Minoans, the “Poppy Goddess” and Opium

The "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE, approx. 31" in height (79.5 cm). Terracotta, Archaeological Museum of Crete at Heraklion. Image courtesy Wikipedia

I have written before about my undergraduate professor who compared the Minoan civilization to the “hippies” of the 1960s. Today in class, I mentioned in passing that the Minoans used opium, and a question from one of my students led me to explore more of the artifacts that give evidence of opium use in Minoan culture. One sculpture that I learned about was the “Poppy Goddess.” If I have ever come across this sculpture before, I don’t remember it. After doing some research, it seems like right now this figurine is more popular in archaeological scholarship than art historical scholarship.1

Aesthetically, the “Poppy Goddess” is similar to two other Minoan female figurine types, the so-called “Bird Goddess” and “Goddess with a Cone and Horn of Consecration.”  The “Poppy Goddess” is one of the artifacts that archaeologists cite to support the practice of opium use in Minoan culture. She was discovered, along with four other female figurines, at Gazi in July 1959. In the same room as these figurines, a heap of coal was found as well as some vertical vessels thought to be used for the inhalation of opium vapors.2 Classical texts reveal that opium was used for a variety of purposes in the Mediterranean, including use as a hypnotic drug to induce sleep.

Detail of "Poppy Goddess," ca. 1300-1250 BCE

On top of the Poppy Goddess’s head rest three moveable capsules of poppies. A 1967 archaeological study by Kritikos and Papdaki confirmed that these heads related to one specific type of poppy used for opium in ancient times.3 This same study also pointed out that the colors of the vertical notches also correspond to the dried juice of the poppy.2 Additionally, these archaeologists suggested in the study that the goddess might have closed eyes, to represent sleep. I think this is an interesting idea, but I would like to see if microscopic traces of paint have been on this statue. It could be that pupils were painted onto the statue that have disappeared over time.

I hope that more discussion about this figurine can take place amongst art historians, since I haven’t found some in-depth artistic analyses of this figurine yet. (If you know of any more scholarly discussion about this figurine, please share in the comments!) Here are some questions that the Poppy Goddess raises for me, from an art historical standpoint:

  • Why are the opium capsules moveable? Was there an additional function or purpose for these capsules, apart from their placement in the head? Are the capsules moveable simply because they were fashioned separately?
  • Does the woven cap have any significance? The artist took great pains to decorate this cap with incisions, whereas much of the body has a smooth texture.
  • What is wrapped around her neck? What does this scarf-like object look like from the back of the figurine? I wonder if it ends in a sacral knot, similar to some other depictions of priestesses (I’m thinking of the “La Parisienne” fresco at Knossos.)
  • Is this sculpture hollow, if it is made of terracotta? Is there an open bottom? Could it be that the holes in her head (when the opium capsules are removed) could waft vapors of opium, similar to the vessels which were found in the room with this figurine? (This is just a wild idea, but I’m going to throw it out there.)

I think it is also important to note that the poppy, because of its multiplicity of seeds, could also serve as a symbol of fertility in ancient times. Given the associations with other Minoan female figurines and fertility (most notably the famous Minoan “Snake Goddesses,” one of which also appears with upraised arms as a symbol of power), it is important to acknowledge that this statuette might serve a similar function.

Do you know anything else about this figurine or the other terracotta figurines found on Crete?

1One relatively recent discussion on the Minoans and opium is by Helen Askitopoulou, Ioanna A Romoutski, and Elini Konsolaki, “Archaeological Evidence of the Use of Opium in the Minoan World” in International Congress Series 1242, (December 2002): 23-29. Article can be found HERE.

2 We also know that ancient cultures would ingest the “juice” of opium, and some think that smoking opium was another method of intake. See P.G. Kritikos and S.P. Papdaki, “The History of the Poppy and of Opium and Their Expansion in Antiquity in the Eastern Mediterranean Area,” in Journal of the Archaeological Society of Athens: 1967. Available online HERE.

3 Ibid.

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Bull’s-Head Rhyton: Blood and a Second Sacrifice

Bull's-Head Rhyton, c. 1550-1450 BCE (Minoan). Steatite with shell, rock crystal, and red jasper. The gilt-wood horns are restorations. Height 12"

This past quarter, one of my ancient students did a research project on the Minoan rhyton of a bull’s head (found at the Archaeological Museum in Crete). This student found an article by Jeremy McInerny in the Winter 2011 edition of Penn Museum’s Expedition magazine  (.PDF link). This article, which is dedicated to the imagery of bulls and bull-leaping in the Minoan world, had some interesting information about this rhyton.

