Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Goddess Eileithyia and her snakes

My next post is going to be a shorther one, without that heavy linguistics stuff - if possible. All I intend to put together are a few facts about the names and attributes of some Minoan divinities, and the way their cult survived into the classical era.

Eileithyia - the goddess of childbirth and labour - is perhaps the best known Greek goddess of certainly Minoan origin. Her cult was quite widespread in the classical Hellas, with temples found in all the major cities of Greece: Athens, Megara, Korinthos, Argos, Mycenae, Sparta, Olympia etc. But her most holy sanctuary was a sacred cave near Amnissos. This tradition is quite unusual when compared to other divinities, and undoubtedly a continuation of the Minoan cave-sanctuaries. A high number of similar underground sanctuaries existed on Crete in the classical period: such as the Dictaian (Psychro) cave or the cave of Mount Ida (Psiloritis). Though these likely served other deities as well (e.g. Rhea), some subterranean sites are known to be associated exclusively with Eileithyia: such as the cave of Inatos. It seems that the Minoans firmly associated caves with childbirth, so divinities with the appropriate portfolio were primarily worshipped there. Some of these goddesses might have possessed healing abilities as well, judged by bronze leg and the human figurines found in the Diktaian and the Idaian caves. Both of the latter caves were famed as being the alleged birthplace of Zeus, thus also associated with his mother, Rhea. If we believe the Egyptians, Raziya (=classical Rhea) was also associated with healing, alongside with the mountain-goddess Amaya (=classical Maia).

The 2nd century AD author Pausanias gives us a description of the cult of Eileithyia at Mount Kronios, Olympia. From him, we know that the priestesses of Eilyeithyia had to live in chastity, as virgins - an interesting association with the goddess of childbith. The main gifts offered to the deity were honey-cakes and incense - reminiscent of the gifts customary in the Mycenean era, as recorded by the Knossos Linear B tablets. Pausanias also relates a story about how a woman appeared before the army of Arkadians, holding a child in her hands. But as soon as she placed the child onto the ground, he changed into a terrifying snake, chasing the entire hostile army away. Then it simply burrowed into the ground and disappeared. That was the story explaining the foundation of this sanctuary of Eileithyia and her child (titled Sosipolis, saviour of the of the city).

The latter tale also points to an interesting thing: somehow Eileithyia was also associated with snakes. This is when Minoan figurines depicting a goddess with prominent breasts, holding two snakes into the air come to the mind. It seems to be a genuinely Minoan concept, to associate snakes with childbirth. Although in Classical Greece, snakes were associated with life-force, even with healing (e.g. as the attribute of Asclepios), but not with procreation. To understand this strange Cretan association, we have to know a bit more of the snakes themselves!

For quite some time, snakes were identified as a chtonic symbol in Minoan iconography. For example, the female figurines with the characteristic triad of animals: snakes, cats and doves are thought to sybolize the goddess' omnipotence over three domains (underworld + earth + heavens). But this is not the only explanation, and not the best explanation of the association of a snake with a newborn child. I do not know how many of you are a fan of zoology, to know: many snake-species, like addlers, are fairly unique among reptiles with the ability of being viviparious. That is, they do not lay their eggs, but give birth to new little snakes after a certain gestation period - much like us, mammals. Members of the family Viperidae (the addlers), that show such characteristics, are among the most common snakes in the Mediterranean. Thus anyone who had noticed their viviparity could have made an association between snake reproduction and the human one. The argument is tempting, but there is a slight problem: The most famous snake-symbol of Greece: the staff of Asclepios (and perhaps the Caduceus, the staff of Hermes, too) depicts the non-poisonous Colubrid snake Elaphe longissima, which is actually oviparous. This makes me rethink the theory.

