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).


  1. This series has been FANTASTIC! Thank you!
    A very interesting and somewhat related note regarding this deconstruction of the female fertility goddess paradigm is recent work showing that fertility was understood to be a masculine aspect in the ANE. The myths are replete with tales of the fertilizing waters of Enki's penis, or Seth accidentally making himself pregnant by consuming his own semen (actually, Enki does that, too...). The whole shebang needs to be reconsidered from bottom up. Perhaps a future posting????

  2. Childe's comment does ring true. Male worship of mother goddesses bodes ill for real women often. I have met some slightly socially inept chaps whose obsession with a supposed Bronze Age matriarchy is at odds with their lack of real female friends, and poets whose subordination to an idea muse lead them to a pathological relationship with the women with whose lives they are entangled. Even the good Seamus Heaney believed that bog victims had been sacrificed to a mother goddess identified with fertility and with the land. Dearer to me is the fallible love of real women, always different, and always with aspects of their femininity which is not shown all at once and to everyone. Only many goddesses, many images, can hint at that.

  3. Brilliant blog. Keep blogging!

  4. Neshama Tova19/1/14 20:37

    Thanks for the blog! I enjoyed the humor.
    Loved the emphasis and the differentiation between giving the goddess images a practical functional interpretation as fertility images, and calling them for what they truely are- sacred feminine sexuality images. By descibing them allways as fertility goddesses the real essence and magic of the female sexuality kept being denied. Honoring female sexuality is the main concious change humanity ia called upon now.We need to dig it out in our anciant heritage


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