Thursday, October 29, 2020

Aphrodite of the East - A warrior love goddess

The cult of Aphrodite in Greece was imported from, or at least influenced by, the cult of Astarte in Phoenicia, which, in turn, was influenced by the cult of the Mesopotamian goddess known as "Ishtar" to the East Semitic peoples and as "Inanna" to the Sumerians. Pausanias states that the first to establish a cult of Aphrodite were the Assyrians, followed by the Paphians of Cyprus and then the Phoenicians at Ascalon. The Phoenicians, in turn, taught her worship to the people of Cythera.

Aphrodite took on Inanna-Ishtar's associations with sexuality and procreation. Furthermore, she was known as Ourania, which means "heavenly", a title corresponding to Inanna's role as the Queen of Heaven. Early artistic and literary portrayals of Aphrodite are extremely similar on Inanna-Ishtar. Like Inanna-Ishtar, Aphrodite was also a warrior goddess. The second-century CE Greek geographer Pausanias records that, in Sparta, Aphrodite was worshipped as Aphrodite Areia, which means "warlike". He also mentions that Aphrodite's most ancient cult statues in Sparta and on Cythera showed her bearing arms. Modern scholars note that Aphrodite's warrior-goddess aspects appear in the oldest strata of her worship and see it as an indication of her Near Eastern origins. 

Nineteenth century classical scholars had a general aversion to the idea that ancient Greek religion was at all influenced by the cultures of the Near East, but, even Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker, who argued that Near Eastern influence on Greek culture was largely confined to material culture, admitted that Aphrodite was clearly of Phoenician origin. The significant influence of Near Eastern culture on early Greek religion in general, and on the cult of Aphrodite in particular, is now widely recognized as dating to a period of orientalization during the eighth century BCE, when archaic Greece was on the fringes of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Image: A sensuous bronze figurine of Aphrodite from a mirror or oil lamp thought to be from Roman Syria, 4th-6th century CE.  that I photographed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri in 2016.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Hephaestus (Vulcan)

Hephaestus was  the Greek god of blacksmiths, metalworking, carpenters, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes and associated with those crafts that required heat. His Roman counterpart was Vulcan.  He was the patron deity of jewelers, armorers and blacksmiths.

As a smithing god, Hephaestus crafted much of the magnificent equipment of the gods, and almost any finely wrought metalwork imbued with powers that appears in Greek myth is said to have been forged by Hephaestus. He designed Hermes' winged helmet and sandals, the Aegis breastplate, Aphrodite's famed girdle, Agamemnon's staff of office, Achilles' armor, Diomedes' cuirass, Heracles' bronze clappers, Helios' chariot, the shoulder of Pelops, and Eros's bow and arrows. In later accounts, Hephaestus worked with the help of the Cyclopes in his workshop with anvil and twenty bellows that worked at his bidding. 

In Greek myths and Homeric poems, Hephaestus had a special power to produce motion and built automatons including the golden and silver lions and dogs at the entrance of the palace of Alkinoos constructed in such a way that they could bite the invaders. This animistic belief that statues could come alive can be traced back to the Minoan period.

In one branch of Greek mythology, Hera ejected Hephaestus from the heavens because he was "shrivelled of foot". He fell into the ocean and was raised by Thetis, the mother of Achilles. In another account, Hephaestus, attempting to rescue his mother from Zeus' advances, was flung down from the heavens by Zeus. He fell for an entire day and landed on the island of Lemnos, where he was cared for and taught to be a master craftsman by the Sintians  -  an ancient tribe native to that island. Although later writers attribute Hephaestus' lameness to this second fall, Homer portrays him as lame from birth.

In an archaic story, Hephaestus gained revenge against Hera for rejecting him by making her a magical golden throne, which, when she sat on it, did not allow her to stand up. The other gods begged Hephaestus to return to Olympus to let her go, but he refused, saying "I have no mother." At last, Dionysus fetched him, intoxicated him with wine, and took the subdued smith back to Olympus on the back of a mule accompanied by revelers – a scene that sometimes appears on painted pottery of Attica and Corinth.  This pottery featuring the return of Hephaestus was highly favored among the Etruscans and is thought to have introduced this myth to Etruria.

