Wednesday, June 15, 2011

A Nietzschean turn: the roots of the snake goddess revisited, part 4

To wander through the Archaelogical Museum in Iraklio is to see the snake goddess. Snake goddesses go back probably to Africa (see here on Wadjet in Egypt, whose hieroglyph is a cobra). But in Crete, they are part of a more egalitarian and trading civilization. The first examples are two porcelain snake goddesses in one case. Both have a fierce energy. One has snakes curling down her arms, wrapped around her shoulders over her breasts, coiling up out of her head. Her hands are outstretched, each with a now missing…snake. The other has an equally dark expression – Kali, the destructive feminine energy – brandishing in each hand raised up a snake, a cat upon her head (perhaps something Egyptian in the last aspect). The curator’s sign says she is of nature and fertility. It gets around to mentioning snakes in the third line, just a single word, hurries away. The energy of these two items is not one that invites sexuality or fertility – more likely to move you, if you have eyes, back and away. The marketers outside, selling trinkets of the goddess with brandished arms, whitened and milder face, breasts enlarged, merely echo the dim curating.

After the fall of the “palace civilization” (there are supposedly two palaces, one lasting from about 1900-1700 B.C., destroyed by an earthquake and a fire, a second weakened by a tsunami stemming from the great volcanic explosion on Thira (today Santorini), another earthquake and fire, and lasting till around 1500), there are a series of clay figurines of the goddess (small breasts, but not men)with arms raised. One has 24 snakes rising up out of her head, and a big snake looped over the others. A second has a few snakes. Another figurine has two poppies, still another a few. This is a different avatar of the goddess. Thus, opium (in the Athenian mysteries and in Epidaurian psychic treatments) and venin/antivenins (doctoring) extend from this early civilization into the mainland. See here. Both these goddesses plainly grow out of the earth, the snakes or poppies coming up through the soil.

Yet another avatar of the goddess has two birds in her hair surrounding the horns of a bull (a symbol of the feminine, or the masculine equal with the feminine). Perhaps she is like a tree, roots in the earth. This is closer to the grace of life revealed in the frescoes at Iraklio and Thira.

In the Peloponnese last year, I saw in one museum the goddesses dwelling in, coming up from the underworld. Even proto-Zeuses probably hung around below. There were then no sky gods…

There is a contrast between goddesses emerging out of the underworld, sometimes with snakes, sometimes with birds or poppies, and the gods of the sky (Zeus in the clouds on Mount Olympus, though still a mountain figure and not immortal, Jahweh, Christ…). There is a major transformation from an earlier underworld which had resonant ties to the unconscious, dreaming, the feminine, reproduction, blossoming, into the Hades of Greece to which the souls go slipping down, gibbering, in Homer (see the opening of book 3 of Plato's Republic) and Hell…The second age disfigures the first.

It took quite a while - an historical epoch - for Athena to spring full blown from the head of a bearded Zeus.

Many of the pots of early Cretan civilization have wavy lines on them. These could be waves; they could be abstract (though in that culture, abstract representation was of something one saw directly). Probably they, or some of them, represent serpents. On the so-called “frying pan sculptures” – sacred objects with a vagina and pubic hair incised on them – there are also indications of the sea, of waves and spirals on the remaining half. But they could be snakes, too.

Athena is a recent urban avatar of a long rural tradition of snake goddesses in Greece and Egypt. In Egypt, the iconography is shaped by extreme patriarchy culminating in the Pharoah. Now Cretan civilization took hieroglyphs and the depiction in painting of male figures as red (the women painted white as a contrast, derived also from Egypt). A surviving fresco (there are some twenty) depicts runners, one red, the others black…The ties to the Egypt of red and white figures and hieroglyphs, the Africa of blue monkeys who delight in these frescoes but do not exist in Crete, are clear enough. Surprisingly, the Egyptian culture of hierarchy and war had no influence. So whatever the Cretans borrowed from Egypt, it was not murderous, belligerent and hierarchical practices…

Yes, a beautiful bull is the symbol of this civilization, particularly one in a case by itself, from the handle they think of a large drinking pot. It is a black bull with incised eyes of colored stone or jasper, gold horns…

But the mainland saw this island civilization through its own patriarchal myths. Two are the most famous and worth exploding. The civilization is misnamed for Minos, the law giver of Crete: Minoan. Minos was the son of Zeus. But the Zeus of Crete, where he was born and hidden from Cronos, dies and is born again every year. He thus resembles Demeter and Persephone, and the seasons. A mountain with the profile of the dead Zeus guides sailors to the shores at Iraklio…

Minoan civilization is the name given by male archaeologists, notably Sir Arthur Evans, the Englishman, affected by imperial patriarchy. When Evans came and purchased some of the land on which artefacts had been found and from which Germans had turned away, he reconstructed the first palace, completely airily. He found the biggest room, empty. “Must be the King’s,” he thought. “What else would it be?” The King and Queen were on a certain side of the Palace, to get the breezes, be near the waters that flowed to the sea. The Venetian republic – roughly 1200 AD to 1600 A.D. here - took down the trees of Crete to make their ships, transformed the island from one of beautiful cypresses and palms, subtropical, to a desert with now clumps of olive trees, planted across it. The river by the palace to the harbor is now dry. Here is a place for reforestation – to fight climate change - and a resurgence of the tropics…

But the King’s bedroom was right by a large room that was apparently a stone workshop (a little noisy, perhaps). And much of the palaces are storage areas (big pots for oil, inter alia). The Queen’s room had a fresco of dolphins (very pretty but not especially queenly…). “It is the Queen’s,” Evans inferred, “because it is smaller than the King’s.” For my first look at Evans’ fantasies, see here. Evans was, though an imperialist in outlook, better than I originally thought. He did the work on his own, gave the reconstructed palace to the Greek government.

