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).

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