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Special number

(Bibliotheca Septemcastrensis, XVII)

ISSN 1583-1817


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The Society of the Living – the Community of the Dead

(from Neolithic to the Christian Era)

 Proceedings of the

7 th International Colloquium of Funerary Archaeology

Editorial board:

Editor: Sabin Adrian LUCA (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Members: Paul NIEDERMAIER (membru corespondent al Academiei Române), (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Dumitru PROTASE (membru de onoare al Academiei Române) (Universitatea „Babeş-Bolyai” Cluj-Napoca); Paolo BIAGI (Ca’Foscary University Venice, Italy); Martin WHITE (Sussex University, Brighton, United Kingdom); Michela SPATARO (University College London, United Kingdom); Zeno-Karl PINTER (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Marin CÂRCIUMARU (Universitatea „Valahia” Târgovişte, România); Nicolae URSULESCU (Universitatea „Al. I. Cuza” Iaşi, România); Gheorghe LAZAROVICI (Universitatea „Eftimie Murgu” Reşiţa, România); Thomas NÄGLER (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Secretaries:Ioan Marian ŢIPLIC (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Silviu Istrate PURECE (Universitatea „Lucian Blaga” din Sibiu, România); Special number Editors: Sabin Adrian LUCA, Valeriu SÎRBU; Web editor: Cosmin Suciu

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Goddesses or Mortals. Some Remarks on the Iconography and Symbolism of the Female Heads on Red Figure Vases from the Necropolis of Apollonia Pontica

Lyubava Konova,

National Museum of History, Sofia, Bulgaria,


The paper focuses on a group of representations on red figure vases, found in course of the excavations of the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica, which were periodically carried out during the 40 th and the 90 th years of the 20 th century. The depicted iconographic pattern represents one of the most frequently occurring schemes, which occupy the vase repertoire of the 4 th century B.C., whereas their overwhelming number should be explained with the fact, that they are represented often on lekythoi - the most common funeral inventory in the 5 th and 4 th century graves of the necropolis. The rest of the pottery shapes on which they occur are pelikes and lekanis’ lids, found in various complexes. While the pelike was found within an offering place together with about 30 intact and broken red-figure vases and local pottery shapes, the lekanis’ lids constitute most often the inventory of the offering pyres in the necropolis.

In spite of the various archaeological contexts, there are several common features to all images. These are the simple subject schemes and the relatively cursory style of depiction.

The iconographical pattern represents a female head or bust, rising out of the earth. The woman is usually depicted in profile, wearing a veil, sakkos, ribbon, or with an uncovered head with a kekryphalos.

The iconographical variations consist of one or two female heads appearing in combination with floral motifs (fig. 1), or with smaller human figurines in long himatia (fig.2). The third group represents a pair of female heads with an ellipsoidal object in between (fig.3).

The iconographic schema is far not unique for the late 5 th and the 4 th centuries B.C. vase-painting repertoire. It was attested on a range of red-figure vases attributed to the so-called “Kerch style”, which were found in Olynthos and in the cities along the coast of Pontus Euxeinus. However, the most numerous examples originate from Magna Graecia. The latter differs from the west-Pontic examples in their more detailed iconography, comprising additional sets of figurines or decorations, such as stylized acanthus leaves, various objects (box, alabastron, phiale, mirror etc.) and sometimes Erotes, represented with the female heads. Despite of the details, the identification of the central female image seems to be rather puzzling matter (complete survey in Hodza 2000, p. 199-207 with references; last in Hurschman 2003, p. 35). The presence of Erotes or a floral decoration appears as an argument for the identification of the image as Aphrodite (LIMC II 2, p. 111, N 1107). Although this statement provokes certain hesitations in regard to the fact that the Eros figure is often represented also in scenes of the Kore – Persephone’s anodos (Roscher 1884-1886, col. 1342-1343).

Thus the Russjeva’s hypothesis that we are dealing here rather with an Eros-Thanatos or Eros-Jakchos (Belov 1970, p. 70-72; Russjaeva 1979, p. 79), who is semantically related to the chthonic goddess, seems more reasonable. In addition there are certain attempts at establishing a relationship between the floral motifs, combined with the female busts and the Scythian “snake-goddess”, whose image is very popular as depicted on Scythian works and as a research-object as well (last in Hodza 2000, p. 204-206 with references).

