02 February 2014

A Lyrical Literary Miracle: More Sappho (2 Updates)

The Tenth Muse

Although they are
only breath, words
which I command
are immortal .*

So said Sappho over 2,600 years ago and time has proved her right. 

Yet, until 2004, the world could read only three complete poems by the Lesbian poet.  In that year, a fourth poem was discovered and, now, just this January, we have been given a fifth. 

More about the new poems in a moment.  Be patient, and you'll be among the very first to read the newest of the new poems in an English translation which appeared only two days ago.  But, first, a word about what we don't have.

There were once nine books of her poems that were written down in the 7th century BCE.  By the time of Tzetzes, a 12th century CE chronicler, most of her poems had already vanished (Since the passage of time has destroyed Sappho and her works, her lyre and songs....).  All that is left to us now are small scraps of papyrus, often with just a single legible word or two (such as down-rushing to describe a wind, or gold-knobbed goblets with no explanation) and disjointed phrases giving the middles of some lines and the ends of others (like my favourite, tender but obscure,  far more sweet-sounding than a lyre . . . more golden than gold . . .).  Sixty-three fragments retain a complete line while only 21 can boast a whole stanza.  That's what had survived of the writings of a woman who, as Plato said, should be honoured not merely as a great lyric poet but as one of the Muses, the goddesses who inspire all art:
Some say there are nine Muses: how careless!
Look -- Sappho of Lesbos is the tenth!
Poem # 4

Then, just a decade ago, a papyrus manuscript containing fragments of three of her poems, one previously unknown, was discovered in the archives of the University of Cologne.  That papyrus (left) was found in the cartonnage of an Egyptian mummy -- that is, the flexible layer of papyrus strips which was moulded while wet into a plaster-like surface around a mummified wrapped body, so that designs could be painted on it.  The text had been copied onto the original papyrus scroll early in the third century BCE, not much more than 300 years after Sappho wrote, which made it the earliest manuscript of her work then known. 

The scholars who unwrapped it realized that parts of the new poem corresponded to a fragment found in 1922 in one of the ancient rubbish heaps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus.  In the Oxyrhynchus portion, we had only line-ends, preceded and followed by line-ends of other poems, and it was not clear where one poem ended and the next began. By putting all the bits and pieces together, rather like a jigsaw puzzle, they recreated a substantially complete poem of twelve lines, made up of six two-line stanzas.  This brought the number of Sappho's complete poems to four. 

As 'A New Sappho Poem', it was published in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS 24 June 2005) with the 'new' original Greek and an English translation by Prof. Martin West, emeritus fellow of All Souls, Oxford, a renowned translator of Greek lyric poetry, and on any reckoning the most brilliant Greek scholar of his generation.  Remarkably, within a month, two poets, Lachlan Mackinnon and Edwin Morgan, published further translations with slight differences in tone and emphasis, also in the TLS (click on their names to read them).  

Three translations in so short a time feels like an embarrassment of riches!

Some will prefer West's version, some Mackinnon's or some again Morgan's, but I say that the finest, which appeared in the TLS half a year later, is by Richard Janko; and here it is:

Pursue the violet-laden Muses’ handsome gifts, my children, and the loud-voiced lyre so dear to song;

But me - my skin which once was soft is withered now by age, my hair has turned to white which once was black, my heart has been weighed down, my knees give no support which once were nimble in the dance like little fawns.

How often I lament these things. But what to do?

No being that is human can escape old age.

For people used to think that Dawn with rosy arms and loving murmurs took Tithonus** fine and young to reach the edges of the earth; yet still grey age in time did seize him, though his consort cannot die.
I imagine that Sappho's contemporaries must have heard a song ringing something like this, perhaps responding to it as did Solon ( ca. 638-558 BCE), ruler of Athens and no mean poet himself, who asked for someone to teach him her song "so that I may learn it and die."

Poem # 5

Papyrus fragments that were recycled as mummy casings continue to surface on the market, since many of them belong to private collectors.  Last year, a very lucky private collector walked into the office of Dirk Obbink, Lecturer in Papyrology and Greek Literature at Oxford University and Director of the Ancient Lives Project for imaging papyri.  The anonymous collector, who presumably had no idea of what it contained, showed Dr Obbink a tattered scrap of papyrus, probably dating to the late 2nd or early 3rd century CE.

The papyrologist quickly realized what he was looking at  -- "indubitably" in his words, parts of two previously unknown poems by Sappho.  Dr Obbink asked for permission to publish the papyrus and his preliminary article, which includes a transcription of the fragmentary poems, has just appeared in an on-line version (link restored).

This is a spectacular literary discovery. 

One of the poems is remarkably well preserved, with just a few letters missing and not a single word in doubt.  Elements of this longer poem link up with fragments already known to be by Sappho, while the metre and dialect in which the poems are written point to her as well.  The clincher is a reference to her brother, Charaxos – who is named by Herodotus, the fifth-century BC historian, when describing a poem by Sappho that recounts the tale of a love affair between Charaxos and a beautiful slave in Egypt; as well as to her younger brother Larichus who was previously known only by name.  Appropriately, this has been dubbed 'the Brothers poem'.

The Brothers poem depicts an exchange between two people concerned about the success of Charaxos’ latest sea voyage. The speaker -- perhaps Sappho herself -- advises that a prayer to Hera would be the best way to ensure this success, and expounds on the power of the gods to aid their favourites. The poem’s final stanza speaks of Larichos, Sappho’s younger brother, “becoming a man…and freeing us [Sappho’s family?] from much heartache.”

And now -- just two days ago -- Prof. Tim Whitmarsh (University Lecturer in Greek and Professor of Ancient Literatures at Oxford University) published the first translation of this poem in The Guardian newspaper.  'Read Sappho's "New" Poem' here:
But you always chatter that Charaxus is coming,
His ship laden with cargo. That much, I reckon, only Zeus
Knows, and all the gods; but you, you should not
Think these thoughts,

Just send me along, and command me
To offer many prayers to Queen Hera
That Charaxus should arrive here, with
His ship intact,

And find us safe. For the rest,
Let us turn it all over to higher powers;
For periods of calm quickly follow after
Great squalls.

They whose fortune the king of Olympus wishes
Now to turn from trouble
to [ … ] are blessed
and lucky beyond compare.

As for us, if Larichus should [ … ] his head
And at some point become a man,
Then from full many a despair
Would we be swiftly freed.
The new Sappho papyrus probably came from Egypt and perhaps from Oxyrynchus, but its provenance may never be known. A thriving black market for papyri means that many of them emerge not from archaeological digs but from souks, bazaars and antiquities shops. And there are yet more thousands of unpublished papyrus fragments in museum and university collections. 

The bottom line: two papyri with 'new' poems by Sappho have appeared in just the last ten years.  There is hope, there is hope.  
You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us.***

* Most unusually, this text (Edmonds [Loeb 1928] Lyra Graeca 1a) comes not from a papyrus but from a vase painting. Translation by Mary Barnard, Sappho: a New Translation, Berkeley, 1958, no. 9.

