This Vagina Goddess Is The Best Ancient Symbol You've Never Heard Of
Ancient vagina goddess Baubo is the perfect symbol of feminine power for our troubled times.
Even to modern eyes, the terracotta statuettes are bizarre. Found in 1896 in the remains of a 5th-century BCE temple at the ancient Greek city of Priene, each figurine is different, but all feature a woman’s face, bedecked with an elaborate hairdo, situated directly atop a pair of chubby, childlike legs. In place of a chin, there is the well-defined cleft of a hairless vulva. But for one of the German archeologists working on the dig, the figures looked familiar. He quickly concluded that they were images of Baubo, a mythological character—some say goddess—whose main claim to fame was flashing her genitals to cheer up the agricultural goddess Demeter. “Surely we are dealing with a creation from the context of the grotesque-obscene aspects of the Demeter cult,” he declared.
Today, we turn to resources like The Vagina Bible or Pussypedia.net to answer questions about “down there” that we are otherwise too shy to ask. Meanwhile, powerful men brag that when it comes to subjugating women, all you need to do is “Grab ‘em by the pussy.” Obviously, we need a vagina goddess now more than ever. So why isn’t Baubo more well known?
One reason may be that scholars differ widely in their interpretations of Baubo-related texts and artifacts. Did her name mean “belly,” “cave,” or “vulva”? Was she a goddess of fertility, sexuality, or mirth? Or was she even a goddess at all? And when it comes to those weird statuettes from Priene, there’s no agreement about who they are or what they represent, even though they were found in the remains of a temple dedicated to Demeter, the ancient goddess of grain and agriculture, with whom Baubo is so closely associated.
Adding to the confusion, there are many versions of Baubo’s story, which basically goes like this. According to Greek mythology, one day, Demeter’s daughter, Persephone (also known as Kore), was out picking flowers when she was raped and abducted by Hades, god of the underworld. The furious Demeter gave chase, forgetting her responsibilities in the world above ground. As a result, grain didn’t grow—the land laid fallow—and many died of starvation due to famine. Disguised as an old woman dressed in black, Demeter came to the city of Eleusis, where she rested by a well, mourning the loss of her daughter. There, she was found by Baubo, a nurse or servant in the Eleusinian ruler’s household. Baubo offered the goddess a cup of wine but Demeter refused it. Baubo offered sympathy but was rebuffed again. Then Baubo did a thing that even today would get you noticed—she lifted up her skirt and showed off her private parts. The gesture made Demeter laugh, and then the goddess ate and drank. In some retellings, Baubo is accompanied by another servant, Iambe, who tells dirty jokes in an effort to make Demeter laugh, but it’s almost always Baubo’s flashing that gets the job done. (Sometimes, Baubo and Iambe are the same person. Sometimes she goes by the name of Hecate or Isis. As I said, it’s confusing.)
Like an actor whose tiny role on stage or screen makes such a deep connection with the audience that she is catapulted to fame, Baubo’s cameo in the story of Demeter and Persephone is small but transformative. In an agrarian culture like ancient Greece, a ruined harvest could lead to starvation, disease, and death. By making Demeter laugh, and giving her renewed strength to find Persephone, Baubo essentially helped end a famine in the human world, saving countless lives. Art historian Winifred Milius Lubell, whose The Metamorphosis of Baubo: Myths of Women’s Sexual Energy is the definitive work on the subject, traced the iconography of the vulva across vistas of time, geography, and culture. She thinks Baubo was another aspect of “extremely ancient…agricultural rituals of fecundity,” in which chosen women “squatted over the newly plowed fields” and allowed their menstrual blood to drip into the earth to increase its fertility. You might say that Baubo spoke truth to power, the servant’s pussy flash reminding the grain goddess of her responsibility over the harvest and thus as a life-giving force to humanity. Without Baubo’s timely reminder of the vulva’s regenerative power, human civilization would have ended.
Votive offerings from the sanctuary of Demeter in Priene, c. 5th century BCE. Photo: Evelyn Aschenbrenner
Demeter is eventually reunited with her daughter after Zeus intervenes with Hades to set Persephone free. But before Hades does so, he tricks Persephone into eating some pomegranate seeds. Eating food in the underworld means she has to return below ground for at least part of the year. Demeter’s grief during Persephone’s annual travels below the earth thus became an allegory for the changing seasons and cycle of human life, from spring/birth to winter/death, and back again.
Baubo’s singular act was powerful enough that it was reenacted by initiates and pilgrims at a pair of important religious festivals that honored the journey of Demeter and Persephone during the autumn planting season. Thousands of men and women participated in the Eleusinian Mysteries, an annual event that lasted for eight days in late September, the last three of which were open to initiates only. These rituals were held in strictest secrecy, so much so that scholars still argue about what actually went on. However, they mostly agree that initiates “imitated what Demeter had done while searching for her daughter,” and that included Baubo’s skirt lifting gesture.
Only married women were allowed to attend the fall festival known as Thesmorphoria, which took place in October. At night, they slept in tents. During the day, attendees portrayed events from the story of Demeter and Persephone in rituals thought to increase both human and agricultural fertility. They ate pomegranates and perhaps let the red juice drip into the earth, just as the proto Baubo offered up her menstrual blood. As part of one rite, they “manipulated bread-dough models of male and female genitals.” No written explanation exists as to why they did this, but scholars think it may have been to awaken desire and stimulate fecundity. Piglets, alive or dead, were thrown into ritual caverns or pits, and their decomposed remains were later retrieved and spread on altars, mixed with seed corn for the coming year. This mimicked the moment when the Earth opened as Hades nabbed Persephone, and some hogs were pulled beneath the ground along with the girl. According to a 2013 article by Sarah Iles Johnston in the journal History of Religions, on the second day of Thesmorphoria, women broke a day of fasting with “ritual obscenity,” recalling the jokes Baubo/Iambe told to Demeter. And at least one historian—Ewa Osek, writing in the 2018 essay collection The Many Faces of Mimesis—believes they also reenacted Baubo’s pussy flashing. As A.C. Smythe of the site Goddess Gift summarizes it, this was a festival “where women were taught the profound lessons of living joyfully, dying without fear, and being an integral part of the great cycles of nature.”
