12 July 2015

This Summer, Join a Blogging Research Project

Summer is usually a quiet time for archaeological blogging.  Most archaeologists are away in the field, digging up (what is for us) buried treasure, or in museums learning from previous digs; and universities are closed.  News of recent discoveries rarely seeps out before September when everyone gets back to their desks. This year, however, we've got two great summer stories for you, one of which gives you the chance to participate in a real archaeological research project. 

But first, the hot news from Arles in southern France. 

Extremely rare ancient Roman frescos -- comparable to those found in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii and the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale a little north of Pompeii -- have just been discovered in the bedroom of a freshly-dug Roman villa in Arles (Latin Arelate). This is the very first full mural ever found in France in what's known as the Second Pompeian style (starting and ending in Gaul some 20 years later than in Italy, (ca. 70-20 BCE). 

Among the images in the fresco (now broken into more than 12,000 fragments that will have to be pieced together like a giant jigsaw puzzle) is this extraordinarily expressive face of a young woman with full red lips and dark eyes gazing slightly upwards.

As expert restorers started putting fragments together, they discovered that she was plucking the strings of a  harp.

The lady harpist is painted in expensive Egyptian blue and red vermilion pigments. Even in Italy,  in fact, large human figures painted on a vermilion background in the Second (rather 'Illusionistic') Style, only appear on a handful of sites.  It seems very likely that the fresco-painters came to Arles from Italy.

Although Arles had been a Roman town since 123 BCE, it remained rather small compared to Massalia (Marseilles) -- until the city fathers had the wit, or luck, to support Julius Caesar in the Civil War.  When Caesar emerged victorious in 48 BCE, Massalia (which had backed Pompey) was stripped of its possessions, which were transferred to Arelate as a reward.  This must have been the time when the newly-discovered luxurious villa was built and so very richly decorated.

Now, for the other hot news of summer.

Join an Archaeological Research Project

Fleur Schinning is a young scholar in the Department of Archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands. She wrote to me last week asking if the readers of my Zenobia blog might be willing to help in her post-graduate research project for Heritage Management.  The focus is on how blogs and social media can be used as tools in creating public support for archaeology. Accordingly, she is comparing a number of blogs from the UK and USA, where blogging seems widely accepted.  As she writes, "I have come across some very interesting and successful blogs, of which your blog is one." 

I am flattered, of course.  She asks me and the readers of this blog to join her in the project.  If you can spare just five minutes to complete a simple anonymous questionnaire to share your thoughts about this and other blogs you read, she would be tremendously grateful.  Click here to get started.

In return, you might win six issues of Archaeology, the very  magazine that was so quick to publish the story of the Roman fresco discovered in Arles (10 July 2015) ... and which supplied the best photograph of the lady harpist.  So you see, 'what goes around, comes around'.  Click here.

My thanks to my Facebook friend, Lynda Albertson, for the heads up on the new Arles frescos.

Sources include INRAP fr: 'Des fresques romaines uniques en France découvertes à Arles';  RFI: 'Rare ancient Roman frescos found in south of France'; Le Monde: 'Des fresques dignes de Pompéi exhumées à Arles'; Archaeology: 'Complete Roman Fresco Discovered in Arles, France'.


Upper left: Arles fresco: detail of young woman.  Photo credit: Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Le Monde)

Middle left: Arles fresco: the lady harpist.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via Archaeology)

Centre: Arles fresco : decorations around the edge of the bedroom.  Photo credit:  Julien Boislève, INRAP/MUSÉE DÉPARTEMENTAL ARLES ANTIQUE (via RFI )

Lower left: Fleur Schinning

03 June 2015


C.P. Cavafy's draft of a poem on Zenobia (November 1930)* 
Written on a single sheet, with covering page bearing the title and date:

Side 1 is the text written in black, including two illegible crossed-out words at the end.

Side 2 gives the added text, here written in red, including the line crossed out.

Now that Zenobia is queen of many great lands,
now that all of Anatolia marvels at her,
and even the Romans fear her by now,
why shouldn't her grandeur be complete?
Why should she be reckoned an Asiatic woman?

They'll create her genealogy straightaway.

Two scholars skilled in history
Are taking up the important task
See how they deal with her genealogy
How obviously she's descended from the Lagids.
How obviously from Macedonia 
(four letters crossed out). 

*Translation and commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn (Twitter/undated)







Portrait of Zenobia.  Modern mould taken from an Alexandrian tetradrachm (Paris, Cabinet des Médailles n. 3647).  For discussion of why this coin might preserve her true portrait, see the blog post, My Money On Zenobia

04 April 2015

ELEGY FOR HATRA (Women: Last and Least)

(Part I, click here; Part II, click here; Part III, click here)   

As of last count, only 13 life-size statues of mortal women are known from Hatra compared to some 120 statues of men. This undoubtedly reflects (I am sorry to say) womens' lower social status in Hatrene society. It seems that, as ever, even a Queen or Princess was first and foremost a female, and thus inferior in the greater scheme of things.  Still, all is not bleak.

Location Location Location 

Not only are there far more statues of men but a great many of them were placed in the most prestigious locations: 77 male statues come from the central Sacred Area of the city where the most important gods and goddesses were worshipped in their enormous temples.  These are statues of kings, princes, and high officials.  Only one statue of a woman made that grade.

The statue of Ebū daughter of Damyōn which has erected for her [the temple of] Bar-Mārēn ['the Son of Our Lord'] the god.*

Her father's name suggests he was a Greek, Δαμίων, an ancestry which might have had  something to do with her singular honour.  On the other hand, he gives no official or cult title nor does he boast of his paternal line (as in Damyōn, son of X son of Y).  This leaves us rather at a loss.  Still, the statue of Ebū (also transcribed as Abu) is exceptionally tall: while precise measurements are lacking, she is clearly well over life-size.  Even more unusual is that her statue was erected and paid for by the temple itself -- one of only two mortals who received this honour** -- presumably in return for some great benefaction.  But what?  We have no idea.

Ebu's elaborate costume demonstrates that her family was very rich. The sleeves of her undergarment appear to be abundantly pleated (silk?) and she wears an ample full-length robe pinned by a broach at the shoulder. Other jewels include a choker around her throat, a heavy necklace, earrings, and bracelets ending in snake-heads(?).  Her pose is typical of female statues with her right hand raised palm outwards either in prayer or respect for the gods while the left slightly lifts the stuff of her outer gown.  She wears a striking and unusual headdress apparently built up of a three-level diadem covered by a raised stiff veil that runs down the back to her waist.

Ebu remains a mystery but we have more information on another grand lady.