** As in so much Greek poetry, Sappho invokes myth to make her point.  Tithonus was a youth so beautiful that the dawn-goddess took him as husband. At her request Zeus granted him immortality. But she forgot to ask for eternal youth.  So, unlike his immortal lover, Tithonus grew old and feeble, having eventually to be shut in his chamber "where he chatters away endlessly but barely has the strength to move", as Dr West says.  Dr Janko has a more elegant explanation:  a crucial feature of the myth of Tithonus familiar to Sappho’s contemporaries, but unknown to all but a few of her readers today, is that, in legend, the aged Tithonus turned into a cicada, a 'singing' insect that the Greeks thought had an immortality of a sort, since it  rejuvenated itself by shedding its skin.  Thus, Tithonus can continue to sing for ever -- an ideal image for the aged poet herself, with her wish to have her poetry win glory beyond the grave.

** Edmonds (Loeb 1928) Lyra Graeca 76. Translation by Mary Barnard, Sappho: a New Translation, Berkeley, 1958, no. 60.

Updated  4 February 2014

Three major items in the last few days:

1. Who was first to translate the 'Brothers Poem' into English?  Tim Whitmarsh (who is quoted above) was certainly first to publish in the major media (The Guardian and, again, in HuffPost Culture UK), both appearing on 30 January.  But he may have been pipped at the post by Steve Dodson who translated the poem on his blog LanguageHat, as 'New Sappho!' on 29 January (followed by an interesting discussion and revisions in the comment section).

But the first first-prize really must go to the eminent literary critic (and author of Sappho's Gift: The Poet and Her Community [in Italian 2007; in English 2010]) Prof. Franco Ferrari whose translation into Italian appeared on the 19th of January at Roberto Rossi's website, Il grecoantico: versioni, cultura, testi, letteratura, 'Se Larico diventasse finalmente uomo!  A real treat for my Italian readers.

2. The second, quite scrappy poem on the new papyrus has now been translated by Thomas H. Buck and Katy Waldman on the Slate Culture Blog (along with their own version of the 'Brothers Poem') on 31 January: 'Read Two newly Discovered Sappho Poems in English for the First Time' -- which is true of the second if not of the first.  Here is their version of what remains of the Aphrodite (Cyprian goddess) poem:
How could anyone not gorge always
Cyprian goddess, whomever you should love
and fervidly wish to call back to you?
You have …

Having summoned me idly you cut
longing …  
This is normally what you get, the little that remains of nearly all of Sappho's poems -- which underlines just how exceptional is the virtually complete 'Brothers Poem'.

3.  All is not well in academia.  Dr Dirk Obbink has taken his draft article off-line (so it's no use clicking on the link given above; it is broken) after being harshly criticized for pre-publishing the new Sappho papyrus which is without provenance and the property of an anonymous collector.  5 February 2014: the link has been restored.  Strictly speaking, scholars are not supposed to publish dodgy papyri, however enticing (and authentic) their contents.  The increasingly acrimonious tone of blogging and twittering is best caught on Adrian Murdoch's Bread & Circuses blog, 'Growing Anger at Lack of Response to Sappho Discovery'.  I, for one, hope that Dr Obbink will come back on-line to calm his critics.  More updates will possibly follow.

Updated 6 February 2014

Dirl Obbink returns to the fray with a punchy article, 'New Poems by Sappho', in the Times Literary Supplement (TLS 5/02/14), that staunch support of Oxford dons.  He calls the new Sappho poems 'an Oxford secret' -- which is a secret you tell one person at a time.  It seems to me that he may have intended his pre-publication online draft simply as an alert to papyrologists -- hence, the new texts were given in Greek only -- whereas the TLS  is meant to reach a wider educated and academic audience.  Perhaps he hadn't planned on Sappho going viral.

Of especial note, Dr Obbink writes about provenance, telling us first that "the papyrus’s text was found to overlap, in two narrow vertical bands of letters, with fragments of two previously published papyri containing fragments of Sappho."  If I understand correctly, this fragment is from the same scroll as two fragments published long ago, which presumably had passed provenance muster.  And he states unequivocally that it has "documented legal provenance."  I hope this closes the rather sordid episode of loud whispering and twittering.

The TLS article also gives a new English translation of the 'Brothers Poem' by Christopher Pelling, Regius Professor of Greek at the University of Oxford.  It seems, doesn't it, that Sappho and Oxford go together like love and marriage.  And there is a translation, too, (also by Prof. Pelling) of the fragment now dubbed the 'Kypris poem'.  Which translations do I prefer?  Ah, that's an Oxford secret.

Sources: In addition to those published in the TLS (all clickable, above), I have made use of James Romm, Scholars Discover New Poems from Ancient Greek Poetess Sappho, The Daily Beast, 28/01/14; Charlotte Higgins, Sappho: Two Previously Unknown Poems Indubitably Hers, Says Scholar, in The Guardian, 29/01/14; Laura Swift, New Sappho Poems Set Classical World Reeling, on The Conversation, 30/01/14; Richard Welland Crowell, Sappho's Lyric Poetry, AncientGreekOnLine, 2009;  Holt N. Parker, Sappho Schoolmistress, 1993; D.A. Campbell, Greek Lyric I (Loeb) 1982; Sappho biography by The Poetry Foundation


Top:  Bronze Bust of Sappho. Roman copy of Greek original of ca. 350 BCE, Naples, Museo Archeologico Nationale, Inv. 4896.  Photocredit via King's Collections, King's College London.

Above left: University of Cologne Papyrus (2004). Photocredit via William Harris, Sappho: New Poem No. 58from the Koln Papyrus.

Middle left: Portrait of Sappho, identified after other inscribed portraits representing the poet with the same hairstyle.  Black basalt, modern copy (16th–18th centuries) after a Greek original, possibly an ancient bust reworked. Photocredit: From the Kircherian Museum in Rome, Accession number Inv. 65167, Photographer/Source Jastrow (2006). 

Bottom left: Plaster cast of  middle-to-late 1st century BCE bronze bust from the peristyle garden of the House of the Papyri, Herculaneum; Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam, Inv. Nr. 16162.  The Allard Pierson is doing a clever fund-raiser, Haal ons van zolder (Take us down from the attic) to move their many beautiful plaster casts of Greek and Roman sculpture into newly furbished public exhibition rooms.  To pay for the costs of the move, they are 'auctioning off' the casts.  Sappho cost just Eur 75 -- I 'bought' her, so she should be on her way out of the closet quite soon.

19 January 2014

Wrack and Ruin in Syria

It's hard to understand the scale and spread of killing in Syria, until you see this map.  

