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Rhodian Medusa II

In the last blog I presented the ideograms, abstract small images that the artist used in a symbolic way to enhance the figure and show that she meant it to represent the great goddess, lady of life in death. I also discussed the belt, the one object that I know that has a link to contemporary literature, in this case Homer.

The Head
The outline of the cheeks and chin look like a Bronze Age necklace open at the back and with two spirals as a clasp. The ears are large double spirals and placed near the hair-line. The hair is designed as very elongated triangles and continues round the head to the clasp that constitutes the chin. It makes the head look like a mask placed on top of the wings on the shoulders and the impression is strengthened by the hair, well combed and parted in the middle that is visible above the hair-band. This band is also decorated with a pattern inherited from the Bronze Age: running zetas.

The eyes are shaped like rhombs similar to the rhombs placed in a cross-like position to the left and right of the figure.

Two spirals at the end of a triangle make the nose and the mouth is oblong with rounded corners. The teeth are placed on the lips. Two small tusks are placed like two opposing crescents above the mouth with the tongue hanging from the lower lip.

This is not a primitive portrait, but a highly symbolic image (I use symbol/symbolic in the Jungian way: the best possible image of an abstract concept that is too large to be expressed in any other way but through analogues taken from our physical world).

To my knowledge, this is the earliest mask of the Lady Medusa and it seems probable that it has in some way served as a prototype. It is not the first image after the one found in Thebes, Boeotia, There exists another image in between. It comes from the sanctuary of Eleusis not far from Athens and shows Sthenno and Euryale leaving the head-less Medusa. They are not centaurs, neither do they carry masks. Marija Gimbutas thinks that they are bees, but they do look more like the bronze cauldrons in fashion at the time of the painting.

(I do agree: I would be terrified meeting a centaur or one of my pots transformed into the head of a non-human woman.)

The prominence of the spirals on the face and along the rim certainly was not lost on the ancient onlookers. The spiral is a road that leads in to the center and then out again. on this plate once placed in a tomb it leads the deceased person to the center that is death and from there back to the entrance/exit that is life .

In some way the spirals continue to belong to the Lady Medusa even much later as this image shows that was painted 150 years later.

The Eyes

Now we turn to the Lady’s eyes that according to the myth and tradition kill everybody she looks at.
We know that the Greeks believed in the evil eye and used amulets against it. Of course, we don’t believe in it. It is, however, interesting that in Star Wars the Emperor, George Lukas’ personification of evil, is an old man with red rimmed eyes. In the Iliad, the poet only mentions the Gorgon’s eyes once (8:349) when he describes Hector, the Trojan hero, whose eyes blaze like those of Medusa and the god of battle, Ares, “killer of men.”  However, we must not forget that Hector is a favorite of Homer, who describes him in a different and more positive way than any of the Greek warriors. His eyes blaze like those of the Immortals – like Athena’s when she makes her champion Achilles recognize her: “It is terrifying to see the light of your eyes.” (1:200)

Until modern science proved the contrary, people imagined that the eyes sent out beams of light thus both showing individual feelings and capturing the world. We still say that eyes shoot a look of anger, which is implied in Matt.6,22: “The eye is the lamp of the body.” During the Neolithic period all over the world, the most common way of representing eyes on female figures is the pictogram of the vulva.

One of the analogies is probably that as the child is born into the world through the vulva, so the goddess creates life through sending out the light from her eyes into the world. When the positive symbol was forgotten, Medusa’s killing eyes took its place.

The Tusks

Hebraism, Christianity, and Islam have transformed the pig that over the whole earth has lent its tusks to important deities, into such a dirty animal that it is difficult to understand how it once has been a suitable image of the goddess. However, this is not true in other cultures. In his autobiography the present Dalai Lama tells the legend about the goddess Vajravahari, “Adamantine Sow.” She manifests herself as a woman with the head of a wild sow. In the eighteenth century some Mongolian warriors entered by force into the Samding monastery where they found the monks in the assembly hall and a big wild pig sitting on the throne of the abbess. They fled.

Several seals with images of wild pigs were found in Minoan tombs.  Pottery pigs are common in tombs in Greece, South Italy and Etruria, and in Chinese tombs from the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE). In Rome the sacrifice at the death of a family member consisted of a pig, as even now in New Guinea. In classical Greece sows were sacrificed to Demeter, Athena and Hera; wild pigs to Artemis. During the Thesmophoria piglets – pigs-to-be – were given to the not-yet-fertile Earth.

We define ourselves in the world not only by integrating ourselves in it, but also by opposing ourselves to it.

I like how Stanley Walens  (Encyclopedia of Religions, vol. 1, 1987) expresses it:

[Animals] represent the antinomies of living, the existence of the sacred in the profane, the wild in the civilized . . . They enable us to create analogies. At their most simplistic, such analogies might state that animals are to humans as humans are to gods.