On the contrary the most prominent tendency in the last-years issues disputes against the “divine” identification of the personage. The Hurschman’s hypothesis is based on the analysis of twelve similar images on vases from the collection of the Dresden museum with South-Italian origin. He states that despite of the plenty of iconographic details, the attempts at concretization of the image or at recognition of any divine features are controversial if not impossible. Further he claims they portray rather a summarized idea of the feminine, emphasizing on the presence of different objects - mirror, basket, box, alabastron, phiale, ball, or of specific head dress and jewelry, which marked their peculiarity (Hurschman 2003, p. 35). Despite of the respect to the author’s arguments, it seems rather speculative to state decidedly, that the semantic of the depicted objects should be limited only within their everyday meaning.

It is a matter of fact that the simple motif of the female head (bust) has been born as a result of reduction of more developed figural schemas, but the point at issue is to determine their character and contents. In any case every statement would be rather ambiguous, but the method of approach should be based on the specific iconographic details, on the vase-shapes and on their function within particular archaeological and cultural-historical context.

Furthermore it seems reasonable to examine the subject by comparison with similar motifs representing satyr’s or Amazon’s heads, often accompanied by horse and griffin protomes (fig.4) and also Artemis’ busts, occurring within the vase repertoire of South-Italia, the North-Pontic coasts (Beazly 1963, N 994.106; 994.107; 994.108; 994.109; Carpenter et al. 1989, 312 Oakley 1997, fig. 32B, Pl. 89B; fig..31B, pl.89C; pl.89D; pl.89E) and the West-Pontic cities, including Apollonia itself (last in Lazarov 1990, p.67, N 21).

As distinct from the previous group, the latter are clearly characterized as divine, semi-divine, or mythological personages, while the reduced iconographic motifs were extracted probably from the scenes treating of common mythological themes or of the circles of the deities. In much the same manner as mentioned, the images of the female heads in combination with different objects, floral motifs or Erotes are closely related to the multi-figural compositions depicting women, holding or operating with different objects, unfolded on various kind of vase-shapes. Nevertheless, it seems unlikely to consider the abbreviation of these schemas and the presence of particular details as unintentional practice. Despite of some authors’ hesitations concerning the identification of the female images, there is no doubt that they should be interpreted beyond the scope of the reality, in the realm of the “fantastical never-world”, “von der keine Geschichten mehr zu erzählen sind”, according to Giuliani’s words (1995, p. 87).

Besides this, it ought to be mentioned, that one of the special feature of this type of images lies in the manner of representation of the heads (busts) as rising out of the earth. This fact gives sufficiency of reasons to the hypothesis, that they convey probably the idea of the transition from one world to the other. Thus the images acquire a new semantic nuance with certain divine (chthonic) connotations rather, than the reflections of the everyday life.

In support I would like to adduce some examples of the classical attic vase painting, depicting the anodos of Kore – Persephone in Eleusinian context and the rare iconographic type of goddess, rising out of the earth. The latter is defined clearly as Ge mostly by the subject-matter of the scenes, representing her either in the moment of the Erichthoneus birth, or battling in the Gigantomachy ( Beazly 1963, 580.2, 1615; 1012.1 ; Beazley 1989, pl. 263; Reeder et al. 1995, p. 290-291 , 294-295; LIMC II 2, N 1158, 1163, 1165).

In regard to the remarks offered so far, it is clear that the simplified iconographic schemata of the female heads rising out of the earth on the Apollonia vases and on the previously mentioned examples from other Greek colonies, will cause always uncertainty by the interpretations of the depicted person – either as a mortal woman or as a goddess, which will probably remain a crux of matter for the future studies on the problem. This fact determines also the variety of optional interpretations of the image, which bears clear rendered chthonic characteristics though (thereon in Stall’ 1989, p. 148-149).

However the lack of concretization gives reasons to the statement that the scenes were not intended to define any particular goddess, but rather to convey certain abstraction, implied in the simplified manner of representation. Coming to the point of the iconographic details, it must be said, that the plant (the palmette, the sprout, the acanthus leaf etc.) could gain a multi-purpose meaning, conveying the idea of the nature’s renewal – ascribed to the scope of activity as of Demeter – Persephone and of Aphrodite and Ge as well. On the other hand the motif should be considered as attaching additional characteristics to the image, which pertain to the idea of the continual renewal of the cycle Life – Death – Beyond and Rebirth.

It is therefore likely to state, that those messages are most appropriate just to the context of the funeral, where the vases were situated. Their impact lies in the semantic abstraction of the images/ideas - visualized by means of the reduced schemata. In any case herein is the influence of the Hellenic iconography of the chthonic goddesses Persephone, Aphrodite and Ge clearly perceivable – which all reflecting in a sense the idea of the pre-polis Great Goddess Mother. Despite of the clearly attested iconographical influence of the attic vase painting, the manner of the Apollonian scenes is more relevant to the South-Italian and Scythian representations – which are empty of mythological interpretation, but abounding in their symbolical meaning.

