Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium (2004)


Presented at “Appropriation • Acculturation • Transformation,” Textile Society of America 9th Biennial Symposium, Oakland, California, October 7-9, 2004. Copyright 2004 Textile Society of America.


It is fascinating to trace the style and motifs of embroidered textiles from the Greek islands back to the political powers that held the islands in their control for centuries. Among these islands Crete has a special place in the study of Greek island embroidery. Because of its geographic location among trade routes and its political and artistic history, Crete presents an entirely different embroidery style from that of the other Greek islands. Through focusing on one motif, the two-tailed mermaid, this paper will try to construct a history of influences seen in Cretan embroidery.

The first section of the paper will provide a brief summary of Crete’s history and the types of embroidered textiles produced on the island. After brief Islamic and Byzantine control, Crete passed into Venetian hands in 1204. The Ottomans eventually took control of the island in 1669. With each dominant power in Crete, new motifs and stitches were introduced and eventually became absorbed into the local Cretan embroidery style.

The second section of the paper will investigate the history the two-tailed mermaid motif seen on Cretan embroidered textiles. Called gorgona in modern Greek, the two-tailed mermaid had been part of ancient Greek mythology as well as part of Medieval and Renaissance art. She is always shown full-face. Below her navel, her body splits into two fish-tails which coil up on either side of her; she grasps the two tails with outstretched hands as if to keep her balance. On her head is a crown. Was the motif part of Cretan art before the Byzantine and Venetian occupations and endured the influences of these two cultures? Or was this motif introduced to the island’s design vocabulary with Venetian textiles, art objects, and pattern books during the 16th century? If the motif appeared in the 16th century, could the Venetian colonizers who came with their families, not alone, to settle on the island have introduced the two-tailed mermaid motif? Is this motif evidence to prove that the relationship between the islanders and their overlords, although strained at times, never prevented an exchange of artistic ideas? Did the two-tailed mermaid motif have similar connotations in Cretan culture as it did in Medieval and Renaissance Italy?

This paper will stress the importance of old trade routes in moving traditional textile motifs from one part of the world to another and explores how new traditions have been created first by transferring artistic ideas across cultures and then styling to suit the tastes of the adopting culture. Artistic traditions are not developed in isolation but within current political and cultural climates as well as existing geographic realities. Examining these factors is of paramount importance to understanding and evaluating textile traditions.