Harriet Boyd Hawes, Marija Gimbutas, and the Religion of Ancient Crete by Carol P. Christ

One of the projects I am working on these days is an essay on the religion of ancient Crete for a series of books on various aspects of the Minoan site of Gournia.

Harriet Boyd excavated the Minoan town of Gournia in 1901-1904. She was one of the first woman archaeologists and the first woman to run her own excavation in Crete, to be followed by Edith H. Hall whom she trained. She was also the first to excavate a Minoan town as opposed to a “palace,” providing the first evidence of daily life in Minoan Crete. Harriet Boyd might have continued to excavate in Crete, but her marriage in 1906, followed by the birth of her son soon thereafter, caused her to lose interest in a career as an excavator. Nonetheless, she published the results of her excavations in her book Gournia in 1908 and taught at Wellesley College until she reached retirement age.*

Gournia archaeological site


Harriet Boyd far right in white with her workers, standing next to Blanche Wheeler

To begin, I have been virtually memorizing Harriet Boyd Hawes’ book, Gournia, in order to tease out her views on Minoan religion. I am curious to find out how her theories compare with those of Marija Gimbutas, who viewed Minoan culture as the final flowering of the religion of Old Europe, while distinguishing it sharply from the religion and cultures of Mycenaean and classical Greece. As Gimbutas’ hypotheses about Old Europe have shaped my views of Minoan culture, I hoped the two scholars would agree on fundamental points. I was not disappointed.

Arthur Evans, who “discovered” Minoan Crete through his excavations at Knossos, believed that the culture’s primary deity was a nature Goddess. Nonetheless, he assumed that he had discovered the “palace” of a “king.” Building on and criticizing the work of Evans, and adding her own wide knowledge of the civilizations of the Bronze Age and Iron Age in the Mediterranean, Harriet Boyd Hawes anticipated many of the views we now associate with Gimbutas.

Marija Gimbutas argues that Europe was created through a clash of cultures. Old Europe c. 6500-3500 BCE was agricultural, settled, peaceful, egalitarian, matrifocal, matrilineal and probably matrilocal, and worshipped the Goddess as the symbol of the processes of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life. According to her, pre-Indo-European culture was overthrown but never totally extinguished by patrilineal, patriarchal, nomadic, horse-riding warriors who spoke Indo-European languages and worshipped the shining Gods of the sky.

Because of its location at the southern end of Europe, Greece—and finally Crete–was the last to be conquered by the Indo-Europeans. The Indo-European group known as the Mycenaeans arrived in Greece c. 2000 BCE, conquering Crete c. 1450 BCE. Though Gimbutas’ views of a peaceful prepatriarchal Old Europe have been disparaged as wishful thinking by classicists and archaeologists, her theory of an Indo-European invasion that changed the cultures of Europe is being confirmed by DNA evidence.

While many archaeologists in her time and afterwards conflate the Minoan and Mycenaean cultures, Boyd Hawes insisted that they were distinct. She states that from 2000 BCE mainland Greece was “overrun by migrating shepherd chieftains . . . who spoke an Aryan [Indo-European] language . . . [and] brought . . . the patriarchal system.” (8b) She says that in contrast Crete developed along non-Aryan [non-Indo-European] lines and “long retained traces of a matriarchal system” in “the pre-eminence of a goddess” and “the prominent place held by women.” (9b)

Boyd Hawes recognizes that Mycenaean art has its source in Crete while insisting that there is no simple development from one culture to the other. She says that Cretan artifacts may have been taken to Greece as spoils of war, that Cretan artists may have migrated to Greece where they produced Mycenaean works in Cretan styles, and that they may have been forced to work for the new Mycenaean overlords in Crete. She views the marriages of Zeus and the Greek heroes to local Goddesses and princesses as a product of conquest (9a) and states that “the Cretan Zeus” was a Mycenaean imposition. (13b)

Comparing Boyd Hawes’ theories to those of Gimbutas, we can see that they both make a sharp distinction between the earlier cultures of Greece and Crete and those of the Indo-European invaders. They agree that the earlier cultures spoke non-Indo-European languages. They state that the Indo-Europeans were patriarchal and warlike and that their main deity was a warrior God. They assert that the main deity of the earlier cultures was a Goddess and find evidence that women’s roles were higher in the earlier cultures than in the invading ones. In contrast, Evans called the period of Mycenaean occupation at Knossos “Lower Minoan III” and named the culture he unearthed after Minos, a legendary Mycenaean king. Archaeologist Nanno Marinatos, who writes today on Minoan religion, does not distinguish sharply between the two cultures.

Boyd Hawes also resists the temptation to interpret Minoan culture with reference to the cultures of Egypt and Mesopotamia. She states that “No impartial student of Cretan material can fail to be impressed by the freedom of genius it displays by its essential unlikeness to the works of the Nile and Euphrates Valleys, by what may be called its emotional character, as opposed to that which is monumental and sacerdotal.” (9b) “Sacerdotal” in this context includes deifying the kingship. Many early and contemporary scholars use comparisons to ancient Near Eastern or Egyptian traditions to unlock the meaning of Minoan symbols and rituals, not recognizing massive cultural differences.