The story of Demeter and Persephone resonated deeply with the women of ancient Greece, because it reflected traditions in their strongly patriarchal society. Women were kept sequestered inside their father or husband’s house. Marriages could be arranged by fathers without input from their wives or daughters, who might not even be aware that such life-altering discussions were taking place. Thus, in classicist Mary E. Naples’ words, a girl of 16 or so, “was often torn from her natal home and forced to marry an unknown man who was—on average—twice or three times her senior.” Depending on distance and circumstance, a young woman might see her parents and siblings only rarely after marriage, if at all. Persephone’s abduction and Demeter’s sorrow must have felt very familiar.
Baubo riding a sow, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC. Photo: EdenPictures / Flickr
On the other hand, according to Naples, Demeter’s success in having her daughter returned to her for at least part of the year was a rare instance in which a goddess defied the rapacious Zeus without punishment—a power play that would have been impossible without Baubo’s skirt toss to bring the goddess out of her grief. The annual gathering at Thesmophoria likewise provided an uncommon taste of power for mortal women, a time when they could throw off the shackles of patriarchy as they gathered in a wholly female society, sleeping outside and performing secret rituals.
"What happened to this fun-loving, bawdy, jesting, sexually liberated—yet very wise—goddess?"
Despite Baubo’s role in the Eleusinian Mysteries and Thesmophoria, few, if any, images of her exist from ancient Greece (the statuettes from Priene may have been a rare exception). This is due at least in part to the ephemeral nature of the art created for women’s rituals. Lubell noted that men created images in marble, precious metals, and clay fired in a kiln—media made to last for centuries. Meanwhile women of the time used what was at hand in a household—bread dough, for example, which quickly disintegrated.
While Baubo was clearly revered in ancient Greece, her origins may reach back even further. Many Baubo-like entities have names that begin with a similar root syllable, a “bau” or “ba” sound. Over a thousand years before the ancient Greeks, the goddess Bau ruled over “the dark waters of the deep or the void” in religion practiced at Sumer in what is now modern-day Iraq. Bau was also worshipped in ancient Phoenicia, where one of her guises was Baev, the “guardian of the source,” an entrance to a cave or hole.
Baubo may also be related to a little-known Egyptian goddess named Bebt. The ancient historian Herodotus (c. 484 – c. 425 BC), described rites for the Egyptian cat goddess Bast at her main temple at Bubastis. During these ceremonies, men and women rode a barge down the river, yelling “mocking jokes and jests” at women on the riverbanks. Women on the barge performed dances, “then, standing up, they hitch up their skirts.” (According to Herodotus, more wine was drunk during this festival than at any other time of the year.)
The image of a vulva-flashing goddess was so popular in Egypt that artwork of her in one or another of her guises, but always unashamedly displaying her bits, appears to have been mass produced. In the late 19th century, antiquities hunters in the markets of Cairo or Alexandria in Egypt could buy bronze or terracotta figurines of this sort that had been dug up in farmers’ fields, writes Lubell. These showed women in flowing gowns and headdresses, lifting their skirts above their naked pudenda. Is it possible these figures were actually of the much older Egyptian goddess Isis? Again, scholars disagree.
So, what happened to this “fun-loving, bawdy, jesting, sexually liberated—yet very wise—goddess,” as Smythe describers her, with such far-reaching and ancient roots? One clue comes to us via the writings of Clement of Alexandria, a Christian writer who penned an essay called the “Exhortation to the Greeks” (aka “Exhortation Against the Pagans” and “Exhortation Against the Heathens”) around 200 AD. The purpose of this essay was to mock and demonize the Greek’s pagan belief systems, in order to convert people to Christianity. In his rants he describes a number of Greek rituals in detail, and, as a result, his writing has also been relied on as a source of information about ancient pagan cults and Greek mythology. While his telling of the story of Baubo is invaluable, Clement is clearly disgusted by it, and he believes his readers should be, too. “Baubo, having received Demeter as a guest, offers her a draught of wine and meal. She declines to take it, being unwilling to drink on account of her mourning. Baubo is deeply hurt, thinking she has been slighted, and thereupon uncovers her secret parts and exhibits them to the goddess,” he explains. And how is Baubo received by the goddess? “Demeter is pleased at the sight, and now at least receives the draught—delighted by the spectacle! These are the secret mysteries of the Athenians!” Clement writes with great disdain. Later, he asks how anyone can respect the Athenians, when they, “and the rest of Greece—I blush even to speak of it—possess that shameful tale about Demeter?” You can almost hear Clement’s pearl-clutching from across the centuries.
Saint Clement of Alexandria. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.
Could the rise of patriarchal religions, such as Christianity, be at the root of Baubo’s downfall? Were men appalled, and maybe even threatened, by Baubo’s raunchiness? It’s quite possible. And the main weapon they could use to kill her off was to bury her under layers of shame. Michael Psellus, for example, was an 11th-century Christian historian who described what he thought took place during the Eleusinian Mysteries, including Baubo’s big moment. “She pulled up her gown revealing her thighs and pudenda,” he wrote. “Thus they gave her a name which covered her with shame. In this disgraceful manner the initiation ceremonies [at Eleusis] came to an end.”
It was around this same time that Baubo-like figures, called Sheela na gigs, began appearing all over Europe. They showed up as architectural carvings, posed over doors and entryways. They were meant to be ugly—as ugly as the gargoyles and other so-called grotesques that hung alongside them on churches, castles, and other places—and indeed they were. A round-headed creature holding her vulva wide open, with her hands clutching her labia, the Sheela na gig’s true meaning is a mystery. But one of the most popular theories is that put forth by researchers Anthony Weir and James Jerman. They argue, in their 1986 book Images of Lust: Sexual Carvings on Medieval Churches, that the Sheela na gigs’ location on churches, and their grotesque features, by medieval standards, suggest that they represent female lust as hideous and sinfully corrupting.
