reviewed by Geraldine Charles
The best quick overview of the book I can give you is the publisher’s own:
"The Bearded Goddess alludes to the ancient literary texts, describing the cult of a bearded Aphrodite. The famous Ayia Irini hermaphrodite (cover) is sometimes considered to be an image of Aphroditos, the name of the goddess with a beard."
I was excited to see this book appear; having long been curious about the bearded goddess images occasionally seen (not to mention some bearded female saints as well, of course).
As suggested by its title, however, the book doesn’t just deal with the idea of bearded goddesses but is more concerned with Cyprus as a centre of the particular cult of what the author believes to be an androgynous form of Aphrodite. I’m not sure about the monsters, but goddess has been forced to keep company with far worse in the last few thousand years.
The author tells us that the principal deity in Cyprus was that the Mother Goddess, and that “worship of a fertility goddess always remained supreme in Cyprus” (p.9). If only!
As noted above, the book’s front cover image is taken from a famous statuette in the Cyprus collection in Stockholm – a female figure with a large, black beard (now very faded; indeed, it is hard to see the beard at all from the image). It’s believed that a cult around this figure may have centred on the town of Amathus, in Cyprus, where Aphrodite is believed to have originated.
There were a startling number of figures found at Ayia Irini ("Sacred Peace”) in north-western Cyprus - about 2,000 terracotta statues and statuettes were found standing in a semi-circle around a stone altar.1 The overwhelming majority of the statues are male, the author tells us – to get an idea of these impressive sculptures, check out this image online. Why so many male statues, and so few female? The author claims that a small number of female figurines had “ingratiated themselves” (p.56) although I don’t understand what she means by this. How could she possibly know? Certainly their apparent scarcity may well be telling us something important. Perhaps the female figurines were moved elsewhere and we should also not forget that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Certainly, the scarcity of female images at Ayia Irini does not necessarily mean that the images, or indeed female devotees, were allowed in only on sufferance!
Later, (p.57) the author quotes a speech made in the 2nd century CE by the orator Aristides, in which he had this to say about hermaphrodite deities:
"Thus the God is both male and female. His form bespeaks his nature, for everything about him is double; for amid youths he is a girl, and amid girls a youth, and amid men was he a beardless youth bursting with vital energy."
Despite the use of masculine pronouns, which for all I know tells us more about the translator than the originally intended meaning, this extract doesn’t suggest a female figure “ingratiating” herself to me, and neither do the well-known views of Plato on the original genders of humankind (that there were originally three sexes, with the third type comprising male and female in the same body).2
There have been other theories about the bearded goddess, perhaps most notably that of Morris Jastrow3, who believed the beard to be an astronomical metaphor, transferred from the planet Venus to the goddess to emphasise strength/brilliance or perhaps a blurred appearance.
Another scholar has pointed out that there are few words in Semitic languages to express the word “chin”4 and those which did exist appear to have been used synonymously with “beard”. It is, of course, possible that any discussion of a bearded goddess in antiquity may have been mistranslated because of this.
Among other interesting material in the book is a chapter on “temple prostitution” (and I have to confess that I find most writing on this topic very tiresome) Here, although the author is careful to note the work of Stephanie Budin5, who suggests, among other things, that Herodotus went so far as to construct some of his histories for effect and is therefore to be taken with a large pinch of salt, some judgement by patriarchal standards does seem to creep into Winbladh’s discussion:
“At the beginning the cult of Aphrodite in Cyprus was enacted in irreproachable forms. Later immoral ceremonies and customs were introduced from Babylon, Phoenicia and Phrygia” (p.70).
She then goes on to quote Herodotus’ well-known condemnation.6
Overall, I enjoyed the book and it is perhaps unfair of me to be disappointed not to have had more discussion about the origin and meaning of the bearded goddess in this book, which clearly confines itself to ancient Cyprus. There are some excellent photographs - although I did wonder why so much of the heritage of Cyprus is to be seen only in Stockholm?
I’m also most grateful for being given an entry point to this fascinating topic and hope to research further in the future.
The Bearded Goddess: Androgynes, Goddesses and Monsters in Ancient Cyprus is published by Armida. The book is available on Amazon. I read the book in PDF format and any page numbers given refer to that format.
1. All these figures are in the Medelhavsmuseet – the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm (return)
2. Plato, Symposium: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/1600/1600-h/1600-h.htm (return)
3. Quoted by Alexander H. Krappe, The Bearded Venus, “Folklore”, Vol 56, No. 4 (Dec 1945) pp.325-335. Abstract: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1256726 (return) (link no longer available 31/5/18)
4. David Marcus, The Term “Chin” in the Semitic Languages, “Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research”, No. 226 (Apr., 1977), pp.53-60. Abstract: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1356576 (return) (link no longer available 31/5/18)
5. Budin, S., e Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity, New York, Cambridge University Press 2008 (return)
6. Herodotus, The Histories, Book I, 199 (return)
A web designer and all-round computer person, Geraldine is responsible for a number of websites. In her spare time she writes articles and poems, loves researching Goddess in mythology and also produces artwork on her beloved computer. She also runs an online correspondence course called "Getting to know the Goddess".