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Reading the language of the goddess

Reading the language of the goddess

This blog was originally published on December 1, 2014

The image of an ancient Cretan bowl (circa 1700 BC) from the Sacred Center of Phaistos shown here has often been interpreted as an early depiction of Persephone’s ascent or descent. But in this case, do the clues from later Greek mythology point in the right direction?

Recently, my colleague Mika Scott posted the image of the Phaistos bowl on our Pilgrimage of the Goddess Facebook site along with the Mallia bee pendant. This juxtaposition led me to rethink the importance of bees and pollination in agricultural societies and to offer an alternative reading of the symbolism of the bowl.

In her important work The Language of the Goddess, Marjia Gimbutas taught us how to “read” the language of the goddess in ancient European artifacts through a process of careful comparison of images and motifs, using what she called the method archeomythological. This method finds that clues in later mythology and folklore can unlock the symbolism of ancient artifacts. Another perhaps more important part of the method involves careful attention to plants and animals and their cycles of birth, death and regeneration, which are depicted on the artifacts.

The other night a friend was talking about a series of images from Kerala, India, in which the heads of various animals were placed on the human bodies of females. In old Europe, the symbolism was different. The images my friend was referring to were completely human below the neck and completely animal above. In contrast, in old Europe, aspects of human, animal, and plant life were often combined in figures that were neither animal nor human, but combined aspects of both.

According to Gimbutas, the golden signet ring from Isopata, Crete (c.1600-1450 BC) represents a spring pollination ritual in which women imitate the dances of bees. The “non-human” shape of the women’s heads is deliberately intended to make the women’s heads look like the heads of bees. This interpretation explains the presence of flowers in the scene, the “pollen” that sprouts from the heads of the women, their garlands of pollen, and the representation of their hair as pollen. The small figure in the sky is the epiphany of the Bee Goddess who “appears” in a vapor of pollen in the midst of the ritual.

The Mallia pendant (c. 2000 BC) depicting two bees depositing a drop of nectar on a honeycomb is another indication of the importance of bee symbolism in ancient Crete.

Here I am going to talk about one of my ah-ha moments.

During a walk, a biologist friend of mine and I came across a group of bees pollinating flowers. “Oh how I love bees,” my friend hums, “all of my plant DNA research requires bees to pollinate my fields. Without them, I couldn’t do my research.”

Returning to the Phaistos cup, I note the similarity in the shape of the “skirts” of the dancers with the bodies of the bees portrayed in the Mallia pendant. Could these dancers like those depicted in Isopath’s ring be involved in a pollination ritual? This would explain the flower in the bottom right of the scene. Are the stains on her skirt body pollen?

Could the figure in the center be the queen bee? Does her ***** shape symbolize the fact that she is the one who gives birth to all the bees in her hive? If all is correct, are the round wavy lines around her body (which have sometimes been interpreted as snakes) a representation of the round openings in the honeycomb where the honey is deposited?

Surely the ancient Cretans knew that the entire agricultural cycle depended on the dances of bees.

This would explain why the women imitated the movements of the bees in their ritual dances.

* Images of the original bowl and artistic reconstruction of the image from the Heraklion Museum, Crete.

BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally renowned feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist and educator. Her work continues through her nonprofit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.

“In the Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood as part of life, followed by birth and renewal.” – Carol P. Christ

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Categories: Archaeology, Art, Dance, Earth Spirituality, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

Tags: Ancient Crete, Carol P. Christ, feminism and religion, Language of the Goddess, Marija Gimbutas

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