Queens and Princesses

Meet Princess Dushfari (left), daughter of King Sanatruq II and Queen Batsimia.  Her mother was Sanatruq's chief wife.  We assume that the king had several wives because Batsimia twice records the fact that she is the mother of the Crown Prince -- a statement that would hardly be necessary if she were the sole wife of the king. 

This means, too, that Dushfari (apparently the only daughter of Batsimia) is the Number 1 Princess of Hatra at this time (238 CE).  Such high rank is in keeping with the size of the statue dedicated in Shrine V, one of the tallest from Hatra (2.10 m/6.9').  It was found along with a much smaller but otherwise almost duplicate statue of her young daughter, Simia (below right).  

Dushfari and her daughter both wear ample floor-length gowns with long, elaborately decorated unbelted chitons above.   

Dushfari's neck is adorned with four necklaces (her daughter three): a short heavy choker, a chain with hanging ornaments, and two longer chain-like metallic necklaces, one ending in a round medallion and the other in a rectangular pendant and medallion.

Such long necklaces with medallions are also pictured on some statues of enthroned goddesses, which surely must be significant.  One possibility is that the princess wears this as a 'badge of office' as priestess of the goddess Allat-Athena who was worshipped in Shrine V (see Part III).  If so, her daughter could be wearing one such chain as a  'priestess in waiting'.  Dushfari's astonishing headdress appears to be some kind of very high diadem but it is more likely that her hair was combed back and coiled high on her head (as in clearer on the simplified headdress worn by Simai) and this then topped by the ornate diadem around which was draped a decorated veil adorned with jewels.  In the middle of the diadem is an oval medallion displaying a god in relief.

Murder Most Foul

This is Abu, daughter of Gabalu, the only statue that we are sure was made to commemorate a person who was already dead.  Abu is seated on a chair placed on a high pedestal; the statue is about 1 m./3' high and the pedestal of much the same height.  It comes from Shrine IV.  A long inscription is written on the pedestal.  It begins much like all the others but adds her death notice:

(This is) the statue of Abu, daughter of Gabalū, which has erected for her Aššā, her husband, the son of Šmešṭayyeb. She died at the age of 18.*

Abu wears gowns simpler but similar to those worn by Dushfari, but they are belted under her breasts which consequently are sculpted as two whirligigs!  Her high conical headdress is made up of vertical levels decorated with large beads and topped by a wide veil that falls down her back.  From her ears hang a magnificent pair of earrings, probably of silver or gold, which contrast a bit with some strings of beads: a pearl(?) choker that looks as if it's really about to choke her, a beaded necklace, a pendant necklace, and a long chain-like necklace ending in a pointed ornament.  She raises her right hand to the gods while her left is busy pulling up the cloth of her gown and holding two flower-like objects.

Poor pale Lady Abu

The proportions of the statue are out of whack.  Her right hand is  far too large, her neck too thick, and she looks almost stunted.  What could have happened to her? 
Our Lord Maren, Our Lady Marten, the Son of Our Lord Bar-Maren, Balshamin and Atargatis, lay a curse on the one who killed Abu and on those who rejoice in the death of Abu, and against the women who filled and poured out the ... of Abu!
What's the ... missing word?  

"Poisoned cup"?  

We'll never know, but it led to the most extraordinary private drama that Hatra has ever left evidence for us to read.

Sliding down the social scale

Needless to say, all women who get statues are members of the elite but not all are from the tippy-top of the social pyramid.  Ladies' statues were found in some of the smaller temples scattered throughout the living quarters of the city.  Four came from Shrine V, including those of Princess Dushfari and her daughter, where Allat-Athena was the main recipient of cult (see Part III) although, even here, more than one divinity apparently was worshipped.  It is  unclear how many deities were worshipped in each of the smaller temples, probably reflecting the multiple guardians of those families, tribes, or clans who contributed to building and maintaining the shrine.  From the little we know, it appears that the Hatrene divine world was not particularly well organized.**  

The headless statue of Martabu, priestess of Isharbel, found in Shrine V (dated 235 AD; no picture, sorry) shows her plainly dressed with a cloth sash girdling her waist. No jewellery is mentioned. The inscription (quoted in Part III) tells us that her paternal grandfather was a priest, perhaps serving the same goddess, which hints that religious offices ran in some minor elite families.  Martabu must be the same woman who dedicated a divine statue in Shrine V which called down blessings (using the formula 'for the life of...') on herself and her boss:

Martabu has sculpted for the life of herself and for Rabta, her superior [chief priest] and for whoever worships [the goddess].* 

The sound of music

Simai daughter of Oge (left), from Shrine I, was in all likelihood also a priestess.  Her statue (damaged around her mouth; no moustaches on girls!) was erected in 235 CE by her husband, himself a priest of the goddess Atargatis.  Simai is also simply dressed, with just a pair of chokers as jewellery.  She carries a tambourine, an instrument probably connected with her religious function.  She could have been one of the religious musicians bound to her vocation by threats of death (Part III).  As for her music, remember Exodus 15.20-21:
Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing. Miriam answered them, "Sing to the LORD, for He is highly exalted

I, Woman, Did This Myself

A statue of Lady Qaimi (also from Shrine V), wears similar loose clothing tied by a single sash at her waist.  Her jewellery is limited to three simple rings on her left hand (right hand  missing).  Her husband is a scribe and probably also a priest in the service of the god Bar-Maren.  Qaimi is shown holding a kithara, a kind of lyre, in her lowered left hand.  The inscription reads:
In Elul of the year 549 (= September 238 CE). The statue of Qaimi daughter of Abdsimia, the wine-seller, wife of Neshraqab, the scribe of the Bar-Maren [the Son of our Lord], which 'Isharbel the Virgin' has ordered her [to make]. And she herself has erected it for the life of herself and for the life of Neshraqab, her husband, and Absa, her brother, and for the life of all personnel of Bar-Maren, both inside and outside, and whoever is dear to them, all of them.
Her simple dress, the musical instrument, and her husband's vocation argue that Qaima is another priestess serving the goddess 'Isharbel the Virgin'. What is remarkable is that she erected her own statue.  Made -- first and foremost -- 'for the life of herself ', she obviously felt the need to justify this act of self-aggrandisement by claiming it was at the explicit orders of the goddess ('She made me do it!').  The goddess' blessing then extends to her husband, her brother, and to all of her husband's colleagues in the religious community of Bar-Maren.  The inclusion of her brother in the blessings opens a tiny window on  Hatrene women's lives: it means that she maintained close relations with the 'house' into which she was born and was not handed over unconditionally to her husband's family when marrying him. 

As a matter of some historical interest, too, this inscription also proves that the ancient Arabs drank wine -- and in sufficient quantities to propel Qaima's father, who was a wine-seller or vinter, into the local elite.   

And on that happy note in these dismal days, Weingarten ("garden of wine") brings this series of posts on Hatra to a close. 