Now let us turn our attention to the origins of the name Eileithyia. It has been long suggested because of the characteristics of her cult, that the worship of the goddess is of Minoan origin. Fortunately enough, the Linear A and B tablets enable us to reconstruct the full evolution of her name. The earliest record of the cult of Eileithyia is the Linear A tablet KH5. The goddess is named there as A-RA-U-DA (*Alauta), and worshipped at WI-NA-DU (*Winatu = Inatos) directly corresponding to the goddess E-RE-U-TI-JA (*Eleutia) mentioned on the Linear B tablets from Knossos. From the Mycenean name, the classic Greek terms Eileithyia, Eleithya, Eiléthyia, Eleuthya (Ionic) , Eleusia (Laconian doric), Eleiuthya (Cretan doric), and Eileitheia (Northwestern Greek) were born - from one of them comes Latin Ilithia. The origin of the name seems to be Indo-European: The name Alauta does match with the PIE stem *h1leudh- = 'free': the same stem that underlies Greek eleutheros = 'free', Latin liber = 'free', German Leute, literally 'free people', even the non-IE Etruscan lautni = 'freedman'. As I expressed it before, the theonym is likely a loan-word from an unspecified Anatolian language (not necessarily Luwian - many of the Anatolian-Minoan borrowings seem to predate the diffusion of Luwian dialects onto the Aegean shore). That explains the first step of evolution: *H1(e)leudh-a to Alauta. While the Myceneans barely changed the name of the goddess they took the cult over of, It is not the easiest to explain the later Greek variants. While the lengthening of -e- poses no problem (remember: -ει- is not necessarily diphtongal!), the methathesis of -υθ- to -θυ- is more problematic. Also, do not forget the addition of aspiration, as a novelty. I think the best explanation is a re-analysis of the stem by later Greeks, and its contamination with the Greek word ἐλεύθερος and its hypothetic ancient verbal form *ἐλευθώ, explaining an evolution AlautaEleutia*Eleuthwia*ElethuiaEileithyia. The funny thing is that the Greek re-analysis was mostly correct: they added aspiration back to a stem that originally possessed it in PIE.

I would also like to use the current post to debunk some incorrect hypotheses regarding the Minoan divinities. From time-to-time I have seen mentions of an alleged Linear A term, KU-PA3-PA3. Some sought to identify this term with the Lycian goddess Cybele. But the sad truth is, the cited word was only found on a single Linear A tablet, HT88. Recently, Kiminoa (who also maintains a neat blog on Linear A) helped me to clarify that KU-PA3-PA3 on HT88 is a misreading, for the correct word is KU-PA3-NU, a place-name (perhaps related to Cyrba = Hierapetra) frequently mentioned on other Haghia Triada tablets as well. So better dismiss the hypothesis that Cybele was a Minoan goddess. It does not fit the (Minoan-inspired) Greek mythology, either. It is much more plausible to believe that the position of 'overmother' was held by a familar figure: Rhea, and not some obscure Anatolian divinity otherwise unknown to the marority of the Greek word.


  1. First, my fanciful response:

    I love the snake imagery of the Minoan goddesses, and I haven't given much thought to any relationship between snakes and childbirth in this context until I read this post. I'd like to sidestep into the Christian mythos for a moment, which has the possibility of many echoes and remnants of pre-Christian religions (for instance from Buddhism).

    The Greeks swore that Zeus was a god and were very upset with the Cretans who always maintained that Zeus was born just like any other baby and suffered adolescence like us mere mortals. It's a good example of how stories, as they do now so did they then, morph and change over time and retelling.

    The snake in Genesis tempted Eve. I'm going to leave out the details for a moment, if only because it's handy to make my fanciful hypothesis O:>

