What If We Begin from the Hypothesis that Ancient Crete Was Matriarchal, Matrifocal, and Matrilineal? by Carol P. Christ

If we begin from the hypothesis ancient Crete was matriarchal, matrifocal, and matrilineal, what would we expect to be the central focus of the its religion?* Harriet Boyd Hawes and her colleague Blanche E. Williams presented an incipiently feminist, woman-centered, analysis of the religion of ancient Crete in Gournia, the book describing their excavation of a Minoan village at the beginning of the twentieth century. Boyd Hawes argued that the archaeological evidence showed not only the pre-eminence of the Goddess, a conclusion with which Williams agreed, but also the strength and independence of women in a culture she defined as matriarchal and matrilineal, centered around the Mother family. If ancient Crete was matrilineal, matrifocal, and matriarchal, we should expect to find evidence that women were not only strong and independent, but also that they had leadership roles in religion and culture. Williams noted the presence of priestesses. The miniature frescoes from Knossos show a group of older women sitting in the place of honor and a group of women performing a ritual dance. Where evidence concerning leadership roles is lacking, it should not be assumed that leadership must have been in the hands of men.

We should not be surprised to find the Goddess or mother earth to be at the center of rituals and ceremonies in ancient Crete. However, to say that the Goddess is central begs the question of what we mean when we say Goddess. In the west, deity is understood to be transcendent of the world, imaged as a dominant male other, and as the judge of the living and the dead. Citing the Oxford English Dictionary, archaeologist Colin Renfrew bases his discussion of Minoan religion on the idea of divine transcendence. But if we accept Marija Gimbutas’ insight that the Goddess represents the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all forms of life, a different picture emerges. The Goddess is immanent in, rather than transcendent of the world. She is the enlivening force in human beings and all of nature. She is not the judge of the living and the dead, for the dead are returned to her body. Unlike later Greek deities, the Goddesses of Old Europe and ancient Crete are not generally portrayed as idealized human beings. Though they often have eyes, breasts, and sacred triangles, they also have beaks and wings, are shaped like mountains, and decorated with flowing lines symbolizing rivers or streams. These hybrid forms suggest that all of life is in the image of divinity and that humans are not higher, better, or separate from other life forms. Hybrid images celebrate the connection of all beings in the web of life and call human beings to participate in and enjoy this world, not to seek to escape or rise above it. A religion centered around gratitude for life in this world is very different from one that centers around fear and judgment and a longing for life after death. Jacquetta Hawkes’ insight that the religion of ancient Crete celebrated “the grace of life” is exactly right.

Is the Old European or Minoan Goddess one or many? Monotheists have insisted that there can be only one God, yet polytheists revere a plurality of images, while animists celebrate the spirits of (perceived) living beings such as rivers and trees, mountains and caves. The terms monotheism and polytheism are not neutral. Both were developed by monotheists: monotheism describes the correct beliefs of the self; polytheism, the false beliefs of the other. I find theologian and liturgist Marcia Falk’s distinction between exclusive and inclusive monotheism helpful in resolving the question of the one and the many. According to Falk, inclusive monotheism is an intuition of the unity of being within the diversity of the world: celebrating the unity of being, it welcomes a plurality of images to represent diversity and difference in the world. From this point of view, the boundaries between monotheism and polytheism are porous. When Gimbutas spoke of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life, she was referring to the unity of being underlying the diversity of life forms, including plants, animals, and human beings. Similarly, when indigenous peoples speak of mother earth as the giver of all and all beings as relatives, they recognize that all life is sustained by a single source. The fact that ancient Cretans imaged divinity in different ways and with different characteristics does not require the conclusion that they worshipped many discrete deities as some archaeologists argue: I suggest that they intuited a unity of being while celebrating the diversity of life. This appears to have been the conclusion of Williams who wrote of “the prominence of a goddess under various aspects.”

If matrilineal, matrifocal, and matriarchal cultures tend to view the earth as a great and giving mother, we can expect this insight to be expressed in rituals and ceremonies. Gratitude is the appropriate response to gifts freely given. I suggest that gratitude for the gift and gifts of life was not only a focus, but the central focus, of religion in ancient Crete. If this is so, we should expect to find rituals celebrating the gift of life in the birth of babies, the coming-of-age of girls, as well as in as well as in death rituals honoring the ancestors. We can also expect to find rituals honoring the mother line and expressing gratitude for the wisdom of ancestors. Many of these rituals would have taken place in the matrilineal House as archaeologist Jan Driessen suggests. Rituals for the ancestors might also have taken place in cemeteries. We should also expect to find rituals expressing gratitude for the food that sustains life, for example, in offerings of first fruits to mother earth and in the pouring of libations that are absorbed back into her body. If, women invented agriculture, and if as Gimbutas argued, Old European religion celebrated the processes of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life, we should find rituals focused on planting, harvesting, and storing seeds. Some of these rituals might have taken place in the matrilineal Houses, while others surely took place in nature and in the fields. If pottery-making and weaving were understood to be mysteries of transformation involving birth, death, and regeneration, we might find evidence of rituals associated with these activities in the Houses or in workshops. It is known that rites in ancient Crete involved trees, mountains, and caves, as well as water sources. We must ask if and how such ceremonies expressed gratitude to the mother earth, the source of life, and the cycles of birth, death, and regeneration.

