Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact:Jeff Matthews

©  ErN 155, Jeff Matthews   entry Oct 2009    update: May 2014
The Incomplete Idiot’s Guide to Misinterpreting Classical Iconography


Within the fine Farnese collection at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples is this statue of Artemis of Ephesus (photo). Unlike most of the pieces in the collection, which are Roman copies of Greek originals, Artemis is a Roman creation and is from the 2nd century AD.

Artemis was one of the most widely venerated deities in ancient Greece; she was the Hellenic goddess of (among other things) forests and hills, fertility and the hunt. “Luxurious” doesn’t begin to do justice to the work. It is a complex ensemble of Roman iconography and the result of a revitalization of the cult of Artemis promoted by Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian. Some of the statue is the result of modern restoration (for example, the head, hands and feet, all in bronze, are 19th-century restorations by Giuseppe Valadier [1762-1839], one of the chief exponents of Neoclassicism in Italy. Also, the crown on the head is modern.) The veil that falls down in soft folds at the back appears stiffened to form a disc on which lion and griffon heads appear to float. Around the neck, the goddess wears a pectoral in the shape of a half-moon, enclosed by a garland of helichrysum and a necklace with acorn-like pendants. Within them is a complex scene depicted in relief. Two pairs of winged female figures converge towards the center, bearings palms and crowns, symbols of victory. Interwoven with them are signs of the zodiac: Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer and Leo.

At that point, the fun started. When I first  saw the statue, I said what any normal male my age (or any age) (ANMMAoAA) would say: “Wow. Look at those!” I don’t think I said that out loud. What I recall saying (for the benefit of the unlettered dolts standing near me) was, “Ahem, look at that complex ensemble of Roman iconography, the result of a revitalization of the cult of Artemis promoted by Roman emperors Trajan and Hadrian.” But what I was really thinking was, Wow. Look at those! Then, again, I did what ANMMAoAA would do —I counted them. Twenty-one. Quickly, I saw that this was the eighth number in the standard Fibonacci sequence. I would, myself, solve this or perhaps some similar mathematical puzzler sent to us by ancient Rome, riddle it all through to a grand conclusion and send a friendly but authoritative note to Martin Gardner, the grandest puzzlemeister of all. He would thank me with a kind note, and that would make my day.


My sister, who was visiting the exhibit with me, suggested that I should read the explanatory note near the statue again. Impatiently, I did so. Oh. I had read an extra Freudian R into the text; it really said “the goddess of Nature” and “Mother of b-e-a-s-t-s.” It went on to explain that “the bust of the statue is covered with four rows of rounded protuberances, wrongly interpreted as the goddess’ breasts. In fact they represent the scrota of bulls, victims of sacrifice.”

I was crushed. Well, one boob is certain. Me.

update: May 2014.  This will make no sense unless you read the item above ... and even then!

Scholars Have all the Fun!

A correspondent, Harry Eighmey, kindly points out to me that the museum's interpretation of this particular polymastic ('many-breasted') statue as necessarily "representing the scrota of bulls, victims of sacrifice" (as opposed to what everyone thinks) may be too glib. There are even  other interpretations. He sent me two essays (cited below).

First, I proudly note that my original interpretation was that the statue was polymastic! (And I didn't even know what that word meant at the time.) That word is, in fact, the term used by specialists to describe statues of this kind; everyone says, "Look at all those breasts." The bull scrota interpretation represents a masculine view of the universe —bulls, balls, and blood! That view has replaced, at least in the eyes of the Naples museum, the older, softer, feminine interpretation that the "things" —whatever they are— represent new life, fertility, reproduction. If not breasts, then something else. Mr. Eighmey is of the opinion that the bull scrota interpretation is from the 18th century when "men were doing all the interpreting." It occurs to me that seeing those "things" (I'll say "things" instead of the museum's favorite— "protuberances," an ugly word) as female breasts is about as male an interpretation as you can get! We're obsessed in any century. But there are certainly possibilities other than breasts and bull scrota, as these two essays point out.