So, Jacopo Ottaviani, a freelance journalist who also describes himself as a map lover, made this map which has just appeared in Foreign Policy magazine:

It visualizes the approximately 74,000 people who died  [in Syria] from March 2011 to November 2013. Every flare represents the death of one or more people, the most common causes being shooting, shelling, and field execution. The brighter a flare is, the more people died in that specific time and place.
Ottaviani's map -- unlike mine -- is animated so you can watch the flares  growing in size and frequency as the fighting spreads from a smattering of towns three years ago to reach the political and commercial capitals of Damascus (= scus, its last letters just seen on the lower-left of the map) and Aleppo -- that most ancient and glorious city now so badly damaged that its battered buildings, debris fields, and bomb craters can be seen from outer space.  Meanwhile, the Death March moved relentlessly on to the borderlands and into the Kurdish northeast.  Growing like a cancer, as Ottaviani puts it.

And then the counting suddenly stops -- at 74,000 deaths, a grim milestone reached in November 2013.  Not because the violence had subsided.  On the contrary, best estimates now reckon more than 100,000 Syrian lives lost.  But because United Nations is no longer updating its casualty figures:
"It was always a very difficult figure," a U.N. spokesman told the Associated Press. "It was always very close to the edge in terms of how much we could guarantee the source material was accurate. And it reached a point where we felt we could no longer cross that line. So for the time being, we're not updating those figures."
Counting or not, the brutal war grinds on.

The plucky independent Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) still keeps a daily tally. Today's figures are not yet out but yesterday 194 people were killed; the day before, 201 died.  The reports become almost laconic:
The SOHR received footage of the slaughter of the 3 members of the military intelligence ambushed by the town of al-Husun, initially reported on 12/1/2014. Their throats were slit and their heads cut off by fighters from Jund al-Sham. This was done in the Krak des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage [Site]. The video also showed the summary execution of a man accused of dealing with the Syrian intelligence.
And so it goes.

Krak des Chevaliers is far from being the only archaeological site under fire.  

Spot the tanks 

Moderate to severe war-related damage has been confirmed by satellite images at 10 out of 30 studied sites in a recent survey.

Take Tell Qarqur in northwest Syria (near Hama), for example -- hardly a World Heritage Site but its mound (left) contains the history of 10,000 years of human occupation.  Recent images show pretty clearly what's happening there: tanks are sitting inside bunkers carved into the top of the mound (at the black arrows).  Apparently, the prominent surfaces of ancient mounds built up over several millennia serve as strategic grounds for military installations overlooking the flat surroundings.


Tanks are up on the hilltop citadel that overlooks Palmyra, too.  And, as you see from Ottaviani's map, the fighting has not spared Zenobia's city. I counted over 60 incidents flashing on the map, starting slowly, then one-right-after-the-other, a pause, and it flared up again, rat-a-tat-tat.  Zenobia's blog has been covering the violence in Palmyra since March 2012 but, after a suicide bombing in February 2013, it became eerily silent.  As the map shows, however, there was no pause in the killing.  Nor does there appear to have been a pause in the looting of its archaeological treasures.

Aqma is missing

The limestone funerary portrait of Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeuja (left) has just appeared on the Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.  She is number 9 on this list published by the International Council of Museums.  Aqma died some time in the middle of the 2nd century CE and her effigy was placed in the elegant Breiki family tomb in the southeast necropolis.  After the Breiki tomb was excavated (1958), her portrait was taken along with those of her relatives to the Palmyra Museum.  If she was stolen, I fear the worst.

Museums, auction houses, art dealers and collectors are encouraged not to acquire such objects without having carefully and thoroughly researched their origin and all the relevant legal documentation.... Any cultural good that could have originated from Syria should be subjected to detailed scrutiny and precautionary measures.

Fat chance!  Aqma is probably already hanging on a marble wall somewhere in Saudi or in the Gulf .  The interest such collectors have in the preservation of Syrian antiquities is always in inverse proportion to their desire to flaunt their riches.

The kidnapped Aqma was last seen with her right hand touching the edge of her veil where it drapes over her shoulder -- as if in the act of drawing a curtain around her personal space.*  It is now truly curtains, I fear, for Aqma.

* Quotation from Jennifer Heath, The Veil: Women Writers on its History, Lore, and Politics.  Univ. of California (2008) 28.

Sources: In addition to Jacopo Ottaviani's article, 'Death March' in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy, I have made use of the Facebook page of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR); Denise Chow, writing for LiveScience on August 19, 2013 , 'Syria Civil War Scars Seen from Space';  Megan Gannon, again for Live Science on January 17, 2014, under the same title.


Top: With the kind permission of the developer, Jacopo Ottaviani, a screenshot of his CartoDB map, the original of which appeared in the January 15, 2014 issue of Foreign Policy

Middle: Military tanks inside bunkers carved into the ancient mound of Tell Qarqur.  Photo credit: Google Earth (view full size image here), via  Live Science, January 17, 2014.

Below: Limestone funerary  relief ca. 150 CE from the Brieki Tomb.  Inscribed "Aqma, daughter of Atelena Hajeula, Alas!"  Her hair is piled up in the ornate Roman style called melon rib, fashionable from the middle of the second century into the third.  Her jewellery was once gilded and other parts were painted, traces of which can still be seen.  Palmyra Museum B  2666/8967.   Photo credit:  Syria, Land of Civilization, Travelling Exhibition 1999, Quebec, Cat. # 334.

06 January 2014

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan (Part III)

(Part I,click here; Part II, click here)

The collection and interpretation of mother-goddesses is just a harmless outlet for the sexual impulses of old men.

Minet el-Beida (Ugarit) Syrian coast, 14/13th BCE. H. 9.2 cm
Thus spoke the great archaeologist Gordon Childe shortly before he jumped to his death from Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains of Australia.  Of course, his insight into the male passion for ancient goddesses had nothing to do with his suicide -- but, still, he knew that his time was running out....

Come on, sailor

I confess that it's easy to conjure up a lascivious fantasy or two about this voluptuous naked lady (left) discovered in Minet el-Beida, the port of Ugarit. 
Ooh baby, ooh baby
You've got me reelin'
You've got me swingin' to your melody
I'm in a hot house
Come on, sailor.
Her hairdo with long Hathor curls falling almost to her pubescent breasts, wide pubic triangle and rounded thighs make an alluring image of femininity.  Perhaps the long-stemmed flowers she was holding in her hands hinted at her heavenly smell.   And standing on a crescent moon that floats above some stars could have promised an otherworldly experience. 

So much for the fantasy. 

Now, back to earth.  Is she, in fact, the Q-goddess, Qedeshet?

L: Tel ed-Duweir, 1300-1050 BCE. H. 8.5.  R: Akko, bronze pendant. ca.1300 BCE. H. 8.3

The Q-goddess

So who, really, is Qedeshet? 

Her name Qdš(-t) simply means 'holy'.  As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat.  The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all?  She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions.  Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt.  There, she is honoured with such typical titles as 'Lady of heaven' and 'Mistress of all the gods' -- which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt.

