The Minoan civilization, among the earliest and most advanced societies in the Bronze Age, excelled in art, trade, and the prominent role of women.
Women in ancient Greece were markedly disadvantaged in terms of rights, often confined to domestic and reproductive spheres. However, there were some exceptions such as ancient Sparta. This city-state presented a fascinating departure from patriarchal norm, showcasing women who were robust, independent, and well-educated.
A more enigmatic occurrence involves the portrayal of women on Bronze Age Crete. Several scholars concur that women held a notably dominant position compared to men. Thus, John Younger, professor of classics at the University of Kansas, noted that “this culture on Crete around 1600-1500 BCE is the closest candidate for a matriarchy.”
Minoan Artifacts Hinting at Matriarchy on Crete
Younger noted that women figured prominently in art and religious artifacts, suggesting their likely participation in the administration of Bronze Age civilization. Works of Minoan art that have survived to this day provide major evidence of the predominant influence of women. From figurines and seal stones to rings, pottery, and murals, these artifacts collectively illustrate a narrative of freedom and high position unusual for women in the ancient patriarchal cultures.
Younger’s examination of surviving pottery and fresco fragments led him to the conclusion that Minoan women wore more elaborate clothing and dresses adorned with exquisite jewelry. In contrast, men were often depicted wearing simple loincloths or simply in the nude.
What makes the artwork even more meaningful is the portrayal of female power in the way they pose. Younger noted that in contrast to the abundance of images of seated women, “We don’t have a single image of a seated man,” highlighting the striking visual representation of female empowerment in surviving artwork of that time. Minoan culture, says Young, is distinguished by the “awful lot of representations of what are obviously powerful women, single seated women flanked by a bunch of guys.”
— Ticia Verveer (@ticiaverveer) February 11, 2016
Barbara A. Olsen, author of Women in Mycenaean Greece: The Linear B Tablets from Pylos and Knossos, proposes that Minoan women played roles beyond child-rearing. She noted an interesting pattern in Minoan iconography. Namely, women are depicted in public settings, holding significant positions in outdoor gatherings and processions.
They engage in conversations, participate in dances, and take part in religious contexts, either as individual worshipers or officials involved in sacrificial rituals. Regarding possible matriarchy, Olsen emphasizes that women from Crete of that era had a focus on “the social rather than the biological, the public rather than the domestic.”
Crete’s Supreme Goddess as a Sign of Potential Matriarchy
Further supporting the notion of a potential matriarchy on ancient Crete was the veneration of the supreme goddess rather than a god. The groundwork for contemplating Minoan Crete as a civilization centered around a goddess can be attributed to the archaeological contributions of Sir Arthur Evans.
As the excavator of Knossos and the catalyst for unveiling the Minoan civilization, Evans extensively detailed his findings in The Palace of Minos. Within this work, Evans advocates the idea that the Minoans held a goddess, appearing in diverse forms, as their paramount deity.
Meet the Snake Goddesses of ancient Crete.
Women appear prominently on frescoes and objects from the Palace of Knossos. Whether goddesses, priestesses or worshippers, these models reinforce the prominent role of women at Knossos. (1/2) #LabyrinthAshmolean
— Ashmolean Museum (@AshmoleanMuseum) May 13, 2023
He also noted that the “Goddess was supreme, whether we are to regard her as substantially one being of varied aspects, celestial, terrestrial or infernal, or whether we have to deal with separate, or partly differentiated divine entities.”
Additionally, in 1968, archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes wrote that “the Cretans saw the supreme divine power in terms of the feminine principle, and incarnate in a woman whom they portrayed exactly as one of themselves.”
The Snake Goddess and Ladies in Blue Fresco
In 1903, Evans discovered two faience figurines at Knossos Palace. They represented the Snake Goddess and possibly a Snake Priestess. Dating back to the neopalatial period of the Minoan civilization (around 1750-1490 BC), these figurines are believed to symbolize protection, household welfare, and the cycle of life renewal, possibly due to the snake’s periodic shedding of skin, which signifies immortality.
It is believed that the Snake Goddess was recognized not only for her ritual significance but also as a Household Goddess, implying a role in everyday life.
The faience figurines, aside from their ritual function, are celebrated examples of Minoan art, characterized by naturalism and grace. Dressed in typical Minoan attire, with flounced or apron-adorned long skirts and open bodices, the Snake Goddesses are depicted as prominent figures in the palace court.
There is much to learn of Minoan Crete & the role of women at #LabyrinthAshmolean. Women are prominent on frescoes/ objects in the Palace of Knossos. Some suggest Minoan Crete was a matriarchy; others that women’s importance was religious, as priestesses of a mother goddess. You? pic.twitter.com/b7mU34VmOe
— For Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) (@rsutcliff) June 12, 2023
Another masterpiece from the Palace of Knossos also celebrates powerful female figures. The Ladies in Blue fresco portrays three women adorned in rich attire and elaborate jewelry against a vibrant blue backdrop. It was also discovered during the Evans excavation. The fresco was later recreated by the Swiss artist and archaeologist Émile Gilliéron. Nowadays, it is housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
This depiction of Minoan royalty offers insight into the opulent dress and adornments likely worn by the elite before the mysterious demise of the civilization. Ladies in Blue exemplifies courtly extravagance through the depiction of luxurious garments, jewelry, and intricate hairstyles. Despite being in a state of fragmentation, the fresco conveys the opulence and affluence of the royal court.
Lustral Basins as Menstrual Pits
Our Academic Program is on Crete! First stop: Knossos. Students explored the reconstructed palace and studied stock Minoan architectural features like the lustral basin, throne room, and storage magazines. Stay tuned as they make their way through some of hundred-citied Crete! pic.twitter.com/tfbbnPxQHP
— ASCSA (@ASCSAthens) November 10, 2021
Younger presented another archaeological clue supporting his argument for a Minoan matriarchal culture—large pits identified as “lustral basins.” Archaeologists found such places located centrally in Minoan palaces or expansive halls. These basins exhibit characteristics akin to what anthropologists commonly refer to as “menstrual pits.”
In contrast to the norm in most ancient societies, where such pits were secluded from the village or housed separately, the Minoans placed these lustral basins prominently, challenging the notion of women being marginalized during menstruation. As Younger points out, “They’re not putting them off into some house on the outskirts of the village.”
Thus, among the many unsolved legends that shroud the way of life of Minoan society, a prominent truth emerges: women played a special and significant role in this mysterious civilization. Even in the absence of direct historical documents, the view of Bronze Age Cretan matriarchy is strongly supported by numerous works of art and historical artifacts.