Hephaestus was worshipped in the manufacturing and industrial centres of Greece, particularly Athens. The Hephaesteum (miscalled the "Theseum") is near the agora in Athens.The cult of Hephaestus, however, was based on the island of Lemnos. 

Roman fresco depicting Thetis at Hephaestos' forge waiting to receive Achilles' new weapons from triclinium e in Pompeii domus (IX 1, 7)
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen

Bronze figurine of Hephaestus, Bronze 1st- or 2nd-century C.E. copy or adaptation of a Greek original, at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri courtesy of the museum.  Note: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City has now reopened.

Hephaestus hands the new Achilles' armor to Thetis (Iliad, XVIII, 617). Attic red-figure Kylix, 490–480 BCE at the Altes Museum in Berlin courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Bibi Saint-Pol

Hephaestus by Guillaume Coustou the Younger (1716-1777) at The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Mummy masks - an Egyptian (and Roman!) tradition

  In 2016, I had the opportunity to photograph some of the collections of the Neues Museum in Berlin, Germany. Their collection of Egyptian mummy masks included some of the most meticulously conserved examples I have encountered in my travels.  TourEgypt's comprehensive article on mummy masks does an excellent job of explaining the evolution of this form of funerary art.  An excerpt:

Funerary masks had more than one purpose. They were a part of the elaborate precautions taken by the ancient Egyptians to preserve the body after death. The protection of the head was of primary concern during this process. Thus, a face covering helped preserve the head, as well as providing a permanent substitute, in an idealized form which presented the deceased in the likeness of an immortal being, in case of physical damage. Those of means were provided with both a mask with gilt flesh tones and blue wigs, both associated with the glittering flesh and the lapis lazuli hair of the sun god. Specific features of a mask, including the eyes, eyebrows, forehead and other features, were directly identified with individual divinities, as explained in the Book of the Dead, Spell 151b. This allowed the deceased to arrive safely in the hereafter, and gain acceptance among the other divine immortals in the council of the great god of the dead, Osiris. Though such masks were initially made for only the royalty, later such masks were manufactured for the elite class for both males and females.

Beginning in the 4th Dynasty, attempts were made to stiffen and mold the outer layer of linen bandages used in mummification to cover the faces of the deceased and to emphasize prominent facial features in paint. The forerunners of mummy masks date to this period through the 6th Dynasty, taking the form of thin coatings of plaster molded either directly over the face or on top of the linen wrappings, perhaps fulfilling a similar purpose to the 4th Dynasty reserve heads.A plaster mold, apparently taken directly from the face of a corpse, was excavated from the 6th Dynasty mortuary temple of Teti, though unfortunately, this is thought to date to the Greco-Roman period.

The very earliest masks were experimentally crafted as independent sculptural work, and have been dated to the Herakleopolitan period (late First Intermediate Period). These early masks were made of wood, fashioned in two pieces and held together with pegs, or cartonnage (layers of linen or papyrus stiffened with plaster. They were molded over a wooden model or core. The masks of both men and women had over-exaggerated eyes and often enigmatic half smiles. These objects were then framed by long, narrow, tripartite wigs held securely by a decorated headband. The "bib" of the mask extended to cover the chest, and were painted for both males and females with elaborate beading and floral motif necklaces or broad collars that served not only an aesthetic function but also an apotropaic requirement as set out in the funerary spells. Hollow and solid masks (sometimes of diminutive size) were also built by pouring clay or plaster into generic, often unisex molds. To this, ears and gender specific details were than added. These elongated masks eventually evolved into anthropoid inner coffins, first appearing in the 12th Dynasty.

Masks became increasingly more sophisticated during the New Kingdom and Third Intermediate Period. These later masks made for royalty were beaten from precious metals. Of course, an obvious example of such is the solid gold mask of Tutankhamun, though we also have fine gold and silver specimens from Tanis.