“With the rise of the patriarchy, the vulva went from being a place of reverence to a puritanical, unmentionable, and ‘dirty’ part of a woman,” writes Jean Shinoda Bolen in her book, Goddesses In Older Women: Archetypes in Women Over Fifty. “It went from a symbol of the goddess to one of the most demeaning and hostile words (‘cunt’) a women can be called.” This negative view of female genitalia and sexuality, and by extension, Baubo, pretty much held steady in Christianity and European cultures for the next 800 years or so. Even Jane Ellen Harrison, a pioneering classics scholar and suffragist, relegated almost all discussion of Baubo to a footnote in her 1908 masterwork, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion. Baubo’s gesture, she wrote, was a “stumbling block” and “not in harmony with modern conventions.”
A Sheela na gig carving on one of the 85 corbels around the Kilpeck Church in England, built circa 1140
“She is a goddess who speaks directly from her genitals, and your approval is neither sought nor required.ˮ
Nevertheless, Baubo does make some appearances in a few modern works. In Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s early 19th-century play Faust, she shows up as an occult figure. “Old Baubo comes alone,” a chorus of witches chants, “she rides upon a farrow [a sow]. Then honor to whom honor is due. Mother Baubo to the front, and lead the way!” In his 1882 work, The Gay Science, Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche muses that, “Perhaps truth is a woman who has reasons for not letting us see her reasons? Perhaps her name is—to speak Greek—Baubo?” And Sigmund Freud, who was likely familiar with the findings at Priene, referred to Baubo in his 1916 article, “A Mythological Parallel to a Visual Obsession.”
For those men, Baubo was a historical myth, not a figure worthy of contemporary worship. And to some women, that is to our detriment. “Baubo has been degraded into over-sexualized images of women and girls,” writes Dr. Kaalii Cargill, a scholar of women’s traditions in ancient Greece, on the site LivingNow. “The obscenities that were once shouted in sacred play are now directed at women as aggression, hostility, and violence. We have lost Baubo and so many of the myths and rituals that can connect us to ourselves, each other, and the world.”
But not everyone has relinquished their connection to Baubo. And some believe that her story has relevance for women today. Referring to her as the “Greek Goddess of Humor,” A.C. Smythe of Goddess Gift explains that Baubo should be “celebrated as a positive force of female sexuality and the healing power of laughter. [She] teaches us a lesson in how to turn enmity into friendship. Perhaps her bawdy behavior was a reminder that we should remember that all things will pass and change. To not take things too seriously, for nothing lasts forever.”
Similarly, Jen Miller, on her blog Quill of the Goddess, describes Baubo as “The queen of deep belly laughs, dirty jokes, and unbridled sexuality. I would compare her to Mae West or Amy Schumer. She is a goddess who speaks directly from her genitals, and your approval is neither sought nor required.” Maria Wulf, on her blog Full Moon Fiber Art, even makes Baubo relatable by explaining that she “is the part of us that’s ‘too loud’ and cackles at dirty jokes. The one who is having ‘too much fun.’”
The public display of the female body—at least as dictated by women—still has the power to shock in the 21st century. A society that can lose a good portion of its collective mind at the sight of a mother breast-feeding her baby at a restaurant is probably not ready for Baubo. Yet, as Lubbell points out, Baubo’s power stemmed not from “gleaming armor or beauty bestowed on her” by male gods, but from her own body. She was irreverent and sacred, a symbol of women’s “nurturing and transformative energies” combined with their “resourcefulness and laughter.” In an era when women’s rights and bodily autonomy are under siege on what seems like a daily basis, maybe we ought to reclaim Baubo as a life-affirming reminder of female power.
By Lynn Peril
Top photo credit: BPK Bildagentur / Staatliche Museen / Johannes Laurentius / Art Resource, NY
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
The short mythical story of Demeter is one of the famous legends that feature in the mythology of ancient civilizations. Discover the history of the ancient Roman and Greek gods and goddesses. Interesting information about the gods and goddesses featuring Demeter in a short story format. This short story of Demeter is easy reading for kids and children who are learning about the history, myths and legends of the ancient Roman and Greek gods. Additional facts and information about the mythology and legends of individual gods and goddesses of these ancient civilizations can be accessed via the following links:
The Story of Demeter
The mythical story and history of Demeter
by E.M. Berens
The Mythical Story of Demeter - Rhea and Gaia
Demeter was the daughter of Cronus and Rhea. She represented that portion of Gaia (the whole solid earth) which we call the earth's crust, and which produces all vegetation. As goddess of agriculture, field-fruits, plenty, and productiveness, she was the sustainer of material life, and was therefore a divinity of great importance. When ancient Gaia lost, with Uranus, her position as a ruling divinity, she abdicated her sway in favour of her daughter Rhea, who henceforth inherited the powers which her mother had previously possessed, receiving in her place the honour and worship of mankind. In a very old poem Gaia is accordingly described as retiring to a cavern in the bowels of the earth, where she sits in the lap of her daughter, slumbering, moaning, and nodding for ever and ever.
It is necessary to keep clearly in view the distinctive difference between the three great earth-goddesses Gaia, Rhea, and Demeter. Gaia represents the earth as a whole, with its mighty subterranean forces Rhea is that productive power which causes vegetation to spring forth, thus sustaining men and animals Demeter, by presiding over agriculture, directs and utilizes Rhea's productive powers. But in later times, when Rhea, like other ancient divinities, loses her importance as a ruling deity, Demeter assumes all her functions and attributes, and then becomes the goddess of the life-producing and life-maintaining earth-crust. We must bear in mind the fact that man in his primitive state knew neither how to sow nor how to till the ground when, therefore, he had exhausted the pastures which surrounded him he was compelled to seek others which were as yet unreaped thus, roaming constantly from one place to another, settled habitations, and consequently civilizing influences, were impossible. Demeter, however, by introducing a knowledge of agriculture, put an end, at once and for ever, to that nomadic life which was now no longer necessary.