First, the topic of "bulbous objects" (!) (more ugliness) on statues of this kind has generated a great amount of speculation and literature. The book review (item 1, below) speaks of the "hopeless guessing  game of  what  certain details represent. For  the  'breasts'  of  the  statue we  have a rather entertaining series of hypotheses (not real breasts but eggs, ostrich eggs, grapes, nuts, acorns)...[or] some  kind  of garment."  The reviewer lets it go at that level of speculation.

The second item (by Hill) starts with... "A satisfactory explanation for the exact nature and purpose of the numerous rows of breast-like nodules on the statues of Artemis of Ephesus has long evaded Classical scholarship."  (Nodules? I didn't think it could get any uglier.) Hill adds 'bee eggs' to the list of possibilities. He concedes that "the polymastic feature of the icon is best associated with fertility..." for various reasons. For example, "...the goddess Artemis of Ephesus has more in common with the Great Mother cult of Anatolia...[she was]...a fecundity figure and a fertility goddess."  Keen observers of breasts and classical statuary will note that there is a conflict here between the soft benevolence of fertility and the violence of sacrificing a bull. Hill seems to come down somewhere squarely in the middle by relating the Artemis cult of Ephesus to the Amazons, the tribe of fierce female warriors, who in mythology are said to have founded the city of Ephesus, itself. (Tough ladies, indeed; they are said to have performed one-sided mastectomies on themselves so they could shoot a bow better! Hey, bulls, balls and blood? Not a problem.) Thus, "...this suggests that at least early on, the Artemis cult of Ephesus was associated with military motifs, in addition to, if not apart from, fertility motifs."

So maybe you can have your cake (breasts) and eat it (bull scrota), too! (uh...maybe those "things" represent mixed metaphors.)  Hill closes by buying into the military side in a strange way, by accepting the idea proposed by the German author, Fleischer, of the article reviewed in item 1 (below);  the "pseudo-polymastic" array is, in reality, a garment, some sort of stylized scale armor worn by warriors, gods and goddesses in Egypt and Mesapotamia...made of either interlocking rings of bronze or small elongated scales of bronze tied together with leather thongs in overlapped rows.

  ...The suggestion here is that the pectoral ornaments...of the prototype Ishtar figurines were accidentally, or more likely deliberately, fused or blended artistically with the erimmatu (necklaces of egg-shaped beads) in the icon as exaggerated human breasts. This feature may have developed gradually as the veneration of the Artemis image in Anatolia shifted from a military to a fertility emphasis. [Emphasis added.] ...The bulbous nature [of the pectoral ornaments] is no doubt an  imitation of human breasts.

Yes, it's speculation, but "at the very least," Hill says, "it seems as plausible as the ostrich egg and bull gonad theories!"

p.s. Mr. Eighmey favors the bee egg theory. He describes himself as a desert hermit and disciple of Pythagoras. That is what living too long in the desert (he's from Phoenix) will do to you. Harry, you gotta get out more.
p.p.s. My own scholarly view is that those softly rounded yet firm and pert, proudly pouting "things" of beauty are really mozzarellas, but then maybe that's what living too long in Naples will do to you. I gotta get out more.

p.p.p.s. Pirandello wrote a play called Così è (se vi pare)  [That's the way it is (if you think it is)]

The two sources referenced above :

  •   A review by Machteld J. Mellink of "Artemis von Ephesos und Verwandte Kultstatuen aus Anatolien und Syrien" [Artemis of  Ephesus and Related Cult Statues from Anatolia and Syria] by Robert Fleischer. The review appeared in the American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 79, No. 1 (Jan., 1975), pp. 107-108 published by the Archaeological Institute of America.
  • "Ancient Art and Artemis: Toward Explaining the Polymastic Nature of the Figurine" by Andrew E. Hill of Wheaton College in Illinois. The essay appeared in Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society (JANES 21, 1992) published by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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