What seems to have happened is this.  From the late Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 BCE) onwards, Canaan was under Egyptian rule. 
Deir el-Medina  (Thebes) 19th Dyn. Qedesh with Min & Reshep
Gods and goddesses moved with the armies back and forth in both directions.  Canaanites were envious (I would imagine) of the power of Egyptian deities and freely borrowed their attributes -- in our case, all those Hathor curls and lily-lotus flowers.  In return, Canaanite gods travelled to Egypt on the backs of soldiers, POW's and slaves. Once installed there, some became very popular with native Egyptians as well and were integrated with interesting local deities (as right, the Canaanite naked goddess with Egyptian Min on her left).  So, when we see a picture of the naked goddess in Egypt inscribed with words such as Qedeshet, lady of heaven, great of magic, mistress of the stars, we wonder if the artists were illustrating the Canaanite Q-lady, or a generic Canaanite naked goddess that had been taken over and developed in Egypt itself.  In other words, when the Egyptians borrowed the naked-female, did they mistake 'holy' for her own name?  In which case, the goddess may have been baptized in Egypt and not in her original Canaanite home.


Minet el-Beida (Ugarit), Syrian coast. 14/13th C BCE.
Meanwhile, back in Canaan, we have seen a considerable variety in the looks of the nude females whether on gold pendants or clay plaques.  The way she is pictured varies tremendously.  As Kim Benzel says, "it is fair to state that the sole common denominator among these objects is their emphasis on nudity."*

At the risk of being vulgar, I would go further: while nudity is certainly important, the pubic triangle is absolutely vital.  The pudendum is almost always inescapably emphatic, not just overly large but often embellished with hair-dots and, sometimes, even with a slit.  Little or nothing is left to the imagination.

You could hardly be more explicit. 

Rings on her fingers, bells on her toes

Tel Batash, Palestine. 14th C BCE. H. 13

Forget for the moment all the supposed fertility and mother goddesses.  Remember what we said earlier (Part I): While there was a multitude of goddesses, there were even more women than goddesses.

What if the naked female is just a woman?  In that case, she is clearly a woman who is visually defined by the pubic area + breasts + prominent face + (in most cases) jewellery.  The jewellery is often profuse,  either pictured as the necklaces and/or bracelets, armlets and anklets worn by females (like the bracelets and anklets on the plaque, left) or it is both pictured and inherent in the object itself as when the pendant is made of gold.  In other words, the image carries -- perhaps it even promotes -- a specific idea of a woman.

Certainly, you can relate the pudendum and breasts to ideas of fertility but then you have to explain away the prominent face and all the jewellery, neither of which has any direct bearing on fertility. But what if the idea behind the image is an expression of female sexual desire? This is what Kim Benzel argues in a refreshing new approach to the nude female pendants and plaques.*  As she says, "In combination (my emphasis), these features seem far better suited to a reading of female eroticism than the ... interpretation of fertility alone." 

Sex in the Raw? 

Tel Harasim, Palestine, LB II. H. 7.7.
Let's get rid of Protestant prudery once and for all.  People in the ancient Near East were far more comfortable with the idea of overt sexuality than those of us still lingering in the Hellenistic or Judeo-Christian traditions today.  Chastity and virginity apparently had no special importance for them and women were not expected to conceal their deepest sexual impulse. On the contrary, sexuality had an unequivocally positive connotation.  Sexual allure (kuzbu in Akkadian) was enhanced by jewellery and facial cosmetics as well as through nudity, and was specifically linked to sexuality -- and not to fertility.  As Benzel puts it,
[I]t is the nude, bejeweled, and beautified body that represents the physical manifestation of eroticism and sexual attractiveness, features and characteristics equated in the ancient Near East with vitality, power, and well-being rather than with indecency and vulgarity.*   
Tel el-Ajjul, Palestine, 1600-1500 BCE. H. 8.0
Benzel thus understands the function of the pendants and plaques as the physical expression of sexual allure, or kuzbu.  This does not, of course, deny other piggy-backing interpretations.  A pendant could also refer to a myth, a goddess, a cult or votive act, in addition to being an erotic item of personal adornment.  The gold pendants were meant to be worn on the body as jewellery, to attract the eye and draw attention to the body wearing it.  The worn surfaces of the clay plaques testify to extensive handling in some related activity.  But, whether precious pendant or cheap plaque, "the primary and most consistent interaction between image and object seems to be one that refers to the elemental aspects of eroticism and sexuality."  The naked female thus represented the ideal of female sexuality.  "I believe," Benzel concludes, "these ornaments represented personal, private, and highly animated expressions of sexual allure, or kuzbu -- images that interacted ... powerfully with the individual bodies they adorned". 

If she is right, the pendants and plaques were ultimately images about themselves: in a sense, they perform sexuality. In doing so, they surely endowed their wearers with similar eroticism and sexual allure.  
Now I'm lovin' and it feels okay
We let our lovin' take us far away
Ooh baby, ooh baby.

* K. Benzel, 'Ornaments of Interaction: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age', In (J. Aruz, S.B. Graft, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium, MMA, New York (2013) 258-267.

Sources: In addition to those listed in Part I and II, Chaka Khan – Be Bop Medley, lyrics of 'Come on, sailor' via Lyricsfreak


Upper left:  Louvre Museum AO 14716. Embossed gold leaf plaque, 13th C BCE, Minet el Beida, port of Ugarit, Syria: "A few tombs in Ugarit that have survived intact have given up a rich hoard of jewelry. This gold pendant, representing the nude figure of the great goddess of fertility, was part of a necklace consisting of several pieces of gold leaf and carnelian beads." Photo credit: © 2004 RMN/Franck Raux.

Centre: (left)   BM 1980,1214.2266. Terracotta plaque from potter's workshop, Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), dated 1300-1050 BCE. (right)  Bronze applique plaque cast in mould, from Akko tomb B3, ca. 1300 (stolen).  Drawings after Keel, Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Continuum, 1998, Figs. 69, 70.

Right: BM EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh.  Naked goddess identified as 'Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven' flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep.  Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19).  Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.

Lower left 1: Gold pendant with nude goddess, Minet el-Beida (port of Ugarit), c. 14-13th C BCE, Louvre Museum.  Photo credit: © A.K. (Insecula).

Lower left 2: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, Jerusalem.  Terracotta plaque from Tel Batash (Timnah north), 14th century.  Photo credit:  Israel Antiquities Authority, IAA 2001-2232 (© The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, 1995 - 2014).

Lower left 3: Museum Hashephela, Kfar Menachem.  Terracotta plaque from Tel Harasim (near Beth Shemesh), LB II.  Photo cf.: Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Fribourg, 2004, Cat. 5-24.

Lower left 4: Ashmolean Museum (number not known).  Gold pendant from Tel el-Ajjul, 1600-1500 BCE.  Photo credit: Eva, Mutter alles Lebendigen, Bibel und Orient Museum, Fribourg (via Doris Wolf: Das andere Aegypten-Buch).

24 December 2013

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan (Part II)

(Part I click here)

If this isn't love, tell me what it is....

Minet el-Beida, N.Syrian coast, c. 1300 BCE. H. 7.3
What's the message of this naked woman on the gold pendant (left), pictured in some detail with Hathor hairdo, thick necklace,  and holding long-stemmed lotus flowers and papyrus plants in each hand?

She's not pornographic.

She's scarcely even erotic.

