Back in 1962, an English archeologist named Peter Ucko wrote a landmark work entitled The Interpretation of Anthropomorphic Figurines. It challenged the idea that all these mainly-female figurines that many of us are fond of as ancient Goddess images are Goddess images at all.
Instead, he saw them as toys or concubine grave images or pregnancy talismans or sex instruction tools or…you get the picture: just about anything except Goddess images.
Pre-Ucko, many archeologists interpreted the figurines as Divine beings, possibly as images of an overarching Great Mother (we do so love our monotheism). Post-Ucko, that theory was largely abandoned, perhaps with some relief in certain quarters, as too simplistic. But then researchers like Marija Gimbutas and Elaine Eisler revived the Great Mother theory in the ‘80s and ‘90s and helped spark the most recent incarnation of the Goddess movement.
Today’s post is inspired by the work of Dr. Joan Relke of the University of New England (Australia), who takes a new look at these ancient figurines, particularly the ones from predynastic Egypt…and one in particular that is near and dear to my heart, and perhaps to yours, too.
There are almost 250 of these images from ancient Egypt. Most of them were found in Upper Egypt, that is, southern Egypt. Only two of the extant images are from Lower Egypt, that is, the well-rivered Delta, where clay images buried in wet earth might not fare so well. Most of the images were recovered from graves. Most are female, though some have animal features, such as the famous bird-beaked “dancing woman.” Most are made of baked clay, though there are examples made of ivory, stone, and unbaked clay as well. Generally, they are thought to date to the Naqada period (4,000-3,500 BCE).
Much of Ucko’s conclusions about the non-Divinity of the images was based on his idea that a Deity ought to look impressive—have a headdress, be found in a sacred area, or be made of costly materials. (Though graves qualify as sacred areas, the Egyptian images were found in non-elite graves, which probably entirely explains why they were made of clay. Even today, householders in India will make small Divine figurines of clay to use in their home rituals. I make some of mine with modern clay—that stuff you can cure in the oven.)
Because these predynastic images were almost entirely found in graves, it is likely that they had a specifically mortuary purpose. And, of course, dynastic Egyptians continued to make specifically mortuary goods—including Divine images. If these figurines were indeed Deity images, as I think they are, perhaps they were intended to represent early versions of some of the most prominent of the dynastic mortuary Divinities: Hathor, Nuet, Isis, Nephthys, Anubis, and Osiris.
Now we come to the figurine near and dear to my heart. She is one that I’ve even made a copy of for myself: the bird-beaked dancing woman. There are 38 examples of this type of figurine: beaked face, up-raised arms, hands curved, legs together or conjoined in a “peg.” Some of these figures also bend over at the waist or are perhaps intended to be sitting. Some of the figurines appear to be pregnant. And there are two examples of a male figure with raised arms and a beaked face (see above), but only one with an arm posture like the female figurines.
The raised-arms posture is ancient. The earliest Nile dwellers drew female figures with upraised arms on pots and cave walls. Relke reminds us that upraised arms continued to be important in the dynastic period in the form of the hieroglyph of the ka. It’s not the same posture. The women’s upraised hands curve inward; the ka glyph’s palms face front. The ka glyph is, however, similar to the raised arms on the male raised-arm figurine above.
We also see raised arms in images of Nuet on the interior of the coffins, where She stretches Her heavenly body out over the deceased. Relke offers a very interesting possibility for the position of the seated or bending over figurines. She thinks it could be that the figure is intended to be curved over the body of the deceased, as is Nuet on many coffins.
Or the upraised arms might be the horns of a Cow Goddess—Hathor or Bat. The modern Sudanese Dinka people are famous for their cattle culture. There is a specific dance where the women upraise their arms in imitation of cow horns, and youth undergoing initiation care for a cow and at times upraise their arms in imitation of her horns. Hathor is, of course, one of the most ancient Egyptian Deities and Her association with the cow may be traced all the way back to Naqada (4,000 – 3,500 BCE).
We also see upraised arms in images of Isis, Nephthys, and Their mother Nuet as They protect the deceased in tomb and sarcophagus. Their upraised arms are bird-winged. In the figure of the dancing woman, her bird-beaked face is an extremely prominent feature, in fact, it is the only clearly animal feature of the figure. It must have been important. Relke further comments that the dancing woman’s sharply beaked face is strongly reminiscent of the beak of a predatory bird—like the kite hawk form of Isis and Nephthys. Relke (and this is one reason I am enjoying her work so much) finds it strange that Egyptologists haven’t connected the bird-beaked woman found in so many graves with the mourning bird-formed Goddesses Isis and Nephthys, Whose images are also found in graves and tombs. Well, yeah.
And in fact, Relke thinks the prototype for the bird-beaked female figurines with upraised arms is none other than…yes…Our Lady Isis.
We can certainly argue the point, but as you might guess, I’m all-in on this one. I have long said that Isis, or proto-Isis, is an ancient, ancient, ancient Goddess. She is the Death Bringer (for She is a raptor) and She is the Resurrector (for She is Great of Magic).
Here’s why Relke thinks Isis might be the best candidate for the Divine Being represented by the mortuary figurines:
With upraised arms/wings and slightly bent posture, the Goddess is hovering over the deceased as we see images of Isis hovering over Osiris’ phallus preparatory to conceiving Horus. She suggests that the ancient Egyptians could see the sweep of the arms as both wings and horns and notes that the fingers of some of the dancing women are detailed so that they resemble feathers—and, of course, Isis is both a Bird Goddess and a Cow Goddess. The fact that some figures appear to be pregnant may allude to the new life of Horus/the deceased that Isis carries in Her belly. She suggests that dynastic culture brought the important Goddess Isis forward from predynastic times, making Her more royal and more firmly associating Her with the throne—even naming Her the Goddess Throne. Even so, Isis always maintained Her intimate ties with the everyday people—as savior, as healer, as protector, as mother—just as She had with all those ordinary people in whose graves the image of the Bird Goddess, hovering, protecting, and bringing forth new life were found.
Relke concludes that while there is certainly reason to consider other Goddesses as represented by the figurines,
Of the Dynastic deities, Isis possesses the greatest number of qualities that can be assigned with confidence to the symbolically rich Predynastic figurines. She is occasionally associated with a cow when she adopts Hathor’s crown and as Sopdet in cow form. As well, the implications for equating the vitality of the Ka with the vitality of cattle, and the suggestion of the Ka in the raised arms comply with Isis’s role as instigator of fecundity, both in the Underworld and the agricultural world. The hawk symbolism, the hovering body form and the implications of pregnancy in the afterlife bring this group of figurines in line with Isis’s role in the revivification of the deceased.“The Predynastic Dancing Egyptian Figurine,” Joan Relke, Journal of Religion in Africa, Vol. 41, Fasc. 4 (2011), pp. 396-426.
So does the famous Bird Goddess figurine represent proto-Isis? As you can imagine, I certainly like that idea…through we may never have enough information to be sure.
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Our Lady Isis is also mentioned in connection with the beautiful, bird-headed dancing goddesses, along with Neith, as a possible Egyptian “counterpart” to Athena. This certainly isn’t the only time that connection has been mentioned. Some of it might be related to a misunderstanding as to whose temple at Sais was the source of the famous “No man ever hath lifted my veil” quote (Neith, I believe–but of course Isis was imprisoned by Set for awhile in the spinning house at Sais!). Regardless, the North African Winged Bird of Prey Goddess idea has been seen also as a precursor to or “relative” of Athena. As a “forever” lover of Athena, I like this thought very much, along with “Cecropian Minerva,” from Aupuleius’ brilliant and hilariously picaresque “Golden Ass.”