Blog #2: Why Did People Dedicate Images of Nude Females in the Past? Considering Meaning and Intent Behind the Iconography with Dr. Megan Daniels

Photo of Dr. Megan Daniels
Dr. Megan Daniels in Haines, Alaska (photo by Jonathan Monk)

Hello All! I’m Megan Daniels, part of the Peopling the Past team. Officially, I’m Assistant Professor of Ancient Greek Material Culture at UBC, but my interests go way beyond the ancient Greek-speaking world. I’m driven to study big-picture approaches to cultural interaction, commercial exchange, migration, religion, and ideology across the ancient Mediterranean and western Asia, particularly across the Late Bronze and Iron Ages (ca. 1500-500 BCE). I examine large-scale patterns of movement and interaction, which obviously makes it difficult to get down to the level of actual people and individuals in the past! Yet I aim to look at everyday objects from new angles and wider cultural lenses. As scholars, we tend to draw strict (and sometimes artificial) boundaries around groups of people that we have branded “Greeks”, “Phoenicians”, etc., and I’m always trying to see how things look when these boundaries are blurred.

One of the great challenges (for me at least!) in studying real people in the past is trying to see and understand things as they would have, particularly in religious contexts—which means trying to get past my own cultural vantage points and assumptions. Ancient religious iconography is a challenging area of study when it comes to understanding real people and their everyday experiences. A common joke is that archaeologists label sites and objects as “religious” whenever they can’t come up with another explanation, yet this hasn’t stopped researchers from devising all sorts of assumptions about specific types of religious iconography (e.g., religious imagery).

Fragment of a pot showing the temple and cult statue of Apollo
Fragment of a red-figure calyx krater showing the cult statue of Apollo in his temple holding a bow and sacrificial dish; to the right is an image of Apollo playing the lyre; from Tarentum, Italy (in the Allard Pierson Museum no. 2579; photo by D. Osseman, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Clay figurine of a female standing figure from Crete
Terracotta figurine from Inatos, Crete, 7th/6th century BCE in the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion (145351) (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0)

A good case in point is the image of the nude standing female (sometimes called the “nude standing goddess”), a motif that appeared sometime in the middle of the third millennium BCE – but may trace back much earlier, This image then spread across western Asia and the Mediterranean over the course of the second and first millennia BCE. The “nude standing goddess” appears primarily as mould-made terracotta plaques and figurines, particularly in the eastern Mediterranean, but also shows up on other media, including decorated metal bowls, horse tack, jewellery, and seals. It is most often found on dedications in sanctuaries to various gods, but also shows up in graves and houses. The nude female is always front-facing, but can take different gestures, including holding her arms straight by her sides, with her hands supporting her breasts, or her hands on her abdomen or genitalia. In more elaborate instances, her arms can be stretched out holding plants or animals. Sometimes she is also shown wearing necklaces or bracelets, or a type of headdress known as a polos.

Clay figurine of a standing figure from Crete
Terracotta figurine from Praisos, Crete, 7th century BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (53.5.23) (© Met Museum, Public Domain)

When you first look at the images above, it’s helpful to take stock of your own reactions to it. What might it be representing? We certainly have a lot of culturally developed assumptions about what such imagery might suggest in today’s world, and earlier researchers were no different. The interpretations of this imagery from the nineteenth century onwards ranged from generic ideas about a “fertility goddess” or a “sex goddess” to overt disapprovals of unclothed females. Connections to sexuality and fertility are understandable given the figurines’ nudity and gestures, such as hands supporting breasts or pointing to genitalia, but these assumptions are largely based on our modern-day interpretations of what these gestures might mean.

Another topic of debate is who these figurines actually represent. Are they meant to show goddesses? Or are they simply generic magical charms?  Earlier researchers connected this imagery to the great Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar (known as Astarte in Syria/Palestine). Ishtar in particular was associated with sexuality and fertility, from what hymns and praise poetry from Akkadian and Babylonian sources seem to tell us. For this reason they are often called “Astarte figurines.” Others have suggested instead that most do not represent actual goddesses, although those with specific details could (like the images of a nude female standing on top of an animal holding objects in her outstretched hands).

Clay figurine of a female standing figure from Sardinia
Terracotta “Astarte Plaque” from Tharros, Sardinia, 6th C BCE (British Museum no. 133132; © Trustees of the British Museum”)

While it is possible that they have something to do with eroticism and fertility, or maybe even represent specific goddesses, I’ve tried to look more closely at what an emphasis on sexual characteristics actually symbolized and what motivated people to dedicate figurines at religious sites (e.g., a sanctuary). I’ve examined in particular the symbolism of breasts and nursing in literature like epics and hymns, and other imagery across the Mediterranean, from Mesopotamia, Assyria, Anatolia (modern Turkey), the Levant (Syria/Palestine), Greece, and Italy. One of the main patterns I (and other researchers, I should add) have uncovered is the association of breasts with the nursing of gods, kings, and heroes by goddesses. For example, the Ugaritic epic about King Kirtu has the god El deliver a prophecy to the king which says that his son will “drink the milk” of the goddess Athiratu. Many other examples across the ancient Mediterranean and Middle East link goddesses with birthing and nursing heroes and kings, including Aphrodite and Aeneas, Hera and Herakles, and Ishtar and numerous Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Hittite kings.

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Stele showing an image of a goddess standing atop a lion from Egypt
Stele of Houy – close-up showing goddess Qedeshet atop a lion, holding plants and snake, with horns and sun-disk on her head, from Egypt, New Kingdom period, now in the Louvre (Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Beyond just fertility and eroticism, this imagery thus seems to have symbolized intimacy and kinship between the gods and humans, and in particular the life-giving powers that a close relationship with the gods bestowed upon humans. I’ve included two images below that show this relationship. The first is an Old Babylonian cylinder seal showing a human male talking to a goddess (identified by her horned headdress), with a small nude standing female in between them – the nude female seems to be more a conduit for intimacy with the gods, rather than a god herself. The other example is a decorated bronze bowl from Olympia in Greece showing a nursing female and a nude standing female surrounded by a number of heroic and ritual scenes, emphasizing the nude and nursing female as linked closely to the life cycles of heroes. Although our literary references usually describe the relationship between goddesses and rulers or heroes, the fact that this imagery is so common at religious, funerary, and domestic sites in the Bronze and Iron Ages throughout the Mediterranean suggests that non-royal people used these images to invoke the power of the gods. The association of deities with the nurturing of humans may explain the dedication of these figurines, especially for prayers and requests for pregnancy and nourishment of children.

Not everyone agrees with this argument of course, but one of my main aims with this research is to move beyond the basic assumption that nudity must equal fertility, eroticism, and exoticism, and to try to tease out some of the deeper meanings and motivations behind why people across many different cultures dedicated objects with this imagery over such a long period of time.

Old Babylonian cylinder seal and impression showing a female deity
Old Babylonian cylinder seal and seal impression showing female deity on far right facing a male (possibly a king, as he is holding a mace?); image of goatfish above and nude standing female between the goddess and male. To the left stands a priest on a two-tiered platform and a frontal-facing figure with streams of water flowing on either side and eagle to the right (British Museum no. 129525; © Trustees of the British Museum)
Drawing of a bronze bowl from Olympia showing female figures
Drawing of inscribed bronze bowl (ca. 700 BCE) from the sanctuary of Olympia showing nude standing female interspersed with heroic images, scenes of worship, and the nursing female (drawing by Glynnis Fawkes (used with permission): glynnisfawkes.com)

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