However, masks of all types were embellished with paint, using red for the flesh tones of males and yellow, pale tones for females. Added to this were composite, inlaid eyes or eyebrows, as well as other details that could elevate the cost of the finished product considerably. Hence, indications of social status, including hairstyles, jewelry and costumes (depicted on body-length head covers) are often helpful in dating masks. However, the idealized image of transfigured divinity, which was the objective of the funerary masks, precluded the individualization of masks to the point of portraiture. The results are that we have a relative sameness in these objects with anonymous facial features from all periods of Egyptian history.

The use of face coverings for the dead continued in Egypt for as long as mummification was practiced in Egypt. Regional preferences included cartonnage and plaster masks, both of equal popularity during the Ptolemaic (Greek) period. The cartonnage masks became actually only one part of a complete set of separate cartonnage pieces that covered the wrapped body. This set included a separate cartonnage breastplate and foot case. During the Roman period, plaster masks exhibit Greco-Roman influence only in their coiffures, which were patterned from styles current at the imperial court. This included both beards and mustaches for males, and elaborate coiffures on women, all highly molded in relief. However, during the Roman period alternatives to the cartonnage or plaster mask, were introduced, the so-called Fayoum portraits, which were initially unearthed from cemeteries in the Fayoum and first archaeologically excavated in 1888 and between 1910 and 1911 by Flinders Petrie at Hawara. Since then, they have been discovered at sites throughout Egypt from the northern coast to Aswan in the south. Although though the portraits do appear at first to capture the unique features of specific individuals, it appears likely that only the earliest examples were painted from live models. Studies have indicated that the same generic quality that permeates the visages of the cartonnage and plaster masks persists within the group of Fayoum portraits that have been preserved and therefore we believe that they served in a similar fashion as the earlier masks.

I recognized Fayoun portraits were stylistic but did not realize they included more generic formulaic elements as is mentioned above.

Mummy mask of Pasyg. Early Roman. 1 century C.E. cartonnage, painted and gilded with glass inlays photographed at the Neues Museum in Berlin

Very formulaic Mummy mask of a woman. Egypt, Roman period, early 1st century CE. photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Another very formulaic mummy mask of a woman. Egypt, Roman period, early 1st century CE. photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Partially gilded mummy mask of the Ta-Scherit-en Hor, Ptolemaic Period, 4th - 1st century BCE, photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Closeup of a Roman period full body cartonnage mummy case found in the Fayoum region 50 CE, photographed at the Neues Museum, Berlin

Mummy of a girl ("daughter of Aline") with a gilded cartonnage mummy mask from the Fayoum region 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum in Berlin

Mummy of a girl ("daughter of Aline") with a gilded cartonnage mummy mask from the Fayoum region 1st - 2nd century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum in Berlin

Gilded textile mummy mask of Mysthas from the Fayoum region, Roman period, 1st century BCE - 1st century CE courtesy of the Neues Museum, Berlin

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Opus sectile mosaic techniques restored in the Renaissance as pietre dure

 The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida will open its newly renovated galleries to the public on October 27.  Among the items now on display include a 3400 pound carved marble sarcophagus probably from Roman Syria featuring a reclining couple surrounded by Erotes and smaller animal figures.  The piece is on loan from a private collection.  The museum also displays a 2200-year-old bronze head of Dionysus, also on long-term loan to the museum from a private collector.

The newly designed "Jade Room"  features jade, serpentine and obsidian works including masks, figurines, and a segmented crown from the  Olmec, Maya, and Aztec civilizations of ancient Mesoamerica.

Although not ancient, a piece I found particularly interesting is a 17th century pietre dure commissioned by the Medici family that was once part of the decor of a Medici villa outside Florence, Italy.  Pietre dure is an intricate process in which colored marbles and other stones are cut into thin sheets and assembled on a support to create a decorative composition. The technique reminded me very much of the 4th century CE Roman opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by the nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus on the Esquiline Hill that I saw at the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. 

 Unlike tessellated mosaic techniques, where the placement of very small uniformly sized pieces forms a picture, opus sectile pieces are much larger and can be shaped to define large parts of the design. The earliest examples have been found in Egypt and Asia Minor. The floor of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem, built during late 1st century BCE and early 1st century CE featured a opus sectile floor. Hadrian's Villa, 2nd century CE, featured opus sectile floor inlays as well. Fragments of a vegetal design from the 2nd century CE, resembling portions of the Medici work, were found in the villa of Lucius Verus in Acquatraversa.  