Rather, she seems profoundly and proudly vulvic. 

If that's what she's saying, her message is redoubled by the  pear-shape form of the pendant itself which recalls as clearly as it can the shape of her pubic area.  You can hardly doubt what she's telling you about.  In that she is typical of the Canaanite nude females.  Whether reduced to the barest female essences of face, breasts, navel and broad pubic triangle (e.g., the first two pieces in Part I) or picturing the full body, all the ladies lead, so to speak, with their pudenda. 

L O V E, what is in me?
L O V E, oh, if this isn't love

Yet a tiny detail makes us pause: those little punched-out star discs running around all sides of the pendant.  That's the only hint that the scene is not entirely of this world.

Minet el-Beida, N.Syrian coast, 14-13 C BCE. H.8.4
There are other clues that these nude females are more than mere mortals.  Unlike the ladies moulded on clay plaques (Part I), those pictured on gold pendants commonly have one or another suggestion of the supernatural -- whether or not they themselves are meant to be goddesses.  For example, the jewelled lady (left) wears above her Hathor hairdo an additional headdress consisting of horns -- a sure sign of divinity.  Instead of holding the lotuses which grow along her sides, she grasps two rams by their feet, so that they hang upside down on either side of her, in the well known symmetrical pose of the so-called Mistress of Animals.  

In this role, she has a male counterpart, the Master of Animals, a well-known figure in the ancient Near East -- already appearing in Mesopotamia and Egypt from at least the 4th millennium onwards.  Yet the Mistress  of Animals didn't really become a fixture until the late second millennium ... and even then she scarcely made a splash outside of the Aegean area, far to the north.  There, she is shown
Agate Minoan-Mycenaean gem ca. 1370
bare-breasted in the good old Minoan style (right), but was always covered up from the waist down.  So, while the Canaanites may have borrowed the image and her pose, they didn't stint on full nudity.  Traditionally, both Master and Mistress of Animals display their powers by hoisting pairs of wild beasts which can be a visual description of the powers that maintain order in a wild, wild world -- and, thus, by extension, a symbol of religious or royal domination over natural forces.

The Canaanite Mistress has some sisters.

Uluburun shipwreck, ca. 1318 BCE.  H 9.1
This golden girl loaded with jewellery was found in the Uruburun shipwreck not far out to sea from Kas off the Turkish coast near Rhodes.   The pendant was tucked away with other gold treasures in the stern of the ship, presumably to be used as bullion (clipped or melted down) if needed during the voyage.

Her hair is braided into long strands and topped by a tall cylindrical crown, another probable sign of divinity.  She wears a many-stranded necklace, heaps of bracelets and anklets.  She, too, is a Mistress of Animals, holding in each hand an upright horned gazelle. 

If one divine sign is good, two must be better and redoubling yet again better still. 

Why take any chances? 

Double, double toil and trouble
Fire burn, and caldron bubble

Minet el-Beida, Syria, 1450-1365 BCE. H.5.5

So here is a nude bejewelled female with Hathor hairdo (apparently, hair styles are interchangeable), who has pulled out all the divinity stops:

1.  She wears a low cylindrical crown (divine sign);

2.  She holds upright gazelles in her hands (Mistress of Animals);

3.  She is standing on a lion (a position restricted to heavenly divinities);

4.  Interwoven serpents emerge from behind her waist (netherworld?);

5.  The background is filled-in with embossed dots that indicates the starry heavens.

It's impossible not to wonder who she is. 

The A-team

Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat are the 'A' goddesses known from texts written in Ugarit which mostly date to the 13th C BCE.  The A-team players are thus prime candidates to be identified as those nude females depicted with (or, for that matter, without) divine attributes.  Still, there were many other goddesses gadding about Canaan at the time: some we know by name, such as Shapsh, Kotharat, Pidray and many of the daughters of the great god Baal/El as well as such clusters of female deities as the seven goddesses involved in pregnancy and childbirth.  Yet other cherished sexy goddesses remain (to us) nameless:
The two wives are the wives of El,
The wives of El, and forever.
He stooped: their lips he kissed.
O, how sweet were their lips,
as sweet as pomegranates;
from kissing came conception,
from embracing, impregnation....
Both of them crouched
and gave birth to Shahar [the morning star] and Shalem [the evening star].*
The problem in a nutshell is that it is difficult, if not impossible to consider the pendants as presenting a coherent picture of any one specific goddess -- a problem tackled very recently by Kim Benzel of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.**  As she explains, whichever way you look at the A-team, it may feel like a good fit here and there ... but, then, on the whole it does not.  

Scholars used to call these nude females plaques and pendants after the Canaanite goddess Astarte who was primarily associated with sexuality and war -- and, a little later, with fertility having been confused or merged with the 'A' of Asherah.  Astarte is frequently shown nude and on horseback and wearing the Egyptian feathered atef crown, so it must be because of her nakedness (rather than horses or her menacing weapons or that crown) that links her to our nude females.  That's not enough to identify her on the pendants and plaques because those nude females never display any other of Astarte's attributes.  One A-goddess down.

Anat is another Canaanite goddess connected  with violence, war and hunting, but she is also famed for her beauty.  Like Astarte, she is often seen with weapons such as axes or clubs (armed goddesses were common in the ancient Near East) and/or wearing the atef crown.  A woman acting as a man (preeminently "the victorious" warrior) doesn't strike me as a really good candidate for the nude female images.  Second A-goddess down.

The image of Asherah remains a mystery.  After the discovery of three texts reading "To Yahweh ... and his Asherah" at the 8th century Israelite trading station Kuntillet Arjud in the Sinai desert, and again at Khirbet el-Qom near Hebron (Judah) a veritable Asherah boom, if not craze began to 'reinstate' the divine woman in Judaism.  Alas, current evidence makes it impossible to decide if the Israelite Asherah is a goddess, and perhaps Yahweh's consort, or a cultic symbol in the form of a stylized tree.  This is not an argument that I am going to get into (even if I had the expertise) but would simply warn against any claim to be certain that this or that image shows us Asherah: Asherah objects multiplied like mushrooms after the rain, so beware -- there are many poisonous ones.***.  Her Canaanite counterpart from Ugarit is the last of the A-team, Athirat, the 'Great One', chief goddess of the teeming Ugaritic pantheon.  Athirat is the creator and 'mother of the gods', with 70 sons, perhaps (or perhaps not) fathered by El.  The only problem is that she's a senior goddess and probably not the nubile, young, if not adolescent images seen on the plaques and pendants. If Asherah and Athirat are one and the same, you'd think there would be at least one picture of Asherah with her name on it.  But, no, there isn't.  Which leads us to a conundrum: the visual identification of Asherah can only be made if she is equated with another elusive divinity called Qedeshet.  So, with the A-team eliminated, it is time for the Q-question to step forward. 

A hop, skip, and a jump into 2014

Unfortunately, Christmas is upon us and I have run out of time.  So, I must postpone the Q-question and Kim Benzel's proposed solution to the identity of the nude females on the plaques and pendants until a third post.  With any luck, Part III will appear at the very start of 2014.

