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' "(repoussĂ©). Late Middle Bronze Age.  BM 130761.  Photo credit: © Trustees of the British Museum .

2. Paul CĂ©zanne, 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.


  1. This is so helpful in understanding not just these plaques, but the larger issue of ancient "fertility goddesses." Thank you!

  2. Looking forward to the next part! I always thought that "any nude figure must represent a fertility goddess" idea a lot of tosh.


Blog Archive