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Mysteries Of The Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, And The Forging Of History

Not only is one of the most famous pieces of ancient Greek art-the celebrated gold and ivory statuette of the Snake Goddess-almost certainly modern, but Minoan civilization as it has been popularly imagined is largely an invention of the early twentieth century. This is Kenneth Lapatin’s startling conclusion in Mysteries of the Snake Goddess-a brilliant investigation into the true origins of the celebrated Bronze Age artifact, and into the fascinating world of archaeologists, adventurers, and artisans that converged in Crete at the turn of the twentieth century. Including characters from Sir Arthur Evans, legendary excavator of the Palace of Minos at Knossos, who was driven to discover a sophisticated early European civilization to rival that of the Orient, to his principal restorer Swiss painter Emil Gillieron, who out of handfuls of fragments fashioned a picture of Minoan life that conformed to contemporary taste, this is a riveting tale of archeological discovery.

In Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, Kenneth Lapatin traces the murky origins (and seriously debunks the authenticity of) “the most refined and precious” surviving object of Minoan art. The gold-and-ivory figure, now residing in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, was discovered in the early 20th century by renowned archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. Other, related figures (of equally dubious origin) retain pride of place in several North American and European museums. They are almost certainly forgeries, according to Lapatin, or at best, “neither entirely genuine nor fully fake.” This is not a crime story but rather a tale of well-meaning overextrapolation. Evans, and others, took kernels of evidence to bake a large loaf of an idealized, matriarchal Cretan civilization. In short, Evans’s desire to believe clouded his scientific caution. As well, Lapatin gently points out that very often our re-creations of the past are influenced by the ideas, mores, and, even, inadequacies of our present. His book is one of calm, inviting erudition that, mercifully, avoids the mean wrangling so common in academia. –H. O’Billovich

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  1. R. Hardy "Rob Hardy" says

    The Importance of a Forgery For over eighty years, within the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, pride of place has been given to the Snake Goddess, a statue that is sixteen centimeters tall. She is a spectacular sculpture, long regarded as the pinnacle of Minoan art from the sixteenth century BCE. She is of delicately carved ivory decorated with gold, a sensuous figure in a wide skirt of multiple tiers, a narrow, belt-encircled waist, and a bodice cut so low that her ample breasts are visible. She holds snakes in her outstretched arms. She pouts. She is one of the most famous pieces of ancient art in the world, a superb example of Cretan Bronze Age sculpture.

  2. S. Gustafson "Holy Roman Emperor" says

    Good on the details. Sketchy for the bigger picture. Lapatin does a good job in sleuthing through the surviving letters and other documentary evidence. He reaches the conclusion, mirrored by the lab report contained in an appendix to the book, that the “Boston Snake Goddess” is almost certainly a twentieth century forgery.

  3. Susan E. Wood "Susan" says

    Sorry, there is no evidence of matriarchy on Crete. This is a fascinating, if disillusioning, detective story. But it confirms what I have long uneasily suspected when I lectured my students about Minoan art — that many, indeed MOST of my assumptions rested on modern recreations of that art, rather than the hard evidence of the original objects. Lapatin convincingly demonstrates here what I suspected but didn’t want to believe about the exquisite Boston ivory. More important, however, he helped me understand what I can trust and what I can’t about the heavily restored sculpture and painting from Knossos.Of course we all tend to interpret history in light of our own experiences; that’s a fact of life. However, some historians and archaeologists go farther overboard than necessary. Evans, to give him the great credit he deserves, had a wonderful and empathetic imagination, and his discovery of an ancient civilization was an extraordinary achievement. But even in his own time, his determination to make such extensive restorations to the art and architecture was controversial.One more observation: the less we know about an ancient civilization, the easier it is for us to idealize it. Even as recently as the 1960’s, Crete was usually described as a peaceable kingdom, despite the rather suspicious fact that its royal symbol was the battle axe. As for matriarchy, I hate to disappoint a previous reviewer, but the evidence for matriarchy in ancient Crete consists of two statuettes that come from secure archaeological proveniences, and a great many forgeries. The fact that the people of ancient Crete worshiped goddesses doesn’t make them unusual; so did the citizens of classical Athens, whose city housed one of the most magnificent images of that goddess ever created. But their women had about the same legal rights as their goats.Final note: Read this and then read Arthur Phillips’s entertainingly black-comic novel “The Egyptologist,” for a take on the same phenomenon that Lapatin describes here.

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