Posts filed under ‘Wild Goose’

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


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