To the sequence of the images discussed so far belongs a group of terra-cotta figurines, which represent heads (or busts) of women. Their faces are depicted frontally, with underneath an empty flat piece of terracotta. One of them was found in an infant grave from the third quarter of the 5 th century B.C., whereas the other was situated in a group of several objects, without any traces of funeral practice, which could be considered as belonging to the second quarter of the 4 th century B.C. (fig. 5) Regardless of the chronological gap between them, they are characterized through the archaizing features of the female face. The same chronological gap was observed in relation to the analogues examples, found quite in amount in graves in South Italy and Sicily (Maaskant – Kleibrink 1989, p. 18 – 19). The details of the representations here – as in the other cases, do not support explicitly the identification of the personage, but the conclusion of the author that they may represent terracotta editions of the colossal heads on vases, gives reason for treating on them similarly like their red-figure analogies. The further statement that “the symbolism involved is clearly that of the dead, or the daemon, rising out of the earth; and there are indication that they served the dual role of the chthonian divinities” (Maaskant – Kleibrink 1989, p. 19 with references), appears in support of the hypothesis offered above.

If I take the risk of going farther on – it seems not impossible to consider the image-idea of the female head rising out of the earth on the Apollonian vases as related to the epigraphically attested Ge Chthonia, who appears in a 5 th - 4 th (?) century lapidary inscription from the city. The name of the goddess seems to represent the most universal Hellenic concept of the procreative and destructive energy, embodied in the image of the Great Goddess Mother, whereas the epithet gives prominence to one of her ambivalent sides – the dark, obscure nature, which could be perceived probably also as a source of the Bliss in the Beyond. The motivation lies in the single literary analogue of the name and the epithet – the fragments of the Pherecydes’ Theogony, explaining both by means of the story about the hieros gamos between Zeus (Zas) and the dark subterranean Chthonia, being transformed into Ge (the visible Earth) after wrapping her marital cloak (Diog. Laert. I.119; Grenfeld-Hunt Greek Papyr. Ser. II. No 1, p.23).

This philosophically developed concept corresponds to the later stoic and neo-platonic vision of the Goddess’ duality, but probably conveys the orphic perception of her in so far as the same phenomenon is attested in the Orphic hymns and in the literary records of the oral orphic doctrine on the golden funeral lamellae ( Zuntz 1971; last in Fol 2002, p. 104-106; 170 –202).

However it would be very hazardous to argue for the equation of the epigraphically attested Ge Chthonia with the above-analyzed images on the red-figure vases from Apollonia. We are dealing here rather with a possible reflection of the concept denoted as Ge Chthonia on the territory of the West-Pontic city. The motivation of such statement lies in the possible interpretation of the representations of the female heads as a code of the divine transition from the chthonian (the invisible in Beyond) to the visible (corporeal) entity of the goddess appearing in the realm of the terrestrial world.

In the light of the hypothesis offered so far, it seems to me reasonable to establish a relationship between the first and the second group of images – the latter representing two mirror images of female heads with an ellipsoidal object in between. The arguments lie not only in the quite similar iconographic scheme, but also in the assumption that the double images reflect the two sides of the goddess’ integrity, which have been particularized in the scenes. The details distinguishing this group of scenes from the previous are the necklace and the earrings, depicted in relief and gilding and the ellipsoidal object, which sometimes has been outlined by a red line and always painted in white, as the faces of the women as well. This manner adds certain statuary effects to the images (see fig.3).

Despite of the additional attributes, the identification of the personages is as problematical as the previous. The suggestions offered so far are none too variegated, supporting rather the conventional hypotheses, in generally arguing for the anodos of the chthonic deity (a review thereon in Reho 1992, p. 38, № 36 with references). In it has been noted also, that the interpretation of the image depends apparently on identification of the ellipsoidal object – varying between a mirror and a tympanon as attributes of Aphrodite and respectively of Kore-Persephone (Reho 1992, p. 86-87, n. 2). Although I don’t find it necessary to go into details concerning the problem to what extent is it reasonably to consider both objects as strongly defined denotations of the one or the other goddess. Regardless of the generalized representation as it is, it seems very doubtful to consider it as a tympanon. The examination of the scenes known so far creates the impression that the ellipsoidal object has been depicted after one and the same manner. There are only minor details distinguishing the particular scenes – either the representation of an entire and oblong ellipse, or an almost semi-elliptical shape, both sometimes decorated with a relief gilded pearl on the top. Despite of the generalized representation as it is, it seems very doubtful to consider it as a tympanon. The main argument thereon is the lack of any asymmetry of the image – appearing to be a common characteristic of similar objects depicted on red-figure vases, which is usually rendered either by means of the double contour, or the slight, but visible inclination of the ellipse. This is the close-up, in which the object is supposed to be positioned as corresponding to the female heads, rendered in profile.