To all my readers Happy Easter, Chag Sameach, or Whatever lifts your boat!

* Ebu's inscription H228; Abu: H30; Martabu: H31.  Translations by Melammu Project and Raman Asha

** The other, also a statue of a woman (whose name is lost), was made by the temple or religious company of Istarbel (H38): The statue of ..., daughter of Bedšā ..., which has ordered for her Iššārbēl the virgin.  Translation Raman Asha

** The deities worshipped in the central Sacred Area -- the triad of Maren ('Our Lord'), Marten ('Our Lady') and Bar-Maren ('the Son of Our Lord'), as well as the goddess Allat, and the god Shahiru (a god of dawn or a moon-god) -- also appear in inscriptions in the smaller shrines.  In contrast, the cults of the many other divinities were practiced only in the smaller shrines.  However, it is entirely possible that many of the deities known from the shrines are named manifestations of the main deities: e.g.Shamash = Maran; Nergal (mentioned in 8 shrines) = Bar-Maran?,  Herakles, in turn, may be another name for Nergal (mentioned in 9 shrines); Allat and Allat-Athena may be another facet of Marten.  Put together in this way, the four deities figure in ca. 80% of inscriptions.  See L. Dirven, 'Religious Frontiers in the Syro-Mesopotamian Desert', In Frontiers in the Roman World (Leiden, 2011), 165-66.

Sources: Shinji Fukai, 'The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art', East and West, 11, No. 2/3 (1960) 135-181; Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion: : A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,', In (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, Leiden 2008, 209-46; ead.'A Goddess with Dogs from Hatra', In Animals, Gods and Men from East to West, BAR IS 2516 (2013) 147-60;  K. Dijkstra, Life and Loyalty: A Study in the Socio-Religious Culture of Syria and Mesopotamia in the Graeco-Roman Period Based on Epigraphical Evidence (Leiden, 1995); T. Kaizer, 'Some Remarks about the Religious Life of Hatra', Topoi 10 (2000) 229-52.


Top left: Statue of Ebu d. Damyoun.  Status: Replica destroyed by ISIS (video 4 April 2015); location of original presumed to be in Baghdad.  Photo credit: U.N.E.D. Archivos Mesopotamia

2nd left:  Mosul marble statue of Princess Doshfari. Iraq Museum # 56752  Photo credit: Iraq Museum 2008 (State Board of Antiquities and Heritage) p. 29.

Right:  Mosul marble statue of Princess Doshfari and white marble statue of her daughter Simia (Iraq Museum 56753).  Photo via: Pinterest: Found on jeannepompadour.tumblr.com 

3rd left: Local yellow limestone statue of Abu, daughter of Gabalu. Iraq Museum # 56730.  Photo credit: Suppressed History Archives (8 March 2015)

4th left: Mosul marble statue of Simai, daughter of Oge.  Mosul Museum # 21.  Status: unknown.  Photo credit: S. Fukai (see sources above) p. 151, Pl. 12.

25 March 2015

ELEGY FOR HATRA (Part III: Goddesses and Putative Priestesses)

(Part I, click here; Part II, click here)

Three Goddesses and a guy-lion

Allat, the Arab goddess of war, is the central figure on this stone relief from Hatra (once covered with thin sheets of gold or silver). She is flanked by two smaller female figures, most probably her daughters al-Izza and Munat, with right hands raised up, palms forward, in the typical Hatrene manner indicating benediction or respectful prayer.  Although these deities are of Arab origin, Allat is shown with the attributes of the Greek goddess Athena: a gorgon head on her breastplate, armed with a spear, a helmet, and carrying a shield marked with her lunar symbol. The eyes and the costume are rendered in the local Parthian fashion.  

The fascinating thing about this relief is the combination of strong Parthian features and borrowed Greek traits -- the Greek input seen here, obviously, in dressing up Allat as Athena but also more subtly in the bend of her left leg and slight body tilt which breaks the typically stiff  Parthian pose.  Even so, their eyes (once inlaid with white seashells with bitumen-black dots for pupils) are set straight forward.

The goddesses are perched on a lion -- Allat's sacred animal par excellence -- pictured with an extravagant flame-like mane (it's always a male lion) and its tail wrapped, pussy-cat like, around its hind leg.  The association of Allat  with lions was noted by Lucian, a 2nd-century CE Syrian author, in his work on De Dea Syria ('The Gods of Syria', 41).  Lucian describes the temple at the sacred city of Hieropolis where the local goddess (Allat, often identified with a similar, earlier goddess, Atargatis) appears under the guise of Greek Hera: 

The sanctuary faces the sunrise….  In it are enthroned the cult statues, Hera [Allat/Atargatis] and the god, Zeus, who they call by a different name [Baal-Hadad]. Both are golden, both seated, though Hera [Allat/Atargatis] is borne on lions....  
We saw just such an enthroned Allat with her lions on the so-called Cerberus relief (pictured in Part II). 

The relief showing Allat standing with her daughters was found in one of the smaller shrines in Hatra (known as Shrine V) outside of the central Sacred Area, along with three more reliefs of Allat-as-Athena.  Inscriptions from the same sanctuary name the goddess as ˀšrbl and ˀšrbl btlh, 'Iššar-Bel' and 'Iššar-Bel the virgin', harking back to Ishtar,  the ancient Mesopotamian goddess of sex, love, and war, whose symbol, too, was a lion. Two of the inscriptions come from statue bases dedicated by women, one of whom was named as the priestess Martabu: 
In the month Adar of the year 546 (= March 235 CE). The statue of Martabu, priestess of Isharbel, [creator] of the Universe, which [is] erected for her [by] Bara, her son, son of Abdshalma son of Bara, the priest, and his brother has made the [garment?] for the life of themselves and for the life of their sons and for the life of whoever is dear to them. Shabaz, the sculptor.* 
It's very likely that Shrine V was dedicated to Allat in the guise of Iššar-Bel the virgin, where she was visited primarily by priestesses and ordinary women. 

Three more goddesses.  Or are they mortals?

The three female figures on this relief look pretty glum (even by Hatrene standards).  I must admit that they are almost like clones, being of the same height and dressed exactly alike.  All wear bright red diadems in the form of high cylindrical crowns (poloi) over their black-coloured hair.  Long veils hang down their backs.  Each figure slightly lifts her skirt in a typical Hatrene female gesture.  One figure grasps a mirror (or tamburine or perhaps even a plate) in her right hand.  The others hold palm branches(?) with trailing ribbons. 

Are they goddesses, or mortal women?  Or, as I suspect, are they three priestesses engaged in a ritual act that is now entirely unintelligible to us?

Note the red marks on their cheeks.  