The popularity of opus sectile decoration continued in Rome through the 6th century CE, and decorated floors in a number of Byzantine churches. Particularly remarkable are a series of fourth-century CE panels in glass opus sectile, found in a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece.  Excavated in the 1960s, these mosaics include scenes of famous authors like Homer and Plato, scenes of Nilotic landscapes, harbor-front cities and geometric panels. 

For more information on the St. Petersburg, Florida exhibit:

Medici family-commissioned 17th century pietre dure at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg Florida, courtesy of the museum.

Opus sectile mosaic depicting the rape of Hylas by nymphs from the basilica of Junius Bassus at the Palazzo Massimo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen. 

Opus sectile representing the head of the god "Sol", Roman, early 3rd century CE from the Mithraeum discovered under the church of Santa Prisca in Rome now in the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme in Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jean-Pol Grandmont.

Glass opus sectile mosaic of a temple scene from a possible sanctuary of Isis at the eastern Corinthian port of Kenchreai, Greece 500 CE at the Isthmia Archaeological Museum courtesy of Jona Lendering,

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

The River of Forgetfulness

Near is thy forgetfulness of all things, and near the forgetfulness of thee by all. Marcus Aurelius.  Meditations.  Book 7.

Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, is one of the five rivers of the Greek underworld. The other four are Acheron (the river of sorrow), Cocytus (the river of lamentation), Phlegethon (the river of fire) and Styx (the river that separates Earth and the Underworld). According to Statius, it bordered Elysium, the final resting place of the virtuous. Ovid wrote that the river flowed through the cave of Hypnos, god of sleep, where its murmuring would induce drowsiness. The shades of the dead were required to drink the waters of the Lethe in order to forget their earthly life. In the Aeneid, Virgil (VI.703-751) writes that it is only when the dead have had their memories erased by the Lethe that they may be reincarnated.

Amongst authors in antiquity, the tiny Lima river between Norte Region, Portugal, and Galicia, Spain, was said to have the same properties of memory loss as the legendary Lethe River, being mistaken for it. In 138 BCE, the Roman general Decimus Junius Brutus Callaicus sought to dispose of the myth, as it impeded his military campaigns in the area. He was said to have crossed the Lima and then called his soldiers from the other side, one by one, by name. The soldiers, astonished that their general remembered their names, crossed the river as well without fear. 

Image: Sleep and his half-brother death, 1874, by John William Waterhouse, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, October 19, 2020

Battle sarcophagi of the 2nd and 3rd century

Discussion of a Roman sarcophagus with battle scene, Antonine Period, 2nd century CE marble at the Dallas Museum of Art: 

The complex composition of this battle scene—with warriors, horses, captives, and trophies of armor intertwined to suggest the violence and bloodshed of war—is typical of Roman relief carvings during the Antonine period (138–192 CE). The sarcophagus was probably made to celebrate the victories of a Roman general in the series of wars that Rome fought with Germanic tribesmen along the Danube frontier, in what are now Hungary and Romania; however, the prototype for the scene might have been a monument created by the Greek King Attalos I of Pergamon in Asia Minor during the 3rd century BCE, which was erected to signify the Greek defeat of the barbarian Celtic invaders. The nude warriors with torques around their necks follow descriptions of Celtic warriors by classical authors. The powerfully modeled and lively Pergamene art style was much admired during the Roman Empire. Here it seems to have been adapted to a Roman taste for historical realism. The man buried in such a battle sarcophagus, several examples of which have survived, probably wished to identify his life and career with well-known Greek scenes of military triumph. - Excerpt from Anne Bromberg, Label copy (1999.107), 2001.

I actually photographed this sarcophagus at the Dallas Museum of Art in Dallas, Texas three years before I visited the Palazzo Altemps in Rome and photographed the famous 3rd century CE Ludovisi Battle sarcophagus dating to 250-260 CE.  Its barbaric figures have been generally identified as Goths and the Romans wear mail shirts of a longer length characteristic of the later period.  However, the Ludovisi sarcophagus is considered an outlier of the trend for deceased commanders to commission such burial artwork.  Of the 25 such sarcophagi that have been found, 24, like the Dallas example, were sculpted during the Antonine Period. 

