Bullshit Memes #4: Snake goddesses and Vril girls

Today’s contribution to the pseudo-archaeology hall of shame is a ripper.  

There is so much misinformation in the image shown below that I struggled to know where to start.  So hats off to pseudo-'anthropologist' Robert Sepehr for sort-of-winning the internet the day he threw this puppy together in a digital image program. 

I laughed noisily…

So what is wrong here you may ask? … the answer is … lots.

Facebook dumb meme du jour

The figurines
Well let’s start with the four images photoshopped together in a casual fashion that for me alone accurately illustrate just how expansive Sepehr’s knowledge of ancient Minoan cult objects is … the answer to this btw is … 

...his understanding is not wide at all...

Only one of these ladies is an authentic faience figurine from Minoan Crete.  The other three are decidedly not.

Can you guess which one is real?

I am really hoping you chose the figurine on the right, because the 2 in the middle are the nastiest reception copies that I have come across in a while.  What don’t I like about them? … Well, their proportions are distorted, big faces doll-like and they retain too much colour to be authentic.  Real ancient Minoan faience has faded like a boss ...

Oh and they are not faience.  Pencil me in for ceramic.

The 3rd figure, on the left is also a copy, but she is a different kind of copy, a modern forgery, probably made using ancient materials and produced in the early 20th century to supply demand for Minoan figurines after Sir Arthur Evans discovered the faience figures at Knossos.  As it happens the forgery is well known, she is the ‘Boston Goddess’ in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the USA. 
  
There are in fact many good Minoan forgeries from the early 20th century (14+) and it is worth emphasising here that most of the ‘goddess’ figurines holding snakes in museum collections are modern forgeries.  There is actually only one, maybe two authentic Middle Minoan figures that  appear to hold snakes in their hands.  The rest are dodgy reception.

A smattering of the modern forgeries, note the lovely Art Deco faces: all published in Evans' Palace of Minos III and IV, 1930 and 1935.

Snake Goddesses?
But then there are other novelties here than the ‘one of these is not like the others’ gag, because the authentic faience figure from Crete shown in the meme is only partially authentic.   

Yes, that is right, only some of her is authentic.

The figure was in pieces when she was dug out of a Knossos pit (Temple Repositories) by Arthur Evans and his plucky crew, incidentally with some original pieces missing.  It is estimated that there were pieces from about 5 to 6 faience figurines jumbled in the pits, but only 2 figures were considered complete enough to restore. 

Therefore only 2 were reassembled in the early 20th century, with the assistance of the same people that made the ivory forgery.  This is because Arthur Evans wasn’t overly picky about what his restorers did in their spare time, in fact he encouraged them and he published the dubious pieces that appeared on the antiquities market, because they supported his fantasy of the Minoans as peace loving goddess worshippers. 

Oh and because he was the go to guy for authenticating Minoan art at the time … have a think about that. 

Fritz Blackolmer 2009. A Pantheon Without Attributes: Goddesses and Gods in Minoan and Mycenaean Iconography, p 28.

Evans was a man of his time and approached his excavations at Knossos from the viewpoint of a Victorian classicist, from naming the Cretan culture after king Minos, to his publications interpreting the finds. He was a slick publicist and promoted his excavations via the London press, where he generously employed references to classical myth and Homeric prose, fabricating a persona for the Minoans based substantially on his own upper class classically educated vision.

The faience figurines were interpreted by him as evidence of a Minoan cult of a great mother goddess, largely influenced by the views of prehistoric and classical scholarship at the time and findings of female ‘fertility’ figures in Neolithic sites, incidentally regardless of the fact that his figures were Bronze Age.

Sadly Evans’ creative vision of the ritual association of snakes with this cult also inspired him to have his artists and restorers incorporate snakes into figures where there were none indicated.

Early artist's sketch of the figure showing reconstruction and original pieces (dark). Source Evan's Palace of Minos 1921.

The fake bits
So what is restored on the ‘real’ faience figure? 

Well, she was more damaged than the other figure, so a little over half of her dress is modern.  Her lovely head, neck, some hair, half the hat and the ‘cat’ on the hat are not original (the cat does not belong at all).  But for our discussion, one hand including the forearm and most of her two ‘snakes’ are modern additions  (See drawings above).