There are more reasons for the identification of the object as a mirror, because of its pictorial analogies drawn from other types of scenes. As an argument supporting this view could serve the mirror-repeated female images and the more general conclusions in the realm of their chthonic meaning. Although there are some iconographic considerations, that could bring its cogency in question. One of them is the manner of depiction of the ellipsoidal object, which is – in some cases, represented as a semi-ellipse, suggesting that the object raises out of the earth likewise the female heads.

Further analogies of the style and manner of representation of the ellipsoidal object, depicted on the Apollonia vases provide a range of pictorial compositions with an “omphalos” according to Robinson (citation after Venedikov et al. 1963, p. 100-101), which characterizes either the topos of Delphi, or marks the funeral monument around which the plot-action of the composition is set (further comments in Reho 1992, p. 78-79, № 156, 158 –161 with literature). Since the object is very often decorated with garlands or ribbons, it is also likely to presume, that similar idea is implicit in the relief gilded pearl on the top of the ellipsoid object on the Apollonia lekythoi. Even if this hypothesis might be short of arguments, the point is that we are dealing here with a similar reduced and generalized abstraction of the image, as in the case of the previous discussed group. Therefore it admits of a range of various interpretations, first in connection with the iconographic type of the proviso denoted Ge Chthonia. In support of this hypothesis appear the iconographic similarities with the omphalos in a Delphic, which denotes in generally the sacral center of the earth (Ge) (Pind. Pyth. 4).

Further possibility to analogize the ellipsoidal object pertains to a group of scenes, representing Eleusinian themes, where similar detail appears. Within the compositions - in which the main personages of the Eleusinian myth take part, an object with a shape similar to that of the Apollonian lekythoi occurs (Clinton 1992, fig. 17, 19, 57, 58-59). This is the semi-ellipse, described by Clinton as “something, that appears roughly carved below and round and lump-like on top” (after Clinton 1992, p. 78). Usually a sitting female figure is represented there - it is obviously Demeter, as it was said, and the object itself was defined by Clinton as the Ag Ý lasto ò P Ý tra - the “Mirthless rock”, where the goddess rests awaiting the return of her daughter from the Hades’ depths (Clinton C. 1992:78-82).

There is one more optional interpretation of the ellipsoidal object on the Apollonia lekythoi – the F Ier ü ò L ß qo ò , which also represents an emblematic realia in the Eleusinian mysteries, but depicted in a different moment of the ritual action (Clinton 1992: Appendix 6, 121 –125 with epigraphic and pictorial parallels). The latter does not contradict in any case the previous hypothesis, but rather alludes to it through the typologically identical shapes of the stones – F Ier ü ò L ß qo ò , Ag Ý lasto ò P Ý tra and the omphalos, which manifest the idea of the sacred center.

However it would be speculative to proceed on the statement that the twin-images from the second group should be regarded in relationship with the Hellenic hypostases Demeter and Kore-Persephone, at lest because of the lack of clearly rendered subject, or symbol’s definition. Second the possibility to discuss the “double appearance” in the light of the idea of the dual essence of Ge Chthonia (the Great Goddess Mother), the concept of which has been developed later in the images of Mother and Daughter within the Eleusinian rituals and their pictorial representation, remains also quite controversial. The reason of the apprehensions is the assumption, that the Eleusinian etiology represents a late phenomenon of “increasing closeness between two originally remote goddesses” (Yanakieva 1996, p. 29). Nevertheless it seems not impossible to consider their appearance on the red figure vases as a reflection of the Eleusinian ideology, which has been clearly developed by the 5 th and 4 th centuries B.C. and probably gained in popularity in the periphery of the Greek world as well.

Hereto there are additional supporting materials from the necropolis of Apollonia evidencing if not explicitly of the riteness of Eleusinian type, at least of existence of similar notions on the territory of the city in the 4 th century B.C. The examples known so far are not numerous, but there are enough reasons to presume that their number will increase provided that all of the excavated objects as from the necropolis and from the city as well, would be published soon. For the time being, the earliest example of this type is a late 6 th – early 5 th century B.C. terracotta group, representing Demeter and Persephone (Venedikov et al. 1963 , p. 227, № 803; Dremsizova - Nelchinova et al. 1971 , p. 22, № 1) . The second one dates from the 4 th century B.C. and represents the goddesses just in the moment of their reunion after Persephone’s ascending from Hades (fig. 6).