The scenes depicted were intended to represent Roman values of heroic struggle and glorification of the hero, as well as themes of good over evil and civilized men over barbarians with Romans viewing themselves as preservers of civilization.  Stylistically, the scenes were modelled after the representations seen on the column of Marcus Aurelius. 

The art historian Donald Strong points to a subtle difference in theme between the Antonine sarcophagi and the Ludovisi symbolism however. From the time of the reign of the Antonine emperors, Roman art increasingly depicted battles as chaotic, packed, single-plane scenes presenting dehumanized barbarians mercilessly subjugated by Roman military might, ironically, at a time when in fact the Roman Empire was gradually being overwhelmed by constant invasions that would ultimately lead to the fall of the empire in the West.  After this period there was a transition from mythological battle scenes to historical battles where the deceased person in the sarcophagus was specifically commemorated in the relief and his conquest of death inferred.  

"The barbarians (of the Ludovisi sarcophagus) all seem frozen in the moment before disaster and death overwhelm them. Their attitudes are highly theatrical but none the less immensely expressive... The main theme is no longer the glorification of military prowess but that of transcending the struggle, presumably conveying the notion of triumph over death ... The ugliness of pain and suffering is stressed by the dishevelled hair, the tormented eyes, the twisted mouth." - Donald Strong, Art historian

Differences in scale between the figures, though present, became far less marked than in earlier Antonine sarcophagi, too, such that the general is only slightly larger than his troops or enemies.  Nor is the general seen wearing a helmet or in the act of combat, as in the earlier sarcophagi.

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Roman Sarcophagus with Battle Scene Antonine Period  2nd century CE photographed at the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Grand Ludovisi battle sarcophagus 250-260 CE photographed at the Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Gallienus, Third Century Reformer

 Born into a wealthy and traditional senatorial family, Gallienus was the son of Valerian and Mariniana. Valerian became Emperor on 22 October 253 CE and had the Roman senate elevate Gallienus to the ranks of Caesar and Augustus. Valerian divided the empire between him and his son, with Valerian ruling the east and his son the west. Gallienus defeated the usurper Ingenuus in 258 CE and destroyed an Alemanni army at Mediolanum in 259 CE.

The defeat and capture of Valerian at Edessa in 260 CE by the Sasanian Empire threw the Roman Empire into the chaos of civil war. Control of the whole empire passed to Gallienus. He defeated the eastern usurpers Macrianus Major and Mussius Aemilianus in 261–262 CE but failed to stop the formation of the breakaway Gallic Empire under general Postumus. Aureolus, another usurper, proclaimed himself emperor in Mediolanum in 268 CE but was defeated outside the city by Gallienus and besieged inside. While the siege was ongoing, Gallienus was stabbed to death by the officer Cecropius as part of a conspiracy.

Although ancient historians did not treat Gallienus favorably, he was actually responsible for several useful reforms. He was the first emperor to commission the Comitatenses, military cavalry units that could be quickly dispatched anywhere in the empire.  The formation of these units created a precedent for the future emperors Diocletian and Constantine I.  Gallienus also prioritized more reliable equestrian commanders over senators. Classicist Pat Southern, author of "The Roman Empire from Severus to Constantine", observed that, although this policy undermined senatorial power, these reforms and the decline in senatorial influence not only helped the later emperor Aurelian to salvage the Empire, but they also make Gallienus one of the emperors most responsible for the creation of the Dominate, along with Septimius Severus, Diocletian, and Constantine I.

Dionysus (Bacchus), of course, represents the god of wine and the grape harvest, but the Romans also associated him with freedom, at times calling him Liber (meaning free).  As Eleutherios ("the liberator"), his wine, music and ecstatic dance freed his followers from self-conscious fear and care, and subverted the oppressive restraints of the powerful.  The cult of Dionysus is also a "cult of the souls." His maenads feed the dead through blood-offerings, and he acts as a divine communicant between the living and the dead.  It is probably these more somber symbols Gallienus sought to invoke with this portrait since the chaos of the Third Century was  anything but carefree.