Yes, that is correct, she may not have been holding snakes.  

Only a small curvy fragment in one hand was original, the rest is modern, including the important bit that would indicate a snake, the head. And, to add insult to injury, an old excavation note actually stated that the figure had originally held twine in her single hand. This is assuming of course that the hand went with the body.

The Snake Goddess/'Mother Goddess’
The larger figure that Evans named the ‘snake goddess’ or ‘mother goddess’ was also restored and had some of her snakes added too, there is possibly one snake twining along her arm and ending in her right hand.  The rest are modern.  Whether the tall hat has a snake is debatable, as the restorers added the snake head to the crown because Evans rather liked the idea, and he was thinking of the Egyptian cobra goddess Wadjet.  I am not making this up btw, he compares this symbolism in a publication.

So the myth of a Minoan snake goddess actually mainly hinges on that one possible snake head in a hand on one figure from one site in Crete (below left).  The rest was creative licence.

Original Temple Repository figurines in Heraklion Museum; Crete. Image Wikipedia

Are they Goddesses?
Now back to the authentic faience figure, who is also awkwardly unlikely to be a goddess. 

That name is another romantic concoction, dating back to the 1920s.  Even Evans who liked a good story did not think she was a goddess until 20 years later, after more (fake) figurines supported his theories.  He initially called her a Votary or Priestess/Attendant.   

But now if you search ‘snake goddess’ on the web you will get this figure first, because she is highly attractive to a modern audience, fake face 'n all, and there is nothing like a good story to roll right over evidence any day. 

However, it is just as likely that this figure is meant to represent a worshipper or priestess, because of her posture (there are other male and female votive figures from Crete), but the greater argument against is that she is smaller than the other faience figures (that may be actual goddesses, but since they are unique and not labelled, we can’t know for sure). 

Yet these few badly restored figures are the basis for an argument that there was a Minoan snake goddess.

So hardly any snakes, quite possibly no goddess, in fact.


Sepehr

Now let’s have a look at the text
Well, in his caption Robert Sepehr skips merrily along with the misconceptions about the faience figures, plus like a total newb he assumes his images are real and from sites in Crete, which as I have said, is bollocks.  Otherwise the date he gives for the Temple Repositories is more or less okay (1700-1550 BCE would be more correct), here Wiki may be his source, and it is suboptimal, because whoever made the 'snake goddess' page when I read it hadn’t quite entered the 21st century yet. 

From the Minoan goddess fantasy and using 20th century predilections for making any connection between ancient cultures Sepehr then builds much more.  He jumps forward in time more than 1000 years and cites the Greek myth of the Phoenician princess Europa whom the god Zeus abducted and carried off to Crete, to become the parents of king Minos (Lucian The Syrian Goddess). There is another version of this by Herodotus (Histories) who was a bit less fanciful and claimed the Cretans kidnapped Europa.

I guess there’s some sort of tie back to Knossos and Minoans.   

Sepehr then identifies the mythical princess Europa with the goddess Astarte which is just a tad dated and not connected to snakes, or goddesses of same, rather just exploiting geography, and likely relying on that late and discredited Roman text by Lucian (Syrian Goddess).  But in his defence he uses 'some scholars say' which is pseudo speak for 'I don't know who, but I think somebody said this'.   

Astarte was incidentally a west Semitic warrior and hunting goddess, sometimes equated with Ishtar and later associated with kingship ... zero snakes, no connection to the Minoans. Sepehr’s source appears to be English Wiki ‘Europa’, where the bright spark who wrote it makes these associations, citing Lucian, Karl Kerenyi and Robert Graves (eek). Maybe they are Sepehr's 'some scholars'.

Europa is also neatly associated with Wadjet, the Egyptian cobra goddess, but this goddess was actually associated with the Sun god, kings, unity and royal power in Egypt (looks like he wiki’ed this too, cos ‘Oracle’ English page covers this and joins the dots seamlessly together, citing Walter Burkert). But I can't exclude Evans from guilt either, as I said, he went down this road too.

Additionally, Sepehr claims Europa was associated with a city called Aphroditopolis; but there were two cities with this name in Egypt, and both were sacred to Hathor (the goddess the Greeks associated with Aphrodite … go figure).  Basically there were Aphroditopolis' all over the classical world. For all I know he may be talking about Paphos in Cyprus, which was Aphrodite’s sacred city.

