Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Ariane ivory miniature. Posted by Hello

Detail of Ariadne, with satyr and winged cupids, from Constantinople, 6th Century. Ivory miniature (about 5" tall), Museum of Middle Ages, Paris. This beautiful little miniature is fascinating for its sad expression and mixture of Byzantine and classical elements. So is this Ariadne AFTER she's abandoned by Theseus? Note she's holding a staff (symbol of power or healing?) and a bowl (allusion to water?), with one breast exposed (reference to Amazons?). Many miniatures of this period and place (Constantinople) were of the Christ or religous themes, but here we find a classical theme, retelling the famous story of Ariadne, the woman who told Theseus how to find his way through the labyrinth, following her thread. His mission: to kill the dreaded Minotaur, ending the annual sacrifice of 7 pairs of maidens and young men, tribute from Athens to Knossos, also marking the shift of political power from the island of Crete to Greece.

Today is a quiet day, with many papers to read. Tomorrow we talk about Mesoamerican culture in humanities; perhaps that's the connection for we always wind up talking about human sacrifice. Time for tea. Beth

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Tuesday, January 18, 2005

ROMAN BATHS, BATH, ENGLAND. No one's allowed to go bathing now in these Roman baths, used for many hundreds of years by priests, royalty, and later, the aristocracy. When Rome pulled out, the baths were taken over by the locals and preserved. What amused me most were the many offerings to the gods made here, so that bathing was much more spiritual than today. And curses! "A plague be visited on the foul unmentionable one who took my toga!" These curses were etched on tiny tin or copper scrolls and then tossed into the pools as an offering to the goddess, along with coins. And, in an inner room, a large pool completely enclosed was reserved for the priests and for healing. A niche held a statue of the goddess.
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ARTIFACT OF THE DAY: Roman god Mercury with Celtic consort Rosmerta and 3 hooded deities. I know this is a rotten picture, but it's truly fascinating for its mix of ideas and cultures.

This sculpture (currently in the Musuem of the Roman Baths, in Bath, England) is badly worn, details of expression long gone. Rosmerta was known for her healing power; here she sits on a throne equally with Mercury, and carries a healing wand. In Britain, with Mercury, she is part of a divine couple (fused female and male divinity, rather different from the Christian hierarchy). She also sometimes appears with a cornucopia, a scroll, or a bucket (as here), or close to sacred waters.

Equally interesting are those three hooded figures at the bottom of the picture, called genii cucullati and shown with a mysterious animal. Some trace these three women (how can we tell they're women as this sculpture is so worn, but apparently, those short, heavy cloaks are icons themselves) back to the three aspects of mother goddess, worshipped widely during pagan times during the Winter Solstice (now Christmas), symbolizing abundance -- or perhaps abundance in womanly-ways -- wealth, wisdom, fertility, and healing as well. The animal lends a somewhat sinister air to modern eyes -- perhaps a familiar (too large?) or a lion/dog (symbol of the wild)? One essay links Roman, Celtic and Germanic traditions in the "Bethen", a female trio later transformed to saints under Christianity -- all marytred, all beheaded, all protectors of girls and women in some aspect of birth, fertility and death. All in all, a long way from home, yet the artifacts remain.

Additional sources:
and and

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Saturday, January 08, 2005

Hathor column, Deir el-Bahri, Hatshepsut's Tomb. ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. Posted by Hello Hatshepsut's statues could be torn down, her prayers effaced, but the tomb remains, monumental, of stone, and enduring. She lived nearly 4,000 years ago, and ruled as the first female Pharoah for nearly 20 years, first as regent for the young Tuthmosis III, and then on her own. The picture shows columns still standing in a small temple dedicated to Hathor on the left side of the tomb. Other reliefs throughout the tomb show Hatshepsut's accomplishments; she negotiated and fought battles with Nubians, and a monumental frieze documents her expedition to the ancient city-state of Punt (today, Somalia), showing marvelous sea creatures, boats, gifts and giant mounds of incense. The frieze is now very difficult to see, colors worn away by sun and wind. An authorized copy was made of this very large frieze; the museum copy is now sharply incised and more brilliantly painted than the original.

Every image I brought back from sabbatical has a different story. If I listen just to the guides and read the printed materials available at site, I get one level. If after coming home, I look at popular articles, I get another level. And if I have good research materials, I get a third level. Hatshepsut is a case in point. We were told on site that the pharoahs after Hatshepsut destroyed and defaced her statues, and worked to erase her name from the list of pharoahs and from all memory because they didn't want to record a female pharoah. The next level of research reveals that indeed, she reigned as pharoah, regent and king for nearly 20 years, but popular stories affirm she was a peaceful ruler (being a woman, of course). The next layer of research reveals that she went on at least two military expeditions as well as the fabled expedition to Punt. And that other women ruled as "kings" and pharoahs of Egypt.

Hathor is typically shown with a female face, full hair, and cow's ears. I like to say Hathor's the original cow girl, but her identities were many and her power was recognized everywhere -- even to Abu Simbel. Hathor, a sky and cow goddess, was considered the Mistress of the West (traditionally the land of the dead, the direction of the dying sun), and placed near tombs or shown offering the ankh, the symbol of life to the pharoah, at once protecting and nurturing the ka or soul of the departed. Many offerings would be brought to Hathor during the Beautiful Feast of the Valley in a magnificent procession. So, Hathor brought hope at the moment of death. I think I'm fascinated by her because Hathor is decidedly female; she looks like someone we might know -- if we could set aside her ears.

