BMCR 2001.07.14

The Goddess and the Warrior: The Naked Goddess and Mistress of Animals in Early Greek Religion

, The goddess and the warrior : the naked goddess and mistress of animals in early Greek religion. Routledge classical monographs. London/New York: Routledge, 2000. xiii, 162 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0415218292 $65.00.

Marinatos’ (hence forth M.) succinct and amply illustrated book is a welcome addition to the steadily growing scholarship on the archaeology of gender in the Mediterranean world.1 Based mostly on the realm of visual media, M. argues for strong conceptual affinities between various manifestations of Near Eastern divine females and their counterparts in the Aegean of the Early Iron Age. In this respect, her book constitutes one more contribution to our understanding of the Mediterranean cultural koine in the Early Iron Age. Nevertheless, in reading this book one senses that the Near East is once more “abused” as the source of various puzzling aspects of Aegean culture during the first milennium BCE.

M.’s argument is articulated in six chapters, unfortunately unequal in perceptual scope or argumentative power, which stress the exclusive connection between the Naked Goddess and the Mistress of Animals on the one hand, and male elite religious experience in both the Orient and the Aegean world on the other. The oriental conception of the female goddess is believed to inform the visual conception of her Aegean counterparts who are very often anonymous. Equally oriental are the origins of the gorgon Medusa, whose ambivalent role as opponent and protector of the male warrior is argued at length in this book. Based on the conflation of Artemis and Medusa in the Corfu pediment, M. argues the initiatory nature of both these divinities whose nature is characterized by complementarity and polarity.

Chapter one sets the foundations upon which the discussion in the remainder of the book is founded. M. sets out to redefine the nudity of female immortals on Near Eastern seals, figurines, and clay or bronze plaques. Traditional interpretations have considered it a token of fertility but M. argues that nudity is an attribute of the powerful and dangerous sexuality of divine femininity. It is precisely this dimension of divine females that imbues their images with protective power when they appear as figurines or on bronze or clay plaques. The argument is persuasive in view of the frequent appearance of the Naked Goddess as Mistress of Animals (pp. 12 ff.) but also in view of textual evidence regarding the dangerous sexuality of oriental goddesses. However M.’s discussion of the imagery on diverse media vastly separated in time and space leaves much to be desired. Her reading, for example, of images on seals assumes they are literal narratives whereas even the non-expert on Near Eastern art suspects that the imagery at hand condenses multiple layers of reference, experience, and religious sentiment. Against this lack of theoretical qualification—a recurring shortcoming of this book—M.’s discussion is often weakened and will definitely mislead readers who are not familiar with the complexities of the often ideographic nature of Near Eastern imagery. M. concludes chapter one by briefly discussing the appearance of the Naked Goddess on terracotta plaques deposited at the sanctuary of Athena at Gortyn. Her consideration of this manifestation as reflective of male preoccupations makes sense if we assume that the motif of the sexually empowered goddess was imported along with the intricate set of ideas that constituted her localized or international Near Eastern identity. Given the mixed—yet poorly understood—culture of Crete in the Early Iron Age, this highly complex issue is very topical but M.’s unduly brief discussion does not contribute anything of consequence to it.

Chapter two focuses on Circe, the famous witch of the Odyssey whose name means “she-hawk” in Greek. Circe features a combination of sexual appeal and danger and the argument is put forward that the origins of the Odysseian seductress are to be sought in the oriental Mistress of animals who is often accompanied by a hawk in Near Eastern seals. Although this bird is absent from representations of Circe in Greek art, it does appear from very early on as an attribute of the Greek Mistress of Animals. This is in favor of M.’s thesis but one wonders about the semantic value of this bird-attribute in Greek culture compared to its symbolism in the Near East. If oriental in origin, Circe survived in Greek culture as a figure of mythical narratives the origins of which are also to be sought in the realm of Mediterranean folklore.2 This is an area untouched by M. who, however, tentatively recognizes Circe (or Calypso) on a Phoenician bowl from Olympia with representations inspired by folk stories (“the adventures of a hero”, p. 44). Once again the reader is left wanting more discussion.

The following three chapters focus consecutively on Medusa as “adversary and patroness of men” (ch. 3), on the Mistress of Animals as “patroness of men in the seventh century B.C.” (ch.4), and on the initiatory character of the Mistress of Animals in warrior ideology (ch. 5). Chapter three is yet another attempt to trace the origins of Medusa and the Gorgon in the Near Eastern Mistresses of Animals whose ambivalent function as adversaries and patrons of heroic men is shared, according to M., by Medusa and the Gorgons.3 M. also sees many affinities between the Greek Medusa and daemonic beings ( apotropaia) such as Humbaba, Lamastu, the Egyptian Bes etc. These comparisons certainly corroborate M.’s sound premise that the “…eastern Mediterranean was a unified world with a cultural koine” (p. 48), especially if one takes into account the common basis of the human expressive needs served by these beings. But is it always necessary to explain everything in the Aegean in terms of the Near East? For example, in both myth and iconography Medusa’s association with the horse (Pegasus) does not originate in a vague and undefined Near Eastern Mistress of Animals but in the expressive value of various dimensions of the “equine” in Greek experience and thought. This conception of Medusa has been acutely analyzed in depth by J.-P. Vernant, whose work would have greatly expanded M.’s understanding of Medusa and the Gorgons without the reductionist invocation of the Near East as an all-explanative elixir.4 M.’s limited understanding of Medusa’s iconic nature also weakens her otherwise interesting interpretation of Medusa in the Corfu pediment as “initiatrix of young men” (pp. 61-65).

