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Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History

One of the most famous pieces of ancient Greek art, a gold and ivory statuette of the Snake Goddess, has been described as the most refined and precious relic of Minoan civilization. Alas, as Kenneth Lapatin reveals, not only is the Goddess almost certainly modern, but Minoan civilization as it has been reconstructed is largely an invention of the early twentieth century. The Goddess’s ivory and gold are of the wrong vintage, and the stories of her origins are even more recent and problematic. What makes this tale fascinating, however, is not the forgery but the motivations behind it. Sir Arthur Evans, the legendary excavator of Knossos, romanticized a sophisticated prehistoric society, and restorers working for him obligingly supplied its artifacts. Their creations formed the basis for further theories, which led to further deceptions. Evans hailed Minoan culture as “at once the starting-point and the earliest stage in the highway of European civilization,” yet its icons were largely fashioned by modern rather than ancient Cretans to suit the desires of scholars, museums, and the art market.
This astonishing book reads like a mystery, but it is also a major work of intellectual investigation, shedding light on the ways in which the past is reinvented to suit the needs of the present.

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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3 Responses

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  1. R. Hardy "Rob Hardy" says

    The Importance of a Forgery 0

  2. S. Gustafson "Holy Roman Emperor" says

    Good on the details. Sketchy for the bigger picture. 0

  3. Anonymous says

    Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess? 0

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