‘The Many Lives of a Snake Goddess’ project was set up by Professor Nicoletta Momigliano (University of Bristol), Professor Christine Morris (Trinity College Dublin) and Dr Ellen Adams (King's College London), with research partners including Dr Andrew Shapland of the Ashmolean Museum. We aim to investigate the discovery and reimagines of these iconic Minoan figures. ‘The Minoans’ is the modern term for the culture and people who lived on Bronze Age Crete (third and second millennia BCE). Heralded as the first civilisation on modern European soil, they built palaces, developed writing, produced high quality crafts, and the elites even enjoyed flushing toilets.
The faience ‘Snake Goddesses’ were found in 1903 in the so-called Palace of Minos at Knossos, which in Greek myth was the location of the famous labyrinth of the minotaur. The originals are now housed in the Heraklion Museum. For this project, we handled the replica plaster casts from the Ashmolean Museum, now historic artefacts in their own right (see also their inclusion in the Ashmolean Museum’s exhibition, Labyrinth: Knossos, Myth and Reality, 8th February to 30thJuly 2023).
Our wider research considers how these striking figures have been reconstructed and reimagined since their discovery. In art, music, dance, opera, advertising, and literature, they have been inspirational and influential in a wide range of contexts, including leading the procession in the 2004 opening ceremony for the Olympic Games in Athens. Here, we aim to compare three different genres and styles of English, namely audio description (AD), mindfulness, and poetry, having taken an unguided ‘pure’ look at the figurines. We encourage listeners to consider how these distinct styles of spoken/written language lead and enable you to ‘see’, notice, and engage with the figurines differently.
We start at the entrance of the labyrinth, with a short clip inviting people to look at the image for themselves as unguided viewing. The second part presents Karly Allen’s audio description (AD) of the larger figurine. AD is the vivid, verbal depiction of the visual and wider sensory experience, used to provide access to art for blind and partially sighted people. We are curious to see how much more the description enriches or changes the appreciation of and response to the figure for all viewers, including sighted ones.
We then turn to a different approach by Lucia van der Drift, who specialises in applying mindfulness techniques to art perception. This reflects a turn towards ‘slow looking’ that some museums have adopted, and the growing recognition of the use of art for mental wellbeing. Does an engagement with art give us some needed ‘time out’ from the hectic bustle of everyday life?
Finally, we have a series of 15 poems by Ruth Padel, an award-winning British poet with a special connection to Crete. She excavated on the island as a student and has published a novel set there (Daughters of the Labyrinth, 2021); furthermore, she has experience in (non-poisonous) snake handling in India as research for her novel Where the Serpent Lives (2010). Poetry offers a wider, more personally associative interpretation of these material artefacts, and suggests more paths to new meanings.
These contrasting pieces promote very different genres of English creative writing. However, there are some traditional literary links – for example, the poetry of ekphrasis has much in common with audio description. Juxtaposed, their contrasting aims and intentions invite us to rethink the questions: what do we want art to do for us? How can we reignite the power of antiquities for the modern age? And how can language be stretched to embrace and describe the range and depth of human experience? We are also keen to explore how modes of communication developed by and for people with sensory impairments, such as audio description, can benefit the experience for all (in this case, sighted people). For this reason, we invite listeners to participate in a survey available on the online recordings of these readings,
Download this booklet for transcripts of the AD, mindfulness and poems. Please note that three of Ruth Padel's poems have a visual element in addition to text.
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