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' "(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.

Blog Archive