BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Apotropaic Guardians, Ancient Symbols, Divine Icons or Children’s Toys?

The many interpretations of Israelite plaster figurines

Apotropaic Guardians, Ancient Symbols, Divine Icons or Children’s Toys?

Plaster figurines have been interpreted in countless ways, as anything from apotropaic spirits to toys. While the meanings of these ancient symbols are evasive, context and typology are an archaeologist’s best tools.

Clay, stone and plaster figurines have been found across the ancient world, but their significance repeatedly mystifies archaeologists. What are these ancient symbols? Could they be apotropaic guardians, children’s toys, goddesses?

Plaster figurines, such as this example from the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa (pictured), can crumble over time, and are comparatively rare in the archaeological record. This figurine’s original context is uncertain, so it must be analyzed through comparison to other plaster figurines. Typological comparisons suggest that the statuette is Roman or Byzantine, and scholars have called some contemporary plaster figurines apotropaic. Apotropaic (meaning protective from evil spirits) is a very common designation for these ancient symbols.

Interpretations of these ancient symbols run the gamut, from games to gods. In her study of this figurine, Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, who has taught at the Hebrew University and digs at Tel Dor, quotes another Israeli scholar, Raz Kletter, to reject interpretations of plaster figurines as “toys, mortal figures, mother goddess, nurturing goddess, fertility goddess, [etc.]”* She then suggests the figurine had an apotropaic function.

There are many questions archaeologists can ask to evaluate the function of these ancient symbols. How and where were they made? Who worked with paints and plasters in the local communities where they were made? Are other ancient symbols or apotropaic objects created out of these materials? Are similar plaster figurines found in churches, shrines, graves, homes or workshops? Did neighboring cultures use such objects and, if so, how?

This particular figurine is painted in red and black and depicts a woman wearing a floor-length tunic with a red neckband. The roundels on her shoulders are repeated near the bottom of her skirt. On the bottom edge of the tunic is a band with triangles, colored red like the neckband. The woman has large eyes with eyebrows and wears a red cap. Between her breasts she holds a large egg-shaped object.
But who is she, and what is she holding? Without a clear context, chronology or established typology, it is impossible to say for certain. Bible History Daily readers are encouraged to offer their interpretations in our comments section below.


 

Notes

* See Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, “Statuettes in Clay and Plaster in the Hecht Museum Collection,” Michmanim 23 (2011), p. 21.


Based on Strata, “What were they used for? What did they do with them?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.

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10 Responses

  1. Dr.John Tucker says:

    With archaeology three questions usually bring forth four answers..On having a rethink the figure appears to be of Byzantine origin but not of a quality I would expect This one appears to have been made by a non craftsman perhaps for home decoration or as a gift. If an egg is being held this usually represents pre life. .

  2. Dr.John Tucker says:

    Would suggest the figure is of Byzantine origin and possibly made for religious purpose either in clerics residence or place of worship.

  3. Susan Hussein says:

    Cyprus and the Phoenicians
    Eggs important in Cyprian and Phoenician religious practice:

    Patricia Maynor Bikai
    The Biblical Archaeologist , Vol. 52, No. 4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp. 203-209
    Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3210137

  4. Jerry Perrin says:

    Could these ancient figurines be used to preserve memories? Much as we use photographs today. This one possibly representing a matriarcal figure to a large family. Used to tell the story to future generations?

  5. Alice Linsley says:

    The teraphim were ancestors figurines that pertained to Abraham’s father Terah, the Ainu. Their context is actually much older than this Levantine figurine.

  6. Michael F. Ledo says:

    The red crown is symbolic of the consellation of the Northern Crown. In the Bible it represents the story of Tamar. In this case more like the midrash associated with her. The fertility egg speaks for itself. The roundels represent the womb. This was used for a special fertility blessing, one that would produce twins. This would be either Tamar or the Roman equilvilent. (On Earth as it is in Heaven, The Cosmic Roots of the Bible)

  7. Martha Ann Stegar says:

    Joseph, your teraphim guess sounds brilliant to me!

  8. Allison Loukanis says:

    Perhaps this is a Romanized representation of the goddess Eostre.

  9. Joseph Manning says:

    This makes me think of the enigmatic Teraphim of the Hebrew Bible.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


10 Responses

  1. Dr.John Tucker says:

    With archaeology three questions usually bring forth four answers..On having a rethink the figure appears to be of Byzantine origin but not of a quality I would expect This one appears to have been made by a non craftsman perhaps for home decoration or as a gift. If an egg is being held this usually represents pre life. .

  2. Dr.John Tucker says:

    Would suggest the figure is of Byzantine origin and possibly made for religious purpose either in clerics residence or place of worship.

  3. Susan Hussein says:

    Cyprus and the Phoenicians
    Eggs important in Cyprian and Phoenician religious practice:

    Patricia Maynor Bikai
    The Biblical Archaeologist , Vol. 52, No. 4, From Ruins to Riches: CAARI on Cyprus (Dec., 1989), pp. 203-209
    Published by: The American Schools of Oriental Research
    Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3210137

  4. Jerry Perrin says:

    Could these ancient figurines be used to preserve memories? Much as we use photographs today. This one possibly representing a matriarcal figure to a large family. Used to tell the story to future generations?

  5. Alice Linsley says:

    The teraphim were ancestors figurines that pertained to Abraham’s father Terah, the Ainu. Their context is actually much older than this Levantine figurine.

  6. Michael F. Ledo says:

    The red crown is symbolic of the consellation of the Northern Crown. In the Bible it represents the story of Tamar. In this case more like the midrash associated with her. The fertility egg speaks for itself. The roundels represent the womb. This was used for a special fertility blessing, one that would produce twins. This would be either Tamar or the Roman equilvilent. (On Earth as it is in Heaven, The Cosmic Roots of the Bible)

  7. Martha Ann Stegar says:

    Joseph, your teraphim guess sounds brilliant to me!

  8. Allison Loukanis says:

    Perhaps this is a Romanized representation of the goddess Eostre.

  9. Joseph Manning says:

    This makes me think of the enigmatic Teraphim of the Hebrew Bible.

Write a Reply or Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


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