There is exactly no evidence, however, except Evans’ inference and later citation of his authority, that there was a King. The “lily prince,” the spiritual leader, so they say (not a king, had no weapons), may be a woman, as an archaeologist points out on one of the signs. But his (her) breast in not realistically depicted so one can’t tell…(there is something like a cod piece so perhaps if that is not a reconstruction, a boy…).

The first myth is of Minos, the fierce warrior. The jealous Athenians murdered his son who had won in the Olympics. Minos sent his troops to conquer. He exacted from Athens an annual tribute of 7 girls and 7 boys, who are fed to the Minotaur, half bull, half man, a monster hidden in a labyrinth. And this is enforced – Minos is a fierce warrior - for many, many years.

There is only one problem. Not only are there no fortifications on the island of Crete, but, as our learned guide Ireni told me in response to a question, what she initially referred to as a “strong navy” had no arms either, was just a trading fleet. So how Minos plucked these sacrifices from Athens year after year, mainland myth notwithstanding, is obscure.

The other myth concerns the origin of Minos. Zeus, a bearded male in human form, randy in his marriage to Hera, the fierce goddess of the household and no Aphrodite, cast his eyes on Europa on a beach with two other girls. He shape-shifted into a beautiful bull (girls like bulls as we learn from old Europe and Crete, but this is a patriarchal bull), trotted up and hung out. Europa got on his back, and suddenly he took off - the abduction of Europa - got her to Crete, raped her, and engendered Minos.

In one story connecting the two myths, Poseidon gave a beautiful white bull to Minos to sacrifice (have to sacrifice the masculine which is an equal partner to the feminine, and an equal among men). But Minos was beguiled and kept the beautiful bull. Poseidon was angry. He enchanted Minos's wife Pacifae to fall in love with the bull, and she did. Dadaelus, the crafty and magical artisan, built a female bull for her to hide in. The bull mated with it, and she produced a child, half man, half bull.

Minos then instructed Daedalus to build a labyrinth for the bull-child. He eventually imprisoned Daedalus and his son Icarus with the bull.

It is, in any case, also unlikely that the Cretan civilization sacrificed mainland children to the bulls. The surviving sacrifices on the frescoes, the sculpture of the boy vaulting and the older pot – or rather those who make it over the back of the bull and survive – are Cretan boys and girls, depicted in red and white like the others in the frescoes…

But that would be using one’s eyes about the frescoes. In fact, bull dancing doesn’t look at all like the nasty Minotaur, however monstrous a bull may be if he gets – as Cretan society allowed him to get – some boys and girls on his horns…

The second myth is that of Theseus. Theseus goes to Crete to plea to Minos for the Athenian boys and girls. But then Minos’s daughter Ariadne takes a fancy to him, and gives him the means to slay the Minotaur. She gives him a thread (women are weavers, spiders, can figure out arcane things that perhaps a man can’t) so he can lay it down, find his way back, having slain the Minotaur, out of the labyrinth. Delicate work for a male hero…He slaughters the beast, takes off with Aridadne, falls out of love with her quickly, dumps her on Naxos (she doesn’t end up so unhappily, takes up with Dionysos).

But both the story of the rapist Zeus the bull, and Theseus, slaughterer of the bull/child/monster, are mainland projections on this other. egalitarian and unwarlike civilization. They are bull stories. What is true is rather plainly another matter…

One might learn from Nietzsche here (a less patriarchal Nietzsche, less troubled by women) about the “transvaluation of values.” The reversal is not so neat as Nietzsche imagines: the Cretan civilization was a partnership civilization, not a society of the domination of women or an imagined, predatory matriarchy to mirror the grotesqueries (for men as well) of patriarchy. Still if stories (myths) fit certain civilizations, i.e. hierarchical, male dominated ones, such as Athena springing from the head of Zeus, it is perhaps wise to search persistently for clues about snake goddesses or about old Crete, not to impose on Crete or its goddesses what it must have been…

*Daedalus and Icarus escape the labyrinth in which they are imprisoned. Though a son of Zeus, a law-giver and a supposed conqueror of King Aegeus, Minos, like many Greek kings, was high on himself and not too bright: if you imprison Daedalus in the labyrinth he designed, chances are he can figure a way out. And Daedalus forged wings of feathers and wax, warning Icarus not to get too high on himself and fly too near the sun – a vain wish in Greece and perhaps for humanity – but Icarus does, and plunges into the sea… See Auden’s beautiful Musee des Beaux-arts here on Brueghhel’s famous painting.

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