positively showered on her by the king and queen of the time (Arnuvanda and Ašmunikal). One might imagine that this generosity was effected by the monarchs to win favour with the gods and plump up the resources of the temple itself – but no, these gifts were in perpetuity for Kuvatalla and to be inherited by Kuvatalla’s children.

In the Istanbul Archaeological Museum the benefaction tablet that immortalised Kuvatalla’s inheritance, just over 25 cm high and 17 cm across, now a rich, burnt ochre, inscribed with Hittite cuneiform, still survives. Although there are great cracks in the tablet and large chunks of text are missing, one can still make out much of the gift-list:

… from Pulliya’s house, 2 males (Pulliyani, Ašarta), 3 boys (Aparkammi, Iriyatti, Hapilu), 4 women (Tešmu, Zidandu, Ašakkummila, Huliyašuhani), 3 girls (Kapašanni, Kapurti, Paškuva), 2 old women (Arhuvaši, Tuttuvani) total 14 persons; 4 cattle, 2 donkeys, 2 cows, 1 calf, 1 plowing ox … from Hantapi’s house in the Antarla, 7.5 (iku) vineyards, 13 houses, 30 men, 18 boys, 4 infant boys, 35 old women … total 110 [persons]. Among the servants, 2 artisans, 2 cooks, 1 cloth-maker, 1 Hurrian tailor, 1 shoemaker, 1 groom … 22 cattle, 158 sheep, 2 horses, 3 mules … The Great King Arnuvanda, the Great Queen Ašmunikal and the honourable Prince Tuthalia took [these things] and gave them to their servant, the priestess Kuvatalla, as a gift. In the future they will not demand anything back from her sons and grandsons. The promise of the Sovereign King, the Great King Arnuvanda and his wife Ašmunikal is of iron. It cannot be undone or broken. Anyone trying to change it shall lose his head.9

The high priestess Kuvatalla must have enjoyed quite a life-style.

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