BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Mothers, Goddesses, and Fertility

The misguided ways we interpret female figurines

Mothers, Goddesses, and Fertility

Bronze statue of the Egyptian goddess Isis with the god Horus seated on her lap. By Anonymous (Egypt)—Walters Art Museum. Public Domain.

Archaeologists cannot seem to separate their interpretations of female iconography from ideas about fertility. Every goddess of every ancient pantheon is understood to be a “mother” goddess (even the virgins!), and all depictions of females are “fertility” goddesses, “fertility” amulets, and, quite simply, images of fertility.

Clearly, we have a problem in how we understand women.

Now, to be clear, ancient artists did, in fact, create their fair share of maternal images. The ancient Egyptians and Cypriots especially had a whole range of kourotrophic iconography—images of woman with child—throughout their incredibly long (pre-)histories, from the fourth millennium into the Common Era. These women appeared cuddling a child, breast-feeding a child, and bouncing a child on the knee. Egyptian images of Isis with Horus evolved into the Madonna with Child, even as the Cypriot kourotrophs eventually gave way to the far less maternal Goddess with Upraised Arms.


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Likewise, the Phoenicians created the so-called dea gravida, depictions of clothed, veiled, pregnant women. These might be understood as “maternal,” especially as similarly coiffed, contemporary female images also appear as kourotrophs. Back in Cyprus, Archaic Age (750–475 B.C.E.) stone and clay figurines appear in sanctuaries showing women in the process of giving birth. If the ancients wanted to convey the concept of motherhood, they could do so in utterly unambiguous fashion.

Mothers, Goddesses, and Fertility

Plaque with Nude Female figure from the Canaanite site of Gezer. Drawing by Paul Butler, courtesy of the author.

The problem is that we interpret all female figurines as fertility objects, especially when those females are naked. This is especially the case with a specific image known as the Nude Female, an en face, naked female with legs together. Beyond these three defining characteristics, she exists in a multiplicity of forms, ranging from mortal to divine (sometimes she has wings, or stands on a lion); with arms hanging straight down the sides (especially in Egypt), hands clasped above the abdomen (most common), clutching the breasts (often confused with the preceding category), gesturing to her sexual attributes, or holding objects such as snakes, flowers, a disc, or even a child. She is found in homes, graves, garbage heaps, and the occasional shrine. She appears from Italy to India, from the Bronze Age through the Hellenistic period. The likelihood that she always means the same thing to all people from all places and times is, frankly, quite low.

Yet, the default interpretation is to see these all as fertility items. “Fertility” isn’t even defined. Are we talking about maternity—human fertility? If so, we have to admit that these creatures seriously lack their kourotrophic—not to mention parturient!—sisters’ maternal imagery. Earthly fertility? It is hard to see how a schematic Nude Female adorning a funerary jar from third-millennium Mesopotamia pertains to agricultural bounty. Animals? How a Nude Female grasping a pair of lions by the ears on a tenth-century cult stand from Taanach in Israel promotes their fertility is left to pure speculation.

Mothers, Goddesses, and Fertility

Lower register of the Taanach cult stand from Israel, which depicts a Nude Female figure flanked by a pair of lions. Drawing by Paul Butler, courtesy of the author.

Basically, we are reducing a full half of the human population to a single archetype. The female body is something that gives birth and inspires others to do the same, and all references to it—especially if it is naked—must pertain to that. And since we don’t have a very good way of presenting a female in the absence of her body, womanhood is reduced to motherhood.

This is problematic for several reasons. First, the peoples of the ancient Near East understood that it was males who were fertile, not women. After all, they could see semen; the egg could merely be hypothesized by the likes of Aristotle. Second, we blind ourselves to the range of possible meanings of female imagery throughout the ancient world. Perhaps those jar handles from Mesopotamia pertain to notions of ethnic identity. Perhaps those kourotrophoi in Cyprus are evidence of ancestor cult. In all cases, we deliberately misunderstand those peoples we are trying so hard to study. Finally, we blind ourselves to ourselves. Assumptions about the past reflect assumptions about the present. If we can only conceive of females and their bodies as objects of fertility, how do we understand modern women? Deep down, are all women just mommy figures?

 


About the Author

Stephanie Lynn Budin is an ancient historian who focuses on gender, religion, sexuality, and iconography in ancient Greece and the Near East. Her published works include Freewomen, Patriarchal Authority, and the Accusation of Prostitution (Routledge 2021), Women in Antiquity: Real Women Across the Ancient World (Routledge 2016), and Images of Woman and Child from the Bronze Age (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2011), as well as numerous articles on ancient religion, gender, and iconography.