Story of Demeter
The favour of Demeter was believed to bring mankind rich harvests and fruitful crops, whereas her displeasure caused blight, drought, and famine. The island of Sicily was supposed to be under her especial protection, and there she was regarded with particular veneration, the Sicilians naturally attributing the wonderful fertility of their country to the partiality of the goddess.
Demeter is usually represented as a woman of noble bearing and majestic appearance, tall, matronly, and dignified, with beautiful golden hair, which falls in rippling curls over her stately shoulders, the yellow locks being emblematical of the ripened ears of corn. Sometimes she appears seated in a chariot drawn by winged dragons, at others she stands erect, her figure drawn up to its full height, and always fully draped she bears a sheaf of wheat-ears in one hand and a lighted torch in the other. The wheat-ears are not infrequently replaced by a bunch of poppies, with which her brows are also garlanded, though sometimes she merely wears a simple ribon in her hair.
In the temple erected to Demeter at Eleusis, the famous Eleusinian Mysteries were instituted by the goddess herself. It is exceedingly difficult, as in the case of all secret societies, to discover anything with certainty concerning these sacred rites. The most plausible supposition is that the doctrines taught by the priests to the favoured few whom they initiated, were religious truths which were deemed unfit for the uninstructed mind of the multitude. For instance, it is supposed that the myth of Demeter and Persephone was explained by the teachers of the Mysteries to signify the temporary loss which mother earth sustains every year when the icy breath of winter robs her of her flowers and fruits and grain.
When Demeter instituted the Eleusinian Mysteries, Celeus and his family were the first to be initiated, Celeus himself being appointed high-priest. His son Triptolemus and his daughters, who acted as priestesses, assisted him in the duties of his sacred office. The Mysteries were celebrated by the Athenians every five years, and were, for a long time, their exclusive privilege. They took place by torchlight, and were conducted with the greatest solemnity.
In order to spread abroad the blessings which agriculture confers, Demeter presented Triptolemus with her chariot drawn by winged dragons, and, giving him some grains of corn, desired him to journey through the world, teaching mankind the arts of agriculture and husbandry.
Demeter exercised great severity towards those who incurred her displeasure. We find examples of this in the stories of Stellio and Eresicthon. Stellio was a youth who ridiculed the goddess for the eagerness with which she was eating a bowl of porridge, when weary and faint in the vain search for her daughter. Resolved that he should never again have an opportunity of thus offending, she angrily threw into his face the remainder of the food, and changed him into a spotted lizard.
Eresicthon, son of Triopas, had drawn upon himself the anger of Demeter by cutting down her sacred groves, for which she punished him with a constant and insatiable hunger. He sold all his possessions in order to satisfy his cravings, and was forced at last to devour his own limbs. His daughter Metra, who was devotedly attached to him, possessed the power of transforming herself into a variety of different animals. By this means she contrived to support her father, who sold her again and again each time she assumed a different form, and thus he dragged on a pitiful existence..
The Myth & History of Demeter
The Myth of Demeter
The story of Demeter is featured in the book entitled "A Hand-Book of Greek and Roman Mythology. The Myths and Legends of Ancient Greece and Rome" by E.M. Berens, published in 1894 by Maynard, Merrill, & Co., New York.
The Myth of Demeter - the Magical World of Myth & Legend
The story of Demeter is one of the stories about the history of ancient gods and goddesses featured in ancient mythology and legends. Such stories serve as a doorway to enter the world of the Ancient Greeks and Romans. The names of so many of the heroes and characters are known today through movies and games but the actual story about such characters are unknown. Reading a myth story about Demeter is the easy way to learn about the history and stories of the classics.
Almost all information known regarding Neolithic art of the Cyclades comes from the excavation site of Saliagos off Antiparos. Pottery of this period is similar to that of Crete and the Greek mainland. Sinclair Hood writes: "A distinctive shape is a bowl on a high foot comparable with a type which occurs in the mainland Late Neolithic." 
The best-known art of this period are the marble figures usually called "idols" or "figurines", though neither name is exactly accurate: the former term suggests a religious function which is by no means agreed on by experts, and the latter does not properly apply to the largest figures, which are nearly life size. These marble figures are seen scattered around the Aegean, suggesting that these figures were popular amongst the people of Crete and mainland Greece.  Perhaps the most famous of these figures are musicians: one a harp-player the other a pipe-player.  Dating to approximately 2500 BCE, these musicians are sometimes considered “the earliest extant musicians from the Aegean.” 
The majority of these figures, however, are highly stylized representations of the female human form, typically having a flat, geometric quality which gives them a striking resemblance to today's modern art. However, this may be a modern misconception as there is evidence that the sculptures were originally brightly painted.  A majority of the figurines are female, depicted nude, and with arms folded across the stomach, typically with the right arm held below the left. Most writers who have considered these artifacts from an anthropological or psychological viewpoint have assumed that they are representative of a Great Goddess of nature, in a tradition continuous with that of Neolithic female figures such as the Venus of Willendorf.  Although some archeologists would agree,  this interpretation is not generally agreed on by archeologists, among whom there is no consensus on their significance. They have been variously interpreted as idols of the gods, images of death, children's dolls, and other things. One authority feels they were "more than dolls and probably less than sacrosanct idols." 