We have enough statues of male priests from Hatra to know that they can be identified by a circle incised on both cheeks -- a mark  never found on non-priestly dignitaries but only on statues of priests.  While it is impossible to tell from their statues if the circles are made by scarification, branding, or tattooing, Lucian (De Dea Syria, 59) does say that all devotees of the goddess at Hieropolis are tattooed on their necks or wrists.  In such cases, the tattoo would mark a person as belonging to the goddess.  Temple staff at Hatra may indeed have been considered as the chattel 'property' of a deity.  A kind of sacred servitude surely underlies a law posted at the city gates which threatened with death any female musician and singer of Maren, Marten, and Bar-Maren who leaves the city.*

Not only do the three ladies have red marks on their cheeks but they are not wearing any jewellery other than (as I would argue) the diadem of the goddess they serve. The lines around their throats probably do not indicate multiple necklaces but rather are thin sashes that tied their gowns. 

To see what they are missing, check out the clunky gold jewellery worn by the three goddesses at the top of the post and the bling on this fragmentary figure (left, from Shrine I): a gilded polos topped by a long veil, golden girdle under her breasts, knock-out gold earrings and a heavy gold necklace that would make Cartier blush.  I doubt, too, that real goddesses actually carried their own ritual implements.  If they hold anything, it will be a symbol of authority, such as Athena's spear or this goddess' sceptre. 

Inside the holy shrine

For similar reasons, I suspect that the women depicted on this model shrine are also priestesses and not images of any goddesses themselves.  The altar is in the form of a temple, with four pillars at the corners and four identical female figures between the posts.  The women  wear short coats over their gowns, with open V-shaped neckline, and are girdled by double sashes just under the breasts.  Their hair is parted in the middle and combed back with the ends coiled up high on their heads.  Each figure holds fruit in her right hand and a well-filled cornucopia in her left.  It appears (though I can't swear to it) that they are bare-footed.  Statues of male priests are also usually identified by bare legs and feet.

It seems that no single trait is sufficient to distinguish Hatrene deities from mortals.  In fact, without inscriptions it is often difficult to tell representations of goddesses and mortals apart.

A seated woman (left; from Shrine VI) wears a plain crescent-shaped diadem on her head and a heavy but not ostentatious necklace.  Yet she is surely a goddess for she holds an orb in her left hand, symbolizing her power over the world and, in her right hand, a staff or sceptre now lost.  Perhaps sceptre and orb were borrowed from Roman divine and imperial regalia (but this is just a guess). 

This very goddess appeared earlier this month on the ISIS video recording the jihadist rampage through the Mosul Museum.  Her statue was seen being flipped off its stand and onto the floor, breaking off its head (Gates of Nineveh).  The good news is that the barbarians destroyed a plaster replica and that the original statue (pictured here) is still safe in Baghdad. 

Unlike this next goddess.

She had her head chopped off and stolen during the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003 -- while American troops stood by.  Alas, ISIS is not the only force responsible for the catastrophic destruction of Iraq's antiquities, though it is by far the deadliest.  My picture of the goddess (left) is a composite photograph with her head put back where it belongs:  since the almost life-size statue was too heavy to join the exodus of loot, it was left behind (the sad headless image may be accessed on the CAIS website).** 

Be that as it may, she was once a beautiful goddess, though we don't know her by name (Shrine VII).  Her gown has heavily patterned sleeves and is more elaborate than most worn by other deities.  She also wears a richer version of the same short garment with V-neckline and girdled under the breasts as the priestesses(?) on the model shrine above.  Her head is crowned by a short polos encircled by a laurel wreath and covered by a veil that drops down the back.  Heavy earrings ending in pointed cones hang from her ears.  Her open hands touch what looks like a wreath on her lap; her left hand also holds a palm branch which rests on her lower arm. 

Stuck on the Throne

The absolutely static enthroned figures may most truly 'personify' Hatrene art.  The rules of frontality are completely dominant and any sense of movement or activity entirely absent.  Such rules are never broken ... but they can be made to budge a bit. Standing figures sometimes put one foot forward which does express slight movement.  King Uthal rather timidly does this, and the high-ranking military officer advances a little more forthrightly (both illustrated in Part II).  One of the minor goddesses on the Allat relief at the top of this post lifts her right shoe onto the lion's mane, and all three ladies shift their weight by almost imperceptibly bending a knee -- a pose undoubtedly adopted (albeit hesitantly) along with Athena's own attributes from the Graeco-Roman sphere.

We'll look at this again as we examine the very last group of statues from Hatra -- those of mortal women who are not involved (or at least not overtly involved) in the religious sphere.

Queens, Princesses, Noblewomen ... in the next and last part of Elegy for Hatra.  

So, think with me about this picture (left).  Who is this woman seated on a chair?  She is made of a rough local limestone rather than the more precious 'Mosul marble' (in fact, a finer limestone) used by the better-off.  And she is bare-headed but marked by lunar imagery. 

Your thoughts are welcome as comments.  

Till next week, then.

Part IV: click here

* Thus, in contrast with cities such as Palmyra, there is evidence for a prominent female priestess at Hatra as well as female temple personnel.  Inscription cited from Raha Masha.

**The head was listed by Interpol among the "Top 30 Missing Artifacts" stolen in 2003; and is one of ca. 8,000 objects still listed as missing


Inscriptions from Temple V: The Melammu Project; Shinji Fukai, 'The Artifacts of Hatra and Parthian Art', East and West, 11, No. 2/3 (1960) 135-181; Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion', in (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,Leiden 2008, 209-46; ead. "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" in L. Greisiger, C. Rammelt & J. Tubach (eds.), Edessa in hellenistisch-romischer Zeit (Beirut 2009), 47-68; K. Jakubiak,in (L. Dirven, ed.) Hatra: Politics, Culture and Religion between Parthia and Rome, 2013, 91-106.


Top left: Limestone relief of Allat from Hatra Temple V.  1st c CE.  Temple V.  Iraq Museum #56774 Photo credit: Virtual Museum of Iraq

2nd left: Local yellow limestone. Head of a goddess (Tyche?). 2-early 3 c CE.  H. 53.5 cm.  Status: Stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: akg-images

3rd left: Mosul marble high-relief of three goddesses or priestesses.  0.44 high x 0.44 wide.  Mosul Museum # 53. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

4th left: Ivory(?) fragmentary relief of goddess flanked by bird (eagle) perched on pillar.  Temple I.  Photo credit: CAIS-soas

5th left: Mosul marble model shrine from Temple I.  H. 20.3 cm. Baghdad Museum # 57794. Status: unknown.  Photo credit: Lynn Abercrombie/NationalGeographicCreative

6th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from Temple VI.  Status: Replica in Mosul Museum destroyed by ISIS (Gates of Nineveh). Photo credit: ErickBonnierPictures

7th left: Limestone statue of anonymous seated goddess from temple VII.  Status: Head broken off and stolen from Baghdad Museum; still missing.  Photo credit: CAIS/soas

Bottom left: Local yellow limestone female figurine.  Photo credit: via Suppressed History Archives

15 March 2015


(For Part I, click here)

The Image of King Uthal, the merciful, noble-minded servant of God, blessed by God

King Uthal
Thus reads an Aramaic inscription on the base of the statue of a king of Hatra (left).  Alas, mercy and noble-mindedness are in very short supply in today's Iraq.  King Uthal's monument was among those smashed in the Mosul Museum last week by the thugs of ISIL/Daesh.  All that really matters to those savages is the kick that comes from unlimited violence and the thrill of destruction.  