The wild pig is stronger and faster than a human being; its beauty is different from ours and it is as far from us as we are from the divine persons. The wild pig is dangerous and, when necessary, ready to kill. However, because its tusks are shaped as the moon’s crescents, it reminds us of the fact that the moon is born again and gives birth again after three black nights.

According to Robert Graves, the Orphics called the full moon “Gorgon’s head.” The name of Medusa’s human son is Chrysaor, “Sword of gold.” He is the  golden sickle, that is, the new moon – and the dying moon that kills.  All the indications point towards the Lady Medusa being a symbol of the moon.

The Moon

Living as we do with electric lamps lightening the nights, we forget the importance of the moon. In southern latitudes and in places without electricity its impact is enormous. I remember my first excavation on the island of Chios where we had no electricity. On nights of the full moon we all remained seated far into the night, hypnotized by the moon. We did not talk, we just sat staring into its face.

Alexander Marshack has shown that calculations of the moon’s growing and waning phases exist in the Upper Paleolithic Period. The old age of these observations may be why the moon is so ambiguous: it is feminine and masculine, it gives birth and it impregnates women. It is forever present and forever changing.

Although the moon in many places is regarded as male, it is feminine in the Mediterranean area. The new moon is born; in the second quarter it grows, and when it is full it represents a circle: the symbol of unity and fullness. Then it declines, grows old, and dies.  For three nights the black moon is dead, then it is born again month after month after month.

In analogy to the moon the lunar Goddess gives birth, sustains, and kills. Sri Ramakrishna, the great Indian saint, has given us an example of this. He saw in a vision Kālī, the Great Mother, (who is a Moon Goddess)  as a young woman coming up from the river Ganges. The woman gave birth to a child and laid it to her breast. She then killed the child, grew old and returned to the river. As Kālī, Athena and Artemis are lunar goddesses of birth and death and so, I think, is Medusa.


The Great Goddess from Rhodos. Inside of a plate from a tomb in Kamiros, Rhodos, now in the British Museum Acc. 60.4-4-2.  After Hirmer 561.0248 , Photo Archive, Getty Library, Malibu. Drawing K.B.

The head of Sthenno or Euryale. Detail of amphora from Eleusis, ca. 670 BC. After E.G. Mylonas, O protoattikos amphoreus tes Eleusinos. 1957. Drawing K.B.

Head of the Gorgo. Centerpiece of Athena’s shield on a Red-Figured amphora by the Berlin Painter. 490-470 BC. Antikenmuseum Basel. Drawing K.B.

Wooden mask of Rangda, Bali. Private collection. Photo K.B.

The Goddess Kali, 1940s Poster art.


August 12, 2010 at 3:59 pm 1 comment

The Rhodian Medusa I

Around 690 BC a potter-artist from the island of Tenos delivers a big vase to somebody important in Thebes, Boeotia (the region north of Athens). On the neck the image shows how the young Perseus killes the Potnia Gorgo Medusa, the Lady, Mistress of the Horse. For the next three hundred years, the image of the killed Medusa will be the preferred one in the patriarchal Athenian society.

One or two generations later, another potter makes a plate on the island of Rhodos that is going to influence a larger part of the Greek society: those living in the cities on the Peloponnese, Crete, the west coast of Asia Minor (present Turkey) and the south coast of Italy. Here the Lady appears wearing a mask and with the attributes that belong to the goddess who reigns over life and death.

Rhodos is a big island in the south-east corner of the Greek archipelagos. According to the ancient tradition the Greek population there was very ancient. We don’t know if they spoke the Doric dialect fom the beginning or if these Greeks immigrated later. In any case there are no signs of a war-like invasion.

People speaking the Doric dialect thought and acted differently than the Athenians did especially in the case of the female population. While the Athenians were fiercly patriarchal in the Doric-speaking cities women and men had equal rights.

During the seventh and sixth centuries these cities had a flourishing cultural life that was barely beginning in the small and rural Athens.
The island of Rhodos had three important cities: Rhodos, Kamiros and Lindos. The goddess Lindia was the principal divinity. Later the inhabitants began calling her Athena, but only in the second part of the fourth century, under pressure from Athens, did they allow Zeus to sit beside her in her most important temples.


The plate on which the image of Medusa is painted is dated between 650-630 BC.

It comes from a tomb in Kamiros that was excavated in 1860 or 1863-64 by August Salzmann and Alfred Biliotti who sold it to the British Museum.

Medusa walks. She has one waterbird at each leg, but she is not holding them; her hands are held wide open in front of their heads. She dresses in a skirt that is open in front and shows one of her very muscular legs. The dress is held together by a broad belt.

The Lady is too big to fit into the circle mady by the plate: her feet pierce it. In later images she crouches; there is absolutely not enough space for her in the human realm. (Picasso, too uses this device when he draws goddesses seated in far too small rooms.) Surrounding her are pictograms meant to be read as symbols (images of concepts that are too large to be expressed but with the help of analogies taken from our physical world).