Suggestions that these images were idols in the strict sense—cult objects which were the focus of ritual worship—are unsupported by any archeological evidence.  What the archeological evidence does suggest is that these images were regularly used in funerary practice: they have all been found in graves. Yet at least some of them show clear signs of having been repaired, implying that they were objects valued by the deceased during life and were not made specifically for burial. Furthermore, larger figures were sometimes broken up so that only part of them was buried, a phenomenon for which there is no explanation. The figures apparently were buried equally with both men and women.  Such figures were not found in every grave.  While the sculptures are most frequently found laid on their backs in graves, larger examples may have been set up in shrines or dwelling places. 
Early Cycladic art is divided into three periods: EC I (2800–2500 BCE), EC II (2500–2200 BCE), and EC III (2200–2000 BCE). The art is by no means strictly confined to one of these periods, and in some cases, even representative of more than one of the Cycladic islands. The art of EC I is best represented on the islands of Paros, Antiparos, and Amorgos, while EC II is primarily seen on Syros, and EC III on Melos. 
Early Cycladic I (Grotta-Pelos Culture, 3300–2700 BCE) Edit
The most important earliest groups of the Grotta–Pelos culture are Pelos, Plastiras and Louros. Pelos figurines are of schematic type. Both males and females, in standing position with a head and face, compose the Plastiras type the rendering is naturalistic but also strangely stylized. The Louros type is seen as transitional, combining both schematic and naturalistic elements.   Schematic figures are more commonly found and are very flat in profile, having simple forms and lack a clearly defined head. Naturalistic figures are small and tend to have strange or exaggerated proportions, with long necks, angular upper bodies, and muscular legs. 
Pelos type (schematic) Edit
The Pelos type figurines are different than many other Cycladic figurines as for most the gender is undetermined. The most famous of the Pelos type figurines are the "violin"-shaped figurines. On these figurines there is an implied elongated head, no legs and a violin-shaped body. One particular "violin" figurine, has breasts, arms under the breasts, and a pubic triangle, possibly representing a fertility goddess. However, since not all the figurines share these characteristics, no accurate conclusion can be made at this time.
Plastiras type (naturalistic) Edit
The Plastiras type is an early example of Cycladic figurines, named after the cemetery on Paros where they were found.  The figures retain the violin-like shape, stance, and folded arm arrangement of their predecessors but differ in notable ways. The Plastiras type is the most naturalistic type of Cycladic figurine, marked by exaggerated proportions. An ovoid head with carved facial features, including ears, sits atop an elongated neck that typically takes up a full third of the figure's total height.  The legs were carved separately for their entire length, often resulting in breakages. On female figures the pubic area is demarcated by an incision and the breasts are modeled. Representations of males differ in structure, but not remarkably, possessing narrower hips and carved representations of the male sexual organs. The figures are typically small in size, usually no larger than thirty centimeters, and are not able to stand on their own, as the feet are pointed. Surviving figurines have been carved from marble, but it is suggested by some that they may also have been carved from wood.
Louros type (schematic and naturalistic) Edit
The Louros type is a category of Cycladic figurines from the Early Cycladic I phase of the Bronze Age. Combining the naturalistic and schematic approaches of earlier figure styles, the Louros type have featureless faces, a long neck, and a simple body with attenuated shoulders that tend to extend past the hips in width. The legs are shaped carefully but are carved to separation no further than the knees or mid-calves.  Though breasts are not indicated, figures of this type are still suggestive of the female form and tend to bear evidence of a carved pubic triangle.
Early Cycladic II (Keros-Syros culture, 2800–2300 BCE) Edit
Kapsala variety Edit
The Kapsala variety is a type of Cycladic figure of the Early Cycladic II period. This variety is often thought to precede or overlap in period with that of the canonical Spedos variety of figures. Kapsala figures differ from the canonical type in that the arms are held much lower in the right-below-left folded configuration and the faces lack sculpted features other than the nose and occasionally ears.  Kapsala figures show a tendency of slenderness, especially in the legs, which are much longer and lack the powerful musculature suggested in earlier forms of the sculptures. The shoulders and hips are much narrower as well, and the figures themselves are very small in size, rarely larger than 30 cm in length. Evidence suggests that paint is now regularly used to demarcate features such as the eyes and pubic triangle, rather than carving them directly. One characteristic of note of the Kapsala variety is that some figures seem to suggest pregnancy, featuring bulging stomachs with lines drawn across the abdomen. Like other figures of the Early Cycladic II period, the most defining feature of the Kapsala variety is their folded-arm position.
Spedos variety Edit
The Spedos type, named after an Early Cycladic cemetery on Naxos, is the most common of Cycladic figurine types. It has the widest distribution within the Cyclades as well as elsewhere, and the greatest longevity. The group as a whole includes figurines ranging in height from miniature examples of 8 cm to monumental sculptures of 1.5 m. With the exception of a statue of a male figure, now in the Museum of Cycladic Art Collection, all known works of the Spedos variety are female figures.  Spedos figurines are typically slender elongated female forms with folded arms. They are characterized by U-shaped heads and a deeply incised cleft between the legs.
Dokathismata variety Edit
The Dokathismata type is a Cycladic figure from the end of the Early Cycladic II period of the Bronze Age. With characteristics that are developed from the earlier Spedos variety, the Dokathismata figures feature broad, angular shoulders and a straight profile. Dokathismata figures are considered the most stylized of the folded-arm figures, with a long, elegant shape that displays a strong sense of geometry that is especially evident in the head, which features an almost triangular shape. These figures were somewhat conservatively built compared to earlier varieties, with a shallow leg cleft and connected feet.  Despite this, the figures were actually quite fragile and prone to breakage. The return of an incised pubic triangle is also noted in the Dokathismata variety of figures.