No atrocity too far in the name of God.

We know almost nothing about King Uthal other than that he was an early Arab king who ruled Hatra.  We don't  even know the dates of his reign.  Sooner or later, of course, with proper study of this and other royal statues, archaeologists would have been able to place him in the right time frame or at least the correct chronological order.  There are all sorts of clues in the statue itself -- the cut and rich embroidery of his clothes, its belt and buckle, the trim of his beard, the conical pearl-encrusted(?) headdress, the shape of his long sword and its pommel, and last but certainly not least, the form and formula of the Aramaic inscription written in the very particular Hatrene script.  Alas, this will never happen now.  His statue is lying on the ground, broken into pieces, as you can see in the video image below (his is on the right).*

Bye-bye King Uthal, whoever you may have been. 

Islamacist Porn

A few words, if I may, about sharing Islamacist propaganda videos.  The jihadists are playing with us when they produce these  films.  The images are meant to shock and enrage while making us feel completely powerless.  These pornographic videos are NOT documentations of acts of violence, they are THE violence.**
After the Mosul incident, it has become clear that ISIS operates like a reality show. The violence is choreographed and planned precisely for the video footage to be produced - a visual spectacle of violence to be shared by us in social media. By sharing these videos, we become ISIS's media outlets who disseminate and propagate their ideology.  We are both the audience and the media for these visual spectacles of destruction....***
Simply put, we are doing exactly what they want us to do by spreading their vile videos.  Thus, please stop sharing; instead, darken your screens for them.  Having said this, why in the name of heaven (you may ask) am I violating my own injunction by reproducing a scene from their rampage through the Mosul Museum?  Because it shows one of those perverts with a hand on his crotch, which really says it all.

And now to work.

Besides the remarkable architecture of Hatra -- which we wrote about in Part I of this post -- the finds from the city include about 300 statues and reliefs, all in a very characteristic local style.  With few exceptions, the statues are somewhat larger than life-size (ca. 1.90m / 6'3") and all were carved to be seen from the front since backs and sides were left only roughly worked.  About half of the sculptures represent gods and goddesses and thus have an overtly religious character.

Of course, the division between religious and secular is largely artificial, reflecting more the way we think than how the ancients did.  The king of Hatra will have held supreme religious authority in addition to his grip over all forms of social and political power.

King Sanatruq II (r ca 205-240/1)
For example, statues of a number of kings show them carrying small figures of deities (left).  Whether this pictures them in the act of dedicating a graven image, or indicates a king's particular closeness to the god-in-hand is not clear.  But it certainly stresses the king's active role in religion.  Some kings are known to have also served as the chief priest of Shamash, the great god of the city. Even without the proof of inscriptions, it's very likely that all kings held this office.

Given Hatra's architecture, one can hardly doubt its overwhelming importance as a religious centre: the huge walled Sacred Enclosure in the heart of the city takes up about one-fifth of the total area within the circle of its defensive walls (see Part I).  Inside this sacred area were the main temples -- a complex of enormous halls covered by barrel vaults (called the Great Iwans).  These were the homes of Hatra's most important deities: Maran ('Our Lord' = Shamash, the Sun-god), Marten ('Our Lady' = Allat) and Bar-Maran ('the Son of Our Lord' = Nergal?).  Another temple in the forecourt of the sacred area was dedicated to the goddess Allat (its entrance -- with the camel mother nursing her calf, and two royal figures on guard -- is pictured above).  Besides the great temples in the centre of the city, many gods and goddesses also received cult in 14 small shrines belonging to different tribal groups scattered about the domestic quarters of the city.  Eight of these shrines were dedicated to a god who looked like Greek Herakles (one of his statues in Part I, lowest left) but worshipped as the ancestral deity of the family or tribe and who was assimilated to Nergal, the Babylonian god of the Netherworld.  When he wasn't looking vaguely Greek, this is what Nergal looked like:

Lady Allat is seated on her throne, looking on with approval. The Hatran Netherworld, though, doesn't look like a place you'd want to visit.

Kings and Queens

About 120 statues of Hatrene kings, noblemen and noblewomen also survive(d) -- and these are the sculptures I'd like to focus on today if only because we can more readily engage with humans than with Nergal and his Cerberus-dogs of death.

What can these upper-crust statues tell us about the social and religious life of the city?

High-ranking military officer
It is striking that there isn't a huge variety in the statues.  Despite the obvious differences of details and gender, the sculptors did not greatly vary pose, costumes, or attributes of the individuals they portrayed. They paid little attention to individual facial features.  These are not portraits. We can't claim to know what any of the even highest-ranked royals really looked like.

Thanks to the inscriptions, however (on 42 statues and 22 bases now missing their statues), we do have some names and dates of local rulers, names of certain officials, and the names of deities.  The inscriptions, too, are quite standardized: about a third simply say "Image of ..." followed by a personal name, and another third also tell us who was responsible for erecting the statue --  family members, or friends, or devoted subjects of a royal figure. A few texts, like that on King Uthal's statue, add some pious thoughts.

Kings and Princes

King Sanatruq I (r ca 128-140)
Twenty-seven life-size statues can be certainly identified as those of kings.  Most come from within the central Sacred Area but some few were found at the city's gates, too. All kings are dressed in sumptuously embroidered long-sleeved tunics with ornate Parthian trousers and elaborately worked belts. Some kings (and only kings) wear diadems or high tiaras. When not carrying mini-statues of gods -- like Sanatruq II (above left) or eagles, the iconic bird of Shamash (below left), their majesties stand with the right hand raised, palm facing outward in a gesture of benediction or prayerful worship. Their left hands either hold a palm branch or rest on a long sword.  In the ancient Near East, worshippers attending sacrifices very often carried palm branches.  In fact, they still do in many Christian churches on Palm Sunday....