    If we assume for a moment this snake-childbirth connection, what if the snake has a far more phallic representation, and the downfall was not Adam's, but Eve's? In succumbing to the temptation of the snake, did Eve become a slave to her reproductive system, and was thus given the curse-blessing to bear fruit? It could be an interesting and early way to explain why women have babies and men don't, along with the cave association wherein emerging from a cave (birth canal / what's blatantly surface-anatomy different about men and women (some men can have breasts and even lactate, especially during puberty, so I wonder if this difference may have been treated with suspicion)) makes for grand-scale symbolism. It has always interested me that the way to designate female in Linear B is to draw, essentially, a cave, and for men is the straight-line penis twice cross-hatched with testicles, although I haven't found other material yet on others interpreting the male signifier in this way. In our modern symbology, the triangular designation for women tends to reference skirts or dresses, but I've long been convinced that one of the saffron gatherers is wearing pants (one of these days, I'm going to have some of those custom made ;> ) and there are plenty of men in loin cloths so while there is indeed some art of women in dresses, I ultimately like the cave designation over the dress designation when discussing the male/female indicators in Linear B. (Sidenote: I haven't read any articles on this particular indicator yet, but hope to in the future. If I find anything interesting in relation to this discussion, I'll come back and add it here as a comment).

    In a goddess-centric religion, this fanciful reinterpretation of Eve vs. the Snake might make more sense, and might explain why Eleuthyia's priestesses were virgins. Perhaps part of the cult was pride in not being tempted by the snake, but also in caring for the women who succumbed to temptation and protecting them during childbirth.

  2. KH5. A-RA-U-DA.

    How convinced are you that AB60 has a phonetic value of RA?

    I'm not convinced, actually.

  3. On the association of snakes with birth - perhaps it has something to do with the fact that they shed their skins and so are "re-born"?

  4. I just ran across something else which may be relevant - a note I have referencing The Mycenaean World by John Chadwick from back in 1976. He notes A-RO-DO-RO-O from the Knossos Linear B tablets as a possible theonym.

  5. It pleases me that you found this article interesting. I will attempt to respond to this many comments in a single post.

    As for the snakes, well, a lot of different explanations can be correct. I like the 'shedding'-idea, too. If the cited Greek legend indeed has Minoan roots, then the snake-child connection will give us a really hard headache - any possible solutions are welcome. I never really thought of any phallic interpretations, but it might have some truth in it, as well as the rather obvious cave - birth canal association. As ancients often believed snakes to be subterranean animals, the connection to the underword or the caves is also relatively easy to accept. But the Middle-Eastern religious concepts that formed the basis of Judaism and later Christianity, are a bit far-flung for me.

    It is an entirely different matter why or how the Minoan scribes designated male and female animals in Linear A. I think the most traditional interpretation is still the simplest one: i.e. they added 'pants' to the image of male animals and 'skirts' to the female ones. If we think of how Cretan artists represented important men (e.g. the prince of lilies) and powerful women (e.g. the snake-goddess), one can realise the tendency to equip females with elaborate skirts and men with short loincloths. Probably this is the way Minoans traditionally dressed themselves (e.g. on festivities).

  6. Hm! What's the pants - AB3 relationship? Visually, I don't see it yet. And I maintain that miss saffron gatherer and some of the other fresco women may be wearing fancy pants since the position of the individual legs seem significantly distinct. I'm not so sure about the skirts-for-girls gender delineation in the Minoan era. The miniature fresco of the naval fleet shows plenty of men wearing long furry tunic like outfits and no pants at all. In fact, I'd love to read someone's paper of an in-depth look at the sex and fashion of the people in that particular fresco. It's fascinating.


    This in particular shows the male/female modifications, and is why I'm not so sure about the pants/skirts assertion. Visually, it doesn't make much sense to me.

  8. Another interesting note in the childbirth-snake correlation:

    Dittany of Crete, native to the mountains of Crete, cures snake bites and eases childbirth pain. I thought that was an interesting coincidence :>

  9. A little about snakes: There are several varieties of collubrid which are ovoviviparous. The common garter snake, brown snake, ribbon snake, and water snake are a few examples. Of course that applies to the Americas. I don't know about any collubrids found in the Mediterranean. Is it possible there is a Mediterranean collubrid that gives birth to live young? I think it may be worth mentioning too that more than likely these ancient peoples were not snake experts and could very possibly confuse one type of snake with another, as even biologists still do on occasion today.

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