Tradition and Innovation in Cochiti Figurative Pottery
Cochiti Pueblo potters have been making pottery figurines in various styles since the late 1800s. In 1964, Helen Cordero began creating what would become known as Storyteller figurines. These seated human figures, with open mouths and children clinging to their bodies, paid tribute to her pueblo&rsquos history of oral tradition. Today, Virgil Ortiz and other Cochiti potters continue creating figurines using the same materials and methods as Cordero and her predecessors. These contemporary works range in style from traditional to boundary-pushing. This exhibit will include works by both of the aforementioned artists and dozens of others, providing a comprehensive look at the evolution of Cochiti Pueblo figurative pottery.
- Babcock, Barbara A. and Guy and Doris Monthan. The Pueblo Storyteller, The University of Arizona Press, Tucson.1986.
April 14 @ 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Join the Columbus chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America for a Zoom lecture on Greek archaeology!
“The Origins of Figurine Use at Corinth: A View from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore” (Dr. Susan Langdon, University of Missouri)
Corinth was a leader in the production of representational terracottas, making and distributing figurines that influenced other cities across the Greek world. Yet the beginnings of the figurine tradition at the site have remained unclear, due both to scarcity of early material and to preconceived ideas of figurine development. This talk investigates the earliest production of terracotta figurines at Corinth based on current study of the Archaic material from the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore on Acrocorinth. The appearance in the seventh century of a new type of votive offering, primarily female figurines, marks a clear departure from the male-focused bronze figurines of the Geometric tradition. As a cultic assemblage, the new material from the Demeter sanctuary can be investigated in tandem with evidence from its production site in the Potters’ Quarter to understand the introduction of clay figurines as a cultural innovation, economic strategy, and revolution in votive behavior.
Seated Demeter Figurine - History
O Nisaba, good woman, fair woman, woman born in the mountains! . . .
[M]ay you be a heaper up of grain among the grain piles and in the grain stores!
(Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 294)
As the Harvest season approaches,  I have been thinking about the ancient goddesses who embodied the grain that maintained the agriculturally based civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean. Their Mesopotamian names resonate with the rustle of grain fields: Nunbarshegunu and Ninlil, Ezinu and Ashnan, Sud, Kusu, and Nissaba, and the parallels between them and Greek Demeter are fascinating. But what is the revered patron of scribes Nissaba doing among this group? Well, whatever else, she was always barley and it was the mainstay of the culture.
The Mesopotamian farming-based cities lay to the north and east and had as protector deities grain goddesses like Ninlil, Ninbarshegunu, and [Nissaba] (Jacobsen 1976: 25) . Today, when we think of grain, we usually imagine a vast field of ripening wheat or a crusty loaf of wheat bread. The people of Mesopotamia, on the other hand, would almost certainly have thought first of barley. Wheat is not an easy crop to grow in irrigation-dependent lands, such as those of southern Mesopotamia, because salt has a tendency to build up in the soil. Barley, on the other hand, is much hardier and will grow in more soils. Ancient Mesopotamians used barley for making bread and, more importantly, beer.
Grain goddesses occur frequently on Mesopotamian seals, and respectful male vegetation deities often stand before their thrones. They usually sit on heaps of grain, or small granaries, or even on growing grain they hold stalks of grain in their hands, while more sprout from their shoulders. It is impossible to be sure which grain goddess an image depicts, though only one set of horns in a crown indicates minor divinity. Thus the single-horned goddesses may have been Ezinu or Ashnan, while the double-horned ones may have been the more important deity Nissaba. It is likely, however, that most are barley goddesses. Furthermore, in the texts, grain goddesses were regularly identified with one another (Lambert in Finkel and Geller 1997: 6) .
Lady of Abundance Ezina/Ashnan was a popular Sumerian grain goddess.  One text describes her as the growing grain, the life of Sumer (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 111) . She was a daughter of a great god, and her sister Lakhar was a sheep goddess (Civil 1983: 45) .  Ezinu/Ashnan may have started out as the deity of emmer wheat perhaps she was increasingly celebrated as a grain goddess after Nissaba (more below) shifted her domain to writing and scribes.
Like most grain goddesses, Ezina/Ashnan was a very old deity she appeared in the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.) (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 293) . Worshipped all over the land, she had a strong presence in ancient Mesopotamian writings. Interestingly, she was also relied on to support treaties and laws by withholding abundance from anyone breaking them (Kramer in Pritchard 1969: 161) . One text salutes her as the good bread of the whole world (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 222) .
Several other Mesopotamian goddesses had connections to fertility and thus to grain, among them the great goddess Inanna/Ishtar. Her connection with the lands abundance was fully depicted on the famous Uruk or Warka vase.  Along the bottom of the vase grow two kinds of grain looking very similar to the stalks that grain goddesses hold.  An amazing seal shows both Ishtar and a grain goddess. The two are part of, and frame, a mythic scene which includes a male warrior, possibly Gilgamesh.
Probably originating as an epithet of Nissaba and Ezina/Ashnan meaning Bright  (Kramer 1981: 362) , Kusu was regularly regarded as a deity in her own right and often evoked in magic and religious texts. Shala(sh) was another Sumerian goddess of grain. One tradition sees her as wife of the grain god Dagan, another of the storm god Ishkur/Adad. Her symbol was a stalk of grain/barley (Black and Green 2003: 39, 172-173) . Yet another goddess connected with grain was the Babylonian goddess of love Ishkhara (Ishara), who was often identified with Ishtar. One tradition assigned her to the Semitic grain god Dagan as spouse. Her symbol was the scorpion (Black and Green 2003: 110) .
Surprisingly, the great Sumerian goddess Nissaba, whose name was used in written material to denote grain, was the much-valued scribe of the gods.  She was the goddess of writing, accounting, and surveying and, more important, patron of scribes and scribal wisdom. Clearly, however, she began as a grain goddess and was remembered as such. Indeed, in written material, she was often identified with the other grain goddesses, especially Ezinu/Ashnan. The grain she embodied was likely barley, for one of her epithets Nunbarshegunu  seems to have meant Lady (Whose) Body (Is) Dappled Barley.  Nonetheless, she became patroness of scribes some time soon after the invention of writing, and her scribal aspects were dominant in the Sumerian schools (Michalowski in Reallexikon IX: 575) . Nissaba carried a tablet made of lapis lazuli, a semi-precious stone, dark blue like the night sky. Acknowledging their patron, scribes often concluded literary pieces Praise to Nissaba! (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 280, 291, 307, 314, 338, 349) .