Image: Roman portrait dated to 260 CE thought to be possibly the emperor Gallienus (253-268 CE) in the guise of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine that I photographed at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Friday, October 16, 2020

The Minoan snake goddess and other "mistresses of animals"

 The iconic figurine of a woman holding a snake in either hand with a cat sitting on top of her head discovered by Arthur Evans in the "Pillar Shrine" within the Minoan palace of Knossus, Crete is probably one of the most instantly recognized artifacts from the Minoan world.  The original faience sculpture is displayed today at the Herakleion Archaeological Museum on Crete.  But a less well known delicate figurine composed of ivory and gold, dating from 1750 to 1580 BCE, can be seen in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

In the ancient world, snakes were symbolically associated with the renewal of life because the reptile was known for sheddding its skin periodically.  This belief was shared not only by the Minoans and Pelasgians, indigenous inhabitants of the Aegean Sea region and their cultures, but by the ancient Mesopotamians and Semites as well. Within the Greek Dionysiac cult, the serpent signified wisdom and was a symbol of fertility.  Other scholars relate  the snake goddess with the Phoenician Astarte (virgin daughter) because her temples were decorated with serpentine motifs. 

Sir Arthur Evans thought the goddess may be linked to the Egyptian snake goddess Wadjet, especially since the figurine he discovered was constructed of faience, a well-known technology using a fired quartz paste that he thought the Minoans probably acquired from the Egyptians. The figurines have also been interpreted as depicting  a mistress of animals-type goddess, a widespread motif in ancient art from the Mediterranean world and the ancient Near East, showing a central human, or human-like, female figure who grasps two animals, one to each side.  Art historians frequently refer to such images using the Greek term Potnia Theron regardless of culture of origin.  The term was first used by Homer as a descriptor of Artemis because of her association with animals and was since used to describe other female divinities associated with animals. The word Potnia, meaning mistress or lady, was a Mycenaean Greek word inherited by Classical Greeks, with the same meaning.  

The snake goddess was also thought to be a precursor to Athena Parthenos, who was associated with snakes.  According to the Bibliotheca, Athena visited the smith-god Hephaestus to request some weapons, but Hephaestus was so overcome by desire that he tried to seduce her in his workshop. Determined to maintain her virginity, Athena fled, pursued by Hephaestus. He caught Athena and tried to rape her, but she fought him off. During the struggle, his semen fell on her thigh, and Athena, in disgust, wiped it away with a scrap of wool and flung it to the earth. As she fled, Erichthonius was born from the semen that fell to the earth. Athena could not abandon the infant but did not wish anyone to find out what happened so placed the infant in a box and gave the box to the three daughters (Herse, Aglaurus and Pandrosus) of Cecrops, the king of Athens, and warned them never to look inside. Pandrosus obeyed, but Herse and Aglaurus were overcome with curiosity and opened the box, which contained the infant and future-king, Erichthonius ("troubles born from the earth,"). The sisters were terrified by what they saw in the box: either a snake coiled around an infant, or an infant that was half-human and half-serpent. They went insane and threw themselves off the Acropolis. 

When he grew up, Erichthonius became king of Athens and Athena protected him. The snake was his symbol, and he was represented in the statue of Athena in the Parthenon as the snake hidden behind her shield. The most sacred building on the Acropolis of Athens, the Erechtheum, is dedicated to Erichthonius. 

The iconic figurine of a woman holding a snake in either hand with a cat sitting on top of her head discovered by Arthur Evans in the "Pillar Shrine" within the Minoan palace of Knossus, Crete in the Herakleion Archaeological Museum courtesy of Wikimeda Commons contributor Soverylittlehoneybee

Minoan snake goddess of ivory and gold dating from 1750 to 1580 that I photographed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.

Gold pin with a Mistress of the Animals (potnia theron). Gold with granulation, Greek, ca. 630 BCE at The Louvre, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Bronze sheet with embossed representation of the Mistress of animals, probably a decorative cover of an object from a Samian workshop, about 600 BCE recovered from the Sanctuary of Olympia at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Winged goddess with a Gorgon's head wearing a split skirt and holding a bird in each hand, a type of the Potnia Theron. Probably made on Rhodes. From Kameiros, Rhodes at the British Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ealdgyth.