So, along with the whole A-team, I wish you all 'Happy Holidays' and hope to see you again on my blog early next year.

L O V E, oh, if this isn't love

(Part III: click here)

*N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit,  Sheffield 1998 [KTU 1.23 V 50].

** K. Benzel, 'Ornaments of Interaction: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age', In (J. Aruz, S.B. Graft, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact from Mesopotamia to the Mediterranean in the Second Millennium, MMA, New York (2013) 258-267.

***  R. Kletter, The Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah, Oxford (1996) 77.

Sources: Those used in Part I, as well as Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel, Continuum, 1998; J. Kien, Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism, Universal Publishers, 2000.  Jennifer Hudson If This Isn't Love Lyrics.


Top left: Gold pendant with nude female, Minet el-Beida, c. 1300 BCE. National Museum, Aleppo, M 10450 (via Benzel, note ** above, Fig. 3).

Left 2: Gold pendant with nude goddess, Minet el-Beida, c. 14-13th C BCE, Louvre Museum, AO 14.717 (via Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Pl. 5.27). NB: a colour photograph may be viewed on KacMac Syria Guide web page but the quality was not good enough for reproduction.

Right: Agate amygdaloid engraved gem said to be from Mycenae. L. 3.0, W. 1.7 cm. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, CMS VI 315 (Photograph courtesy of ARACHNE). 

Left 3: Gold pendant with nude female, Uluburun shipwreck. Dated by dendrochronology 1318 p/m 2 (references in Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, Cat. 5.29).  Bodrum Museum of Underwater Archaeology, KW 703 (Photography via Beyond Babylon [Part I] Cat. 213).

Lower Left: Gold pendant with nude female, Minet el-Beida, 1415-1365 BCE.  Louvre Museum, AO 14.714 (via Benzel, note ** above, Fig. 4).

10 December 2013

Sex Play in Ancient Canaan

When is a Sex Goddess Not a Goddess?  

Tell el-Ajjul, Palestine, ca 1600-1500 BCE. H 3.5 cm
The perfumes of seven tamarisks
The odour of coriander and [the purple of] murex.*

That's the scent of an ancient goddess, her own heavenly creation.  What more do you need to set the scene for a little Canaanite hanky-panky?

Glittering gold, that's what.

Perfume and gold ... and the image of a woman (left) reduced to her simplest female essences: face, breasts, navel, and a decidedly hairy pubic triangle.

Gold pendants like this may have been made to hang from a necklace or, more likely, I think, from a girdle tied around a woman's waist.  Early excavators considered that these images represented the Canaanite goddess Astarte but, equally, she could have been any other sexy Canaanite goddess, such as Anat, Asherah, or Quedeshet.  Or something even worse, a promiscuous mortal. 

Whores of Babylon

When nude-female golden pendants were first found, scholars assumed that they were part of some unspeakable 'Canaanite cults of lust'; or had once belonged to sacred prostitutes known to generations of Bible-thumpers as the eternal seductive 'whores of Babylon' (Revelation 17, 18).

The pendants certainly are explicit.  

Tell el-Ajjul, Palestine, 1600-1500 BCE
Yet, if we look up from the startling pubes, we see faces that strongly resemble the Egyptian goddess Hathor -- not a surprising borrowing at this time since Egypt was establishing imperial authority over  the whole Levant.**  Most faces are based on the so-called Hathor masks (below right): triangular-shaped flat frontal faces with the cow ears of Hathor's familiar animal rather than human ears, and which may or may not be framed with a wig ending in 'Hathor locks' with its two characteristic symmetrical curls.

Not just a pretty face

Among her many virtues, Hathor, 'the Golden One' was a goddess of joy, beauty and love, including sexual love.  In Egypt, women prayed to her for help, particularly with the conception and safe delivery of children.

Women would supplicate the Golden One:

For a good child of this house, happiness and a good (virile) husband.

Hathor watched over pregnant women, preventing  miscarriage, protecting them during childbirth, and ensuring the survival of healthy offspring.  Throughout the second millennium BCE female figurines were dedicated to Hathor both in her public temples as well as in simple household shrines. 

But Egyptian goddesses like Hathor were almost invariably pictured fully clothed and mortal Egyptian women, too, were normally modestly garbed.  What happened?

Sensuous Nudity

Two very different traditions collided in Canaan.

Babylonia, ca. 1900-1750 BCE. H. 12 cm

At some time in the 18th to 17th centuries BCE, the Mesopotamian open-mould technology for mass-producing inexpensive clay objects was taken across the Euphrates River and adopted in Syria.  While Mesopotamian craftsmen manufactured many different clay images, both male and female, the nude female (invariably shown in full frontal pose, such as the lady on the left) was undoubtedly the most common.  Syrian craftsmen, in turn, could have easily produced any number of religious figurines in such moulds but, for reasons unknown, they used the new technique exclusively to make nude-female plaques.  The Syrian plaques further emphasized some sexual features -- usually depicting  women with especially prominent navels and genitals -- yet they are also shown with surprisingly small breasts; while almost all are dressed in their jewellery and nothing else.

By the middle of the second millennium BCE, the manufacture of nude females (and only females) moulded in low relief on clay spread throughout the lands of Canaan. 

Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), Palestine. H. 8.5 cm
Thus, the religious fashions from Syria to the north (nudity and jewellery) and Egypt to the south (Hathor masks and/or Hathor's hair style) came together to produce a new nude-female Canaanite look. This naked woman from Lachish (left) has the typical Hathor hairdo with long locks ending in curls reaching down to her breasts.  She wears armlets and anklets and perhaps a single-strand necklace.  She holds two long-stemmed lotus (?) flowers, another Egyptianizing touch.  We do not know who was responsible for designing such moulds but the finished plaques were apparently manufactured by local potters: this plaque, for example, was found within a potter's workshop.  Presumably, the potter made and distributed nude-goddess plaques along with his household pottery.  

Flowers and Snakes

Beth Shemesh, Palestine. H. 9 cm
A plaque from Beth Shemesh (left) also shows a nude female holding a lotus in each hand.  Flowers of one kind or another are indeed the most common object held by the naked ladies, with sinuous snakes as a second popular attribute.  Unlike the women pictured on gold or silver pendants who, as we shall see, have a variety of attributes as well as wearing occasional caps or headdresses, the nude females on the plaques don't do or present a lot of different things.  

This woman is broad-hipped with a markedly large genital area.  She boasts four bracelets around each wrist and possibly a pair of earrings.  Her hairdo is unusual (neither the standard Hathor coiffure nor simple flowing locks).  She is adorned with an elaborate design of flowers (?) curling like garlands around her shoulders and perhaps behind her head, dropping to the feet and thus almost encircling her body.

Less is more?

Gezer, Israel, c. 1300 BCE. H. 12 cm
Another nude female with curling Hathor locks (left) combines two themes: her long-fingered hands clasp her small breasts  in a display gesture while the lotus flowers make a frame for her body: one lotus pair with upright flowers rises from below her feet reaching under her elbows; a second pair bends over and touches above her head at the top of the plaque.  The lady is pictured with multiple necklaces, bracelets and anklets.

