With apologies to Terry Pratchett (author of Small Gods, among many, many other books), here is a pint-sized and somewhat anonymous goddess, one of many in a case of painted terra cotta women. This eight-inch goddess, possibly Artemis (for lack of a better attribution, according to the nearby label), sits on a throne-like chair and was made in about the second century BC. She is beautifully and simply modeled; traces of her hands, hair, jewelry and clothing remain, delicately painted in red and black on the off-white ground covering the red terra cotta. The painting hints at what was once a lifelike presentation of a deity resembling a dignified matron of her era. She appears to be mold made—perhaps an inexpensive, ordinary goddess to place in a household shrine. #GoddessID
This life-size marble Aphrodite, from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, represents the Greek goddess of love and desire, counterpart of the Roman Venus. Viewed through the Roman lens, she is essentially assimilative and benign, and embraces several otherwise quite disparate functions. She can give military victory, sexual success, good fortune and prosperity. In one context, she is a goddess of prostitutes; in another, she turns the hearts of men and women from sexual vice to virtue.
Originally, Aphrodite would have held her right arm horizontally over her breasts and her left over her pubic region, a gesture that seems to have been a stock pose for sculptures of this goddess.
This piece is relatively recent, from the 2nd century A.D., though Aphrodite’s lineage goes back thousands of years. The combination of fertility and warfare is seen in the ancient Inanna. #Goddess ID
Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts is crowded with goddesses, and I’ll be posting pictures from a recent visit over the next few days.
This tiny and perfect bronze Nepthys is in the Egyptian wing. Sister of Isis, Nepthys accompanied the night boat of Ra through the darkness. She is usually represented with a headdress in the shape of a house since the literal translation of her name is “woman of the house,” which is not at all synonymous with “housewife.” Nepthys is a nursing mother, sometimes depicted as nurse to the Pharaohs themselves, and mother to the jackal-headed Anubis, lord of the underworld. A mortuary goddess, she is also in charge of festivals and beer. Like many ancient goddesses, her past is somewhat checkered, her roles are many and widely diversified, and well worth further reading.
The ancient Sumerian mother goddess Inanna has a complex history and a wealth of attributes which perhaps indicate her extreme age and longevity. Inanna was the goddess of war, combat, justice, and political power as well as love, beauty, sex, fertility, and desire. Her symbols were the lion and eight-pointed star, she was associated with the planet Venus. Inanna bargained with the lords of the underworld to retrieve a loved one, like Demeter; she stole the container of positive and negative aspects of civilization, like Pandora; like Juno she flew into divine rages and killed rivals. Inanna gradually merged with the sky goddess Ishtar; she was an influence on the Phoenician goddess Astarte who influenced the development of the Greek goddess Aphrodite. It is recorded that Inanna was worshipped in parts of Iraq until the eighteenth century.
Photo: Fragment of a stone plaque from the temple of Inanna at Nippur showing a Sumerian goddess, possibly Inanna (c. 2500 BC) courtesy Wikipedia
Kiki Smith‘s Lilith is a lifesize bronze woman mounted on the wall, upside down or right side up (depending on the curator), her gravity-defying pose and white inlaid eyes signifying demonic or supernatural abilities. Associated with Inanna, or Ishtar, the Mother Goddess, Lilith in Jewish mythology may have been Adam’s first wife, although this designation is disputed. In Hebrew-language texts, the term lilith or lilit is translated as “night creatures”, “night monster”, “night hag”, or “screech owl.” Lilith is one of an ancient class of demons…perhaps once rulers or goddesses of the night. #GoddessID
Lilith in the Metropolitan Museum, NY
Harriet Hosmer is widely recognized today as one of the first and most skilled female neoclassical sculptors in America. She was particularly interested in the historic plight of women, which is seen in her extraordinary bust of Medusa, created in 1854. In Greek mythology, Medusa was a beautiful girl cursed by Athena, who mutated her into a vile, homely Gorgon. Medusa’s hair turned to snakes and she gained the power to petrify men. Hosmer’s Medusa is compassionately rendered in a fixed state of transformation, with snakes intertwining her lovely hair. In addition, Medusa bears two feathered wings, reminiscent of the winged horse Pegasus that was born from her neck after she was beheaded.
Photo and text courtesy of artsmia.org
The marble Hygieia at the Worcester art museum is missing her head and arms, yet still appears graceful and somehow beckoning. From the 2nd century CE, excavated in Antioch, the goddess of health (Greek: ὑγίεια – hugieia) still retains traces of gilding on her long, wavy hair.
Hygieia was one of the Aeclepiadae; the sons and daughters of the god of medicine, Asclepius, and the goddess of healing, Epione. Her name is the source of the word “hygiene”. Many neoclassical American sculptors took on this theme, notably Edmonia Lewis.
#GoddessID is where I’ll keep a repository of ancient goddesses in sculpture, like Talakh, a new one to me. Here’s a quote from the label of this relief sculpture, in the Worcester Museum of Art:
“This Nubian masterpiece depicts Prince Arikankharer in a triumphal scene….a winged goddess, incised with the name Talakh, hovers behind the prince and holds a long fan and a cudgel.” So it looks like Talakh helped the prince smite many enemies, like the one lying on the ground at his feet, a dog eating his face. Ouch.
Worcester Art Museum