 

Read more in Bible History Daily:

Examining the Lives of Ancient Egyptian Women

Everyday Eves

 

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2 Responses

  1. Cynthia Burdge says:

    This is the most sensible article I have read on interpreting female images.
    However the problem is even greater, since some scholars see female images where none were intended. At Catal Hoyuk vulture skulls were attached to
    walls and repeatedly plastered over, creating a protuberance. The excavator
    James Mellart labeled them “breasts”, and also saw animals with
    legs spread as giving birth, giving rise to the Great Mother nonsense. The so called “Fat ladies” of Malta are not female, they are morbidly obese males, like sumo wrestlers, their large size indicates their power. The few obviously female images are naked and vulnerable. Then there is Artemis of Ephesus. There is nothing in ancient literature suggesting the globular objects on her chest are breast, and besides Artemis was asexual, a rarity in the GrecoRoman pantheon. The first to state they were breasts was St. Jerome. Prior to getting religion he had been a big time womanizer, and clearly focused on breasts. However, those protrusions are not part of the body, but are attached to the garment she wears. All to often males statements about female images says more about them than the images.

  2. José Serra says:

    The EXODUS from Egypt

    • Rameses Israel was thrust out of Egypt (Ex. 12; Num. 33:5).
    • Succoth After the Hebrews left this first campsite, the Lord attended them in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:20–22).
    • Desert of the red sea (AKABAH) – (Nuweibah)
    • Moving southwards, by MIKTOR (M-divided, K-areas, T-face, OR-mountain) till wilderness of RED-Sea (between Akaba Gulf and SUEZ gulf) at ITHAN-“fortress”, back to Pi-hahirot between Miktor/Migdol and the YAM SOF (junction point of AKABA and “modern Red-Sea”.
    • Pi-hahiroth Israel passed through the Red Sea (Ex. 14; Num. 33:8), at Tiran Straits towards Myddian (Saudi Arabia).
    • Marah The Lord healed the waters of Marah (Ex. 15:23–26).
    • Elim Israel camped by 12 springs (Ex. 15:27).
    • In a 3 days walk they camped at the shores/beaches of Myddian
    • Wilderness of Sin The Lord sent manna and quail to feed Israel (Ex. 16).
    • Rephidim Israel fought with Amalek (Ex. 17:8–16).
    • Dophkah, desert of shur, desert of sinai
    • Mount Sinai (Hill Horeb) at Jebel El Lawz range The Lord revealed the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19–20).
    ++++
    DATE OF EXODUS
    1 – According to some archaeologists Abra(ha)m must have born by 2161/93 BCE.
    By BIBLE he left UR the “bright city” towards HARÃ.
    According to history UR Kingdom was destroyed by 2111 BCE, by an attack of the BENI YAMININI, horsemen riders that had destroyed some kingdoms north as nuzi, mari, etc.
    According to the book of Jubilees, Abraham left UR at 60.
    This surely had to be before 2.111 BCE, let’s say. So Abraham should be born by 2.171.
    Isaac born by 2.069
    Jacob/Israel and Esau born by 1.968
    Joseph was born 1.875, when Jacob was 92 yrs old (talks Jacob (130 Yrs old/Pharaoh)
    Joseph was sold at 17, by 1.857
    Joseph, vizir, at 30.th, by 1.843
    Jacob routed Egypt, 8.th year of famine, by 1.835
    (GOD told Abraham, “Israel (Jacob’s family) will down to Egypt and wondering there by 430 years before/until I SHALL take them out from there; and they will be oppressed.
    So EXODUS, thus, took place at 1.405 BCE.

    2 – According to merneptah stele “I at my 5.th year o government and 2.nd of my reigning attacked the state of Israel, destroyed many houses and cities, and burned their farms and crops, and barns and killed a lot of cattle.
    -well Moses died at 40 Exodus and he didn’t enter Promised LAND
    – Joshua died at 71 Exodus and was never defeated
    – Elders leaded for 50 years till year 122 Exodus
    – Cusã Risataim oppressed Israel for 8 yrs, till 132 exodus
    – OTNIEL freed them and died at 173 exodus
    – MOAB oppressed Israel for 18 years till 192 after exodus.