Seriously, citation pls.... 

I'm guessing it was her first day on the job.  No, just kidding, the Pythia breathed noxious gas to prophecy, the snakes are modern license.  L'oracle de Delphes, from Histoire de la Magie by P. Christain, late 19th century.

Oracles and mediums
Then Oracles come in properly… No I don’t know why, although I suspect the subtle influence of  the Wiki pages and out of date theories, particularly Robert Graves because, well, The White Goddess has always been the go to book for a great goddess and he argued in it that poisonous snakes could be used for oracular practices by goddess devotees.  Just a hunch … an educated one, and Graves had a drawing of Minoan ‘goddesses’ with a snake bang on his cover … don’t look shocked, I have it, one has to start somewhere.

Sepehr

Contrary to Mr Sepehr, ancient Greek oracles were not always female nor were they all the mediums of the earth goddess Gaia …  Nup, gross generalisation … they were in fact associated with a selection of male and female gods, like Zeus, Apollo, Asclepius, Trophonius or Dione, and depending on cult, the officiant could be male or female. 

The Pythia, the famous oracle of Apollo at Delphi was female, but I can only assume he is confusing 19th century images of this Pythia handling snakes for romantic effect, (inaccurate, but kinda cool), and of course, he may also be confused by her name (she was named after the snake called Python that Apollo killed to found the temple).

So in order to make sense of citing oracles and Gaia in connection with Minoan figures I can only propose he is confusing fantasy with reality and throwing in some 19th - 20th century rationalisations about a great prehistoric mother goddess; Gaia being ‘mother earth’.


From Izak Cornelius 2008 The Many Faces of the Goddess, p. 9.

However, polytheism is way more complicated than all gods of a given gender being equivalent to one ‘great one’, no matter how attractive this sounds.  The idea of equating all ancient goddesses with one big one (like Sepehr does above) is a model straight out of the casebook of old school misogynists from monotheistic backgrounds.  The other one is the argument that male gods usurped the Neolithic cults of a mother goddess (ie Apollo usurping the oracle of Gaia).

In fact the myth of the mother goddess and prehistoric matriarchy was created by a German scholar, Johan Bachofen in his book ‘Das Mutterrecht’ in 1861, and he didn’t write it as a feminist treatise.  He wrote of matriarchy and the worship of a goddess as the most primitive form of human culture from which we evolved to male gods then one male god and of course, patriarchy. 

Not everyone responded to social-Darwinism in a positive way. 


Sepehr

But the best is left to last, the Vril girls
The only discernable connection between this and the previous paragraph appears to be the strategic use of the word ‘medium’.  Oracles are mediums, perhaps he thinks figures holding snakes were mediums too, and so were the Vril girls? …  actually I’ve got nothing.

Anyway, Sepehr crosses a continent, jumps forward about 2400 years and goes on to talk about Maria Oršić and the all female secret Vril Society (Vril Gesellschaft) that is claimed to have existed in Germany in the first half of the 20th century.  I say ‘claimed’ for a reason, because as it happens this is another modern myth that has been circulating over the last 30 years among pseudo-science adherents. 

The source of the idea, ‘Vril’ (from Latin virilis) - a magical life force - is hilariously a fantasy novel from 1871 by British peer Edward Bulwer-Lytton that was called The Coming Race, or, the New Utopia.  In this book the hero encounters a superrace living under the earth in hi-tech caves (oh look, hollow earth theory) who practice eugenics and can bend this force to their will and power machinery, also revive the dead, heal the sick, explode planets, strangle enemies with their minds (wait … ). 

The Vril-ya are utopians who are descended from refugees from Atlantis (another box ticked) and incidentally the 'bad guys' in this story.  They are presented as a threat to humanity and civilisation, not unlike prehistoric matriarchy was modelled at the same time by Bachofen.  The Vril force is incidentally strongest among the Vril-ya women, who are physically superior to men, so this is presumably the inspiration for the later myth of the female secret society run by Oršić. 

However, neither Lytton nor Bachofen was a fan of the suffragettes, and the women’s rights movement takes a beating in this parody.  So technically, the bad guys in this book are bad girls, except for the woman who naturally rejects her own people to hook up with the manly Victorian hero.