A rhyton is a type of vase or container which contains liquid that often is used in libation ceremonies. In the case of this bull, the rhyton is filled when liquid is poured into the bull’s neck. Then, during libation rituals, the bull’s head would be tilted forward so that liquid spew from the bull’s mouth. Although the liquid that filled rhytons is unknown (wine and water are some possibilities), I like another suggestion that McInerny mentions. He discusses how scholar Nanno Marinatos has argued that these containers actually held blood from sacrificial animals.1

McInerny explains further that these rhytons would have been like representations (or “portraits”) of the animals whose blood they contained. He writes, “The [rhytons of bulls’-heads] would have been the centerpiece of any gathering at which they were used. If such a gathering were the feast following a sacrifice at which the bull was consumed or its meat distributed, a formal libation from a vessel imitating the bull’s head would have constituted a ritual re-enactment of the bloodletting that began the sacrifice. The savagery of the animal’s slaughter was replaced with the formal dignity of the libation. The disposal of the rhyton after the ceremony amounted to a second killing.”2

The bull long fascinated ancient cultures, and I like this connection between the bull rhyton and animal sacrifices. I like to discuss with my students how this Minoan bull looks much more naturalistic than the representations of bulls which previously were created in the ancient Near East (such as the Sumerian bull’s head lyre). Given this argument about how rhytons were “portraits” of bulls that were symbolically slaughtered, I think that this emphasis on naturalism is quite appropriate. Perhaps the naturalism would have heightened not only the act of the “second” ritualistic killing, but also would have better represented and embodied the power of the bull itself.

1 Jeremy McInerny, “Bulls and Bull-Leaping in the Minoan World,” in Expedition 53, no. 3 (Spring 2011): 8. PDF of article available HERE

2 Ibid.


Excavation Sites for Prehistoric and Ancient Female Figurines

Various (mostly) prehistoric “Venus” figurines. (1) Willendorf’s Venus (Rhine/Danube), (2) Lespugue Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (3) Laussel Venus (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (4) Dolní Věstonice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (5) Gagarino no. 4 Venus (Russia), (6) Moravany Venus (Rhine/Danube), (7) Kostenki 1. Statuette no. 3 (Russia), (8) Grimaldi nVenus (Italy), (9) Chiozza di Scandiano Venus (Italy), (10) Petrkovice Venus (Rhine/Danube), (11) Modern sculpture (N. America), (12) Eleesivitchi Venus (Russia); (13) Savignano Venus (Italy), (14) The so-called “Brassempouy Venus” (Pyrenees/Aquitaine), (15) Hohle Fels Venus (SW Germany). Image from article, “Venus Figurines of the European Paleolithic: Symbols of Fertility or Attractiveness?” by Alan F. Dixson and Barnaby J. Dixson (2011).

Yesterday I had a student ask about the excavation sites for so-called “Venus” figurines from the Paleolithic period. This student wondered if the physical location of the site (or the other objects excavated at the sites) could give us more understanding about how the “Venus” figurines originally functioned. I thought this was a great question. Although I knew that some figurines were found in caves or domestic sites, I thought that I would find more information about the specifics regarding the excavation sites and findings.

I didn’t find nearly as much information as I had hoped (there may be more information hidden away in technical archaeology journals), but I did pull together a few interesting finds. It is interesting to see how several figurines are associated with domestic sites or found alongside animal bones. Would these bones have been food for these people or sacrifices for religious rituals? Perhaps both? Other female figurines are found in caves, sometimes with other objects and animal bones, too.

I know that the following list isn’t comprehensive by any means. (I also threw a Neolithic and a Minoan female figurine in the list, just to make things fun.) I plan on adding to this list as I come across new information and findings. If you want to add a another figurine to the list, or more details regarding the excavation of these figurines, feel free to leave a comment!

Photograph of the Hohle Fels Cave. Red arrow indicates where the “Venus” of Hohle Fels was discovered in September 2008.