Goddess of Gournia**

Boyd Hawes outlined her theories about female power and Goddesses in ancient Crete in Gournia and provided extensive footnotes, but she did not develop her ideas. Boyd Hawes asked her colleague on the first Gournia excavation, Blanche E. [Wheeler] Williams, to write the chapters “Cult Objects” (The Shrine of Gounia and Its Contents) and  “Religion of the Minoans” for the book. Williams follows Boyd Hawes in insisting that evidence for a male God is “conspicuously lacking” (52b) in Minoan Crete and challenges Evans’ attempts to find the male God represented in images of the bull (52a, b) or pillar (53a). However, she conflates evidence from Minoan and Mycenaean periods, for example (but not only), when she reads the Aghia Triada sarcophagus as evidence for Minoan burial rituals. (51a)***

Marija Gimbutas was apparently not familiar with Boyd Hawes’ theories, as she does not cite Boyd Hawes in footnotes or bibliographies. This is not surprising given that Gimbutas’ main focus was on the Neolithic period and that she never excavated in Crete. But it is a pity. Though I have the greatest respect for the work of Marija Gimbutas, I have always felt that her work would have been strengthened by greater theoretical contextualization.

Gimbutas knew that others had written about the Goddess and female power at the beginning of European culture, but she never critically discussed the strengths and weaknesses of earlier theories, showing where her work confirmed and built upon the work of her predecessors and where it diverged. Her failure to distinguish her work from that of other theorists allowed her critics to argue that she was simply repeating discredited views. In fact, the earlier theories were not entirely discredited; and Gimbutas provided copious evidence to support her views.

*Also see: Harriet Boyd Hawes, From Archaeologist to War Nurse to Economic Activist

**This image is generally viewed as Mycenaean because of the shape of the skirt and the upraised arms; Harriet Boyd Hawes and Blanche E. Williams found nothing in the shrine that could give a secure date, and because they did not believe the area where the shrine was located was reoccupied in the Mycenaean period, they tentatively dated the Gournia Goddess to the end of the Minoan period. According to Blanche E. Williams, female figures with a similarly shaped skirts and arms in various positions dated to the Old Palace period were found at Phaistos and Agia Triada. (51a)

***For a different view see Brendan Burke, “Materialization of Mycenaean Ideology and the Ayia Triada Sarcophagus”


Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator currently living in Pachia Ammos, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.

Listen to Carol’s a-mazing interview with Mary Hynes on CBC’s Tapestry recorded in conjunction with her keynote address to the Parliament of World’s Religions.


Author: Carol P. Christ

Carol P. Christ is a leading feminist historian of religion and theologian who leads the Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete, a life transforming tour for women. www.goddessariadne.org

13 thoughts on “Harriet Boyd Hawes, Marija Gimbutas, and the Religion of Ancient Crete by Carol P. Christ”

  1. Thank you for your excellent essay, Carol. The culture designated by Evans as “Minoan” is dear to my heart. The fact that women occupied an elevated position in the culture comforts me every time I think of it.

    Look around you, everyone. Everywhere you look you can see that patriarchy and its gods bring misery. Recently I read of four women murdered by the male members of their tribe because they had sung and danced at a wedding. From genital mutilation to rape to murder, to be born female is to risk danger and death.

    I excoriate patriarchy, its gods, and its predilections. The results of some cultures’ preference for male infants is beginning to make itself felt. When I read of all those young men condemned to perpetual bachelorhood because there are no women to marry, I hear one sound: that of the Goddess, laughing.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Carol, please keep us posted on publication details for your essay and the books. Very much looking forward to them.

    Excellent point about Gimbutas unfortunately missing the opportunity to help legitimize her work in establishment minds! Though I can imagine she might possibly have felt she did not have time to “waste” with that concern.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you are right, she didn’t want to waste her time on theory. But she also believed science is science and failed to recognize the insights of standpoint theories. And perhaps she also did not want to recognize the power of patriarchal theories to quash what she viewed as the obvious truth.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Yeah, those Indo-European/Aryan warriors galloped in and conquered. They’ve been doing it over and over again for centuries. Many thanks for this post and your scholarship, though which we can all learn a great deal about what was conquered and should be somehow revived and cherished.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Walking the winding perimeter path of Gournia during a recent Goddess Pilgrimage gave me a sense of my connections to the people of that ancient village where humans built their own houses, wove their own cloth and fed themselves—all with the blessings of the goddess of birth, death and regeneration. I wanted to know more about this Victorian woman who first excavated Gournia. Here is some of what I learned.

    Harriet Boyd faced many challenges in her desire to do archaeological field work in Crete. In 1896 while doing graduate work at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, Greece, she was eager to participate in the school’s archaeological expeditions. She was declined the privilege by her professors, who encouraged her instead to become an academic librarian.

    In 1897 she served as a volunteer nurse at the front during the in the Greco-Turkish War. That war freed Crete from Turkish control allowing for a more stable political climate, ie Crete was no longer the site of ground warfare. This was the climate when Boyd began her fieldwork in 1901. Boyd periodically had to take leave from the fieldwork when she ran out of funding or to uphold her duties as a teacher at her alma mater, Smith College.

    Boyd had to obtain her own funding for her fieldwork in Crete. Funded by the University of Pennsylvania, Boyd was the first woman to supervise a large field crew of 100 workers, which consisted of local workmen and North American assistants. (see the photo in Carol’s article)

    In 1904, Boyd invited Edith Hall (later Dohan) to assist her at Gournia. Hall had also studied at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. It was not considered proper for Boyd to live in the field unaccompanied by another woman. That year, Hall and Boyd traveled around Crete on mules and
    on foot, lived in tents, and excavated Gournia. Their 1908 publication documents Boyd’s and Hall’s findings at Gournia and represents the first monograph produced by women archaeologists.

    After her death, her daughter published a book about her archaeologist mother called Born To Rebel.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you Carol. You’ve brought another woman out of the dark haze of history that tends to envelope them/us. What a fascinating woman Harriet Boyd Hawes was. I am going to put her on my list of people to read about.


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