Portrait of a Lady. 'Real' women, 'imagined' women and the development of female representation in Prehistoric Cyprus. A Lecture by Prof. Luca Bombardieri

A weblog entry by Mari Yamasaki.

The research on the ancient concepts of human body holds an important place within the context of Graduiertenkolleg 1876, and it is in this light that on June 22nd 2017, Prof Luca Bombardieri, of the University of Turin, was invited as guest speaker for his expertise on Prehistoric female representations in Eastern Mediterranean cultures.

According to legend, it was from the clear waters of the island of Cyprus – precisely on the beach of Petra tou Romiou (Fig. 1) - that Aphrodite emerged. From Greek times to now, this association has been embedded into the collective imagination, but has it always been so? Was there something special about the way women were represented in Cyprus before they took the shape and features of the Aphrodite we all know?

Figure 1. Petra tou Romiou, the legendary birthplace of Aphrodite in Cyprus (Photo by M. Yamasaki).

Following a thread that starts around 4500 BC, Prof Luca Bombardieri’s lecture navigated through the many facets of the female figure in Cypriot Pre- and Protohistory, to find out whether this was indeed the "birthplace" of the Goddess of Love. And, as often happens when dealing with ancient art, this paper posed the question to what degree these figures represent real women, ideals or deities.

The journey begins in the Chalcolithic settlement of Kissonerga Mosphilia with the discovery under a circular building of a foundation deposit. In a round basin together with a triton shell and pebble stones, a series of female figurines was unearthed. All of these appeared to be related to pregnancy, most of them showing large hips and bellies, some being supported by a stool, and finally, the figurine of a woman in the act of giving birth (Fig. 2). The connection between motherhood and women is an obvious one, but in Cypriot culture this appears to be stressed with particular fervour. 

Figure 2. Birth-giving terracotta figurine from the ritual deposit at Kissonerga Mosphilia. The Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (Photo by M. Yamasaki).

In the following Early and Middle Bronze Age periods, we see a radical change in the ceramic traditions, economic practices and art. But the female representations, however stylistically different from the previous Chalcolithic, repeat the same motifs. In this period, whole village-life scenes decorate ceramic vessels in the form of plastic appliques. The agricultural revolution set in motion by the introduction of cattle-drawn plough is often reflected in these scenes, together with a set of activities related to the increased field productivity. And yet, in the midst of all these innovations, the woman-mother figure keeps her centrality (Fig. 3). The role that gender has in the separation of activities is not yet clear. On one hand, certain occupations, such as ploughing the fields, appear to be a male prerogative. But among the many activities represented in these scenes, most are performed by gender-neutral characters. Parallels from later periods seem to suggest that at least some of them – such as grinding flour or bread making – might have been denoted as traditionally feminine, but there is no definitive answer to the matter. 
Figure 3. Early Bronze Age jar with plastic decoration of a village-scene. At the centre, a woman holding an infant. The Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (Photo by M. Yamasaki).

At the end of the Early Cypriot a new type of statuette is introduced: the so-called Plank-shaped Figurine (Fig. 4) and its production would continue during the whole Middle Cypriot. The ones representing women multiply and a new element makes its appearance: the infant is no longer simply held in its mother's arms, but is now always associated with a cradle. This association between motherhood and cradle is such that in two instances the cradle itself becomes a metaphor of the mother, with stylised arms holding the baby in place.
Figure 4. Plank shaped figurines at the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia (Photo by M. Yamasaki).

Although women are consistently depicted throughout Chalcolithic and the Early Bronze Age art, nothing suggests that these figures represent anything more than their role in prehistoric village communities. The matter concerning the plank-shaped figurines is more complicated. It is possible that these figurines were miniature versions of larger, wooden idols placed in sanctuaries, for which there are archaeological parallels in the Greek islands. Should that be the case, these may represent something more than real-life women, and may be closer to the representation of an idealised feminine, often maternal deity.

In the Late Bronze Age, we see a new influx of ideas and traditions from the Levant and the Aegean, and this is particularly evident in the coroplastic. The "bird-faced" figurines, clearly show the stylistic influence of their Levantine counterparts, but again, the maternity element is central to the Cypriot versions (Fig. 5). As for the ones of Aegean inspiration, the raised arms and considering the fact that several of these figurines were found in sanctuary precincts, it seems plausible that they were ritually connotated, if not having been representations of deities themselves. 
Figure 5. Terracotta figurine of a woman with a child. The BritishMuseum, registry number 1897.0401.1087.

The one case where it is commonly agreed that such a female figurine does indeed represent a goddess is the Astarte on the Ingot (Fig. 6). The iconography is typical of the Levantine goddess, and it is generally assumed that here too, it represents a local variant of the fertility goddess that in later times developed into the Cypriot Aphrodite. The association of Astarte with metalwork has some interesting connections with the Greek myth and may further explain the appearance of the cult of Aphrodite on the island. Curiously, Homer narrates in the Odyssey that Aphrodite was married to the god of metallurgy, Hephaistos.

Figure 6. Bronze figurine of Astarte on the Ingot. Ashmolean Museum, registry number AN1971.888.

If the passage from Asterte on the Ingot to Aphrodite is relatively easy, more complex is to establish a direct correlation between this Astarte-Aphrodite and the millennia old Cypriot tradition of representations of women and maternity. Indeed, fertility may constitute such point of contact, but the gap between these two ideas of women is still open. The one thing that is certain is the centrality – either real, imagined or deified - of women and mothers throughout the entirety of Cypriot art history.

If you are interested, here you’ll find some suggestions for further reading:

Diane Bolger (Ed.), A Companion to Gender Prehistory (Chichester, England: Wiley Blackwell), 2013.
Luca Bombardieri, Tommaso Braccini and Silvia Romani (Eds.), Il Trono Variopinto. Figure e Forme della Dea dell'Amore (Edizioni dell'Orso: Roma), 2014.
Stephanie Budin, "Girl, woman, mother, goddess: Bronze Age Cypriot terracotta figurines" in Medelhavsmuseet: Focus on the Mediterranean, Vol. 5, 2009.