    In the last year Tribe of JUDAH was attacked by people from Negev and GOSEN/GOSHEN (Nile delta-egypt) who did to Israel what merneptah says he did.
    – Since Ramses II died at 90 (190 after exodus), it means Ramses II was born at 101 after EXODUS.
    – Ramses II was born, as per archaeology at 1.304 BCE, so exodus took place 1.304 BCE + 101 = 1.405 BCE for EXODUS.
    – ———

    3 – Shawl Paul of tarsus, wrote that King Solomon began governing 430 years after Israelites entered Canaan.
    – We do not know when Solomon began governing, but he began reigning 971/970 BCE.
    – Adding 430 yrs, it comes to 1.401/1.400 BCE. Adding 1 year after Exodus we get 1.402/01 BCE, for the entry in Canaan if we count 430 yrs after Solomon would begin reigning.
    – So adding 2/3 years of co-regency at last years of David, we come to say exodus should have been by 1.405/1.403 BCE.

    ++++++
    4 – Dating with Carbon 14 (USA) plus Calcium Carbide correction (Australia), some mud plates from Canaan city states of Canaan, “asking pharaoh’s help to stop apirus/abirus/Israelites the fled Egypt approaching their lands” as being written by 1.404 BCE, we add 1 year of stay at Sinai/Mydian, then we get Exodus happening at 1.405 BCE.
    +++++
    5 – 1 Kings 6:1 …
    And Solomon began building the House of the Lord, …… 480 years after Israel left Egypt, …..
    +++ Archaeology says that Solomon began reigning at 971/70 BCE. So date of Building should have been at 2nd day (17th) of 2nd month (April), of 4th year (i-971/70; ii-970/69; iii- 969/68; iv-968/67 BCE):

    – Date of start the building: 17th of April of 968/967 BCE.
    – 480 years after Israelites left Egypt (“Exodus”), that means year 1,448/47 BCE. Once we cross the 1,000 years negative over years before Christ Era, we may deduct 1 year from the sum, that’s, 1,447/46 BCE for the Exodus.
    Well, since GOD told Moses at the blazing-bush at the HOREB (mount at desert/dry land), “… all those who wanted to kill you are “all” already dead, this means that at date 1,447 BCE, paraoh was Tutmose(i)s III – the also called Pharaoh Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte of Egypt – who died some 14 years after that date. GOD is not a liar so “we must – have to-, conclude something went wrong in the translation of the HOLY TEXT.
    +++++
    Obs:
    I have read in a web paper, by some Jewish writer who I cannot remember the name, not the title of the paper, not the interest of the paper, i.e., whether it was concerning the “Exodus event”, or the “fact that the Judean TORAH was not written by Moses and was written by Persians during Judahite Babylonian Captivity based upon oral traditions”, or something else I was searching at the WEB/INTERNET.

    Well, the author said that he was searching very-very old manuscripts (Jew, masorethic, etc) and one day he found one that said “In the 2nd day …., Solomon began ……. 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt with the “separation of waters” or “water separation”. And since the story of red sea crossing was already well known in Moses Book of Exodus, the scribers decided not to include this part of the text, so the scripture does not include this “for me”, VERY IMPORTANT PIECE WORDS TO THE JEWISH/JUDEAN HOLY SCRIPTURE OF THE TANAKH. (I AM Christian Evangelical Pentecostal, for me this part of your Scripture means The Old Testament of GOD THE FATHER, Father of my LORD SAVIOR JESUS (THE) CHRIST).
    ++ How is that? Well if that Biblical Student and Rabi tells right, that part of the text “the Israelites left Egypt with the separation of waters” is wrongly translated; I guess it should be translated as follows:

    “ the Israelite “separated from the waters” left Egypt”. See that “separated from the waters” is the name of MOSE/MOSHE, Moses.
    At this moment we have that at 1,447/46 BCE Moses left Egypt (expelled) and he moved to Myddian (Saudi Arabia) probably at Al Dab, where he rested for 40 years uo to 1,407/06 BCE when GOD met him at the HOREB.
    – Moses during that year performed SEVEN (7) judgements against Egyptian gods, from Nile Bleeding to the Grasshoppers clouds.
    – In 1,406/05 : January for Ice Balls, hail; February the sun went sleeping THREE (3) DAYS; March 29/30th for the PASSOVER/PESACH; 30/31TH FOR THE EXODUS .
    AT this point I shall be very grateful to you if you are so kind to help me with the proper corrections by your point of view over this matter.
    Best regards.

