Sense and Sensibility: Women in Antiquity
Hicham Aboutaam, president of Electrum, the exclusive agent for Phoenix Ancient Art, has selected distinct works from the gallery’s holdings whose subject matter features legendary women from a range of ancient societies. Mr. Aboutaam commented: “We are pleased to welcome visitors to our 725 5th Avenue location to view these works that inform our understanding of the identities of the female subjects depicted as well as their significance within each of the societies in which they were produced.” In particular, Phoenix Ancient Art is pleased to provide extended discussions on an ancient Tarantine Terracotta Plaque with Fighting Athena as well as an ancient Egyptian Faience Amulet of the Goddess Bastet. Although these works were produced twelve to fourteen centuries apart, the iconography of each work communicates the important roles that Athena and the Goddess Bastet performed in ancient Greece and ancient Egypt respectively.
Although relatively small in scale, the Ancient Tarantine Terracotta Plaque with Fighting Athena (4th century B.C.) provides a powerful portrait of the patron deity of Athens. In this work, Athena strides to the left as the folds of her chiton and peplos fold and flow around and behind her. She wears a helmet (perhaps the golden helmet described in Homer’s Iliad) and is armed with a spear and shield, which is decorated with a gorgoneion–often seen as a Medusa and known as a protective pendant worn by both Zeus and Athena, intended to ward off evil spirits.
According to Susan Blundell, “Athena is generally represented as a highly adrogynous figure… although she is female, she rejects the role of marriage and motherhood which most Greek men saw as fundamental to a woman’s existence.” In this plaque, although Athena assumes an active, masculine stance of combat, her figure is distinctly female. In fact, as a result of this masculine stance, the garments that she wears cling to her body and emphasize her slim waist and pronounced chest.
By way of rendering Athena as “androgynous” the sculptor denotes the goddess’ multifaceted role as protector over both the male and female spheres of Greek society. Within the distinctly male realm of ancient Greece, Athena serves as protector of men on the battlefield as well as “goddess of wisdom […] carpenters and craftsmen of all kinds, the taming of horses, [and] the cultivated olive.” Within the female realm of society, she serves as “goddess of wool-working”, which rendered her “a patron deity for women of all ages” especially given that, from the age of seven, Greek girls were taught how to set up a loom. Thus, the sculptor’s juxtaposition of the subject’s masculine and feminine physical attributes would have encouraged both male and female contemporary viewers of this work to feel an empathetic connection to the goddess.
As noted in From Myth to Life: Images of Women from the Classical World, Athena’s steadfast commitment to virginity further contributes to her protective role in Ancient Greek society as “she represents the city [Athens] as inviolable and invincible”. By way of rejecting the societal expectations of marriage and procreation, Athena operates autonomously from customary gender roles. Thus, with regard to this work, the sculptor’s inclusion of contrasting iconographical elements, such as Athena’s armor, positioning and physicality, allude to this subversion of gender roles, and denote her broad protective function across Greek society.
The Ancient Egyptian Faience Amulet of the Goddess Bastet actually bears comparable symbolic value to the sculptor’s depiction of Athena in the ancient Tarantine Plaque. In the Faience Amulet, the artist renders the goddess with the head of a feline, sitting upright atop a low-backed throne. She is sculpted with the body of a young woman and her slender figure is draped in a long, tight robe that hangs to her feet. Bastet served a particularly central role in Egyptian society during the 22nd Dynasty (Third Intermediate Period), thanks to the designation of Bubastis, the site of her temple, as the capital of Egypt. According to Ian Shaw, “like other lioness-goddesses, [Bastet] would have been linked with the five epagomenal days in the Egyptian calendar” and, once a year, pilgrims from all ranks of Egyptian society would visit her temple for a series of festivals. During this period, she acted as patron of the priestly doctors of Sekhmet and specifically protected women during childbirth as well as children. She is depicted here with a jar atop her head, which might allude to the literal translation of her name to “she of the bast [ointment jar]”.
Representations of Bastet evolved from depictions of the goddess Sekhmet, which date to the Old Kingdom (c. 2686–2181 BC). As noted in The Egyptian Museum, Cairo: Official Catalogue, “The Egyptians always worshipped the lioness as a goddess while at the same time fearing her force and the danger she represented. In the Old Kingdom, the lioness-goddess is considered to be the divine mother of Pharaoh.” While Sekhmet was feared for her ability to wreak havoc in forms such as “droughts, […] fevers and epidemics”, Bastet engenders Sekhmet’s “tame” and “protective” capabilities.
This amulet in particular was most likely buried in the tomb of a notable family in order to protect the entombed individual or individuals in the afterlife. According to Ian Shaw, ancient Egyptians imbued small amulets like the Amulet of the Goddess Bastet with prophylactic meaning and names like meket, nehet and SA, which all derive from verbs that mean ‘to protect’. While this amulet was most likely intended for burial in a tomb, the artist’s rendering of the goddess herself is in keeping with standard iconography of the Third Intermediate Period. Her recognizability ultimately proves her widespread value across Egyptian society.
Andrew, C., Amulets of Ancient Egypt, (London, 1994).
Blundell, Sue., and Blundell, Susan, Women in Ancient Greece, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
Caubet, A. (ed.), Faïences de l’Antiquité de l’Egypte à l’Iran, (Paris, 2005).
Reflets du divin, Antiquités pharaoniques et classiques d’une collection privée, (Geneva, 2002), p. 38, n. 21-22.
Houser, Caroline, From Myth to Life: Images of Woman from the Classical World, (Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College Museum of Art).
Saleh, Mohamed, and Sourosuian, Hourig, Official Catalogue: The Egyptian Museum Cairo, (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1987).
Shaw, Ian, and Nicholson, Paul T., British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (Spain: British Museum Press, 1995).
 Blundell, Sue., Blundell, Susan, Women in Ancient Greece, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). p. 26.
 Houser, Caroline, From Myth to Life: Images of Woman from the Classical World, (Northampton, Massachusetts: Smith College Museum of Art). p. 20.
 Houser, p. 20.
 Houser, p. 18.
 Caubet, A. (ed.), Faïences de l’Antiquité de l’Egypte à l’Iran, (Paris, 2005). p. 103
 Shaw, Ian, and Nicholson, Paul T., p. 50.
 Shaw, Ian, and Nicholson, Paul T., British Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt, (Spain: British Museum Press, 1995). p. 50.
 Saleh, Mohamed, and Sourosuian, Hourig, Official Catalogue: The Egyptian Museum Cairo, (Mainz: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 1987). Catalogue entries 254-255.
 Saleh, Mohamed, and Sourosuian, Hourig, Catalogue entry 255.
 Shaw, Ian, and Nicholson, Paul T., p. 30.