When we unite the rhombs (each consisting of four rhombs) to Medusa’s left and right and likewise the concentric circles with each other they create an invisual cross. This cross is furthermore strengthened by the swastika to the left of the figure that in its turn is reiterated on the birds’ wings and on the naked leg.

The three triangles, divided in three parts and with a spiral on top may allude not only to the Lady and her two sisters, but also to the unity of the goddesses who are both one and three, child, woman, and crone.

These same abstract pictograms are used on the rim of plates found in Knossos, Crete, and Al Mina in Syria. They are a generation younger, but clearly show the influence from this Rhodian plate.

In the late Bronze Age tombs, the deceased often wears a belt decorated with wild geese symbolizing a new birth.  For once, there is a myth backing up the image: In the Trojan war Hera fights for the Greeks against Zeus’ explicit command that the Olympic goddesses and gods be neutral. Once when she really needs to distract Zeus she asks Aphrodite to lend her the belt of sexual passion. Zeus is inflamed and they make love. Flowers grow up around them while the sky covers them with a glittering cloud of gold. (The Iliad 14: 214, 345 ff).

Love-making generates new life and the wild goose is the symbol of the goddess that brings the power to conceive to the future mother.  3.600 fibulas (security pins) decorated with geese were found in tombs on Rhodos.

Nine (five plus three) pomegranates hang from the wings down on the Lady’s arms. They are common on Rhodian gold jewelry being important symbols of fertility – new life – and in a special way characterize Aphrodite, Athena, Demeter and Persephone.

The symbolic images surrounding the Lady and painted on her body already make it clear the the artist has meant to paint an image of the importance of the goddess. Medusa, the Lady, is too big to be enclosed: She is the cross and the center not only of the cross, but also of the circles; She is the unity of number three in the triangles. She is the Mistress of physical love empowering women to conceive new life.

In the next blog I’ll discuss the mask and the eyes, the wings and the water-birds that enlarge and concentrate the symbol that is the Lady even more.



Perseus killing the Gorgo Medusa. Detail of an amphora from Tenos found in Thebes in Boeotia, c. 700 – 660 BC. In the Louvre CA 795. Drawing K.B.

The Great Goddess from Rhodos.  Inside of a plate from a tomb in Kamiros, Rhodos, now in the British Museum Acc. 60.4-4-2.  After Hirmer 561.0248 , Photo Archive, Getty Library, Malibu. Drawing K.B.

Rim- fragment of plate from Knossos, Crete. After H. Payne. “Early Greek Vases from Knossos,”  BSA 29, 1929, Pl. 10, 7. Drawing K.B.

Similar fragment from Al Mina, Syria. After M. Robertson. “The excavations Al Mina, ” JHS 60, 1040 fig 5 g. Drawing K.B.

Details of belt with goose and elaborate circle. From tomb EE 12, Quattro Fontanile, Veio. Excavations of the British School in Rome. Drawing K. Berggren.

August 7, 2010 at 3:49 pm Leave a comment

The Smith: God of Male Fertility

The wild goose was the symbol of the goddess that gave the gift of pregnancy; with the smith, the crane takes its place. The crane is the new symbol of masculinity and the limping Smith, Hephaestus is the new fertility god.

Continue Reading May 6, 2010 at 4:01 pm Leave a comment

Vesta and the Phallus of Fire

What we know about the Vestals, that is, Vesta’s priestesses, amd one preserved myth make it clear that the goddess, who was the center, heart and foundation of ancient Rome, was an androgynous goddess-god.

Continue Reading April 11, 2010 at 10:22 am Leave a comment

Fire and Why Potters Made Useless Combs of Pottery

Fire transforms the fragile clay object into a nearly indestructible container. In the same way as the jar contains water or cereal, the future mother is a container. Thus, when the potter combs her vases or decorates them with combs or makes useless combs of pottery for the dead, she at the same time symbolizes the Goddess who combs her flaxen hair of nettles and will transform the dead in her womb like the fire transforms the fragile clay into a durable jar.

Continue Reading March 27, 2010 at 5:37 pm Leave a comment

Climate Changes and . . .

We find it strange to believe that if the climate had not become stable in the last twelve thousand years, there would have been no agriculture, no metal working, no civilization as we know it.
The oldest pottery after the Ice Age, 13 000 years ago, comes from Eastern Siberia, southern China and northern Japan. Some of the pots from all three places have been combed. 9 000 years later, potters on the island of Cyprus made combs of ceramic.

Continue Reading February 26, 2010 at 5:28 pm 1 comment

Crouching Tiger

Combs of bone and ivory carry their own special meaning of life that doesn’t perish over time.

Continue Reading February 22, 2010 at 5:08 pm 1 comment

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