Frieze of celebrants, Valley of the Queens, Hatshepsut's Tomb. Posted by Hello Notice the very lively figures, balanced, harmonious, yet full of energy and movement.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Late Bronze Age: ARTIFACT OF THE DAY: Boetia Madonna Posted by Hello. I spotted this variation of the seated "plank" goddess in a small case in the British Museum. These smaller (about hand size) terracotta figurines were made of clay, flat on one side, with more details on the front side, sometimes with only the face shown in any detail. This is a particularly fine "plank goddess" given the details of the modeling. These figurines were often thrown into lakes, found as burial or temple offerings, or (in some variations) found in house rubble as goddesses of the hearth. Note the crown, Greek dress peplum and the details of the swaddling on the baby. It's not certain who she is -- a later version of Ishtar with child? Aphrodite? The location of Boetia puts her in sometime in the Bronze Age, but the details of the figure suggest a later date. I'm interested in the theme of mother and child, venerated well before Christianity. As always, more information is needed!

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Inside Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Posted by Hello

Islamic Istanbul: ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. One question we were often asked while in Istanbul was which was more beautiful, the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sofia. Here you can see the shimmering light filtered by stained glass windows, comparable to any in the West, and the soaring pillars and domes, each surface with ceramic tiles. At the bottom of the picture, electric lights shimmer where candles once were placed in the traditional wired pattern that seems to float.

Built between 1609-1616 for Sultan Ahmet I, the Blue Mosque is directly across from Hagia Sofia, and dazzles the eye with its fine ceramic (called faience wall panels), the blue and green drawing the eye upward and out. Until the 19th Century, according to guidebooks, the pilgrimage to Mecca began here from the Blue Mosque. Visitors are welcomed. We remove our shoes at the door and even in large groups are hushed to silence by the beauty of this sacred space.

Who can answer which is more beautiful? For me, the Blue Mosque seems integrated, one main architectural idea synthesizing prayer, while the colder and older Hagia Sofia (built originally about 330 CE and then rebuilt by Justinian in 533 as the Church of Holy Wisdom. Justinian exclaimed on entering the completed church, "Glory be to God, who has thought me worthy to finish this work! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!"

Hagia Sofia, converted from its Christian roots to an Islamic mosque in 1947 and now a museum, juxtaposes Christian mosaics with Islamic architectural elements -- the mihrab contains a piece of the holy stone from Mecca.

Both are large places of worship, the Blue Mosque can hold 10,000 and Hagia Sofia seems even larger. Walking along the upper floor of Hagia Sofia, we can stand where Justinian's empress Theodosia once stood, looking over the great inner court. If I were a Christian pilgrim, perhaps Hagia Sofia would resonate more clearly. If I were an Islamic pilgrim, I think both places would have a deeply spiritual sense about them. Looking strictly at the unity of the two buildings, the Blue Mosque offers its visitors layers of harmony.

Decide for yourself by visiting the Hagia Sofia at and the Blue Mosque at A longer essay on Hagia Sofia during Justinian's time can be read at and another travelogue votes for the Hagia Sofia instead of the Blue Mosque at

Detail of ceramic ceiling, Blue Mosque, Istanbul. Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Medusa head at bottom of column, Istanbul, Turkey Posted by Hello

ARTIFACT OF THE DAY. This stone head at the base of a Roman column can be found in the innermost deepest part of a small waterworks museum in Istanbul, near the Haga Sofia and hippodrome. The museum allows visitors to wander a series of boardwalks around an underground water works from Roman times; I took these pictures while on sabbatical there in March 2004.

Medusa, one of the three Gorgon sisters, with snakes intwined in her hair, commonly appeared on such columns at important buildings in ancient Greece and Rome. Originally, Medusa was a very beautiful woman who fell in love with Perseus. Mythology tells us that Athena became jealous of Medusa, and transformed her so that anyone who looked at Medusa would turn to stone (a feminist would ask: Is this the appropriate end for female beauty, a target of jealousy?). Even so, Perseus eventually killed Medusa, beheading her, thus ending her hypnotic power. Yet, the image of Medusa also appears frequently on Roman armour and shields, offering protection in battle. And statues of Perseus killing Medusa appear again and again.

Here, in this small museum, what's fascinating is that the column is turned upside down, as if to deliberately end the power of Medusa, yet in some way, continue her protection, as her face is not defaced or destroyed. Stephen Harris and Gloria Platzner, in their book Classical Mythology, point out the conflict between matriarchal and patriarchal belief systems (pages 123+):

"As long as death is perceived as part of the ongoing cycle of life, death, and rebirth, the Goddess's serpent is portrayed as a beneficent creature. Once the patriarchal perspective takes hold, however, death becomes the final blow to the hero's ego, and the Goddess's Underworld functions come to seem terrifying. The once beautiful serpent is now transformed into the hero's perpetual enemy, the dragon."

Harris and Platzner go on to refer specifically to the Greek Gorgon sisters (Stheno, Euryale and Medusa), showing a Gorgon from a marble relief at a temple of Artemis at Corfu (6th Century BCE), "whose bulging eyes, protruding tongue, and hair of snakes, along with her belt of entwined snakes, render her a truly hideous figure" (123). Since the snake is such an important symbol to east and west, how interesting this symbol is converted from a sign of power and protection to a female mask that one must destroy out of revulsion.

See the Gorgon pediment (west facade of the Doric Temple of Artemis) at the Archaeological Museum of Corfu at