Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.02.36

Kenneth Lapatin, Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History.   Boston and New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 2002.  Pp. 274.  ISBN 9780306813283.  $24.00.  

Reviewed by Noula Karatzoglou (

The title of this book might be misleading since it does not really refer to various elements of Minoan religion with special reference to the Snake-Goddess, as might be expected. Its real content is hinted in the words "forging of history". This is a book that speaks against the authenticity of the "Minoan" statuette known as the Boston Snake Goddess, which, despite its unknown provenience and provenance, has been admired and praised as "one of the most enchanting works of art in existence"1 since 1914 when it first reached the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The word "desire" in the title alludes to the reasons for the forgery of Minoan statues: the desire of these archaeologists and museum curators to believe that statuettes were products of a highly sophisticated Minoan culture which constituted the origins of "Western Civilization".

The purpose of the book is just hinted at the outset and is gradually revealed in a masterly way, like a detective story, and this is where the charm of the book lies. The eight chapters seem to be disconnected, and only towards the end does one realize that they bring forth the general image, like the pieces of a puzzle. All the different subjects in one way or another illuminate and reinforce the main argument. This approach arouses the reader's curiosity. Moreover, in this way the material and the circumstances under which the Boston Snake Goddess was created are better illuminated.

The statue that reached Boston in 1914 is very likely a forgery. The story of how it reached Boston is suspicious and obscure and seems to have been fabricated by the curators of the Museum in their effort to offer some provenience for this wonderful work of art. Only in the sixth chapter do we find a different story, more credible and well supported by evidence provided from letters. One of the cast of characters, Seager, seems to have brought it to the Museum, having received it from a Mr. Jones -- perhaps a pseudonym for one of the Gillierons, the artists who contributed to the reconstruction of Minoan culture by restoring works of art excavated in Crete.

Although the reader would like to believe in the authenticity of the statue and to disagree with the author, it is difficult to do so given the research conducted in a variety of different areas (archaeology, ethnography, psychology, history and science). The first chapter includes the presentation of the statue and the way it was received. The snake goddess seemed to fit the mood at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Western world was looking for origins, although a few voices raised some doubts at its modern look. However, its similarity to the three pieces that were excavated from the Temple Repositories and the desire to accept it as authentic silenced these doubts. In the second and third chapters Evans's character and psychology are presented, since he was the creator of the whole "Minoan" civilization. Deprived of a mother himself and driven by his desire to discover the old mythological heroes lying among the ruins, he believed in romanticizing the past and considered Crete as the place that could become the analogue of Egyptian culture. In that way he unwillingly created a market for forgeries made by local craftsmen that conformed to his ideas about the prehistoric Cretan culture. Most of the statues were female "goddesses" holding snakes and exhibiting their ample breasts. The sources that testify to the existence of these places where forgeries were created is well presented. Also, the craftsmen's techniques of making the materials look old through acids are discussed. Several statues that were similar to the Boston Snake Goddess, mainly females, made of various materials, were judged by the specialists to be forgeries since their elements were too modern and they had no specific provenience. However, the Boston Snake Goddess, being the first of the whole series of these statues, was thought to be authentic. Lapatin examines in detail her appearance and the techniques and materials out of which she was created and finds them compatible with the scientific results suggesting forgery. He is quite careful at drawing conclusions and focuses rather on presenting the sources and the atmosphere so that the reader can reach his/her own conclusion. In the same fashion, he does not overemphasize the possible connection between the Boston Snake Goddess and the statue of the faience Snake Goddess excavated in Knossos in 1903 (pp. 60-64), until he is able to point out that the same procedure probably happened in connection with the Treador fresco and the Boy-God of Seattle (pp. 173-4).

Lapatin does not seem to be disappointed with the results of his research. He concludes by noting that the fact that she is a modern work "does not mean that the goddess is without value because...since 1914...the Boston Goddess has shaped our perceptions of Cretan prehistory and, indeed, the origins of western civilization" (p. 187).

At the end of the book there are three useful appendices. The first briefly presents the cast of characters mentioned in the book who have some connection with the story of the Boston Snake Goddess. Their opinions, their actions, their letters and their whereabouts are examined in detail. In the second appendix, all the unprovenienced statues supposedly coming from Crete are presented together, so as to reinforce their dependence on one another. Finally, the third appendix cites the scientific results on the chronology of the materials out of which the Boston Goddess was created, well-placed, since it would be extremely tedious to have it in the main part of the book.

Since Lapatin touches on so many different fields, he cannot really be expected to cover completely the bibliography of such a wide area. Still, the citation of the sources is quite complete, although one would expect more references to other Minoan objects apart from statues. References to Minoan religion are incomplete, and, in the effort to point out Evans's attachment to the Mother Goddess, he disregards other evidence from Minoan Art, especially rings and seals, which seem to present a large female figure and a smaller male, probably an attendant of the goddess.2 In overemphasizing the fact that Evans created the Snake Goddess when there were many snake charmers in Europe, Lapatin writes "when Evans produced the Minoan Snake Goddess, Europe was ready to receive her" (p. 82). However, it was not totally Evans's invention, as snakes seem to be an important element of Minoan and other stages of Greek religion and they were not an invention of twentieth century Europe. He later talks in a more cautious way saying "Arthur Evans and others erred, not in admitting the existence of a Minoan Mother Goddess but in presupposing it" (p. 87).

Lapatin is not the first to notice the uniqueness of the Boston Snake Goddess, but he acknowledges this fact by citing other experts' opinions. In recent years, most of Evans's ideas have been abandoned, and his reconstruction of Minoan Crete has long been criticized. However, this is the first detailed and well supported book on the faking of a statue, for it is based on results from many different fields, especially modern ones that people in the past did not have at their disposal.

The book is well presented, speaks to the point and avoids repetition. Typographical errors are absent, and the book is rich in pictures, although it would be better if these were in colour.

In conclusion, this is an interesting book, clearly laid out and easy to read, which can appeal to non-specialists and can raise their interest in the whole remaking of Minoan culture. At the same time, the close examination of various sources and the careful drawing of the results render it a book for experts as well.


1.   M. Davenport, The Book of Costume (New York, 1948), 43-4.
2.   For example see Fr. Matz, Die frühkretischen Siegel (Berlin-Leipzig, 1928).

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010