Friday, June 25

What Do You See?

Even before I started teaching at the Villa, this statue (pictured below) was always one of my favorite artifacts in the museum. Now I don't have any sort of attachment to the Neolithic period, but I do think the glimpses into the distant past that artifacts like this one offer are rather fascinating. It's also somewhat liberating to talk about artifacts from a time for which we have no written records. The lack of sources from these ancient people explaining or offering us insight as to who or what this object represents means there will always be a mystery about it. Given that freedom, I usually kick off my conversation with visitors by inviting them to take a thoughtful look at the piece and ask, "What do you see?" Frankly, I think the answer is pretty obvious--just show this to any junior high kid and see what kind of reaction you get--but in most cases people are shy about discussing sex with a group of strangers. They all want to have their curiosity satisfied, but no one wants to be the one to ask.

So, what do I see? I see a hermaphroditic deity. The museum curators have chosen to identify this figure as a "fertility goddess"--an identification that focuses on the double entendre of breasts and vulva in the center of the statue and the squatting position of the legs. (Way back when, women squatted to give birth. Really, if you think about it, squatting makes much more sense--you want to work with gravity, not against it by laying on your back.) However, the curatorial explanation of the object as well as an academic article I found which specifically discusses this statue completely ignore what I consider to be the patently obvious phallic head and neck of the statue. If you take those features into consideration, I think it's a lot harder to think of this figure as simply female. Just taking into account what we can see, I think it's quite probable this deity was meant to represent both male and female. If it is the case that this statue is meant to represent, not just the creative power of the female, but the combined creative power of male and female, it likely would have made the image a much more potent and effective one from the perspective of its ancient worshipers.

Of course my analysis of this prehistoric object is just as subject to debate as that of the curators, but at least it doesn't ignore the obvious!

Cypriot fertility deity, 3000-2500 BCE

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