Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Athenian "Snake Goddess" Now Identified As Demeter, Not Athena

Athenian 'Snake Goddess' Gets New Identity

SEATTLE - A mysterious "snake goddess" painted on terracotta and discovered in Athens may actually be Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest.

Once linked to the worship of the dead, the goddess is flanked by two snakes on a slab of terracotta about the size of a piece of notebook paper. She has her hands up above her head, which has given her the nickname "the touchdown goddess" thanks to the resemblance of the pose to a referee's signal. The goddess is painted in red, yellow and blue-green on a tile, with only her head molded outward in three dimensions. This unusual piece of art was found amid a jumble of gravel and other terracotta fragments in 1932 in what was once the Athenian agora, or public square.

The catch, however, is that the snake goddess isn't originally from the agora. The gravel and figurine fragments were fill material, brought in from an unknown second location to build a path or road in the seventh century B.C.

"Not only is our snake goddess unidentified, but she's homeless," said study researcher Michael Laughy of Washington and Lee University in Virginia. "She got mixed up in that road gravel, presumably obtained near the site of her original shrine."

Forgotten offering

Along with the snake goddess plaque, the road fill contains small terracotta figurines, or votives, of humans, chariots, shields, loom weights, portions of spindles and pottery disks, most of which individually could fit in the palm of a hand. The terracotta figurines were used during this time period as offerings at the sanctuaries of gods and goddesses, Laughy told LiveScience after presenting his findings here at the annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America.

Normally, he said, the votive offerings were considered somewhat sacred, and once cleared from sanctuaries would be buried and left undisturbed in a pit. Thus, although it's typical to see artifacts out of place in Athens, which has been built over for thousands of years, it's strange to see votives used as road fill, Laughy said.

Tracing the source of this fill is a difficult task. Previously, archaeologists have assumed the figurines originated from the worship of the dead, linking the items found in Athens to ones found at a Bronze Age tomb outside the city. But the items at that tomb don't match all those found in the Athens agora, Laughy said.

Displaced goddess

More Likely, according to Laughy's analysis, the snake-flanked woman is both a representation of and an offering to a goddess. Votive deposits from the shrines of goddesses include pottery disks, terracotta horses, plaques and shields, as well as female figurines. These votives match the finds uncovered in Athens.

In particular, shrines devoted to Demeter and Athena, the goddess of wisdom and war, show the closest matches to the types of figurines found, Laughy said.

Demeter is a strong candidate, as there was a shrine built in her name in the seventh century mere minutes-long walk from the Athens agora, he said. It's the only sanctuary where ancient Greeks are known to have left loom weights and spindle whorls, which are disks that weigh down spindles used for spinning thread and which are found in the Athens fill debris. What's more, Laughy said, the spot was graded in the seventh century, which could have produced a debris pile that was then carted away to make paths in the agora.

Finally, the goddess' serpentine companions also point to Demeter, who was particularly associated with snake iconography, Laughy said.

"Snakes and Demeter are happy together in imagery in the seventh century," he said.

Laughy warned that the evidence linking the snake goddess and Demeter is circumstantial. However, he said, the evidence is strong that the woman is not a figure associated with death, but a goddess. If she were Demeter, the snake goddess plaque would be one of the oldest images ever found of that particular deity.

Either way, the snake goddess is "striking," Laughy said. It's one of the earliest multicolor paintings found in Athens.

"It's an amazing piece of work," he said.

She is a beautiful piece of work.  Maybe she is Athena.  Athena was long associated with serpents/snakes and in her archaic Greek depictions was often seen wearing a cape of serpents; later, she carried a shield made of serpent skin or denoted with serpents around it's border, and the hem of her gown or cloak was trimmed in serpents.  This figure seems to be dressed in a sort of shield-fronted gown.  Have I ever seen Demeter dressed like that?  Not that I recall.

Notice too the give-away that this figure's roots are in the bird-goddess/eye-goddess tradition, just as Athena's -- look at the eyes of the figure on both sides of the plaque!  Those are classic bird-or-eye-goddess brows and eyes. 

I have to agree, though, with one of the comments at the end of the article, which noted that this figurine looks very Minoan or Cretan and may have been a depiction of Hekate (Hecate).  Well, we know that the Greeks, as did the ancient Egyptians, never let go entirely of the most ancient virgin/mother/crone goddesses; they just merged their identities into other goddesses as well as goddesses adopted from other countries that featured similar attributes. Another one of the comments noted similarities to Inanna.  Very possible.  I'm thinking of images of Astarte I've seen, with arms raised in the "touchdown" position, holding a serpent in each hand, surrounded by animals, sometimes depicted standing on the back of an onager or horse.  Astarte, Ishtar, Inanna, all the same female diety in slightly different guises.

Is that a bird of prey painted on her skirt (left side)? 

Interestingly, I find the proportions of the head and face of the figure on the more damaged (washed-out) side of the plaque to be more attractive than the more colorful side.  I find her prettier, too.  The ladies are not identical, the heads are slightly different sizes, the eyes, although styled the same, and the noses, are definitely different, and the hair on the more colorful rendition of the lady is wider and fuller., particularly across the forehead area.  When looking at the other image, I get a more "Egyptian" feeling; in looking at the more colorful rendition of the lady, she looks more Cretan to me. 

The body proportions are, of course, all wrong, almost as if the ladies were dressed in body armor, like the medieval knights of much later times.  Remember Athena's magic cloak and magic serpent shield...  Most interesting of all is that she was discovered in 1932.  And it's taken this long for someone to take a second look to try and figure out who she may be?  Geez! 

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