Some nude females appear without any extraneous attributes at all.  For example, she may simply clasp her hands over her abdomen -- sometimes, but not always swollen as if to indicate pregnancy.  Or she cups her breasts in her hands (left and below left) inadvertently drawing attention to their quite moderate size.  Nude females occasionally simply stand empty-handed, with arms and hands hanging down along her sides (below right), neither holding anything nor gesturing.  

Battered Women

Although many plaques look complete, that's because most have been well repaired in modern times: when they were excavated they were usually found in pieces, often broken right across the women's bodies.  Facial features, too, are frequently badly damaged and sometimes almost obliterated.  

Terracotta plaques from Ugarit, N. Syrian coast

Whether intentionally broken before being discarded or not, the plaques were clearly not further treated as holy objects: they were commonly recovered together with all sorts of urban rubbish from within houses, inside storage and craft areas, or even from streets, pools, and cisterns.  They are rarely found in graves and are absent from the major sanctuaries and shrines.  This had led to the view that nude-female plaques were connected with 'private piety' within the home, where they were presumably associated with the women of the house.

But just how did women use the plaques and the associated gold pendants?  Their purpose continues to be disputed.  While few archaeologists today would claim that the figures are of goddesses -- still less 'whores of Babylon' -- the more general idea is that they are either fertility talismans or magical implements of some kind.

'Be Fruitful and Multiply'?

Minet el-Beida (Ugarit), 13th C BCE. H. 9.2 cm
Around the turn of the 20th century, scholars went whole hog for ancient female fertility.  Rites and rituals once associated with astral events or protective magic were now understood as fertility rituals, the purpose of which was procreation -- of human, animal, and/or plant life.  The female body, above all when nude, became the personification of a mysterious power of fertility that was active in the world.  Inevitably, female figurines became identified not merely with the concept of fertility, but were understood to represent the universal 'Earth Mother' or 'Fertility Goddess'.  The only argument was whether there was one 'Great Mother Goddess' or a whole bevy of them.

Fertility certainly played a role in ancient life as it still does, although fitfully, even in a modern world of birth control and tiny nuclear families.  Yet the goddess's fertility function was wildly over-emphasized  by 20th century scholars as was the idea of a 'Mother Goddess'.  There is, for example, no evidence that Yahweh's command to "be fruitful and multiply" extends much beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition.  As far as we know, no Mesopotamian or Syrian god ever commanded his people to multiply.  On the contrary, the gods of the pre-biblical flood myths destroyed mankind not because they had sinned but because the land was overpopulated and they made so much noise that it disturbed and distressed the gods in heaven.

Nakedness does not equal fertility

Western scholars still tend to split the functions of the pendants and plaques into those concerned with an almost numinous sexless conception and childbirth on the one hand, and sexual pleasure on the other. In ancient Mesopotamian culture sexuality and fertility (or maternity) were not inextricably linked;  fertility was not the excuse for sex.  The 'Fertility Goddess' belongs with her kindred 'Earth Goddess' in the dustbin of history.

So, having dusted down some very old furniture, let's keep three things in mind:

1. The figurines, whether made of cheap clay or precious metal, were used in polytheistic religions in which a perfect kaleidoscope of deities acted and interacted in ways as far as might be imagined from religions centred on a single, archetypal 'Mother Goddess', or for that matter 'Father God'. 

2. Figurines of similar appearance may have represented different beings, whether mortal or supernatural; and the same type of figurine might have had more than one function. 

3. While there was a multitude of goddesses, there were even more women than goddesses.

Follow me further, if you will, into the 21st century.  What does the current crop of scholars think about fertility, sex, and the place of sexually-explicit plaques and pendants in the lives of Canaanite women?  Luckily, some new work has just appeared: we'll look into that, consider female personal piety, and see more gold pendants in Part 2 of this post -- coming next week.

Part II: Click here.

* N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, Sheffield, 2006 (KTU 1.7 R15, V35); slightly revised. 

** The Levant is roughly that part of the Middle East bounded on the north by Anatolia (modern Turkey), to the East by Mesopotamia (largely Iraq) and to the west by Egypt.  In the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age (ca. 1500-1000 BCE), the region was broadly known as Canaan.  It includes most of the territory of the modern states of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.

Sources: P.R.S. Moorey, Idols of the People: Miniature Images of Clay in the Ancient Near East, OUP 2003; I. Cornelius, The Many Faces of the Goddess, AP Fribourg, 2004;  J. Aruz, K. Benzel, J. Evans (eds.) Beyond Babylon, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2009, pp. 347-9;  K. Benzel 'Ornaments of Interactions: Jewelry in the Late Bronze Age',  in (J. Aruz, S.B. Graff, Y. Rakic, eds.) Cultures in Contact, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2013, 258-67; S.L. Budin, Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age, CUP 2011; G. Pinch, Votive Offerings to Hathor, Oxford 1993, Ch. 1.3, 2.6.

(in descending order)

1.  Gold pendant "representing the Canaanite goddess 'Astarte' "(repoussé). Late Middle Bronze Age.  BM 130761.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum .

2. Paul Cézanne, The Eternal Feminine (oil on canvas) ca. 1877.  Photo credit: Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program.

3.Gold pendant with schematic representation of nude female.  Tell el-Ajjul, Jewellery hoard 1299.  Late Middle Bronze Age.  Israel Dept of Antiquities and Museums 35.3842.  Photo credit: via K. Benzel,  Ornaments (source, above) Fig. 1.

4. Faience Hathor masks, miniature columns and sistra from Serabit el-Khadim.  Photograph EES Archive, after G. Pinch, Hathor (source, above) Pl. 29.

5. Ashmolean Museum 1924.499.  Babylonian terracotta mould-made plaque of nude woman standing on a podium, dated ca. 1900-1750 BCE.  Photo credit: Via Moorey, Idols (source above) Pl. 7.

6.  BM 1980,1214.2266, from potter's workshop, Tell ed-Duweir (Lachish), dated 1300-1050 BCE.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum.

7. UM 61-14-1655, Penn Museum, from Beth Shemesh, Stratum IV.

8.  Ashmolean Museum AN1912.621, 'Qudshu' placque from Gezer, Israel, ca. 1300 BCE.

9.  Two terracotta plaques from Ugarit.  Left: National Museum, Damascus 7064; Right: Louvre AO 18524.  Photo credit: via Benzel, Ornaments (source, above) Fig. 10, 9.

10. Louvre Museum AO 14716.  Embossed gold leaf plaque, 13th C BCE,  Minet el Beida, port of Ugarit, Syria: "A few tombs in Ugarit that have survived intact have given up a rich hoard of jewelry. This gold pendant, representing the nude figure of the great goddess of fertility, was part of a necklace consisting of several pieces of gold leaf and carnelian beads."  Photo credit: © 2004 RMN/Franck Raux.

03 November 2013

How a Prince Became a Princess (Part II)

Part I: Click here

What's Up With Etruscan Gender?