You could not make this up, Bovril is named after Vril (bovine + vril).  Bovril label from the late 19th century. Source https://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/bovril-a-very-beefy-and-british-love-affair

The Coming Race was very popular and mostly viewed as social satire, however some of the public assumed it was subversive esotericism, disguised to protect the author.  Therefore rumours were circulated about Lytton’s connections to occult societies like the Rosicrucians.  Then Helena Blatavsky and her clique weighed in and used Vril as the ultimate magical force in esoteric publications and the rest is pseudo-history.  Enthusiasm properly snowballed into the odd Vril club being formed in London and Berlin in the early 20th century. 

None of these were named the Vril Society.

In the German National Socialist era and immediately after WWII, Vril was added to the myths of esoteric research by the Nazis and their secret technologies.  Initially this was predominantly in the area of negative press, but since then the far right have jumped on board and sexed it up quite a bit.  Maria Oršić and her club of dishy followers appear to have been added in the 1990s in books about Nazi esotericism and of course their contact with aliens from Aldebaran. 

However, in reality there is no evidence of these lovely ladies existing, just the pseudo publications and the madness of the internet.  In fact the Vril Society itself, the so-called secret society that is said to have existed in Germany from the beginning to the mid-20th century also cannot be proven to have ever existed.  It was first mentioned in 1960 in another pseudo publication.  

Sure some keen occultists would probably meet in basements in 1920 and plot plottings because they’d read Lytton, seriously who hasn’t done that at one time or another?

At this point I am struggling to see the tie in to Minoan goddesses, is he suggesting Vril girls practiced their skills with the bare minimum of warm attire and waving snakes around?  Are there pictures?  Also, is this standard practice for mediums?

So many questions.

Quote by German physicist Willy Ley from American science fiction magazine Astounding Science Fiction 1947. 
From D. Huckvale 2016 A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre.

The swastika
Sepehr then goes on to cite the swastika as an important element of this society and of Vril worship which tells you exactly what sources he is using and also hints at his personal inclinations.

He rationalises a spiritual value for the symbol that links occultism 'east and west', which is incidentally a neat manipulation of his audience.  Yes, the swastika is a symbol that has had various meanings in many cultures.  And which was reinvented in the late 19th century among western occultists who cherry picked the Hindu symbol and various ancient examples. 

Sepehr

But the most important thing about symbols is contextsymbols are not universal in meaning, they are very culturally specific, and many values does not change the swastika’s value to the Nazis, which is what Sepehr is citing in a canny attempt to bring their narratives into the mainstream. 

I confess I am wary every time I see someone on the internet exclaim ‘but not all swastikas’.  Sure not all swastikas are evil, nuh, duh, but Nazi ones, yup, safe bet they are.

There is incidentally no connection to snakes, goddesses or the Minoans associated with this elaborate concoction, but it does make for magical storytelling for fascists.  Magical storytelling with common appeal, or why else would US movie makers and superhero comics regularly dust off the basic plot and retell it for a new audience, maybe with some dinosaurs and Hitler for lols.

Blackhawk comic from 1956, trust me there is quite a bit of Vril to this plot.You can read it here: http://comicbookplus.com/?dlid=14359

But to return to topic-ish .... After all what’s not to love about female only cults that could have secretly always existed, maybe with their tops off and waving poisonous snakes around for maximum effect?  Cults that have ironically been created in the fertile imaginations of western men for their own intellectual gratification, why else do the priestesses need to be young and beautiful?
 
It never ceases to impress me how misogynistic narratives can be artfully dressed up as fantasies of female empowerment while simultaniously disguising questionable agendas ... beautiful ancient female oracles, fascist mediums and great mother goddess narratives are good examples of these ... romantic window dressing.

So to wind up this shabby performance, somehow Sepehr started with some badly identified and dubious Minoan figures, jumped to ancient Greece, added a dash of ancient Egypt and Phoenicia and rather surprisingly ended up in Nazis, incidentally claiming that the magic energy Vril was known to ancient mystics ... 

urr ... again ... citation pls .....

Close
What I find most astonishing is that this Vril bollocks is basically the outcome of a British peer brutally satirising late Victorian democracy, social Darwinism and the suffragette movement (I bet he was surprised).  Just as the Minoan 'snake goddess' myth is largely the outcome of another British peer having plenty of cash, a large shovel and a creative imagination based on a classical education from an esteemed British university.