Princes (at least five statues) are dressed very like their fathers, in richly embroidered garments, but appear as beardless youths and have short curly hair.  The sons of King Sanatruq I (below) are shown with daggers hanging from their belts.  The better-preserved figure, of Crown Prince Abdsamiya, has his right hand raised and holds a palm branch in his left.  He is wearing an astonishingly rich tunic embroidered with the figure of a goddess holding a staff or standard on his upper body and a rather Greek-looking god below the hips -- perhaps, in a visual pun, it is Bar-Maran, "the Son of Our Lord", just as Abdsamiya is the son of the lord-king.

Princes Nayhara and Abdsamiya

His brother Nayhara's tunic is simpler (though still gorgeous) but note, too, subtle status differences in the accessories worn by the brothers: the crown prince wears a heavier, more ornate necklace and a bigger belt. I imagine that, every time Abdsamiya walked into a room, his younger brother looked pale by comparison.  

So, we are not surprised to learn that Abdsamiya ascended to the throne after his father's death.  Ruling from ca 180-205, he was the king who twice beat off assaults on the city by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (in 193 and 197 CE), as recounted in Part I of this post.  In turn, his son Sanatruq II -- seen above, carrying the statuette of a god -- became king. He had the misfortune to fight against Ardashir, first king of the new Sasanian dynasty, who twice attacked Hatra -- in ca 230 and again ten years later.  The first time, Sanatruq II held the city safe.  The second time, it fell.  As a temple inscription reads: The Fortune of the king [is] with the gods.  Alas, his god could not help him.  He was the last king of Hatra.

King holding eagle adorned with jewellery
That was his fate in life.

His fate in the Mosul Museum was as dire.  Sanatruq's was one of the four king's statues destroyed by ISIL/Daesh in their ignorant and barbaric rampage.  Most of the 27 statues of Hatrene kings are for the moment safe in the Baghdad Museum but the losses in Mosul mean that 15% of the kings of Hatra -- along with the monuments of many of their subjects --  are gone.  Alas! 

And what about their Queens and Princesses?

That will be told in the next post.  This has become too long.

 (Part III: Goddesses and Putative Priestesses, click here)

* For the latest reports on damage to the statues in the Mosul Museum, follow Christopher Jones on his Gates of Nineveh blog (see Sources).

**According to Mosul Eye, the footage in the video published by ISIS last week was shot in July-August 2014 and NOT February 2015.  We must ask ourselves why ISIS chose this specific time to post the video.

*** Quoting Ömür Harmanşah, Associate Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago (Facebook, 27 February 2015).

Sources: Christopher Jones, Gates of Nineveh blog, Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 2: the Sculptures from Hatra ; Lucinda Dirven, “Aspects of Hatrene Religion: A Note on the Statues of Kings and Nobles from Hatra,” in The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods (Leiden, 2008), 209-246; ead. "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" in L. Greisiger, C. Rammelt & J. Tubach (eds.), Edessa in hellenistisch-romischer Zeit (Beirut 2009), 47-68; ead. "Religious Frontiers in the Syrian-Mesopotamian Desert" in Frontiers in the Roman World (Leiden, 2011) 157-173 .


Top: Life-size statue of King Uthal, 2nd century CE.  Photo credit: © ARTEHISTORIA

Upper centre: Portal of temple of Allat, in Sacred Enclosure.  Photo credit:

Middle centre:  Relief of the Sun-god (Bar-Maran?).  Photo credit: Amir Kooshanzaman blog.

Top left: Life-size statue of King Sanatruq II. Early 3rd century CE. Photo credit: Iraqi Cultural Center, Washington DC.

Centre: Relief slab picturing the god Nergal with 'Cerberus' and enthroned Allat: Istanbul Archaeological Museum). Städte in der Wüste. Petra, Palmyra und Hatra (Stuttgart 1996) pl. 188. Photo via L. Dirven, "My Lord With His Dogs: Continuity and Change in the Cult of Nergal in Parthian Mesopotamia" (see Sources) Colour Pl. 1.

Second left: Life-size statue of a military officer , (IM 58084), Iraq Museum. Photo credit:ICONMuseum © Photo Scala, Florence.

Third left: Life-size statue of King Sanatruq I. 2nd century CE. Photo credit: © Scala Archives, Florence/ Art Resourse, NY.  Via CUNY Academic Commons.

Below centre: Life-size statues of the sons of King Sanatruq I. 2nd century CE.  Photo credit: Faces of Ancient Middle East (Part 17):  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6CU6WJpRcF4

Below left: Detail of life-size statue of an unidentified king carrying an eagle (insignia of Shamash).  Photo credit:  Col. Mary Prophit, United States Army, 2010.  Via Gates of Nineveh blog.

08 March 2015


The City of the Sun God

I began writing this post after the Islamicists' rampage through the Mosul Museum, but now news reports are coming in that ISIL bulldozers are also on their way to destroy the ancient city of Hatra some 80 km away.* This has not yet been confirmed, but it leaves me little time to explain just what we shall be losing if it turns out to be true. 

The spectacular ruins of Hatra are located in Jazirah (the area between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris) in Iraq, to the southwest of Mosul.  To get an idea of the site, have a look at this great video produced by UNESCO.  Don't bother with the wishfully anachronistic text; just look.

(Because UNESCO does not allow bloggers to embed videos, I can only link to it, so click on video and then on the direct Utube link).  After which, come back and read the rest....

The fortress city of Hatra arose in the Jazirah desert where it guarded the two main caravan routes connecting Mesopotamia with Syria and Anatolia.  The city was an independent small kingdom (including not only the town but a wide territory around it) on the fringe of the Parthian Empire.  By the first century BCE it had grown into a strongly fortified city, one of several such cities which sprung up in the space between Parthia and the Roman Empire. 
Hatra, Palmyra, Petra and Dura-Europos all made their fortune as trading stops between east and west. These cities were client states of either Rome or Parthia, with Hatra choosing Parthia. The city was ruled by lords, later called kings, who were vassals of the Parthian King of Kings.  Inscriptions refer to Hatrene rulers as 'King of Arab' and the territory is named as 'Arab', with the nomadic population that roamed the steppe known as 'Arabs'. 

Hatra (in Aramaic htr` ) is undoubtedly our best preserved example of a Parthian city.  The city must have been of great strategic importance at the time.  Roman historians tell us that the emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus personally attempted its conquest. 

Trajan, who had planned to extend the Roman frontier up to the river Tigris, marched southwards along the river Euphrates, capturing great parts of Babylonia up to the Persian Gulf and even the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon (near modern Baghdad). On his retreat from there in 117 CE he attacked Hatra.  Dio Cassius (68.31.1) says that the siege failed chiefly because of "the lack of water, timber, and green fodder".  The emperor Septimius Severus met the same fate eighty years later, when the city was under the rule of  the Hatrene king Barsêmías (thus Herodian 3.1.30; probably king 'Abdsêmyâ of the inscriptions).  He laid siege to Hatra twice  (in 193 and 197) without achieving anything.  The position of the city, its strong walls, and the strength of its warriors eventually forced the emperor to withdraw.  It was in the period between those failed sieges at the beginning and the end of the 2nd century that Hatra reached the peak of its prosperity and became one of the most beautiful cities in the East.

