Midwife Mercada Dasa lived in the Old City of Jerusalem until 1948. In her attic she raised an unusual pet – a white female snake about a meter and a half long – and fed it sugar cubes. Just before the entry of the Jordanian Legion she left the besieged city with her family and her pet remained behind. That a midwife, whose family lived in Jerusalem since the time of the Second Temple, carried on a tradition of feeding white female snakes was part of the family’s lore, but not something anyone considered significant.
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Now Mercada’s grandson, Benny Avigdory, a 57-year-old architect at the antiquities preservation department of the Jerusalem municipality, believes she was the last practitioner of rituals from Minoan culture – a culture that predominated in the Mediterranean Basin up until about 3,400 years ago and included the tradition of worshipping a snake goddess who clutched two serpents.
In the 1990s, Benny’s sister Sigalit attended a lecture by Kimberley Patton, a scholar of ancient Greece, who related that in Minoan culture midwives raised snakes in their attics and fed them honey cakes and honey diluted with water. At the lecture, Sigalit told how her Jerusalemite great-grandmother would feed sugar cubes to a female snake. Patton was stunned; scholars had heard rumors that the tradition had continued in the Middle East but attempts to prove this or find traces of the practice had failed.
“I remember the snake very clearly,” says Mercada’s granddaughter Nitzchia Dasa (84), a retired nurse and former head of personnel at Hadassah Medical Center. “She asked me to give her sugar cubes – there wasn’t sugar like there is today. My grandmother said I shouldn’t be afraid and told me in Ladino that this is a good snake and brings only good luck.”
Avigdory believes Mercada’s snake was a kind of black racer that can be born albino. He sees the midwives as the continuation of the dynasty of Minoan priestesses and Mercada as the last of them.
As her daughters were not interested, Mercada tried to transmit her craft and secrets to her granddaughter Nitzchia, but Nitzchia preferred to study modern medicine. In 1951 Mercada died in a fall from a balcony, ending the long tradition that had been passed from woman to woman.
The Minoan culture is known mainly as the predecessor of Greek culture and the start of Western European culture. But the Minoans had a connection to the Children of Israel, too, according to Professor Israel Knohl, chair of the Bible Studies department at Hebrew University and a specialist on the Philistines. For example, the Biblical story of Samson is basedon on the Minoan-Mycenaean myth of Hercules. Others relate Samson’s tribe, Dan, to names for the Minoans, Denyen or Danai, apparently “the sea peoples” in the Bible.
Noting that Minoan culture was matriarchal, Avigdory proposes the more radical hypothesis that the Danai Minoans were not only from the tribe of Dan but also members of “the 13th tribe,” the tribe of Jacob’s daughter Dinah that is not mentioned in the Bible.
“There definitely was a presence of the sea peoples in the region,” says Knohl. “The Samson story reflects a situation of neighborly relations, a process of intermarriage and integration in the time of the Judges.” However, he is skeptical about the identity of the tribe of Dan with the name Danai. Archeologists have found many differences between the sea peoples’ decorated ceramics and the domestic utensils of the tribe of Dan, so it is hard to assume that the tribe was of Minoan origin, he says. And the claim that a Minoan cult could survive into our times and exist in an attic in Jerusalem? Knohl considers it folklore.
“That’s what's nice, that folklore has survived for 4,000 years,” counters Avigdory. In the year 2000, as part of his roots journey, Avigdory travelled to the island of Santorini, which along with Crete was a center of Minoan culture. “I began studying Minoan culture almost obsessively,” he recalls. “I felt at home there. Greece and I are connected.” Avigdory even sent saliva for a genetic test in the United States, which found that 25 percent of his genetic characteristics are Palestinian-local and 45 percent Greek-Italian. “My grandfather boasted that on his maternal side the family extended back to the Second Temple,” he says.