However, hats off to Robert Sepehr for knowing bugger all about ancient topics, for his deft use of the best of sources, Wikipedia, and for somehow tying together a lot of unrelated concepts, misinformation, misogyny, boobs, Nazis, neo-paganism, some tourist knock offs, a forgery and a botched restoration, and yet presumably making something that his fans might actually buy into …  

It boggles the mind actually.

I guess that’s a skill of sorts, however, I find he has a very casual approach to accuracy and a degree of incoherency to his writing style …

Seriously the reader ought not to need a cipher to make sense of this manipulative mishmash. 

Buyer beware.

Andrea Sinclair



Further Reading and sources
PS: If you think I am citing the pseudo-conspiracy theory sources you are wrong... Google Vril Gesellschaft (if you google this in English you will get the modern myths, however there are good critiques available in German).

Minoan figurines
E. Miller Bonney 2011. ‘Disarming the Snake Goddess: A Reconsideration of the Faience Figurines from the Temple Repositories at Knossos’. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 24.
K. Butcher and D. Gill 1993. ‘The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess and Her Champions: The Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess’ American Journal of Archaeology 97.
C. Eller 2012. ‘Two Knights and a Goddess: Sir Arthur Evans, Sir James George Frazer, and the Invention of Minoan Religion’. Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 25. 
K.D.S. Lapatin 2002. Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History.
K.D.S. Lapatin 2001. ‘Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses’. Archaeology 54.
J.A. Macgillivray 2000. Minotaur, Sir Arthur Evans and the Archaeology of the Minoan Myth.
Panagiotaki, Marina 1993. ‘The Temple Repositories of Knossos: New Information from the Unpublished Notes of Sir Arthur Evans.’ Annual of the British School at Athens 88
D. Panagiotopoulos ‚Arthur Evans’ langer Schatten’, Abenteuer Archäologie 5
A. Sinclair 2013 ‘Enduring Fictions of Late Victorian Fantasy: Sir Arthur Evans and the Faience Goddesses from Minoan Crete’. Ancient Planet 5.
C. Tulley 2018. ‘The Artifice of Daidalos: Modern Minoica as Religious Focus in Contemporary Paganism’. International Journal for the Study of New Religions 8
C. Tulley - Necropolis Now
http://necropolisnow.blogspot.com/2007/08/snake-goddess-fake-goddess.html


Astarte and Europa
Herodotus Histories
Lucian The Syrian Goddess
R. Schmidt.2013. Astarte, Mistress of Horses, Lady of the Chariot: the Warrior Aspect of Astarte. Die Welt des Orients.
Iconography of Deities and Demons in the Ancient Near East:
http://www.religionswissenschaft.uzh.ch/idd/
I. Cornelius: Astarte http://www.religionswissenschaft.uzh.ch/idd/prepublications/e_idd_astarte.pdf

Oracles
D. Ogden 2001. The Ancient Greek Oracles of the Dead. Acta Classica.
Oracles: King's College: 
http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/ancoracles.html?fbclid=IwAR34f7vuykLhq2LXHJYfjaWqKbSroulHmZzYV_0MG-C47wp_z_VImtLWeTU

Matriarchy as myth
C. Eller 2000. The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory: Why An Invented Past Will Not Give Women a Future. Beacon.
A. Fleming 1969. ‘The Myth of the Mother-Goddess’. World Archaeology 1(2).
J.A. Hackett 1989. ‘Can a Sexist Model Liberate Us? Ancient Near Eastern ‘Fertility’ Goddesses’. Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5.
A. Sinclair 2012. ‘Erroneous Terms in Archaeology and Popular Literature: the ‘Mother Goddess’, or Why I Can be Tiresome at Social Engagements’. Ancient Planet 3. https://issuu.com/ancientplanet/docs/vol.3

Vril
E. Bulwer-Lytton 1871. The Coming Race. 
P. Fitting 2017. ‘Underground Worlds’. In Routledge Encyclopedia of Imaginary Worlds.
D. Huckvale 2016. A Dark and Stormy Oeuvre: Crime, Magic and Power in the Novels of Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
J.J. Kripal 2011. Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics and the Paranormal.


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