Defeat finally came at the hands of Ardashir, who had overthrown the Parthians and founded the new Sasanian-Persian empire.  Even he failed at his first attempt (230 CE) and only cracked it ten years later (240 CE).  The survivors were deported, the city abandoned and never again inhabited.  In effect, we have an entire city more or less as it was when people left it in the middle of the third century.  

Hatra is a unique example of a fortified Parthian city. 

The fortification system is immense. The city was guarded by two concentric and nearly circular city walls almost two km in diameter and 6.4 km (4  miles) in circumference. The outer wall (3m thick and 10m high) was made of clay bricks with 4 gates, 11 bastions, 28 great towers and more than 160 smaller towers. Once any enemy had crossed this first wall, he'd still be faced with a moat and the second wall. In fact, the heavily fortified gates of the second wall could only be reached by ascending up ramps which run parallel to the wall.

In the very center of the city is a huge rectangular sacred area of about 440 by 320 m [1500 x 1000'], surrounded by a massive wall and divided by another wall into an enormous forecourt and a smaller court where the main temples are situated.  Hatra was clearly not only a political and economic powerhouse but also a great religious centre for the desert people living in and around the city. 

All the buildings inside the sacred area are temples characterized by iwans (great halls open to the front and roofed with high barrel vaults).  The striking architectural feature of the iwans, namely the barrel vault, is an innovation which came in quite suddenly in the Parthian period, suggesting a kind of a technical revolution at that time. The buildings display a unique mixture of Assyrian, Hellenistic,  Parthian, and Roman styles.

The main shrine in that central sacred area is the so-called Great Temple (or Great Iwan), an enormous structure with that once rose to 30 metres. This was the home of Hatra's most important gods, Maren ("Our Lord") and Bar-Maren ("the Son of Our Lord").   The square temple of the sun-god Shamash (probably = Maren) was attached to the Great Iwan. Shamash was undoubtedly the chief god of the pantheon as can be read from the legend on Hatrene coins, "Enclosure of Shamash", which suggests that the whole city was dedicated to the Sun-god.  Those iwans and the Shamash Temple were built at the beginning of the 2nd century.

Within the sacred area are three more temples dedicated to other gods and one to Allat, the goddess of the city.  At least fourteen smaller temples honouring a host of different deities are scattered elsewhere throughout the domestic quarters of the city.  Foremost among these gods was a Heracles-figure, who was worshipped in Hatra under the name of Nergal (below left).

Which brings us back to ISIL's barbaric smashing of statues within the Mosul Museum. 

As Christopher Jones tells us on his blog Gates of Nineveh

The damage by ISIS to the artistic legacy of Hatra has been catastrophic.

This tragedy is compounded by the fact that Hatrene sculpture has been chronically understudied. Almost all of it was excavated in the 20th century and the finds never left Iraq.... Very few scholars outside of Iraq have had the opportunity to study the statues.

And now they are gone.

With heavy heart, we follow Christopher and turn to the statues and their fate in Part II of this post.

(For Part II, click here)

* Up to date reports on the Mosul Museum from the blog, Gates of Nineveh -  Part I:  Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part 1: The Assyrian Artifacts, and Part II: Assessing the Damage at the Mosul Museum, Part II: The Sculptures from Hatra.  And on the damage to the city of Nimrud: ISIL 'bulldozes' ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud  (predicting that Hatra would be next).
Sources: Lucinda Dirven, 'Aspects of Hatrene Religion', in (T. Kaizer, ed.) The Variety of Local Religious Life in the Near East in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,Leiden 2008, 209-46;    Rüdiger Schmitt on the 'Iranian World: Parthian Hatra' via CAIS/SOAS; Thomas Twohey, on 'Ancient Hatra' via Roman Empire net;

Video Link: HATRA: UNESCO/NHK World Heritage Site Documentary
The partnership between UNESCO and NHK Japanese broadcasting corporation builds on state-of-the-art digital visual and sound processing technologies for the production of short digital TV documentaries on Heritage using Hi-Vision technology as well as quality 3-D moving images and reconstruction images related to the World Heritage Sites. 


Top right: Map of Region.  

Top left: The ruins in 1911 (excavations led by Walter Andrae of the German excavation team working in Assur from 1906 to 1911).  Photo via: CAIS-SOAS.

Second left: Schematic plan of Hatra; after J. Khalil Ibrahim, Pre-Islamic Settlement in Jazirah, Baghdad, 1986, 321. 

Top centre: View of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: UNESCO/© Photo Scala, Florence

Second centre:  Detail view of the Great Iwan after restoration.  Photo credit: Dieter Radow

Lower left: Busts of gods and goddesses built into the temple walls.  Photo credit: University of Chicago, Photographic Collection

Lowest left: Statue of Heracles-Nergal.  Photo credit: Wikipedia 

18 February 2015


Continuing my review of Adrienne Mayor's The Amazons (Part I, II

According to Homer [Il. 6, 168-195], when the Greek hero Bellerophon travelled to Lycia in southwestern Anatolia, the king of the country ordered him to accomplish three tasks:

[He] first commanded Bellerophon to kill the savage monster, the Chimera, who was not a human being but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire; but Bellerophon slew her, for he was guided by signs from heaven. He next fought the far-famed Solymi [a savage tribe], and this, he said, was the hardest of all his battles. Thirdly, he killed the Amazons, women who were the peers of men .... 

So Homer already knew of warrior women who were the 'peers of men' (though he located them in Anatolia and not to the north of Thrace and across the steppe, as many later writers did).  In fact, the Bellerophon story -- told as a tale-within-a-tale -- could be an 'echo' from a pre-Homeric epic.  If so, the Amazon myth, too, might date back to an even earlier tradition.  Whatever its ancestry, Homer clearly considered Bellerophon's defeat of the Amazons as equal to his other epic deeds.  Our hero, thus, is monster-slayer, barbarian-slayer, and Amazon-slayer.  

That rings a bell....

Fast forward to Athens, 447-432 BCE.

When the Athenians rebuilt the Parthenon on the Acropolis -- which had been burnt down by the Persians 33 years earlier (480 BCE) -- they decorated its sides with carved marble panels (metopes), each showing a mythological victory over a major enemy. The East side showed the Olympian gods defeating the evil giants and beginning their reign over the world.  On the South (left), Theseus, legendary king of Athens, battled the monstrous centaurs. The North had scenes of the Trojan War, the Greeks’ epic triumph over the Trojans, their ultimate enemies. And the West metope?  The West pictured the ancient Athenians fighting the Amazons. 