*These musings are part of an early draft of the methodological prologue to an essay I have been asked to write on Religion in a Minoan Village to be published in the archaeological report on recent excavations at Gournia. In the preceding part of the prologue, I discuss the theories about matriarchal, matrifocal, and matrilineal cultures of Harriet Boyd Hawes, Blanche E. Williams, Marija Gimbutas, Heide Goettner-Abendroth, and others.

Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator who lives in Heraklion, Crete. Carol’s recent book is Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology. 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.

Categories: Archaeology, Divine Feminine, Earth-based spirituality, Egalitarian Matriarchy, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

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13 replies

  1. I am going to re post this essay on my blog. As you already know Carol I am in complete accord with you and your hypotheses. I am particularly struck by these words “When Gimbutas spoke of the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life, she was referring to the unity of being underlying the diversity of life forms, including plants, animals, and human beings” because my lifetime experience supports this unity underlying diversity… the goddess most often materializes in my life in some animal form, and my dreams are full of animals/birds that act as messengers/helpers..some humans like you do too. and I live the sense that all these manifestations are aspects of the Great Goddess, the Source of our Being.

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Many thanks. I learned the truth about goddesses and gods from reading your books, from reading the books of Marija Gimbutas and hearing her speak, and from reading many other authors like Merlin Stone, Miriam Robbins Dexter, Patricia Monaghan, and others too numerous to name. I much prefer the immenant, earthly goddess who is sometimes embodied in our blessed mother planet and all her rocks, plants, animals, and people. I have zero interest in the monotheistic, distant, judgmental standard-brand god.

    I hope you’re feeling good and healing is coming along. Bright blessings to you and your scholarship!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. What a wonderful essay! Thank you for posting it! Your insight that we need to rethink and expand our concepts of what “Goddess” means is so important. We need to work hard to stop looking at other cultures through our contemporary western lens and instead look at the evidence and see what is in front of our eyes, look at it as if we had no ideas of “Goddess” so that we can start from what the culture expressed rather than trying to shoehorn the evidence into our own concepts. I wonder what insights we would find about other cultures if we re-examined them from this perspective. I hope we get to read your finished essay!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Carol for your insights. I visited Crete and Knossos in 2019 and I felt the presence of Divine Feminism. I had hoped to visit and explore Crete more in 2020, but COVID changed my plans momentarily. I hope I get the opportunity to read the complete essay and also that your health improves with each day.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for these thoughts, tying together the threads of previous researchers and weaving them into a whole that helps us understand Minoan culture better — I look forward to the finished essay!

    I hope your healing is continuing!


  6. Thank you Karolina,
    This was just what I needed to read and carry in my mind and heart this morning. Your amazing scholarship and exquisite insight has stayed with me since Crete. You make the world a better place.

    I’m excited to read your finished essay “Religion on a Minoan Village”.

    I think of you often and see you healing continuing well. Be well.


  7. I love your hypothesis! This article makes me feel surrounded by the compassion and the caring of that ancient mother goddess!! Visually blended representations of life forms from ancient Crete which display eyes, breasts, and sacred triangles, or beaks and wings, or mountain peaks, or the flowing lines symbolizing rivers or streams all serve to remind me of the passion for life surrounding me! Your words surround me with the certainty that my dead self will be returned to Her body.

    Your vivid writing and careful explanations thrilled me! After visiting Gournia with you in 2017, I wanted to learn more about Harriet Boyd and her expedition to Gournia. First I learned that she spoke fluent Greek and served as a volunteer nurse with the Red Cross during the Greco-Turkish War in 1897.

    If the men at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens had had their way Harriet Boyd would have been an academic librarian! Instead, in 1901 at Gournia, she became the first woman to direct a major field project in Greece.

    Online I found that a German university has the book by Harriet Boyd Hawes and her colleague Blanche E. Williams about Gournia readily available, and I began to read their conclusions from that early archeeologiacal expedition. https://digi.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/diglit/hawes1908/0064/scroll

    In 2002 her daughter Mary Allsebrook wrote Born to Rebel. The Life of Harriet Boyd Hawes. I’m still trying to locate a library copy of this book.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I enjoy this immensely, the only caveat I have is that in other cultural contexts the existence of a powerful Female preeminent Deity (or Deities) does not always equal the fact that women have power in that culture. I am thinking of Japan (Amaterasu), Sumer (Inanna), Egypt (Aset), and India (Kali, Devi, Durga, Ganga, etc) to name a few. I suppose correlating physical evidence will be the key. How do the remains of women compare to that of men? How does the art, where we have it, depict social interactions. If there is egalitarianism, and Matri-Worship, does it flow down to everyone. I’d also say that chronological context is equally important. Many of the frescoes are New Palace, after some mainland infiltration. However, I think it more than likely that the Early and Middle Minoan cultures were egalitarian, Matrifocal and Matri-Worshipping.

    Liked by 1 person

    • For me, it goes without saying that there are many patriarchal cultures that worship Goddesses. It is my hypothesis that these cultures were once matrilineal, matrifocal, etc. and in the process of being taken over the Goddesses were taken over too. Greece is another good example. As is Christian Europe/Blessed Mother Mary. But that is another topic.

      In my article I make the argument from absence of many images of the king, absence of images of warriors, absence of big man graves, absence of warrior graves, that Crete before the Mycenean take-over was not patriarchal and not warlike.

      I also cite my own essay on patriarchy in which I argue that kings are warriors and that patriarchal kingship is introduced in the wake of war.

      Liked by 1 person


  1. Ancient Crete Pulls Me Back: September 2021! |

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