Apotropaic Guardians, Ancient Symbols, Divine Icons or Children’s Toys?
The many interpretations of Israelite plaster figurine
|Plaster figurines have been|
interpreted in countless
ways, as anything from
apotropaic spirits to toys
. While the meanings of
these ancient symbols
are evasive, context and
typology are an archaeologist’s
Plaster figurines, such as this example from the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa (pictured), can crumble over time, and are comparatively rare in the archaeological record. This figurine’s original context is uncertain, so it must be analyzed through comparison to other plaster figurines. Typological comparisons suggest that the statuette is Roman or Byzantine, and scholars have called some contemporary plaster figurines apotropaic. Apotropaic (meaning protective from evil spirits) is a very common designation for these ancient symbols.
Interpretations of these ancient symbols run the gamut, from games to gods. In her study of this figurine, Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, who has taught at the Hebrew University and digs at Tel Dor, quotes another Israeli scholar, Raz Kletter, to reject interpretations of plaster figurines as “toys, mortal figures, mother goddess, nurturing goddess, fertility goddess, [etc.]”*She then suggests the figurine had an apotropaic function.
There are many questions archaeologists can ask to evaluate the function of these ancient symbols. How and where were they made? Who worked with paints and plasters in the local communities where they were made? Are other ancient symbols or apotropaic objects created out of these materials? Are similar plaster figurines found in churches, shrines, graves, homes or workshops? Did neighboring cultures use such objects and, if so, how?
This particular figurine is painted in red and black and depicts a woman wearing a floor-length tunic with a red neckband. The roundels on her shoulders are repeated near the bottom of her skirt. On the bottom edge of the tunic is a band with triangles, colored red like the neckband. The woman has large eyes with eyebrows and wears a red cap. Between her breasts she holds a large egg-shaped object.
But who is she, and what is she holding? Without a clear context, chronology or established typology, it is impossible to say for certain. Bible History Daily readers are encouraged to offer their interpretations in our comments section below.
* See Renate Rosenthal-Heginbottom, “Statuettes in Clay and Plaster in the Hecht Museum Collection,” Michmanim 23 (2011), p. 21.
Based on Strata, “What were they used for? What did they do with them?” Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2012.
Whatever else she may be, she is NOT a toy. No parent with half a brain would give a child a "toy" made out of plaster that could easily crack and injure the child, or as is well known in the case of young children they put objects into their mouths -- the head could break off and choke the child. Archaeologists are parents too - they should know better than to put forward such a silly hypothesis!
As far as not even taking a "guess" as to what function this lovely figurine may have fulfilled, I ask you - have you ever heard of a figurine designed to ward off evil spirits HOLDING AN EGG? I mean, come on folks! The large eyes are ancient and iconic - they date all the way back to cave drawings of bird goddesses. I think that should give anyone a clue, don't you??? The symbolism of the egg is also well known - and it has nothing to do with warding off evil spirits, darlings, unless it happens to be cheap Russian vodka...