Ivory representation of the goddess Artemis Orthia found in her sanctuary, now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marsyas (white balance adjusted).

Mistress of animals (Potnia theron) and nature on a Pithos with relief, from the years 625-600 BCE. National Archaeological Museum of Athens, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Zde.

Snake-witch (Ormhäxan) stone from Gotland, Sweden. Now in Fornsalen Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Jürgen Howaldt.

Thursday, October 15, 2020

The Duality of Aphroditus

Youth or Aphroditus statuette from Boeotia,
Greece 4th century BCE photographed at the
British Museum.
While looking through my images of artifacts in the British Museum this morning, I came across this terracotta figurine from Boeotia dated to around 400 BCE.  It is identified as merely a youth crowned with a wreath holding a puppy while another dog stands beside him.  As I studied the image, though, I wondered about the identification of it as just a youth.  The broad hips and thighs are reflective of a female form although it is clearly male.  I wondered if it may be a type of Aphroditus statue.  The deity is thought to have arrived in Athens from Cyprus in the 4th century BCE although there have been some Aphroditus herms dated to the 5th century BCE.  Aphroditus was later renamed  Hermaphroditos to reflect its parentage from Aphrodite and Hermes. The deity makes an appearance in the work, On Moral Characters, penned by Theophrastus.  A native of the island of Lesbos, Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle in the Peripatetic school. His given name was Tyrtamus, but Aristotle nicknamed him Theophrastus because of his "divine style of expression." 

Theophrastus came to Athens at a young age and initially studied in Plato's school. After Plato's death, he attached himself to Aristotle until Aristotle fled Athens then Theophrastus took over as head of the Lyceum and served in that role for 36 years. His wide-ranging interests ranged from biology, physics, philosophy, and ethics to metaphysics and he is often considered the father of botany. Perhaps he found the unique biology of Aphroditus, which does occur in nature, particularly interesting.

The British Museum points out Boeotians had their own artistic traditions and were especially prolific in the production of terracotta statuettes.  These were mostly made for dedication at shrines, another factor, along with the almost diadem-like wreath, pointing to the figurine being a divinity rather than a normal youth. Aphroditus is more commonly represented as a female lifting her skirt to reveal her male attributes.  But, as the museum points out, the Boeotians prided themselves on their difference from their hostile maritime neighbor.  

I also think the presence of the mother dog and puppy point to a reference to fertility associated with this deity.  Early 20th century scholars thought the combination of male and female in one divinity and its association with the moon, were both regarded as fertilizing powers, having an influence over the entire animal and vegetable creation process. But, these are just my own speculations. Perhaps I've studied too many treatises on Amarna art!

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Palace of Philip II of Macedon to be reopened to the public in summer of 2021

 In the summer of 2021, the palace where Alexander the Great was born, will be open for visitors although the visitor's center will not be completed until 2023. Alexander the Great, otherwise referred to as the “King of Kings”, was born on July 20 or 21, 356 BCE. in Pella, Macedonia. He led a Pan-Hellenic military campaign against Persia and in the process spread Greek culture across the entire empire he created. The palace originally encompassed about 70 acres but was looted by the Romans when the Macedonians were defeated in 168 BCE.

The structure harkens back to the style of Mycenean palace-complexes and doubled as a fortified stronghold with town inhabitants, while also having particular sectors built for royal burials. Added to this high-density usage pattern, the ancient complex occupied a rather strategic site defined by two rivers and the Pieria mountains. This military significance of the stronghold mirrored the desperate political situation originally faced by Philip II, Alexander's father.

Image: Remains of Philip II's palace at Aigae near Pella courtesy of

Sunday, October 11, 2020

The revolutionary Orientalizing Period in Mediterranean art

These gold plaques depicting a winged goddess flanked by lions were created on the island of Rhodes during the so-called "orientalizing period."  This reference in art history is used to describe a development in western art beginning in the latter part of the 8th century BCE when there was a heavy influence from the art of the eastern Mediterranean including Assyria, Phoenicia, and Egypt.  During this time Greek motifs began to shift from geometric designs to the depiction of deities, animals, and mythological creatures. 