The subject itself represents one of those climaxes within the Eleusinian rituals, which have been constantly depicted on vases, pinakes and relieves. It constitutes obviously a part of the overt riteness, being the supreme moment of the etiological narrative. Despite of the scarce of written records referring to the essence of the Eleusinian rituals, the scene of the reunion could serve as a manifestation of the triumph over the Death, which is a privilege only of the initiated.

Similar meaning is implied in a scene on a red-figure lekythos, uncovered during the large-scale archaeological campaign at the end of the 40 th years of the 20 th century. It was dated in the 360-350 B.C. and attributed to the so-called Apollonia Painter - one of the famous representatives of the Middle Kerch style (Venedikov et al. 1963, p. 92-94 № 36, N 13-16; Metzger H. 1965, p. 41, N 39; last in Lazarov 1991, p. 123-124, N 55). As distinguished from its statuary analogue, the scene represents a multi-figural composition, which was defined last by Clinton as the moment of “the reunion very soon after the return when Demeter sits on her throne with Kore on her lap, flanked by Eubouleus, her escort, and Hermes, symbol of the journey” (1992:84).

I would not dwell on the discussion concerning the personages taking part in the scene, but only on some deductions, proceeding from the author’s inference. It is obvious that the discussed subject-matter was not intended to represent the riteness but rather scenes from the Eleusinian mythological narrative. In some of the cases they are dealing with unfolded scenes, while in the other – with reduced iconographic schemas. The latter characterize the scene on the Apollonia lekythos, representing a flashback of a whole mythological action, whereas the static character of the composition expresses the pure symbolism of the moment.

The latter gives rise to the problem concerning the relation between the images and the function of the objects –either vases, or terracotta figurines. It is beyond question, that the detailed study as on the scenes and on the context where they have been found, could give support to one or the other hypothesis and a key to understanding of their symbolical meaning. Thus the interpretation of the materials from the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica should remain speculative. However, the fact of their situation in funeral context considers them as relevant to the Eleusinian scenes. Thus the moment, which has been represented, was probably intended to stir the synopsis of its co-experience within the time-space continuity of the Death.

This suggestion allows to be complicated indeed with the interpretation of the symbolical meaning of the white-colored figures of Demeter and Kore and the snakes from the Triptolem’s chariot, but we have to face once again the risk of speculation, at least because of the scarce knowledge of the symbolism of the colors. Therefore it is risky, but far not impossible to claim that the existence of such type of artifacts as grave offerings in a limited number of burial complexes is an evidence of a presence of a few citizens, who have been initiated in the mysteries.

Regardless of the fact, that this hypothesis works on a limited number of examples from the necropolis of Apollonia Pontica, known so far, it comes the iconographic analysis of a large number of Eleusinian vases in support, which excludes their profane usage at all, but sustaining explicitly their character of votive or grave offerings belonging to persons, who have been initiated in the mysteries (Schwarz 1985, 313).

Last, but not least, despite of the problematical identification of the images, I would like to consider them as a striking example denoting the presence of the chthonian female deity – the Great Goddess mother, bearing the idea of the expectation of the reunion and the bliss in the Beyond. It is also possible to perceive certain Eleusinian connotations, which are implicit in the repeatedly depicted images of female heads, although their identification with the Eleusinian goddesses should not be accepted peremptory, at least because of the vague iconographical and subject definition. However, they may allude to the epigraphically attested Ge Chthonia as an old-Greek denotation of the non-literary idea of the Great Goddess Mother, whereas the pictorial examples reflect probably to the dual essence of the divinity.

If I venture to suggest farther on, there is one more hypothesis possible. In case of accepting the statement that the iconographic schema of the female head rising out of the earth reflected the idea of the anodos of a chthonic personage, than the meaning of the mirror-images could be regarded as a representation of the dead (initiated in the mysteries mortal women?), laying to the rest in the grave together with the lekythoi as a funeral gift. Unfortunately the absence of any anthropological analysis concerning gender and age of the deceased makes the hypothesis a priori although very speculative.



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Fig. 1. Red figure lekanis’lid and lekythos with female heads and floral decoration, 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


Fig. 2. Red figure lekythos and pelike with female heads and small human figurine, 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


Fig. 3. Red figure lekythoi with female heads and an ellipsoidal object, 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


Fig. 4. Red figure pelike with Amazon head and horse and griffin protomes, 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


Fig. 5. Terra-cotta busts, third quarter of the 5 th century B.C. and second quarter of the 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


Fig. 6. Terra-cotta group representing Demeter and Persephone, 4 th century B.C., necropolis of Apollonia Pontica.


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