    José Serra

    [email protected]
    Republic of Angola, Southern Africa, SADC region

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published.


2 Responses

  1. Cynthia Burdge says:

    This is the most sensible article I have read on interpreting female images.
    However the problem is even greater, since some scholars see female images where none were intended. At Catal Hoyuk vulture skulls were attached to
    walls and repeatedly plastered over, creating a protuberance. The excavator
    James Mellart labeled them “breasts”, and also saw animals with
    legs spread as giving birth, giving rise to the Great Mother nonsense. The so called “Fat ladies” of Malta are not female, they are morbidly obese males, like sumo wrestlers, their large size indicates their power. The few obviously female images are naked and vulnerable. Then there is Artemis of Ephesus. There is nothing in ancient literature suggesting the globular objects on her chest are breast, and besides Artemis was asexual, a rarity in the GrecoRoman pantheon. The first to state they were breasts was St. Jerome. Prior to getting religion he had been a big time womanizer, and clearly focused on breasts. However, those protrusions are not part of the body, but are attached to the garment she wears. All to often males statements about female images says more about them than the images.

  2. José Serra says:

    The EXODUS from Egypt

    • Rameses Israel was thrust out of Egypt (Ex. 12; Num. 33:5).
    • Succoth After the Hebrews left this first campsite, the Lord attended them in a cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night (Ex. 13:20–22).
    • Desert of the red sea (AKABAH) – (Nuweibah)
    • Moving southwards, by MIKTOR (M-divided, K-areas, T-face, OR-mountain) till wilderness of RED-Sea (between Akaba Gulf and SUEZ gulf) at ITHAN-“fortress”, back to Pi-hahirot between Miktor/Migdol and the YAM SOF (junction point of AKABA and “modern Red-Sea”.
    • Pi-hahiroth Israel passed through the Red Sea (Ex. 14; Num. 33:8), at Tiran Straits towards Myddian (Saudi Arabia).
    • Marah The Lord healed the waters of Marah (Ex. 15:23–26).
    • Elim Israel camped by 12 springs (Ex. 15:27).
    • In a 3 days walk they camped at the shores/beaches of Myddian
    • Wilderness of Sin The Lord sent manna and quail to feed Israel (Ex. 16).
    • Rephidim Israel fought with Amalek (Ex. 17:8–16).
    • Dophkah, desert of shur, desert of sinai
    • Mount Sinai (Hill Horeb) at Jebel El Lawz range The Lord revealed the Ten Commandments (Ex. 19–20).
    ++++
    DATE OF EXODUS
    1 – According to some archaeologists Abra(ha)m must have born by 2161/93 BCE.
    By BIBLE he left UR the “bright city” towards HARÃ.
    According to history UR Kingdom was destroyed by 2111 BCE, by an attack of the BENI YAMININI, horsemen riders that had destroyed some kingdoms north as nuzi, mari, etc.
    According to the book of Jubilees, Abraham left UR at 60.
    This surely had to be before 2.111 BCE, let’s say. So Abraham should be born by 2.171.
    Isaac born by 2.069
    Jacob/Israel and Esau born by 1.968
    Joseph was born 1.875, when Jacob was 92 yrs old (talks Jacob (130 Yrs old/Pharaoh)
    Joseph was sold at 17, by 1.857
    Joseph, vizir, at 30.th, by 1.843
    Jacob routed Egypt, 8.th year of famine, by 1.835
    (GOD told Abraham, “Israel (Jacob’s family) will down to Egypt and wondering there by 430 years before/until I SHALL take them out from there; and they will be oppressed.
    So EXODUS, thus, took place at 1.405 BCE.

    2 – According to merneptah stele “I at my 5.th year o government and 2.nd of my reigning attacked the state of Israel, destroyed many houses and cities, and burned their farms and crops, and barns and killed a lot of cattle.
    -well Moses died at 40 Exodus and he didn’t enter Promised LAND
    – Joshua died at 71 Exodus and was never defeated
    – Elders leaded for 50 years till year 122 Exodus
    – Cusã Risataim oppressed Israel for 8 yrs, till 132 exodus
    – OTNIEL freed them and died at 173 exodus
    – MOAB oppressed Israel for 18 years till 192 after exodus.