Two schools of thought exist regarding the question of whether or not Geometric art itself was indebted to eastern models. In Attic pottery, the distinctive Orientalizing style known as "proto-Attic" was marked by floral and animal motifs. It was the first time discernibly Greek religious and mythological themes were represented in vase painting. The bodies of men and animals were depicted in silhouette, though their heads were drawn in outline. Women were drawn completely in outline. In Corinth, the orientalizing influence started earlier, though the tendency there was to produce smaller, highly detailed vases in the "proto-Corinthian" style that prefigured the black-figure technique.

These changes were triggered by population shifts brought about by both conquest and colonization.  During this period, the Assyrians advanced along the Mediterranean coast, accompanied by Greek and Carian mercenaries, who were also active in the armies of Psamtik I in Egypt.  Phoenicians settled in Cyprus and in western regions of Greece, Greeks established trading colonies at Al Mina, Syria, and in Ischia (Pithecusae) off the Tyrrhenian coast of Campania in southern Italy. The new groups started to compete with established Mediterranean merchants.

The period from roughly 750 to 580 BCE also saw a comparable Orientalizing phase of Etruscan art, as a rising economy encouraged Etruscan families to acquire foreign luxury products incorporating Eastern-derived motifs. Similarly, areas of Italy—such as Magna Grecia, Sicily, the Picenum, Latium vetus, Ager Faliscus, the Venetic region, the Nuragic civilization of Sardinia, and the Iberian peninsula, in particular in the city-state of Tartessos, also experienced an Orientalizing phase at this time. 

Classicist Walter Burkert described the new movement in Greek art as a revolution: "With bronze reliefs, textiles, seals, and other products, a whole world of eastern images was opened up which the Greeks were only too eager to adopt and adapt in the course of an 'orientalizing revolution."

Image: Gold plaques with winged goddesses flanked by lions and dangling pomegranates, a fruit originating within a region from Iran to northern India, Greek from Kamiros, Rhodes, Orientalizing Period 700-600 BCE probably worn as a collar around the neck of clothing, that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

Not all Spartans were warriors

 Although Sparta is renowned for its military prowess, there were Spartan poets, sculptors, magistrates, ambassadors, and governors as well as soldiers.  Originally, however, full citizen Spartiates were barred by law from trade or manufacture, which consequently rested in the hands of the Perioikoi, free peoples who did not enjoy full citizen-rights but were not subjected to the restrictions of helots.  Perioikoi served partly as a kind of military reserve, partly as skilled craftsmen and partly as agents of foreign trade - actually rather similar to the roles of freedmen in Roman society.

Spartans were prohibited from possessing gold and silver coins, and according to legend Spartan currency consisted of iron bars to discourage hoarding. It was not until the 260s or 250s BCE that Sparta began to mint its own coins. Though the conspicuous display of wealth appears to have been discouraged, this did not preclude the production of very fine decorated bronze, ivory and wooden works of art as well as exquisite jewelry.

Allegedly as part of the Lycurgan Reforms in the mid-8th century BCE, a massive land reform divided property into 9,000 equal portions. Each citizen received one estate, a kleros, which was expected to provide his living. The land was worked by helots who retained half the yield. From the other half, the Spartiate was expected to pay his mess (syssitia) fees, and the agoge fees for his children. However, we know nothing of matters of wealth such as how land was bought, sold, and inherited, or whether daughters received dowries. However, from early on there were marked differences of wealth within the state, and these became more serious after the law of Epitadeus some time after the Peloponnesian War, which removed the legal prohibition on the gift or bequest of land. By the mid-5th century, land had become concentrated in the hands of a tiny number of elite, and the notion that all Spartan citizens were equals had become an empty pretence. By Aristotle's day (384–322 BCE) citizenship had been reduced from 9,000 to less than 1,000, then further decreased to 700 at the accession of Agis IV in 244 BCE.  In late Classical Sparta, when the male population was in serious decline, women were the sole owners of at least 35% of all land and property in Sparta.

Image: Bronze banqueter from the tripod-support of a bronze bowl thought to be Laconian (Spartan) 530-500 BCE from Dodona that I photographed at the British Museum in 2016.