As all the world now knows, the loving couple buried together in the recently discovered elite Etruscan tomb in Tarquinia (620-610 BEC) has had a quick sex change. 

First reports announced that the skeleton resting on the wide stone platform on the left, who was interred with a spear, was a warrior, more precisely a warrior prince.  That's because a spear = male.  Whereas the partially incinerated bones on the narrower platform opposite, with a jewellery box nearby, was declared to be the remains of his wife.  Jewellery = female.  It could hardly be clearer: the archaeologists decided the sex by gendering their grave gifts. 

Osteological analysis of the bones, however, quickly turned their speculations upside down.  The skeleton with the spear turned out to be a female, aged 35-40 when she died, whereas the cremated bones were the remains of a male.*  

Instead of toying with the idea that, in ancient Etruscan society, there was no a priori reason why men couldn't be buried with jewellery and females with a spear, the director of excavations, Alessandro Mandolesi, Professor of Etruscology and Italic Antiquity at the University of Torino, had this to say:

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance.  After having had the results of the anthropological analysis of the skeleton, and having found the [ashes of] the male, we have a clearer picture of the situation.  The lance, in all probability, was deposited as a symbol of the union between the two deceased." (my translation)

So the newly-identified lady still isn't credited with her own lance.  The spear that hitherto made the man was transmuted into a symbol of marital bliss -- despite the fact that it was placed between her bones and the tomb wall, about as far from her supposed husband as was possible given the size of the tomb. The thought didn't even arise that it might be a symbol of her power and authority rather than the weapon of a warrior. 

As bioarchaeologist Katy Meyers noted on her blog, Bones Don't Lie, "...when the skeleton was male the lance was a sign of royal status, and now that the ‘prince’ is a female the lance is a sign of marriage unity between the two individuals. Isn’t this secondary interpretation just as biased as the first one?" 

Yes indeed, and what we're hearing sotto voce is their desire to keep the spear gendered as male ("it really belongs to him") -- thereby imposing our persistent western ideas of gender and bias on the past.  As anthropologist Prof. Rosemary Joyce (Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives) put it:
If the spear head was associated with the body originally, considered property of that person, then it is inconsistent to change its ownership.

That’s conservation of gender: Spear points are male. So the lady cannot own one.

Phallic spear disappears in a puff of smoke. 

Funerary gifts found on the platform just beyond the feet of the female skeleton logically belong -- exactly like the spear -- with her body. You really shouldn't pick and choose.  So, what have we there?  On the right of the photograph above, you can see the skeleton's feet and then, to the left, two bowls -- one still holding traces of food offerings, the other a large bronze basin probably  once filled with water -- and my red arrow pointing to a small bronze-plated cylindrical box with a lid, known as a pyxis

There are two exciting things about this pyxis (left).

First, it is much older than the burial, perhaps as much as 200 years older, and it was made from 'recycled' bronze parts, possibly taken from a 8th-7th century BCE warrior's shield. 

Second, X-rays (below) show that the box contains five bronze and silver needles as well as a reel-shaped object, perhaps a spindle whorl, and, astonishingly, even a bit of thread.
The evidence spoke for itself: "It's a purely feminine form," said Prof. Mandolesi, "rather like a modern vanity case." Undoubtedly, "[t]hen, the noblewoman devoted herself to making precious embroideries." (my translation)

Alfonsina Russo, Superintendent of Archaeology for Southern Etruria agrees, "This object and its contents identifies the woman as an embroiderer. It is well known the Etruscans were skilled in textile activities. Indeed, several tombs in Tarquinia feature frescoes depicting finely embroidered draperies."

What a relief!  In no time flat, the tomb was rebaptised "The Embroiderer's Tomb".  Whereupon that pestilential spear vanished from Italian media reports like an ill-omened harpy.

This is conservation of gender with knobs on. 

I don't doubt that this noblewoman -- like almost all women everywhere before the modern age -- could sew, weave, and/or embroider.  That's not the question.  Rather, why did she take this pyxis with her to the grave?  To boast of her embroidery skills?  Possibly.  Yet the pyxis was as much as 200 years old when it was placed in the tomb.  Could it be a treasured family heirloom, handed down for generations and not necessarily something she herself ever used?  Perhaps.  Still other scenarios are possible.

Rejigging Gender

I was thinking about the bronze of which the pyxis was made.  If it originally came from an old shield (as the embossing on the lid [left] suggests), why was it preserved in this way?  Etruscan bronze-smiths of the time were the best in the world. Why, then, did they 'recycle' bits of plate instead of melting the scraps to make a shiny new pyxis for the ancestor of this princess?  Did they, did she, know who had once owned that shield and that that was the important thing?  This is only speculation, of course, but if this explanation is even plausible, does that gender-bend the pyxis? 

"It's not usual to find the body of a woman with a lance'  says Prof. Mandolesi, and that is certainly true.  Is this tomb unique?  Or are we looking into a mirror of our own making?  Until recently, sex determination was mostly based on gendering grave goods rather than any scientific bone analysis.  If every corpse buried with weapons was sexed as male, willy-nilly there can be no females in the sample.  Spear = male?  The jury on Etruscan princesses is still out.  But taking the spear out of her hands and embroidering a story with needles in the pyxis will not necessarily bring a true verdict.

* The male is now thought to be aged 20-30 years; perhaps her son? Further laboratory work is meanwhile underway, indeed on both sets of bones. It is also being reported that his is a later burial.  Unless interred with obviously later goods (which have not been pictured), I'm not sure how they could have determined this so quickly.  Stay tuned.

I am grateful to Elvira Bevilacqua whose comment on Part I of this post (20 Oct. 2013) first alerted me to the Embroidery development, and to another, anonymous commenter (22 Oct. 2013) who also urged me to write about it.  My thanks, too, to Rosemary Joyce for her call-out on the underlying gender system, 'Law of the Conservation of Gender', on Ancient Bodies/Ancient Lives (22 October 2013); and to Katy Meyers for her stimulating post, 'The Prince is Actually a Female (and other gender misconceptions)' on her blog, Bones Don't Lie (22 October 2013); and to Ellie Rose Elliott for reminding me of what may have been lost in wrongly identified 'warrior burials' over the last 200 years.

Sources:  Viterbo News 24: E' la tomba della Ricamatrice. Sepolti insieme alla donna anche aghi in bronzo e argento e un rocchetto; and (Alessandra Pinna) Il direttore degli scavi: ''La pisside, un pezzo senza confronti''; CIVONLINE (Cronaca Tarquinia): Trovati aghi in bronzo e argento nella tomba inviolata; Discovery News (Rossella Lorenzi): Entombed Etruscan Was Expert Embroiderer;  and Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.


Etruscan Tomb's Contents -- Up Close Photos.  Photo credits:  Top - Rossella Lorenzi; X-ray of pyxis - Colapietro-Tarquini, Istituto di Cristallografia-CNR and Rome's Sapienza University; all others - Archaeological Superintendency for Southern Etruria.

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