They never forgot their war against women.  Almost 100 years later, the orator Lysias began his praise of Athens by citing as first of their ancestors' great deeds their hard-fought victory over the Amazons.  Naming the Amazons as 'daughters of Ares [Mars]', Lysias declared that in ancient times

... they alone of the people round about were armed with iron, and they were first of all to mount horses.... They were accounted as men for their high courage, rather than as women for their sex; so much more did they seem to excel men in their spirit than to be at a disadvantage in their form....

[After enslaving all the tribes in their own country, seeking greater glory, they rode on to conquer Athens].  

They would not return home ... for they perished on the spot, and were punished for their folly, thus making our city's memory imperishable for its valor; while owing to their disaster in this region they rendered their own country nameless.*  

Thus, the great Amazon empire vanished. 

Did the Athenians really believe this guff?  Evidently.  For them, the Amazon invasion of Attica in the distant past was an historical fact. 

Certainly, it was a true enough part of their past for them to commemorate the defeat of the Amazons not only on the Parthenon metopes but, again, on the great shield (above; once an estimated 4 m [12'] high) held by Athena on the massive gold- and-ivory statue of the goddess dedicated in her temple in 438 BCE. 

But, surely, we are not going to believe such an outlandish tale.  Is it really any more than a 'Just So' story? ("Why, Daddy, are women subordinate to men?" "Because our ancestors beat the uppity Amazons, son.") And, just so, the Greek social order re-established its authority.  Thereafter, the tale is endlessly embellished, as only the Greeks could, through their love of story-telling

Or might there possibly be some kernels of truth in it, after all?

Adrienne Mayor, in her new book, The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, argues that there is real-world history behind the obvious folklore.
Amazons were modeled on stories of self-confident women of [Scythian] steppe cultures who fought for glory and survival and enjoyed male companionship, on terms that seemed extraordinary to the ancient Greeks. 

The popularity of Amazon stories and images suggests that Greek women and men enjoyed imagining heroes and heroines interacting as equals and seeking adventure and glory in hunting and battle.
Among the nomads of the steppes, girls and boys would wear the same practical clothing and learn horseback riding and archery, so that, later, a woman could ride her horse to hunt or care for the herds, or skirmish with enemies, as necessity demanded, alongside other women, or together with men. Scythian society was certainly not female-dominated, but simply woman had a more equal status -- if only because female participation was essential in that harsh, unforgiving landscape.
Self-sufficient women were valued and could achieve high status and renown.  It is easy to see how these commonsense, routine features of nomad life could lead outsiders like the Greeks -- who kept females dependent on males -- to glamorize steppe women as mythic Amazons.

Horse riders, archers, fighters, Scythian women were sexually free, armed, and dangerous.  As The Amazons amply demonstrates, many Scythian graves contain battle-scarred skeletons of women buried with their weapons, horses, and other prestige items. That strong, ambitious women could lead raiding parties was exaggerated in Greek myths into a kind of war of the sexes, pitting powerful Amazon queens against great Greek heroes (like Theseus, Herakles, and Achilles). 

Mayor's book is popular history at its best.  Much of her archaeological evidence is new -- such as her descriptions of  'Scythian' female graves with horses and weapons.  She chooses wonderful illustrations which makes the book enjoyable and easy to read.  However, I am not the only one to notice that she combines testimony from hundreds of years apart without weighing the problems of transmission ... and covers tribes spread over thousands of miles and separated by many centuries as if they were neighbours and could have been known to the ancient Greeks (and Romans).

True, we have to deal with the evidence as we have it.  That means relying on Greek and Latin texts (many fragmentary; more quite late) because the tribes of the steppes left nothing at all in writing.   Perhaps, too, nomadic life didn't change much, even over long periods of time and great distances.

But the Greek view of nomads -- and thus of the Amazons -- certainly did change.  Very early vase paintings show the warrior women dressed and armed just like the Greeks, wearing short chitons (exposing one breast) with crested helmets, breastplates, and large round shields.  That suggests to me that the original stories did not associate the Amazons with Scythians.  By the end of the sixth century, as Mayor convincing argues, the Greeks were becoming more familiar with the nomad groups around the Black Sea and beyond, whose women and men rode horses and dressed alike.  Accordingly, pictures of Amazons melded into Scythian horsewomen and they were now depicted with leggings or trousers, sometimes tattooed, and armed with a full range of steppe weapons: battle-axe, a quiver full of arrows, a pair of light spears, a crescent shield, and a sword.  

In the Greek myths Amazons are always defeated and either killed or, very rarely, domesticated by marriage.  They always die young and beautiful.  Despite their bravery, erotic appeal and prowess, they are doomed.  But a short splendid life and violent death in battle was also the perfect heroic ideal in myth.  Compare the sad fate of Bellerophon whose story began this post: he was thrown by his flying horse, Pegasus, and ended up a blind, lame hermit. 

Stories about Amazons were amazingly popular in antiquity.  Though more than a thousand Greek vases depicting Amazons still survive, that's only a tiny fraction of the Amazon-related paintings and sculpture that once existed.  Only Herakles was pictured more often.  Women warriors undoubtedly fascinated the Greeks and they do not cease to fascinate us today.  The Amazons has just brought them one step closer to reality.

The Amazons:
Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World
Adrienne Mayor

Princeton University Press
Hardcover | 2014 | $29.95 / £19.95 |
ISBN: 9780691147208
536 pp. | 6 x 9 | 10 maps. |
eBook | ISBN: 9781400865130 |

*Lysias Funeral Oration 2.4-6 (translation via Perseus)


Top: Amazon warriors hunting on horseback.  5th century mosaic from Nile House, Sepphoris, Israel.  Photo credit: 

Upper left: Centaur and Lapith in combat.  From the Parthenon South metopes.  Photo credit: Wikipedia

Second left: Terracotta volute-krater (bowl for mixing wine and water): Attributed to the Painter of Woolly Satyrs, c. 450 BCE.  Metropolitan Museum of Art,  Rogers Fund, 1907, 07.286.84.  On the neck, battle of centaurs and Lapiths; around the body, Amazonomachy (battle between Greeks and Amazons).  Photo credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Centre: Copy of the shield of the statue of Athena in the Parthenon.  British Museum GR 1864.2-20.18 (Sculpture 302). Strangford Collection.  Photograph courtesy of the British Museum

Lower left: Amazons. Apulia 4C BC. Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.  Photo credit: www.maicar.com

Below left: Wounded Amazon.  Roman marble copy (c. 150 CE) of Greek bronze original (mid-5th centur) Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932.  Accession No. 32.11.4Photo credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art.  

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