If I had been asked to write the words that introduce visitors to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum of Crete to its earliest inhabitants, I would have said something like this:
While there is evidence that human beings visited Crete as early as 150,000 years ago, the first permanent settlers arrived from Anatolia in the New Stone Age or Neolithic era, about 9000 years ago, bringing with them the secrets of agriculture and soon afterward learning the techniques of pottery and weaving. As the gatherers of fruits, nuts, and vegetables and as preparers of food in earlier Old Stone Age or Paleolithic cultures, women would have noticed that seeds dropped at a campsite might sprout into plants. Women most likely discovered the secrets of agriculture that enabled people to settle down in the first farming communities of the New Stone Age. As pottery is associated with women’s work of food storage and preparation, and as weaving is women’s work in most traditional cultures, women probably invented these new technologies as well. Each of these inventions was understood to be a mystery of transformation: seed to plant to harvested crop; clay to snake coil to fired pot; wool or flax to thread to spun cloth. The mysteries were passed on from mother to daughter through songs, stories, and rituals.
Women’s control of the mysteries would have given women high status in Neolithic cultures. It is likely that land was held in common by maternal clans and that the elder women or grandmothers made decisions for the internal life of the community. The great-uncles or brothers of the clan mothers would have undertaken and supervised heavy farm labor, building projects, and trade expeditions. The social structures that developed in the Neolithic period have been called “egalitarian matriarchy” in recognition of the esteem and authority accorded to women and the participation of both elder women and elder men in the governance of the clan. The Goddess, the primary religious symbol in the Neolithic era, was the symbol not only of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration, but also of intelligence of women who discovered the mysteries of agriculture, pottery, and weaving that led to the creation of new forms of human community.
This introduction to the religion and culture of ancient Crete calls attention to the important and often unacknowledged roles of women in the Neolithic period and connects the social roles of women to the primary religious symbol of the Neolithic era, the Goddess as the Source of Life. This is no small thing: for too long women and girls have been told that we never did anything of real value in the world and that our bodies are symbols of evil and temptation.
In fact, the visitor to the Heraklion Museum learns nothing about the roles of women as the inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving, nothing about their likely status as leaders of Neolithic communities, and nothing about the prominence of the symbol of the Goddess as the Source of Life from the museum introduction titled “The First Communities”:
The Stone Age is the long period of earliest prehistory marked by the making and use of stone tools. It is divided into the p[sic]alaeolithic, Mesolithic and Neolithic periods. In Crete, stone tools have been found showing that humans were probably present in the Palaeolithic period, approximately 150,000 years ago. However, it is in the Neolithic period that the picture of early Cretan prehistory truly emerges. The decisive event that set the new period apart from the Palaeolithic and m[sic]esolithic ones was the establishment of settlements by the scattered groups of nomadic hunter gatherers. The transition to organized structures of family and communal life, which would eventually lead to the development of settlements, was accompanied by productive activities centered upon farming and animal husbandry, the cultivation of cereals and legumes and the raising of domestic animals. Production provided the means of ensuring a sufficiency of basic foodstuffs.
The core of communal life was the family. Families lived in small houses that covered basic household needs. Clay vessels and tools of stone and bone were used to prepare, cook and consume food, store goods, and make clothing.
The presence of human and animal figurines in the domestic contexts indicates ideologic preoccupations. The first depictions of humans and animals in Crete, made in clay and stone, may express and manifest the prayers of simple people to the fertility powers of nature that ensure the continuation of life.
Several decades ago, anthropologist Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt wrote that while most anthropologists would “concede” that women were the most likely inventors of agriculture, pottery, and weaving, few of them build upon this insight to create theories about women as the architects and guardians of Neolithic culture. It is not known whether the author of the Heraklion Museum display was familiar with the idea that women were the originators of the new technologies of Neolithic culture and chose to ignore it, so as not to deviate from scholarly consensus, or whether, given the disciplinary boundaries that separate archaeology and anthropology, she or he had not even heard of this idea. Either way, an opportunity to introduce museum goers to important roles of one-half of the human race in history was lost.
Following current academic theory and preference in the field of archaeology, the author of the museum display focuses on material culture and downplays religion, only in the final segment mentioning religion using the euphemism “ideologic preoccupations.” Historian of religion Mircea Eliade’s contention that “the sacred” and “the profane” were linked in early human cultures is forgotten or rejected. The spirituality of the Neolithic is trivialized as “the prayers of simple people to the fertility powers of nature.” The people—probably women–who invented new technologies that revolutionized human life are called “simple” rather than “extremely intelligent cultural creators.” Their religious views are reduced to a concern with “fertility,” an academic code word that reduces a complex spiritual vision of the interdependence of life and the interconnection of the powers birth, death, and regeneration in all living things to a materialistic concern with birthing babies and harvesting crops.
It is then not surprising that in the final case dedicated to “Figurines: Small Images of the Neolithic World,” the author of the text refuses to speculate on their meaning.
Figurines of humans, and more rarely of animals or objects, have been found inside the settlement. The body is usually rendered schematically, without indicating sex or facial features, although sometimes particular parts of the body and postures are accentuated, such as the buttocks or squatting. The figurines are usually decorated with motifs that resemble details of clothing, ornaments or tattoos.
It is believed that they served non-practical needs, were associated with symbolic rituals, had magical and apotropaic properties, and were used as amulets or even toys.
This text follows Peter Ucko, who in 1968 examined the figurines held by the museum–most of which are not on display–concluding that the majority of them are not clearly female and thus cannot be said to represent the Mother Goddess. Forty years later, Maria Mina re-examined the Neolithic and early Bronze Age figurines of Crete and the Aegean and concluded that almost all of them should be interpreted as definitely, probably, or likely female, though not necessarily as Goddesses. Here is what I might have said about them:
The vast majority of the figurines are symbolically female, identified by” v” and “m” incisions associated with the Goddess throughout Old Europe and by female triangles, breasts, wide hips, and expansive buttocks. The figurines symbolize the Goddess, the Source of Life, the powers of birth, death, and regeneration present in all living things, and the intelligence and creativity of women. The large ceramic figure of the seated Goddess combines aspects of the Bird Goddess in her beaked face and the Snake Goddess in her thick limbs, her body is in the shape of a mountain, the water lines that mark her body represent streams and rivers that flow after rain, and she wears a ritual hat similar to those worn today by Greek Orthodox priests.
And no, I would not have hidden the Goddess figurines away in the back corner. I would have placed them at the beginning of the Neolithic display.
If only they had asked me!
Heide Goettner-Abendroth. Societies of Peace: Matriarchies Past, Present, and Future.
Ruby Rohrlich-Leavitt. “Women in Transition: Crete and Sumer” in Becoming Visible: Women in European History, Renate Bridenthal and Claudia Koonz, eds.
Autumn Stanley. Mothers and Daughters of Invention.
Elizabeth Wayland Barber. Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer and educator currently living in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s new book written with Judith Plaskow, is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. FAR Press recently published A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess. Carol has been leading educational tours based on the religion and culture of ancient Crete for over twenty years. Carol’s photo by Michael Honegger.