Chapter four concentrates mostly on the Cretan manifestation of the Naked Goddess/Mistress of Animals as a patroness of the male elite warriors. This is convincingly brought out by M.’s discussion of various elements of the iconographic program of Temple A of Prinias in central Crete, a building for cult and ritual feasting recently interpreted by varous scholars as an andreion.5 The sculptural decoration of this building features a redundancy of strongly oriental elements around the epiphany of an unspecified goddess. M.’s interpretations of these elements are corroborated by her consideration of other Cretan monuments featuring emblematic representations of two females flanking a male in a visual schema which functioned as a “magical formula” (p. 81). In addition to this, M. discusses visual evidence from all over the Aegean world regarding female patronesses of elite warriors or young men. Her refusal to readily identify these divine females is to be commended in view of the vagueness that often characterizes early representations of divine beings.

The main focus of chapter five is on Artemis as a manifestation of the function of the Mistress of Animals as patron of elite warriors and their violence in battle. In the wake of her reading of Medusa as an “initiatrix of young men,” M. revisits the pedimental sculptures of the temple of Artemis at Corfu in order to argue that their overarching theme is violent initiation of young males under the tutelage of Artemis, who is viewed as an alter-ego of the Gorgon/Mistress of Animals. Furthermore, M. argues that the same theme motivates the figural decoration of Archaic shield straps from Olympia. Although there is nothing compelling in M.’s reading of the Corfu pediment, her interpretation will certainly stir further thought on the multivalence of messages embedded in public sculpture with didactic content. M.’s bold conclusion that Artemis oversees the warriors’ training in brutality (“The warrior’s aggression is incited by the goddess…” in p. 109) contradicts the well-founded conception of Artemis as a force controlling the liminal behavior of the citizen-warrior during the battle (terror or manic frenzy).6

In her last chapter M. rounds up her discussion by assessing carefully the iconographic evidence regarding the possible origins of the Greek Mistress of Animals in the Aegean Bronze Age. Her conclusion is that the representations suggest different conceptual modes of existence between the potniae theron of the Greek period and female goddesses accompanied by animals in Bronze Age iconographic contexts. Some elements of Minoan goddesses do survive in Early Iron Age Crete but they evolve to express the concerns of the societies that sought expression in them. M. is duly critical of the predominant trend in classical studies to project uncritically categories of the Archaic/Classical periods of Greek culture back to the Bronze Age. Her discussion—however brief—shows that the material is complex, fragmentary, and expressive of a multiplicity of conceptions and experiences in the Aegean world of the Early Iron Age.

The book would have profited greatly from a careful editing of its text. Typographical errors (e.g. pp. 3, 122, 120) and serious factual mistakes occur throughout (the overly cavalier treatment of the etymology of gorgos/Gorgo in p. 46; the unattested “kyboreion” in p. 62 instead of the correct “kibisis” for Perseus’ pouch; the mislabeling of Medusa as Circe in fig. 3.1; M.’s recurrent reference to Pegasus as simply “a horse” in representations of Medusa). On the other hand, M. is to be commended for providing numerous illustrations of figurative media discussed in her text.

Despite the various shortcomings discussed above, this book will certainly stimulate intense and renewed interest in many important monuments and ideas of the pre-classical Aegean and its various oriental or orientalizing cultures.


1. For a recent assessment of numerous books and articles on the theme of M.s’ book see the review article by Lauren E. Talalay, “Cultural Biographies of the Great Goddess” AJA 104 (2000) 789-792.

2. As, for example, stressed by several authors in B.Cohen ed. The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer’s Odyssey (New York and Oxford 1995).

3. There is a huge bibliography on the origins and functions of Medusa and the Gorgons. M.’s book was published simultaneously with S.R. Wilk, Medusa: Solving the Mystery of the Gorgon (Oxford and New York 2000).

4. See J.-P. Vernant, “Death in the Eyes: Gorgo, Figure of the Other” and “In the Mirror of Medusa” in F.I. Zeitlin ed. Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays by Jean-Pierre Vernant (Princeton 1991) 111-141 and 141-151 respectively.

5. J.B. Carter, ” Thiasos and Marzeah : Ancestor Cult in the Age of Homer” in S. Langdon ed. New Light on a Dark Age: Exploring the Culture of Geometric Greece (Columbia and London 1997) 72-112.

6. See J.-P. Vernant, op.cit., pp. 195-260.