Following the grain-goddess pattern, Nissaba had a long history going back to the Early Dynastic period (2900-2350 B.C.E.), and her lineage too was extremely distinguished. She was the daughter of the sky god and an earth goddess, and her sister was Nin-Isina, a revered healing goddess. In another tradition Nissaba was eldest child of the Sumerian leader of the gods.  Her spouse Khaya (Haya), whose name probably means Life, was the god of stores and storehouses, probably because of his connection with grain goddesses: his spouse Nissaba and daughter Sud (Jacobsen 1976: 99) .
Sud was renamed Ninlil when she married Enlil, the dominant deity of the pantheon (Civil 1983).  Nissaba also had a connection to the netherworld. In one Babylonian poem she was called Mistress of the Underworld. Her symbol was a sheaf or an ear of grain. 
Why Nissaba became patroness of writing has been subject of some scholarly dispute. Lambert suggested that Nissaba meant Lady of Saba, but there is no evidence that a city called Saba has ever existed (Michalowski in Reallexikon IX: 576) . Jacobsen made a quite strong case that Nissaba became patron of writing because she was deity of all grasses, including reeds: She is the reed when it is fashioned into a reed stylus (1976: 10) . Most convincing is Selzs argument: he interprets the goddesss name as Lady of the Grain Rations (or Grain Distribution) (1989: 491) . Selz cites surviving lists giving monthly accounts of barley distribution to argue that grain, especially barley, functioned as money (1989: 491) . Thus, the goddess being measured out as barley became an accountant, that is, a scribe, tracking the allotments. A Sumerian poem recounts how one of the great gods gave order to the world, assigning areas of control to lesser deities. After bestowing the arable land and grain on Ezina, he presented Nissaba with the measuring reed and the measuring tape, so that she could demarcate boundaries. He then proclaimed her the scribe of the Land (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 222, 224) . Thus she took office as head measurer, steward of the chief god Enlil at Nippur, center of the grain trade (Selz 1989: 497) .
Perhaps the best-known of the grain goddesses is Demeter,  patron of the fertility not only of plants, but also of humans. Along with her daughter Kore/Persephone, she was the focus of the Eleusinian Mysteries, secret rituals that yearly drew prospective initiates from all over the Greco-Roman world. The focus of the rituals was likely the abduction of Demeters beloved daughter by the lord of the Underworld. The story is recounted in the seventh-century BCE Homeric Hymn to Demeter (Foley 1994) . The poem ends with the return of Persephone after her mother exercises her awesome power to withhold all fertility and almost destroys both gods and humans.
Like Mesopotamian grain goddesses, Demeter was a very ancient divinity with roots which might go back well into the second millennium BCE. Though her name does not appear in texts dating to that period, they do mention a Grain Mistress (Burkert 1985: 44) . Like the early Nissaba, Demeter stands primarily for grain, especially barley, her yellow hair reflected in the golden ripeness of the fields. In images, she holds ripe grain in her hand and wears it as a crown. Her daughter has been understood as the early shoots of grain or, when in the Underworld, seed-grain buried in silos during the summer heat (Foley 1994: 34, 40 Burkert 1985: 160) . Like Nissaba, Demeter had some Underworld connections indeed, the dead were known as Demetreioi, Belonging to Demeter. Burkert states that [no] Near Eastern parallels are found for the mother-daughter constellation of Demeter and Kore (1985:161) , whom the Greeks called the Two Goddesses because of their closeness as well as similarities (1985:159) . Still, Nissaba also had a daughter who, like Persephone, married a great god and became a great queen. Like the Mesopotamian grain goddesses, Demeter had the power to withhold fertility not just from a breaker of a law or treaty, but from both humans and deities. Finally, Mesopotamian Nissaba was the divider or distributor of the grain rations and, from there, divine measurer and keeper of order. Demeter too was concerned with order and the upholding of custom. One of her epithets was Thesmosphoros, Law-giver.  However, while her beloved daughter was in the Underworld, Demeter not only refused to keep order, but actually caused its dissolution by withdrawing from the world, which then became sterile. As soon as she got her way and was convinced that she would get her daughter back, she made the grain grow fertile for humankind:
At once she sent forth fruit from the fertile fields
And the whole wide earth burgeoned with leaves
(Foley 1994: 26)
- Harvests in the north occur at the end of summer. On the other hand, in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, especially in Mesopotamia, the summer was the dead season and harvest was in spring (Jacobsen 1976: 47) . Lambert identifies Ezina as Sumerian, Ashnan as Akkadian Semitic (in Finkel and Geller 1997: 6) .The names were borrowed from Sumerian into the Semitic languages of Mesopotamia (Frayne, personal communication, June 2008) . Between them, they provided the main foods of Sumer. See The Debate between Sheep and Grain (Black, Cunningham, Robson and Zólyomi 2004: 225-229) .
One of the priceless objects which, I understand, is still missing after the looting of the Baghdad Museum at the beginning of the Iraq War. My thanks to Stéphane Beaulieu for this observation. Frayne, personal communication, June 2008. Michalowski translates it as Pure (in Reallexikon IX: 576).
Her name Nissaba was once read as Nidaba (Michalowski in Reallexicon IX: 575) .
This epithet is the name of an independent goddess, a wise old woman, in the poem Enlil and Ninlil (Black, Cunningham, Robson, and Zólyomi 2004: 102-111) .
Frayne, personal communication, June 2008.
In another tradition, Enlil married Nissabas daughter and so became her son-in-law (Civil 1983) .