  • Venus of Hohle Fels (at least 35,000 BCE) : Excavated in September 2008 in the Hohle Fels cave in Germany (see image above). The figurine, which was carved from a mammoth’s tusk, was discovered in six fragments. A flute was also discovered at this site, which currently is the oldest known instrument in the world.
  • Venus of Dolní Věstonice (29,000 − 25,000 BCE): Discovered in 1925 in a layer of ash. The figurine was broken into two pieces. Figures of animals, as well as 2,000 balls of burnt clay, have been found at the Dolni Vestonice site. The majority of these finds were located at the dugout of central fire pit at the site.
  • Venus of Laussel (20,000 − 18,000 BCE): Discovered in 1911 by physician J. G. Lalanne. The figure is found in a rock shelter, carved onto a piece of fallen limestone.
  • Venus of Willendorf (28,000 − 25,000 BCE): Excavated in 1908 by Josef Szombathy in a loess deposit (fine-grained material that has been transported by the wind). More technical information about the excavation and layer deposit is found here.
  • “Venus II” from Willendorf (see suggested reconstruction here): Discovered in 1926 by Joseph Bayer. This figurine was found in a pit, lying on top of the jaw of a mammoth. This figurine is probably older than the “Venus of Willendorf.” The deep pit where “Venus II” was found went from level nine to level five. The original “Venus” of Willendorf was excavated at level nine.
  • Venus of Lespugue (24,000 − 22, 000 BCE): Discovered in the cave of Lespugue in 1922.
  • Gagarino Venus (c. 20,000 − 1,700 BCE): Excavated between 1926-1929. These figures were found in a house pit. The walls of the pit were lined with rhinocerous and mammoth bones.
  • Kostenki Venus (23,000-21,000 BCE): This term is actually a misnomer (beyond the already-problematic nickname of “Venus”) since there was a group of “Venuses” discovered at this site. The most famous one, however, is an mammoth-bone statuette discovered in 1957 by Zoya A. Abramova. Kostenki refers to 20 Paleolithic sites along the Don River in Ukraine.
  • Minoan “Snake Goddess” (c. 1600 BCE): Discovered in 1903 by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. One of the “snake goddess” figurines was located at the “palace” of Knossos in a cist (repository) on the floor of a small room (near the “Throne Room” and “Room of the Charior Tables”). Sir Arthur Evans believed that this snake goddess (and the other objects found in the cist) formed part of a cult shrine. Evans identified the figurine traditionally identified as a “Snake Goddess” in art history textbooks as a votary of the snake goddess.

Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.


The Minoans as Hippies (and an Etruscan Thought)

When I was an undergrad, one of my professors liked to compare the Minoans to the hippies of the 1960s. My teacher isn’t the only one who has made this comparison. In fact, recently Minoan lilies were cleverly dubbed “the ancient equivalent of flower power.”1

My teacher pointed out that the Minoans were very interested in nature (as evident in their art, which often depicts animals and plants) and used opium. And I think one could even (jokingly) say that the bright colors in some of the frescoes (like the hills in the Spring Fresco from Akrotiri, Thera, before 1630 BCE, shown above left) are “psychedelic.”2

I don’t mind the hippie comparison, especially if it can help students to differentiate between the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations. I do think it’s important, though, for students to know that the comparison isn’t perfect. For example, the fact that the Minoans had fortifications (despite what Sir Arthur Evans argued) and were possibly involved in human sacrifices suggest that these people weren’t all about love and peace.

Speaking of Minoans and the Spring Fresco, I was struck today about how there are some similarities between this painting and a tomb painting from the Etruscan period (“Boys Climbing Ricks and Diving,” from Tomb of Hunting and Fishing in Tarquinia, late 6th century BC, shown right). Both paintings depict brightly colored hills (with the mounds divided into multiple colors). In both cases, the hills are adorned with spindly vegetation (the Spring Fresco depicts stylized lilies, but I don’t think there is enough detail to identify the Etruscan plant). Additionally, the two paintings have birds darting about in the air. I know that over 1,000 years separate these frescoes (not to mention that they are from different geographic areas – the Minoans were on islands in the Aegean Sea and the Etruscans were on mainland Italy), but I think the similarities are interesting.

1 Mary Beard, “Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery,” in The New York Review of Books (August 13, 2009). Available online here.

2 However, I only make the psychedelic comparison with students as a joke. It has been noted that the bright colors of the rocks are actually quite naturalistic. “The colors may seem fanciful to us, but sailors today who know the area well attest to their accuracy, suggesting that these artists recorded the actual color of Thera’s wet rocks in the sunshine, a zestful celebration of the natural world.” See Stokstad, Art History, 4th ed. (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 92.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.