    In the last year Tribe of JUDAH was attacked by people from Negev and GOSEN/GOSHEN (Nile delta-egypt) who did to Israel what merneptah says he did.
    – Since Ramses II died at 90 (190 after exodus), it means Ramses II was born at 101 after EXODUS.
    – Ramses II was born, as per archaeology at 1.304 BCE, so exodus took place 1.304 BCE + 101 = 1.405 BCE for EXODUS.
    – ———

    3 – Shawl Paul of tarsus, wrote that King Solomon began governing 430 years after Israelites entered Canaan.
    – We do not know when Solomon began governing, but he began reigning 971/970 BCE.
    – Adding 430 yrs, it comes to 1.401/1.400 BCE. Adding 1 year after Exodus we get 1.402/01 BCE, for the entry in Canaan if we count 430 yrs after Solomon would begin reigning.
    – So adding 2/3 years of co-regency at last years of David, we come to say exodus should have been by 1.405/1.403 BCE.

    ++++++
    4 – Dating with Carbon 14 (USA) plus Calcium Carbide correction (Australia), some mud plates from Canaan city states of Canaan, “asking pharaoh’s help to stop apirus/abirus/Israelites the fled Egypt approaching their lands” as being written by 1.404 BCE, we add 1 year of stay at Sinai/Mydian, then we get Exodus happening at 1.405 BCE.
    +++++
    5 – 1 Kings 6:1 …
    And Solomon began building the House of the Lord, …… 480 years after Israel left Egypt, …..
    +++ Archaeology says that Solomon began reigning at 971/70 BCE. So date of Building should have been at 2nd day (17th) of 2nd month (April), of 4th year (i-971/70; ii-970/69; iii- 969/68; iv-968/67 BCE):

    – Date of start the building: 17th of April of 968/967 BCE.
    – 480 years after Israelites left Egypt (“Exodus”), that means year 1,448/47 BCE. Once we cross the 1,000 years negative over years before Christ Era, we may deduct 1 year from the sum, that’s, 1,447/46 BCE for the Exodus.
    Well, since GOD told Moses at the blazing-bush at the HOREB (mount at desert/dry land), “… all those who wanted to kill you are “all” already dead, this means that at date 1,447 BCE, paraoh was Tutmose(i)s III – the also called Pharaoh Emperor Napoleon Buonaparte of Egypt – who died some 14 years after that date. GOD is not a liar so “we must – have to-, conclude something went wrong in the translation of the HOLY TEXT.
    +++++
    Obs:
    I have read in a web paper, by some Jewish writer who I cannot remember the name, not the title of the paper, not the interest of the paper, i.e., whether it was concerning the “Exodus event”, or the “fact that the Judean TORAH was not written by Moses and was written by Persians during Judahite Babylonian Captivity based upon oral traditions”, or something else I was searching at the WEB/INTERNET.

    Well, the author said that he was searching very-very old manuscripts (Jew, masorethic, etc) and one day he found one that said “In the 2nd day …., Solomon began ……. 480 years after the Israelites left Egypt with the “separation of waters” or “water separation”. And since the story of red sea crossing was already well known in Moses Book of Exodus, the scribers decided not to include this part of the text, so the scripture does not include this “for me”, VERY IMPORTANT PIECE WORDS TO THE JEWISH/JUDEAN HOLY SCRIPTURE OF THE TANAKH. (I AM Christian Evangelical Pentecostal, for me this part of your Scripture means The Old Testament of GOD THE FATHER, Father of my LORD SAVIOR JESUS (THE) CHRIST).
    ++ How is that? Well if that Biblical Student and Rabi tells right, that part of the text “the Israelites left Egypt with the separation of waters” is wrongly translated; I guess it should be translated as follows:

    “ the Israelite “separated from the waters” left Egypt”. See that “separated from the waters” is the name of MOSE/MOSHE, Moses.
    At this moment we have that at 1,447/46 BCE Moses left Egypt (expelled) and he moved to Myddian (Saudi Arabia) probably at Al Dab, where he rested for 40 years uo to 1,407/06 BCE when GOD met him at the HOREB.
    – Moses during that year performed SEVEN (7) judgements against Egyptian gods, from Nile Bleeding to the Grasshoppers clouds.
    – In 1,406/05 : January for Ice Balls, hail; February the sun went sleeping THREE (3) DAYS; March 29/30th for the PASSOVER/PESACH; 30/31TH FOR THE EXODUS .
    AT this point I shall be very grateful to you if you are so kind to help me with the proper corrections by your point of view over this matter.
    Best regards.

    José Serra

    [email protected]
    Republic of Angola, Southern Africa, SADC region

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