In the poem Enlil and Sud, as we have seen, Suds mother was Nunbarshegunu, an epithet of Nissaba likening her to mottled barley. This reference links not only Nissaba, but also her daughter Sud/Ninlil to barley. So Sud/Ninlil was also a grain goddess. Not surprisingly, she was often identified with Ezinu/Ashnan and Shala. One of Ninlils sons was Ninurta, whose symbol was the plow.
In Babylonian times, Nissaba was wife to Nabu, who took over from her as patron of scribes and writing.
Roman Ceres. See Spaeth, Barbette S. The Roman Goddess Ceres. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 1996.
Homers name has traditionally been assigned to a group of hymns, really short epics designed as an introduction to the epic recital at festivals they date to around the sixth-seventh centuries BCE (Burkert 1985: 123) .
Literally it means one who brings or gives thesmos that which is laid down, rule, precept.
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Figurines of Demeter and Persephone Found in Russia’s Black Sea Town
The figurines of Demeter and Persephone recently discovered in Anapa. Credit: HistoryHellenic/Twitter
Figurines representing the goddess Demeter and her daughter, Persephone, were unearthed recently at a construction site in the Black Sea resort town of Anapa, in Russia.
The terracotta statuettes, along with a relief, were discovered in early November by archaeologists from the Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences.
In antiquity, the region surrounding Anapa, known as Sinda, served as an important seaport. Pontic Greeks established a settlement called Gorgippia there in the sixth century BC, and it developed into a major power in the Black Sea throughout the years of antiquity.
The construction site in Anapa where the artifacts were discovered. Credit: Sarah404BC/Twitter
A number of kilns used for the production of pottery and ceramics, mainly dating from the 4th to the 2nd century BC, were also discovered on the outskirts of the ancient city.
It is near the remains of one of the kilns that archaeologists discovered the bulk of the priceless figurines of the Greek goddesses.
One of the priceless figurines just discovered in Anapa, Russia. Credit: Istockhistory/Twitter
Along with a number of complete figurines of Persephone, Demeter’s daughter, archaeologists found a one-sided bust figurine of Demeter herself and an array of tiles, bowls, and pottery fragments at the site.
Relief of an enthroned Cybele, flanked by Hermes and Hecate. Credit: Sarah404BC/Twitter
A dedicatory relief depicting an enthroned Cybele, an Anatolian mother goddess, flanked by Hermes and Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft, was also discovered at the Anapa site.
Archaeologists from the Institute for the History of Material Culture of the Russian Academy of Sciences believe that the relief would have been displayed near a temple or important public building.
The finds at Anapa, located on the northern coast of the Black Sea, highlight the far-reaching influence of Greece in antiquity, as well as its persistence throughout time, as Anapa is still home to a vibrant community of Pontic Greeks to this day.
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Seated Demeter Figurine - History
With this post, the UNM Art Museum Student Advisory Board (UNMAM SAB) and Maxwell Museum of Anthropology are launching a new online collaboration featuring museum collections and the work of student researchers. To learn more about the UNMAM SAB, please visit artmuseum.unm.edu/for-students.
Today’s post features the work of Lauren (Beth) Wilson Norwood, a doctoral student in the History of Art, whose research focuses on the art and architecture of ancient West Mexico with a particular interest in the study of body art and adornment depicted on ceramic figurines.Figure 1, Unknown artist, Seated Woman, Lagunillas Style E, Nayarit, Mexico, c. 300 BCE-300 CE, earthenware, The Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, donated by Richard and Margaret Bice.
Ceramic anthropomorphic figurines, such as the one above, represent a cultural touchstone for people living in western Mexico—specifically, Nayarit, Jalisco, and Colima –during the Late Formative and Early Classic period (c. 300 BCE to 450 CE) (Figure 1). West Mexican ceramics were originally discovered in shaft tombs, which consist of underground burial chambers connected to the surface by a vertical shaft. The dead were interred in an extended position and were surrounded by ceramic vessels and figurines. The tomb is not the only location figurines are found in—figurines are also recovered from residential and ceremonial architecture. Much like the various contexts in which these ceramics are found, West Mexican figurines come in a variety of sizes and styles. Both solid and hollow figurines range in size from only a few inches to as large as four feet tall, and are made in as many as seventeen different regional styles. This particular figurine is part of the Lagunillas sub-style, which is primarily found in Nayarit (fig. 2). It is identifiable by the semi-closed eyes as well as black and red body paint or tattoos.
Figure 2, This map shows the location of sites in West Mexico.
West Mexican figurines depict individuals adorned in a variety of costumes and participating in various daily and ceremonial activities. This hollow Lagunillas style figurine is just under six inches tall and depicts a seated woman whose hands rest on her slightly swollen abdomen. Like many Lagunillas figures, she wears a skirt, arm bands, necklaces, a nose ring, and elaborate earrings. The torso is unadorned which is a common feature of Lagunillas figurines and allows the viewer to clearly see the black and red designs on the figure’s skin. The subject and function of Lagunillas figures are difficult to decern. Unlike other styles Lagunillas figures lack accoutrements such as wicker armor, spears or club used to identify warriors.
Anthropologist Robert Pickering has suggested that these figurines depict ancestors or perhaps the individuals the figures accompany to the grave. My research shows that Lagunillas figures are a form of highly-stylized portraiture in which the physical likeness is deemphasized and body art and adornment communicate the subject’s social identity. Adornment and body art, which are often used as external signifiers of identity and status, were likely used by the people of ancient West Mexico to communicate aspects of the subject’s identity, including their membership in a kin group, position within the social hierarchy, and even record life events. A viewer knowledgeable of the signs encoded in West Mexican adornment could ‘read’ figurines like a text, allowing them to identify the social and perhaps individual identity or role in their community. These figurines may have been used in rituals associated with ancestor veneration in which the ceramic object serves as a vessel for the ancestor’s spirit and facilitates communication between the living and the dead.